On the Road to Publication: Myths and Truths

Like many people who’ve never been published, I went into the process with some preconceived notions. Some were just assumptions, which is never good. Others were things I’d read online in articles or in forums. On my journey through the publishing process, I’ve learned that some of those “literary legends” were true, some were not, and some landed in the middle. As part of my continuing journal down this road I’ve been lucky enough to find myself on, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Contract: This is something I wasn’t surprised about. It’s a full on, no joke, contract. It’s heavy legalese and not something easily understood by the uninitiated. As I’ve said before, I can’t emphasize enough that you really need someone to look over this for you, be it an agent, or a lawyer. The time to get the contract, review it, and make requests for changes took about three months. As for the terms of my contract, I’ll say only that it’s a two-book deal, with Harper Voyager having first option on the third book. Beyond that, well, never you mind.

Cover/Jacket Copy: Across the Internet (including here) you’re told the importance of a good query letter, a good summary, and a “hook.” The summary is often likened to the jacket/cover copy, which is what you read on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hard cover. So, I assumed my summary would be my cover copy. Yes, an assumption. This was made for a number of reasons. As a new author with no fan base, I figured the publisher wouldn’t be investing a lot of money on me. Sure, it would want me to succeed, but from a business point of view, capital is invested where there is the greatest potential for return. Right? I was surprised and delighted to be wrong on this. My original summary was used as a base to start from, then the chief of copy took over and blew me away. What you can read here came after a few comments I made, and a little discussion.

Editing: This is probably were I was most surprised. I’ve seen all over that big publishers don’t have an editing staff like they used to, which is probably true. But, all those affirmations led me to believe that only the bestselling authors’ books are edited at all. As it turns out, this is wrong. At least it was for me. My editor did in fact edit, and I don’t mean copyedit (typos, grammar, punctuation). She went through the manuscript and made some suggestions for improvements. Note I said “suggestions.” I don’t know if it’s the norm, but I was very happy about how much my editor wanted to work with me and was open to my feedback, and sometimes push back. There was never a rigid “cut this” or “change this,” it was all suggestions. It felt more like a partnership. Sometimes she suggested cutting something I liked, and in some cases I did. However, if I really wanted it to stay, I rewrote until she agreed it was necessary and added to the story. I’m sure there are editors who work from a directive rather than cooperative stand point, but I’m glad my editor isn’t one of them.

Copyediting came at the end, and was more intense than I expected, but very helpful. It was interesting to see the kinds of things that were checked. As an example: M&M’s is the correct name of the candy, but the trademark is m&m’s, so which to use?

I would like to say here that while it’s true my book did receive editing, I still firmly believe in hiring an editor before submitting. You want to put your very best foot forward, and you need feedback from others to do that. Unless you have a group of skilled readers, and some do, you should look at hiring someone. Also, having your work edited is a good idea because it’s that much less work that needs to be done when you do sign that contract. There were three rounds of editing (suggestions which lead to changes, which were then reviewed, etc.) over the course of a month. So yes, The Stolen did receive editing, but I’m still glad I had it edited before I submitted to Harper, and in fact, I’m certain the reason I made it was because I had it edited and was able to present them a polished manuscript.

Cover Art: I discussed this when I posted the artwork and preorder information (here), but I’ll say again that I was nervous. I got a piece of advice from a bestselling mystery writer who is a friend of my brother. He said to make sure I was happy with my cover art, because to this day, he hates and regrets the cover of his first book. I tried to get something put into my contract for some level of approval, but to no avail. That was only logical, after all, they’re the professionals and have experience as to what works and what doesn’t. Things as simple as color choices can influence your opinion of a cover, regardless of the image itself. I was however asked if I had any ideas. I sent them to the home page of an artist (Tanner) whose gallery I discovered while walking through the French Quarter in New Orleans. I saw A Place to Rest through the window and was mesmerized by it, so much so that I bought a print. You can view it here. If you look at that picture, and then my cover, here, you can see the connection. No, I didn’t get to approve or disapprove of what they gave me, but they did take my thoughts and ideas into consideration. In hindsight, I think it was a good compromise. I don’t know what does or doesn’t work, just what I like.

Marketing: I’ve also heard often that first time authors aren’t given much in terms of promotion or marketing. That’s not far off. This is where it does come down to a business point of view. A publisher has a certain amount of money to spend. Should they spend it on someone who they know will sell and give them a return on that investment? Or should they gamble it on someone new who might not make it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m receiving support. In fact I have a publicist working with me. So far, she’s arranged an interview and a guest blog piece, a spot on a panel at the New York Comic Con, and provided me plenty of advice.But, even if you have a bestseller credit to your name, you’re going to have to work to sell your book. I’ve contacted local bookstores to ask them to carry my book, explored possibilities for events (readings or book signings), and looked for places to promote my book online. I didn’t expect a book tour, or a review by The New York Times or the like, and wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get it.

So what have I learned from all this? As a new author, I had visions of magic and wonder. Turns out, it’s a lot of work to make that magic happen. I had to turn around edits for The Stolen in fairly short order and I had a real deadline for my second book, The Forgotten, not just one I set myself. That being said, I’ve received plenty of support and encouragement, my questions have been answered, and not once did I ever feel condescended to. When I met the Harper team in New York, I was impressed beyond words by the enthusiasm and excitement waiting for me. They were all passionate about their support for The Stolen. I felt like a “real” author, not just someone who got lucky.

I thought I knew a lot, some of which I was right about, but not everything. Of course, just because this has been my experience doesn’t mean it’ll be yours. I just hope this gives you a little more information about what’s behind the curtain. I’ve said before not to ever give up if you want to be a writer, and that includes not giving up once you’ve gotten a deal. It’s hard work, but if it were easy, everyone would do it.

My First Event, the Afterglow – (Also, How to Order a Signed Copy of The Stolen)

I had my first reading for The Stolen on September 23rd at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, NH. They were wonderful and utterly gracious hosts. I’d like to say the turnout was massive, that people were packed in and Gibson’s ran out of books. However, I’m a new author so that would’ve been an unrealistic expectation. I think I provided some entertainment to the people who did come and perhaps intrigued those who were not attending but were shopping for other books. It is a fantastic bookstore, and if you’re within driving distance, you really should check the store out.

After the event, I did sign extra copies and they are available to order. You can either call them at (603) 224-0562 or you can order them online here. For the first few to order, there will be a little surprise included as well. Since Gibson’s is my local bookstore, I’ll be stopping in to replenish the supply of signed copies, so there should always be some available. They make excellent birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, anniversary, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, apology, Festivus, Comic Book Day, Drink a Beer Day, International Translation Day, or Virus Appreciation Day gifts, or just because. If you want to make sure you’re getting a signed copy, you can call and the very nice people there will help you out.

I’ve updated the page for The Stolen to include a link to Gibson’s, here. It might be easier and more convenient to order from a larger online retailer, but independent bookstores are a treasure, and it’s a wonderful thing to support them. They aren’t just places to buy books, or local businesses, they’re also a vital and vibrant part of the world of books. They give new authors like myself a place to have events before we have huge fan bases, and of course provide local venues for bigger names as well. Sure, it’s more convenient to go to a website and click (which you can do for most Indie Bookstores as well), but there’s something special about going to a bookstore, walking through the shelves and finding a new book you might not otherwise have, or maybe rediscovering an old favorite you’d forgotten about and want to share with others.

Two “BIG” Annoucements!

1. Today The Stolen goes on sale in paperback! You can get a copy at your local bookstore, or from: HarperCollins, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Indiebound.

2. I’ve got a post on John Scalzi’s blog, part of his “Big Idea” series! Do stop by and check it out, the poor guy could really use the extra traffic… (MASSIVELY sarcastic)

That’s right, I’m now a “Paperback Writer.” And yes, I’ve been waiting a long time to use that!

On the Road to Publication: Lawyer, Agent, or Me?

In a previous post, I announced that Harper Voyager had made me an offer to publish my novel, titled The Stolen. If you missed it, you can read about it here. After receiving the offer, I had three choices ahead of me. I could negotiate the contract terms myself, I could hire a literary lawyer, or I could find an agent.

 

  1. 1.      Represent myself.

I do contract work for a living, which means I have a reasonable understanding of contracts, at least in my field of expertise. However, I also know the limits of my knowledge and understanding. I’ve done lots of research, as I’ve demonstrated in my previous postings, particularly “Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing.” I know what the normal royalty rates are, but that’s the limit of my understanding. As just an example, I don’t know what’s normal in terms of the length of time for which a publisher keeps the various rights to your work, such as print, audio, digital, etc. So, knowing my own limits, I’m not prepared to negotiate on my own behalf. Perhaps at some point in the future I will be, but certainly not now.

 

  1. 2.      Literary Lawyer.

As you might’ve guessed, this is a lawyer who specializes in the literary world, offering contract review and sometimes, but not always, negotiations. The upsides to this option are:

  • You’re getting someone whose living is made by understanding the legalese of contracts.
  • The person will have a clear understanding of what rights you should retain and for how long you can reasonably expect to relinquish them.
  • You’ll be paying them only for the work they do, which means once their work is done, all of the advance (if you get one) and the subsequent royalties go to you.

There are of course disadvantages to this choice as well, which include:

  • The lawyer has no skin in the game, meaning he or she don’t benefit by securing for you a better deal. That’s not to say he wouldn’t get you a great contract, just that she wouldn’t suffer if she didn’t.
  • The person might not even offer contract negotiations as a service. Some will only review your contract, explain the terms to you, and give you advice on what kind of deal it is within her or her scope of understanding.
  • Hourly rate. Yes, I said it’s an upside that you’ll be paying them only for the work they do, but that work doesn’t come cheap. Based on the research I did, you can expect rates to start at $150 an hour. The review shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, but then the negotiations could drag on, which means the bill can climb high and fast.
  • You have to trust the person implicitly. This seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. You should choose the lawyer carefully because you are truly at their mercy.

 

  1. 3.      Literary Agent

Odds are that if you’re reading this blog, you know what a literary agent is. I’ve covered them in a number of previous posts: “It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You,” “In the Face of Adversity—Dealing with Rejection,” and “Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)” to name a few, so let’s just go right to the benefits of choosing an agent.

  • No money upfront. If you find an agent who asks you for any money, run away. An agent isn’t paid unless, and until, you are.
  • They DO have skin in the game. Since your agent will receive a percentage of all proceeds from the deals she or he negotiates, typically 10 to 15 percent, he or she has a vested interest in getting you the best deal possible. They more you make, the more they make. This also has a side benefit: they can look to secure sales on rights that aren’t sold to the publisher. For example, if your publisher takes only the print and digital rights, your agent can sell the audio rights to another company that could produce an audiobook, or your agent could find a network or studio to option your story for a movie or TV show, and there are also translation rights.
  • If the agent agrees to represent you beyond a single manuscript, you’re one step ahead when your next book is ready to be shopped around. You don’t need to send any query letters, just contact your agent.

Now, let’s look at the disadvantages.

  • The percentage the agent earns is on ALL income for the deal they negotiate, forever. If you sell a copy of your book fifty years from now, they get 15 percent (or whatever rate you’ve agreed upon). There is a caveat here, though. In time (as I said above, I don’t know the normal span), the right revert back to you and you can shop the book around to another publisher, or self-publish it, and the agent will get no proceeds from those sales, unless they negotiate that deal as well.
  • As with the lawyer, you have to trust that the agent is looking out for you. You can take comfort in this disadvantage being balanced out by them only earning a percentage of what you make.

I need to make a note here. There are two ways to acquire an agent. You can sign with one before an offer by submitting queries and finding one who will accept you as a client. Or, you can be offered a deal by a publisher first and then find an agent to negotiate that single offer for you. With the first option, you have an agent who will (hopefully) represent you for more than just one book. The second option might net you an agent for future offers, but in general it’s just for the one. You’ll have to go through the query process again for your next book.

 

So, what path did I take?

At first, I was leaning towards going with a lawyer. The idea of working with someone who wasn’t going to get a percentage of all future sales for an offer I brought to them felt more “just.” I did however contact several agents, and frankly, I was surprised how few were willing to make, what was for all purposes, an instant sale. A few explained they don’t like representing work they don’t feel passionate about, which I respect. After thinking about it though, I decided on an agent. I wanted someone who has a vested interest in my success, even if just for this offer, which meant giving up a percentage of sales, but there’s give and take in everything. I also wanted someone who would look for a market for those rights not bought by the publisher. This was the right choice for me. As with information I’ve posted in other articles, I can’t and won’t suggest which way you should go. I also ask that you please find other sources of information to rely on besides just this blog.

As an update, some months later, I can tell you I’ve never once regretted my decision to go with an agent. I’m represented by Inklings Literary Agency, specifically, Margaret Bail. She’s been wonderful, and a fierce advocate on my behalf. I’ve learned a lot and she’s been supportive through some trying times, particularly waiting for the gag order (though it wasn’t legally binding) to be lifted. I’ve plied her with questions, some undoubtedly simple, but she’s always answered in a respectful and supportive manner.

Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing (Two Roads Diverged In a Wood)

At some point, the majority of writers find ourselves at this fork in the literary road. Some take one path, some the other, with regrets on both sides. However, before we get too deep into the “woods” as it were, let’s make sure we understand the terms we’re talking about.

Traditional Publishing:

This is when someone else (read, publisher) assumes all financial responsibility for publishing your book. This includes: all printing costs (cover design, page layout, attaining an ISBN number, distribution, etc), conversion to the various e-book formats and distribution in the major markets (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, iTunes, etc), marketing, return insurance (book stores can return unsold copies and get their money back), and much, much more. For this, you give them the sole rights to publish said work for a specified period of time. You’re paid an advance and a percentage of sales for each book that’s sold (royalties). It should be noted that smaller, independent publishing houses don’t typically offer advances, but usually offer a higher percentage of sales as a counter, and the advance is just that. It’s an advanced payment, which means you aren’t paid royalties until your book has earned back to the publisher in profits the amount of your advance.

Self-Publishing/Vanity Press:

If you started writing before the e-book boom, the words “vanity press” might make you cringe. I use both terms there, though technically, self-publishing is different from vanity press and many of the places that offer “self-publishing” are actually just vanity presses, but that term has a stigma so it behooved them to find another name. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to give my definition of each by describing their differences. I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me on this separation, but being specific is important when talking about publishing and I believe in calling something what it is, no matter what stigma it might carry. So, what’s the difference I see?

Self-publishing is when YOU assume ALL financial responsibility for the publication, distribution, and marketing of your work. In essence, you become an independent publishing house with a tiny library. Of course this doesn’t mean you, yourself, will be operating the printing presses, or driving the delivery trucks. You’ll hire people to do those things, but you’ll be the one doing the hiring. You get 100 percent of the money for all sales, 100 percent of the rights, and also 100 percent of the bills. You can do everything any publishing house will do. You can hire a printer, or use print-on-demand (which allows for smaller book runs but costs significantly more per book). You can hire a distributer who will even arrange for your books to be warehoused until they’re ordered. You can do your own marketing, even buy return insurance and thus allow brick and mortar bookstores to shelve your book without fear of losing money (assuming you can convince them that your book will sell), and all the rest. It’s not easy, it’s rarely cheap, but it can be done. Make no mistake though, the self in self-publishing is you and that, to me, is the key separation between it and vanity press.

Vanity press, on the other hand is really a hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing. With vanity press you assume some (typically most) of the financial burden, surrender some of your rights (though typically not as much as with traditional publishing), some of the profits (typically better than traditional publishing but not always) and essentially hire one company do all the heavy lifting of publication. It should be noted that with vanity press there is usually very little, if any, marketing done.

So now that we understand what we’re talking about, what are the pros and cons of each one? Well, let’s break it down by category, but understand I’m using generalizations here. As with anything that relates to you signing away rights of any kind, you should check with a lawyer to, at the very least, translate the legalese into plain English. Many a writer has found him/herself in a bad place because they let the excitement of publication blind them to a trap or unfair (to use a monstrous understatement) circumstances.

Recognition:

This isn’t even a contest, which is why I’m starting with it. Traditional publishing wins by forfeit, and that’s the very top benefit to traditional publishing. The reason for this is a harsh but immutable fact: self-publishing and vanity press publish a LOT of books that, for a variety of reasons, shouldn’t be. If you’re offended by this statement, I encourage you to peruse the e-book offerings at Amazon, or anywhere else that lets you “publish” anything you like. Often the e-books are plagued with spelling and grammar errors. That might sound elitist or snobbish, but give it a try. How many misuses of “they’re,” “their,” and “there” (as just an example), will it take before you can’t ignore them anymore and you stop reading? That’s assuming the book isn’t just badly written. There is a lingering notion in the world that writing a book is easy. If you can arrange words into a complete sentence, you can write a book. We all know funny stories, or have interesting anecdotes that people seem to enjoy. As anyone who’s ever finished a book knows, keeping a story going for 70,000-100,000 words plus is no easy feat, let alone keeping it interesting and on track. Of course, short stories are no simple task either. Keeping a coherent, engrossing story down to 5,000 words or less is impressive. If writing a novel is like building a house of bricks, writing a short story is like carving a doghouse from a single block of stone. Writing, like anything else, is a craft. Sure, some of us have more natural talent than others for one aspect or another (technical writing, storytelling, dialogue, etc) but writing is also a skill that should be honed and developed. Let’s apply the same thinking to other tasks that many people associate with writing:

  1. I can build a house, it’s just four walls and a roof.
  2. I can build a chest of drawers, I know how to cut wood and use sand paper.
  3. I can replace (insert part name here) in my car, it’s just bolts and wires.
  4. I can race that dragster, I’ve been driving for thirty years.

Okay, you get the idea. It’s not fair, but every one of us who wants to get published is lumped into the “I’ll just write a book” crowd until we prove we’re serious. Does that mean everything that is published through traditional means is quality stuff? I think we’ve all come across examples of that not being the case. But, I think we can agree you’re less likely find something like this in the traditional publishing world.

Getting Published:

This is goal, right? How many of us have dreamed of holding an actual, physical copy of our book in our hands? Like recognition, this is no contest. Non-traditional publishing wins hands down. The reason is just as simple; everyone is welcome! That’s great, right? Anyone can publish a book! Yeah, ANYONE can publish a book. But, there’s a cost to having an open door. There’s recognition of course (see above), but there is also the company you’ll be in (also see above), and that’s just the beginning. Despite these things though, I still see the allure of non-traditional publishing. Yes, it’s hard to break into traditional publishing. Okay, it’s a leg breaker. Even if you have a great book, you have to pitch it to the right person at the right time. Believe me, I understand the frustration. My rejection letters, or lack of any response at all, number well into the triple digit range for the two books I’ve tried to get published. The first, I admit, falls into the “not ready for publication” category. Frankly, I wrote it and “people” (friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances) liked it, so I thought it was ready to go. Ah, to be young and naïve again.

Compensation (Royalties and Sales):

Now we get into murkier waters. The simple solution to navigating this section is to order the options from best to worst:

  1. Self-publishing
  2. Vanity press
  3. Traditional publishing

The trouble is, like with many things, the context. With self-publishing (my definition), you get all the money! Woo hoo! The other two options give you varying degrees of less than that, with vanity press usually offering a higher percentage of sales. Keep in mind, though, this is where understanding your contract comes in. If you see the word “profits” instead of “book sales,” run, fast. Profits is a term so easily manipulated that I can almost promise you’re about to be taken in. Well, profit is anything after all the bills are paid, right?  You’d be amazed the number of “expenses” that take a bite out of the incoming money. Odds are, you’re lucky to see a stem when everyone has had their bite of the proverbial apple. Non-traditional royalty rates vary widely both in percentage and where in the financial chain they’re calculated. For traditional publication, average royalties for hardback books range from 10 percent to 15 percent, though only successful authors tend to see above 12 percent up front. There are typically breakpoints for more copies sold (higher percentage rates the more copies you sell). For paperbacks the range is 6 percent to 9 percent, of course authors with proven sales can see above 10 percent.*

The other catch to this is that you actually need to sell books to make money. Sure, you can put your book on Amazon and B&N (Barnes & Noble), but you’re just one of, literally, millions of books available. And I’m not even talking about e-book only titles. It’s like deciding you want to sell something and so you setup a webpage and stop. Sure, some people will invariably find you, but no business has 100 percent of the shoppers as buyers. Physical books still account for about 90 percent of all sales, and about 56 percent of sales happen in actual stores, not online.** That means that if you’re not on shelves, your market is already more than cut in half. Sure, online sales are increasing, but no matter how it’s spread, you still have a smaller group of people to sell to. So while you might make a larger percentage going non-traditional, you’re likely to see far less sales.

At this point, I feel I should mention that there have been a number of people who’ve been quite successful by going the non-traditional path. Yes, it happens, and with hard work and some luck, you could join those ranks. Of course, lots of people win the lottery too.

Rights:

Once more, this is tricky. Self-publishing lets you retain all the rights to your work. Traditional publishing and vanity press require you to sign over some of those rights for some amount of time. Each can vary widely, both in time and scope, so I can’t really speak to it. I’ll just say again that you need to consult with a lawyer who deals in intellectual property, if you aren’t working with a reputable literary agent. Yes, both will charge for their time (agents fees will come out of your advance and royalties), but they will also keep you from being taken advantage of, or at least unknowingly taken advantage of.

The Stigma:

This is such a powerful aspect that it needs to be taken into account. Although it’s true that with the rise of e-books, self-publishing (which is much easier with e-books) and even vanity press don’t quite have the full mark of Cain they once did, it’s still not looked upon favorably. At best, you can hope for indifference. Again, there are people who’ve achieved enough success on the non-traditional route that traditional doors have opened, but make no mistake, that’s not the norm. If you choose the non-traditional route, you need to understand that it means that nearly everyone in the publishing world will, at best, not recognize that you’re a published author, or at worst, categorize you in the literary equal of a leper colony. In fact, in most cases, if you decide to try going the traditional route after going the non-traditional one, you’re best never mentioning you went down that road at all.

Is it fair? Well, that’s a loaded question. Publishers are the ones putting the money up, so they get to decide who they’re going to invest it in. Most non-traditional publishers have no quality checks at all, so you get a lot out there that most of us would agree is less than stellar. If you want to walk through the doors that are always open, be prepared to accept the kind of company you’ll be seen as keeping. Likewise, if you want to get “inside,” be ready to knock on a lot of doors and have a great many of them slammed in your face.

Summary:

Like life, publishing choices come down to compromises. If you really just want to see your book in print, the good news is you can. If you want to see your book on the shelf in a store, it’s going to take more work. I can’t and won’t tell you which is right for you. I will however tell you where I am, and why.

I want to be a professional writer. My dream is to make my living writing books, to be able to walk through a bookstore and see my book on the shelf, or even see my book “in the wild” (find someone actually reading it). That means I’m taking the traditional route. I’m querying agents and the publishers who work directly with writers. It’s not easy, and as I said, I’ve gotten my share of rejections. As a genre (fantasy) writer, my options for publishers and agents are more limited, but I’m going to knock on every door available to me. That being said, if I get to the point that there aren’t any more doors left, I’m not going to just give up. I myself will choose to (truly) self-publish, and do all the hard work necessary to get my book out with the hope I can either build enough of a readership base that I can make a living, or enough that I can convince a traditional publisher to take me on. I can’t tell you which path you should take, that’s up to you. Me, I’ll take the path less travelled by, a long and hard path that might very well lead nowhere, but I hope it will make all the difference.

*Royalty statistics taken from PublishLawyer.com: http://www.publishlawyer.com. Accessed November 2013.

**Book sales statistics for 2012 as reported by Bowker market research: http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2013/pr_08062013.shtml. Accessed November 2013.