Publishing is how your work gets into the hands of the public – Publishers take your book to the world.

Publishing got its start with Gutenberg’s printing press and was a relatively stable industry for hundreds of years . . . until the World Wide Web changed everything.

In the pre-web world it worked like this: (from the Wikipedia link above)

Book publishers buy or commission copy from independent authors … Traditional book publishers are selective about what they publish. They do not accept manuscripts direct from authors. Authors must first submit a query letter or proposal, either to a literary agent or direct to the publisher. depending on the publisher’s submission guidelines. If the publisher does accept unsolicited manuscripts, then the manuscript is placed in the slush pile, which publisher’s readers sift through to identify manuscripts worthy of publication. The acquisitions editors review these and if they agree, send them to the editorial staff. Larger companies have more levels of assessment between submission and publication than smaller companies. Unsolicited submissions have a very low rate of acceptance, with some estimates as low as 3 out of every 10,000 being accepted”

That was then . . . now it’s more complicated.

For starters the cost of setting Type, laying out compositions and printing has come way down due to the democratization of the technology by the cost barrier dropping after computerization hit the field in the early 80s. Desktop Publishing had arrived. Cut & Paste technology and Fixed Fonts were replaced with PDFs (Portable Document Format files) that came from the PostScript language created by Adobe.

Additionally the creation of the Web in 1987 and it’s subsequent commercialization and adoption by the public in the 1990s spurred progress in many connected fields. The tools to write, produce visual artworks and layout books proliferated and became more and more powerful while also becoming less expensive.

The current commercial behemoth that is Amazon got its start selling Books on the web in the 1990s. Those were books printed on paper. In less than a decade Amazon had moved into digital books, both a manufacturer of the machinery and operator of the marketplace for the content and devices. The Kindle came out of this.

Where are we now?

As the Wiki article points out there are 4 major types of publishers (a lot of this section is lifted from the wikipedia article)

Commercial publishers
are more rigid and selective as to which books they publish. If accepted, authors pay no costs to publish in exchange for selling rights to their work. They receive in-house editing, design, printing, marketing and distribution services, and are paid royalties on sales.

Authors use self-publishing houses to publish their books and retain full rights to their works. Self-publishing houses are more open than traditional publishing houses, allowing emerging and established authors to publish their work. A number of modern or self-publishing houses offer enhanced services (e.g. editing, design) and authors may choose which one to use. Authors shoulder pre-publishing expenses and in return retain all the rights to their works, keep total control, and are paid royalties on sales.

Vanity presses
portray themselves as traditional publishers but are, in fact, just a self-publishing service. Unlike genuine self-publishing services, the author is often obliged to use some or all of their additional services, and the press will often take rights to the work as part of their contract.

Hybrid publishers
operate with a different revenue model than traditional publishing, while keeping the rest of the practices of publishing the same. There have been attempts to bridge this gap using hybrid models. No one model has been fully proven at this stage.

The Writers’ Union of Canada has a section on publishing which might be of help. Of course the really useful stuff is purchasable . . .

So what is a budding author to do?
Especially one who lives in a community removed from the major urban spaces where most Agents and Publishers live – kind of makes face-to-face meetings more problematic though, as Zoom has shown, that’s also benefitting from technology.

Well what are you producing?

If it is destined for a very small group of family and friends then you’re not looking at a large commercial publisher. Your print run will be tiny, even at 200, by industry standards. You might look at Self Publishers . . . but if you know almost everyone who will get a copy you’re likely looking for a Printer. A company that can take your document and turn it into a printed and bound book. That way you retain the rights and control and only pay for services actually rendered.

If you want to have copies to sell but you’re not thinking you’ll be able to retire on the profits . . . you may not be able or willing to go to the expense of a commercial publisher even if one were to accept your book. The self publishing route is likely what you want. In which case you have to shop around for one that provides the services you want for a cost you can afford.

Here is where pre-publishing costs come into play. A little primer on Book Publishing Accounting at Princeton could be of help here but it is Princeton and gets rather technical. Friesen Press lays out the costs in their page on How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish A Book.

Basically you’re paying for everything that the printer/publisher has to get done before they publish your tome. The Editing, Proofing, Artwork (cover art), Layout, and any other costs they will incur in providing you the service and product you signed up for.

But didn’t I say that computerization has brought the cost down and power up on the tools used? That is true but most steps along the way involve people spending time and people have to be paid for their labour. Imagine what the costs would have been before all the computerization . . . when there were almost no self-published books because the costs were so prohibitive it wasn’t an option unless you were very rich.

On the other hand there where there’s money to be made you can find scammers and parasites whose real business is taking as much money from you as possible while doing as little work as they can. If you’re looking at getting published and don’t know the good guys from the bad ones a good place to begin is with Writer Beware (the blog site is at Writer Beware Blog). Even if you think you know what you’re doing that site is a good reference.

What if your book is for a wider audience and you don’t know if your baby will be appreciated by all or more of a niche taste? Should you self publish or commercial publish?

Only you can really answer these questions . . . but the answers should lead you in the correct direction:
If you are confident your book will be popular have friends also read it and said that?
How much money can you afford to spend getting a book printed? How many can you afford?
How much time and money can you afford to spend marketing your book by yourself?

Based on those answers you should be able to decide if you need an Agent or not. If you’re going for commercial publishing you’ll need one. Plus an Agent can give you feedback on how much of a market you might expect to see and which publishers or marketplaces would be a good fit and which would not. They know the things you don’t know . . . and even the things you don’t know you need to know.

Being your own agent means you have to learn all this one way or another. You might be a great author but would you also make a great, or even good, agent? Got the time?