How to publish a book

Traditional publishing versus self-publishing

It does not always seem it at the time, but publishing a book is the easy bit – selling it is harder. So if your passion is writing, not business, self-publishing may not make sense for you.

Publishers invest time and effort to build a distribution network and to sell-in their titles. That way they can achieve the volumes that are essential if they are to make a return given the low margins on most books. If you plan on self-publishing you need to recognise that you won’t have that same distribution network.

Discovery is the other big issue. Will people find your book? If so, where and how? There are millions of Kindle ebooks; what are the chances of someone tripping over yours unless you put it in front of them?

Even large bookshops stock only a fraction of what is published. They trust the quality of published books over self-published books unless convinced otherwise. If you plan on self-publishing, ask yourself why they should stock your book?

Self-publishing is particularly suitable for niches in which there are limited publishing options such as poetry, and/or where most of the sales will be direct to consumers at events rather than through bookshops/online retailers.

Which publishers should I approach?

The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (and the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook) contains details of all UK publishers and lists the genres (e.g. crime fiction or historical non-fiction) they publish along with contact details and a few of the publishers’ main authors. Most library services stock it.

Only approach publishers who publish books in your genre. There is no point in sending non-fiction to a fiction publisher, or adult fiction to a children’s publisher.

Take a look at publishers’ websites. Get a feel for what they publish and how they publicise it, then reference what you’ve learned when you make your approach. (I see you publish X. My book, Y, would sit well alongside that title, for example)

Publishers are always interested to know in what way an author might be able to help sell the book. Do they have an expertise in a particular field that may give rise to marketing opportunities? Are they keen to present in schools? Do they already have a media presence that can be built on? Do not be shy about highlighting what you can potentially bring to the table.

How are authors paid?

Authors receive a royalty for each book sold. Sometimes they will receive an advance on those royalties. That advance then needs to be earned out before more royalties become payable.

As a rough guide, royalty rates range from 5-13% of a book’s RRP, depending on how many are sold and the format – 10%+ is normally only seen for hardbacks. Those rates are reduced where the publisher has to give a high discount to the buyer such as Amazon. That is not a lot per copy – for the publisher or author – which is why volume is essential to successful publishing.

Is funding available to help writers?

Scottish Book Trust have their New Writers Awards and Creative Scotland provide limited bursaries to a few published authors to advance their careers. However, it’s mostly down to writers to fund their own work.  

Do I need an agent?

No. It’s very difficult to get one when you start out, but if you can then ideal. An agent’s job is to know the right person to submit to and to then negotiate the best terms if a publisher is interested. Most will also help hone work in advance of submitting it, but they won’t edit as such. Agents usually charge 15-20% of an author’s royalties. You can find agents’ details in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and on Scottish Book Trust’s list of Literary Agencies in Scotland.

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