I’ve met very few people who, once I tell them I’m a ghostwriter and publishing coach, don’t say something along the lines of, “You know, I’ve got a great idea for a book.” That’s always good to hear! The world actually needs some better ideas and understanding of itself, and books are a great way to get those ideas and that understanding out into the world. I would venture to guess that someone’s life is changed by a book every day, and it’s not always a book that’s on the top of a bestseller chart. In fact, quite often, whoever it is that could benefit from your business or nonprofit really needs to read your book first.

As Seth Godin once said,

Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.

The thing is, the path from idea to published author—to connecting the right readers with your book—is incredibly complicated, even though it shouldn’t be. There are hundreds of little decisions to make throughout the process, and for your book to succeed, all you have to do is get them all right. Even long time publishers can’t do that, which is why it’s often difficult to tell what will be a bestseller and what won’t. The only way to hedge your bet is to go with what has worked before and a name that is well known. The fact that these waters tend to be murky doesn’t really help that process either, especially for new authors.

So let me see if I can demystify it just a little bit. After spending more than twenty years helping people get their books into print, I have seen the industry pivot a few times. Here’s how I explain the process to authors who come to me today looking to get published.

First of all, at the most essential level, there are really only two kinds of publishers:

1) publishers who pay you, and
2) publishers you pay.

Publishers who pay you

Publishers who pay you (we typically call these “traditional publishers”) are those who make money from selling copies of your book and then pay you a small percentage of it as a royalty (usually in the neighborhood of 15 percent). This payout typically comes in the form of an advance they will pay you to acquire the exclusive rights to print your book. (As a rule, very few books earn more than their advance, as surprising as that might sound.) This tradeoff is generally worthwhile because the publisher is betting they can sell at least ten times the books you can sell on your own, so paying you a 15 percent royalty makes you something like 150 percent of what you could make on selling books yourself at 100 percent of the profit (which no one gets because of sunk costs like editing, design, printing, etc., but you get the idea). Another nice thing is that you get the money up front, usually half when you sign the contract and half when the manuscript is accepted by their editorial department.

Publishers you pay

Publishers you pay—think of them like hiring a general contractor to build your house—I like to call “concierge publishers,” because they tend to offer a number of services and they facilitate making the right connections for you—like the concierge in a hotel who will get you seats for a play or line you up with a tour. These come in many shapes and sizes—a much more diverse group than traditional publishers. However, typically, they make money from providing authors with editorial, design, publishing, and sometimes marketing and sales help. You pay them to help you get your book done, and then you keep all the revenue from book sales after that.

There is also a hybrid between these two types, one who you pay to get the book designed and printed, but is also incentivized to help you sell books because they get a cut from each sale. (This is a confusing and murky enough world that the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) recently updated their criteria for functioning as an ethical and reputable hybrid publisher.) These hybrids are fewer and farther between, but can feel more like a partnership. Essentially, I categorize these with “publishers you pay” because you are still fronting the costs—whereas “publishers who pay you” are not only fronting the costs, but also paying you for the privilege. Very different worlds. 

There is also true “self publishing” where you become your own general contractor for your book, and all you have to do is find the right people to work with and make all the right decisions without the guidance of a team that has done it before. This is a very tough road to navigate successfully, but some have. All the same, you are still fronting the cost for your book here, so this is also a “pay to publish” scenario.

Why would you ever want to pay to have your book published? 

By this point, given those two categories, you might be thinking, “Why would anyone ever want to go with a publisher you pay instead of one who pays you?”

Great question. If people could just choose, probably no one would. However, going traditionally today is harder than ever and takes a long time, while going with a concierge publisher is much easier (though finding the right one can be very tricky) and can be relatively quick.

First of all, let’s deal with the time element. As an agent phrased to some new authors on a call I set up a couple of weeks ago, “Publishers like to have your manuscript for at least a year before they release it.” At least a year is the quick route, in fact. Usually they only do that if you have a reason like a big conference that is coming up or you need your book release to somehow coincided with a film release or something like that. More typically, traditional publishers will release your book 18-24 months from the time you sign the contract with them. If you are pitching your book now, it would be for a release season two years out. If they acquire the rights to your book based on a proposal, then they will give you so many months within that time to complete the manuscript (a date that will, essentially, give them at least a year with your manuscript before they publish it).

That’s not the case with concierge publishers. Sometimes, if your manuscript is already completed and needs relatively little editing work, they can get your book out in weeks, especially if you only offer it as an ebook and/or print-on-demand. Even then, it’s better to take a little more time with beta readers, editors, design, and such, but if time is of the essence, then paying someone to produce your book to meet your deadline is a great option.

But there’s also another hurdle, and it tends to be the one that decides whether you can publish traditionally or will need to pay to have your book produced: the size of the audience you’ve already established as a speaker, podcaster, online marketer, thought leader, nonprofit founder, or the like.

Is content still king? 

It’s very, very tough today to even get in a conversation with an agent, let alone a big-five (soon to be big-four?) publisher, if you don’t have an email subscription list in the neighborhood of 50,000 or more, or the equivalent in podcast subscribers or people you will be speaking in front of in the next six to twelve months. It feels like publishers need at least this large of an audience to prime their pumps to sell to a larger one.

And the sad thing is, this is regardless of how great your idea and content are.

Let me stop and say that again: This is regardless of how great your idea and content are.

This is a trend that has been developing for some time, and honestly, I think it breaks the heart of every book person I know. People get into publishing hoping to be part of a team that discovers the next Ernest Hemingway or Harper Lee or Maya Angelou. They are idea people who want to publish great ideas. They’d love to bring a world changing idea out of nowhere and release it into the world. But the problem is, if they trusted their own instincts alone on what would sell, they would go broke. You’re better off trying to pick the winners at the horse races—it really is that hard to get right. 

Sadly, as trends are going, if someone wrote the great American novel today, I have to wonder if it would end up self or concierge published before it found a more established publisher. Some of the best books I’ve worked on (in my opinion) have failed to sell well because they never got exposed to a large enough audience to get them going. (That might deserve a moment of silence. I pray that it isn’t true, but reality feels like it is.) 

As that same agent told us in that call, “Book sales went up during COVID because people read more—for obvious reasons—but, overall, they purchased books from authors they already knew and didn’t explore new authors in genres they already loved. This means, more than even before COVID, publishers are convinced platform is the decider of whether a book will be profitable or not, not just great content.”

I think what they are really looking for is proof of concept.

You see, if you have great content, more than ever in the history of the world, it is easier today to use it to build your own loyal followers and engage a sizeable audience. (Easier, I’m saying, not easy. It still takes a lot of work.) With all the tools available today that didn’t even exist a decade ago, you can build a platform on your own as proof of the validity of your book idea. And if you, the person most passionate about your message, can’t build a platform with your material (or aren’t willing to), then how will they, who have to split their time and attention with dozens of other authors, do it for you? (You don’t have to do it completely alone, of course, there are firms that can help with building your audience, but you will need to do it before you can get a traditional publishing contract.)

The pivotal question for finding the right path for you

All this leads to the question I find myself asking most authors looking into publishing their first book:

With all this in mind, do you want to create a book proposal and go out and build an audience for your book, or do you want to pay to get your first book published and use it to help you build an audience that will make a traditional publisher more likely to acquire your next book? (And maybe your first one as well?)

It’s a tough question, and new authors can rarely answer it right away. It’s one to sit with as you dig deeper into the content you would use for your book.

At some point you’ll know the answer, though, and it will give you your path forward. It always comes with time. 

However, if you are still in the writing process, there is a way to split the difference. You can create a book proposal. (A good idea even if you plan to pay to publish. This helps you write a better first draft from the outset, saving you time and money, as well as helps you evaluated the marketability of your idea). Then, once you have a proposal, you can start shopping your proposal to agents, working on building your platform, and continue writing your book all at the same time. That can be a triple-decker win, no matter what you end of doing to get your book into the world. 

If you go that route, when you are finished with your manuscript, if no agent/publisher has materialized, you can go ahead and pay for it to be published and use your first book to build your platform as you start writing your second. With good sales and a great second manuscript on its way, finding a publisher who will pay you will be easier—again, not easy, but easier—because you’re building proof of concept with everything you do and living like you are an author rather than aspiring to be one.

I’ll tell you, if there’s one thing that traditional publishers love more than acquiring good books, it’s acquiring authors who know the business of being an author. And if that author writes a great book? Well, that just makes it all the better.