So you’ve finished your novel and it’s a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. You’ve revised it several times, polished it, perfected it. Now you want to unleash it on the world. How do you do that?
McKenna posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you get started in the marketing end of things? I understand writing, but when it comes to finding an editor and getting published, I’m hopelessly confused. Thanks in advance.
Randy sez: McKenna, you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of novelists every year face this same question. It’s a big question, and a full answer would take a book. So I’ll give you the big picture and then try to point you in the right direction.
You have four basic options in publishing your novel:
- Big or mid-size traditional publisher: you get an advance and they cover the costs
- Small publisher: you get very little advance and they cover the costs
- Vanity publisher: you get no advance and you cover the costs
- Indie publishing: you are the publisher
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
Big or Mid-size Traditional Publisher
These publishers will publish dozens or hundreds or maybe even thousands of books per year. They have many employees, including editors, marketers, publicity people, sales people.
If you’re looking for a large advance, these publishers are the only game in town. That isn’t to say you’ll actually get a large advance. You’re more likely to get an advance well south of $10,000. But you will get an advance and it’ll represent the publisher’s estimate of what your book will earn in roughly the first year. The publisher will pay you royalties—a percentage of each book sold—and the advance is basically a loan against those royalties. After the advance “earns out,” you’ll continue to get royalties for the lifetime of the book.
Generally, these publishers will do a print run of at least a few thousand copies, as well as producing an e-book edition. They’ll do all the work. You just provide the manuscript and then do whatever revisions they ask for.
The advantages of working with a largish traditional publisher are that you get some money up front (although rarely as much as you imagined) and that you don’t have to hassle with production.
The disadvantages are that you are giving up quite a lot of control of your work (the publisher will own the rights to your novel for as long as they choose to keep it in print). Publishers are not in business to hold your hand. They’re in business to make money, and the contract they give you will be written to favor them heavily. You can shift things in your favor by hiring a literary agent to negotiate the deal, but agents rarely get everything they want.
In fact, if you go with one of these publishers, the odds are very high that you must have an agent even to have your manuscript considered. Publishers just don’t have the manpower to read all submissions, so they rely on agents to deal with the flood. If a manuscript comes to them from a trusted agent, then they’ll make time to look at it. Otherwise, probably not.
And how do you get an agent? That’s a big question. There are zillions of agents working, and not all of them are good. How do you know who’s good? You have to rely on their reputation. Word gets around on who’s good and who isn’t.
Most agents have a web site and you can find out exactly how to submit your manuscript to each one by checking his or her site for submission guidelines. Be prepared for a long wait. Agents often take months to make a decision.
One of my favorite places to meet agents is at writing conferences. You can make an appointment with an agent, spend 15 minutes pitching your novel, and the agent will tell you if she’s interested in seeing more. She probably isn’t, and even if she is, that’s no guarantee that she’ll take you on as a client.
If this sounds discouraging, it is, but the process is fair—in the sense that the odds are heavily stacked against everybody. Every writer starts out knowing nobody. It’s a horrible playing field, but it’s a level field. And if you’re one of the few who get published, you have a chance for glory. It’s not a big chance, but it’s a chance.
For more information on how to get an agent, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle is a very widely read blogger and literary agent and she’s also a friend of mine, so I know she’s honest and good.
All of my own books were originally published with large to mid-size publishers. It took me a long time to break in to this market, and I’ve had some ups and downs. But these publishers are the traditional way to go, and it’s possible to do very well with them. It’s much more likely that an author will have mediocre sales, but that’s the nature of publishing—there are a very few huge winners and then there’s everybody else.
You may decide that it’s just too hard to get published in traditional big-corporate publishing. In that case, there are quite a number of small, specialized publishers who have sprung up. Typically, these have staffs with just a few employees. They may not pay much of an advance, but they may also offer somewhat higher royalties than a traditional large publisher.
This kind of publisher will pay all the costs of producing the book. This is critical. If a publisher asks you to pay any of the costs of publishing, then they are a vanity publisher (see my comments on these below) and you should be very wary. But a small publisher who bears the costs of publication themselves is usually honest.
A small publisher may do an initial print run or they may release your book as a “print-on-demand” issue, which means that books are printed only as they’re ordered. This costs more per book, but it means that there’s no big up-front cost to the publisher for doing a large print run of books that might never get sold. POD books aren’t printed until they’re sold, so there’s less risk.
You generally don’t need an agent to work with a small publisher. You can usually submit your work directly to the acquisition editor (who may also be the publisher, the typesetter, the mail boy, the marketing team, and the sales staff, all rolled into one.)
The contract for a small publisher is usually shorter and easier to read than the contract from a large publisher. If you have any doubts about it, you should ask somebody who really knows contracts. And you should most definitely find out the reputation of the small publisher. Many of them are honest and very competent, but you don’t want to risk your book on the possibility that they aren’t.
Most small publishers have a web site that will explain how you submit your book.
I would strongly advise you to check out the reputation of a small publisher first. Talk to authors. Talk to agents. Talk to anyone who actually knows the publishing industry. If somebody is a fraud, word gets out. If they’re first-rate, word also gets out.
My friend Jeff Gerke ran a small niche publisher like this until recently, and I worked with him to produce the paper editions of the revised second editions of my novels OXYGEN and THE FIFTH MAN. Jeff had worked at several large publishers as an editor, and I knew he’d do an honest job for me. Jeff very recently sold his publishing house to literary agent Steve Laube (also a friend of mine, and one I trust), and I expect that Steve will continue to do an excellent job of publishing in that particular niche.
I’ll define a vanity publisher as any publisher whom you pay to publish your novel. Most often, there are absolutely no quality requirements to get published by a vanity publisher. No matter how horrible your novel, a vanity publisher will be happy to publish it for you.
And that’s the problem, because if your book is lousy, then nobody’s going to buy it. If you’ve fronted the costs for publishing, then it’s no skin off your publisher’s nose if the book doesn’t sell. The skin comes off your nose.
It’s possible for a vanity publisher to be honest, but the word on the street is that very few of them are. And how do you know which ones are honest?
An honest vanity publisher will team you up with a competent team of editors to do a macro edit, line edit, copy edit, and several rounds of proofreading. They will allow you to take the book out of print at any time. They will not charge you for spurious “marketing opportunities.” They will not charge you outrageous shipping fees when they mail you your books. They will not require you to buy a certain number of books from them.
The problem is that if you’re a novice to publishing, you’ll have a hard time knowing whether the editors you’ve been assigned are competent. And you may be confused by the legalese in the publishing contract. You may even be snookered by completely false claims on the publisher’s web site.
There just aren’t very many honest vanity publishers, from what I can see. If you’re considering a vanity publisher and if you know a good literary agent, you can ask him about the publisher’s reputation. Don’t be surprised if he says they’re crooks, because most agents think the great majority of vanity publishers are crooks.
Before you sign on with any vanity publisher, Google around to see what you can learn about them.
- Look at the list of recent books they’ve published. How well are they selling on Amazon? (Amazon shows the “sales rank” for any book. The best-selling book on Amazon is ranked #1, the second-best is ranked #2. If a book is ranked in the top 10,000 then it’s selling pretty well. If it’s ranked 50,000 then it’s selling two or three copies per day. If it’s ranked 1,000,000, then it hardly ever sells a copy.)
- Have the publisher’s books won any awards? Are those awards prestigious awards?
- Are there lawsuits filed against the publishing company? If so, do the lawsuits look like they have any merit?
If you’re satisfied that a given vanity publisher is not a crook, go to your local bookstore and ask them if they’ve ever ordered any books at all from the publisher you’re interested in. If the store tells you they would NEVER order a book from that publisher, that tells you a lot about your chances of ever seeing your book in actual stores.
I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to avoid vanity publishers if you are trying to earn money from your book. (If you are just trying to write up your family history so you can make a few dozen copies to give away to family members, that’s a different story.)
But the fact is that you can get published much cheaper and easier by being your own independent (“indie”) publisher. We’ll talk about that next.
Indie publishing has become huge in the last few years, and it’s going to get bigger. Here’s how it works:
- You write your book and edit it yourself (or hire an editor).
- You create the cover art for your book (or better, hire a professional graphic artist who understands book covers).
- You format the book as an e-book (or hire somebody to do this for you).
- You create an account on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble and maybe also at Smashwords and maybe at Kobo and possibly also at the Apple iTunes store.
- You upload your e-book to Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple. (They aren’t exclusive, so you can upload to as many as you like.)
- They sell your e-book for you and they give you most of the money. (Amazon pays you 35% to 70% of the sale price, and the other online retailers give you similar royalties.)
- If you want your book in paper, Amazon also provides its CreateSpace service to create Print-On-Demand copies for you.
Of course, this is going to take some work, but the benefits are huge. You control the entire process. If you want to remove your book from any of these online retailers, you can do it whenever you want. You set the price. You get most of the money. The online retailers give you worldwide distribution with no upfront cost.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of indie authors have published e-books on Amazon and/or the other online retailers. Most of them don’t make much money—that’s just the reality of publishing. There are a few big winners and then there’s everyone else.
The important point is that the online retailers are not going to cheat you. They won’t hit you with huge upfront charges. They’ll pay you monthly. They’ll give you an accounting of your earnings anytime you want it.
And the remarkable thing is that some authors are doing incredibly well as indie authors. Earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In some cases, millions of dollars per year. Some well-known indie authors are Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and Russell Blake.
Will you earn millions per year as an indie author? The odds against it are long. You’re more likely to earn hundreds per year, or maybe thousands. But that would be hundreds or thousands more than you’re likely to earn anywhere else.
If you go with a traditional publisher, you may spend five or ten years learning the craft before you earn a single dime, and you may never find a publisher willing to publish you.
If you go with a small publisher, it’s the same story.
If you go with a vanity publisher, the most likely case is that you’ll spend thousands of dollars upfront which you will never recoup.
So indie publishing is a good deal. And it’s no secret that I went indie a couple of years ago.
You may be thinking that indie publishing sounds too good to be true. Please be aware that if you write crap, then it will sell like crap. But if you write good stuff and if you promote it intelligently, readers will discover you and you can reasonably expect to earn at least a few hundred dollars.
And possibly much more.
This week, indie author Hugh Howey released some data on how well indie authors do financially, as compared to authors who publish with large publishers (the “Big 5”). The results have shocked the publishing establishment.
Hugh teamed up with a web programmer to extract large amounts of data automatically from Amazon. You can read their results on Hugh’s new site about author earnings. (This site no longer exists.)
Prepare to be stunned. Indie authors are doing well. Incredibly well.
You Have Options
The great news here is that authors have options.
- You can go with the large, traditional publishers and hope to become a famous author like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, or Sue Grafton.
- You can go with a smaller publisher that gives you more personal attention and may be a bit easier to break in at. Tom Clancy published his first novel with the Naval Institute Press, a small publisher who had never done fiction.
- You can be an indie author and take your shot at glory.
Any of these might conceivably be a good option for you.
What is almost always a bad option is to go with a vanity publisher.
Well, McKenna, I’ve only begun to answer your question, and I’m all out of words for the day. I hope this will get you rolling in the right direction.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.