My first book was a modest little volume published with RTSF back in 2001. You can find it for free here. Since then, I published thirteen more books with several publishing houses (Edinburgh University Press, Paternoster, Biblica, InterVarsity, Baker, Oxford University Press, Prometheus, Wipf and Stock). In recent years, I have tried self-publishing. And through it all, I have had some interesting experiences. In this article, I am going to list briefly some of the things I’ve learned working with publishers and self-publishing. So if you’ve ever thought about publishing a book, definitely read on.
First, and above all, I have learned that publishing is absolutely cutthroat and nobody cares about your book. I’m being hyperbolic, but only a bit: every year in North America there are hundreds of thousands of completely new titles published in addition to the millions of book titles already crowding the marketplace. The average new book sells approximately 200 copies (including, one assumes, a good number of charity purchases from family and friends). So even as you enthusiastically seek to promote your work, you should still prepare mentally for the idea that your book will quickly sink beneath the waves and be forgotten. This mix of enthusiastic optimism and painful realism can be a difficult balancing act, and I have struggled myself not to sink into cynicism about the entire enterprise. But forewarned is forearmed. And on the upside, the second you can crest more than 200 copies sold, you’re already in the top half of new titles in sales: so there is that!
Working with a Publisher
Now let’s talk about publishing houses. Since I’ve been with many different publishing houses, I’ve seen a lot of variety here. Some contracts are gold, but others are not worth the paper they’re written on. First, pay attention to the downpayment on royalties. When you sign a contract, it is standard for the publisher to negotiate a lump-sum payment based on the anticipated sales in the future. A lucrative downpayment tells the author that the publisher is willing to invest in the book to recoup their investment.
However, there is a downside as well. If you receive a sizeable downpayment and your publisher fails to recoup their investment, that will stigmatize your book as a commercial failure. Let’s say you sign a contract and receive a downpayment of $10,000. Eventually, your book earns $5000. Your book is a failure. However, if you had signed a lower downpayment at the beginning (let’s say, $1000) your book would be considered a success. Of course, in the latter case, you end up pocketing less money because you only ever earn $5000. But because the publisher made money, you will be building a reputation of success that promises an established and healthy publishing relationship for the future.
Next, a word on the editor: some editors are really involved in shepherding your book through the publishing process. They know the manuscript intimately and they care about you as a person. They may become a friend and mentor through the process. In the end, you can’t imagine the finished product existing without their input. You cannot put a dollar value on that kind of relationship.
But other editors are very different. They have a hundred things on the go all the time. Their input to your work consists of little more than skimming and rubber stamping your final draft. There is little-to-no input beyond that.
Many other editors exist somewhere in the space between these two extremes. Unfortunately, beyond carefully scanning the contract for the description of an editor’s obligations and asking other authors, it is difficult to anticipate what kind of relationship you will have. However, keep this in mind: you will likely not be a favored author after a single contract. The most meaningful and productive relationships with an editor are built over time so if that is what you seek, you should be prepared to invest in it from your end.
I have also seen the enormous contrast between publishers in terms of their graphic design and marketing. For example, in one case, my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, I had a contract with one publisher (Biblica) which was later transferred to another (InterVarsity). Before the transfer, Biblica produced a cover for the book which I thought was okay at the time: they definitely attempted to catch the quirkiness of the book. However, the font for the book title was terrible. It was small and hard to read. And my name on the cover also was so small that it almost looked like a header on a page. The cover is pictured to your right.
I didn’t realize how poor the Biblica cover was until InterVarsity took over the book and produced a few possible covers for me to choose from. (Not all publishers do that: some tell you what the cover is going to be. I am always grateful for options.) I thought InterVarsity did a great job with the cover for the book. As a licensed scuba diver, I immediately recognized that they had included a deep-sea diver rather than a scuba diver image on the cover. But that was a minor quibble: the cover was clever and attention-grabbing and far, far better than the original cover.
The importance of a cover can hardly be over-estimated so it is essential that a publisher has a skilled graphic design team who are willing and able to invest in the success of your book. I have appreciated most of the covers that publishers have given for my books: Oxford University Press did a great job capturing the essence of Theology in Search of Foundations with their cover, for example. Biblica may have dropped the ball on the Swedish Atheist cover but my first two books with them (Finding God in the Shack, You’re Not as Crazy as I Think) both had excellent covers. Indeed, the cover for Finding God was brilliant and likely boosted the sales of the book significantly.
The worst cover of any of my books is for my Wipf and Stock title, Is the Atheist My Neighbor? The book was to be released shortly back in 2015 and I still hadn’t seen the cover so I emailed the editor. He forwarded the email to someone in graphic design and they sent a cover within the day. Okay, so the book is ultimately about the importance of Christians exercising hospitality toward their atheist neighbors by rejecting the common (and false) idea that atheism is always borne of sinful rebellion. There were countless possibilities for a rich cover exploring the notion of hospitality and neighborliness. But instead, the guy sent me this cover of, uh, a bare room with a grey wall and wood floor. It’s clear he didn’t spend more than five minutes thinking about this.
And that brings me to marketing. Some publishers, like Wipf and Stock, do the bare minimum in terms of promotion: they send you a press sheet based on information you send them and they send out a press release. But given that Wipf and Stock churns out countless titles every year, you can bet that yours will likely not get much attention unless you fight for it: in short, you’re pretty much on your own in terms of promotion.
In other cases, a publisher assigns an actual publicist to your book who aggressively promotes it, lining up interviews on radio and podcasts, soliciting reviews from magazines and bloggers, and securing banner ads on various websites. Active promotion from the publisher can be all the difference between a bestseller and publishing oblivion.
All this is to say that getting a contract for your book doesn’t mean much. What really matters is what kind of contract and with which publisher. Keep in mind that when you sign a contract, you are giving over the rights for your hard work to someone else so that they now own your ideas. Don’t give away your intellectual property just because someone is willing to publish it under their imprint. Wait for the right contract. And if you’re like me, you may get to the point where the diminishing rewards of the traditional publishing house leads you to look elsewhere. I will now conclude this article with a few thoughts on self-publishing.
Back in the day, self-publishing commonly consisted of a contractual model in which the author needed to commit to a particular print run (e.g. 500 copies). Alas, that would often result in that author being left with boxes of unsold books in their garage. Thankfully, those days are no more: Today, one can publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, an Amazon company. KDP is print-on-demand which means the only unsold books you’ll have in your garage are books you chose to buy. Further, KDP allows you to set your own pricing and run promotions (e.g. temporary 99 cent or free Kindle downloads) and they give the authors options to purchase hard copies at a very good discount.
At this point, I’m going to discuss my experience with KDP at some length, so let me state explicitly that I am not receiving any payment to promote their services. I assure you, they don’t need my endorsement! That said, I have been regularly solicited over the years to include content on my blog in exchange for payment and I have declined all such requests. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s return to my experiences.
I like KDP for a few other reasons. First, after you upload the manuscript and covers, they place a barcode automatically on the back cover and after a review process of a few hours to a day, your book should be available for sale. Contrast that to conventional publishing where the time gap from manuscript submission to publication can take anywhere from 6-18 months. (Publishers typically space out their new releases to a few periods during the year like late August/September, December, and spring. You need to fit into their schedule. However, Wipf and Stock is an exception: they publish throughout the year.)
Second, after you submit your book to a conventional publisher, you might wait a year for it to be published and then another year for the first royalty check to come in. Unless you had a lucrative downpayment on royalties, that’s a long time! By contrast, KDP pays royalties monthly. So you will begin to receive payments within weeks.
Third, while you receive a sales report from conventional publishers with your annual royalty payment, typically sales are a black box until then. By contrast, on KDP you can track your sales daily both in Kindle and hardcopy. And your daily tracking also tells you the sales in different countries.
So consider my most recent book Jesus Loves Canaanites. I had no inkling to write that book until December 26, 2020. On that day, I started writing. I finished the manuscript two months later in mid-February and I submitted the manuscript to KDP on April 17. It has now been on sale for one month. If this was conventional publishing, the book likely wouldn’t be released until spring 2022 at the soonest.
One more thing in terms of the upside: self-publishing offers total control over the process. You control your cover layout. You control the book’s typesetting. And the promotion is all on your shoulders.
That, of course, is also a big challenge. I don’t have the skills to design book covers and while KDP offers an economical self-serve cover design option, that is not an area that I believe should be done on the cheap. For my three self-published books, I used Darryl Frayne of Steady Digital. Darryl is an old friend and I’m happy with his work on the cover design.
For the most part, I have done my own typesetting, though that requires investment in a monthly subscription to Adobe InDesign software (about $21 US monthly). InDesign can be difficult to learn, so I suggest you find web tutorials or a good book to guide you through InDesign and book design. I recommend this volume: Book Design Made Simple. I’ve used it now to design three books and I find their instructions clear, simple, and intuitive. Of course, you can outsource typesetting but that can get expensive very quickly. And once you get the hang of it, it can be really satisfying to plot out the interior design of your book.
You might be tempted to try publishing in Microsoft Word. I don’t recommend that: invest the time in software that can make your book look professional. Also, keep in mind that once your book is done, you will need to convert it over to another form (e.g. Word) and make other changes (e.g. removing headers/footers) in order to make the Kindle version.
Let me conclude with a few remaining thoughts. First, while I publish under KDP, I do so with my own imprint: Two Cup Press. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make the extra effort to publish under your own imprint. There is a significant, and largely deserved, negative stigma with self-publishing. While a handful of self-published books like The Shack and Still Alice may find critical and commercial success, most are just bad and frankly earn their place in publishing oblivion. That stigma will weigh down your book at the outset if you publish with a well-known self-publishing imprint like Xlibris or KDP. You can avoid that by publishing under your own imprint.
Unfortunately, you will soon discover that there is another challenge in terms of closed markets. Conventional publishers get their books in libraries. But libraries do not stock self-published books, period. (The only exceptions are those rare critical and commercial successes that I mentioned above. In my case, the library for my seminary has published my self-published books, but that’s about it.) So you automatically lose the option of library sales. What is more, you also lose the revenue that comes from library borrowing. In Canada, for example, I make hundreds of dollars annually from Public Lending Rights for my books being borrowed by library users.
Not only will libraries not purchase self-published books, but they also won’t even accept them as donations. While that might seem surprising if you think about it, it makes sense: if libraries accepted self-published book donations they would open themselves to a flood of poorly written Xlibris vanity publications. After all, what better way to get rid of those boxes of books in your garage, right?
Self-publishing also means you won’t be in bookstores, though you can comfort yourself by noting that few book titles are ever sold in brick and mortar bookshops these days. The vast majority are only ever available online.
One last thing: while KDP offers relatively lucrative royalty payments for books sold through Amazon globally, the royalties are significantly lower for books sold through other online sellers. But I’m just glad to know I’m doing my part to help Jeff Bezos pay for his new half-billion-dollar yacht.
So those are some quick thoughts on my experiences publishing and self-publishing. By the way, I am currently thinking about writing my fifteenth book. I haven’t decided, however, whether I will continue with the self-publishing route or whether I will again try my luck with a conventional publishing house. That chapter, it would seem, has yet to be written.