More thoughts on the publishing game
NOTE: There will be no blog post next week. For the remainder of 2016, I will be posting every other week (10/24, 11/7, 11/21, 12/5, 12/19) to give me time to catch up on things. Weekly posts will resume on 1/2/17.
Recently, I received the following question:
“Please explain why it seems it is getting harder and harder to get published at a mainstream publisher.”
When someone else suggested self-publishing, the understandable response was this:
“For decades you could self-publish. I want to be published.”
Even if we put aside there being more writers out there and fewer larger publishers (due to consolidation), the bottom line for the larger mainstream publishers is that they have been spoiled by recent mega-sellers like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. Few people outside of publishing ever realized that book publishing was not the big, profitable business that they believed it was.
Publishing was very much like banking used to be, where the real money was made from investing the money of the wealthy depositors, who in turn made it possible for banks to be able to afford to offer accounts to the little guys. Banks also made money from charging fees (less onerous than they are now). Banking is heavily regulated to prevent banks from getting out of hand with their investments (although now we’re seeing that perhaps they aren’t being regulated enough).
Publishers hope to make enough money from their hits to be able to afford the losses from their misses. And they do have a lot more misses than hits. The bulk of published books used to fall into what’s called the “mid-list.” These are books that may or may not sell well and may or may not make bestseller lists. Their sales are moderate to good, and they don’t rake in the big money (because if they do, they’re no mid-list anymore). Mid-list books may or may not pay for themselves in terms of earning back their advances.
Many will tell you that Big Publishing got into trouble when they began offering huge advances on books they thought would make good money. Most of the time it has always been a guessing game when it comes to what will and won’t sell. You always hear about the hits, but you never hear about the misses. They just disappeared from store shelves.
Many of the books you see (or used to see) in the bookstores stores were mid-list authors. But that has changed. As publishing houses in recent years have merged and grown, they are doing away with mid-list authors. At one time, publishers would take a chance on a newcomer and try to cultivate that author into one whose books might move from mid-list to bestsellers, but this is no longer the case.
Publishing conglomerates are no longer willing to wait for authors to “grow up.” They want full-blown bestsellers out of the starting gate. Now even established authors are having their books turned down simply because their books are not making the grade. Advances have sharply declined in recent years from what used to be 5 figures down to 4 figures. If a book doesn’t look like it has Hollywood movie potential, don’t count on it being accepted.
This is precisely why more and more established authors are turning to self-publishing. They get back the rights to their older, out-of-print books, they self-publish them, and they find that these books (collectively anyway) make MORE money than some of their recent “bestselling” releases through the publisher.
While these published authors are realizing the value of self-publishing, new authors have not gotten the message. For some reason that totally escapes me, new authors are not doing their research to discover that publishing has CHANGED. They’re still living with the old belief that you write a book, get an agent, get published. These naive authors still believe that “being published” is the end-all and that their “writing career” will take off once they do find a publisher. They do not understand that getting published never was easy in the first place. And because they have not done their homework, they don’t realize that for a new author to get published is a nearly impossible goal in today’s world.
Add in that the publishing contracts of those who do get lucky are abominations as far as contracts go because publishers do not want to risk something big slipping through their fingers. They will screw you at every turn.
I’ve done several articles on my blog where I’ve mentioned Kris Rusch’s blog. She’s been in the publishing business for a LOT of years and knows what she’s talking about.
If you’ve not been following those, here are two good places to start:
Especially read the second article COMPLETELY. Do not skim it!
I’m in total agreement with her, and I have been traditionally published. While I learned a lot, monetarily it wasn’t worth it. Aside from a few hundred extra dollars in my pocket, all I got was the bragging rights of “being published.” And I got lucky in the first place (right place, right time), but I can guarantee that I’d have a much harder struggle today getting published. I’d have to settle for one of the smaller publishers, and I can almost guarantee that I’d be lucky to see much smaller monetary return than I did previously.
But that’s not the worst part. Let’s discuss what you will likely give up to a publisher, at least to the larger ones: your rights on your book.
Let me clarify that. You are not giving up your copyright. You’re giving up the publishing rights. But the difference isn’t much. While the copyright remains in your name, it does you little good because you have given the publisher the sole right to publish the book. All it supposedly guarantees is that the publisher must pay you for every copy they sell, but there are ways they can screw you there as well (read Kris Rusch’s articles). And if (or when) sales falter with the publisher (a good chance), then you won’t be able to reclaim the book to try to do better on your own. It’s a dead book, and you will make no more money from it.
No one wants to hear these things, least of all starry-eyed writers. I assure you that I say this not out of bitterness or regret (which I don’t have at all), but from honest experience of the reality of publishing. Don’t waste your time trying to grab the brass ring. Take control and do it yourself. Assuming that you’ve penned a worthy book in the first place, you’ll very likely come out ahead.
The original questioner then asked this:
“Say I had a finished manuscript right now, and I don’t send it to Random House, et cetera, where to I send it if I don’t want to self-publish?”
That’s where it gets hard because it requires research on your part. There are many smaller publishers out there, some new, some established, some successful, some not. Your first job is to figure out which ones might be interested in your particular type of book. One place to look is www.duotrope.com. It’s not free, but it’s very reasonably priced and it lists many markets and book publishers, large and small. However, many small publishers only handle certain types of books.
And remember: Be sure you avoid the vanity presses, those “publishers” who basically are self-publishing the book for you. The way you spot them is if they ask for money or expect you to pay for services. We’ve talked enough about them here that you can look back over the blog articles on them.
That said, there are some new publishers out there that are not vanity presses and who, because they’re small, may expect you to pay for some of the publishing costs (such as the book cover, and possibly the cost of editing, if you can’t do the job adequately yourself). But that’s all you should pay for. They do the rest of the work and actively market your work. In return, some of these publishers may give you significantly higher royalties that would the larger publishers.
Before you submit to ANY publisher, though, you should have someone (or more than one someone) you trust read your book, someone who can give you an honest evaluation of it. Once you know that it is worthy, THEN you can look for publishers. It’s not easy, and the small ones don’t publish all that many books a year. It can take you months or years just to find someone—big or small—who is interested.
SIDE NOTE: I recently read that Random House plans to cut their number of yearly releases from 900 to about 250. Yeah—they only want big earners, sensational books guaranteed to make them a lot of money. The sad thing is that they’re not looking at quality as much as they’re looking at sales potential. I fear that we’re going to see a lot of garbage being published simply because it’s sensational or controversial.
In case you missed these two guest posts from my blog, here are two from friends who went through the process. Both tried traditional publishing. Only one succeeded, and I assure you that both books had stellar writing and stories.
So, where does this leave the person who wants to be published but who doesn’t want to self-publish?
I wish I could offer an optimistic response. The reality is that not only is it harder than ever to get published, but with so many new writers out there self-publishing, it’s harder to get your book noticed even if it is published. As we’ve said before, the big publishers devote very little marketing effort to their books (except for those sensational ones they’re trying to foist on readers).
Another Silver Pen member who had been following the discussion there made the following comments (edited):
“What is overwhelming to me with planning to ‘get published’ is the bigger picture of building a platform for the book. Even before I can attempt to put my book out there, I have to establish that platform. A book without a platform means nothing to a potential publisher.
I’m working on one book that I plan on self-publishing. I just know that is the route I want to take.
“As for my book (TITLE) I have always believed it would get picked up by someone. I guess I never thought about the fact that I would be signing over rights to it if that were the case. That makes me feel uneasy, unsure. I have so much to consider, and sometimes it is so overwhelming. When that happens, I have to stop thinking about how it will get published and just write… write as if no one will ever read the book.”
The important thing this person said is to write for yourslef first and not to worry about it being published. I’m glad that “platform” was mentioned. One of the things that will determine the level of interest in your book by a major publisher is your platform. In essence, this means your visibility. Do people know who you are, and do they care? What is your sales potential? Are you a guaranteed earner for a potential publisher?
Publishers no longer seem willing to gamble and let things play out for an author. They want to know up front if they’ll be signing a winner. And if they don’t see that as a clear possibility…
On a positive note, one very good reason to self-publish IS to establish a platform and to gain followers of your work. In other words, successful sales from self-publishing is the way to interest a publisher.
But there’s another side to that coin. If you’ve been a successful self-published author, why would you want to give away any of your profits to a publisher who merely wants to cash in on your success? What can that publisher do that you’re not doing well already? If you’re already earning 70% from your Amazon e-book sales, why would you want to earn LESS (typically bigger publishers give 25% of net, which is 25% of that 70%)? Do you honestly believe that a publisher can triple your sales to make up for that loss?
Oh, but your book will be in bookstores! Maybe, maybe not (and I’ve talked about that previously). Most print book sales happen through the Amazon bookstore anyway, and you’re already selling there. If you’ve priced you book right, you’re making $3–$4 on each paperback print-on-demand sale. I promise you won’t make that much through a publisher. You’ll get at most 10%–12% of the cover price. Even if the publisher prices it as high as $20 (where no one will buy it), how much are you getting per sale?
NOTE: Small publishers almost never offer advances, but advances do not really serve any good purpose these days, contrary to writers’ beliefs. I’ll discuss this in my next post.
So, why do you really want to “be published?” It can’t be for the money. Prestige, then? Go for it. But don’t forget what happens to the rights to your book if you do. Maybe your grandkids will get the rights back, but after that length of time, will it matter?
One final thought: Self-publishing, however you want to regard it, lets YOU stay in control of your work, and that means that, whether your book succeeds or fails in its first outing, you have the opportunity to try again. Sign it away to a publisher and you will likely lose that opportunity.