In this series we will address one of the biggest questions facing authors today: how will I publish my book? As little as ten or fifteen years ago, this answer would have been simple: get an agent, who will then pitch the book to major publishers on your behalf. Now, with the wide variety of options available, it can be hard to decide what route to take. This is why, one post at a time, we’ll dissect each of the options in an effort to help authors better answer that question.
Today we’ll begin at the beginning and talk about “traditional” publishing. Rather than dive into a history of publishing, let’s keep it simple: traditional publishing happens when you sell the publication rights of your book for an advance and royalties on the sale of your book. This is generally the type of deal you’ll find at the “Big Six” publishing houses in New York—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, and Macmillan.
So what does striking a deal with a traditional publisher entail exactly? We thought it might be easiest to break it down into pros and cons.
- Credibility. Since traditional publishers have been producing high-quality, salable books for quite some time, authors are afforded automatic credibility just by working with them.
- Distribution. Again, because of their reputation in the business, the Big Six’s wholesale and retail connections are very strong. You can rest assured that they know how to get your book into retail, and your agent can help you sell your translation or foreign rights.
- Low up-front cost. Generally, traditional publishers pay for all aspects of book production (which can be rather expensive), and authors are usually responsible for at least some, if not all, of the marketing and publicity. For someone looking for a lower financial investment, this is one of the cheaper options.
- Quality. Acquisitions editors at traditional publishing houses screen all projects so that the overall quality of the publisher’s line is very high. The production process includes everything from seasoned editors working on the book to dazzling design and printing.
- Lack of brand/creative control. As an author, you have little say in the titling, design, printing, or editing of your book. This may be an issue if your brand is tied to your book.
- Low royalties and advances. First-time author advances can range from $2,000 to $20,000, which you have to pay off in sales before you start receiving royalties. Royalties for paperback are typically five to seven percent, and ten to fifteen percent for hardcover. You’ll also need to account for paying a portion of your advance and royalties to your agent, usually around ten to fifteen percent.
- Slow time-to-market. Unfortunately it can take anywhere from two to three years to secure an agent, get a publisher, and actually have your book published and released.
- Ownership. Under the traditional model, authors sell the right to publish their work for a defined period of time. Selling the publication rights gives them little say in the direction, distribution, or amount of time their book spends in the market. If for any reason the author is dissatisfied, they must either buy back their rights before the agreement ends or wait for the book to go out of print (at which time rights revert back to them) before they can take it elsewhere.
How do you get the ball rolling if you think you’d like to go with a traditional publisher? Get an agent! Traditional publishers rarely accept proposals directly from the author, so you’ll need to find an agent to represent you. Here are a few resources:
- Check out the Association of Author Representatives (AAR). Members follow an ethical code, so any agent who asks for a reading fee or money up front is not included in this organization.
- Also take a peek at the Guide to Literary Agents (GLA), available in both book and blog formats, sponsored by Writer’s Digest. The blog discusses the types of work the agent represents and their submission guidelines. You can search by genre to locate agents who will represent your work.
So does traditional publishing make sense for you? If the pros mentioned above sound like what you want and you can live with the cons, perhaps it is. If what you want doesn’t quite fit what this model offers, stay tuned for future installments of the series on publishing. In coming weeks, we’ll be covering new technology, vanity presses, independent publishers, and self-publishers.
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1. Flaunt a big platform.
Size matters in our industry because a big platform is one of the few things that can minimize the risk all publishers and distributors assume when they pick up a new title. In the book trade, a platform is defined as any means that can be used to reach readers directly and pull significant sales. An author with a big platform may have a syndicated column in popular publications, a speaking network that reaches tens of thousands of people every year, a database of newsletter subscribers, or a large base of clients or contacts that can guarantee a notable number of sales. Platforms not only ensure a base number of sales, but also give books word of mouth power that keep sales through other channels moving faster and for longer periods of time. When you submit a proposal to an agent, publisher, or distributor, be sure to highlight your current platform and what you plan to do to make it even more powerful. This should be a huge part of your proposal—it is the number one way to attract interest.
2. Get people to watch.
Open your mind, even if you’re an introverted writer. Since media coverage can propel books onto bestseller lists and into mass public consciousness overnight, agents, publishers, and distributors are looking for media savvy authors with big publicity plans. Let me be more specific: radio interviews are fine, but we want authors with good publicists who have big contacts and a clear plan to land solid reviews and print features, as well as big, national television hits. When you create a proposal for an agent, publisher, or distributor, consider offering details. Specify which publicist or PR firm you plan to hire, budget details, and strategy information: What are your primary media targets? Will you tour? What are your strongest media hooks?
3. Show me your “marketing” package.
Come on, don’t be shy. To sell books into our key accounts, publishers and distributors need strong support for every title, so let us see what you’ve got. Three simple ways to prove that your book has a hungry market waiting for it are to (1) cite comp titles—books that are similar to yours—with wild sales and loyal readers, (2) offer a notable marketing budget in support of the publishers and distributors’ efforts, and (3) propose a marketing plan that is diverse. At the end of the day, even the most connected publicist is at the mercy of reviewers, producers, and reporters to get exposure for your book. Build in some guaranteed results: maybe an online marketing campaign that includes Google Ads and banner advertising on sites that reach your target market, animated book trailers (like movie trailers) to be distributed via email and broadcast in alternative outlets such as airplanes or movie theaters, or creative seeding campaigns to generate pre-publication buzz.
You may have noticed that all three turn-ons relate to marketing. That’s no coincidence. Though most unagented proposals focus almost exclusively on content, marketing is the best way for writers to attract agents, publishers, and distributors, and it is often the element that determines whether or not you get a contract. These three tips assume, of course, that your book is marketable. Publishers and distributors operate in a consolidated industry with an oversupply and underdemand for its products, so we are looking for books that will sell big numbers in a mass-market retail environment. To compete, we need books that will get readers’ attention, and often it comes down to the marketability of the content and the author. When you position yourself in your book proposal, keep this in mind and you just might get lucky.