Tim talks about the pluses and minuses of traditional publishing and self-publishing, especially if you hope to make a living from it. Today's post: Traditional Publishing. (This post first appeared on Fifteen Minutes With a Fiction Editor.)
By ‘trad’, I don’t mean a small press, or an internet-based publisher. Those count as self-pub for the purposes of this stuff. I mean one of the big guys who buys shelf-space in mortar bookshops. (It’s called ‘frontage’, and you either pay it, or most mortar stores don’t stock you at all. Just how it is.)
Trad publishing is much like it ever was, only even more crap. To get a trad deal, you need a polished, strong book in a marketable genre. If the book concept could possibly faze a coke-addled sales cretin, it’s vanishingly unlikely to win a deal. Reality check: things that “haven’t been done before” have _all_ been tried before. They didn’t work then. Chances are they don’t work now. Publishers definitely don’t take chances nowadays.
You really want an agent. Most publishers ignore anything unagented now. It saves on paying slush-readers. Occasionally, they open to all subs; those submissions get substantially worse deals than agented deals get. You want that agent. To actually get an agent, you need that strong book in that marketable genre, and it needs to be at least semi-polished. You also need a good – concise – letter.
Agents are very, very overworked and get a vast flood of lunatic, unsellable dreck every morning. They look for any excuse to stop reading your letter or manuscript. Your job is to make sure there are no excuses, so they grudgingly have to read to the end.
They’re going to want to make changes – more to prove that they’re in charge than to actually improve things – and unless the changes are flat-out insane, bite your tongue and do them. If you seem 'difficult', the publisher will drop you like a stone. If they are flat-out insane, shriek at your agent about how vile life is, and let her sort it out. That’s a big chunk of what you’re paying her for.
Sometimes the changes _are_ flat-out insane. There’s plenty of bad editors running book lines.
Once the insides are finalized, they’ll cover it and splat it out there, and hope to sell enough to pay costs. If it does, they’ll take another from you. and if it doesn’t, they won’t. It probably will. They don’t take books unlikely to go into profit any more.
Unless you’re either lottery-win lucky, super-fascinating in the life history department, or young and pretty, you’re not going to get either a marketing budget or a huge advance (which, honestly, is entirely just a marketing stunt). You’re going to get $5k, maybe $10k. Marketing will boil down to “send off comps and press releases to the usual suspects”. Unless your book is both world-beating in quality and also very, very lucky to hit just the right zeitgeist note, there’s almost no chance you’ll earn out your advance. You’ll get a bit more again later if the agent sells it into other territories, or sells adaptation rights to visual media. If so, that may pay for the 20-25% the agent took of your initial advance.
Either way, the bad news is that it’s overwhelmingly likely the advance and some rights is all you’ll ever get. (Get those sunset clauses in there, girls and boys.)
The good news is that you do absolutely nothing but write books, you can most likely keep on selling them, and if your agent is halfway competent the advances will creep up until eventually, you can make a living if you can turn out say two or three books a year under a couple of pen-names. This will most likely take several years of not being able to make a living.
If you do some social media engagement and fan-base wooing, it’ll go better, plus you’ll actually build a fan base. This is very useful.
Next Week: Part 2 - Self-Publishing
If you enjoyed this post, consider joining our Facebook group, Fifteen Minutes With a Fiction
Editor where serious writers get free advice from us, discuss their work, air complaints, share tips and tricks and more.