FAQ: Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

When I first considered publishing, I didn’t have much guidance. I was basically told, “Hey, just Google it.” Well, Google is indeed a wonderful tool, but sometimes, you need something a little more direct to give you the answers you want and need. From my experience interacting with various writer groups as well as indie author communities, I’ve learned that one of the most common sources of confusion is in regards to self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

Now, I’ve covered these two aspects in a previous blog post, but I figured people don’t want to read a long, drawn-out explanation of the differences, so I’ve decided to create this easy-to-digest FAQ section to give indie writers a better resource on which direction to take in terms of publishing. Please remember that this is mostly based off my experiences and the experiences of several other authors friends, both traditional and self. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which path is best for your wants and needs, but I hope that this FAQ will at least help you with the decision-making process.

What is the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing is when you have a literary agent sign on to represent you, and when they find you a publisher who will publish your book. Self-publishing is when you take the reins for yourself and publish your book on your own, just as the name implies. Simple enough, right?

Which is better: self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Unfortunately, this question can’t be answered in just three or four sentences. In all honesty, there’s no real answer. One is not “better” than the other, and anyone who tells you different is wrong. Most often, you may hear people say traditional publishing is superior and that self-publishing is “the easy way out.” While self-publishing is much more accommodating, that’s not to say that it’s in any way inferior to traditional. Don’t ever let someone try to shame you for taking the self-publishing route.

How do I get traditionally published?

In order to be traditionally published, 99% of the time, you need a literary agent. Some smaller presses and publishers let you query directly to them, but ultimately, big publishers will only accept manuscripts from literary agents representing writers.

How do I find a literary agent?

QueryTracker is just one of many fabulous resources for writers seeking literary agents. Look for agents that represent your specific genre: fantasy, historical, drama, thriller, etc. When you’ve narrowed down a list based on your genre, you want to look at their submissions page. Some may indicate that they are no longer accepting submissions while others are more than happy to get them. Read over the submission guidelines carefully and make sure you follow them exactly. Agents get tons of submissions each day. They won’t hesitate to toss a manuscript from an author who doesn’t bother to read or respect the guidelines. I’ve covered how to write a proper query letter in a previous blog post.

Will a literary agent represent a self-published book?

This is entirely dependent on the agent. Some will represent a previously self-published book, while others will explicitly state on their submissions page that they won’t read them. Your best bet: submit a new project. In a majority of cases, agents will only represent a previously self-published story if you can prove it has successful sales numbers.

How much does a literary agent cost?

A reputable literary agent will NEVER ask you for upfront fees. Agents are in the business to get you represented by publishers, who will pay them based on sales. If an agent asks for some type of payment to represent you, turn around and run away. Learn more about vanity publishers here.

How many literary agents can I query at once?

Unless they clearly state that they do not allow writers to submit to multiple agents at once, literary agents, for the most part, don’t care how many submissions you send out. Go nuts. Send your query to a dozen agents a week. Just remember that if you get accepted by multiple agents at once, you need to be prepared to reject the agents you don’t choose. Also, you can’t use a generic query letter template for every agent. Every agent has their own preferences when it comes to submissions. Also, a lot of agents are close friends, even if they work for different agencies. If an agent says, “don’t submit to other agents when you submit with us,” then follow those warnings. Agents talk to one another, and word spreads quickly.

What do I do if I’m rejected by an agent?

If you want to be traditionally published, you have to be ready for a lot of rejection. It is very unlikely that you’ll get accepted by the first agent you query. Rejection will be your best friend during the querying process. Don’t let them discourage you. If an agent rejects you, just move on to the next one. Do NOT talk badly about them on social media (it’s unbelievable how many people do this when they’re rejected). Also, I learned from a recent Q&A with a literary agency that you don’t need to send anything after the rejection. Previously, I would send a “thanks anyway,” type of note, and I will continue to do so, but you don’t have to feel like this is mandatory. As the agent said, it’s not necessary nor expected.

How do I self-publish a book?

There are numerous platforms for writers who want to self-publish. I personally used KDP – Kindle Direct Publishing, which I found to be very user-friendly. I’ve heard good things about other similar companies such as IngramSpark, Lulu, and BookBaby, but since I never used them myself, I can’t personally recommend them.

Do I need an editor?

Yes. No matter which path you choose, you need an editor. At the very least, you want someone else to look over your manuscript, even as a beta reader. When we read our writing, we tend to overlook certain spelling or grammatical errors out of habit. I recommend having someone else giving your manuscript a look-through, even just as a casual reader. You never know what they may catch that you missed. If you want to catch the eye of a traditional publisher/literary agent, then finding an actual editor is a MUST. One spelling mistake can cost you representation. When you self-publish, you still want an editor because you want your book to be polished to absolute perfection. The main point I’m trying to get at here is: hire an editor, no matter how great of a writer you think you may be.

Do I need an illustrator?

This is where things get a little tricky. If you want to be traditionally published, you don’t have to worry about an illustrator. Your publisher will find an illustrator to take care of it, except in very specific cases. If you self-publish, you will need to pick one of two options: you illustrate the book yourself or you hire an outside illustrator. I’ve hired illustrators to do my covers and interior illustrations, and I’ve paid for KDP to do my cover illustrations. Overall, I recommend hiring a third-party illustrator. Make sure you clarify the details with your illustrator. Many will take an upfront payment, while others will want an upfront payment in addition to a portion of royalties. Either way, you need to understand that you will be paying a hefty sum for a decent illustrator, and I can assure you that they will be worth every penny. Illustrators help bring your book to life, so you can’t expect to get far trying to pay someone with just “exposure” or a fee that’s well below what they deserve.

Which type of publishing will make me rich and famous?

Sorry, but the chances of you becoming rich and famous as an author are very slim, whether you go the self-publishing or traditional publishing route. There have been some self-publishers who have lucked out and have become financially successful (E.L. James and Andy Weir), and then there are some traditionally published authors who produced one book and then fizzled into obscurity (not going to call them out here). Regardless, if you want to become a rich and famous author, no matter which path you take, you need to put a lot of work into your authorship.

How do I market my books?

When you’re traditionally published, you have an agent who can assist with the marketing aspect for your book – although, this is a “your mileage may vary” situation where some agents may be significant help with marketing while others will do minimal work. When you self-publish, you need to handle the marketing all on your own, unless you hire a public relations expert to assist you. My advice to self-published and indie authors is to capitalize on social media, and to take advantage of local book festivals and craft fairs (especially around holiday time).

How do I get paid?

Here’s a question that many writers have in regards to publishing: how do I make money? If you’re traditionally published, you get a cut of the book sales (a portion needs to go to your agent and publisher). Your publisher may also give you an advance payment. It’s vital that, prior to signing a contract, you have a legal representative carefully inspect it to ensure you’re not being swindled out of your hard-earned money. Unfortunately, there are many “agents” out there who like to take advantage of naive writers. With self-publishing, at least via KDP, you’re paid royalties each month, which are a percentage of your book sales. I recommend setting up a separate bank account for these royalties to help you with your year-end taxes.

How do taxes work for an author?

Let me begin by saying that I am not a tax specialist, so my advice should not be taken as professional counsel. This is purely based on my experience. I created a business entity for my authorship (it was necessary for me to sell my books at an event in Philadelphia). When I take my taxes to my accountant, she helps me file everything accordingly, and tells me what expenses I can deduct. I have been able to deduct table costs, marketing materials, writing-related supplies, and more, because they are all business expenses. I highly recommend consulting with a tax professional to see what you can do in terms of deductions come tax time.

Do I need a pen name?

A pen name is more or less an alternative author identity. For whatever reason, many authors will use a pen name when publishing books. I advise you to use a pen name if you have a speciality in one genre and you want to disassociate another genre. For example, I use my real author name and identity for my children and young adult novels, but if I ever decide to write a murder mystery, I will want to use a pen name. Other authors may use a pen name if they want to keep their writing a secret from friends and family. It doesn’t matter the reason for your pen name, but just make sure you stay consistent.

These are all the most commonly asked questions in terms of publishing. If you have any more questions, feel free to email me at realewrites@gmail.com, or contact me on social media.

How to Make a Career Out of Writing

Don’t you wish you could write all the time and get paid for it? Sounds like a dream come true, right? Believe it or not, it is indeed possible to make a solid career out of writing, but not in the way you’d expect.

As always, I’m going to offer a little backstory to prove a point…

After I graduated from college with my degree in English, I decided to search for jobs where I could put my writing talents to the test. I didn’t know EXACTLY what I wanted to do, but I knew that it had to involve writing in some capacity. I remember going on Monster.com and browsing the various job categories for potential leads. I found one job listing under the “printing and publishing” section and eagerly submitted my application. I got a call a few days later and landed an interview. I thought, “Wow, that was easier than I thought. Now that I have my foot in the door at a printing place, my writing career will definitely take off!”

Long story short, I ended up becoming a service technician (it turns out the printing company I had applied to was contracted by a technician business). Needless to say, it threw me through a bit of a loop. However, I enjoyed the job and spent almost a year there before I left to work as a call center employee for an insurance carrier. Yeah, my writing career sure was skyrocketing!

It wasn’t until 2013 that I got my first REAL full-time job as a writer, and since then, I’ve been able to make a steady career out of it.

“So what’s your secret, Alessandro? How do you find a career as a writer?”

Want to know my secret?

Er… there really isn’t any secret. It’s just about looking in the right places.

Sorry if that’s a bit of a letdown. If I knew how to make smoke and strobe lights appear on the page, I would. But I guess the revelation isn’t all that flashy. You can make a career out of writing starting with just a grain of experience. All you need to do is search for the right opportunities and take the right chances.

First of all, fix up your resume. If you have a very generic resume that only showcases a few skills and responsibilities, you’ll have a hard time finding a job in writing (or any field that isn’t sales or customer service). Whatever writing experience you may have, no matter how insignificant it may seem, find a way to incorporate it into your resume. Do you blog? Put it on your resume. Did you write a column for your college newspaper? Put it on your resume. Do you write copy for your company flyer or email blast? Put it on your resume. There is always a way to spin things to your advantage, and with a little tweaking here and there, you can make yourself stand out as an emerging writer eager for work.

Despite all this, you never want to lie about or over-inflate your talents. If you wrote a few words for a flyer about an upcoming company picnic, you can’t say you “drastically increased attendance of company-sponsored event by composing, editing, and delivering sensitive information in a timely manner to a diverse audience.” That sounds fancy and whatnot, but it’ll be really awkward when you have to explain yourself in the interview. Brag about your work, but don’t go overboard.

Next, you have to actually look for the job. It’s not as easy as going on Monster and searching for the term “writer”. You’ll have to search for terms like “marketing”, “content”, and “copy”. The best types of writing jobs (that you get paid for on a regular basis) are going to be in the marketing realm. A lot of digital marketing today is dependent on proper content, and many companies are searching for writers who can develop creative, engaging, keyword-heavy content for their sites. Keep an eye out for those marketing positions!

If you’re lucky, you can find writing jobs that are outside of the marketing arena. I remember once stumbling on a job where I could write quests for adventure video games. I also encountered a job listing as a writer for DC Comics. Unfortunately, both of these positions required a crazy amount of experience, none of which I possessed. It seems like the really, really good writing jobs are far and few between, and the only way to get them is to have a foot in the door at the company. If you’re able to attain such an awesome job, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up.

Don’t limit yourself solely to writing jobs either. Look for editor and proofreader positions as well. Even though you’re not doing the actual writing itself, you’re still exercising some important abilities to help you build your writing repertoire. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished that I had more editing experience. Alas, those jobs are almost as difficult to find as solid writing positions.

No matter what job you decide on, any writing is good writing. It’s like a muscle – the more you do it, the stronger it becomes. My writing has vastly improved since my first day writing content full-time. Even if it gets a little stale constantly writing marketing content day in and day out, I know that I’m still strengthening that writing muscle – and I’m getting paid for it! Two-for-one deal.

Not every writing experience has to be a full-time job, by the way. You can do guest posts and freelance work if the opportunity arises. While it’s difficult to live solely off freelance, it can certainly enhance your resume and your writing prowess. Don’t count out any opportunities just because they don’t pay well. Every little bit helps.

Writing full-time may not be for everyone. You might hate having to follow the strict codes of corporate writing or meticulously crafting your content to accommodate the best SEO practices. If it’s not for you, it’s no big deal. At the very least, you still want to WRITE EVERY DAY. But wouldn’t you rather be paid for it?

Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover in a future post? Leave a comment, or head on over to my Facebook page and share your thoughts!

Marketing & Selling Your Book 101

I’m going to be honest with you: no matter how great your book is, it won’t mean jack if you don’t know how to market it. You could literally write the next Great American Novel on par with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Catcher in the Rye, and it could end up gathering dust on the library shelves for years to come. In the world of authorship, writing is only half the battle. The real work is getting your book into the hands of readers. But how do you do that?

Marketing in this day and age is infinitely easier than it was even ten years ago thanks to the Internet. It’s 2016 – the age of information, where we’re able to share data across the planet in an instant. That means that there are numerous ways to market your book to a worldwide audience. However, that doesn’t mean that your book is going to be flying off the shelves right from the get-go. You need to know the what, where, when, and hows of marketing if you want to succeed.

First, we’ll go with the basics. You know the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? As great as it sounds, it’s not like everyone follows this message (at least, in a literal sense). While browsing through the bookstore shelves, it’s very unlikely that someone will  be interested in a book with a Plain Jane cover that simply states the book title and the author. You need a vibrant and entrancing cover that will catch people’s eyes and make them go, “Whoa, what’s this about?!” Choose a cover that really POPS from the bookshelves and that will make people do a double-take when they pass by. Your cover is the bait on the end of a long fishing line. But you won’t catch any fish if you don’t have a strong hook.

You have two ways to hook readers. First, you can include a brief blurb on the back cover or inside flap that briefly summarizes the synopsis. Don’t reveal too much of the story. Write a basic overview that will give people a good idea of what kind of book it is, and then leave them craving for more. For example:

John Smith enjoys the finer things in life. He likes to ride his bike, play catch with his friends, and watch TV. One day, a mysterious object falls from the sky and lands in his backyard. What he finds inside is going to change his life forever…

Granted, that’s a very hastily put-together statement that I just whipped up in five minutes, but you will notice how it has the elements of a proper book blurb. It draws you in and makes you wonder. What is the object? What did John find inside? How will it change his life? You want people to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the book.

The other way to truly hook a reader is to have a solid opening page. I remember my old creative writing teacher telling me how, when she goes book shopping, she’ll read the first page of a book to see if it piques her interest. No enticing first page, no sale. Onto the next book!

All these points I’ve stated so far are ways to market your book while you’re still writing and publishing it. What about after you’ve completed the publishing process? How do you market your book then? What’s the next step?

Two words: social media.

Social media has become one of the best marketing tools of the past couple of years. Virtually everyone is on some form of social media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or more. These sites are all about being social (duh!). Instead of using your social media to post selfies from Bermuda or to share the latest article about Donald Trump, why not take advantage of it for promoting your writing?

Make a dedicated authorship page for Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, and even Pinterest and YouTube. There are countless ways to leverage each of these sites to promote your writing. Make sure you add a link to these pages in your email signature, and don’t forget to include the URLs on your business cards!

But a word of advice: don’t make these pages solely to promote your book. If all you’re doing on your author social media pages is telling people to buy your book, you’re not going to build a solid following. You should vary your posts. Talk about the writing process, discuss big topics in the writing world, share your thoughts about your favorite genres, post funny memes – have fun with it! Give people a reason to follow you, and make sure you’re not ONLY selling your book.

Let’s step away from the digital realm for now. How else can you get your book out there? Well, the good ol’ fashioned way is to get in touch with local small businesses and ask if they’d be willing to stock your title. Most big chains such as Barnes & Noble have strict guidelines with stocking self-published works, so it’s best to try the smaller, indie locations such as cafes and bookstores.

Recently, I started placing copies of my book in Little Free Library booths around the area. These tiny kiosks are all over my neighborhood, and if you check out their official site, you’re bound to find some in your own town. Drop off a copy every month or two. You’d be surprised at how quickly they’ll fly off the shelf. Don’t forget to add a business card along with the book so that people will know to follow you!

Also, ask your readers to leave a review online, whether it’s on your Facebook page, the book’s Amazon page, or Goodreads. Before buying a book, many readers will check out the online reviews to see if it’s up their alley. Therefore, the more reviews under your title, the better!

It takes about a minute to leave feedback on Amazon or Goodreads, and it can do wonders for increasing your book’s credibility. What’s there to lose? Just tell people, “Hey, once you’re done reading, do you mind leaving a little feedback on one of these sites?” The worst that can happen is if they say, “No”.

Finally, a great way to market and sell your book is to attend major events. Book-signings, conventions, book fairs, etc. – these are all fantastic ways to reach a wider audience. With a little bit of Googling, you’re bound to find several local events where you can pitch your book to new readers and interact with other indie authors. These events are fun ways to break into the world of authorship, and it’s always fun to meet people in a similar position as you. The last event I attended was a comic convention in Philadelphia, and although I didn’t make a huge amount of sales, I did get to talk to other amazing authors who shared their own insight on the writing and publishing process.

There is no golden ticket to selling your work. You can’t just write a book and expect it to start selling on its own. As with any business venture, it takes a little bit of luck, and A LOT of effort before you reach success.

Also, while none of these tips are guaranteed to instantly turn you into a best-selling author, they WILL show you how to network with people and build up a fan-base. If you find out that one idea doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged. No author ever became an overnight success. They all just kept pushing and pushing until they eventually struck the sweet spot.

Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover in a future post? Leave a comment, or head on over to my Facebook page and share your thoughts!