Various Publishing Methods and Why They’re All SO HARD
Guest Post by Lissa Bryan
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker
You’ve done it. You’ve completed your magnum opus and are now ready to share it with the world, but now you’re faced with the monumental choice of what to do with the damn thing. Writers have a greater range of choices in this regard than ever before, and really, the decision comes down to which method of publishing best suits your goals and the amount of effort you’re willing to personally invest. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Traditional “Big Six” Publishing
This is the typical writer’s dream when it comes to publishing, but it’s also the most difficult to achieve. Only about one or two percent of manuscripts will be accepted by a Big Six publisher, hereafter referred to as “Bix,” because I’m a lazy typist. (Soon, it will be “Bive” after the merger of Penguin and Random House. I’m really hoping they change their name to “Random Penguin,” but I digress.)
Most Bix companies and their subsidiaries will not accept directly submitted manuscripts. To go this route, you must have an agent, who will shop your manuscript around and attempt to get you the best possible deal if a publisher is interested. Acquiring an agent is a difficult process in of itself, fraught with many pitfalls for the unwary and eager. The agent will also absorb a cut of your earnings, and most new authors don’t make much.
Going with a Bix company means you will get highly professional editing teams and graphic artists who will design the cover. However, you will sign over most of your creative control. You may be required to make changes to the storyline or re-write portions of the book to make it more marketable. Bestselling author J.R. Ward was recently forced to change an m/m romance storyline in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series to include a female character. You also may have no input whatsoever on what ends up on the cover. Even the highly successful Stephenie Meyer has said she had no control over the cover art for her first three novels.
Then, you wait. It can be up to two years before the book is actually published and on the shelves.
But, hey, you get an advance, right? That helps keep you going in the meantime and to soothe your wounded ego over the changes you had to make. However, the advance an author receives is essentially a loan against future sales. If the book fails to make back the amount of the advance, an author can be sued by the company to return it. And dozens have been.
Still, it will all be worth it to see your book in stores, right? Bix companies have the distribution channels no other form of publishing can match. However, a book’s time on the shelf may be brief, unless it’s a success. Bookstores typically stock a title for a certain number of months, and then return the unsold books to the publisher, so they can use that precious shelf space for another novel. Remember, too, that the big bookstore chains that comprise the majority of Bix publisher’s sales are quietly dying. Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble is teetering on the edge.
The amount of promotion a book is given by the publisher depends on whether a book is “front list” if it’s expected to be a hit, or “mid list” meaning, it might sell moderately well. There’s an old writer’s comic which shows an author and a publisher’s agent in contract negotiations: “We’d like to take your book, change everything about it, put it on the shelves for a few months and do absolutely nothing to promote it.” The days of the promotional book tour are almost over, and more and more, authors are expected to take on promotional duties themselves. The “mid list,” the books on which the publisher takes more of a risk, is shrinking, meaning fewer new authors are given a chance.
In the end, there’s a reason why some mainstream authors are ditching the Bixes and publishing themselves.
Small, independent publishers are booming, spurred by the ebook revolution and print-on-demand technology. Look around a bit and check out the quality of the books they publish before you decide whether they’d be a good fit for your book.
Most independent publishers can be approached directly, without an agent, and most have their submission guidelines on their websites. The benefits include more creative control over your work and cover art, and having a professional editing and graphic arts staff to prepare your book for publication. Another benefit is a much quicker publication time, but that means a lot of work in a short period, so be prepared for it.
A book published by an indie likely won’t be found in a chain bookstore. However, your book will be available through online retailers, such as Amazon, and the chain bookstores’ websites may carry your ebook version.
An indie publisher may have a marketing team, but you’ll need to put in effort to help promote the book by getting reviews, guest spots on book websites, etc. It’s a lot of work, building a base of readers.
You’ll also have the added burden of a stigma. There are some who insist that the Bix publishers are the only “real” publishers, even as indie and self-publishing eat up more of their market share every day as the Bixers contract and merge. Your book needs to be squeaky clean when it comes to editing, because reviewers point out any errors they find in indie/self-published books.
That brings us to…
This is the do-all-the-work-yourself option. It’s going to require a significant investment both in time and money. Research carefully the services you use for formatting and publishing your book. They vary widely in price and, apparently, in ethics.
The most important thing you need to remember is, You cannot edit your own manuscript. Nor can your mom, or your friend, unless either of those happen to be a professional editor. You’re going to have to pay for a professional, and a good editor doesn’t come cheap. Your manuscript has to be as clean as a saint’s soul or many people will reject it automatically, even if it has a great story.
This is only copy editing. You also need substantive editing. That means, you need strangers who aren’t worried about hurting your feelings to read the book and tell you the parts that don’t work. Every book has them, but the author usually can’t see them. You don’t want to learn about them from reviewers after the book is published.
And you’re going to face an even greater stigma than those with indie publishers. Despite the ebook revolution, and the incredible success of some authors, there are those who disdain self-publishing. When I was at the Texas Book Fair with my publisher last October, a woman entered our tent and scowled at the booth of my publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop. Her husband headed in our direction and she grabbed his arm. “That’s self-publishing,” she said, in the same tone she would use to warn him away from entering an infectious plague ward. I stepped forward and corrected her, telling her we were a small, independent publisher. Her expression changed from scorn to interest, and she came right into our booth, where she bought several books. Good stories, all, which she never would have read if she thought they had been self-published.
That’s why your book has to be well-packaged if you want to be a success as a self-published author. You have to pay for professional editing and a good graphic artist to make an eye-catching cover. People do judge a book by its cover, unfortunately, and will scroll right past a book that has cheesy or clumsily executed cover art.
So, there you have it, in one overly-long article. Hopefully, I’ve given you at least a general impression of the pros and cons of each method of publishing. Success is possible with each of them, but no matter which method you choose, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication.
It’s not a profession for the faint of heart. It’s a Sisyphean task, and sometimes discouraging… but ultimately, very rewarding.
Good luck, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Lissa Bryan is an astronaut, renowned Kabuki actress, Olympic pole vault gold medalist, Iron Chef champion, and scientist who recently discovered the cure for athlete’s foot … though only in her head. Real life isn’t so interesting, which is why she spends most of her time writing.