With the advent of new technologies there are lots of opportunities for writers to find different, less conventional ways of being successful. The majority of books published are still those published by publishing houses, whether by the large, well-known brands or smaller, independent publishers. However, self-publishing your work is an increasingly popular option.
Working with a mainstream publishing house involves a publisher deciding to take on your book and publish it for you. On the one hand, there is the potential to become a bestseller, speaking at all the big literary festivals and becoming a household name, not to mention making a fair bit of money. On the other hand, you could find yourself submitting your work for years, receiving countless rejection letters with no feedback and feeling like you’re banging your head against a brick wall.
For a in-depth view of the whole process of working with a mainstream publisher, try From Pitch to Publication, written by super agent Carole Blake.
Here are the stages that are involved in getting published, and a few tips too:
Submitting your work to an agent
As a writer, you submit your work to an agent or a publisher. You will need to carefully choose which agents and/or publishers you approach, and decide whether you want to submit your work to agents or publishers or both. You should bear in mind that it can be very difficult to get your work published. Literary agents and publishers receive many unpublished manuscripts a day (which they refer to as the ‘slush pile’) but accept very few new authors a year.
Due to the sheer volume of manuscripts received, you may have to wait a very long time before getting a response and are unlikely to receive any detailed feedback on why that publisher or agent is not interested in your work.
You need be selective about the agents and publishers you approach. Checking publishers’ and agencies’ websites or entries in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook will let you know which genres they are interested in and how they like to receive submissions. While the submissions protocol is generally quite uniform across agencies and publishers, if in doubt, contact the publisher/agency and ask.
Many agencies or publishers state on their website how long they will take to examine submissions – this period can be as long as two months. Pestering the person to whom you’ve submitted your work won’t win you any friends (or a contract!) but a polite email, letter or phone call near the end of the consideration period asking about the progress of your submission is fine. If you have not heard anything from the publisher or agent after this much time has elapsed, it is probably best to assume they are not interested in your work and to direct your energies to other publishers/agencies.
If you want fast answers to your burning questions about submission, the W&AY’s useful FAQ page is a good start.
Negotiating a publishing agreement
If a publisher does takes on your work, you (or your agent) will need to negotiate the publishing agreement. This will determine important things such as the rights that you are going to license to the publisher, how much your advance will be and the value of royalties you will be entitled to on sales. All agreements are different and writers should ensure that they read through the terms carefully before signing. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and The Authors Guild (in the USA) both offer help with contracts to their members.
You should be aware that as a writer, especially a newly published writer, you may struggle to get a ‘good’ deal. The seven figure advances for debut novelists that get splashed all over the news are very much the exception rather than the rule. The amount that writers receive as an advance, and the amount received in royalties may seem very small. Plus you may find yourself having to surrender a fair bit of control over your book and the rights to it.
What the publishers will do with your book
When the deal is done, the publisher gets going on the book. Typically, it will take a year before the book reaches the shelves of the bookshops.
Ultimately, the way they work will vary, depending on their size and structure. Broadly speaking they will have departments which will work on the following aspects of a book:
Getting your book onto the shelves
Once a final proof has been created, the publisher will send your books to be printed. Once printed, your books will be sent to a distributer who will warehouse them, ready to send them out when the book is launched.
The publisher will negotiate for the book to be sold in particular retailers and the distributer will send the books out. Retailers can also order titles of books from the distributer.
The retailer sells your book to readers. It is usual practice that any books which are not sold will get returned to the publisher: this is called ‘sale or return’.
If you are determined and have written a good book that you know that people will want to read, there is nothing to stop you becoming a success by publishing your book yourself. Recent developments in technology mean that this is a much more attractive and economical option than it may have been in the past. In fact, industry experts have credited the massive increase in print-on-demand books in the USA (a 132% increase between 2007 and 2008) to the increase in writers self-publishing their work.
Successful writers who have self-published
There are a number of successful writers who have self-published at some point in their career. They include: Margaret Atwood, William Blake, Robert Bly, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Hill, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L’Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf.
But why should I self-publish?
Due to the overhyped credit crunch, publishers have to be sure they will publish something that will sell. However, they can be wrong! Many famous authors have been turned down a large number of times before a publisher decided to take them on: JK Rowling was turned down by 12 different publishers before Harry Potter was taken up by Bloomsbury, James Joyce was rejected 22 times, and 30 publishers said no to Steven King’s bestselling Carrie. So don’t take it to heart when a publisher tells you that they can’t see a way to market your book, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there that won’t want to read it. Even publishers can’t understand every market, and these days it is safer for them to stick to what they know. Self-publishing your book puts you back in the driving seat. You can publish your book and then the public can decide what they think about it, rather than a publisher deciding for them.
Self-publishing is now an affordable option
These days, if you decide to self-publish you don’t have to pay the large up-front fees that used to be the hallmark of self-publishing (or vanity publishing, as it is called). If you do some research you can find a number of different affordable options (the most affordable of which, is CompletelyNovel…because it’s free!) In addition, self-publishing to begin with doesn’t mean that you can’t approach a publisher at a later stage, once you have some sales and ‘proof of product’ behind you. However good you are at self-publishing, it is hard to replicate the processes and professionalism that a publishing house can offer. They have the contacts, expertise and experience to be able to do much of the work on a larger scale, which may be exactly what you need later on.
Comparison: Traditional vs Self Publish
Share of Retail Price (200 page perfect-bound paperback sold at £5.99)