Here are a few prevalent fallacies, as well as new truths, that all authors ought to recognize when it comes to traditional publishing.
Despite the constant upheaval that defines the current publishing landscape, many authors (and would-be authors) labor under some old “assumptions” about traditional publishing that are simply no longer relevant.
Myth #1: Traditional publishers serve as “gatekeepers”
As the argument goes… with a bloated book marketplace being invaded by millions of self-published titles, readers can depend on publishers to maintain quality literary standards as they allow only the best stories to be told through well-written tomes. This is false for many reasons.
First, publishing is a cold business. There is no noble mission to protect readers from bad books. Publishers put out books they think will make money — for the publishing house, maybe the bookstore, and possibly the author.
It’s true that traditional publishers are full of book professionals, some of whom are pretty good at spotting talent. The best placement editors also have an instinct for what the market will consume. They’ve published a lot of wonderful books. They’ve also published a lot of stinkers.
But if the gatekeeper myth were true, surely no good manuscript would ever be rejected, right?
Well, Robert M. Pirsig was rejected by 121 publishers, and still Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went on to sell five million copies in the ’70s. Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected by more than 40 publishers. And we all know the story of how JK Rowling’s first book was turned down by eight publishers before Bloomsbury offered her a 2,500 pound advance for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Myth #2: You can only make the big bucks through traditional publishing
The truth is, thanks to today’s self-publishing revolution, you have an equal chance at huge sales results no matter which route you choose: traditional or independent publishing. In fact, the vast majority of authors will tell you there isn’t a lot of money to be found in a traditional book deal. Sure, you get an advance check, which averages around $5,000-$10,000, but you have to earn that back before you see another dime.
Moreover, the royalties associated with publishing through one of the major houses are paltry. If you publish through a large publishing house, you can expect to make $1-$2 per book sold. To make matters worse, most publishers only pay authors twice a year, so you can’t expect to see your monthly income increase because of your book.
It got to the point that, in 2016, the US Authors Guild sent an open letter to the Association of American Publishers demanding better contract terms. In the letter, these writers stated, “Authors’ income is down across all categories. According to a 2015 Authors Guild survey — our first since 2009 — the writing-related income of full-time book authors dropped 30% over that time period, from $25,000 to $17,500.”
Myth #3: Traditional publishers will provide all the marketing support
Remember Oprah’s Book Club and the days when prominent book publicity tours included chats with Matt and Katie on “The Today Show?” Those days are long gone — even for potential bestsellers.
As marketing resources have become more scarce, publishers are only promoting titles they consider likely to succeed — such as a book by a celebrity author, a book on a subject that is currently red-hot in the news, or a book by an author whose previous books have sold well.
What’s left for all the rest? Not a lot, especially for unknown authors. You might appear in the publisher’s catalog, in a press release, and may get featured at a trade show, but you can’t count on publishers landing you an appearance alongside George Stephanopoulos.
As a matter of fact, many traditionally published authors are funding their own advertising and publicity, just like self-published authors.
Myth #4: A publisher will ensure my book gets on the shelves of brick and mortar bookstores
The biggest knock against self-publishing? Authors think it’s nearly impossible for their books to make it into bookstores around the country.
OK, it’s true that traditional publishing is almost the only route to bookstore placement, but shelf space is far from a sure thing for any new author. Even the most powerful publishing houses can only persuade bookstores to shelve a fraction of their new books. It’s a numbers game. With nearly 750,000 new books coming out each year, the best a commercial publisher can do is try to get your book on a bookstore’s shelves. If you’re not a hot commodity, you won’t be getting prime real estate — if you manage to get any at all.
Myth #5: Once you land a book deal, your author career is set for life
Loyalty to authors is, largely, a thing of the past. The duration of a traditionally published author’s career is controlled by his or her publisher, and it’s usually all about sales of the latest book. If your new book doesn’t perform well, the publisher will not want your next one.
In fact, your first book must perform exceptionally well before the next one will be considered for publication. And the odds are long: only one to two percent of all books published become bestsellers.
Plus, there’s a catch in almost every publishing contract, and it doesn’t favor authors. The standard publishing contract stipulates that publishers get first right of refusal on your next book — meaning, they do not have to publish your next book if they don’t want to.
Myth #6: If you self-publish, you kill your chances of landing a book deal
This is perhaps the most pervasive of these fictions. The reality is, if you self-publish a book and achieve some success — say, selling 1,000 copies or more — you can dramatically improve your chances of landing a traditional book deal.
Publishers want authors to come to the table with a ready-made “platform.” In other words, they want to know that you already have an audience and a product that appeals. Selling a significant number of books on your own proves exactly that.
But it’s not just about sales’ results. Talent scouts for traditional publishers will scrutinize everything an author is doing to promote his or her writing career. Does the author have a website? A blog? A social media presence? Are there speaking engagements? Book signings? These factors weigh heavily in a publishers’ decision to sign an author.
Truth #1: The biggest reason people still pursue traditional publishing is ego
There’s nothing wrong with admitting it. It would be fun to tell your friends, parents, high school English teachers, and your ex-spouse: “I have an agent and a publisher lined up to publish my book!”
But that’s where many of the advantages of traditional publishing end.
Truth #2: There are many compelling reasons to self-publish
I’ll just list the top three:
- Royalties. By self-publishing, you’re not sharing your royalties with a publisher. Indie authors make more money selling 500 books than traditionally published authors selling 5,000.
- Time. The traditional publishing timeline is long and slow. On average it will take 24 months to go from edited manuscript to a book arriving in bookstores. In the same two-year period, an indie author could have written, published, and promoted three titles.
- Control. When you sign a traditional publishing contract, you are signing over all your control of the book. The words, ideas, pages, cover design — they’re no longer yours. You’re pretty much at the mercy of Mr. Bigtime Publisher — until they throw you out on the street because your book wasn’t a bestseller.
In the end, there is still much to celebrate about receiving a book deal with a traditional publisher. The added credibility can bring plenty of opportunities related to speaking, consulting, and much more. But it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you pursue a traditional publishing dream. It’s not what it once was, nor what most envision it to be.
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