Posted: 2013-09-10 07:42:13
The road to becoming a published author is long. It starts with an idea...a topic, a person, a plot. Before anyone starts thinking of publishers, agents or editors they have a lot of work to do. First, of course, is writing an initial draft. And your first draft is the very basic starting point. There are an almost infinite number of resources on the market that will help you with the process of writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing, revising, etc. For any sort of novelist, I highly recommend a critique group. For a non-fiction writer (including biography, memoir, self-help, history or non-textbook) manuscript you need to have readers along the way. These readers should not just be friends and family, who will think anything you write is wonderful. They should be subject matter experts, other published authors, book critics, editors, or someone that will give you an honest and fairly unbiased opinion. Until you have gone through several evaluation cycles by your peers, you don't need to worry about anything else. This part of the process, honing your manuscript, can take weeks, months or even years. But until you are sure it is as clean as you can make it, you aren't ready to think about publishing.
Once you do reach the stage where you feel ready to send your creation out into the world, you have one very important question to ask yourself: are you absolutely committed to your work as is, or are you open to changes? Because the truth is that unless you are ready to have it changed, re-worked, and otherwise edited, it is pointless to even consider trying the "traditional" publishing route. If you are open to having someone you have never met tell you they are interested if you make this, that or the other change, the next thing you need is a thick skin: rhino, elephant or armored tank thick. Because the odds are you will get rejected several if not dozens or hundreds of times.
If you are committed to keeping your baby "as is", you are looking at a couple of choices via the self-publishing route (this includes epublication such as an ebook via Amazon). In the hard-copy realm you have two basic choices: a vanity press or print-on-demand (POD). A vanity press will publish your book in quantity and ship it to you once you have signed the contract and paid the fees for printing and shipping. Print-on-demand is just what it sounds like: your work isn't printed until someone orders it. A vanity press prints your manuscript, may secure your ISBN number, ships it, and you are done financially with them. A POD service will generally charge you an upload fee, and may also charge you a percentage of royalties for each order. If you choose the ebook route, there are a number of ways you can get your manuscript formatted; basically an ebook is a .pdf file that is encrypted against digital duplication.
For any of the self-publishing options, I highly recommend at the very least a professional copywriter, and wholeheartedly suggest you hire an independent editor to help make your work the best can be. A freelance editor should be able to provide you with references and examples of work s/he has done.
The most recent iteration of innovation in publishing has been epublishing. For a decade or so, epublishers such as Ellora's Cave, Samhain, Loose-Id,offered online downloadable .pdf files of authors that were often novella length. The cost was significantly less than hardback/paperback print versions. These online publishers had varying levels of editorial support available, depending on their business model. Then came the Nook and Kindle. Originally designed as an alternate delivery method for publishers to reach their audience, when Amazon opened the door to CreateSpace and self-publishing on Amazon, the literary industry was irrevocably changed. Now anyone can self-publish on the single largest bookstore in the world. The royalties are much greater from a percentage standpoint but the price per unit is significantly smaller. So a 70-80% royalty structure might sound really good, but if your ebook is only selling for $2.50, that works out to significantly lower profit than 20% of a $8-9 trade paperback. At that point it is all sales. If you can get 2 million people to purchase your ebook, obviously you are looking at a significant profit. But if you only have 300 people purchase your ebook on Amazon, you might be lucky to clear $500.
There are major tradeoffs between traditional publishing and self-publishing. The most notable are financial and operational support, with quality control also being a major differentiator. When a large publisher makes the commitment to publish your book, you are generally paid a royalty advance, to give you the time to finish your book or create another. In addition, you receive the services of professionally recognized editors that generally have years of experience making a manuscript the best it can be. You also have the huge advantage of a professional marketing department and multiple distribution channels. In return for these not insignificant advantages, you give the publisher a hefty portion of the profits, and they control the distribution of the royalties with exclusive distribution and dissemination rights. There are also small presses, which offer much less in the way of marketing support but which you may have better chance of being published. Most of them do not pay advances, but they do offer editing and reviewers. There are many discussions on Absolute Write about the advantages, pitfalls, and warning signs about small presses.
Let's talk covers for a moment. One major misconception many beginning authors have about traditional presses is that they will have significant input and decision-making on their covers. You don't. Covers sell books, and all presses have dedicated artists or departments they work with that not only know the setup needed to create a book cover, but also to make sure publisher's brand is consistent. Publishers are in the business of selling books, and like everything else, there are trends in what sells. It used to be that an artist could create a cover and it would be photographed and then typeset. Nowadays, covers tend to be a combination of photos/digital art, depending on the genre or subject of the book. Obviously if you are self-publishing you have full decision making over the art for your cover, but make sure you use art that won't be detrimental to your book; when in doubt, go with a plain or abstract cover.
One question often arises for those pursuing traditional publishing: do I need an agent? The first thing to understand about agents is that they are the equivalent of an executive headhunter. They choose their clients based on the content of their manuscripts so they tend to be selective. Most have a range of genres they specialize in; they may be niche or broad, depending on factors such as agency size, the backgroound/s of their employees, and industry contacts. They generally take a 15%+ cut of publication royalties for each project. That may seem like a lot, but here is what you get from agent representation: direct access to publishers (submitted on you behalf) and contract negotiation expertise. Since your agent makes their living off of your deal, you are guaranteed they will get you the best contract terms possible. Publication contracts are a breed apart, so if you don't use an agent, at the very least do yourself a favor and use an attorney to review your contracts *that has a specialty in publication contract law.* You should consider submitting to an agent for representation if you A) have an accepted manuscript and want their negotiation services B) you aren't sure where to submit your manuscript directly C) you have previously submitted your manuscript, had it rejected from a significant number of publishing houses and you have made major changes. In the case of A, if you have been offered a multi-book deal, a one-time attorney fee may make more sense.
For those pursuing the traditional publishing route and an agent, it is absolutely vital that you do research to find reputable agents and for anyone that is using an independent editor, the same holds true. There are several online resources such as Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write, Query Tracker, Publisher's Marketplace (subscription), Association of Authors' Representatives, and good old fashioned professional word of mouth from friends/peers. Get references *and check them out*. LinkedIn has several writing Groups you can join at no charge to solicit feedback from other members. One trick to finding an agent is to read the dedications and forewards from your favorite authors; often they will name their agents in their thanks. You can also run a Google search on other authors to find out who their agents are; truthfully, it is pretty rare for a professional author not to have an agent. An agent can represent you on different projects to different publishers if you decide to branch out in your work. It is also very possible that attending writer's conferences that have agents and industry editors at them will result in finding the right contacts. Just make sure that, as with any other professional relationship, you get a written contract explicitly spelling out expectations and fees.
Probably the most important thing to understand about being an author is knowing that this is not a profession that is likely to make you *rich*. Even the NY Times Bestsellers don't all make millions. Being an author is a career option, but there are many authors that have "day jobs" or other external careers. Remember, if you are writing with any expectation of selling that you are creating a *product*, and that means you are to a great degree subject to the marketplace, in this case your readers. There was a question over on LinkedIn a couple of weeks ago about whether or not an author should be required to change his "voice". His small press publisher closed shop, and no one else was interested in picking up his very narrowly-focused voice, which was that of someone from a very specific part of the UK, in dialogue, setting, characterization, etc. Lots of people were saying that no, an author should not pander to the marketplace if it was "inauthentic", but my response was that if he depends on writing is his livelihood, then he needs to create product that people will *buy*. Otherwise, writing is an investment of time, emotion, and effort into nothing more than a literary exercise.