November 5, 2020
The first thing to understand about writing is that publishing doesn't make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer. So if you write fan fiction or raging opinion pieces or notebooks full of poetry, you are a writer. You don't need to be published to have the credentials. Many amazing writers simply do it because they love it and never try to be published. So don’t seek your validation or identity in publishing, because it will quickly become unhealthy. If you’re writing and creating and speaking through words on paper, then you’re a writer.
Publication Ins and Outs
Now, having said all that, many of us really want our writing published. We want to see the reaction of readers. We want to do school visits. We want to do book signings. Or we simply want to imagine a delighted reader flipping the pages of our book. As soon as you make the decision that publication is important to your writing journey, you have one of two choices: you can publish your material yourself (self-publishing) or you can look for a market that will be interested in the piece.
For many people, self-publishing is extremely appealing. You control all aspects of the process (though that also means you really should educate yourself on all aspects of the process) and ultimately you also reap all the rewards of the process (be they few or many). Overall, self-publishing is most lucrative when used for genre books for young adults or adults. Fantasy, romance, and mystery are the three genres that lead sales in self-published books.
That means that if you're planning to self-publish your picture book or your chapter book or your middle grade novel, you'll almost certainly see fewer sales and less money than if you publish with an established publisher. For some, that is not a problem as they really love the challenge of handling the whole publishing process themselves. An abundance of information exists online to guide you through the process and help you make the best decisions.
For some, self-publishing also allows them to have a book in print that serves a very tight niche that isn't appealing to trade publishers. If you feel that you have something important to say, and you feel that you can reach the person who needs most to hear it through your own promotional efforts, then self-publishing might be the best option. But again, in this situation, the goal should be reaching the small niche and not the expectation of huge sales or a large financial return on your time.
What About Big Publishers?
If you're sure self-publishing is not the right option for you and your work, then you need a publisher. There are many kinds. There are huge trade publishers like Penguin Random House or Scholastic. These have tremendous reach (meaning their books will appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores and will end up in library collections with no effort on your part) and they usually offer more money to the writer both in upfront money, called an “advance,” and the slow dribble of additional money based on sales, called "royalties.”
Interaction with huge publishers can sometimes feel like the author is only one tiny cog in a very large machine, and that can be disheartening. Also, sometimes authors expect more money than big publishers are willing to spend on someone new and untried in the market. But if you have a book they foresee becoming hugely popular, these big publishers have the deep pockets to make big offers.
Another drawback with big publishers is that you nearly always need an agent to have any chance at publishing with them. If you attend conventions, or writing conferences with the Society of Children's Book Authors and Illustrators (SCBWI), attend workshops with Highlights Foundation (or sometimes even at other small retreats), be a part of an online community like Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 Challenge, and even online writing events (such as Twitter pitch sessions), you may be offered a limited opportunity to send materials to specific editors at these big publishers. So these kind of connections can be valuable if you don't have an agent.
And Small Publishers?
Smaller trade publishers or even mid-sized independent publishers tend to be a bit more open to hearing from authors who don't have agents. Some allow direct submissions. Some allow queries. And these can be a great option if you don't have an agent or don't want an agent. But all small publishers are not created equal.
Some smaller publishers give both advances and royalties just like the big publishing groups (albeit almost always in smaller amounts). Some smaller publishers give only token advances (a few hundred dollars) and royalties. And some small publishers don't offer advances at all and make deals only for royalties. These royalty-only deals mean you won't see any money at all until the book is out. Statements often are twice a year, and pay periods accrue sales from an earlier chunk of time. (Because in the book industry returns are allowed and they have to subtract the royalty they’d credited you for previously). Since these smaller publishers may have less reach their sales depend more on a writer’s efforts, which can be problematic if you’re not marketing savvy.
Whichever publisher interests you, it pays to research them thoroughly before you submit anything. The flush of excitement at being offered a publishing deal has made many writers agree to very, very bad deals. So check out every publisher. Check online that they actually pay their writers. Be certain there is nothing about them being deceptive or abusive to writers. Have a lawyer familiar with the publishing industry look at any contract before you sign it. You do not want a nasty surprise after you've signed your contract. Check out their books as well. Can you find them in libraries? Can you find them in bookstores (not just available for order)? Do the books look appealing? Are they reasonably priced?
Here is one very important thing you want to see on a publisher's website: the publisher places far more focus on selling books than on attracting new authors. Selling books should be how the publisher makes money. If they’re asking you to pay them, then selling books isn’t how they make their money. If they don't seem to be able to earn from book sales, then the whole weight of being the bookseller will be on you. In a case like that, you might as well have self-published and kept all the financial returns.
Be Wise. Be Open to Good, Experienced Advice
Lots of folks like to give new authors advice. Some of the advice will come from their own experience and may be tainted by their own weariness with the business side of publishing. Anyone who tells you that publishers aren't looking for anyone who isn't a bestseller is just wrong. Even the really big publishers want a varied list.
Also, publishers want to meet the full need of potential buyers so they'll pick up books outside the hottest genres and hottest trends. Plus, acquiring editors just want to fall in love with a book and nurture it to completion as they are book lovers themselves.
Writers who have only worked with very small trade publishers may tell you that no publisher really promotes anymore. That's also incorrect. Many publishers (especially mid-sized independents and big group publishers) put a great deal of money and time into promoting their whole list. They send out catalogues to booksellers and libraries. They send reps who are there to promote the whole list, but who will also point out specific titles that seem to fill specific needs or wants for the buyers. And your book will be part of that, though you may not see it going on.
Good publishers can't invest in books they don't intend to sell. To do that would be business suicide. So don't give up and sign with someone who seems to be unable to do any of the selling part of the process because someone told you that is normal. It's not. If you sign with such a publisher, do it for reasons that are right for your specific book––not because someone told you everyone works that way.
Publishing is such a huge and varied field with trade publishers, regional trade/educational publishers, focused-niche publishers, and educational publishers. And every single publisher does something that is unique to them. This is what makes researching your publisher so important. Know what this publisher does and ask yourself if that's the experience you want. And if it is, go for it. It is, after all, your book.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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