In last week’s blog, we talked about what you can do as an author once the pen is down and you’ve finished writing a book. Besides re-reading the text and going through your own revisions, it’s a good idea to get thoughts from a few beta readers, and later, hire an editor to give you some professional advice.
Now you’ve got a beautiful manuscript that’s been through several revisions, and the product is a stack of pages free of silly errors and major plot holes.
So what comes next?
If you’ve always dreamed of writing and publishing a book, you have three options:
Submit your manuscript to an agent
Submit your manuscript to a publisher
Each of these offers its own list of advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important that you do your research so you know what you’re getting into. Here is a brief description of each, along with a short list of perks and drawbacks.
Self-publishing is a non-traditional form of publishing, where the author pays to have their book published independently. The author often pays for their book to be edited, laid out, and printed, then, once the book is finished, the author will also manage any subsequent marketing of the book.
You have full control over your book, from the content inside to the image on the cover. Forget having to work through revisions you’re not so sure you agree with. Forget not being able to publish your own art on the cover. Many writers who are also artists much prefer self-publishing because it allows them to take full creative license over the finished product. If you’re someone who absolutely can’t imagine someone else’s hands on your work, self-publishing may be highly appealing.
You won’t have to go through months, and potentially even years, of submission and rejection, waiting for the day when a publisher or agent will finally agree to publish your book. Few things could be tougher than hearing that the novel you’ve written—the end result of your dreams, blood, sweat, and tears—isn’t good enough. Now imagine getting that message not once, but dozens of times. It takes some pretty thick skin to slog forth and keep on writing those submission letters anyway.
The margins are bigger. When you sign on with a publisher, you will be given a contract, where the publisher will offer you an advance, potentially in the thousands of dollars. They will also offer you a certain percentage of royalties, which is where things get a little tricky. Say a publisher pays you a $1,000 advance for your book, with a royalty percentage of 10 percent on all hardcover books sold. The book is retailed at $20. That means, for every book sold, you’d make $2.00. However, before you start getting $2.00 per each book sold, you must make up your original $1,000 advance. That means your book will have to sell 500 copies before you start receiving royalties. Make sense? Now, when you self-publish, you will not receive an advance, but you will be able to keep 100 percent of the money you earn from selling your book. If you think you have the time and energy to sell hundreds of copies of your novel, that higher margin might really speak to you.
The commitment. Self-publishing takes both time and money. As stated before, you’re responsible for paying people to not only print the book, but to make sure it’s laid out correctly and edited. Of course, you can always choose to cut corners, but that’s really only an option if you don’t want a high-quality product. And why print a book at all if you don’t care enough to do it right? All told, the costs of self-publishing, including printing, editing, designing, and marketing, can reach over $25,000 dollars, though for most folks, it’s less than $10,000.
You’re on your own. When you publish with a traditional publishing house, your book has a whole team of professionals behind it to bring it to the masses. Your book will be edited by not just one, but likely three or four different people. You’ll have professional designers laying out the text, proven photographers or artists working on the cover or illustrations. You’ll have marketers working to get your book into bookstores around the country and publicists to promote your book at fairs and other events. You’ll never have to wonder if you’re doing it right or if you’ve taken a wrong turn, because you’re working with people who publish books for a living.
It’s hard to break out. Because self-publishing is so easy, many people are doing it. And as with any popular activity, it can be difficult to break through the noise. Getting strangers to read your book over someone else’s self-published novel can pose a real challenge to anyone who doesn’t have an already-established following.
For more information on the merits and downsides to self-publishing, check out this article from CNET by David Carnoy.
Submit to an agent
Book agents are the middleman between authors and publishers. They take on projects they think could be successful, then they help the author by pitching the project to editors they know who would be interested in publishing that particular book. This relationship is as good for the publisher/editor as it is for the author. You’ll find, in your process of researching publication, a term called “unsolicited manuscripts.” If you’re submitting to a publisher without the help of an agent, that’s you. If, on the other hand, you go out and try to find yourself an agent, that agent can help you bypass the slush pile, getting your manuscript directly into the hands of any publisher the agent knows. That’s entrance into the Big 5—not to mention any independent publisher in the U.S.
It’s free (sort-of). Book agents are a lot like Realtors. You don’t pay them upfront—they get a cut from the sale of your book. Similar to how a real estate agent takes 3 percent from the sale of a house, book agents will take their percentage both from U.S. rights and, if applicable, foreign subsidiary rights and translations. They get paid around 15-20 percent off the sales of the first book, before taxes, so if the author’s advance is $1,000, they’ll get $150 of that. They will also get 15 percent of the author’s royalties beyond that advance (i.e., 15 percent of your $2.00).
Book agents know good deals. Your book agent is around to help you get the best deal possible. How can you be sure they’re getting you the best deal? See No. 1 above! The agent gets paid based on the deal they’re able to get. They have great incentive to make sure you get the best advance, royalties, and rights possible. Plus, in many cases, agents play an enormous role in the book’s success, even before it makes it to acquisition. It’s the agent’s job to get the book into the best shape possible prior to selling it to a publisher. They’ll often have some great suggestions, and some do a nice job of line-editing and proofreading so your book gleams like a cellophane-wrapped package on Christmas morning, sitting in an editor’s email, just waiting to get the green light. Plus, agents know what books are worth. They’ll be able to give you an accurate picture from the beginning as to what deal is going to be good for your genre, length, audience, etc.
They are your advocates. Remember that pitch about how self-publishing can be rather lonely? Your book agent is like your best friend in the publishing world. Once your book is acquired by a publisher, you’ll quickly realize just how helpful an editor can be, but before you get there, your agent will play a side-seat role in answering your (likely) many questions, reassuring you when need-be, and coaching you through dry spells. They’ve done this job a thousand times, so they know what’s coming. They won’t let you sit in the dark.
Rejection. Like publishers, you have to pitch your book to an agent in order to get someone interested in taking on your project. Like publishers, agents can (and do) say no. If you’ve decided to try getting an agent, be prepared to for a long list of rejections.
The same as perk No. 1. When you’re already getting a small percentage of royalties from the sale of your book, it may be disheartening to think about giving up even 15 percent of your earnings to someone else.
Literary agents are not editors. By this, we mean that you must make sure you’ve done as good a job as possible on making your book as crisp and clean as it can be prior to submitting it. While an agent will give you broad suggestions for making the book more marketable, and will even sometimes do a few line edits, they are not going to be impressed by a manuscript littered with typos and an unfinished ending. If you’re interested in submitting to an agent and would like an editor to take a look at your book prior to submission, be sure to check out our editing packages at HigleyFox.com.
For more information about why you should or should not hire an agent, check out this blog from The Writers’ Workshop.
Submit to a publisher
Some publishers accept what’s called unsolicited manuscripts—a term we defined before. More often than not, it’s independent publishers who are willing to open their mailboxes to the onslaught of unagented books, though the Big 5 has twelve imprints between them that will take such submissions. If you’re submitting to a publisher, you’ll do well to check out their submission guidelines and do your research ahead of time. Make sure they publish books like the one you’ve written. Have they published any books like yours that have sold particularly well? Make sure you mention these comparative manuscripts in your cover letter. For more tips on submitting your book to a publisher, check out this blog by Ariel Richardson from Chronicle Books.
You’ll be able to keep all your royalties. If your book happens to make it in front of an editor and they decide to rescue it from the bottomless pit that is the slush pile, you’ll be able to keep your royalties! Of course, you’ll probably want to find a literary lawyer after the fact, just to make sure you’re signing a good deal.
You’ll be able to pitch your book yourself. If you firmly believe that no one could sell your book better than you, by all means, take it away! Just be sure you’ve done all the research necessary—particularly market research—so the person reading your query letter and submission isn’t left with any unanswered questions.
You’ll have plenty of time to work on your next book while you wait. Most publishers request that you wait three to six months after sending them your book so they have time to check it out before you send it on to another publisher. Talk about practicing patience! The good news is, you’ll have loads of time to work on subsequent novels while you wait for your book to navigate its way through the slush tunnel.
So many … but let’s start with the fact that your book is most likely to be read by the intern, not an actual editor. While many houses do have their editors spend some quality time with the slush pile, many just don’t have the time. Editors already have a full plate, so who better to read through all the unsolicited manuscripts than the intern or editorial assistant? And are you really so excited to send off your book and then wait six months for an intern to take a look and, ten minutes later, pass your pages into the recycling bin?
Your chances are like one in a million. Seriously. Forget the fact that the intern is likely looking at your project—if you’re submitting directly to a publisher, and not as the result of an SCBWI conference or by invitation from the editor, you have likely not gone through a professional editor or agent, and thus your manuscript has likely undergone few revisions. Revisions are key to creating a great book, particularly a great first book. All talent aside, writing takes practice and research. If you’re simply printing out the first version of your book and sending that along with a self-addressed, stamped postcard, you’re unlikely to get back anything more than your own mail.
Once again, the rejection. Did you know J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was turned down by a dozen different publishers? According to this article by the Huffington Post, C.S. Lewis was rejected 800 times. Judy Blume received nothing but rejections for two years. While these statistics might give you hope (Who knows? You could be the next Stephen King!), they should also be sobering. These authors had their own fair share of frustrations and disappointment. It’s a burden you must be willing to shoulder if you plan on sticking through what could be years of rejection.
For more information on why you should submit to an editor over an agent (or vice versa), check out this blog by Jane Friedman.
Questions? Thoughts? Leave us a comment below!