There are many articles that start “What should you choose: traditional or self-publishing?” This gives the wrong impression to writers. Why? Because it gives the impression that as an author you have the choice to be published by a publishing house if you like!
You probably don’t, and it’s high time this author forum myth is put to bed.
If you want to be traditionally published, you are facing several obstacles before even beginning your publishing journey. Here we discuss the issues with pursuing a traditional career in detail, and how hard it actually is.
You will need an agent to submit your book to larger publishing houses. So you need to get an agent. To get an agent your submission needs to be “solicited.” This means you need to have had a request from the agent to send your submission.
- Ask first! The only way to become a solicited submission is to ask nicely first.
- Research thoroughly a list of the most inspiring books for you, and find out who their agent was. Whittle this down by seeing if that agent is open to submissions – this is usually listed on their website.
- Don’t send your manuscript – send a very tight, short email asking if they would be open to your submission, and how many pages they would like to see.
- Give a one-line synopsis, and if possible, mention why you are writing to them in particular. Flattery may get you everywhere.
- Do not bulk send agents a query! It’s really obvious to spot and looks desperate.
- Some experts recommend sending a real letter. Check this out as far as you can for each agent.
Running Out of Agent Juice
The agent sends out your book on your behalf to their contacts. Your book is rejected by all the people they know. Then this agent becomes a sort of useless commodity, and you are sort of useless to them, and they stop calling.
So change agent! At this point, if the agent is not prepared to start investigating other avenues, you will need to change representation. It probably means you were not really a fit to begin with, or the agent takes on everyone and gambles with their work. Good research is your only protection against this sad state of affairs.
You can’t get an agent to accept your book
- Are you sure your book is even ready to be published? A classic misfire is sending out a book too early. Make sure you’ve had a content editor and a proofreader scalp your book to within an inch of its life before sending anything.
- When you are ready, and you can’t get an agent, find publishers willing to take a look at your manuscript without an agent. These will probably have to be solicited. You will have to send an introductory letter again like you did first off.
- Have you got yourself an “author platform” yet? That is, have you built a presence online showing off your personality and built a life online? If not, why not? Get to it! Agents will Google you! It’s the writer not the book that interests most agents – i.e. can they develop you as a name in the world of literature? Will you make a good interviewee, and turn up to signings and readings?
You live in a different country or city to the agent you like
Agents usually only take on authors in their area, albeit a whole coast or country. If you solicit a UK agent with a US submission, you might want to explain why as part of your letter. It could look like you are coming to them at the end of your choices if they are far away. Be careful to specify why you chose them.
Too much time!
It can take years to get a publishing deal. Then you have to wait at least 18 months for your “slot” to come up. In all, it could be half a decade before you get your book on a shelf out there.
I give up with agents…
Find niche audience publishing houses that might look at your work unsolicited, such as YA science fiction or cozy mysteries. This gives you something to hook your book on for their interest.
What if I get a trad deal?
Unless your book is something with a built-in audience (non-fiction niche interest, official celebrity biography, book written by premium expert or leader on the subject, news-covered story) there is no reason for a publishing house to give you a large advance. Rick Horgan at Crown, a Random House imprint broke it down over at Fiction Factor.com for a hardcopy novel,
If the hardcover had a sell-through of 15,000 copies, the paperback run would be 7,500 to 10,000 paperbacks, either trade paper or mass market. The typical sell-through rate of trade paper is 70%. The typical royalty rate is 7.5% of $13.95 ($1 per book), making about $7,000 in profit for the author on the paperback run.
Then if you have an agent, you have to part with 15%, so count off that and taxes and you are looking at somewhere around $5000 or less – and that’s a Random House deal!
Not only that, advances are usually paid in thirds or even quarters – so unless you can start coming up with another book just as compelling as fast, it’s not likely you’ll make a living.
Comparing Trad to Indie
So now you’re thinking, “OK, I can make more money getting 70% royalties on Amazon.” Well, yeah, but…
Let’s look at what you WON’T get:
- A professional book cover
- Professional editing
- Marketing and high-profile reviews
- Editorial copy written by experts
- Press releases written by experts
- Website and social media help
- Book tours and signings worked out and paid for
- Book fair representation and secondary deals, such as foreign rights and film rights sales
- Project management for your writing career
- Support on tap from a book person who knows when you wake up sweating in a panic that you just wrote a pile of steaming horse doo-doo
The bone of indie contention
So now you have to take some of that money you saved by going indie and spend it on all the things a publishing house would have done. So let’s say we take the difference between the 15% and the 70% royalty margins. So that’s an extra 55% royalty being spent by your publisher on all that stuff – and staff – working on your book.
If 15% royalty is $5000, then 55% is a whopping $18,000 spent on printing, publishing, management, and marketing by a trad publisher, as well as all the perks all the top publishing houses get with Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and The New York Times, for example. That means to compete, you need to be spending a good few thousand on the elements of a book launch listed above yourself.
Help is on hand
There is also a wealth of information for free from people who know what they are doing, like
- Derek Murphy at Creativindie
- Jim Kukral at Author Marketing Club
- Penny Sanvisieri at Author Marketing Experts
- Writer’s Digest
Stick to the facts, ma’am!
One last point – author forums and closed groups tend to be a hotbed of amateur gossip and blind-leading-the-blind misinformation. Stick to the facts and real information, and try not to read the comments! Experts are available for assistance in many places – remember authors who have time to chat on forums are not writing books! Procrastination, anyone?
Finally…what’s the chump change?
If you follow a solid writing, crafting, and publishing path with professional design, formatting, editing, and marketing you should end up selling a few hundred books – which means in theory you only need to sell 1000 books to make what you would make in a traditional deal selling 25,000. However, to sell 1000 books, you need to really slog it, and you will need to invest a fair chunk of the old metalico, whoever you are. Author Dana Beth Weinberg writes at DBW,
Among the voluntary sample of authors in the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey who reported on the sales of their latest books, 71.8% of indie authors sold fewer than 1,000 copies, compared to 40.5% of traditionally published authors who had sales no higher than the triple digits. In fact, 59.7% of indie authors in the survey sold fewer than 500 books.
There are currently only a handful of writers ruling the market, and when indie author blogs fanfare the great profits of indie authors made in a year, these figures get really skewed. As reported in TNYT, Amazon has said from 2011 to 2016, only 40 indie authors have sold close to a million books, out of the four million books published on Amazon. That’s a 0.00001 chance of “making it”, trad or indie.
It’s a jungle out there.