In today's publishing world, there are essentially four smart (and a couple avoid-at-all-costs) ways to get your book out into the world. Here are the smart ones:
Submit to an Agent or Publisher [ #1 ]
This traditional route is how books have been published for over a century; however, while this is still a viable option, the process has changed dramatically in the last decade. A first-time author must not only have a compelling manuscript accompanied by a strategically written query letter and/or synopsis, but he/she must also have an established following or "platform," whereby the publisher feels confident that there is already an audience who knows the author and will potentially buy the book. Having an established following is important regardless of how you publish your book, but it is now a requirement in traditional publishing, so that's something to be prepared for.
Use a Print-on-Demand (POD) Platform [ #2 ]
If you've been immersed at all in the world of publishing in the last decade, or you've been investigating publishing options, no doubt you've heard of POD, or print-on-demand. This is essentially a means for your book to be printed as it's ordered, one at a time, through sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers. In order to produce a book of excellence in this arena, however, it's crucial that you don't confuse POD with DIY—the two are not one and the same. You are not expected to have the professional skills to produce the requisite components of a book—the various types of editing, cover design, layout artistry, and proofreading—so leave those to the experts and hire a partner or team who will make your book truly shine and rival a traditional house, while still being produced as a POD title.
KDP (an Amazon company) and IngramSpark (a division of Ingram Book Group, the largest book distributor in the world) are two of the most known and popular platforms for this type of publishing. The advantage of these platforms is multifold:
You don't have to print a minimum order with a printer where you must invest a substantial amount of money up front and keep inventory, which can take years to sell through.
You don't have to be involved at all with shipping to customers—the platform prints and ships on your behalf and you receive the royalty for the sale.
If you discover a typo or other error in your book once it's live and available for sale, you can simply re-upload a corrected file to the platform and they will replace your current book file with the new one. This is especially helpful when a book is new and it's possible, even after multiple proofreads, to find a small mistake here or there.
Are there any drawbacks, you ask?
Because you're not doing a substantial print run with an offset printer, there will usually be some degree of variation in color or print quality from book to book, as the books are printed as one-offs to fulfill orders as they come. One customer may receive a bit darker or lighter book, both in the cover and interior printing, or the colors may vary slightly altogether. Unfortunately, this is the nature of digital printing, over which we simply have no control.
The only other real drawback is that you are limited in terms of specialty cover elements. For example, POD doesn't offer embossing, engraving, or metallic layering (to create a raised or etched lettering effect), nor do they offer French-fold (paperbacks in which the cover folds over in the front and back to create a flap, similar to a hard cover's dust jacket) or deckled-edge paper (a ragged edge that makes novels look more elegant). Ingram does offer hardcover in certain trim sizes, and KDP just came out with a limited laminate hardcover option, so those are available if you desire.
For the majority of my clients, I use both KDP and IngramSpark. In a nutshell, the KDP version yields higher royalties for Amazon sales (because it's an Amazon company, so there are no third-party cuts), and the Ingram version allows for reputable expanded distribution and the option of being carried in bookstores through the Ingram database.
Submit Your Book to a Partnership / Hybrid Press [ #3 ]
Between traditional and self-publishing lies another great option—that of submitting to what's called a "hybrid" or "partnership press." Models like these include She Writes Press (for whom I am a layout artist and who produces truly beautiful books), and others, more of which are continuing to surface. These are legitimate publishing companies whose authors pay to publish under their imprint—because the authors keep a high percentage of their royalties, they absorb the financial risk of their publishing endeavor.
In the example of She Writes Press, in the words of cofounder Brooke Warner:
"[They] offer traditional distribution and the benefits that brings, including the ability to have your books preordered and your data streamlined; a curated, selective acquisitions process; and a publisher at the helm making sure there’s a cohesive vision and that all of the books are adhering to a level of quality that’s on par with traditional publishing. Another benefit unique to publishers who have traditional distribution is that they qualify to submit their books to the traditional review channels, like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. This is a boon to authors who depend on reviews to drive sales—namely novelists and memoirists. Other publishers in this space include Ink Shares, Turning Stone Press, and White Cloud Press."
If you're looking for a route that's closer to traditional and are prepared to invest in your book's production from cover to cover ($8,500 is the average cost, which is on par with self-publishing, using experts in each field), this may be a viable option for you. Not only do they vet manuscripts to ensure they are publishing great material, but they provide you some degree of involvement so that the process remains more collaborative than traditional publishing usually allows.
Use an Offset Printer and Sell Books Yourself [ #4 ]
The biggest advantage to offset printing in a quantity, such as how small and large publishers commission print runs, is that you have consistency of quality, more trim sizes (for specialty and gift books), and a greater variety of cover and interior paper options. While the POD option also allows you to order your books in quantities to sell on your own, offset printing can be less expensive per book, depending on the quantity.
The downside, of course, is that you will have to make a significant upfront investment in printing, house your inventory, take the risk of finding typos after the fact, independently provide books to Amazon through the Amazon Advantage program (if you choose to sell through them), and/or sell books on your own through your website, other online sources, and/or speaking events.
While selling books through your own website and during events is a great way to earn money as an author—both when you do an offset print run or use POD—you don't have the advantage of distribution through a company like Ingram, and that can be a definite drawback in this publishing climate. There are distribution companies you can try to sell your book to, but this option will depend on the time and resources you have to do research and bookselling on your own.
And what about the ways NOT to publish?
DlY Self-Publishing [ #1 ]
As I mentioned earlier, this is when writers mistakenly think their job as a "self-publishing author" means they're supposed to do everything themselves. Please, please, PLEASE don't make this mistake!
What self-publishing actually means is that you assume the role of the publisher, which in turn means that you are responsible for hiring the appropriate professionals to make your book shine. Why would you put pressure on yourself to be an expert in fields in which you have no training or experience? There's a reason traditionally published books maintain a level of quality we've come to expect: they are produced by people trained in the various areas of expertise—developmental and copy editing, proofreading, cover design, layout artistry, graphic design, etc.—and your self-published book should be no different.
I've actually rescued a handful of books that were produced DIY the first time around, and the author always tells me they not only have big regrets for publishing a DIY book, but that they did it that way simply because they didn't know any better. Don't let this happen to you!
It doesn't benefit anyone—not the author, the reader, or the literary community—to produce a substandard book that will only hurt your reputation and potentially garner negative reviews. Yes, it will require a monetary investment to produce your book the right way with excellence, but it will be worth every penny if you hire the right people. So be smart if you self-publish and do NOT go DIY.
Using a Vanity/Subsidy Publisher [ #2 ]
Similar to a hybrid or partnership publisher, vanity—or what I like to call "predatory"—publishers produce and publish your book through your own monetary investment of their services. Unlike hybrid publishers, however, vanity publishers have no interest in the success of an author, the quality of the material, or the overall presentation. They are ONLY interested in making money.
Vanity publishers abound in today's publishing climate—Author House, Author Solutions, iUniverse, Archway Publishing, Balboa Press, and others. You'll see their ads everywhere on the internet, promising great solutions to publishing your book. What's more, some are even "linked" to large publishing houses, making it seem that they are more legitimate. They're not. This aggressive advertising is used to lure prospective authors into thinking these are professionals with equally professional contractors. But this is not the case.
The "staff of experts" in these vanity houses are typically moderate speakers of English who work overseas, often with no real expertise in any field of book production. Books have frequently come back to authors worse than when they left their hands. And that money the author spent? It's gone.
Vanity publishers will also publish any manuscript. Why? Because they don't want a poor-quality book to close the door to their money-making scheme. So your book may need a ton of work to be on par with legacy publishing, but a vanity publisher doesn't care—again, they only care about making money, not making an author's dream of publishing a book of excellence come true. Don't count yourself among the many horror stories these "companies" have accrued ... stay far, far away from predatory publishers.