How Much Should You Pay To Publish Your Novel?

So you’ve finished writing your novel and now you want to get it published. How much should you pay a publisher?

Joan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy.
I am a first time writer who has just finished a novel. I am not sure where I go from here. A couple of publishers have contacted me but They are asking to much to Edit the novel. Can I edit this item myself. I always check your notes, but I am at aloss. Regards Joan.

Randy sez: Joan, you have several options, none of them good. The only consolation I have for you is that you aren’t alone here. You’re in the same boat as every other writer on the planet.

First, let me list the options for getting your novel published. Then I’ll write a paragraph or two on each one:

  1. Sell your book to a traditional publisher
  2. “Self-publish” your book with a custom publisher
  3. “Self-publish” your book with a vanity publisher
  4. Self-publish your book by acting as your own publisher
  5. Self-publish your book as an e-book only through online retailers

There is a lot to be said about all of these options. I’ll say only a little here, trying to give you the main pluses and the main minuses. There are whole books written on some of these options and whole web sites devoted to warning you about others. I will be much briefer than that.

Option 1: Sell your book to a traditional publisher. Most professional novelists choose this route. Typically, you find an agent and the agent sends a proposal to various acquisition editors at publishing houses. If an acquisition editor likes the proposal, she’ll ask for the full manuscript. If she likes that, she’ll take the proposal to her publishing committee and try to persuade them to buy the rights to your book. If the committee agrees, the editor will negotiate a deal with you via your agent. You then sell the exclusive rights to publish the book in exchange for royalties. Almost always, you get an upfront advance on those royalties. Your agent only gets paid when you get paid–15% of whatever you earn.

The pros are that this is a good deal when you can get it. You pay nothing for editing, cover design, marketing, printing, warehousing, and distribution. You get paid up front. If the book doesn’t earn its advance, then you don’t have to pay back any losses. The publisher takes most of the risk (and most of the reward). What’s not to like about this deal?

The cons are that you give over quite a lot of control to the publishing house. They require you to make revisions and if your revisions aren’t up to snuff, then you’ll be in breach of contract. They design the cover and if you don’t like it, you may have very little voice. The publisher typically takes at least a year and often much longer to get the book into stores. If they screw up the marketing, you get the blame. Yes, really. If the book doesn’t sell, everybody will think it’s your fault, even if the publisher blundered. Finally, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find a publisher (or even an agent). You might slave for years on your novel and never sell it. That’s hard. That’s horrible. That’s reality.

Option 2: “Self-publish” your book with a custom publisher. I use the term “self-publish” in quotes here because the custom publisher is doing a lot of the work. They will generally provide editing, marketing, cover design, printing, warehousing, and distribution, just like with a traditional publisher. However, they aren’t paying for that work. You are.

The pros of self-pubbing with a custom publisher are that you are in control of the process. You don’t have to persuade an editor and committee to buy your book (because nobody is buying the rights from you.) You decide what services the custom publisher will provide you. You decide when the editing and cover design are done. You typically provide more of the marketing. You typically get paid a bigger cut of the pie (because you took more of the risk).

The cons are that you have to do more work and the onus is really on you to make the key decisions. No editor will tell you, “Sorry this is really a lousy book that will never sell.” If it’s a lousy book, that’s your problem. If it doesn’t sell, you eat the costs. If you don’t know how to market the book, then it dies.

Option 3: “Self-publish” your book with a vanity publisher. This generally looks exactly like Option 2 above, except that vanity publishers are crooks. They sell you services they aren’t competent to provide and they generally overcharge you.

The pros of this are . . . hmmm, can’t think of any. Don’t publish with a vanity publisher.

The cons are numerous. The final product will be inferior. You’ll spend a lot of money and probably will lose most of it. Worst of all, nobody will buy your book.

How do you spot a vanity publisher? You can ask professionals in the business and they’ll generally know the main offenders, but there are zillions of publishers. Many very small publishers are legit. Some big publishers aren’t. The web site Preditors & Editors is a well-known web site that can help you separate the sheep from the goats. It gives information on a large number of publishers, telling you which are recommended, which are not recommended, and which ones to avoid like fire ant infested underwear.

Option 4: Self-publish your book by acting as your own publisher. This option means that you hire your own freelance editor (or do the editing yourself). You hire your own freelance proofreader (or do it yourself). You hire the cover designer, the typesetter, the printer, the warehouse, the distribution system, the marketing (or you do them yourself). You take all the risks. You get all the glory.

The pros of this are that you are completely in control and stand to earn huge amounts of money if your book does enormously well. If you are knowledgable about publishing and have the skills to do most of the work and the ability to hire smart people to do what you can’t do, and if you can market yourself effectively, then this can be a very good option and you can do Xtremely well financially.

The cons are that you are completely in control. All the decisions are on you. All the financial risks are on you. And (for paper editions of books) the upfront costs can be quite a lot. If you work with a print-on-demand printer, then your production costs go down quite a bit. But you still need to pay for editing, cover design, marketing, shipping, and all that. It may be more headache and more cost than you can stomach. Go into this with your eyes open.

Option 5: Self-publish your book as an e-book-only edition through online retailers. This is a lot like Option 4. Again, you are responsible to hire or do the editing, proofreading, cover design, conversion to e-book formats, and marketing. You then upload the e-book directly to any online retailers you like (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple iBookStore, etc.) and/or to e-book distributors (like Smashwords, which can optionally get you into most of the online retailers for a share of the profits).

The pros of this are numerous, which is why many professional novelists are using this to republish their out-of-print novels they wrote years ago for traditional publishers. You’re in complete control of the process. If you’re republishing an out-of-print novel, it has already been edited and proofread, so you don’t have to pay for that again. You do still need to pay for a cover design, but that can be had fairly cheaply. Conversion to e-book formats is not hard, and it’s fairly cheap to hire out the process. The online retailers make it super simple to upload your e-book and it costs you nothing. You’re in control of your marketing. Your royalties can be amazingly high–65%, 70%, or even 85% of the retail price go to you.

The cons are that quality is on you. If your book is horrible, nobody will tell you that. If your cover is bad, nobody will tell you. If you have no marketing skills, that’s your problem. The costs may be fairly low–often a few hundred dollars–but they’re still on you.

Joan, you’re probably thinking right now, “Gack! Too many choices! Just tell me what to do!”

I wish I could tell you for sure what to do, but there is no best answer.

Until recently, the right answer was usually Option 1: sell to a traditional publisher. Most wannabe writers never sold a thing. But those who did sell their books got affirmation, got an advance, and had a chance at the gold ring.

For authors with a very strong marketing platform, Options 2 and 4 (legitimate self-publishing with or without a custom publisher) have been pretty good over the last couple of decades. The only problem is that most authors are terrible at marketing. (This is proof that the universe is unfair, because artists of all people need marketing the most desperately, but they’re the ones least likely to be able to market effectively.) But for those few artists who have great platforms, this is a strong ticket to the money.

Virtually everybody will tell you that Option 3 (vanity publishing) is horrible. The only people who disagree are the vanity publishers. Draw your own conclusions.

Option 5 is the new kid in town, and it’s become absolutely huge for professional writers. Authors with a large out-of-print backlist have put them back into print as e-books for little cost. Some of them have made huge money, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of them are earning tens of thousands of dollars per year. I would guess that most of them have at least paid back their initial investment.

HOWEVER, Option 5 is not necessarily that great of a plan for novice writers. A badly written book is not going to sell. Most books by authors at the Freshman or Sophomore level are not going to sell. (See my article Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! for definitions of these terms.) A Junior or Senior level writer might do well. Then again, they might not. A lot depends on how good the cover is and how good the marketing copy is.

So Joan, back to you. Those are the options. None of them are drenched in gold. Every one of them has some potential hazards, (and Option 3 is the poison pill from hell). What’s a writer to do?

I have given this advice many times, but it’s worth saying again. Learn your craft. Master your craft. You do that by studying from the experts, writing your tail off, getting critiqued by somebody who knows how fiction works. And then do it again, over and over for the rest of your life. That’s how I got published. Stephen King did it the exact same way.

That’s how you’ll do it if you succeed. I wish you good luck, and I hope that the information you find on this site will move you a little closer to your dreams. Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

6 Comments

  1. Richard Mabry July 25, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Randy, Excellent advice. You’re exactly right–until recently the choices were primarily #1,2, or 3, and #1 was the right choice…always. But the times they are a-changin’. Unfortunately, some folks think e-publishing is their way out, but an e-published book can be a bad book or a good one, depending on the content and the amount of work that’s been done on it.
    The best advice in this case is exactly what you’ve said–do the work, learn the craft. Master the craft (and even multi-published authors continue to work on this). Then choose your path with your eyes wide open.
    As always, thanks for your counsel.

  2. Hope Marston July 26, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    Wow! I am saving this article for reference when I am asked the same question. Because it took me so long to get it shaped up for publication, I chose #5 for SACKETS HARBOR POWDER MONKEY – THE WAR OF 1812 (juvenile historial fiction)for my 35th book. It was released earlier this month through Kindle, as an e-book, and through CreateSpace. I hired out everything except writing the story. I believe I have a quality product and it’s just in time for the Bicentennial events being held for the War of 1812. I expect great things this weekend when I will be selling my book at the Sackets Harbor Bicentennial weekend where 10,000 people are expected to attend.

    Thank you again, Randy, for setting the record straight on a timely matter.

  3. Tracy Campbell July 26, 2012 at 4:44 am #

    Succinct!
    I’m sitting on the fence at the moment.
    Hmm…should I submit query letters or self-publish?
    Great post as usual!
    Thank you

  4. Sarah R July 26, 2012 at 4:50 am #

    I have a question. So what exactly is the difference between #2 (subsidiary publishing with a custom publisher) and #3 (vanity publishing). It seems difficult to tell between the two types of publishers. For example, a friend of mine wants to use Tate publishing for an anthology, which I’ve heard that publisher described in both ways (#2 and #3). I don’t really see a clear set of criteria to distinguish the two and I would almost lump all of #2 into the Venn diagram of #3.

    Randy sez: The problem is that the vanity publishers often look a LOT like custom publishers. They all promise you they’ll do great things for you. The question is whether they actually do. There is only one way to find out–ask people who know. The Preditors & Editors site I mentioned does a good job of collecting reports on the various publishers.

    One thing you might try is to use Google to look for reports of scams. For example, if you wanted to know if anyone has claimed Tate is a scammer, you could Google the phrase “Tate Publisher scam”. When you do that, you are likely to get the most disaffected and angry customers, so be aware that you are inherently biasing the results. Another way is to join a writer’s organization, which usually has an e-mail loop, and then ask on the loop if anyone has experience with the publisher you’re interested in.

  5. Thomas Derry July 26, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    I agree with Hope; definitely one to save. Thanks so much.

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