These days, the only thing stopping you from writing a book is yourself. In a world of self publishing, literally anyone can become a published author. Granted, simply writing takes a long time and pressing publish doesn’t ensure you fame and fortune, but if you’re willing to work hard, the tools are there.
Let’s get one thing straight: in a world where the barriers to entry are removed, there is a lot of content out there, and not all of it is good. The argument for large publishing houses is that they have the time and money to work with authors to develop concepts and ideas, put effort into editing, and release a final work that will have widespread distribution.
However, this process can be long and arduous, and for some writers, the benefits of a large publishing house — ensured distribution for example — are outweighed by those of self-publishing. If you can’t get a publishing house to accept your work, you can hustle to publish it yourself, often in much less time. I think most authors probably have arguments for and against both kinds of publishing; this is a world that is far from black and white.
I think both forms serve a purpose, and I can think of as many self-published books that I love (example: “The New American Roadtrip Mixtape” by my friend Brendan Leonard or “Eat Awesome” by my friend Paul Jarvis) as I can books done by big publishers. I am a believer in the written word and creativity — two things we could use more of in our world — and in my opinion, anything that supports that is deserving of respect, be it big or small.
But when it comes to book publishing, there is yet another option: the small, independent publisher. These publishers, of which today there are many, often take on book projects that some of the larger publishing houses wouldn’t, and have long been responsible for some amazing work. They’re small and can work fast.
My personal experience
Last year I decided to go this route, publishing my first book “The Culinary Cyclist” with an independent publisher based in Portland named Elly Blue Publishing (formerly Taking the Lane). It’s a book about the intersect of a love of cycling and a love of good food, a small guidebook to simple living. In full disclosure, my next book is being published by a much larger publisher (Ten Speed Press) and experiencing the two publishing routes has been an interesting process. As a writer I certainly see the different benefits of both.
Since there are many aspiring writers out there, I figured it would be helpful to run you through some of the main aspects of going the independent publishing route. This is not so much as to give you a guide on to how to publish, but more a look at how small businesses and writers are functioning within the publishing world. You might think print is dead, but take a look at numbers of cool publishing houses doing unique projects, and even some of the wonderful self-published books, and you might think differently.
Smaller scale, but faster
The basics of independent publishing are that you are looking at lower print runs and therefore less availability as compared to a large publishing house. However, you usually have a quicker turnaround time on a project, and sometimes a book that is distributed in a select number of places instead of every single bookstore across the country can seem more special and unique.
For me the two main benefits were that I could turn around a book quickly and I could ensure that the book would be a very niche item (Elly Blue publishes predominantly titles focused on cycling). The question of time is something that Blue highlights as a big benefit for authors, pointing out that, “When an author signs a contract with me, we can pretty much publish their book as soon as it’s written — it just takes a few months to run the Kickstarter campaign, edit and design the book and get it printed. With any larger press though, the book has to be announced a full year before its release, which means it usually has to be totally written by that point, and there’s a lot of paperwork and decisions and a bigger team working on it, and meetings.”
Self-publishing versus independent publisher
Obviously the time question can be solved by self-publishing as well, in which you’re only restricted by your own deadlines. I asked Blue, a published writer herself, what she thought about self-publishing versus independent. “People ask me all the time why I didn’t publish the books I wrote. It’s because I know what goes into making a book successful and I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to focus on writing a good book at the same time as doing those things,” says Blue.
I would tend to agree. Any writer needs an editor, and working with a small independent publisher ensures that you get that. Friends that have self-published have solved this problem by either hiring editors, or working with friends that they trust. Whatever you decide, the bottom line is that writing a book is a group effort, with many eyes involved.
And then of course, there is the non-writing part. A book is much more than just the written work. It’s marketing, it’s sales, it’s distribution. Working with a small publisher means you can pass off those tasks, something that at the time that I published my book I really wanted.
“Self-publishing basically means that you are the publisher, and it’s on you to do all the noncreative things publishers do, from title development to production to marketing to bookkeeping and business management, as well as the creative parts… it also costs money up front — so you either need to have money, borrow money, or be able to raise money,” says Blue.
Advice for aspiring writers
I asked Blue what advice she would give for aspiring writers that are on the lookout for small presses that might be interested in their work. As a woman that works in this industry full-time, her advice is rock solid:
Go to the bookstore and find the section of books that your book would be sold in. Then identify similar titles — similar in topic and design, but most of all with a similar readership — and look up the books’ publishers to find out their submission guidelines. Follow these guidelines to the exact letter. Make sure your book offers a unique twist or angle that differentiates it from the others it will be sitting next to on the shelf. There are many resources online for writing queries and pitches: Use them. Have fun and let your personality come through when you’re pitching your book. And most of all, remember that there’s an overworked, nerdy, relatable human being sitting on the other end of your email.
Ultimately, whether you get a contract with a big publishing house, find a smaller, more niche publisher, or decide to self-publish, you have a lot of work in front of you. But the day that you get your first copy, and you see your name in print on the cover, it’s all worth it.