If you’re a writer who is just starting to seek out publishing opportunities, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Should you self-publish? Go traditional? What about digital publishing? It’s a lot to take in. The publishing world isn’t easy to navigate and it can be difficult to understand exactly what you’re getting into.
Thus far, my career has been entirely in digital publishing. I more experience in this field that most people could not lay claim to. That said, I still find digital publishing to be one of the most confusing parts of the publishing landscape. I worked with dozens of authors who had varying levels of experience with a bunch of different digital publishers, as well as people with no experience outside of free publishing sites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own (AO3). Some people came to me with lots of great questions as they tried to learn more about the industry and their options. Others seemed to scared to ask anything at all.
In this day and age, a guide for digital publishing is a necessity for any writer, even if you’re planning to query traditional publishers. Read on to learn more about how to navigate the digital publishing world.
So, what is digital publishing?
When I say “digital publishing,” I don’t mean self-publishing sites/tools like Kindle or iBooks, at least for the purposes of this post. Though works published through these services are published digitally, I consider digital publishing to be something else entirely. In the same way that there are traditional publishers like Hachette and Penguin Random House, and self-publishing tools like Kindle, there are also digital publishers like Radish, Tapas, and Inkitt. Digital publishers are similar to traditional publishers in that you are usually working closely with an editorial team that works for the publisher and not simply doing all the work yourself.
You have to sign a contract with a digital publisher the same way you would with a traditional publisher. Digital publishers also provide varying levels of help. Some will provide line editing services, help you get a cover made, and most of them will help promote your story on their site, app, and social media. Because of the services they provide, digital publishers wind up being a kind of middle ground between self-publishing and traditional publishing. This makes them very appealing to more inexperienced authors who feel that they are not quite ready to start querying agents or publishers. They can also be great places to build a paying audience (something difficult to do on free sites like Wattpad).
How does digital publishing work?
I can only speak to my experience working with one digital publisher. Usually, we sought out authors whose work we wanted to publish. We would send authors a contract and talk it through with them to make sure they understood it. (Always read your contracts thoroughly and ask lots of questions! Don’t be afraid of being annoying. I loved answering authors’ questions. It let me know that they were really reading the contract and fully understanding everything.) After that, we would begin the editing process and start working with an artist on a cover. Once the editing and cover were done, the book would be published on our site where readers could purchase the story chapter by chapter. Authors would receive 50% of the revenue on each purchase.
From what I know of other digital publishers, many of them work similarly in that authors make money off of the number of reads they get, either through ad revenue or making money off of direct purchases by readers. Each publisher is different and has their own specialties. Radish, for example, sees more success with erotica, so they promote that more heavily. Tapas tends to focus on romance. Inkitt has a little bit more variety, but they also don’t have the best reputation. There are also other small presses that are now digital-only that will get your book out into digital markets like the Kindle store. I have less experience and knowledge when it comes to that breed of digital publisher. Fortunately, this article gives an extremely detailed and helpful overview of what you should keep in mind when looking into digital publishers, whether they are small presses or a more app-focused publisher like Radish.
Why should I work with a digital publisher? Is it something I should even consider?
It really depends! What are your goals as a writer? If you’re just looking to share your work but aren’t all that interested in making money off of it, then posting on Wattpad or Royal Road might make the most sense for you. But if you’re looking to make money, you either need to self-publish (which is a whole other post), go the traditional publishing route, or go to a digital publisher.
There are pros and cons to each option, which I will detail below:
Self-publishing: Self-publishing gives you the most freedom when it comes to your work. You don’t have to worry about who has the copyright or publishing rights because you never sign them away to anybody. You don’t have to worry about your publisher asking you to make changes. On the flip side, though, you don’t get free editing services, help with covers, or any help with marketing. Paying for these kinds of services out of pocket is expensive, and for a writer just starting out, it can be difficult to produce a book that would rival what they could produce with a publisher behind them. This isn’t because the writer’s work isn’t any good, but because polishing a first draft is difficult without outside input. Still, it is possible, and if you’re willing to put in the extra work in order to have more freedom and keep a larger chunk of the profits for yourself, it’s totally worth it.
Traditional publishing: This is the holy grail for writers. Every author’s dream is to eventually be published by a publishing house (be it big or small) and become the next George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling. Traditional publishers have more resources to market your book, a whole team of people who can help you polish your book until it shines, cover artists, people to format the ebook, people to format the print copy, the money to offer you huge advances… basically all the resources we hope to have when we publish a book.
Still, now that self-publishing is so simple and the services used to sell self-published books are often the same as the ones the traditional publishers are using, a traditional publishing deal may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Traditional publishing is by no means dead or bad, but writers should see it as one of several paths rather than the One True Path. Why? Traditional publishers often ask for significant rights to your book. (Writer’s Digest gives a great rundown on what kinds of things publishers might request in a contract here.) You lose the kind of freedom you might have if you self-published or digitally published, but you also get a ton of resources to help you produce your book.
However, even that is often hyped up more than it probably should be. Many writers who aren’t big names don’t get big advances. You’ll get the standard editorial services and help with covers and formatting, but that huge marketing machine might not do a whole lot for you. Most big publishers expect their authors to do a lot of the legwork. You’ll also earn a smaller percentage of the profits in the form of royalties, especially when compared to self-publishing. This can make it difficult to earn back advances or make much money at all. Still, the fact that traditionally published works continue to dominate the literary market, and the fact that self-publishing your work seems to decrease its value in the eyes of both readers and the wider literary community, means that there are still a lot of benefits to a traditional publishing deal.
Digital publishing: This is similar to traditional publishing in that there is some expectation that you’re going to be doing some of the work besides writing the book. Digital publishers are usually not large enough to provide the kind of financial backing that traditional publishers can offer. You’ll be giving up some of your rights in exchange for having your work marketed to their audience, but you’ll likely have to handle the marketing outside their site. You’ll have to split your earnings with the publisher, too. The ways those earnings are split will vary depending on the digital publisher you work with.
While digital publishers often have a smaller audience than a traditional publisher, they likely have a broader readership than you have on your own. They can send people toward your work and give it their stamp of approval, which helps convert their readers into your readers. Getting organic, targeted traffic to your book is incredibly difficult, and digital publishers have it in spades. You do lose some freedom (the amount you give up and for how long depends on your contract), but you also gain a broader audience.
Some digital publishers can also handle the editing process for you, pay to have cover art made, and possibly even give you an advance. And, because their overhead is usually lower than that of traditional publishers, digital publishers can offer more competitive revenue sharing. (The standard split for the company I worked for was 50/50, which would be unheard of in the traditional publishing world.) They can also help you with adaptations of your work into other mediums, like comics or movies, and potentially help you land a deal with a traditional publisher. However, they often only ask for the digital publishing rights at first, and some will even settle for non-exclusive digital rights.
In short, digital publishing is a middle ground that can help you take that next step toward living off of your writing. It’s a good space for new writers, and though it may not suit everybody, it’s an option worth considering, particularly if you can get a non-exclusive publishing contract and continue to pursue other sources of income from the same work.
How can I be sure this digital publisher isn’t a scam?
There are a lot of ways! The first thing you should do is look into their track record. If you can, try talking to authors who work with that publisher. Ask them if there are things they wish they’d known before they signed. If the publisher is promising things, like that they’ll get your book physically published or help you broker a movie deal, do some research to see if they’ve actually put any deals like that together.
You should also get to know the platform before selling anything to them. This helps you understand the kind of content the publisher is interested in, what’s popular on the platform, and how your work fits in. If you sign with them, it will also help you figure out how to market to that specific audience in the future.
Once you’ve done this detective work, you should have a solid idea of whether this is a publisher you want to work with. If you’re still interested, you can start asking one of their representatives questions. Ask to see a sample contract as early as you can and have someone you trust look it over.
You should carefully read any deal you’re about to sign, no matter who it comes from, and always do your best to negotiate the best deal for you. If there are parts of a contract you’re uncomfortable with, either voice your concerns or walk away from the deal. Even though the playing field might not feel even, you have to realize that you have something that they want, and in the end, you’re the one who has the power. A publisher may not be willing or able to give you what you want, and that’s okay. You can choose to either shift your expectations to suit a particular deal or hold out for something that feels right. If their contract asks for anything beyond digital publishing rights without giving you anything in return, pay attention and make sure you’re comfortable with giving them those rights. You’ll also want to keep an eye on how long the deal will last. Are they going to own these rights in perpetuity, or just for a few years? What rights do you have to end the deal? Are they open to negotiation?
If the contract looks good but they haven’t given you information about how you might be paid, given you a way to check how much revenue you’re owed, or otherwise indicated that they are going to compensate you in return for signing your rights away, that’s a huge red flag. If they tell you that you need to pay them in order to publish on their site, you should run as far and fast as you can.
Basically, if you get a terrible contract and zero room to negotiate it, you have no idea when or how you’ll be paid, and the publisher who is offering you a deal has a well-known track record for screwing over writers or lying to them about the kinds of opportunities they can provide? It’s a scam, and you should look for another opportunity.
How do traditional publishers feel about stories that were published digitally first?
This varies depending on what you’re writing and who your audience is. A lot of traditional publishers really like it when authors come to them and already have an audience behind them. However, while they might like your audience, they may want to publish a fresh, new title that the public hasn’t read yet. Still, this varies depending on your individual situation.
If you’d like to read more about this, definitely check out Phoebe Morgan’s write-up about whether to publish digitally or in print first, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. Jane Friedman also has a ton of great insight on the subject. (The long and short of both of these articles is that publishing digitally first is unlikely to hurt your chances unless you’re working in a niche market, like literary fiction.)
How do I submit my work for a digital publisher?
Look into their submission guidelines! It’s different for every publisher (as with traditional publishing), but they will probably have an email you can contact them at, as well as some basic guidelines for submitting. Follow their guidelines as closely as you can. Keep your email professional and focus on selling your story–they want a strong synopsis that lets them know whether your story will be the right fit for them. Talking about the book’s following (and your own) can also be helpful. If your story is posted online, provide links. You should also attach a PDF of the first few chapters and the synopsis.
Have more questions about digital publishing? Have some experience you’d like to share? Let’s chat in the comments!