Dear Indie | Having a Publisher: Fact vs Popular Belief

Hi Indies & Aspiring Writers!

Today, I want to address something I’ve never faced head-on in any of my Indie posts before. I’ve mentioned it, but never as the main topic of discussion. Since I know many of you are still working on your publishing goals, I thought it would be good to talk about common myths we often come to accept as facts.

I’m not here to persuade you to change your mind if your goal is to one day get a contract with a Traditional Publishing House. Who wouldn’t want that?

I just want to make sure you have that goal for the right reason, and that it’s not based on the fear-driven need for validation.

I could go off on a tangent about the narrow-minded opinions surrounding the self-publishing industry, but really, all I need is this: A list of successful and well-known self-published authors.

  • Margaret Atwood: author of the Handmaid’s Tale.
  • E.L. James: author of Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Chrisopher Paolini: author of Eragon
  • Lisa Geova: author of Still Alice
  • Beatrix Potter: author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • Robert Kiyosaki: author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • Andy Weir: author of The Martian
  • Mark Twain
  • Jane Austen
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • James Patterson

I could keep going but the list is actually quite long. You can find it here on the Alliance of Independent Authors website.

I just wanted my portion of the list to include a good mix of genres—to prove that self-publishing isn’t JUST for trashy smut or poorly written novels that can’t get published anywhere else—since that seems to be the biggest misinformed stigma that has yet to be eradicated from mainstream opinion.

I also wanted it right here—in black and white—for all to see that you DO NOT need a publishing house to validate that YOU ARE A LEGITIMATE WRITER.

Need further proof? Here’s a list of manuscripts that were repeatedly rejected by publishers:

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • Dune
  • Life of Pi
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Color Purple
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Carrie
  • The Chronicles of Narnia

Again, I could go on, but I’ll let you check out: the most comprehensive list of famous books that saw numerous rejections for yourself.

Your fears are understandable. Your doubts, self-criticism, and overwhelming uncertainty are shared by all writers at least once in their career. But as you can see from the two lists above, those ‘big name’ publishing houses that people put so much stock in are NOT a reliable source for what defines a good book.

They are not the end-all be-all of validation.

And those are only the manuscripts they actually read. That doesn’t include the countless ones they toss without even giving a skim because they simply don’t have the manpower to read every manuscript ever submitted to them. That’s a fact and you can research it if you don’t believe me.

Submitting a manuscript to a publisher is not a guarantee that anyone working there will ever read a single word of it before sending you a rejection letter.

And let’s not forget that most publishers won’t even allow you to submit your work to them unless you have a Literary Agent, which can be 10 times harder to convince than a publisher.

So… now that I’ve cleared up a few myths about the ‘almighty powers that be’ publishing houses and why they will never be the source of your validation, let’s take a look at how they work from the inside.

The Process of Dealing with a Publisher

Maybe your goal isn’t about validation, but upfront cost. That is completely understandable. In a side-by-side view it’s easy to see why Traditional Publishing looks far more appealing:

Traditional

  • Editing: Included
  • Book Cover: Included
  • Interior Layout: Included
  • Marketing: You’re mostly on your own

Self-Published

  • Editing: $0-$0.12/word
  • Book Cover: $0-$500+
  • Interior Layout: $0-$60
  • Marketing: However much you want to spend

But what about pay?

Traditional

  • Their cut: 60-70%
  • Your royalties: 30-40%

Self-Published

  • Their cut: 0-60%
  • Your royalties: 40-100%

Wait. If I’m self-publishing, then how can there still be someone taking a percentage of my book royalties?

Every online retailer will take a percentage of your royalties for allowing you to sell on their website. Amazon charges two different percentages: 60% for books under $2.99 or only 30% for books $2.99 or higher. Your cut would then be 40-70%, respectively.

Smashwords will pay you 85% royalties if your book sells on their site, or 70.5% if it sells on one of the many affiliate sites they distribute to. That means you actually make more by having Smashwords distribute the books for you rather than uploading your books directly to each retail site. Places like Barnes & Noble will likely charge you the same as Amazon if you submit to them yourself.

By going through Smashwords, you’re not only guaranteed 70.5%, but you also don’t have to worry about following each retailers’ unique guidelines and specifications for your book formatting. Smashwords takes care of all that for you.

Digital download sites vary and may charge either a posting fee per product or a transaction fee per sale, or a combination of both. Make sure you know how much they plan to take, and why, before creating an account on their site. In my experience it’s too little to cause me any hesitation because it’s less than pocket change.

The only way to earn 100% royalties is to make your author website ecommerce, so readers can purchase your book directly from you. If your book is popular and selling, that would be a great investment.

But maybe you’re thinking that going the Traditional Publishing route still looks better. That it’s worth only getting 30-40% book royalties to not have any upfront costs.

Well, here are some other things to consider…

Costs & Benefits of Having a Traditional Publisher

One of the biggest benefits of having a Traditional Publisher is the chance that you might get an advance for your novel. Now, it’s rare for first time authors to see an advance. Usually, those are only provided to authors who’ve already proven that their books sell.

Another benefit could be a form of marketing service. Again, this would likely only come for your second book if your first one did well on the market. The Publisher wants to make money, so they’ll be more likely to promote it with no cost to you, if it’s going to benefit them in the long run.

A publisher can also help you when it comes to the extra things. Such as, negotiating movie or TV series adaptions, and getting your book translated into foreign languages.

Of course, an Entertainment Lawyer can help with the first, and a Literary Agent or Publicist can help with both. Meaning, you still don’t NEED a publisher to handle anything that comes your way if you don’t want one.

The greatest cost to going through a Traditional Publisher other than their 60-70% cut of your royalties is marketing. You will still be expected to market your own book as much as you can, and it might even be a requirement in your contract (make sure to read the fine print).

On top of paying for your own marketing, your Literary Agent is going to take an average of 15% of your advances and royalties for the rest of your publishing life.

More Pros & Cons of Having a Traditional Publisher

Aside from money, the biggest disadvantage of having a Traditional Publisher is time. When you sign a book contract, things no longer happen on your time.

A publisher can sit on your manuscript for up to four years (48 months) before they even begin the process of publishing your book.

You wait, and wait, then suddenly you’re on a deadline. Your manuscript is put through a frenzy of back-and-forth between you and the editor while a cover artist gets pissy if you’re not in love with the first mockup they send over.

Don’t you dare be too difficult despite the fact that it’s YOUR book, they’re the professional and know better than you.

Then, you’re back to waiting until finally the Copy Editor gets a hold of your manuscript. Now, you have to do one last line-by-line check to make sure everything is exactly the way you want—because you were so looking forward to reading that damn thing again.

Now, this is all from personal experience with an ePublisher, which is likely different from a brick & mortar publishing house. Those guys might not even give you a say about the cover art or final copy editing. I don’t know.

When all editing is complete, you have about one month to promote the hell out of your book and pray that at least one tour company has the dates you need available. It’s best to start promoting and hunting down a tour host the moment your editor first reaches out to let you know the process has begun.

The most popular tour companies may be booked for months into the future, leaving you in the lurch, and you can’t change your launch date: that is controlled by your publisher.

Now, let’s say your first book does well and the publisher wants to offer you an advance for your next manuscript. Yay! But… that advance comes with a deadline. You will have to produce a new manuscript and deliver it to your publisher by that deadline—no matter what. Family emergencies, illnesses, injuries, pandemics, writer’s block, none of those reasons will ever excuse you from being in breach of contract. If you fail to deliver, you lose your publisher, possibly your Literary Agent, and have to pay back every penny of your advance.

So, if you’re like the countless other writers out there who struggle with time-constraints, that is a very important thing to consider before seeking out a Traditional Publisher.

Like I said, I’m not here to burst your Life’s Dream bubble. I just want to make sure that dream is motivated by the right reasons and that you’re prepared for whatever comes with it.

Writers put up with a lot of criticism for how little they make. Even your friends and loved ones who have the best intentions at heart will criticize you for chasing this dream. They’ll want you to either succeed by THEIR standards or give up the ‘hobby’ for a ‘real career.’

Usually, their standards align with those of the general public: that you’re not a legitimate writer unless your work is backed by some prestigious, big-name entity.

And that’s bullshit.

Your writing is validated by you and your readers. And the only way to get your book in front of readers, is to publish it. How you publish it should only be decided by what works best for you, your stories, and your budget.

Having a Traditional Publisher would make any writer feel amazing—but it’s not without its downsides and you may find that the stress isn’t worth it. The most important thing to check in any book contract is whether or not it specifies how long your Publisher will retain all rights to your book. If it’s not stated in your contract, that means it’s indefinite and you don’t want that. If they’re unwilling to put in a time, I would speak with an Entertainment Lawyer to see what your options are.

Trust me: you do not want to be stuck with a lousy publisher until they’re ready to relinquish rights. I lucked out because my ePublisher decided to retire and close their business, yet the wait for that was still excruciatingly long (over 5 years).

But the big-name Traditional Publishers are not going anywhere. They will be in business for a very, very long time. It’s best to do whatever you can to have some kind of time-limit restriction in case that publisher ends up not being a good fit for you.

Because as with all things: One bad publisher doesn’t make all publishers bad. Your experience won’t be like anyone else’s, so no matter how many articles you read, keep that in mind. I had one poor experience with one ePublisher and I’m a huge advocate for self-publishing. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give another publisher a chance later on down the line—if it was the best choice for me and my book at the time. I’m all about experiencing whatever I can, especially in this industry.

I like seeing the mechanics of all, getting inside and watching how all the cogs line up and gears turn. That way I can tell all of you. 😀

In Conclusion

Stick to your dreams of having a Traditional Publisher if that’s what you truly want. If you’re willing to exchange time and royalties for the security of having a professional team, possible advances, and no upfront costs—then go for it.

Or self-publish for more royalties while writing on your own time with full control over your books and their rights. Maybe one day a publisher will pick you up. Choosing to self-publish first doesn’t mean you have to stay on that path if a better one presents itself.

I know I said you’re making a decision earlier, but it’s not a ‘set in stone’ one. You have the right and freedom to change your mind if one publishing route doesn’t work out.

Whichever you decide, just be willing to put in the work for you and your books. You have to invest in your dream if you want to see it become a reality.

If that means getting rejected by 50 Literary Agents, that means you have a drawer full of answers through the process of elimination and you should start writing your next query letter.

If it means pausing your writing to learn how to edit, design covers, and market, then do it. If you can’t afford to pay professionals, then become the professional.

Andy Weir’s The Martian started as a serial published on his website (read: zero upfront cost. Also read: he was offering free content on his blog, kinda like we all do already) and now it’s a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon. But that’s because he did the work. He researched the sh*t out of it to make the story so accurate and well-edited that his fans screamed for him to get it in eBook form—they begged to have to pay for it. That’s bonkers!

There are no limits, writers. Don’t let others’ opinions and views put restrictions on your creativity or goals. Not even mine. I’m just here to keep you as informed as I can by sharing personal experience and researched facts—not just more popular beliefs.

And BTW, if you’re writing then you’re already a REAL writer and anyone who says differently needs to open a fricking dictionary.

• • • •

❤ Want to continue the conversation? Leave your comments or questions below and let’s talk…

2 responses to “Dear Indie | Having a Publisher: Fact vs Popular Belief”

  1. With self-publishing so readily available these days, there’s really no reason to pursue only a traditional publisher if your ultimate goal is to be published. It’s kinda like the music industry. You sign these long-term binding contracts that are hard to get out off without losing money, sign away your rights to your own creativity to satisfy these money-hungry executives, and make pennies on the dollar. While both can be rewording, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that self-publishing can be more rewarding, because at least you’re your own boss. When you look at the traditional model, you’re still technically working for someone, making them money. And when I was a broke college student dreaming of writing for a living, let me tell you, having someone still control my output was not part of the dream! Lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! I didn’t even think about the music industry but it’s very much the same, which is why so many artists are making it big by getting their music out independently, too. I had to learn from experience, but I’m so happy to only be self-publishing now. 🙂

      Like

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