By Jeanne C. Stein
We’ve reached the last lesson. I hope I’ve given you one or two nuggets to strengthen your writing. This lesson will increase your understanding of the business. The two go hand in hand. If you are truly serious about a writing career, it isn’t enough to immerse yourself in the creative process. You must also be aware of how publishing works. Publishing, for good or evil, is a business and as such, profitability is of utmost importance. The authors that sell are the authors who will continue to be published.
Last time, we talked about agents. This time we will look at the different publishing venues. I must add here that I’m not going to be talking in depth about e-pubbing. There are lots of venues you can check if that’s what you’re interested in. Just google JA Konrath and you can get a wealth of information. I’m going to talk about the mainline route—Big houses, small presses and self-publishing.
We’ll start with the traditional publishing houses. The big boys with the familiar names: Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins, Kensington, and on… What are the advantages of going with a big house? Are there any disadvantages?
To start, lets look at the process. For those of you already published, this will be a review. For those of you YET to be published, this will be a brief overview of what to expect. Some people are surprised.
We’ll talk about money first. If your manuscript is accepted at a big house or small, whether through an agent or plucked from the slush pile, you’ll be offered a contract. The contract will stipulate the amount of your advance (upfront money paid against future sales) and how the balance will be paid out. For instance, you’ve been offered a $5,000 (which seems to be the norm now) advance for your first book. Your first check will be 50% or $2500. If you have an agent, he will get 15% of that (that’s the usual fee.) The remaining $2500 will be divided into two payments—$1250 upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and $1250 upon publication of the book. Again, the agent gets 15%.
So far so good—what about royalties? Let’s say your book is published in trade paper back—the larger paper back size. Retail price is $15.00. Your cut is most likely 8% of $15.00 or $1.20. To make back the $5,000 advance, you have to sell roughly 4100 books. That means, 4100 books sold before you see a royalty check. Okay, you’ve sold 4100 books according to the latest statement. But where’s the check for your full royalty? All you’ve gotten is maybe $300? Why? Because publishers hold money back against returns. In other words, publishers want to hedge their bets. They want to make sure if Barnes & Noble returns 400 of your books, they haven’t paid you for them. They can hold that money for as long as your contract stipulates.
That’s the way the money works. What advantages are there to going with a big house? First off, you’re probably going to get a larger advance. The big houses have thousands of authors generating millions of dollars. Those big names who get the seven figure contracts really pay the way for the mid list writers. The Stephen Kings and Nora Roberts of the publishing world bring in vast amounts of revenue.
Secondly, large houses have marketing and publicity departments. They send out bound review copies ahead of publication to generate interest in an author. They have art departments to design original covers. They have contacts with the media. They have a sales force to make sure your book gets to the stores.
What don’t they do? Generally they don’t pay for a first-time author to go on tour. They expect you to arrange your own book signings although they will make sure a supply of your books gets to wherever you intend to be. They won’t pay for advertising in magazines but they will design the art if you want to pay for the space. In other words, they rely on you to do most of your own promotion.
What about a smaller publishing house? I’m speaking here of independents. The little guys who put out 12-20 books a year. Most likely, you will get little or no advance--$100 - $1000 is the average. They may not have the distribution channels available to make sure your book is available to the B & N’s and Border’s or the contacts to get your books reviewed. Cover art may be less professional, i.e., generic or stock. You may get less editorial support. Small presses operate on a shoestring and sometimes, they go under, taking your book with them. It is so important if you go with a small house and you are unagented to have an entertainment lawyer check out the contract. Things to check are ebook and media (TV/Movie) rights. You don’t want to sign these away. It will cost you down the road. There should be a clause stipulating when you get the rights to your books back—especially if something happens and the house either goes under or doesn’t publish your book. This sometimes happens with a small house.
On the other hand, you may get much more personal attention with an editor who has ten rather than thirty authors to work with. Your book may be released months rather than years after purchase. You may have more input into cover art and cover copy.
Pros and cons. Look at each. I’ve been published by both a big and a small house. In my case, bigger was definitely better. More exposure, more reviews, more professionalism by far. But if you think you’d like to start small, by all means do it. Your comfort level is what’s important. How do you find the small imprints? Join writers’ organizations—Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers of America—most have local chapters in big cities. Investigate local groups. Find them through libraries and community colleges. Then attend the meetings. Often the speakers are editors of small houses (and agents looking for new stuff) who will listen to your pitch and ask you to submit. Just like polishing your query letter, practice a one or two line pitch.
What about self-publishing? We’ve all heard about the Christmas Box. Richard Paul Evans wrote the book, self-published it and sold it out of the trunk of his car. Now it’s a mega-best seller picked up by Simon & Schuster and sold around the world.
Lightning does strike.
But the truth is, self-publishing a book is fraught with problems. Most bookstores will not carry a book unavailable through one of the major distribution channels. Neither will they invite you to sign. Self-publishing is expensive and time consuming. You must design your own cover and format. Register your own copyright. Reviewers are seldom interested in a self-published book, no matter how well written. You are the sole marketing agent, warehouser and distribution agent for the book.
So why do people do it?
Frustration with normal publishing channels is the most common reason people choose to self-pub. They have a story to tell and want to find an audience. They are too impatient to wait the one-two years necessary for a book to go from acceptance by a publisher to print. They want to keep all the money for themselves, not understanding that often to make back the cost, they have to charge an exorbitant amount for each book.
But again, like choosing a big house or a small house, self-publishing is an option. Just do your homework before you decide. And remember, there are literally millions of books out there. The trick to successful self-publishing is to have three or four books ready to go before you publish your first. Then release a second book four to six weeks after the first, the third, four to six weeks after that, etc. Build a readership. Make them eager for your next release. In the meantime, be writing books five, six, seven and eight.
We’ve reached the end. Writing is a solitary endeavor and it’s important to find support and encouragement. Here are a few of the national writing organizations I mentioned before you might want to check out:
Sisters in Crime http://www.sistersincrime.org/
Mystery Writers of America http://www.mysterywriters.org/
Romance Writers of America http://www.rwanational.org/
Horror Writers Organization http://www.horror.org/
There are many others and most have local chapters, too.
I hope this class has provided you insight into what genre writing encompasses. Many of you are well on your way to writing your own. You have the tools to write a well-crafted book, the knowledge to avoid pitfalls and mistakes, an awareness of what publishing venues are available to you.
I want to thank all of you for participating. I’m always available at Jeanne@jeannestein.com and will answer every email.
Below is a list of a few of my favorite writing books in no particular order:
Jack Bickham SCENE AND STRUCTURE
James Frey HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL
Dwight Swain TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER
Lawrence Block WRITNG THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT
Carolyn Wheat HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION
Patricia Highsmith PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION