Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2016

The Publishing World

This column contains basic information about the world of publishing, which, I realized recently, might be unfamiliar to many beginning authors, and which might be helpful to have all in one place.

If you want to publish a book, you can either self-publish or publish traditionally. To self publish should not cost money, except perhaps for a good edit and a good cover artist, which you should choose yourself. Do not sign up for or buy a “package” from a company offering these services.

A traditional publisher will do things such as: edit your manuscript for publication (this includes content editing, not just copyediting, and could include numerous rounds to make it better), choose a cover artist, set the typeface of the book, choose paper quality, send it to China to be published for cheaper, plus arrange publicity and marketing (such as trade reviews, print and electronic ads, Goodreads giveaways, blog tours, electronic ARCs, paper ARCs, talk it up in-house, arrange for a book tour, signings, a pub day celebration, etc.).

There are four big publishing houses as of 2016: Simon and Schuster (S&S), HarperCollins, Penguin Random House (recently combined) and Hachette Livre. Within each of these bigger houses, there are many publishing groups. Penguin Random House, for instance, includes in its umbrella Knopf, Dorling Kindersley, Penguin Young Readers, Random House Children’s Books, and so on. Each of the big four has multiple publishing imprints with editors and assistant editors in each imprint.

If you are published by one of the big four, there are many advantages. You will get an advance. The size of the advance may vary from house to house, but there will be an advance, which is not always a given. These four houses have distribution into every major bookstore in the country, as well as Amazon. That does not necessarily mean that your book will be in every bookstore, but it has a good chance of at least being seen in the catalogs that bookstores choose their stock from. Your book will also be sent to major review outlets and will be considered for many major awards without you having to do any work on your own.

There are also many other smaller publishing houses that may be interested in accepting your book for publication. I am currently published by Soho Press, which is a small independent house distributed by Random House. This means that I get the attention of a small press in-house, but also the big distribution arm of a big house. It means that my advance is small, however. Many independents give small or no advance, especially to first-time authors. Some will do little to no marketing and may expect you to do a lot of legwork on your own, doing your own tours and using your own ties to set up bookstore signings, blog tours and other publicity events. You may have to send books to review outlets, and the chances of getting reviews may be smaller. I have been published by the big four in previous years, and I can see the good and bad on both sides of the publishing fence.

There are also many regional publishers to whom you can send your manuscript, if it fits their publishing mandate. Some regional publishers publish a smaller subset of all the genres big publishers publish (picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, romance, fantasy, science fiction, non-fiction, how-to, memoir, literary, and so on). Most publish a much smaller subset, according to the region they are located in. In Utah, there are several well-known publishers that publish Mormon books intended to appeal to a Mormon audience. There are also a handful of regional Western publishers that are interested in Western topics.

You can find out about all publishers in a reference book called “Writers Market 2017” that you can either buy on-line (it’s big and expensive and you will need a new one every year) or borrow from the reference desk of your local library. Even if you buy a new book every year, you need to be aware that the information may change frequently. Editors are always coming and going and if you send e-mail or snail mail to a name listed in the book, that editor could well be gone before then. You can call and ask for a name, or just hope that the next editor will read the previous editor’s slush. Or you can send to “Acquisitions Editor.” I sold my first book this way.

As an author, you should not be sending your manuscripts directly to an editor in most cases. The exceptions to this would be if you have been directly asked to submit following a conference where an editor read your work. Even then, I recommend trying to find an agent first. A literary agent is to your work what a real estate agent would be to your house. You need one. I say this as someone whose bacon has been saved on multiple occasions by a literary agent standing between me and a publisher who was demanding that I return money from an advance. Yes, this happens. Yes, it happens more often than you might think. And no, it wasn’t my fault (though of course the publisher insisted that it was).

An agent will also guide you through the process of submitting a manuscript for publication and getting it published. Agents have lots of information to help newbies deal with anxiety-producing days and nights. Agents help you with the contract and will get better terms for you (though not necessarily a bigger advance). I know many authors who work without an agent, but I do not recommend it. It can be more difficult to get a reputable agent than it is to get a publishing contract. Nonetheless, I think the agent should come first.

If you want to find a list of reputable agents, two websites will be your friend: agentquery.com and writersdigest.com. Both have interactive lists of agents where you can plug in the genre you are writing and see what agents represent that genre. Not all agents represent all things, so you need to have a good idea of what genre you are working in. That means going to the bookstore or library and seeking out other books of similar type. Sometimes writers are encouraged to give “comps” or comparable titles. Feel free to do this, but be aware that your agent may well make up a new list later. Be careful not to insist that what you are writing is much better than other books in the same field. You’re not bragging here, just giving a general idea of where your book might be shelved. If you want to learn specific names of agents, I recommend finding books you love and reading the acknowledgements page, where an agent will frequently be thanked. If you know an author, you can ask who their agent is. Don’t tell an agent that an author has recommended you send in a manuscript unless the author has actually recommended that directly. The agent will contact the author and ask.

Most agents will have you sign a contract with them for a certain length of time. This contract will specify how to break off your relationship, if that becomes necessary (most authors I know have been through multiple agents and there are good reasons for that). Usually, terminating the contract will require a piece of registered mail and a certain number of weeks to finish any outstanding projects. Your agent will be paid from a percentage of your sales. In fact, your publisher will send all money directly to your agent, who will pass along the remaining 85% to you. This is how it’s done. This is one reason why you want to be sure any agent you sign with is reputable. Before you sign, always ask for three or four clients you can contact to ask about the agent’s style to see if it will fit well with yours. I have a list of agent questions to ask here.

Once you’ve signed with an agent, congratulations! This is excellent news! But it doesn’t mean that you will automatically publish this book, or even with this agent. Agents are not magic. They cannot force publishers to accept books, and even if they have many useful connections, they sometimes fail even with books they love. Bad agents may send you on your way at this point. A good agent will ask you for something else that they can send along, or may give you advice on what would be a good next book to write, thinking about the market and your specific interests and talents.

If you do get a contract for publication, please remember that you need to read the contract yourself. Ask your agent if you have any questions (you will, I guarantee it). Then it’s time to wait some more. You will likely sign a contract that asks for a second book. You need to work on that second book as you wait for publication of the first book. There will be rounds of revision with an editor, then copyedits and final pass pages where it is your last chance to change things. Work hard at this. Make your agent and editor proud and happy.

In the ramp up to publication day, you will need to have a plan. You may be sent on a book tour (not my experience with first time authors, but it happens). You will want to have some kind of publication day event at a bookstore signing. Your publisher may set this up, but if not, you can do it yourself. Just call a local bookstore and explain who you are and who your publisher is. Ask and be polite. Don’t assume that you’re doing them a favor. And make sure you leave some time (a few months) to prepare. Then do work on your own to ensure people will show up (ask family members to come and listen to you talk and buy a book there instead of on Amazon—attending the event but buying on Amazon is in bad taste). You can provide food if it’s allowed (not all bookstores allow it). You will also be doing behind the scenes work on social media, talking about the book without shouting at people to buy it (even if you wish you could do this). Mostly, keep expectations low and keep working on your new book.

If you’re lucky, you will go through this process many times in your life. This is just a short overview, so understand that just like in a novel, you may have many try and fail cycles. Try not to give up if it takes a long time. I like to think of publication as an apprenticeship that takes many people five to ten years to finish. And that’s when the real work of being an author begins, because you’ll be expected to keep producing books on a regular basis for years to come.

Good luck!

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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