Quite a lot is written (by the minute, it seems) on publishing. What's tough is sorting through all of it, to compare and contrast and decide what will work best for you.
While there are numerous variations, you've got basically three viable options for getting your book into print. Having done all three, I'm positioned to give you the low-down on each. You can take it from there, deciding which way to publish is best for you and your book.
Let's start with traditional (legacy) publishing, which involves placing the book, usually with the help of an agent, through a publisher that restricts acquisitions based on quality and their best guess at sales potential. The exchange of money is strictly from publisher to author (via the agent, assuming there’s one involved), generally in the form of royalties (though some projects are contracted on a flat-fee basis), including (usually) an advance on royalties. Royalties vary, but in general you might expect between 5 and 10 percent of the retail price (the best arrangement) or net (after the publisher subtracts expenses). The agent’s share of the author’s share is generally 15 percent.
The publisher typically prefers to acquire all rights (print, digital, foreign, audio, film, etc.), though if the agent has the wherewithal to place some of those rights, she may negotiate to keep some of those and attempt to place them on the author’s behalf. In all cases, rights may revert to the author if a title goes out of print, but with the advent of digital publishing, books need never go out of print, so rights may in fact remain indefinitely with the publisher.
The benefits of traditional publishing are many. You get the confidence that comes with passing through an increasingly narrow gate—agents typically receive hundreds of queries per day; of those, an individual might take on two or three new clients a year. If your agent places your book with a traditional publisher, you generally get money up front. Your book benefits from professional (those not always top-notch) editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution. It’s more likely (though not guaranteed) to get noticed in the traditional ways—through reviews and other industry “buzz.” The publisher’s sales team will work to get it into bookstores and libraries, though shelf space is limited, so again, there are no guarantees.
But there are downsides, too, beginning with that narrow gate. In all but the rarest of cases (my first book was a happy exception), expect much waiting and disappointment as you work to acquire an agent and then as the agent works to place your book and then again as it gets queued up in the publishing cycle, which in most cases is at least a year or two out. And while your publisher cares about all its books, some books and authors are pre-selected each season to get a lot more attention than others; statistically speaking, odds are that your book will get less rather than more.
This can be especially frustrating once you realize that if your book doesn’t make a big splash before it enters the market, in the form of pre-orders, you’ll be relegated to the dreaded category of “midlist,” meaning that your book wasn’t a bestseller; thereafter, you’ll find it harder to publish the next book and the next, because those average (or less than average) sales figures will hurt your prospects. In general, publishers are a lot more excited about discovering a brand new author with bestseller potential than continuing to publish an author whose sales record is mediocre.
Except in those rare cases of instant success, you’ll find a fair amount of disappointment among published authors: they expected more marketing, more books in bookstores, a longer attention span from their publishers, larger royalty checks, more accurate sales data (because of the traditional system of returns, publishers themselves can’t really tell for a year or two whether the pre-orders actually resulted in sales).
Another option is independent, or self-publishing, done with or without the assistance of an author services company. In any case, the author generally keeps all rights, but she also bears the responsibility (and cost) for all editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution of the book. Editing, design, marketing, and some aspects of production (such as generating validated e-book files or professional recordings for audiobooks) are generally handled on a fee-for-hire basis, either through the author services company or through independent contractors.
In exchange for certain aspects of production (physical printing, for instance) and distribution, authors split royalties with distribution companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Lightning Source, with the author’s share generally in the 60 to 70 percent range for e-books, depending on cover price. For print books, independent publishing can be accomplished either through print-on-demand, in which books are printed as they’re ordered, or through offset printing, in which the author orders and warehouses a large number of books. Print on demand arrangements involve a set fee for printing and distribution (the cost varies greatly depending on the physical format of the book) that’s generally paid on a book-by-book basis (though there’s also a set-up fee). In an offset arrangement, the per-book printing price will be cheaper, but keep in mind that there’s no distribution, and to get the best prices, you’ll need to order thousands of copies up front. In either case, if you’re able to get bookstores to carry your books, they’ll expect a 40 to 55 percent discount off the cover price.
By publishing independently, you'll receives more revenue per book sold, and you'll retain control of the entire process, bypassing many of the frustrations of the traditionally published author. Your rights are always yours, to place as you like—if you can generate interest. But independent publishing also has its drawbacks. There’s no money up front; in fact, unless you’re doing the barest of bare-bones efforts, or you’re amazingly talented in every aspect of publishing, you’re going to have to pay - sometimes handsomely - for professional editing, design, production, marketing, and distribution.
Unless you already have a large and devoted following, you’re going to have to work (and work and work) to get your book noticed among the 3000 or so books that enter the market each day. You'll have no professional sales team to encourage booksellers and librarians to order your book. You’ll get reader reviews, but good luck getting traditional reviews, because there’s still a stigma to self-publishing, a stigma that won’t go away completely until the truly fine books released every day outnumber the bad ones. Figuratively speaking, your book is swimming in an ocean of crap. And unless readers reward you with glowing reviews (no, your momma’s review doesn’t count) and you get the sales figures to match, your confidence starts to feel false.
The third way to publish is less common and harder to pull off: the hybrid arrangement, where some rights are handled independently and some are placed through traditional avenues. My novel Cold Spell is one example. Without an agent, I sold the print English language rights to a traditional publisher. I contracted with an agent to represent the foreign rights. I produced and marketed the e-book through my own press, independent author cooperative Running Fox Books. For the audiobook, I contracted a royalty split with a producer.
A cautionary note: when it comes to publishing, there's a lot of choosing up sides - authors who advocate strongly for the avenue they've chosen. While it's natural to defend one's position, the noise isn't all that helpful when you're trying to make up your mind. Shut it out, study the pros and cons, and choose what's best for you and your book.