How Publishing Works: A basic guide for people who have no idea, are just starting out or who need a link to give one of the former two.
I have written one of these before, but the industry has changed since then. So this is my official late 2017 guide. So, let begin at the beginning and work our way through until the end. There are going to be some hard truths in here, but that is because there are a lot of predators looking for naïve writers to prey on. Don’t be one of those.
Do I have to write the novel first?
Yes, in most cases, you have to write the novel first. Very rarely some legitimate and niche publishers will buy on spec, with sample chapters and a synopsis. Carina Press, an imprint of Harlequin, does it occasionally. However this is mostly for established authors and even if you are a new author, if you are offered a contract for an unfinished manuscript, you would probably be better rejecting the offer. You are going to underestimate how much work and time it requires and the stress of trying to complete it will kill you.
Once you have written a complete manuscript and edited it until you can’t possibly make it any better yourself, I strongly advise you find an online or in-person writers group and seek critique. It’s a good idea to go to a few meetings first and see what sort of critique they give each other first. You are looking for a group that is both supportive, and constructive. If all they do is praise one and other, you’re not going to learn anything or improve.
Your first novel probably won’t sell.
By all means, try. However, to be honest, your first novel is probably terrible and it’s better to take everything you learned writing it and do it again. Sometimes it will take 3-12 novels before you write something that’s really up to scratch.
What I am saying is, it’s going to take a long time, probably a number of years, before you can really get started in a writing career. If you aren’t willing to take that time, spare yourself the pain and effort and find a different career. Keep writing as a hobby.
You don’t need a publisher, but it’s a really good idea.
Self publishing is a valid and fantastic option for some people. However 99% of people who attempt self publishing never make more than $500 from it. Ever. In their entire career. You need three things to be successful in self publishing:
1. You need to be able to write to the same quality as popular published authors.
2. You need to be skilled in business and marketing—if you don’t already have a degree or career in this, you probably don’t have what it takes.
Most people who are successful with self publishing are people who were already published traditionally for a number of years first. The reason is they already have 1) high quality writing skills, 2) a fan base of people who want to buy their books and 3) a good idea of how the industry works.
If you have whacky ideas that traditional publishers won’t touch, my advice is to write some more mainstream stuff first. Get that published traditionally, get 5-10 years experience that way, then bring out those whacky books again and self publish them when you know what you’re doing.
I do know a few authors who have self published without experience, slowly and painfully built their readership, then been offered traditional publishing contracts. They all jumped on them like starving dogs. Why? Because self publishing is REALLY HARD WORK and requires more than full time hours a week to make successful and those authors just desperately wanted time to sleep and write instead of promoting and editing and doing all the other fantastic things publishers do.
The simple truth is, in most cases, if publishers don’t want your book, it’s because it not very good.
Good Publishers VS Scammers
I already said there are a lot of people out there, making a living scamming writers. There are so many scams, with new ones cropping up all the time, it would be impossible for me to cover them all. So I will talk about some of them more popular ones and tell you how proper, non scammy publishing is done.
Firstly, a traditional, legitimate publisher won’t contact you. Not unless you are selling thousands of books and making headlines in major papers. So if you have self published and someone contacts you claiming to be a publisher or a book marketer, they are probably a scam. Legitimate publishers and talented PR agencies have too many clients already to go looking for new ones.
If you want to find a traditional publisher, you look them up, go to their website and find their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. It will usually take 2-12 months before you hear back from them. Publishing is a slow business. Rejections can come very fast though, sometimes within an hour. You will need a query letter, a partial and a complete and edited manuscript ready before you approach publishers.
The best way to tell if a publisher is legitimate, is to look at what books they are publishing. (If you suspect they are a scam, double check on Amazon that they are the listed publisher.) If you haven’t heard of any of their authors or if their covers look unprofessional, it’s a bad sign. It’s not worth working with those people. When choosing which publishers to submit to, I suggest looking in the bookstore for books similar to yours and checking who published them. However I strongly advise you familiarise yourself with publishers, who is publishing what, and keep up to date with industry news. There are hundreds of fantastic resources online.
Stay away from publishers who ask you for money. Money flows to the author. Some publishers hold competitions which have a good reputation. It may be worth entering those if you are certain it is a legitimate and respected competition. But a competition is not the same as querying a publisher. A competition is not the usual way you would approach a publisher. And legitimate publishers won’t ask you to pay a reading fee, editing fee or ask you to pay for your own cover art, etc.
There is a scam that is quite popular where someone offers $10-$500 for your book. They then retain the copyright of the book and you receive no royalties. They are usually romance/erotica titles or nonfiction, how to books. Technically this is not a ‘scam’ as they aren’t lying to you. However it’s not how publishing works. If you get millions of dollars from a traditional publisher, you still retain the copyright. They just have the right to publish the book on your behalf and take a share of the money. If someone buys the copyright (at a tiny fraction of the value, mind you) they package it, put their name on it and keep making money off it forever and you have no say in what happens to it. You sold your copyright.
Sometimes, ghost writers and writers for specific franchises will sell the copyright. They will usually get paid a lot of money, or continue to receive royalties, even if their name is no longer on the work. These are special cases and you can’t build a career as a ghostwriter, in the sense that no one will know your name.
Familiarise yourself with publishing contracts from mainstream publishing houses and don’t sign anything that gives away rights you should be keeping.
Self Publishing Notes
Now, while I said money should always flow to the author, this is not true if you self publish. Because if you self publish, you are no longer an author. You are a publisher. Which means you have dozens of costs up front before you see a dime of money.
You need to pay for a professional editor, you need to pay for professional cover design, you need to pay for professional formatting and you need to pay for promotion. If you want physical books as well as e-books, you’ll need to pay for printing too.
All of these are expensive, and none of them you can afford to skimp on. These are all ‘you get what you pay for’ skills. Don’t even consider asking someone to ‘do the work now and get paid when the money comes in’. You’re self publishing. They know the money is never going to come in. They’re not going to take the chance you’re one of the 0.1% who make any money off it. Because even if you are one of the 0.1% that make money off it, you aren’t going to start making that money for a year or so, and they have bills now.
Do You Need An Agent?
Short answer? It depends. If you’re really struggling to understand contract jargon, yes you need an agent. You don’t have to sign with an agent to use them, however. There are agents out there who will negotiate your contract on your behalf for an hourly rate. It’s expensive—think good lawyer expensive.
Some bigger publishers will only consider manuscripts that are brought to them by an agent. So if you want to get in the door at really big places, then yes, you need an agent.
Agents can also help you with your career plan and give you good advice. Publishers are always in it to make as much money as possible. They are not your friend. Even if you have a fantastic relationship with your editor at a publishing house, they are not on your side when it comes to the best interests of you and the publisher. They are always going to pick the publisher. And that is fine, that’s their job.
I love my editors. They are fantastic people. I trust their judgement and I work very close with them. But I know they are not going to argue with their boss to get me higher royalties or suggest I go to a different publisher if the head of the department has stuck me on the backburner. IT’S NOT THEIR JOB TO DO THAT. An agent however, will.
1. Complete a manuscript.
2. Edit it.
3. Get feedback from peers (not family or friends). Apply feedback.
4. Decide if you need an agent.
5. Research where to submit.
6. Query legitimate agents and publishers following the guidelines on the website. This will require some combination of: a query letter, a partial and a complete manuscript.
7. Go back to step one and repeat in correct order until you are published.