I, like any writer, get frustrated with the publishing industry. It can be a discouraging profession, slow to respond, slow to pay, slow in general. Any time you mix the subjective thing that is art with a business structure that demands financial certainty you will have bumps in the road.
That said, I read a lot of misleading information about how publishing works on sites that champion self-publishing. It seems as though writers who have opted out of traditional publishing love to share horror stories about traditional publishing. People repeat conventional wisdom about the horrors and exploitation of the Big Six all the time. Much of it, I must add, comes from people who have never worked with them.
I have published more than a dozen books with large and midsized publishers including Harper Collins and Reader’s Digest and a midsized division of Random House. I have also written for tiny publishers and self-published. So I’d like to address some of the oft repeated myths and what my experience has been.
1. Big Publishers Will Not Let You Negotiate Your Contract Terms
In my dealings with publishers I have never been given a royalty contract and told “take it or leave it.” As with any contract negotiation, you cannot expect to get terms that are exactly as you might want them, but there is always room for negotiation. By the time a publisher has offered you a contract, they have already invested a fair amount of time and discussion to the title. They have generally already decided where it will go on their publishing calendar and the marketing department is already at work on ideas. You are not as powerless as it is sometimes assumed. There is wiggle room in a lot of contract terms. Interestingly, I have often had more luck in getting favorable terms when negotiating on my own behalf than working through an agent. There were certain things that I asked for in the past, and had gotten on my own, that agents later said were standard and they were not willing to even take the request to the publisher. If something is a deal breaker for you ask if you can amend it. If it is reasonable, there is a good chance you can.
2. Big Publishers Demand the Copyright to Your Work and Own it Forever
It is standard to file the copyright in the author’s name. The only works that I have ever had copyrighted in the name of the publisher were books I did as works for hire. I’ve never even had to negotiate to have the copyright in my name, this is just the way publishers worded the contracts. The sad fact of the matter is this: publishers are not all that interested in stealing your work. A few outliers aside, most literary work has little to no marketplace value, especially over the long haul. Most books never earn out, that is to say, it is rare for a book to recoup the advance and earn royalties beyond it. Technically, as you do not have to return the advance, this means that you earn more than you are owed in royalties. I have published 14 books and only one has ever earned out. The real question is not the copyright but the contract terms. Generally, the publisher controls certain rights to the work, as outlined in the contract, as long as it remains in print. Once it goes out of print, it reverts to the author. (By then you will most likely have moved on to other things.)
3. After Six Months Your Book Will Be Out of Print and Unavailable
It is true that the publisher will put what marketing efforts they have planned into the book in the month or two leading up to its release and a month or two after. How much of an effort will depend on what they believe the commercial prospects to be. While they may not be actively promoting your title any more, it will still be available for some time and you are free to promote the heck out of it for as long as you like. After that initial burst, if you want to keep plugging away, you will be in essentially the same position as the self-published author– but with the benefit of major league distribution and a respected publisher’s name on the jacket. The same print on demand technology that has revolutionized independent publishing has made it possible for big publishers to keep their back list titles alive for much longer periods than in the past. It takes a long time for a book to actually go out of print these days. Standard contracts have terms allowing you to buy out back stock on titles that go out of print. The rights usually revert back to you after the book is out of print. (By then you will most likely have moved on to other things.)
4. You Will Have No Say in How Your Book is Edited and Marketed
You do not have the complete freedom with a publisher that you have as a self-published author. That said, all aspects of creating the book are collaborative with a publisher. You get proofs on the edits and you can accept or reject changes. The first time you get back marked up copy, it is common to feel defensive about the changes. After you’ve been through the process a couple of times, this feeling lessens because it becomes clear that A. most of the changes are improvements and B. if they aren’t, the editor will usually defer to your judgment especially if you explain why you made your choice. Publishers do like to suggest new titles with good marketing hooks. You may have to be a little bit flexible here. When it comes to the design and layout, publishers have access to professionals that you probably can’t afford. I have always been pleased with what they have done with my books. I have also always been shown the cover design at various stages and asked for my feedback. If you want complete control with no other people meddling in your vision then self-publishing is for you. If you are comfortable with collaborating a bit then you will probably be satisfied with the overall presentation of your work with a traditional publisher. What they come up with will probably be better than what you imagined.
5. You Need an Agent to Get a Publisher, and it’s Impossible to Get an Agent
If you want to be published by Random House or Harper Collins (and you have not been published by them before) you will need an agent to unlock that gate. On the other hand, there are a lot of small and midsize publishers who do accept over the transom submissions. (Even published authors with agents find it hard to get a Random House deal.) I have worked with agents and I have sold books on my own. If I am counting right, more of my books were unagented than were agented. In my case, I found it easier to get publishers to take my submissions seriously initially than it was to get agents to do so. Agents see themselves as gate keepers to a certain extent and they have more received wisdom about what is possible and what is impossible. They are hard to persuade. (This process, in itself can be valuable. See my post Resistance is Vital for more on this.) I could not get an agent until I had published a book that sold 85,000 copies. After that agents took me a bit more seriously. There are pros and cons to working with an agent. My route to being a published author was contacting midsize publishers directly. From there I was able to get an agent and get a foot in the door with some of the big guys. There is a middle ground between indie publishing and the Big Six which a lot of aspiring authors tend to overlook. Remember, too, that you might do all the work to get representation and the agent might not have success placing the work anyway.
6. It’s Impossible to Break Into Traditional Publishing Today
It is true that big publishers are in business to make money and they want to invest in a sure thing. This makes them less open to experimental works and works by unknown authors. This is the great benefit of indie publishing. It gives original new talents an opportunity to present less obviously commercial works.
On the other hand, not all self-published books are created equal. Forums for the self-published are populated not only by those with professional aspirations but by people who should remain amateurs. I’m assuming that you are one of the former. But take a moment and browse the blogs of the thousands of self-published authors out there today. You will find that some of them blog in what sounds like English as a second language. Anyone who can upload a pdf can claim the title professional writer. There have always been people who were deluded about the level of skill they actually possess. They are joined by people who have a kernel of writing talent who are not willing to put in the hard work of developing that talent to a professional level. Contrary to popular belief, people do not have books in them waiting to get out. Books are hard work. With self-publishing people can put out a book and get compliments from friends without confronting the resistance that has traditionally polished writers.
When you encounter pages full of comments from indie authors complaining about rejections and the impossibility of breaking in, realize that many of them probably have either not tried very hard, or they are simply not writing work of a quality that deserves to be published. Taken as a whole, most of the people who want to get traditionally published will find it hard to do so. Yes, even those whose work deserves to be published find it tough to break in– but the sheer number of people complaining about how hard it is is due in part to the fact that a lot of books ought to be rejected. It takes a lot more time and persistence to get traditionally published, but if you are confident your work is of professional quality and you would benefit from the support then it is worth it to learn the ropes and try.