When you work with manuscripts, like I do, it’s important to have knowledge of the publishing industry to share with clients. Not only does it help you establish yourself as an expert, but being able to present a ghostwriting or editing client with their viable publishing options also gives you that “extra mile” reputation that will earn you repeat clients and referrals. You know what also boosts your expertise, especially as a ghostwriter? Publishing a book of your own. If you’ve chosen this niche, I’m sure you have a book of your own, either in the works or saved away on your computer.
Whether you’re looking to publish or just to point clients in right direction, you need to understand the basic pros and cons of the four available options: traditional, vanity, self-publishing, and print-on-demand.
I’ve already done a series on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly aspects of print-on-demand publishing, which is the hot new industry hipster taking the writing community by storm. Next week I’ll upload a post on vanity publishers and true self-publishing, as they are somewhat similar to each other. Now, though, I want to talk to you about the monocle-touting elite of the industry—the fancy folk who swirl bourbon and smoke cigars at “the club.” I’m talking about traditional publishing houses (duh, you totally got my sweet metaphor right?).
This is the big leagues. This is most writer’s ultimate goal, mostly because they mistakenly believe it means little to no effort besides the actual writing of the book. This just isn’t true. Traditional publishing is still a great option, and there’s good reason for it to be your holy grail goal, but you need to realize that there are fewer traditional publishing houses than ever before, while the competition has only gotten fiercer. You also need to realize that publishing houses no longer just look at the quality of your work. They no longer swoon over beautiful words and compelling characters alone.
Publishing houses are finding it harder to stay afloat nowadays, and so they look for “platform” in addition to pretty words. They want to know that you (yes, you) can successfully market your book. They want someone with thousands of followers on social media. They want someone with a recognizable name. They want someone with the means to present the book to a wide, engaged audience. In short, they aren’t really looking for first-time authors, at least not in fiction. You need to at least have a nice portfolio of published short stories. In nonfiction, you have a better chance at the “first-time” thing, but to pull it off you need to be a leader in your field.
Once you get the contract, your work is not over. You are expected to run a marketing campaign just like any self-published author. The difference is you’ll have the publishing house’s marketing team at your back to help you along.
There are two types of traditional publishing houses. You have the big boys like Random House and Harper Collins, and then you have smaller places without the household names. While some of the pros and cons will overlap, I think it’s important to list them separately, as there are some discrepancies.
Large Publishing Houses
- Prestige: Publishing under one of the big names automatically tells people you’re the real deal. You’ll get more attention, likely build a larger platform, and find it considerably easier to publish your next book.
- Professional Help: From the moment you sign the contract, a highly skilled team of editors and marketers is assigned to your manuscript. They will make sure your story is solid, your manuscript is polished, your cover is eye-catching, and that your book is distributed everywhere it needs to be. They will help you set up book signing, public appearances, trailers, media attention, etc., at least for the first three months or so. Then it’s up to you to keep pushing those sales to make sure you “earn out” your advance and start making royalties.
- Wider Reach: Large publishing houses have awesome connections and partnerships with industry leaders. They know who needs to know about your book, they can get your book in every bookstore in the country (and beyond), and they can make sure you start your marketing campaign with a bang.
- Agent Required: I hesitated to put this as a “con,” because having an agent to help you grab the attention of big publishers is really nice. I’m placing it here only because submitting to and landing an agent is an extra step you don’t have to deal with when publishing elsewhere. You absolutely have to have an agent if you want to even be considered by big name publishers. If you don’t submit your manuscript through an agent, it ends up in the dreaded slush pile where no one but lowly interns looking to impress their boss ever tread. This is how big publishers save time and weed out sub-par work. If you don’t take the time to understand how a big publisher works and/or you can’t find an agent willing to represent your work, they assume you’re not what they’re looking for. They could be wrong, but they’ll never know because they won’t look at your manuscript.
- Platform Required: I already talked about this above. Sadly, platform automatically takes precedence. Big publishers get insane amounts of submissions, all of them good, many great. But they are a business that must make money, so if they have to decide between two great manuscripts, the author with the larger platform is always going to win. This means it’s damn close to impossible for a newbie writer (a.k.a. someone with no—or very few—bylines to their name) to break in these days. It does happen, but the odds are ridiculously stacked against you.
- Money Machine Not Guaranteed: There is a misconception that authors who sign with big houses always make big bucks. Sorry, but Stephen King and James Patterson are the exceptions to the rule. When you sign with a publisher, you are given an advance against royalties. Often that advance is broken up into parts: one when you sign, one when you turn in the final edits, and one when the book releases. The amount will depend on your publishing track record and earning potential. This is money to live on while you complete the book. However, it isn’t like a downpayment or a bonus. That advance is basically your first cut of royalties before royalties even start coming in. It’s essentially a loan. You don’t pay it back with money from your bank account, but you pay it back with your actual royalties. So let’s say you got $15,000 as an advance (This seems to be a median amount, but it’s hard to say as publishers don’t really share their amounts freely). Sweet! Well, once the book comes out and you start seeing the numbers of how many are sold, you might get excited thinking, “Yay, here come the royalties!” No. You don’t see a dime of royalties until you’ve “paid back” the royalties you received ahead of time. The publisher is making money this whole time. You, on the other hand, have to wait until your royalties reach $15,000 before you actually see any more money. That’s not the full amount earned through book sales. No, that goes to the publisher. Your “cut” must reach $15,000 before you get any more of the pie. That’s called earning out, and most books never do it. Publishers have been doing this a long time, and they have a knack for figuring out what your book is likely to earn, and then, it seems, they give you your cut upfront. That’s completely fair, really, but it isn’t the picture most people have in their heads. Don’t spend that advance check all in one place.
Small (Independent) Publishing Houses
- Respect: Even if you don’t have a huge name attached to your book, getting traditionally published still holds a lot of weight in the community. Landing a book here is a major gateway to the bigger leagues.
- Professional Help: Same as with a larger house. You may even get more one-on-one attention with a smaller publisher.
- No Agent Required: An agent never hurts, but most independent publishers allow unsolicited manuscripts. They don’t have “slush piles,” or at least not bottomless pits where thousands of manuscripts go to die.
- Specialties: Independent publishers can’t afford to compete in a broad market, so they “niche down.” They often only publish a specific genre or two. This helps you figure out who is the best fit for your manuscript a little faster. It also ensures they are experts in editing and marketing manuscripts in your genre.
- Shorter Reach: While they have good connections and deals with distributors that a self-publishing author won’t automatically have, independent publishers don’t have the same amount of influence as a larger house.
- Smaller Budget: Your advance here will likely be smaller than at a larger house.
- Platform Still Required: Though it won’t play quite as big a role and you won’t need quite as big a platform, you still have to really prove you’re marketable and that you have a substantial avenue through which to sell your book, regardless of the beauty of your prose.
There’s a reason traditional publishing is held in high esteem. You are up against stiff competition and terrible odds, so if you get accepted, you scream, shout, dance a jig, and kiss your long-time crush straight on the mouth, because you freaking earned it! Then, you can rest assured that your book is getting the a-lister treatment and that it’s going to come out better than ever before. But please realize it isn’t all glitz and glam. Yes, you will have a great team at your back to help you and your book with that first (and most crucial) shove into the world. Your book will be seen. You will be taken seriously. You will have a better chance of finding representation for your next book. But you still have to get down in the trenches and endlessly market your book just like any indie writer if you want it to keep on getting noticed and if you want it to “earn out.” In all likelihood, you aren’t going to get whopping monthly checks, at least not for a long time, and maybe not ever.
But there’s always the chance that you’re the next big thing, and traditional publishing is arguably the best way to make that happen. The odds of you becoming the next Gillian Flynn or George R.R. Martin are slim, sure, but nothing should stop you from chasing that dream.
Thinking of getting an agent and submitting to traditional publishers? If you found this helpful (or unhelpful), please let me know in the comments. I’d also love to hear from you if you have some insider tips to share about your traditional publishing experience.
Traditional publishing not for you, or just want to consider all options? Be sure to click that Follow button on the righthand side of your screen so you don’t miss the post about vanity houses and self-publishing next Sunday!