Virtually all of you reading this want to have a best-selling book with a major global publisher on your resume. I’m also guessing that most, if not all of you, consider your writing talent appropriate for this level of success. Of course, accomplishing this is another story altogether. So this article is about how to go from hell to HarperCollins as a novice author.
As a young or novice author, when should we self-publish? When should we use a trade publisher? And when should we use a subsidy publisher?
Having been self-published and having been trade published several times, I’ve been immersed in the issue of which way to publish for the past eighteen years. Having a literary agent makes an enormous difference. Yet, it can be even more difficult to find an agent as it is for a publisher.
Before I continue, know this… if a person, company or alleged-publisher asks you for money, beware. Be very, very careful. Sometimes this can be a terrific opportunity; or, you’ll become another scam victim. Real publishers never ask an author for money, or attempt to extort money from you, “if you will only be willing to pay to have your writing ability measured,” or any number of other scams that make victims out of novice authors.
I recommend that ALMOST NO ONE subsidy-publish (also called, “vanity” publishing), unless you really don’t care if anyone buys your book. That’s because almost no one will know it exists, much less purchase and read it. Subsidy/Vanity publishers earn a profit from the author, from you. The moment they have your money, they are done helping you. They might post your book on their own web site, along with other books by novice authors left unread and unsold. Why should they lift a finger for you, once they have your money? They earn nothing from sales. Remember, they already have your money. Oh they might post an interview with you, if you ply them with additional cash. Sadly, almost no one will read that interview either, because subsidy publishers don’t care if anyone reads their web site. And while some vanity publishers deliver exactly what they promise, others are scam artists and they propagate fraud upon well-meaning authors who failed to conduct due diligence. These so-called publishers jump from state to state, just ahead of the attorney general. I recommend a subsidy publisher ONLY when the author does not care if anyone will read it.
Recognize a scam (subsidy) publisher by their greed and pitfalls. They charge you for each and every production cost, while they retain all major attributes, including the ISBN and all major sales opportunities and legal rights. They require you to sell a certain number of books or to pay for all unsold copies. They offer no royalty or a very insignificant royalty, and/or demand that you pay for an “evaluation of your writing ability,” or that you hire the company’s staff for a variety of existing or imagined services, including graphic design and printing. Before you sign a contract and pay one of these so-called subsidy publishers, research them carefully. Look for current and past lawsuits litigated by disenfranchised authors. Contact authors who have gone this route and ask them about satisfaction and sales. Order a few of these books and judge the quality. You’ll find that in most cases, you would rather have your finger and toenails pulled out before associating your literary reputation with scammers and authors devoid of talent.
Self-publishing is often a viable option for an unknown author. I’m including POD in this category. You’ll still need to pay for most production and promotional costs. You’ll need to find a way to post your book with the web sites of dozens of major book distributors and retailers. You’ll need to attract newspaper, journal and magazine articles about you and your book. You must obtain Internet interviews with the biggest and most widely-read blogs and web sites. You will need to arrange for book tours, bookstore signings, public speaking events and submissions for major book awards. It will be up to you to pay for a winning book trailer and then to market it with hundreds of the best blogs frequented by readers in your book’s genre. There are dozens of other ways that you must promote and market your self-published book. I’ve elicited many of them here in this blog, including this post: http://cweinblatt.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/book-marketing-101-2/.
The differences between self-publishing and subsidy publishing are very real and very dangerous. With self-publishing, you own the ISBN. You retain the copyright. You own all major privileges. And you are in control over every aspect of pre and post-production events. With self-publishing, the author should retain all major opportunities for screenplay and movie rights, translation rights, cover and interior design, typesetting, printing, marketing, distribution, etc. If a “publisher” retains these rights in a contract, flee.
If you write non-fiction and you are a subject matter expert, self-publishing is a very attractive opportunity. Many years ago, while recovering from spine surgery, I wrote a non-fiction “how to” book about job seeking skills. A major textbook publisher offered a contract with an attractive advance. In the early 1980s no one was discussing self-publishing. But if I had it to do over again, I would have turned down the contract and self-published. Why? Because I could sell almost as many copies as I desired through my consulting practice, with regional companies who were closing or laying off workers; and because I saw to it that my book became required reading for graduate students at my university. Why share the profit if you don’t have to? This is a perfect example of why a novice author should self-publish.
Many of us write fiction, as I do almost exclusively now. In that case, your professional expertise means little and your success is accomplished via reputation and significant book sales. As is the case with most aspects of success, authors earn it one book at a time. With each successful book, we demonstrate incremental improvements in talent, distribution, promotion, sales and marketing. Before you can successfully sign a contract with a well-connected literary agent, you’ll need to demonstrate a string of increasingly successful books and reputational enhancement. This takes a lot of time, research, practice and effort. If you expect to become a best-selling author on your first or second try, dream on. It won’t happen and you’ll just become more frustrated. Be patient, produce one book after another, read voraciously (especially in your preferred genre) and learn from the best authors.
Many small publishers today ask the author to pay some or all of the publishing production costs. At first blush, this seems outrageous. The publisher acquires almost no risks and the author must dig into her or his bank account, often to the tune of several thousand dollars or even more. Plus the author must accept responsibility for marketing and promotion (and associated costs) – but with one major exception.
Almost all publishers attend a variety of global book fairs, conferences and conventions each year. There, they listen, learn and, they promote their books and authors to the entire world. This is one major reason to use a trade-publisher, even if you must front the cost of production. Attendees include large publishers, well-known and admired screenplay artists, movie producers and a variety of additional marketing opportunities. Although you might despise paying several thousand dollars to put your book into print (and an e-book), you would probably spend even more on travel costs to reach all of these global book fairs, conventions and conferences. Consider this investment a loss lead. If you really believe in your book’s quality and marketability, go for it with a small publisher who regularly attends the world’s biggest and best conferences and conventions. It’s a question worth asking before you sign a contract. In fact, you have every reason to add it to the contract before signing it.
When you can acquire a well-connected literary agent, then you have a real chance to become a noted author and attract millions of readers. Of course, agents only take a chance on obvious talent. With that in mind, you may need to produce several moderately-successful books before an agent will have the confidence to acquire you on contract. That seems unfair and very time-consuming. However, put yourself in the agent’s shoes. What would it take to put your reputation on the line with major publishers? Remember, the only way for an agent to be successful is to develop a trusting and mutually rewarding relationship with acquisition editors at the biggest and best publishers in the world. If the agent lets the big publishing house down by promoting a poorly-written book, then you and the agent are in trouble.
I do not consider myself to be a very talented author. At the same time, I believe that I can write interesting books. By the time I had completed my first full-length novel, I had produced two other books in different genres and I was well on my way to completing two more. My agent liked my writing and I trusted the agency to promote my books globally, where it would be cost-prohibitive for me to do it. After I had a few successfully-published books under my belt, that literary agent began to take me seriously. That’s time and effort… before a contract for success. There are very few free rides in acquiring a talented and well-connected agent.
The difference in having an agent was like night and day. Where I had struggled for years to convince small, insignificant publishers to examine my offerings, my agent suddenly had acquisitions editors reading my manuscripts at HarperCollins, Penguin, Prometheus, and many other famous publishing houses. This almost NEVER occurs when authors contact a major publisher on our own.
Here lies our conundrum. Almost all best-selling authors have a wonderful and pervasive author platform and publish through the biggest and best publishing houses. But, before we can attract major publishing houses, we must devote years to creating books that demonstrate our aptitude and insure that the marketability of our efforts is obvious. Only after that can we hope to attract the most well-connected and talented literary agents in our genres. Sometimes, we must pay to have our books published (subsidy or vanity publishing) in order to start this process. More often, we decide to self-publish, in a way that allows us to control all major aspects of the publishing process. Either way, the road to becoming a best-selling author is filled with potholes.
The more we learn about being published, the more reachable will be our success. This is why I blog and how I hope to provide some insight in this blog. For more information about fraud in publishing, as well as the differences between real publishers and scam artists, see Writer Beware (http://www.sfwa.org/) and Predators & Editors ( ). My writing and publishing web site is here: http://cweinblatt.wordpress.com.