Clare B. Dunkle

The 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.

If 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.

The publishing 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 take years.

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, and selling.

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.

I 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 their interest.

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 dozen. (Span)

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 industry:

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 /releases/20051520/6/prwebxml246822.php

Branch, Justin. "How Much Money Do Most Authors Make?" Greenleaf Book Group's Big Bad Book Blog. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006 /2006/05/17/how-much-money-do-most-authors-make-and-other-provocative-industry-stats/

Greenwood, Katherine Federici. "Author! Author!" Princeton Alumni Weekly Online. 5 Apr. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006 /~paw/archive_new/PAW05-06/11-0405/features_selfpub.html

Maryles, Daisy. "Truth Is Stronger Than Fiction." Publishers Weekly Website. 27 Mar. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006 /article/CA6318930.html?display=archive

Milliot, Jim. "Top Five Pubs Take Half of Sales." Publishers Weekly Website. 25 Apr. 2005. 31 Oct. 2006 /article/CA527260.html?pubdate=4%2F25%2F2005&display=archive

Rosenthal, Morris. "Does PublishAmerica Really Publish America?" Morris Rosenthal's Self Publishing Blog. 22 Aug. 2005. 31 Oct. 2006 /2005/08/does-publishamerica-really-publish.html

---. "How to Publish a Book." Foner Books Website. 2006. 31 Oct. 2006

Span, Paula. "Making Books." The Washington Post 23 Jan. 2005: BW08. Also available at /ac2/wp-dyn/A25187-2005Jan20

"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.

All webpage text copyright 2003-2014 by Clare B. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. All photos copyright 2003-2014 by Joseph R. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. You may make one print copy of any page on this site for private or educational use. You may quote the author using short excerpts from this website, provided you attribute the quote. You may use the photos in both print and virtual media to promote the author's books or events. All other copying or use of this website material, either photos or text, is forbidden without the express written consent of the author.