How to Publish a Book: A complete guide

in Articles On Writing

How to publish a book:

A complete guide and in-depth look at all the options

How do I publish a book?

Quick Answer: There are basically 4 options today: 1. Traditional publisher 2. Small Publisher 3. Vanity Publisher 4. Self-publishing, this guide takes an in-depth look at all the options.

How to Publish a bookIn today’s world, choice is everything. If a publisher’s door closes, a publishing window will open, but there are vast differences in publishing options in the 21st century. Should you self-publish your book? Should you hold out for a traditional publisher? Writers have been asking these questions for 100 years. Walt Whitman self-published The Leaves of Grass, but today is self-publishing still a good idea? In this article we will look at the most popular publishing options and give you the pros and cons.
The Agent and the Traditional Large and Medium publisher.

Information: When should I publish with a traditional publisher?

• If your book is marketable
• If your book appeals to a large audience

1. Traditional Publisher

A traditional book publisher is defined as a book publisher that buys the rights from an author then publishes and promotes the author and his or her book. When people dream of being an author, this is the options they are dreaming of. The publisher believes in your book, puts their editors, money, and promotional staff behind it and you. Stephen King, John Grissiom, Tom Clancy, these guys all publish with traditional publishers. For the most part we are talking about large and medium size publishing houses. The Big Five and many of their subsidiaries fall in this classification.

You Will need an agent!

There are somethings you need to know about publishing with a large or medium size publisher. Competition for traditional publishing is fierce. Many publishers have less than a 1% acceptance rate, and many of these publishers DO NOT take unsolicited works. If they do take unsolicited works, generally it’s almost impossible to get published with these companies without an agent. It’s an ugly truth of the publishing world.

Get an Agent

Getting an agent is an entirely different process. If you are going to get an agent, please do your research. There are lots of sharks in these waters. Do not let them charger you to read or edit your work. They should shop your work to large and medium publishers, but do not let them scam you. Find publishers who represent reputable authors. You can even contact other authors who are represented by the agent as a reference before you sign anything!

Editors will change your book

So one of the major complaints of people who go with large traditional publishers is how much editors change their work. In many cases you are assigned an editor who sits in edits with you for months before your book is published. We are not talking about spell checking, we are talking about large scale changes, adding characters, taking out or adding scenes. Many authors say their books are much different, even unrecognizable from their beginnings. So keep this in mind. If you publish with these publishers they are going to shape your work for what they will be a success. This means they want to give it the best chance of doing well.

Marketing and placement is everything

So the real secret of being a success in the literary world, or publishing world, is generally marketing and placement. It is true that writing good works is a big part of this, but large and some medium publishing houses have publicity machines behind them. They get you book tours, and send you out even on the local news, do press releases, make sure your books are featured on that table when you walk in to bookstores. If they don’t do this, many times, the book fails.

Just because you get a deal doesn’t mean you’ve made it

The marketing (in most cases) helps books be a success. Without marketing, many authors see their books sit on shelves and gather dust. If the publishers isn’t behind your work, if they don’t get the initial good response, your book may be stuck.

Filled with rewards

If publishing with a traditional large or medium book publisher goes well, it can be all that you dreamed. Yes they send limos. Yes they give you an advance. Yes they spend time with you getting your book right. There may be drawbacks to some of this kind of traditional publishing, BUT for the most part, many of your heroes have gone this way!

It’s difficult to know when to say when

So with the rewards to publishing with a traditional publisher being so great, why would you ever go any other way? Why would you self-publish? Why would you go with a small publisher? We will address these questions, but it is difficult to know when to say when. Many old school writers feel you should shop your first book to agents. While you are doing this, write your second book, and then your 3rd, the theory is eventually you’ll be published, and all the past works that did not publish will publish when you have established your name. This is an old school way of looking at it, but it doesn’t’ mean it is wrong. If you only want to publish with a traditional publisher.

Examples of large and medium books publishers:

The Big Five

  • Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan.
  • Hachette (publisher)
  • Harpercollins
  • Penguin Random House
  • Simon & Schuster.


What is a small publishers? When should I go with a small publishers?

When do you publish with a small book publisher?

  • When you are writing works that appeal to a small audience (academic literature for instance)
  • When you are publishing poetry (not always but much of the time)
  • When you are publishing short stories (not always but much of the time)
  • When your book will not sell and you hope to republish it with a larger publisher (last resort)

2. The Small Book publisher

Small book publishers have been around as long as large and medium book publishers. They are still traditional publishers. Small publishers still take your book, edit it, and sell it. The big difference is that they are small.

To get an idea of what I mean by small publishers, think of it this way, generally small publishers will print between 200-1000 copies of a book. Then they will sell it to a small audience. In the old days, that was it. Those books would have a simple and limited print run. Today, they can be print on demand. More and more small book publishers have gone this direction.

Literary writers, like university professors or poets many times publish with small publishers. In fact many small book publishers are university presses, and sometimes they are serving the community of professors who live by the mantra publish or perish. Some of these publishers feed this system, but they also publish unique and high quality works that many times wouldn’t get published otherwise.

Other small publishers are just independent publishers trying to make money off of small and print on demand print runs. Sometimes these publishers are attached to independent book stores, other times they are just dedicated authors and editors putting forward an effort to bring great literature into the world.

Beware of Predators

Still yet other publishers, in the darkest and sadly someone prominent publishing universe, are predators hunting sheep. They do not trust in the author’s work, they only trust in making money off an author who has been beat up by rejection. They charge for a variety of services basically with the intention of never selling a single book. To avoid these lion waiting in the tall grass, follow these simple rules:

  1. Never pay to publish with a traditional or small publisher
  2. Never pay for editing
  3. Never pay for publicity
  4. Never pay anything, if they believe in your work, they will pay for everything!

Try, Try, Try, Try

If you have shopped your book around to large and medium publishers, and there are no takers, you have 2 choices. You can put the book in a drawer and wait, or you can start shopping small publishers. If you wait, you of course should start writing another book right away. If you become a published author, you can shop that to a publisher as your 3rd book. If you go with a small publisher, honestly, by the time you make it to your 3rd book, you can just republish it with your mega publisher (just make sure you don’t sell away all your rights)!

Small publishers are a great second option for a novel. Indy presses, many times, have their books picked up and republished by large publishing houses, especially if the book does well. You shouldn’t expect a lot of hoopla or fanfare if you are published with a small publisher.

Marketing and distribution

Small and indie press usually do not have any marketing or very little. You may have to do this yourself. Marketing tends to be everything in publishing. People read what they hear is good. Large publishers get their books in newspapers, online, and at the front of book stores. You won’t have this machine helping you. You will not make a lot of money, and a lot of people will most-likely not read your book. You should know, that every once in a while, none of this holds true, and the author becomes a success, all on their own (more about this later).

3. The Vanity Publisher

The idea behind a vanity publisher is very simple, you pay them to print your book. You pay them for editing, rewriting, and all kinds of other services. Vanity publishers have been around for a very long time. By most accounts the late 1800s saw the advent of this type of publishing, though vanity publishing probably began much earlier.

Vanity publishing was the only way to publish a book, if you were turned down by all publishers, from let’s say the 1850s until the invention of print on demand technology in the 1990s (well this is when the technology became cheap enough for people to use). At that time we see a split between Vanity publishers and self-publishing. Until the 1990s Vanity publishing and self-publishing were really the same thing.

How did it work?

People paid publishers to publish a sizable print run of your books. They ordered a 1,000 copies. They get a discounted rate on these books, but they pay for them. In exchange for the discount rate of publishing, the publisher kept some or all of the rights of your book. They might market your book, and sell your book and split some of the earnings with you. Sometimes you paid for services.

Publishing has become so complicated now that there are dozens of versions of this model. Generally the reason vanity publishers existed in the past was to offset the cost of printing and production of your book, but now with print on demand there is little reason for a vanity publisher, unless they are going to market your book for you, but this is very very rare.

When we talk about authors of the past self-publishing, honestly most were using vanity publishers. Authors like Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg all published with either a vanity publisher or a self-publisher (depending on how you split the hairs).


You will be marketing your book. Generally you, and you alone.

4. Self-Publishing

Twenty years ago self-publishing (print on demand or buying a print run yourself) was, to be blunt, a joke. There were a few books that became famous after self publishing, but they were generally featured on infomercials. Self-publishing was the funeral pyre for books that were never published. You could pay for a print run, but honestly you would spend days, weeks, even months, driving them around in the back of your car trying to sell them to get your money back (See John Grisham). It wasn’t a real viable solution to becoming a successful author. It was also very expensive.

Today, everything has changed. There are best sellers that are self-published books. Self-published books are thought to outsell traditional Big Five Publishers. Why? Print on Demand (POD) and online platforms like Amazon. POD technology has come down so far in cost that for 5-10,000$ you can buy our own machines. I don’t know why you would want to, when places like Amazon are happy to publish your book for you as long as you share in the profits. Generally these days you have some good pricing options too.

In the old days of 1901-1992 you had to spend a lot of money upfront to get publishers to self-publish your book. You did everything yourself in this process. You had the cover, you did the layout, and you did everything. You would pay the publisher 1000s of dollars for a print run of your books. When finished, they were your books. You sold them, you marketed them, and you didn’t owe anything to the publishers.

Beware of Sheep in Wolves Publishing

So as with any publishing ventures DO YOUR RESEARCH! With self-publishing it’s easiest for most writers to just stick to the big 2 self-publishers. First you have Amazon Kindle, of course. This is a very good platform. It uses Amazon’s platform, and it’s generally easy to promote your book. There is also Smashwords. It’s easy to publish a book on either platform, and you know both platforms are not working to swindle you.

What is self-publishing?

Self-publishing today is very simple. You write the book. You upload your book. You list your book on a large market place site like Amazon, then if you sell any copies, the publishers splits the cost. If you set your price at $10, Amazon may take $5. It’s all worked out upfront, but people are doing it every day and it is by far the most popular form of publishing.

Make sure you know what you are getting into. You should not have a contract or a time expectation if you are self-publishing. Honestly it’s best to go with one of the large and well known self publishing platforms like Smashwords or Amazon, to be safe. If you go with a different platform, make sure you do your research.

Who does the marketing?

You do all your own marketing.

A few thoughts

The first and most important rule of publishing is always: DO YOUR RESEARCH. There are countless scams out there. Since the advent of the printing press, people have been scammed by phony publishers. It’s terrible but very real. Scam publishers will take all of your money, promise you the world, and leave you with nothing. If you think you’ve found something too good to be true, it probably is. Every Writer is happy to help. You can contact us with your questions at eds [at] You can also check out Book publishers listing. Some of them have reviews. Please leave us a comment below, we are always happy to hear from you, and as always, we wish you the very best in publishing your work.

Richard Edwards has a BFA in Creative Writing and Journalism from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron. Managing editor of Drunk Duck, poetry editor for Prairie Margins, reporter for Miscellany, Akron Journal, Lorain Journal...check our About Us page for more. Also here is info on our On Classic Articles


  1. I am very grateful to you for this amazing article! For me as a novice writer, these tips are very useful. I hope you continue to make content like this!

  2. Hell0. Thank You for the information. Recently, a manuscript was sent to Newman Springs publishing. Within two weeks it was accepted. They mailed a contract stating for me to pay $600 and then $300 per month for a year for all different services. Is Newman Publishing a legit firm? Please help.

    • The General Rule is DO NOT PAY to publish your work. If you are self-publishing you may pay, but I’ve never heard of a monthly fee. Do not pay for publishing, do not pay for editing, do not pay for ads…..unless you consider it self-publishing.

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