The Good, the Bad, and the Surprises in Publishing - by Pamela Beason
There are a lot of ways to publish a book these days, and I’ve done them all: traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing, which is also called indie publishing. Over the years, I’ve published 24 books, not counting different editions or a handful that are ebook-only.
I often give talks to groups about all this, and I even wrote a free ebook, Traditional vs Indie Publishing: What to Expect. I didn’t intend to persuade writers to take one route or the other, but the title says exactly what I wanted to educate writers about: what to expect.
Most of us dream of becoming a bestselling author with a publisher who handles all the details and does amazing marketing for us. After all, that’s always how it works in the movies, isn’t it?
Like all writers, I had those stars in my eyes when I started out. I had been editing technical books on using computer programs, and I often thought, hey, it would take me less time to write this in the first place than to edit it into usable shape. So, I got an agent and I sent out a few proposals to technical book companies, and wham, my first surprise—I instantly got three contracts. Yikes! And hurray!
Those publishers paid me good advances, but I quickly realized that royalties would be unlikely to arrive later, because books tied to computer programs have a shelf life only as long as that software version. So, then I wrote two general business writing books with a coauthor. We accepted fairly small advances, assuming that those books would earn royalties for years to come.
Then—my second surprise: the publisher decided to sell its business division. All those books were tossed around between various publishers like hot potatoes for a couple of years before the last purchaser terminated the whole line. None of those books were ever marketed or sold, and nobody wanted them after that because the titles had been listed for a couple of years with no sales. (Do NOT try to apply logic here, this is publishing, where sales statistics are all that count.)
Major, painful lesson learned: Authors have zero control over what happens to their books after they hand them to a publisher.
I’d been writing technical books, but fiction was my real love and I still had hopes for traditional publishers there, so when I wrote my first Sam Westin mystery, which I called Wild, I sent it off to various agents and editors. I had no idea that I would be sucked into a black hole. Some editors thought the book was too similar to another author, both in style and story. I hadn’t heard of that author, but I looked her up, and I could see the similarities. So, I rewrote. Various editors wanted my manuscript after that, but each left for other jobs before the deal was complete. One publisher kept the manuscript for two years as it slowly worked its way up the editorial ranks, until it landed on the publisher’s desk with the recommendation that it be published ASAP. The publisher said, “It’s perfectly good, but I just cannot deal with stories involving children in peril.”
What? Didn’t her editorial staff know this? It’s probably a good thing that the company and I are not in the same state and that I don’t own a gun.
Another painful lesson learned: Don’t count on speedy answers from agents or editors, and don’t count on individuals to be in the same business or position for very long. Publishing is a game of musical chairs and personal opinions.
So, then I started looking into other ways to get Wild out there. Enter my hybrid phase: I found a company that would print and publish it and list it in their catalog. So, I paid their hefty fee, and they did a reasonable job of just that. But there was no marketing. I didn't have a clue how to advertise it. The book just languished.
In the meantime, I had written one and half sequels to Wild, and I wrote a romantic suspense novel, too. I decided to publish the romantic suspense with a hybrid publisher whose ads I saw all the time—at last, a publisher that did marketing for authors! Or so I thought. Then I started receiving email messages asking if I wanted to pay for an ad for that book. First 6 authors to pay up would have their books advertised. With smoke coming out of my ears, I asked for my rights back.
Lesson learned: Ask how the publisher will market your book, and who will pay for it. (Note: most publishers will never put anything in writing about this.)
Okay, after all these buckets of ice water in the face, you might think I was thoroughly jaded about the book business. But hey, hope springs eternal, and I was willing to give it another shot. I found an agent who was excited about my mystery series, even though I’d already published the first book. And he got me a three-book deal with Berkley Prime Crime, a division of Penguin. I was elated—a big publisher wanted my books! Finally, my writing career was going to take off!
This is where all the lessons I should have previously internalized (apparently, I don't listen to my own advice often enough) boomeranged back to haunt me. First, the editor who had championed my series left the company, and the guy who inherited her book line could not have cared less about my mysteries. Then, it soon became clear that the company had no intention of marketing my books, or ever having a promotion or sale of any kind to shift them into public view. We had a few other battles over covers for Endangered and Bear Bait and the tiny font size that people kept telling me they couldn’t read, but the last straw came when nobody bothered to show me the cover or tell me the publication date for my third book, Undercurrents. Amazon gave me that news.
Some might think I simply had bad luck or that my writing is not up to par. I hate to tell them that my experiences are very common in the industry.
When I talk to writers, I always tell them that it’s hard work to be an author, whether you are self-published or traditionally published. I’m not a very dedicated or inspired marketer and I've never been able to hire anyone who understands how to market books, but here’s the good news: I, as author and publisher, can make sales happen. And I, as author and publisher, can sell all my books for decades, whereas most publishers and bookstores give most books 90 days or less of advertising and shelf life before considering them a failed venture. And I, as author and publisher, get the majority of the money from sales, as opposed to the 7% or 10% (for print) or 25% (ebooks) of net proceeds (what the heck does that mean?) typically promised by the publishers. I now make more money from my books in a month than my fiction publishers ever paid me in a year. And most of the time, I love being an author.
I especially like to give writers the good news that more authors today are making a living from their writing than ever before.
But I still dream of having a publisher that supports my work and does incredible marketing for my books. Like I said, hope springs eternal…