I recently met with a potential book client. She asked me about query letters and what she needs to do to get published by a traditional publisher, such as Random House or Simon and Schuster, etc. I answered her honestly. Traditional publishers are difficult to reach. They are picky and get slammed with book proposals. They can't read all of them. Here are some tips for publishing.
1. Traditional Publishers -- They want best-selling authors, celebrities, great stories for fiction and a high market potential for nonfiction. They don't want memoirs, unknown authors and women's literature. These don't sell. Traditional publishers want books they know will sell because of how the book industry works. In retail, companies buy from manufacturers at wholesale and sell. They can't return the items to the manufacturer unless there are defects. In book industry, bookstores are allowed to buy at wholesale and send back whatever doesn't sell back to the publisher. So, let's say Barnes and Noble buys 25 copies of your book, but only two sell, the remaining 23 copies are sent back to the publisher. B&N gets its money back. The cost of those 23 copies comes out the royalty payments of authors. That is why traditional publishers want to make sure they have books that will sell. They don't want those returns. However, there are advantages to using a traditional publisher. You can get your books into bookstores more easily. Marketing is still on you, the author, though.
2. Print on Demand -- I used print on demand for my first two novels. These are not the same as independent or self-publishing. These aren't vanity presses either. These are companies that are run like traditional publishers, but they don't print large quantities of your book. They print when they get orders. Therefore, you don't have to worry about returns. They offer royalty payments in the same financial structure as traditional publishers. The author doesn't have control over the cover or other versions of the work. Downside to using print on demand is the lack of returns, which mean bookstores are not likely to buy your book. The other downside is that you have to pay a fee to have electronic or audio versions created. To create the print version, you don't have to pay a fee. The companies pay you. This is a good option for first-time authors without the required minimum word counts with stories that would appeal to wide audiences. Print on Demand companies provide you with editors for your work, so you don't have to pay extra for them.
3. Vanity Presses -- These are glorified marketing companies. The author has to spend thousands of dollars. They get no control over how their book looks, how it is edited and how it is marketed. They also don't have the option of electronic or audio versions. If you want those, you have to pay another thousand. These are not good options for first-time authors. They have trouble entering bookstores too. You don't get value for what you pay.
4. Independent Publishing or Self-Publishing -- When you self-publish, you control everything. You can hire the book cover designer, such as D'sa Designs that did the cover for The Dressing Table, a cookbook. You can hire the editors. You can format it. Self-publishing also allows you the option of writing topics traditional publishers don't want or you can create something to pass down to your family. You also are able to get more royalties than if you went with print on demand or traditional because the percentages are higher when you self-publish. Don't think you get to keep all of the price of the book. You don't. Amazon and IngramSpark or other independent company will take some of it. But, you do get more than you would through a traditional publisher. If you use IngramSpark, you have the advantage of being put into its catalog. Ingram is the largest wholesaler of books to bookstores and libraries. So, you get the best of both worlds: bookstores and online sales. When you self-publish, you also can create electronic versions at the same time and audio versions if you wish.
Regardless of how you publish your book, authors are expected to market the books themselves. Publishers do not help unless you are paying the vanity presses.