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[Book Publishing 101] Traditional Publishing: Pros and Cons

So often, I hear authors ask, "How do I get a big publisher interested in my book?" By "big publisher," they mean publishing groups such as Penguin, Harper Collins, and Chronicle Books.  

I love this question because it allows me to dispel some myths when it comes to traditional publishing. It doesn't take long for the author to respond, "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, vanity, and self-publishing), you can read that article here.

Let's now explore the pros and cons of the traditional publishing approach.

Top Reasons to Publish with a Traditional House (pros)

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 that answer lies as much in what isn't said as it does 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 that they believe they can make a profit from selling. Period. 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" in the industry until 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 that 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. If, once the book is published, it doesn't sell well, the publishing house will wash their hands of it (as well as discussions about the possibility of working together on subsequent books).  

ALL ASPECTS OF PUBLISHING PROCESS ARE COVERED

This can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing for the obvious reasons: first-time authors don't know this industry, so having someone who does know it take the reins from start to finish is wonderfully comforting.

It's a curse for the reasons mentioned in the Control Over Product section below. 

AN ADVANCE

To clarify, the renowned advance is, in most cases, a myth. The days of securing a 5-figure (or higher) advance, especially for a first-time author, are long 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 author advance. But honestly, if you're in this position, you may want to look at other publishing options (see the Profit discussion in the cons section below).

Top Reasons NOT to Publish with a Traditional House (cons)

THE REALITY OF THE ADVANCE

A typical advance for most first-time authors is between $2500 and $5000. It's paid out in 3 parts: at time of signing, when the manuscript is turned in, 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'd be mistaken. They will very heavily (if not completely) rely on you to get the word out and generate sales.

After all, consumers buy books from authors, not from publishers.

That's precisely why the size of your platform is of great consequence when the 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 launching can be as long as 3 years. Eighteen months is the minimum amount of time to expect, and 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 or brings customers to their primary business. 

CONTROL OVER PRODUCT

When you work with a traditional publisher, remember that said 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 (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 random sales you want to run (especially on the eBook), and 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 retail) from the publishing house. Once you pay not only to purchase the books but also ship them to an event, there will be very little margin left for profit. 

Next up in the series, we'll dive more deeply into vanity publishing---the process as well as the pros and cons of the approach.

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