Thursday, November 02, 2006

Not All Publishers Are Created Equal

Two things prompt this post. First, one of the bullet points I wrote for my presentation proposal was "All publishers are not created equal." Second, I read an email on a writers' loop that in essence said, "I've got multiple published novels, but I'd like to earn more than $1,000 for a year's work." The writer in question was not self-pubbed.

Every day, I encounter writers who believe that having a "published" book will open all the doors to the kingdom for them. The problem is that there are many different paths to that published book, and each path has its own pitfalls and hidden dangers.

Among the paths:

Large New York print publisher
Medium-sized print publisher
Small regional/local publisher
University press
Well-known online publisher
Lesser-known online publisher
Unknown online publisher
Vanity Press like PublishAmerica
POD press like Lulu

There are other paths, but these will do for now.

Just seeing your book in print (or virtual print) is NOT the end-all point at which things suddenly become easier. They just become more complicated.

Each of those paths has its advantages and disadvantages. I'm not going to list them all, but here are some highlights:

Large New York print publisher: You're more likely to get an advance, and your books will get more notice with bookstores and libraries (the two biggest markets). Your royalty percentage will be on the low end (6% to 15%), and it can take a long time to see your book in print (up to two years although one year is more common).

This is a huge investment for the publisher, and they're going to want to see a return on that investment. Your sell-through percentage is critical (Sell-through is the percentage of books sold versus the percentage of books printed. A book that sells 4K copies on a 10K copy run has a sell-through percentage of 40%).

Very small regional publisher: Advances are much less likely as are dollars for promotion. While small publishers may have very good relationships with local bookstores and libraries, they are unlikely to have much clout with national chains or libraries outside of their immediate area.

In addition, small publishers go out of business or into bankruptcy with unsettling regularity. You can find yourself with a company that's closed its doors, but that is holding your contract hostage, tying up your book for the foreseeable future unless you have deep enough pockets to pay the legal bills to untangle yourself.

Both book runs and book sales are likely to be as tiny as the publisher. Worse yet, you now have a record. A sell-through percentage of 10% follows you like your shadow when you are trying to sell your next book to a larger publisher. You're no longer a writer making her debut; you're a writer with a failed book.

Online publisher: The chief advantages that all online publishers have over print publishers are that they can publish a virtual book with very little investment and with a great deal of speed. For these reasons, online publishers rarely pay advances, but their royalty percentages are much higher (from 35% to 50%).

The critical issue is how big an audience the publisher attracts. If it's an unknown publisher, the writer can earn less than $100 for a manuscript that took six months to write.

The other issue is that the better-known online publishers are much more selective in the work they contract for than the lesser known online publishers. A sign of quality writing and career advancement is being able to start out at a lesser known publisher and move up to the better known publishers or over to print. Many excellent writers have successfully started out online and, today, move back-and-forth comfortably between print and online publication. However, writers who are not committed to constant improvement of their craft may find themselves unable to move up from the smaller online publishers. If the writer gets too comfortable with a quality bar that is set low (permitting head hopping or squishy characterizations), he will have difficulty understanding why what is acceptable to a small press is unacceptable to a larger one.

Important point: I think every writer who is committed to his career needs to get comfortable publishing both in print and online. The online market is going to explode over the next couple of years (depending on when a viable and affordable eBook reading device comes on the market), and writers need to be poised to take advantage of both print and virtual publishing.

Self-publishing: I'm going to lump both the vanity presses and POD presses together for the sake of this discussion. Both are paths that writers take to self-publish their work.

This is a particular area of concern. For some reason, writers seem to rush into self-publishing with very little forethought.

At the outset, let me say that I believe self-publishing will one day be a viable mechanism for publication. Having said that, in my opinion, it is not a realistic option TODAY except for three very specific groups of writers. Those groups are people writing for a niche market, people writing a manuscript that traditional publishers do not know how to market, and people wanting a sentimental keepsake rather than a book for commercial sale. If you want more information on these three groups, see my blog for 6/20/06 here.

Writers who opt to self-publish seem to do so in the belief that they will then market the bound book to "real" publishers. This is a delusion. While there have been one or two cases of phenomenally successful self-pubbed books that got picked up, 99.9% of the self-pubbed books will never be re-released.

I've said this multiple times on this blog, but I'll say it again here. There are three huge hurdles that prevent self-publishing from being a viable alternative right now: (1) There is no system to vet for quality. The majority of self-published books are crap. While there is an occasional gem, those are few and far between; (2) There is no marketing system for self-pubbed books. The vast majority sell less than 100 copies. Yes, you can list them on e-Bay or Amazon, but you still need a mechanism to drive traffic to your book; and (3) Self-publishing has a terrible reputation, largely because the vanity presses will print anything. Bookstores and libraries don't want to carry them (unless you're a local author or unless you are paying for the privilege).

Until these three hurdles can be overcome, no one except the three specialty markets I've already mentioned should consider self-publishing. When you proudly announce that you're a published author and whip out the book you've paid for, experienced writers wince and agents write you off as a complete innocent who knows nothing about the industry. If you obtained an ISBN number for your book, you can't even hide its existence later, claiming to be a debut author. The book will haunt you.

While I'm on the subject, I'm going to mention here an issue that both some smaller print publishers and some online publishers share. Sometimes an author who has been unable to sell his book will finance publication of that book by opening a "publishing house." This can be a very successful enterprise (Ellora's Cave) or a complete disaster. I am neither recommending nor slamming this. I am simply stating that a writer should know the background of the company he is considering. He needs to take the motivation of the publisher into account in his decision-making. Is the manuscript going to receive adequate support from the publisher? Or is the publisher just trying to support his claim of operating a business by contracting for one or two books a year?

I'm going to stop here, but it's easy to see just from these examples that all publishers are not created equal. Spend some time doing your homework. Be prepared and, above all, don't be so impatient that you make a mistake.

Good luck.

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