Infographic: 4 Key Book Publishing Paths

Infographic: 4 Key Publishing Paths

IMPORTANT: I’ve updated this chart for 2015. Please visit the new version.

One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today:

Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?

It’s an important question—one that tends to result in heated debate—but it’s becoming an increasingly confusing and complicated question to answer because:

  1. There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing—with evolving models and varying contracts.
  2. You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to “traditionally publish” or “self-publish.”
  3. It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do both. (See this interview with CJ Lyons.)

I spend a lot of time at writers conferences trying to clarify the pros and cons among the different publishing paths and the growing number of services available to authors. There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work—not to mention your own strengths and weaknesses.

With that in mind, I’ve developed an infographic (click to download as PDF) to outline four key publishing paths, their value to authors, and the variations therein. These four paths are:

  1. Traditional publishing: I define this as submitting your work to editors and agents (gatekeepers) and being selected for publication. Most traditional deals of the New York variety involve nationwide bookstore distribution, but one of the biggest growth areas you’ll find here is digital-only or digital-focused efforts that don’t involve print editions at all. Such opportunities may have little in common with Big Five arrangements—and that’s why I’ve intentionally put them at the bottom of the image, with a white background!—but they’re still selective. Traditional publishing authors can and should expect editorial, design, marketing, and publicity support from beginning to end.
  2. Fully assisted self-publishing: This is what most people mean when they talk about the “vanity” publishing model, where you write a check and get your book published without lifting a finger. There’s a high risk of paying too much money for basic services, and also for purchasing services you don’t need—but it’s still a significant part of the self-publishing market, now dominated by Author Solutions in the U.S. Caveat emptor: Author Solutions is currently fighting a class-action lawsuit; they’re not warmly embraced by the indie author community. If you want a fully assisted service, explore the highly ranked firms at the Independent Publishing Magazine.
  3. Do-it-yourself (DIY) self-publishing: This might involve either print book or e-books (or both), and I’ve been more expansive in this second version to include print-driven self-publishing options. Most authors reduce financial risk and investment involved with print by using print-on-demand technology; the most popular POD services are CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and Lulu.
  4. Community: A growing number of publishing success stories are coming out of Wattpad and fan-fiction communities—not to mention that an incredible amount of writing and reading gets done at these sites. (Wattpad alone is closing in on 20 million users. That’s about the same size as Goodreads.) It means giving away your work, but community authors are more focused on developing a fan base, and the social aspect of reading and writing, not earnings. I’ve also added crowdfunding here, as it involves rallying your community to buy your book before it’s available (and donate funds), a model that Wattpad is now melding into its platform.

For those who are familiar with the first version of this, here’s an explanation of why certain things were changed.

  • Partnership publishing: This has moved under traditional publishing. I’ve decided partnership arrangements are not prevalent enough to deserve their own category. According to my definition of partnerships models, they mimic the fundamental qualities of a traditional deal—you don’t pay to publish and you seek acceptance—but there’s little or no advance and higher royalties. I do think more of this will be happening in the future. Or I hope.
  • Do-it-yourself (DIY) with a distributor vs. DIY direct: I separated these out before, but have combined them because the end result and even the process can be about identical. When you deal directly with retailers (Amazon, Nook, iBookstore, etc), you will earn more on royalties (since there’s no middleman/distributor); when you use a distributor, you will earn less, but may also receive some level of marketing or production assistance, depending on the service. Most people combine their own direct-to-retailer efforts with distributor efforts (Amazon + Smashwords is popular). Since DIY services work primarily on a nonexclusive basis (unless you make it restrictive by signing up for something like Kindle Select), it is quite common to mix-and-match services.

What about an agent’s role in these five models? Generally speaking, agents should serve as an author’s career manager and adviser, not as the author’s publisher. This is why I’ve included agent-assisted models in “special cases” below the chart. Still, though, when it comes to partnership publishing, agent-run outfits (e.g., Rogue Reader) are doing some of the most innovative work, and this only blurs the lines further.

Feel free to download, print, and share this infographic wherever you like. (It’s formatted to print perfectly on 11″ x 17″ or tabloid-size paper.) I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes, so leave a comment if you have suggestions for how to make it more helpful.

For more information on getting published, visit these popular posts:

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. Jane – it is a great, evolving document. To that end, a niggling point to raise – you don’t include independent publishers. I know this might seem like a smaller version of a tradition publisher, but I think it bears discussion. There are some significant positives and drawbacks to working with an independent publisher – different enough from what you have described…. You are likely to find a lot of great modern poets in relationships with tiny publishers, and some very happy stories from both the writer and the publisher. Of course, you will hear a lot of rough stories (terrible cover art, minimal royalties, etc.) but I can share some great success stories from this match-up.

    • Thanks, Marco. I’m using “small press” and “independent press” interchangeably here, but will contemplate splitting apart, let’s say, “corporate publishers” and “independent publishers” in a future version.

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  4. This is great, and with the evolving industry – I expect it to expand and further evolve. I’d love to hear what you think about the creator-owned models (as is prevalent these days in comics/graphic novel publishing with publishers like Avatar Press, Legend, Image,and Monkeybrain). Not sure who is responsible for what and publishers seem to vary in the details of the arrangement. I expect it fits in somewhere in the partnership publishing model – with the retention of rights…what are the advantages there as opposed to self publishing? Do they absorb print costs?

    • Hi Jo,

      You raise an excellent question; sadly, I’m not familiar enough with the comics/graphic novel space to authoritatively answer that. Perhaps someone who is can jump in and comment?

  5. Very handy! I’m curious about your observation that university presses require authors to relinquish more of their rights. By that, do you mean the hoops of peer review and and institutional approval, which you mention here? Or are you referring to intellectual property and related authorial rights? I’d be interested to hear!

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  8. Jane, Is there also an opportunity for authors to become book packagers and work with publishers directly? Specifically, books that are expensive to produce such as children’s picture books. Are publishers open to this idea as a way to acquire titles for their lists without bearing the full cost of production?

    • Publishers definitely work with book packagers, particularly on children’s picture books, as you point out. If packaging interests you, then I’d probably interview book packagers that currently serve the market and ask how they got started (though I don’t know the names of any offhand—they tend to fly under the radar!).

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  14. Great posts with lots of great information about publishing authors. I will be using this for my clients that are newbie authors and writers. Thanks for sharing this Jane.

  15. Two things I don’t see mentioned much, but are very important, are location and author resources. If a writer has plenty of resources they can go to all the shows and events and become known in publishing circles. This fast tracks the traditional publishing route. Also if you live in either NY or London that is a great help because all the publishing houses have offices in those cities. Unless one can get face to face contact the best writer in the world can just get jerked around by traditional publishing for decades. If you live in a small town and have a very limited budget it’s far more difficult. As with everything else money makes a huge difference. Those with the resources have all the advantages no matter how well you write.

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  17. Jane, this is great. Have you come across any kind of market share/revenue data that shows how the different paths have fared? I’d guess of course that traditional still dominates, and within that the big five, but someday the others will tip the scale. Any idea how far off that date is?

    • Excellent question—the one that’s on everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, there’s very little transparency from Amazon, who arguably dominates the self-pub ebook market and is in one of the best positions to track that change.

      However, a few things we do know:

      — Amazon has stated that self-published books make up 25% of their bestselling books.

      — Bowker numbers indicate ongoing increases in the self-pub market, though you have to remember they can only count books with ISBNS, and many self-pub books don’t carry them:

      — In 2013, we’ve seen soft or declining sales in the main trade market (think Big Five + other midsize or traditional houses), but that’s partly a result of 2012’s bigger numbers from 50 SHADES & HUNGER GAMES.

      Mike Shatzkin regularly writes about the market share of the two sides (which is in part driven by online sales and Amazon). His latest:

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  19. Partnership Publishing (no advance, higher royalty rate) is becoming a better and wiser option directly in proportion to the amount that Big Five’s advances are shrinking. Sure 25% or less would be “fine” if you get a six-figure advance, but even in that case, taking a Partnership deal instead would still have some huge potential advantages. And if the Big Five don’t offer you enough to quit your day job, you’d have to be bat-guano insane to refuse a good Partnership deal.

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