In the beginning, there were printers who published books. These were followed by publishers who printed books, leading eventually to publishers who hired others to print books for them. Occasionally authors published their own books. These were typically limited editions given away to friends and family, and were often poetry, which for some reason was popular once. Publishing houses published books they believed they could sell, throwing in the odd tome which, commercial or not, they decided was too important not to exist. Fortunately for the bottom line, there weren’t too many of those.
Over time, many of the established book publishers were swallowed up into larger conglomerates, and were reduced to mere imprints. Along the way getting them to see one’s manuscript became increasingly complicated by the expectation of author advance money, and, in consequence, literary agents. It became even more difficult for the average, unknown author to get his or her manuscript even seen, let alone published, by a traditional publisher.
Then came self-publishing. Thanks to entities such as direct publishing services, print-on-demand publishers and a lot of enthusiastic authors, the concept took off. In fact, the number of books published annually practically exploded with new entries. The indie marketplace grew so crowded it became nearly impossible for individual books to stand out. The online booksellers, recognizing a new income opportunity, expanded their paid advertising programs, pushing those who didn’t participate to the back of the queue. A huge secondary industry developed centered around helping indie authors promote their books. Today those businesses often make more revenue from their author clients than the authors themselves do through book sales. Many self-published authors end up publishing their books only to give most of them away to friends and family. Sound familiar?
The DIY approach to publishing has become excessively time-intensive and costly, with no guarantee a new book will gain any more visiblity than a snowflake in a blizzard. For any book to have even a remote chance for success requires resources, knowledge and experience beyond those of the average self-published author. This is why at least some authors, before self-publishing, should seriously consider trying the traditional publishing route first.
Considering how very much is required to produce a book, it makes sense to let someone who knows what they’re doing share in the workload. Besides just the Big Five (or how many of them there are these days), there are a number of independent publishers of various sizes which have figured out how to get their books into the hands of readers. Some of these are headed up by authors who found a successful strategy and are now using it to sell books by other authors. These publishers follow book marketing trends and know about emerging resources it would be nearly impossible for authors alone to keep track of. They have art departments and skilled publicists. And yes, they keep a chunk of the book’s sales revenue. But they also assume all (or most) of the expenses, too.
One great source for finding publishers successful in your genre is Amazon. They are nice enough to break down books by categories, and rank them accordingly. Look up books in categories you would consider listing your own in, and check out who’s publishing the indie books that are ranked well. You can also look for sponsored books linked to top sellers in those categories, and see who is publishing those books. Once you’ve identified a list of prospective publishers, reach out to them either by email, or (gulp!) a telephone call.
A query can be in the form of a complete proposal, if you know how to do one correctly. There are numerous examples of literary agent pitch letters online which can be helpful guides. A pitch letter can be short and sweet, pitching just the concept rather than the entire book. If the concept is intriguing, you may be asked to submit the manuscript. The concept pitch also works pretty well with literary agents.
If accepted by a traditional publisher, you’ll still be busy assisting in your book’s promotion. You will, however, have the benefit of direction from publishing professionals who know what they’re doing and have a vested interest in your book’s success. Many hands make lighter work, as they say. They may also help you reach levels of readership you’ve not been able to achieve on your own.
Joel Bresler is the author of Bottomless Cups