This topic is probably better suited to a professional conference, but it made it on the blog question list, so here we go.
A recent article in Bookseller found that “debut authors struggle with the lack of support” and the process of publishing a book “negatively affected” their mental health. Also water is wet, snow is cold, and nitrogen is the most common gas in Earth’s atmosphere.
As I read the article, I laughed a bitter jaded laugh. I’m going to send it to Jeaniene Frost so she might have a laugh. Update: I sent it and then we laughed on the phone in bitter solidarity. It was better than crying. As someone said on Twitter once, publishing is a breeze. After the first four of five nervous breakdowns, I barely notice them.
I usually try to go for positive, but in this case, truth is best. Here is my direct advice, without any sugar coating, on how to preserve some sanity. All quotes are from the article above unless otherwise indicated.
Editor, publicist, etc – lovely people who help to make the manuscript into a book.
Publisher – the corporate entity that employs them.
Glamorization of Publishing
The portrayal of authors in media often shows a creative person who is treated like a celebrity. They are almost always successful financially. Everyone around them understands that they are special and they makes allowances for their quirky behavior. Their editor is attentive and hands on, fully plugged into their work, not just a colleague but a friend who is ready to assist them with every personal issue.
This author walks on the beach, thinking deep thoughts or gazes through the windows of their luxurious house at the wooded vista below, lost in contemplation. The author attends parties and industry events. Their new manuscript causes hysteria and drama as various people try to get their hands on it. The author arrives to the bookstore to an adoring crowd and reads their book while the audience hangs on their every word. Their signing line curves around the block.
It’s all very high brow and glamorous. Castle would be the worst example of this. You can see how this portrayal affected people by reading the Bookseller article.
I expected a lot more support – for example, a public speaking workshop, help in public reading and addressing audiences.
“I remember crying as I didn’t know how to make good author videos – I didn’t have the right tech or the right training.”
There was a school visit (unpaid) close to the launch date, arranged by the publisher. Nobody from the publisher accompanied me and I had no guidance on what to include, I just had to make it up for myselfBookseller
My watershed moment came shortly after signing the contract for our first book. Still very excited, I talked my husband into getting our author photo taken. We did spring for a session with a professional photographer. When we received our shots, I emailed our publisher and politely asked if they would need our author photos for the back of the book and any promotion. I got back a quick and short reply. For the authors of our level, cover photos were not needed.
You are a contractor. Your value to the publisher is tied to the amount of money your book can generate. Their investment in you and your work will be minimal.
It helps to lower your expectations. All the way down. You will know you are there when you scrape the bottom.
I found that it is best for your mental health if you let go of the idea that you as a writer are special in any way when interacting with your publisher. You are one of many contractors. Your publisher will not hold your hand or care too much about your wellbeing. At best, you will be ignored. At worst:
“I expected the author/publisher relationship to feel like a business partnership. Instead it felt like a parent/child relationship with a lot of gaslighting and fake conversations,”
“Often I’d ask clear questions but receive opaque answers wrapped in praise and flattery, which felt a bit infantilising.”Bookseller
I’ve described this before. You will be treated like a special toddler.
One of the authors I know said the following, “When I first got a contract, I didn’t expect a debut party or a big promotional push, nor did I get it, so I wasn’t disappointed about that, but what did surprise me was the outright lies and gaslighting that happens in the industry.”
Also, I know this for a fact, I’ve heard it from multiple people, that about ten years ago, at an event organized by a major publisher, where that publisher’s authors gathered for “the state of the union,” a publisher’s representative gave a speech and told them that self publishing was done and that if they hadn’t self-published by now, they had missed the boat and couldn’t possibly make any money from it. Print was coming back in a big way. And then they distributed coloring books as party favors.
Things you can expect from your publisher
A content edit – Usually a good learning experience. A great editor will provide the author with a roadmap to vastly improve the manuscript. Experienced editors are one of the traditional publishing’s main assets.
In rare cases, books sometimes go to print with a minimal edit. I personally know three people who had that happen. Literally, the editor looked at the manuscript and said, “Good enough,” and sent it to copyedit. You are especially in danger of this if your editor handles many titles. At one point, one of our editors edited over 50 books per year. That particular editor was very conscientious but not every editor is. I had thorough edits and not so thorough edits. But at least I got edits.
A copyedit – the publisher is obligated to have the manuscript proofread.
In practice, we hired an independent CE to copyedit our books on top of the publisher provided copyedit because they use contractors and they pay them peanuts. The quality of the copyedits varies wildly.
A cover – Not an attractive cover or a cover that makes sense. Just a cover.
As writers, we assign great emotional value to the covers because they are the face of our work. The cover is what the public sees. It’s our first chance to make a good impression.
There once was an author whose covers made her a laughing stock of the industry. Years later, the publisher decided to redo the covers. The author asked for 3 elements on the cover: a magic design, a red carnation, and some flames. The author stressed that all three elements were very important and even made a sample cover. The author received several mock up covers, which included: a pink peony, a white peony, a white lotus, a pink lotus, a carnation at an angle that made the flower unrecognizable, two asphalt roses left over after a volcano eruption, a still glowing rose, a melted-asphalt peony, and three asphalt roses.
From the publisher’s point of view, this isn’t a big deal. They simply failed to communicate to the art department that it had to be a red carnation, or the art department failed to explain it to the artist, or the artist didn’t read the brief. Any flower is fine as long as it’s in the ballpark. Also, it can be easily fixed.
From the author’s point of view, this shows a devastating lack of care. The carnation is central to the plot. At the core, this is a failure of corporate procedure. There are multiple check points in this process at which those mock up covers should have gone back to the artist because this wasn’t what the author asked for. It communicates that the publisher couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.
You can’t even blame the artist. I have watched a Korean Drama – I think it was Korean, but I might not remember correctly – where an artist was consumed by creating just the right cover for a novel because the book spoke to them. It might happen, but 95% of the time, the artist gets a summary. Blonde with a gun in leather. Make it purple.
A reasonably formatted text – I haven’t had any issues here personally and I haven’t heard many authors complain.
A publishing date – In practice, this date may be moved, and your book will likely be available before the publishing date which will often impair your chances of landing on the bestselling list. The book may be bumped for any number of reasons, and there will be times in every author’s career, when they are late delivering the manuscript, so this usually isn’t something to get heated over unless it results in a long delay.
Marketing – The publisher will attempt to sell the book to various wholesalers. You will not see this happen, but it is in their best interests to get as many orders as possible. They are offering it to stores. They might not be paying for special placement but they are absolutely trying to sell it.
Minimal publicity – They will send your ARCs out for reviews. Full stop.
Unless the lightning struck, and you are somehow the favorite child, because you are a Big Name Author or the publisher is really pushing your book, you will not get a debut party. You won’t get flowers or a phone call. You might get an email from your editor. Nobody aside from your friends and family will celebrate with you. Your editor might remember that your book is coming out, your agent definitely should, but your publisher will not. To paraphrase a villain from a truly awful movie, to you, this is a moment you will always remember. To them, it’s Tuesday.
It’s you. By yourself.
In a way it’s freeing, because instead of worrying about feelings and experiencing some guilt because you don’t want to seem needy, you can simply state, “This is what I need.” They will either say yes or no. Once the emotion is out of it, it will be a business negotiation. Except that writers literally make their living from manipulating emotions and it’s hard to cat them out.
If you want appearances, you have to push for them. You can get the publicity to reach out on your behalf and try to set up a signing for you at your local bookstore, but if you are just starting out, keep in mind that since nobody knows about your books, nobody might show up. It takes a massive promotional campaign to make the kind of splash that packs the seats at the debut.
Nobody will print bookmarks. Nobody will print post cards. Nobody will make any swag. In fact, the publisher will clutch their pearls at any suggestion of spending money on you. When the industry conventions were active, the publisher would sometimes print something like pins for selected authors and then deliver them in secret and warn the authors to not mention to anyone that the publisher paid for it.
Nobody will train you in public speaking. If you are worried, take a class at a local college. Nobody will educate you how to do a zoom. There are guides and walk-throughs online. Unless you are the front runner somehow, you will not have a handler. You are on your own. However, if you do an event at a bookstore, the bookstore staff will help you. They are awesome. One time in Florida, we did a signing with a police escort because there had been an incident prior to us arriving. The book store staff usually go above and beyond. And some readers took pictures with the officer who was a really good sport about it.
While we are on the subject, it’s probably best to let go of the idea that anyone wants to hear you read. Every person in the audience is able to read. After all, they are attending a book signing. I have been at multiple signings and the moment the author starts reading, people get bored and mostly wait for it to be over.
Try to entertain people instead. Your readers will have a better time. Treat it as a skit or a lecture you have to give. Prepare some funny stories. If you talk about yourself, make it fun and engaging. Be ready to answer questions. Remember, it’s not about you as a person. It’s about your book and entertaining your readers.
But what about ads and book tour and all that other stuff? – all of that should come with sales. It may not. Do you know what actually woke our publisher up to our success? We hit #1 on NYT. And then everyone on our publisher side was very surprised despite the record of rising sales for the previous 4 books and repeated appearance on the bestseller lists.
If you do get the book tour and the headaches associated with a publisher push, prepare to do a lot of work. Book tours are taxing, and they will leave you creatively exhausted. Conventions are worse. Meeting the readers is fun, don’t get me wrong. This is why we write – to connect. To communicate and entertain. But it is work. You will be expected to be on. When someone travels 3 hours to see you, and you can give them exactly one minute of your attention, you have to make that minute count.
You can do your own book tour if you would like, but again, you have to weigh the expense of travel against whether or not anyone would show up.
“I am in the process of launching my fifth book and I am still supported by my publisher.”Bookseller
“However, six authors – debut and otherwise – cited being dropped by their publisher, some with no explanation.”Bookseller
Happens often. Can you make money? No? Bye.
And let me tell you, according to the publishers, if your books don’t sell, it’s completely your fault, but if they do sell, it’s 100% because of the efforts of the publisher. They will take full credit whether they lifted a finger to help or not.
Sales numbers – Good agent is essential here. Some publishers will provide the sales numbers on demand – PRH does. Others will not. Let your agent earn their 15%.
As an author, you are your best advocate. Don’t expect the publisher to support you. In fact, expect that things could go wrong at literally every stage of the publishing process. Don’t get emotionally attached or you will be very angry and frustrated. Emotions are best saved for fiction. This part of the process is business.
Remember that the majority of people employed by the publisher are very overworked and criminally underpaid.
The average Book Editor salary in New York, NY is $58,616 as of June 26, 2023, but the salary range typically falls between $49,881 and $71,527.Salary.com
The cost of living in New York City, NY is 38% higher than the state average and 80% higher than the national averageRentcafe
Despite all the perceived indifference, these people genuinely love books and try their best. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that authors get about 5 minutes of their time before the next book comes down the pipeline, and they are greatly constrained by the corporate policies. If the publisher tells him they don’t have a budget, they don’t have a budget. Turnover is very high, especially among the publicity department.
If you want to succeed, write a good book and then learn how to promote it. Cultivate your fan base. The publisher will not do it for you. They can – and when they push the book, they push it hard. They can make your book a bestseller, no matter what they tell you. But that’s why those kind of contracts are referred to as lightning strikes. They are very rare.
The good news is that you can absolutely can achieve success without the publisher push. It’s a massive amount of work, but it can be done.
Should you traditionally publish?
Yes. I still reccomend trying. Two reasons.
One, the self-published field is very crowded. You have a lot of content being churned out, some of it by ghostwriters, some of it poorly edited, and now some of it is written by AI. An “author” can write 100 books via AI, upload them all to KU, and it might take an average reader 30 pages or so to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile the “author” got paid for all those read pages.
The discoverability is very, very low. It’s easier to stand out through the traditional publisher.
Two, it is a learning experience. They don’t just give out book contracts like candy. Your writing must be good enough to qualify. It will make you a better writer. Once you are in, if everything goes well, you will get the benefit of the NY editor with decades of experience. Learn from it, apply it, and when you build your audience, take full advantage of your earning potential by going self published.
Will you traditionally publish after you wrote this?
Yep. You bet. Magic Claims showed that the POD model can’t meet our demand. We must have a print partner, especially for longer works. There is simply no good alternative if print and discoverability is given any kind of consideration. Don’t get me wrong, we are not quitting self-publishing any time soon. But would we work with a publisher? Sure.
Hopefully we can work with someone who will treat us as a member of the team rather than a person to be managed.