The Ego Trip of Traditional Publishing for the First-Time Author (In the opinion of a yet-to-be-published writer.)

TransmutedI finished my first manuscript. Yeah for me! For life reasons, it took me three years. During those years, I researched the two main avenues for publication: traditional and self-publishing (plus a couple side streets). By today’s count, I’ve read twenty-three how-to books on publishing, innumerable blog posts, listened to I-don’t-know-how-many podcasts, attended multiple MeetUps, haunted online author forums, and hung out at author panels. I’ve researched publishing companies, large and small, and their various imprints. After everything, I’ve come to the conclusion—for me—and, I believe, for most first-time authors (of fiction), seeking traditional publishing is a heart-wrenching waste of time. Why?

Finding an Agent: The big five do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. None of them—you go right in the trash. You need an agent. Not impossible, but it takes time and persistence. And you thought you only had to win one lottery. Attracting an agent can take between six months to never. If you get lucky, there’s no guarantee the agent will find you a publisher in any reasonable timeframe, or at all. But if you have a high threshold for frustration, go for it.

Let’s say after six to twelve months, you decide to forego your agent search and that big publisher, and concentrate on submitting directly to medium/small publishing houses. That’s more realistic. Smaller publishers might accept unsolicited manuscripts from time to time. Know that those submission windows will be few, far between, and yours will be one of many thousand submissions. But you hang in, and take advantage of every opportunity.

Submission Process: Obviously, your novel must be good. It’s essential to hire an editor before submission. Oh, you thought the publisher would handle the editing? Silly author. Publishers (and agents) expect you to submit a polished manuscript, ready for publication. And you must follow the submission guidelines to the letter. To the l-e-t-t-e-r. This step will provide the first inkling of what you’re up against. Rule one: No simultaneous submissions. You can only submit to one publisher at a time, and then wait the six weeks to six months for that publisher to get back to you before submitting to a different publisher. BTW, this is a direct quote from a Random House imprint website: “We make every effort to respond to submission inquiries, but we often cannot respond to all; please do not resubmit previously submitted queries, as this may create delays [for them!].” So, how long do you wait? Beats me. This is an example of the lack of respect publishers have for authors (of course there are exceptions). Seriously, how long does it take to send a form email?

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty depressed right now. I’ll only touch on the highlights from here. You won the Publishing Clearing House Sweepstakes and found a publisher. Congratulations!

  • Hire an attorney. Ka-ching! Even though you’re not in a position to negotiate.
  • First-time authors’ advance on royalties—forgeddaboutit.
  • Royalty expectations: 5-15%. Usually in the mid-range, and on an escalating scale, i.e., first 5,000 copies, then up a point for 5-10,000 copies, and so on. Also, royalties will vary based on format, foreign sales (in English or translated), book club discounts, sales by brick-and-mortar retailers, etc. For bookstore sales, expect to have subsequent royalty checks reduced due to returns of unsold books. In the absence of future royalties, you’ll be expected to make a refund.
  • Marketing: You’ll make their catalog, and you may get limited marketing for the first 30 to 90 days … maybe. But don’t look for a balls-out campaign for first-timers. The publisher will expect you to carry the lion’s share of the work. And a book tour? Even best-selling authors rarely do book tours these days. If you write sci-fi and you’re traditionally published, you may be invited on a panel at your local Comicon. That’s cool.
  • Rights: You signed a three to five-year contract. If your book isn’t selling, and your publisher isn’t promoting it as expected, try asking for your rights back. Your hands will be tied for several years—a big problem if you’re writing a series. And try interesting your publisher, or any publisher, in future manuscripts. You washed out of the market.
  • Success: If, to use an outdated term, OMG your book is selling, you might make a little money, but not a lot unless it’s a blockbuster. And did I mention you signed away your subsidiary rights? After a year-plus looking, and another three to five years under contract, what do you have? … your day job (don’t give it up) and a better negotiating position. Start young and check your ego at the door.

Personally, I’ll eschew the traditional route … for now. Since I started writing late in life, I don’t have the time or the temperament for a long quest. I’ll self-publish and work like a dog to market my book. And when I have a track record—which may take a few attempts—I’ll give the big five their chance at me. Live long and wrimo.

In the meantime, Transmuted, book one of the Dark Landing series, is up for nomination on Kindle Scout. Please check it out.

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