So often, I hear authors ask, "How do I get a big publisher interested in my book?" Or they say, "I want to be published traditionally because they'll do all my marketing for me!"
By "big publisher," they are referring to big publishing groups such as Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, or Chronicle Books.
(And it doesn't take long before the author says, shocked, "Really? I had no idea!")
To be clear, I have nothing against traditional publishing. If the right opportunity came across my own desk, I'd absolutely consider it. But it's critical to know how it all really works in order to make the best decision for you and your book.
If you haven't read the first article in this series, which gives a high-level explanation of the 3 most popular types of publishing (traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing), you can read that article here.
Let's now explore the pros and cons of the traditional publishing approach.
NAME RECOGNITION (AKA VALIDATION)
"Name recognition" is the answer most give when you ask why they have such a strong interest in having their book published through a traditional publishing house. But, the truth behind their answer lies as much in what isn't said as in what is.
When I probe further to determine what "name recognition" really provides, it comes to light that if a major publishing house is interested in the book, that surely means that the book is "good." It gives the author the validation that most (if not all) authors---or creative people in general---seek.
But here's the thing (actually, two things):
One, book publishing is a business. A publishing house buys books they believe they can profit from selling. All one has to do is recognize how many agents turned down the first Harry Potter book to acknowledge that the agent (and, subsequently, the editor from the publishing house) have to believe in the salability of the book far more than they have to believe in the essence of it or the concept behind it.
Two, a book isn't truly "good" by publishing house standards until (and unless) it sells. There are plenty of amazing books gathering dust on bookshelves because they didn't have a strong marketing effort behind them. There are also plenty of not-so-great books that just so happened to hit on an as-yet-unknown need (hello, 50 Shades of Grey) or have a strategic marketing approach and do unexpectedly well.
If an editor at a publishing house believes that your book can do well and purchases it, the immediately sense of validation the author receives can be short-lived.
After all, if, once the book is published (which likely won't happen for 2-3 more years), it doesn't sell well, the publishing house will wash their hands of it (as well as discussions about the possibility of working with the author on subsequent books, in most cases).
ALL PARTS OF THE PUBLISHING PROCESS ARE TAKEN CARE OF BY THE PUB HOUSE
This can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing for obvious reasons: first-time authors don't know this industry, so having someone who does know it hold the reins from start to finish is comforting.
It's a curse for the reasons mentioned in the Control Over Product section below.
The coveted all-expenses-covering book advance no longer exists (in most cases). The days of securing a multi-5-figure (or higher) advance, especially for a first-time author, are over. If you have an extremely large (and engaged) platform, it's more likely that you'll be able to negotiate a larger than normal first-time advance. But honestly, if you're in this position, you may want to look at other publishing options first (see the Profit discussion in the cons section below).
THE REALITY OF THE ADVANCE
A typical advance for most first-time authors is between $2,500 and $10,000. It's paid out in 3 installments: at time of signing, when the manuscript is turned in or when all edits are complete, and at time of publication. This entire process can take 2-3 years. Also, 15% of that advance will go to your agent.
Plus, remember that an advance is just that---an advance against earnings the publisher expects the book to generate. It is not a signing bonus!
On a $2500 advance, you'll need to sell approximately 2500 books in order for the publisher to make back that initial investment. And if you think (any many people do) that the publisher will be paying for or doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the marketing necessary to sell those books, you're mistaken. The publisher will heavily (if not completely) rely on you to get the word out and generate sales.
After all, consumers buy books from authors and bookstores, not from publishers.
That's precisely why the size and engagement level of your platform is of great consequence when the publishing house is considering purchasing the rights to your book; they want the best possible assurance that the book will sell well---and quickly.
TIMELINE TO PUBLICATION
The time it can take between an agent agreeing to represent your book and your book actually being available for sale can be as long as 3 years. Eighteen months is the minimum amount of time to expect, and even that would be quite a rush job.
Most authors I speak with want their book to be released in a far shorter timeframe than that, either because the topic about which they are writing is timely or because the book somehow ties into their business or attracts customers.
CONTROL OVER PRODUCT
When you work with a traditional publisher, remember that the publisher intends to turn a profit from book sales. Therefore, their opinion on cover, style and tone (edits), and title/subtitle will rule.
Before long, many authors (especially first-time authors) begin to feel like their book is no longer theirs; it quickly begins to feel like a bastardization of their creativity that another company is hoping they can turn a profit from.
LOW PROFIT MARGIN
Once your advance is earned out (meaning enough books have sold for the publisher to have recouped the amount they gave you as an advance), you'll earn approximately 10% of net profits (minus the 15% that will go to your agent). It's a low profit margin to say the least, especially when you're the one doing all the work to get the book out there!
MARKETING AND DISTRIBUTION
The publisher will NOT take care of your marketing, but they WILL control your distribution. What this means is that you won't have control over ad-hoc sales you want to run (especially on the eBook). Plus, if you want to sell books at events, you'll have to purchase the books at a pretty hefty cost (though still at a discount from the retail price) from the publishing house. Once you pay not only to purchase the books but also ship them to an event, there will be little profit margin left.
Next up in the series, we'll dive more deeply into independent publishing---the process as well as the pros and cons of the approach.
At Finn-Phyllis Press, we are thrilled to offer our authors the kind of seamless, memorable experience that has our referral rate at nearly 100%.
We PARTNER with our authors. We don't agree to publish any and every book that we're offered, and we don't take on more authors than we can create true and lasting partnership with.
- We retain no copyrights on our authors' books.
- We keep ZERO royalties (book earnings). Every penny that our authors' books generate goes directly into their bank accounts.
If you'd like to chat about what it would look like for us to publish your book, please contact us! We would love to get to know you better and see if we're a great fit to work together!