What if publishing were easy?

If you’ve been reading my summaries of the various sessions at the Chicago Writer’s Conference last September, you might remember that the main message of the self-publishing session was some variant on “self-publishing’s a lot of work,” “it’s too hard for me (and therefore, it will be too hard for you).”

David Gaughran, a self-published author of many books, including Let’s Get Digital and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, respectfully submits that those of us who view self-publishing as being too hard are thinking about it all wrong.

Publishing is easy,” he wrote few weeks ago on his blog. He then proceeded to back up that statement with the kind of clear-headed logic that makes me read whatever he posts within milliseconds of its publication.

“There are three primary tasks a writer must undertake to get her work into the hands of readers: writing, publishing, and marketing.

Out of those three, I respectfully submit, publishing is by far the easiest.”

Two of those jobs, writing and marketing, are hard. But there’s no getting out of them. Whether you self-publish or get picked up by a traditional agent and publisher, you will still have to write the book and do some kind of marketing activity to promote it.

Many of us think the third job, publishing, is also hard. But as Gaughran points out, that’s because we confuse the relatively simple process of publishing a book with the far more challenging work of marketing it.

Publication is not marketing.

Whether you are doing the work or whether your traditional publisher is, Gaughran points out that the process of actually producing a book boils down to a few relatively straightforward steps: designing a cover, editing, formatting and uploading. (In his checklist, Gaughran includes networking as a publication step, but I prefer to think of networking as the first phase of your marketing campaign.)

Yes, there are skills involved, and yes, it’s helpful to either know people who have those skills or be willing to pick them up yourself, but the actual work of publication is relatively easy.

Marketing is hard. But you have to do it, whether you self-publish or not.

As Gaughran points out, the type of marketing you’ll do to promote your book will vary depending on whether you have pursued a traditional publishing route or published your book yourself, but in the end you will always have to do some form of marketing to promote your book.

Even if you go with a traditional publisher. Especially if you are a debut writer.

We all like to think that traditional publishers will pony up with a fat marketing budget, but the plain truth is publishers simply don’t spend their marketing dollars on first-time authors.

So why would I go with a traditional publisher again?

David Gaughran would no doubt say you wouldn’t, or at least don’t have to. In his experience, authors who insist on getting a traditional publisher simply create obstacles for themselves on the road to publication.

“But publishing is easy – in relative terms at least. It’s much, much harder if you take the traditional path, where all sorts of (often arbitrary) factors will decide whether you get published at all. However, that’s no longer the only path.”

I have a slightly different take on it.

As the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 demonstrated so effectively in October, publication is not the same as distribution. Publication is how you make your print or ebook pretty. Distribution is how and where you sell it.

Distribution is relatively straightforward for ebooks. There are five or six places where you’ll need to upload your book to make it available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other major online retailers. Most of us can handle that ourselves.

But if you are determined to sell print versions of your books, it might be useful to have a traditional publisher on board to distribute it. The logistics of getting print copies of your book on the shelves of the thousands of chain and independent bookstores around the country are intense. You will probably want help with that. A reputable publisher will have the contacts and the incentive to do it for you.

As we saw in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, the difficulty at this stage for self-publishers is that all of those easy-to-access online distributors have businesses of their own to run. Just because you have a beautifully produced and published ebook doesn’t mean they have to sell it.

In theory, this is also true for books produced by traditional publishing houses. But as we saw last month, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Related Links:

See my entire series of articles on the Chicago Writer’s Conference.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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4 Responses to What if publishing were easy?

  1. When, where, at what point, if a traditional publisher is not involved, is the decision made whether or not the work in question is crap? Writers are not qualified, by definition, to make this decision for their own work. Where’s the filter that will keep garbage from being published?

    • Shala Howell says:

      Excellent question. Personally I am a firm believer in every writer hiring an independent editor. Or if they can’t afford it at least finding a group of beta readers to read their work before publication.

      • It’s impossible for anyone to “hire” an “independent editor.” And, the vast majority of “books” should never be reproduced. Where is the step where an impartial, uncompromised, qualified person gets to say, “No, 15,000 sentence fragments about sex with Christian aliens does not constitute a legitimate book. You should NOT inflict this on other human beings”? Where’s the all-crucial REJECTION step?

      • Shala Howell says:

        Fair point. Instead of “independent,” I should have said “freelance.”

        As for the rejection step, I think that you and I as readers do the rejecting. If the book is terrible, we don’t have to finish it. We can give it poor reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, blogs, etc and warn others against it. Or we can simply not talk about it, and it will get lost in all the noise.

        Yes, this means we will have bad sentences inflicted upon us, and typos, and squirrelly plots, but didn’t we always? Did you never read a bad book before?

        Even though I just emerged from a string of painfully bad ereads last week, I think I will ultimately prefer a world where I get to gatekeep for myself, instead of being subjected to an endless series of Diary of Middle School kid or sparkly vampire spinoffs bc that first one was such a hit.

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