Last week in the Young Writers series we talked about self-editing. Namely, what you should really be looking for when revising your work before passing it on to someone else. I got quite a few messages about the post and am glad it was helpful to so many of you.
This week we’re talking about the different kinds of publishing. Or SOME of them anyway. It used to be that you sent your book to an agent or editor at a traditional publishing house and left it in the hands of universe. There were big publishing houses and small publishing houses, but they all pretty much did the same thing. The big houses just had more money and more clout.
All that has changed over the last decade or so. With the advent of self-publishing, it’s become easier than ever to to see your words in print. But it’s also become more confusing than ever, because now you have OPTIONS, and all of those options come with inherent pros and cons. It can be tough to know what to do and how best to get your work to readers.
And I hate to say it, but there’s no easy answer. Plus, I’m not big on giving people answers. I like to give information instead. Then YOU can come up with your own answers.
Let’s start with TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING. For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to call traditional publishers those that typically pay decent advances and have similar processes when it comes to acquiring new work, marketing, etc. We’re also going to stick with the bigger companies that have been around a while in this category, not because smaller houses don’t add value to the process, but because I’m giving them their own section in Boutique Publishing (below).
When you think of traditional publishers, you probably think of companies like HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Little Brown, and Penguin. But the are lots of companies that would be categorized as part of Trad Pub, and many of the smaller ones are divisions of the bigger ones (called IMPRINTS).
Traditional Publishing is the toughest way to get your work to the general population. This is because to many, it’s still the gold standard in publishing, and there are many layers to the process of being signed with them.
First of all, barring some personal connection to an editor, you MUST have an agent. Editors at traditional publishing houses stopped accepting unaccented manuscripts a long time ago. There are just too many of them, and an agent is one way editors can narrow their focus to work that has, on some level at least, already been vetted by a professional. Once an editor reads your book and likes it, they typically have to take it to Acquisitions, and that means getting a whole bunch more people on board with your book (more on that process in Week Five: How Do I Sell My Book?). By the time your book is actually bought by the publisher, LOTS of people have agreed that it’s a viable book, which means one that will make everyone money. And while it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss this part of the equation, remember that advances to authors cost money. Paying editors and marketing people and cover designers and accountants and legal people cost money. Having offices to do all of this stuff costs money. Marketing books costs money.
So… yeah. I have thoughts on the Trad Pub model of deciding where this money goes (because I don’t always agree), but I’ll save that for another time. For now, let’s just accept that big business costs big money to run, so they’re not going to buy books they don’t think they can sell.
One note of clarification; just because THEY don’t think they can sell it doesn’t mean it WON’T sell. Keep reading.
So it’s hard to break into Trad Pub, but the silver lining is that there is a certain amount of quality control involved with books that are traditionally published. At the very least, they’ve been edited and deemed good enough to buy by lots of people on the publishing team. That PROBABLY means the book doesn’t suck, and that is worth something to readers, most of whom view books that are trad pubbed as safer bets than books that are, say, self-pubbed (I’m not saying this is always true, just that this is a typical school of thought… keep reading!). Some of that street cred is passed onto you when you publish traditionally. Whatever happens to your book in terms of sales, you’ve SOLD BOOKS to big publishing houses, and that isn’t very easy to do.
Upsides to Trad Pub include more money to spend on advances and marketing. Not that this money will go to you – advances and marketing treatments vary wildly in publishing. But at least you know they HAVE it. It’s also easier to get placement for your book in bookstores, which have limited shelf space and are very picky about what they put on display. Lastly, you have access to a lot of expertise in all facets of publishing, so at the very least, it’s a tremendous learning experience, both on the editorial side (working with a great editor will make you a better writer like nothing else) and with regards to cover design, marketing, etc.
But I’m not going to lie; there are downsides. Remember all that money I told you about? Money for advances and marketing? Well, it’s far from even distribution. One book might get a $5,000 advance and another might get $500,000. One book might get a teeny-tiny marketing budget while another gets a massive campaign. And let me stop you before you say you don’t care about marketing.
You do. You SO do.
That’s because once you publish a book, those numbers follow you to the next book. And the next. If your book doesn’t sell well (which it’s much less inclined to do without significant marketing – there are just SO MANY BOOKS in the world now), your next contract, if you can get one, will likely be much less lucrative, setting you up for an endless cycle of low advance/low marketing that almost assures your authorial demise in Trad Pub. Publishers want to protect their investment, so they spend most of their marketing dollars on books that garner big advances. And those are a tiny minority of books that are bought by them, which means it’s tough for all the other books in the line up to get the kind of attention that makes Trad Pub an advantage over other methods of publishing.
Timing is also a factor with Trad Pub. Because they’re so big and have so many books, your book likely won’t be published until at least a year-and-a-half after the publishing house acquires it (I waited more than two full years for Prophecy of the Sisters).
Lastly, the amount of input you have in a traditional publishing house will likely be small. This is true when it comes to everything – marketing, cover design, even the title of your book. I’ve been lucky with LIES I TOLD, because HarperTeen has been very inclusive about title and design, but that hasn’t always been the case. And the bottom line is this; when you sell your book and accept an advance, you are no longer its sole proprietor.
In a perfect scenario, one where you get a good advance and a great marketing plan and have lots of talented people rooting for you at the publishing house, Trad Pub can be awesome. But that endorsement comes with the caveat that I’ve sold books to four major publishing houses now, and my experiences have been mixed.
Let’s move on!
I’m going to refer to BOUTIQUE PUBLISHING here as companies that are small and/or up and coming. Just a few years ago, these publishers were divided into camps; traditional boutique publishers (small companies who published print books) and digital boutique publishers (those starting to publish books on digital platforms for ereaders). Back then, many traditional boutique publishers didn’t really have a handle on the rise of digital publishing, and digital publishers didn’t have a mechanism for getting printed books into bookstores.
All of that has changed. Most small traditional publishers have become savvy about digital publishing and how to use it to their advantage, and new distributors have stepped up to provide brick-and-mortar placement for boutique houses that once specialized in ebooks. This is all awesome news for writers, so let’s start with the upsides!
Working with a boutique publisher can mean more hands-on input about cover, title, and marketing. This isn’t always the case, but most of the time you have fewer cooks in the kitchen with a small house, and that means you have direct access to the people collaborating on these decisions. Timing can also be accelerated with a small publisher (although not always), meaning your book may make it in front of readers much faster than it would with traditional publishing.
Small publishers tend to cater to niche markets. That means if you write romance or sci-fi or erotica, or any “genre” novel, you won’t be competing against all of those books PLUS books in every other category for a spot. And once the book is published, that publisher may have a loyal following of readers in that genre who trust them to publish the books they like. Translation; sometimes it’s an easier way in.
Most importantly, small publishers can be more accessible to writers both before and after publication. You don’t always need an agent to get your manuscript in front of an editor, and after your book is acquired, you’ll likely have direct access to many of the people on your team.
As with anything, there can be downsides. Easier access and acquisition isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes (not all the time!) a book isn’t picked up by Trad Pub because, well, it’s just not good enough. It could be that it needs more editing or it’s in a waning genre or any number of other things, but sometimes having your book rejected by Trad Pub is a blessing in disguise.
When I first got an agent, we tried to sell my second book. I loved that book. I thought it was absolutely perfect. But it didn’t sell, and while I was super disappointed, I’d spent the months it was on submission working on a Gothic fantasy called Indigo Sky. That book became Prophecy of the Sisters. The failure of my second book to sell prompted me to seek out a new agent, and I ended up with Steven Malk and Writer’s House, who have been amazing to me and amazing for my career. Prophecy sold for a much larger advance than that second book ever would have, insuring me more marketing and a better start in the business. I believe I would have been published either way (I wrote five books in two-and-a-half years – I was DETERMINED), but I think it would have been a rougher start with that second book, and there’s no telling where I’d be now.
The thing is, those editors knew my second book wasn’t ready, even if I didn’t. If I were trying to sell it now, maybe I’d sell it to a smaller publisher or self-pub it. But that wouldn’t magically render it ready. It wouldn’t magically render it GOOD. And do I want a book with my name on it floating around out there if it’s not, at the very least, GOOD?
Small publishers also have less money to spend on marketing, although this is only an issue if we’re talking about the BIG money spent in traditional publishing compared to the small money spent in boutique publishing. If your book falls into the latter category, there might not be much of a difference between small money in Trad Pub and average money in Boutique Pub. Also, your advance with a small publisher will likely be small or even non-existent. Maybe you’ll make it up in royalties, maybe not.
Let’s move on to our last category; SELF-PUBLISHING.
Self-Publishing used to be a four-letter-word in publishing. It was only done (supposedly) by hacks; people who weren’t good enough to sell their books to a “real” publisher. And to be fair, this criticism wasn’t always unfounded. There are downsides to making it easy for anyone and everyone to upload their writing and call it a book. Because let’s face it; writing is harder than it looks, and just because you love to read and own a computer, well, that doesn’t mean you’re a great writer.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t write! I say if something brings you joy, do it! But as a reader, let’s be honest; it sucks to take a chance on a book, pay for it with your hard earned money, and then have it be downright bad.
Luckily, self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it once did, and there are endless resources available to make sure your work is as professional as possible before you show it to the world. You can hire editors and cover designers and even PR people to help you get the word out. And if you’re on a budget, there are countless resources online that will give you information about how to do these things yourself. You can collaborate with other self-published others on Twitter and Facebook, cross-promoting and learning the ropes from each other.
You also have complete control. Over your title, your cover, your release date. Everything. If your cover doesn’t play well with readers, you can change it and have the new one up in twenty-four hours. If you need to make edits after it’s been published, you can do that, too. Your book can be released within days, and your paychecks (if your book sells) will start arriving within a couple of months.
All of that control comes with a price, though, and it’s called RESPONSIBILITY. Your cover will only be as good as the cover designer you hire or the cover you design yourself. Do you have the expertise to do it? Does your cover designer REALLY know what makes for a cover that sells books? Your book will only be as good as the editor you hire and the revisions you make. Nothing can destroy a book’s potential like a bad editor — or an author unwilling to make the changes necessary for the book to shine. Are you willing to do that? Do you have access to an editor that REALLY knows what he/she is doing? Marketing is a HUGE part of self-publishing. There is no publisher to send press releases or get your book up on Goodreads or give out advance copies to librarians and teachers at conferences. Do you have the time and knowledge to make all that happen?
If so, self-publishing may be for you, and many authors have made a name for themselves (and a good living) doing it.
Bottom line; there are more options than ever for writers. By taking a hard look at your work, your goals, and your resources, you can decide which route is best for you. The good news is, if it doesn’t work out, those other options are still out there, and there’s nothing saying you can’t switch gears later on. Many traditionally published authors are now “hybrid authors”, which means they traditionally publish some of the their work and use other methods as well.
I hope this helps! Please feel free to leave questions in the Comments section. And check back next Monday for Week Four; A Word About Outside Advice.
Because not all advice is good advice.
Also, we’re doing an awesome video project for the LIES I TOLD launch and would love for you to participate! All you have to do is send a video via Skype to LIESITOLD detailing a lie you’ve told yourself or one someone else has told you, how that lie has impacted you or your self-esteem, and how you go about moving on from the lie. The first five people to submit videos win a personal Skype video from me plus a signed hardcover of LIES I TOLD. And I’m participating, too. Yikes!
Check out the details an my video message about the project here.