Advice for writers on getting published
NB. This is all about fiction. Non-fiction is a totally different ball game. Not covered here.
A friend recently said that his mother had written a book and asked me how I thought she should go about publishing it. It made me reflect upon the fact that there really isn’t a straightforward answer to that question. However, I did share what I know, and perhaps this might be useful to others, so here goes.
Before I start, my knowledge comes from my own experiences of publishing my own books and as the long-term partner of a traditional author, which gives me a little insight into both worlds from an author’s perspective.
This isn’t a blog post that claims to make anything easy. Writing and getting published is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a lot of practice to be a good writer and a lot of effort and experience to get published. I think this applies to pretty much anything you want to do seriously, yet for some strange reason, people thinking writing is different from other professions in this respect. It really isn’t.
Practically every person I ever meet tells me they want to write a book. Every third person has started one. My partner who is among the minority of people who actually makes a good living writing gets this all the time. If you’ve ever finished a book, you’ve done better than most ever achieve, so well done! But unfortunately, finishing a book is only just the beginning. If you want people to read your books and engage with them, you have to make them available and tell people about them. Whichever route you take, this is a lot of work. It’s a marathon, not a race, you need to put on that ego armour, and you need to be pretty tenacious! If this makes you groan and feel hard done by, then I really can’t help you any further. This is how it is. Put the manuscript back in the drawer.
The traditional versus the self-published route
Much passion in ink has been expended on the subject of whether or not getting traditionally published is ‘better’ or not. In spite of the charged debate, I think there are benefits, advantages, trade-offs & pitfalls, with both options. I think in an ideal world, from an author’s perspective, a bit of both is very healthy. This is the ‘hybrid’ author approach, but that supposes you have produced a number of books and are in the position to choose. My honest advice is, consider your options. But don’t take a ‘bad’ traditional publishing deal because it makes you feel validated. Do what’s best for you and your books.
The advantages of self-publishing
As a self-published author (often called ‘indie author’), you are more in control of every aspect of the production of your book. This includes speed to market, choice of cover design, whether or not you get to sell internationally, and how to best market your books. The only people indie authors have to ‘ask permission’ from are your readers. On the other hand, being in control means you have to do or drive the work that would have been done by a publishing company for you, that includes being your own worst critic and your own coach.
Self-published authors, on average, make more money. The Author Earnings Report gives detailed insight into this. JK Rowling is in the press all the time. She’s a children’s author and a multi-millionaire, therefore, many people think, all children’s authors must be millionaires! Book publishing is a little like the national lottery because you are always hearing about the winners, you think it’s more likely that your ticket will come in than the actual 1 in 45 million chance of winning (see things that are more likely to happen to you than winning the National Lottery). There are millionaire writers, but in truth, most authors earn below the minimum wage.
In simplest terms, when you traditionally publish, your agent and your publisher take a reasonable cut of every book sale. When you self-publish this doesn’t happen. Agents fees are typically about 15% in home markets and 20% for overseas sales. Traditional publishers who buy your books will often (but not always) pay you a cash amount upfront. After your book has earned back this money for your publisher, then you will be paid royalties. In general, hardbacks attract a 10% base royalty and paperbacks 7.5%. Self-published authors don’t have to pay agents fees and they get all the earnings from their books after costs.
However, there are many costs associated with self-publishing. These are things your traditional publisher will ‘take care of’ as part of your package. In my experience, it still works out on the balance sheet in favour of the self-published author (unless you are a megastar), but you do have to pay upfront out of pocket and this is something to consider. Here are some of the things you’ll need to pay for (not an exhaustive list):
- A professional editor: Nonnegotiable. Fees vary wildly and the price doesn’t always equate with quality. Shop around, try a few. It’s quite a personal relationship and they often specialise in genres.
- A book cover. This needs to look like the other books on the Amazon bookshelf. The cover is very much part of the experience of the book. I do choose to do my own covers, which is against all advice, and probably not a good idea, but it is part of the creative process for me and I have all the software! Do as I say, not as I do, in this case.
- Special software (Scrivener if you’re going to make your own e-books, but it’s also good to write with, things like KindleSpy which help you with categories)
- ISBN numbers
- Proofs (for paperbacks)
- Amazon (and other book distributors) costs. Amazon has a variable margin model depending on how you price your book. This is taken whenever you sell a book.
- Marketing (specialist book marketing services, Facebook advertising, website, mailing list software)
You might decide to use a service (or services) that does some or all of this for you. In particular, there is work involved getting your book into ebook and paperback formats. I do all this myself, but it takes time to do, and it took time to learn. But paying someone to do it, does reduce your profit, so it will be a personal decision and a bit of maths to work out what is good for you. If you are paying a few thousand to get your books published, do you think you will make that back and if so how quickly?
It’s actually very difficult to predict how well your books will sell, which is why traditional publishers take on such risk and why (I think) their fees are justified. The only company I have had direct personal experience of that does this kind of thing well is SilverWood Books. Organisations like the Alliance of Independent Authors are an excellent place to find ethical, professional help with all aspects of making your book.
The advantages of being traditionally published
A good agent will be on your side. They will read your manuscript, give you advice, go out and pitch it, and fight like a Pit Bull for the best deal for you with the best available publishers. A great publisher does an extraordinary amount of work. As I mentioned, they take on a lot of risks when they take on your book. They pay you for something they are only guessing will sell. They will line and copy edit your book, typeset it, commission and pay for a cover, get your book typeset for paperback and ebook, manage the production and distribution. They will sell your international rights, get your book translated, and do the really hard job of getting it into book stores and stacked up by the tills at newsagents at airports. Publishers only make money if you succeed, so theoretically they should be invested in your success. This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t you try and go this route?
The first problem is that every third person in the world has written a book and many of them are simultaneously submitting them to agents and those agents are submitting a smaller, but still statistically significant, number of them to publishers. So getting an agent and publisher is a lot of work in the first place. The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 and Writer’s Market 2017: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published are the places to start with this process (there is a special edition for children’s writers of the first book).
Publishing houses are businesses and not charities. Agents and editors do not have to publish your book. They don’t owe you anything in fact. They are very busy people who are trying to do quite a hard, not especially well-paid job. They have bosses who care about revenue and profit, just like you do if you have a day job. So publishers are not stupid or philistine if they don’t choose your book, they just don’t think they can sell it. Sometimes that will be because your book is not very good, sometimes it will be because it doesn’t fit with their taste, what’s going on in the market, what happened at a book festival the week before, what their boss told them yesterday, and all sorts of things you can’t do anything about. Every very successful editor has a story about when they turned down “so and so author” who turned out to be a raging success. All the people who turned down JK Rowling now look like complete idiots, but they really weren’t. They were making a call.
Let’s assume you get through this process and you land an agent. The agent then has to sell your book. All of this so far has taken months, by the way.
You may have already had to edit your book on the basis of your agent’s feedback. You are likely to re-edit your book again to fit with the feedback of the editor. You might not like their feedback. They might want you to do a lot of re-writing that you either don’t want to do or feel you can’t do, for whatever reason. But now you have sold your book. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. You have to change your book. It might not feel like your book anymore.
Next stage: You and your editor are happy with your book. All good, yes? Well, not necessarily. Just because an editor at a publishing house takes on your book and likes it, doesn’t mean you are fully supported. That editor has to pitch the book to the rest of her/his colleagues and convince them to “get behind it”. At this stage they may want to change the name of your book, they may choose the cover for your book without consulting you, they are very likely to form a marketing and sales plan without consulting you.
You certainly have no choice over the amount of money being spent to promote your books. This is likely to be a very small amount unless you are James Patterson. They’ve just spent several thousand pounds buying your book. They may not have any budget left for you.
Also, critically, although they are slowly adjusting, many traditional publishing houses are absolutely rubbish at selling digitally. Many of them distrust Amazon and don’t have the in-house skill to market through them, but Amazon is now the single biggest marketplace for books.
My key point is once you sell your book to a publisher you have to accept you have handed over control. At any stage, you are dependent on your publisher fully supporting you and at any stage for a number of reasons that situation might change.
So, in summary:
If you are lucky and the publishing house gets behind you, they will edit, typeset, commission a cover, manage print & e-book production, international translations, bookstore distribution, marketing, PR, get you reviews in broadsheets and everything else! You will have a supportive team on your side for the bad days.