After three and a half years of work, I finished writing a book of travel adventure memoir journalism called Fast Times in Palestine. I spent much of those three and a half years dealing with the publishing industry. In the beginning I got a top-notch agent, developed a book proposal, put together three sample chapters, and sent them off to the Big Boys in New York.
Two of the publishers asked for five more chapters each. But between their asking and my finishing, the financial crisis hit, and it was pretty much crickets after that. In the meantime I racked up several kind rejections that all said pretty much the same thing: “Love the story, love the writing, I just don’t know where to position this or how to market it.”
I wrote my book the way I wrote it for a reason: Americans love travelogues and funny, semi-romantic coming-of-age memoirs set in exotic locations. But they don’t read much serious journalism about the Middle East, even though it’s important for a taxpayer to understand what his or her tax dollars are actually doing. Who can blame them? Most books about the Middle East are depressing, hard to relate to, and full of jargon.
So I was offering a “spoonful of sugar” to help the medicine go down. Instead of preaching to the American public, I was listening to their tastes in reading and giving them what they wanted without compromising the realities I was trying to get across. I saw it as a chance to fill a hole, define a new genre — plot-driven mass market travel memoir journalism. Someone had to be first.
But all the publisher sees is: “This doesn’t quite fit the straight journalism box, but it’s also not a straight travel memoir. Doesn’t compute. Next.”
I tried my luck with smaller publishers, and two offered to publish my book. I hired a consultant to look over the contracts, and I gave them both a great deal of thought. But in the end, as a first-time author with a genre-bending book about which I am deeply passionate, I decided it didn’t make sense to publish on their terms. And I’m not convinced a major publisher would have been much better. Here’s why.
Basically, here’s what a publishing house offers:
An advance. Ah, the lure of the six-figure advance. Everyone dreams about it. I certainly made a few fantasy plans about what I would do with it. But in reality, publishing houses are giving less and less to untested authors, and of course it’s only an advance against royalties. The vast majority of authors never earn out their advance, which means that’s all you get. And $25,000 (if you’re lucky) for three years of work puts you waaaaaay below the poverty line. (Small publishers rarely give any advance at all.)
Editing. This is a big one if your book needs to be edited, which most do. Hiring someone to edit a full-length book with real skill can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. I was lucky to have an agent who gave excellent advice about structural editing and friends who helped me catch most of the typos and remove overly-purple prose. You can also join a writing club and trade manuscripts with other aspiring writers to cut down on the professional editing you’ll need.
Another point to consider: A lot of publishing houses are cutting costs in part by cutting the quality of editing, and many won’t take on a book unless it already looks almost ready to go. In fact, many people who get published in New York had to hire their own editor to even get their manuscript in good enough shape to be considered by an acquisitions editor. So you may end up doing a lot of your own editing regardless of what happens.
Cover design and interior formatting. This is extremely important, but it can be done by freelance professionals for a few hundred dollars, or you can learn how to do it yourself.
Printing books. This one’s becoming almost a no-brainer. With the rise of print-on-demand (POD) technology, it’s the last thing you need a publishing house for. POD books can be printed instantly for about $5 each time a book is ordered, and if it’s well-designed, it’s indistinguishable from a ‘real’ trade paperback. Publishers can print books for around $2 each if several thousand are printed at once. But with all the overhead of warehousing and book returns, it’s practically a wash.
Publicity. New and midlist authors are stuck doing the vast majority of their own publicity even at major publishers. Only the mega-best-sellers get advertising dollars and serious public relations pushes.
Distribution. There’s no doubt publishers have the best chance of scatter-shotting your work to all corners of the country in a relatively short time. But most people buy their books online, and you can sell on Amazon just as easily as anyone else. It can be disappointing not to see your book in many bookstores, but keep in mind most new and midlist authors don’t get good placement in bookstores anyway. A few spine-out copies in a back corner aren’t going to do much for your sales numbers.
The worst part about signing with a publisher is that if you don’t make a splash in the first few weeks, they simply move on to the next book in their line-up, and your book languishes indefinitely with virtually no support at all. And your own creative marketing options are limited. Because you don’t own the words, you can’t decide when, where, or at what cost to sell them. You can’t even do giveaways without permission.
Subrights sales. If you have an agent and publisher, they can negotiate sales of foreign rights, translation rights, movie rights, etc., on your behalf. But I’ll talk about the downside of this below.
Stamp of approval. This is by far the most important thing a publishing house can give you: a signal to the world that you’ve made it past the velvet rope, that your book adheres to industry standards, that you’re not just some random hack in an immensely crowded field of hack writers. You might get good reviews from credible sources, a signal that people should take you seriously. And I admit, when I’m working on setting up speaking gigs and public appearances, it would be very nice to have a professional in my corner.
But that stamp of approval means less and less in a culture where Glenn Beck is a bestseller and Rupert Murdoch owns a frightening slice of the publishing industry. Editors can’t make independent decisions anymore. It comes down to huge meetings of corporate marketing executives and board members and so on, which means publishing decisions are becoming more and more conservative and uninspired.
And I didn’t need reviews to get blurbs for the cover of my book. I just asked for them. Ten fairly well-known people out of the twenty I asked — authors, professors, editors, activists, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t — were kind enough to read a representative sample of my book and write terrific blurbs. (The reviews are starting to come now, after the book is out and I’ve begun to send copies to people and publications I think might be interested.)
Also, to be honest, I pretty much never noticed or cared who published a given book before I started trying to publish one myself. Title, cover design, back cover copy, blurbs, cost, reader reviews, whether the first pages grabbed me, and word of mouth usually make my decision to buy or not to buy long before I think to look for a logo on the spine. (And you can buy a personalized ISBN, which allows you to set up your own imprint that will be listed as the publisher, and create a logo to put on your own spine. As long as you’ve created a professional-enough-looking product, most people will never know the difference.)
Meanwhile, here’s what publishers take away from you when you sign with them:
Creative freedom. If they want to stick you with a hideously ugly, inappropriate cover design, they can. If they want you to take out the kissing scene, they can make you do it. They always hold the power because you can’t opt out of the deal unless the publisher breaches the contract or the book goes out of print (a slippery concept in a world of eBooks and print-on-demand, and it can take months or years for it to kick in).
Most of the profits. Publishing houses have enormous overheads, which means an author’s per-book take is squeezed, sometimes into practical non-existence. I know a guy who published with a small house, sold 3,000 copies, and still hasn’t made a dime. Most authors are lucky if they can get $1 per book sold.
If you publish your own book, there’s almost no overhead and you can keep most of the profits. The way my book is set up, I take 25% of the cover price if the book is sold through Amazon, 66% if I sell it myself (which adds up quickly!), and 70% of revenues from eBook sales.
Self-publishing costs more up-front, but if you think your book has a chance of even modest success, you’ll save money in the long run. (I recovered the costs of publishing in the first month.) Not to mention the time and mental energy you’ll save once you stop trying to market yourself to agents and publishers and instead focus on your readers!
Rights to your words. Once you’ve signed on the dotted line with a publishing house, you no longer own your words. You can’t use them or post them or give them away whenever you feel like it. You might have an opinion, but you won’t have much of a say.
Control of timing. With a mainstream publisher, it will take at least a year from signing the contract to seeing it on the shelves. And that’s assuming you get a deal, which itself can take months if not years. Then the publisher can put you anywhere in her stack of priorities. She can promise a May release only to realize a similar book will be released at the same time and push it back six months. And so on.
With self-publishing, if you want it published in April, it will be published in April. See how that works?
Control of pricing. Mainstream publishers tend to price books low so they can pad razor-thin margins with bulk sales and you don’t make much money — and for the most part these days, neither do they. Independent publishers tend to charge $20 or more for a trade paperback, which means few get sold and you still don’t make any money. With self-publishing you can set a nice, middle-of-the-road price for the paperback and sell eBooks as cheaply as you want, and still make more per book than you’d make with a small or large publisher.
Control of subrights sales. A publisher can sell various rights to your work (foreign, translation, movie, etc.), usually without your input (especially if you’re a new author with no leverage), and they take a huge cut of the revenues. If you do well at a small press, they can turn around and sell reprint rights to a bigger publisher and take half the profits. If I spend three years writing a book, and a publisher spends a few months editing and printing it, why should I give them such a huge chunk of the revenues?
I know an author who published with a tiny press that soon went out of business. She was lucky enough to find an agent who sold French translation rights, which got her noticed in England, which led to a mainstream publishing deal. If she’d still been tied up with her small press, it would have been up to them, not her, what happened once the majors came knocking.
If your book does well enough—say, if it sells 5,000 copies—it will be noticed, and then you can seek an agent to sell subrights (possibly including reprint rights to a commercial publisher), if one doesn’t come seeking you first. And then you can negotiate on your terms, with some leverage instead of none, and with the agent taking only 15% of revenues instead of your small publisher taking half.
In summary: If you’re a new author, signing with a publisher might make sense if you aren’t too bothered about making money, if you need significant editing help, if you’re not willing to invest the time, money, and work of doing things yourself, if you crave the feeling and instant credibility of making it past the velvet rope, if you have little marketing reach or experience, and if you know your publisher will go to bat for you on publicity.
But if you know what you’re doing, if you know what you’re in for, if you have a terrific, professional-looking product, if you have access to relevant networks, and if you’re willing to work hard — self-publishing might just be the way to go.