In Publishing the Route Dictates the Pace

As I stated last week, publishing is currently in flux. In November, Simon and Schuster sold to Penguin/Random House, (the deal is still pending regulatory approval). Sales are down against 2019 figures. Where sales are up is in non-fiction. And, to top it all off, some agents are coming up with really goofy reasons to reject query letters. See Morgan Hazelwood’s recap of the last one, here. So, where does that leave the fiction writer aspiring to publish?

Believe it or not, it’s not all doom and gloom. While deals are slow, Publishers Weekly is still announcing contracts on books. Sure, sales are down, but Amazon and KOBO are still offering new titles. Writers still have options. Again, as I stated last week, there is a deep strata beneath the big five. Big four. However many there are. 

There are mid-sized presses that service a spectrum of genres: Baen and DAW, (science fiction) Harlequin and Avon, (romance) Down & Out Books and Hard Case, (crime) just to name a few. Many mid-sized publishers work across genres. Many mid-sized publishers have similar reach and resources as the bigs but are often more receptive to a first-time author. Many accept direct submissions (typically, the big four-ish only accept submissions through agents). They look for previously published writers ready to expand to a larger audience. However they are looking for sure-things and cinches and only slightly less risk-adverse than the big guys.  

Then there are small presses. The benefits of working with small/boutique publishers are numerous. Most are looking for first-time authors. Some are willing to sign previously-published authors whose work didn’t set the world on fire—if they believe in the current book. Most small presses accept direct submissions and if they sign an author, they are motivated to get the new work out there.

Of course there are downsides. Small publishers seldom have large budgets and you’re not likely to get the developmental support that the mids and bigs provide. A small press may fundamentally change your story. A former writing coach signed with a small press that cut out the coarse language and sexual content from a scandal novel, (think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and in the process cut the heart out of the book. When the book—against all expectations—sold out the first run they published an “uncensored” version…for a chunk of his royalties.

An author is not likely to get anywhere near the size of advance with a small press, (if an advance is offered at all) that the mids/bigs routinely offer. Presuming you’re gainfully employed and don’t need the advance for food or rent, why does an advance matter? Promotion.

For a long time now, promotion has been limited across all publishers. 

Typically, a first time-author with the mids/bigs can expect a quarter-page ad in the trade magazines, a profile in the publisher’s newsletter, and occasionally, a book-club promo. Of course, with fewer bookstores, the ad stuff is subject to be completely wrong. So, that’s why the advance is important. An advance enables you to get a website up, make promotional appearances, (once we’re all vaccinated) and maybe buy an ad or two yourself.

The small press is not likely to have the budget for any of that. They pay for editing, book design, and cover art but promotion is often minimal-to-non-existent. And ~sigh~ the audience can’t buy your book if they can’t find your book. 

Note: no legitimate publisher should EVER ask you for money. If you decide to spend your money to promote your book, on your own, that is one thing. A publisher asking you for money to promote your book, (or for any other purpose) is a MASSIVE RED FLAG. 

So where can you start? It just so happens that Writer’s Digest (among others) publishes an annual guide to novel and short story markets, (publishing houses, magazines, et al). Another important starting point is QueryTracker. Even if you think you’re done with querying agents, the forums contain a treasure trove of conversations on publishers.

I must mention there are downsides to working without an agent. First and foremost, an agent’s most important function is to represent your interests. They will guide you past the scam artists. They can also keep you from signing away your life while negotiating a book contract. Contracts are no joke. Authors representing themselves regularly make mistakes on contracts that cost them dearly in time, rights, and money. Most famously, Richard Hooker signed away his film rights to his novel for a few-hundred dollars. The movie, (M.A.S.H.) was a blockbuster, ($81mm against a $3mm production budget). The television series ran for ten seasons. Hooker never saw a dime from either. 

More commonly are publisher/author disputes. An agent can smooth those rough edges and save you from the publisher and yourself. Big four, mid-size, or small publishers, agented or self-represented, tread carefully.

Oh, yeah, there is also self-publishing, which we’ll discuss next week.

The photo, “Interstate 5 paving project,” is by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Details and use, here.

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