This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote to a client, when asked for advice about publication and marketing of one’s own books.
Most of the publishing world is parasitical. It wants you to do all the work and provide all the content so that it can make most of the money. It operates on the principle of the remora.
Your decision is between self-publishing, small press publishing and New York. The main difference between the three is that with New York, New York gets all the money and also locks up more of the rights. Small press probably treats you more humanely and pays you a little better. With self-publishing, you keep all the rights and make all the money. Also, with New York and most small press, they want ‘exclusive submission.’ That means that they entertain the fantasy that you should pitch it to them, then wait for a reply before you pitch it to anyone else. I’ve seen more credible fantasies in Penthouse Variations.
Notice I didn’t specify any actual benefits from small press or New York. They confer mainly the ‘I made it’ prestige/legitimacy factor, a commodity that is fading faster than the big houses want you to believe. They will mostly do minimal to no editing or marketing for you. They will do a cover for you, but they will inflict it upon you without much input allowed from you. They will typeset it for you, but they can screw up real, real bad, such as accidentally publish an early draft rather than the one you worked so hard to refine. (I am not joking. It happened to a pretty respected author I sort of know, Allen Barra. When I wrote to him to ask, “Al, say it ain’t so, how did this get so screwed up?” he wrote back and told me what had happened. Since I was writing a review, he insisted on paying to send me a copy of the right version. If I was going to write a review, he wanted it to be his best work, which is not what the publisher fricking printed. Unbloodybelievable.)
Suppose it sells for $12. New York will pay you $1 per copy sold. You’re still on the hook for most of the marketing. If you self-publish, you keep $12 per copy sold minus the printing cost. This means that NY has to outsell you 12:1 just to break even, and you signed rights away to them. If you succeed well enough on your own, publishers may come calling. I’d be careful. Publishing is a business. The main reason for them to call is because they want some of the money. The burden is on them to demonstrate why you would make more money with them than you are now, and that that is worth the rights you sign away. Many of them count on you being so wowed that you won’t read the contract too carefully, much less send it to an intellectual property attorney for review.
Your odds of getting an agent are minimal; your odds of a lot of terse rejections are high. Publishers at least sometimes act like you are also a customer, which agents know you are not. Just as many publishers want to buy the home run best seller that will make them zillions for no work, many agents want to pitch the easily pitchable book that will make them thousands for no work.
There are exceptions to all of the above. These are trends, not universal realities.
If it’s a non-fiction book, in order to pitch it, you need a query letter, a book proposal and a copy of the current Writer’s Market. If you don’t know what any of that is, you need to learn, because not knowing what that stuff is would be akin to trying to breastfeed baby and unsure where Junior is supposed to find the spout.
Edit: this piece prompted Shawn Inmon, the self-published author of a compelling true love story, to put forth his own perspective about self-publishing. If you felt this was worth a read, I think you’ll feel Shawn’s post is also.