There’s been a lot of debate online recently about traditional publishing and self-publishing. Most of this has been constructive, but there’s also some misinformation flying about, whether this is from people with a vested interest in a particular sector, or from authors who’ve got the wrong end of the stick from being scammed in the past. I’d like to go through the various options in, I hope, an impartial and objective way.
Few would disagree, I think, that the holy grail for any author is to land a contract with a major publishing house. While it doesn’t by any means guarantee a place on the bestseller lists, that isn’t easy to achieve without a major publisher behind you. Besides having the funds to support a substantial print-run, they also have extensive distribution networks, large publicity departments ready to swing into action, and the name to attract the attention of reviewers and booksellers.
The drawback, of course, is that few major houses will even look at submissions from an unknown author. Though there are occasional exceptions, the only practical way to get such a contract is to be taken on by a literary agent. This too can be difficult, but not impossible.
I’ve read some extraordinary claims online about the way agents are supposed to work: that anyone who gets a business card printed up can be an agent; that all they do is leech money from an author, offering nothing in return; that they’re really publishers in disguise, or that they’re actually working for a particular publisher. There are, as in any industry, crooks out there posing as literary agents, and perhaps these claims come from authors who have fallen into the clutches of such crooks. None of the claims, however, are true of any reputable agent.
A good agent will have a background working in the industry, either for him/herself or for another agency or publisher, and will have a list of successful clients. In the digital age, it’s easy enough to check up on them. Besides studying their own website, google the name and see what’s being said about them online. Pay particular attention to any discussion on the anti-scamming sites, such as the excellent Writer Beware.
A literary agency is, of course, a business, and its primary purpose is to make money. However, the only way the agent can make money is if the author does. An agent works for a fixed percentage (normally between 10% and 15%) of what the author makes and doesn’t make a penny unless there’s money coming in. The golden rule in all sectors of publishing is that money always flows towards the author, not away. If any agent or publisher (other than an avowed self-publisher) asks for money up front, do a quick about-turn and beat it.
In return for this, the author gets a range of professional services which, even if they could learn to achieve, would take away a considerable amount of writing time, together with a network of contacts and a reputation that only an already successful author could hope to match.
A literary agent is a facilitator, working for the author, and any hint of other interests should be treated with extreme suspicion. S/he might, certainly, recommend using a professional editor, but a reputable agent will direct you to a resource where you can examine and compare the various editors available. If an agent refers you to one specific editor, then it’s almost certain that the “editor” is the “agent” wearing a different hat. This would be completely unprofessional behaviour.
If it proves too difficult to get an agent or major publisher, there are countless small-to-medium publishers out there who will usually look an unagented submissions – many of the best will be listed on sites like Ralan and Duotrope.
These often use either POD (print on demand) or epublishing, both of which are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with self-publishing. In fact, they are merely techniques which can be used by publishers, self-publishers and scammers alike to keep costs down. POD is a method where, instead of committing in advance to a large print-run, a publisher can produce copies as and when they’re ordered. Similarly, epublishing requires only the initial costs for editing, layout and artwork, and the result can be sold however many times it’s needed.
What both methods offer is a means by which a book can be published with relatively little capital, thus allowing these companies to accept books that, although they might be good, wouldn’t be considered viable ventures by a larger company. These small publishers operate a submission and selection procedure, rejecting far more than they accept, provide a full editorial service, fund all production costs and distribute the book. What they don’t usually offer is a publicity service. Some might send out review copies, especially if they’re electronic copies, but on the whole it’s up to the author to promote their work. Not an ideal situation, but better than any option other than a major house.
One thing that epublishing has changed is the range of lengths possible for publication. In general, traditional publishing is unlikely to be financially viable outside the 80,000 to 120,000 thousand word range – unless, of course, you’re already famous enough for sales to be guaranteed. With epublishing, even short stories can be individual books, while epics could theoretically be as long as you like.
Self-publishing, in which the author pays the costs of production and distribution, has been around for some time, and many classic authors self-published their first book. Some authors prefer to refer to this now as independent publishing. There are many areas in which self-publishing works very well. An academic, for instance, may wish to publish a highly specialist work which is unlikely to sell more than a few dozen copies, but might be the very thing that will gain the author that lucrative professorship or research post. At the other end of the spectrum, during the 1990s I put together several booklets of poetry, which I simply ran off from my computer and sold at gigs, and this worked very well.
In recent years, self-publishing has become considerably easier and cheaper. Epublishing systems like Kindle and POD systems like Lulu make it possible for authors to do it themselves with no upfront costs, simply paying the company a cut of each book sold. It’s also possible to publish work on your blog or website.
There’s both good and bad in this. It certainly provides a means for authors to get work out to the public that might not see the light of day otherwise, some of it excellent. I know of at least one case where a novel originally published on the author’s blog was picked up by a publisher and is now enjoying a fair degree of success.
Still, these cases are rare. Like all the old Hollywood stories of actors (or more often actresses) being discovered in bizarre circumstances, they happen, but the odds of gaining success that way are probably considerably less than by going through the conventional route.
The biggest disadvantages of the self-publishing boom are the sheer volume of material being put out and the fact that, because there’s no quality control, the vast majority of it is stuff that would never stand a chance of getting published in any other way. Even books that have promise often come over as very amateurish. I’ve read self-published books by authors who have considerable talent and flair, but their work cries out to be edited.
The editorial process isn’t a luxury or an optional extra or, as some unpublished authors seem to assume, an insult to their talent. It’s a dialogue between the author and a highly experienced professional who can take a dispassionate look at dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, and this can make a vast difference. I’ve a reasonably healthy estimate of my writing ability, but I’d be very reluctant to allow a novel to go out under my name without having gone through the editorial process.
Of course, it’s possible to hire a freelance editor to provide the same service, but that’s expensive, and the temptation to go it alone is too great for most authors. This gives self-publishing a (mostly deserved) reputation for poor quality.
It has another effect, too. It can be distressing and soul-destroying to endlessly submit and be rejected, but it can also be very good for the writing. Some publishers and agents will give feedback as to why they weren’t willing to take the work, and this advice should be treasured, even if it hurts at first. Even when the rejection is by form, it forces the author to think about what they’re not doing well enough, and to strive for improvement.
The reaction of many authors now to receiving a few rejections is to forget about it and self-publish. They’re never challenged to improve because they know anything they want published will be. Comparisons are often made with the music industry, and I think the same plusses and minuses exist there. The Beatles, for instance, became the great band they did not just through raw talent, but by playing endless sessions, to every conceivable audience, in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. If they’d simply been able to record in their bedrooms and put out the results on YouTube, they’d never have achieved the polish to become the legend they did.
This doesn’t mean self-publishing doesn’t have a place. As in the music industry, established authors can buy back the rights to older, out-of-print books and reissue them under their own imprint. Authors who can afford to pay for editors, artists and designers might produce high-quality books. There are other possibilities, too. I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up a collective of reasonably experienced authors who can offer mutual editorial support and self-publish under an imprint which could eventually build up a reputation for quality. Even so, I doubt that I’d publish anything longer than a novella that way. I want my novels to be published because someone out there loves them, not just because I’ve chosen it.
I’ve dealt with the publishing and self-publishing in the title of this piece. There are, unfortunately, also scams in publishing, just as there are in every other industry, traditionally referred to as vanity publishing. Unlike self-publishing, these outfits delude authors into believing they’re actual publishing companies and praise their work to the skies, but come up with various excuses to part the author from his/her money. The traditional method is to call something like “subscription publishing”, which they assure you is normal practice, or make the author undertake to buy a certain number of copies, usually to be paid for in advance. If the book ever sees the light of day (the likelihood is that it won’t) it’ll be of poor quality, and it won’t stand a chance of being reviewed or stocked by anyone.
Other scams include referring the author to a specific service, such as an editor, as described above. This will be the same outfit in a different guise, and the service will almost certainly not be worth the paper it’s written on (or the pixels, as the case may be).
There are various ways of recognising scams. Firstly, genuine publishers rarely, if ever, advertise for authors – they get more submissions than they can deal with, without having to do anything. Secondly, anyone who tries to get you to pay them money for the publication process isn’t to be trusted. And thirdly, information about scammers can be found all over the internet. Several sites exist primarily to give information about these – Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors are perhaps the best known, but there are others also doing sterling work.
Recently, the scammers have began to fight back. A bizarre website called The Write Agenda is making a concerted attempt to impugn the integrity of everyone involved in exposing scams, and has started a “boycott list” of anyone they see as a threat to themselves, encouraging book-burnings of the authors on it. Hopefully, this piece will get me onto the list – I’d be honoured to be included in such great company. Essentially, believe nothing they say. Their “information” is absurd, and all they’re defending is their right to steal your money. A thread about them can be found on the Writer Beware blog.
So, whether you choose to go for an agent and a major contract, a smaller POD or epublisher, or for the more responsible methods of self-publishing, good luck in your ventures. And stay safe from those trying to scam you.