Throughout the course of these blog posts, Rick and I will be offering advice and tips on the process of becoming a published author. This particular entry will discuss some of the benefits, disadvantages, and risks of working through the various publishing methods.
The traditional means of becoming a published author is through a publisher. The majority of print books are released by a handful of major publishing houses. The process varies from one house to another, so it is important that the author check the publisher’s website for the most current information. The instructions included in magazines and books, such as the annual release of Writers Guide, could be outdated by the time you submit. With the sheer volume of submissions, any work that doesn’t meet the listed guidelines will end up in the rejection pile. Attention to detail is crucial.
The gatekeeper system, which is intrinsic to traditional publishing, is flawed. However, I challenge anyone to find a better way of handling their business. A typical publisher receives hundreds of unsolicited submissions each week. To whittle that pile down, certain editors are selected to find a few works that meet the criteria and pique their interest. From there, a senior editor will make the final call. This process can take as long as six months.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: If you’re lucky. It can take a lot longer, and sometimes the publisher sees potential in the work but may ask for substantial revisions before making a final decision. And this doesn’t guarantee acceptance, either. The publisher may still decide not to accept it after you’ve put in all that work.]
The problem with this system is that often times a project with a lot of potential ends up being rejected by the gatekeepers, sometimes for arbitrary reasons. This is why stories abound of works being rejected by the major publishing houses, then get released independently or through a smaller house, and end up as a bestseller. As I said, the system is flawed.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: Remember that publishers are looking to make money from your work. In today’s publishing world, acceptance usually comes from an editorial committee. Even if the particular editor loves it, if the committee editor doesn’t don’t see enough money potential, they’re probably going to reject it.]
But let’s say you do receive an offer from the publisher. What comes next? As a first-time published author, I found myself overwhelmed by the process. I was willing to accept whatever offer the publisher gave me. But there are many issues to consider before signing the contract.
One issue is what the publisher will offer as an advance against royalties. This is an amount you, the author, are paid prior to the release of the book. You will not receive a royalty check until the total of your royalties you’ve earned exceed this advance. But is this amount in line with the industry standard for that genre? Keep in mind, the typical royalty amount is falling as sales of paper books give way to ebooks. Just to put it in perspective, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America use $2,000 as their cutoff for a worthy advance.
Read the contract and see who retains the rights to your characters, places, artwork, etc. These things are important if you write a sequel and later decide to use a different publisher, or go on your own and self-publish. Foreign rights are also important. I know authors who have had offers from foreign publishers to release a book already published in America. You need to know how that process would work. Sometimes, Hollywood will call and purchase the rights to a book. That doesn’t mean they are making a movie, but it means only that studio has the rights to do so. The author gets a percentage of that money. There should also be a clause in the contract where, at some point in time, all rights to the book revert to the author. This is your work, and it should belong to you.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: Often a new author has little or no negotiating power without an agent. It comes down to “This is our offer, and it’s not going to change.” The poor author, happy to finally get an offer after years of rejection, will sign his life away to get published.]
There will be “escape clauses” included, covering both the writer and the publisher. Make sure that this does not unfairly benefit the publisher. A clause that says the publisher can drop the book, without any reason, and pay the author nothing would be grossly unfair and should be avoided.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: Really make sure there are “escape clauses” or what are called “reversion of rights” clauses. Make sure you know when and how those rights come back to you–and if they ever do.]
Beyond the contract, there are other issues to consider. You may have the perfect title for your book in mind. But the publisher will have the final say on the title. If they decide theirs is better, in all likelihood you will lose that battle. The same goes for the cover artwork. The publisher seeks input from the author and designs the cover accordingly. Suggestions and objections will be noted, and author input plays a major role in cover design.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: With major publisher RARELY will you have any significant input in the cover design.]
But, in the end, the publisher has the final say. However, as a benefit, a publisher can sometimes attract a big-name artist to design your cover art. The publisher, not the author, pays the artist, and the result is a beautiful cover. My second novel, The Piaras Legacy, is a great example of this.
The same principal applies in the editing process. This is a back-and-forth procedure where the editor makes changes, the author approves/disapproves, and the editor goes back to work again. Usually, the changes are for the better. But occasionally, the editor may change something that you feel impacts the book in a negative way. They may be changing your words, the thrust of the story, or your own unique voice. Fight for what you want, but in the end, the editor usually wins.
If you get away from the big publishing houses, keep in mind that there are predators out there whose only interest is in your money. A good publishing house receives more submissions than they can handle. Because of that, they don’t send letters to authors soliciting their manuscripts. Steer clear of those houses that do. You can rest assured that they fall into the category of “vanity press.” For a fee, usually thousands of dollars, they will publish your work. At that point, you are on your own. The vanity publisher doesn’t really care if your work succeeds or not. Their interest ended when they received your check. There will be little or no advertising, and they will make no effort to get your title into bookstores. In all likelihood, your sales will consist of family and friends. Granted, somewhere out there is probably a vanity press that will really work hard for the author. But vanity publishers like that are few and far between.
Also, vanity presses carry a stigma in the publishing world. Even if your sales exceed the family and friends circle, a regular publisher will see that you went to a vanity press and may assume that your work is not worth publishing. Your career could end before it begins.
One frequently asked question in the realm of publishing is: Should I get an agent? And the answer is: it depends. An agent will typically take 15% of your advance and your royalties. But the agent may have a better chance of getting your work published. We’ll address agents at another time.
That brings us to the new phenomenon: ebooks. [Rick notes: Scott is using the term “ebooks” here to refer to self-published ebooks.] Traditional print publishing is on the decline, as evidenced by the loss of chain bookstores like Borders and Waldenbooks. In some categories, ebook sales have surpassed print sales for the first time. The advantages to ebooks are many, but so are the drawbacks. Again, an author needs to consider all the options before deciding what route to take.
First, look at the distribution. A traditional publisher will have contacts within the book distribution companies. Your publisher’s representative will try to convince the buyer that your book will sell, and hopefully succeed in getting you shelf space in the brick-and-mortar stores. This allows for a spontaneous purchase, where a reader is browsing a store, sees your book, and buys it. Not the case with ebooks. There are millions of ebooks out there, so the chances of a reader browsing across your book by accident are quite remote. This puts the responsibility of promotion squarely on your shoulders. Whether it be through social networking, blogging, local media, your personal website, or whatever, you need to make people aware that your book is out there and is a worthy purchase.
[SIDE NOTE from Rick: I’m a less pessimistic about self-publishing than Scott. However, to get decent sales the author will have to do major promotion and all on his own, much more than with traditional publishers. It’s a lot of work, but it can pay off if you do it right.]
There are advantages to ebooks, as well. You have total control over the final product. No one will force you to change your cover art, or the title, or any of the wording in the book. You are in charge. Of course, if you don’t do a solid job of editing, and your release your book anyway, most of the people who buy it will not buy another book from you. So it is your responsibility to make sure the book is ready for publishing before you release it.
The royalties are also higher for ebooks. With traditional publishing, the royalty will vary by publisher, and of course an author with a record for high sales will be able to demand a higher royalty. Additionally, the format of the book makes a difference. Mass market paperbacks cost the least to produce, and deliver the lowest royalty. Trade paperback is a step up – higher bond paper, and slightly larger format, so the book is more expensive and typically carries a higher royalty percentage. Hard cover books are the high end, both in price and royalties. You can expect about 7%-14% royalties from a typical publisher. With ebooks, this can be as high as 80%, depending upon the outlet and the price you set.
Finally, publishing time is another advantage. In traditional publishing, it usually takes about 18 months from the time the contracts are signed until the day your book hits the shelves. With an ebook, it can take as little as 48 hours. This allows you to put out more books in a shorter period of time. You need only be careful not to put the books out too rapidly and sacrifice quality.
When you feel your book is ready for publication, you have options: traditional publishing versus self-pub. There is not one answer that fits all situations. Each individual author needs to consider both sides and decide which is better for any given project. Exercise due caution to be certain that no one takes advantage of your hard work.
[NOTE: Before you make any decisions about how you want to be published, be sure to read David Gaughran’s book, “Let’s Get Digital. How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.” There’s a link to David’s website under our OTHER BLOGS tab. It’s well worth the $2.99 to get all the facts, and David goes into all the details of traditional publishing so you can be properly informed.]