Business of Novel Writing
Clare B. Dunkle's facts about publishers
PLEASE NOTE: I wrote this webpage in 2006, well before the Amazon ebook publishing craze.Online authors now can publish through places like Amazon and follow their own sets of rules to build a readership. I still prefer to publish in print, however, with a major trade publisher. That's how my books can end up in libraries and reach my readers, who are usually teens or children.
What kind of publisher should you try to secure for your new
manuscript? Should you sweat out the long years of trying to land
an agent and go the route of traditional publishing, or should you
publish your manuscript yourself? What about print-on-demand? What
about subsidized publishing? Which option should you choose?
That depends entirely on what
you consider to be a successful publishing experience.
you want to hold your book in your hand and maybe sell a few hundred
copies, your publication options are very broad. But if you define
success along King or Grisham lines—in other words, if you
want to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of your novel—then
you will need to go with a traditional publishing house and take
advantage of its marketing muscle.
Book publishers are in a very competitive
game. Almost 200,000 books come out each year, and there's
not enough room for all of them on bookstore and library shelves.
("Authorgeddon") Traditional publishers work very hard
to get their books to these prime locations. Their personnel meet
with bookstore representatives, travel to library and teacher conferences,
and pay an art department to make their books look good. My publishing
house has an employee who spends all her time doing nothing but
getting books onto the Scholastic Book Club list.
Traditional publishers print advance
release copies (ARC's) or galleys to start generating excitement
about a book before it's released. ARC's go to booksellers
and reviewers as well as to conventions; a number may be given away
to create "word of mouth" publicity. When a book is
released, the publisher sends copies to a list of review journals like Publishers Weekly,
as well as to committees that issue awards and "best books"
lists. The marketing team may arrange a book tour and interviews,
send out press releases, buy special ads, and arrange for bookstore
displays. The author pays no money for any of this. In fact, the
author has already been paid.
business in the United States is topheavy. Five publishing houses (Random
House, HarperCollins, the Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster, and
Time Warner Book Group) generate close to 50% of all book sales.
Approximately 63,000 small publishers balance out these giants.
(Milliot) Nevertheless, some of the small publishers are doing very
well for themselves, particularly if they have a specialty line,
like sports or psychology books.
All traditional publishing
houses, from enormous to small, treat authors the same way: they
pay them. And, no, they don't just pay a dollar advance,
either, although they may not pay more than a few thousand. These
publishers want to release books that readers will want to read.
They search for the right manuscripts, negotiate for them, and then
pay what the market will bear. They shoulder the cost of editing,
printing, marketing, and selling the book. What they ask in return
is that the author comply with rewrite requests, cooperate in the
publisher's marketing plans, and go back to work doing what
only the author can do: writing more great manuscripts.
It isn't easy to land a novel
with a traditional publisher. First, you generally need an agent.
(See my webpage about agents.) Your
agent will decide where to submit your manuscript and keep you informed
about its progress. Shopping a manuscript around to publishers can
Many writers become impatient
with the process and try to find a shortcut to success. There are
other ways to wind up with your novel in your hand, but there are
no shortcuts to a financially rewarding writing career.
Self publishing occasionally works well for nonfiction, such as
informational books that a speaker intends to sell at his seminars.
But it works particularly poorly for fiction. And writers who decide
to self publish are trading hard work at the beginning for hard
work at the end. They have to pay all the costs associated with
editing, printing, and marketing the book. They have to stop doing
what they do best—writing—and spend their free time
calculating print runs, applying for ISBN's, advertising,
You should be aware that the
main review journals will not review self-published works. Bookstores
generally refuse to stock them and may even refuse to special-order
them. Many libraries have policies against purchasing them, and
if they are donated, they usually end up being discarded. This makes
the work of marketing self-published books a problem indeed.
heartily recommend that anyone interested in self publishing read
this online guide. (Rosenthal, "How To")
It gives sound advice and doesn't sugar-coat the work involved.
All in all, it presents a balanced and encouraging approach, and
the additional information available in Mr. Rosenthal's blogs
makes fascinating reading.
Maybe you're thinking that self
publishing will be a quick springboard to traditional publishing
success. Some gurus tout self publishing as a great way to get a
traditional publisher interested. That's more likely to be
true of nonfiction than fiction, and it depends largely on the number
of copies you've managed to sell during the self-publishing
phase. In other words, you still have to do all the hard work. You
will have a serious uphill battle to get to traditional publishing
this way. For novelists, the better technique is to keep finishing
and shopping around new projects.
When the editors I know see
a self-published novel, they assume they're looking at a failure.
They take it for granted that the writer self published because
he couldn't sell the book to them in the first place. This
causes their minds to close before they read the first page. You're
better off showing them a printed manuscript if you want to pique
What sort of success do self-published
books generally garner? The average self-published book sells 200
copies over a lifetime. (Greenwood) The average print-on-demand
book sells a total of 150 to 175 copies. (Branch) A generous amount
of hard work, in-your-face selling, and cold calling will have to
occur for every copy that gets sold. Whether it's the right
choice for you is your decision.
But what if you've found a company
that isn't exactly a traditional publisher but doesn't
seem to be a self-publishing place, either? And they seem very friendly,
and publishing with them looks like it's going to be a breeze.
Your book will be ready for sale in just a couple of months, and
they have lots of great advice on how you can get right out there
and sell it. They don't even make you pay upfront costs.
Such publishers are considered in the industry to be vanity
presses, or subsidized publishing companies. Going with
these companies carries the stigma and the industry obstacles of
a self-publishing venture, and you generally sign a contract giving
up your rights to the work for years. That means you can't
place your book with a commercial publisher later even if Random
House comes knocking at your door.
How successful will your book be coming from a market-your-own-book
publisher? Let's use one of the more famous companies as an
example. An article in The Washington Post reported that
only one of PublishAmerica's thousands of titles had sold
over 5,000 copies. The rest had sold less, many of them only a few
Writers who go with market-your-own-book publishers often feel
guilty over their lack of success. "I haven't done enough
to plug my book," one of them told me. But should he be blaming
himself? According to a blog entry by self-publishing expert Morris
Rosenthal, PublishAmerica's top seller was on track to sell
about 5,000 copies last year. Several other top sellers were projected
to sell a few hundred copies. (Rosenthal, "PublishAmerica")
He points out that these numbers are respectable compared to all
the trade publications selling fewer copies during the same period.
But this is skewed logic: he's comparing winners to losers.
Comparing PublishAmerica's winners to the trade publishers'
winners is more accurate and revealing. In the same year that this
top seller was selling 5,000 copies, bestselling authors were selling
copies by the millions. (Maryles) That's the real difference
between marketing your own book and having a publishing giant do
it for you.
Let's say you've
decided that you want your book to be handled by a traditional publisher,
no matter how long it takes. How can you tell the difference between
a traditional publisher and a vanity press? Some subsidized
publishing companies do their best to appear to be traditional publishers.
If you want to go the traditional route, you have to be on your
guard. It's time to remember what traditional publishers do:
they market and sell their own books. The author gets paid and shows
up for a scheduled book tour, or maybe does a few interviews. We
can extrapolate the following rule from this information about the
If your publishing company
offers advice on their website about how to do your own marketing,
you have NOT found a traditional publisher.
Take a look at the publisher's
website. Then remember the golden rule we discussed
on the page about agents. There
are two ways to make money in this business: take it from the readers
or take it from the writers. A
traditional publisher designs its homepage to appeal to the readers.
Vanity presses and self-publishing
printers design their homepages to appeal to the writer. They
do this because, as Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio says, "The
overwhelming majority of [self-publishing or subsidized publisher]
sales are to the friends and family of the authors." (Span)
Even if the company masquerades as a traditional publisher,
the homepage will reveal who the real audience is.
If you intend to go the traditional
publishing route, make sure your publisher has a marketing plan
in place for your book before you sign a contract. Find out who
has published with your publisher and check independent sources
to get a sense of how well they've sold. Make sure these other
authors have real reviews to their credit from journals like Publishers
Weekly or Library Journal. See what awards and honors
they've won. And don't be fooled if the publisher says
you'll get free review copies of your book to send out on
your own. Prestigious review journals will not accept review copies
sent in by the author. They have to come from a reputable publisher.
Above all, check with your
local bookstores to make sure your publisher's books are welcome
there. Over 55% of book sales occur in stores. (Span) You'll
want your books to be there.
The following are my sources for the data on this webpage. I've
chosen to cite them rather than link to them for the most part because
our Internet world is so ephemeral. These links are here today;
they may be gone tomorrow; but if you search Google by article title
or author name, hopefully they'll turn up somewhere else.
"Authorgeddon is Nigh." Press
Release Newswire. 2 June 2005. 28 Oct. 2006 http://www.prweb.com
Branch, Justin. "How Much Money Do
Most Authors Make?" Greenleaf Book Group's Big Bad Book
Blog. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006 http://www.bigbadbookblog.com
Greenwood, Katherine Federici. "Author!
Author!" Princeton Alumni Weekly Online. 5 Apr. 2006. 31 Oct.
Maryles, Daisy. "Truth Is Stronger
Than Fiction." Publishers Weekly Website. 27 Mar. 2006. 31
Oct. 2006 http://www.publishersweekly.com
Milliot, Jim. "Top Five Pubs Take Half
of Sales." Publishers Weekly Website. 25 Apr. 2005. 31 Oct.
Rosenthal, Morris. "Does PublishAmerica
Really Publish America?" Morris Rosenthal's Self Publishing
Blog. 22 Aug. 2005. 31 Oct. 2006 http://www.fonerbooks.com
---. "How to Publish a Book."
Foner Books Website. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006 http://www.fonerbooks.com/paper.htm
Span, Paula. "Making Books."
The Washington Post 23 Jan. 2005: BW08. Also available
"Facts about Publishers" copyright 2006 by Clare
B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author
is credited in a full citation.