What Publishing Won’t Get You

There are few conversations that can devolve into a religious argument faster than trying to talk about publishing.

I’ve got five books out right now: three trade published, two self-published. I’ve got at least two more books I’ll self-publish (they’re series books, which I can’t sell to another trade publisher); but the others I’m planning? I honestly don’t know yet how I’ll approach them. But I’ve had a sample of both sides of this not-actually-two-opposite-sides argument, and I think I might be able to come to at least one general conclusion:

Publishing sucks.

I mean, when you’re a writer who wants to share stories, it beats not publishing. It’s pretty much the only viable way to distribute what you’ve got to any kind of an audience. But it’s strange and exposing and it requires you to adapt in ways your artist’s soul might not have been prepared to adapt. It can sting, a lot. You think you don’t give a damn about the opinions of strangers? Guess again. And reaching a level of success where you’ll stop worrying about sales, or reviews, or what your mom thinks of your new book isn’t actually a thing.

It will change you as a writer. It will change you as a reader. It’ll change your relationship with your creativity, and you won’t know how you’ll handle all that until it’s too late to turn back.

This is true no matter how you publish. Anyone who tells you otherwise, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, is selling something.

I’m not selling anything. What I’m going to try to do is summarize some of my observations.

Some disclaimers, before I get into it:

  1. My experience is US-based. My anecdotes and advice will reflect this. I am a single data point. Do your homework, for real.

  2. I’ll state a lot of things as absolutes, but there are no absolutes in life. There are always exceptions, and publishing of all stripes loves to hold up the big, flashy, feel-good exceptions. The odds that you’ll be one of those exceptions are not zero…but they’re small.

  3. A great many publishing “norms” are category- and genre-dependent. I write science fiction, so my observations are likely to be most relevant to that market. (Which is distinct from fantasy, but I digress.) That said:

  4. Every book has a different path. Every book I’ve written has gone a slightly different way for slightly different reasons. That’s one big reason there’s no answer to the “Which should I do, self or trade?” question–the answer is always “it depends.” And it depends on so many individual factors there’s no point in anybody telling you, one way or another, which approach is best for your specific project. Speaking of which:

  5. For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring the elephant in the room, which is that most writers don’t get the choice. It’s hard to break into trade. This isn’t because you may be querying a lousy project (I mean, you may be, but WTFDIK about it?). It’s because there are too many excellent books out there for the trade pub slots that are available every year. Are 99% of books that get queried not “good enough”? Maybe. But even if that’s true, trade pub doesn’t have the throughput for that other 1%.

    That’s also not a “problem” with trade as an industry. It’s just supply and demand. And on that point:

  6. I’m gonna bring up capitalism a lot. Capitalism is the antithesis of creating, and it’s the monster you’re going to have to engage with, no matter how you publish. You may end up hating it, but it doesn’t hate you–it just is, and in my experience accepting that is critical to not completely losing your mind in this business.

Let’s go.

What Trade Publishing Won’t Get You

Trade publishing won’t guarantee you a career.

Far and away the most common myth I hear about trade publishing is that it’s an escalator you get on with your debut, and everything after that moves you upward–maybe, slow, maybe fast–with you tossing the odd novel over the banister at your agent/editor, collecting reviews and a reputation, the whole system getting more and more effortless over time.

Yeah, no.

What a publisher considers success for a particular property is wildly variable. You may see a book all over your local Barnes and Noble, but if the publisher was counting on even bigger sales, that’s a mark against the author. It is actually possible to lose your career at the very start if your debut doesn’t do well enough (whatever “well enough” is for the deal you made; your agent, should you have one, should be able to help you quantify this).

Trade publishers have a lot of overhead. The good news is they can spread it around; your editor, for example, is working on multiple books, not just yours. The bad news is if your book doesn’t do well, they can drop you off their list, and they’ve still got multiple other books to play with. And they will drop you if it comes to that, and all the lovely people you’ve dealt with will abruptly vanish.

This is not maliciousness. Their friendliness is, to a point, a part of their work, and when you’re not part of their work anymore, they can’t focus on their relationship with you. It’d be unprofessional.

Trade publishing won’t sort out your genre.

“But Liz,” I hear you say, “don’t they have marketing people?”

Yes, they do! (Most of them. IMHO publishers who don’t have marketing departments, or who lean heavily and unrealistically on writers to market their own work, fall into a gray area between trade and self, and you’re best served by thinking long and hard about whether what they’re giving you is actually worth their percentage.)

And sometimes those marketing people get it wrong. Spectacularly, disastrously, destroy-your-career wrong.

Most of the time, a publisher knows what they’re buying and knows how to sell it. But a surprising percentage of the time, a publisher will say “Hey, let’s do this thing that seems totally insane to everybody but us, because it’ll be Innovative, and it’ll Work, and we’ll all make millions!”

In all of those cases, the publishers are still in business, doing fine with other people’s books. The mismarketed authors are struggling to sell to different publishers, because of their history of bad sales.

Unfair? Yes! Completely explainable by capitalism? Also yes! Your artistry will not save you from the capitalist combine. (It won’t in self-pub, either, but that’s the next section.)

Your best defense here is to know your genre. If your genre has a lot of subgenres, know where you fit there, too. This isn’t because your publisher is going to fuck up; likely they won’t. This is because if they do fuck up, you’re going to want hard data to talk them out of utterly fucking you over. It might not work, but at least you’ll have an arsenal to fight with.

Agents can help a lot with reducing the possibility of you being marketed to death. Your agent should know which publishers and imprints know how best to deal with your sort of book, and should aim you at those. When you get an offer from a publisher, you should be able to ask them what their marketing plans are. (They know at this point. They’ve worked out a balance sheet before they decide what to offer as an advance.) If anything you hear seems weird to you, ask questions until you understand.

Nobody else in this food chain has their career bound up in the success of this one single book. Be professional, always. But ask questions. Be a pain in the ass. And if they say you just don’t understand? If you’re a writer, you’re likely a reader, and you’ve been buying books all your life. If the proposed marketing seems weird and ineffective to you, that’s probably because it’s weird and ineffective. Act accordingly.

Trade publishing won’t rewrite your book without your input.

This is another myth I hear: a trade editor will just rewrite your book to fit whatever they think they want, and your desires won’t matter at all.

It’s weird that this one persists, because it’s absurd on its face. Remember what I said about supply and demand? Trade doesn’t have to buy a book they have to rewrite. They can move to the next sub.

I think this myth tends to come from the fact that editing relationships can be fraught. I loved my editor, but I know a lot of people who felt less comfortable with theirs.

Sometimes editors will suggest storyline changes, or changes in emphasis, or rewriting the ending of the book, or even things like switching POV. The thing is, though–the editor isn’t going to do the revisions for you. The end result is 100% your product.

And you can always say no.

You don’t have to make a single change your editor suggests. In return, the publisher might decide they don’t want to publish your book without the changes, and the termination clause of your contract gets triggered, with all its attendant provisions. Usually, though, you end up having a dialogue and you figure out a way to make both you and your editor happy. Which, honestly, is the goal–if the book does well, they hope to work with you again, so why would they want to piss you off?

It’s maybe worth thinking of your editor as a professional crit partner–not just a fellow writer, but someone who’s seen a lot of books Out There in the retail market, and can make suggestions to help you improve your book’s chances. You are collaborating with this person. Their insights, whether you make changes around them or not, are tangible and valuable.

Trade publishing won’t rip you off.

There’s more money in trade.

Yeah, you’re not making much on each sale. (My own numbers: 7.5% of the trade paperback cover price, 25% of the ebook sale price). And your agent gets 15% of everything you get.

But you also get an advance.

(Yes, there are publishers who don’t offer advances. I’d put these in the same gray area as the publishers who don’t market: do your homework, and decide for yourself if what you’re getting from them is worth it.)

An advance is payment for delivering a publishable book to your publisher. You keep this money regardless of whether or not your book earns out. The advance may indeed be all you ever get for your book–but it’s yours.

Can you make as much in self-pub? Yes, of course you can. But it’s harder, it takes longer, and it requires more up-front investment. There is more money in trade, and it’s easier to access.

Also, about agents: A good agent is worth so much more than 15% I don’t even know what to tell you. They know the industry, the imprints, the editors; they know how to parse a contract, and how to negotiate the bits that are negotiable. (A lawyer can tell you what a contract says, but they can’t tell you whether or not a contract conforms to publishing industry norms.) A good agent knows how, when, and where to sell your work. Even if you could find services to do all the things an agent can do for you–it’d cost you far more than 15% of any deal you could make without one.

Trade publishing won’t force you to do your own marketing.

This is the third Big Myth: trade published authors have to market (like self-published authors do), so why bother with trade?

There’s a difference between marketing and publicity. An author may very well be asked to do publicity: write some blog posts, maybe do some podcasts, get interviewed. A publisher might ask an author to dig up some resources themselves: offer themselves to podcasts, ask some of the Big Reader Blogs if they can guest post, that sort of thing. They’ll almost always ask an author to flog their work on social media.

Most of the marketing trade publishers do happens before publication, and most of what they do is not accessible to self publishers.

The marketing department will get your book reviewed by places like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Locus, even the New York Times, if they can get you in there. And no, publishers don’t pay for reviews–they have long-standing relationships with reviewers, and when they say “Hey, we’ve got this new book coming out,” a reviewer who trusts that relationship will be more likely to read and review the book.

The marketing department will get your book carried by retailers. As with marketing, they have relationships with the purchasing departments of chains like Barnes and Noble. They can explain why they think it’s worth it for the store to stock X copies, why featuring it in the window will help it sell, that sort of thing.

In short: the marketing department can build anticipation for your book by leveraging areas of the industry self-pub cannot access.

Publicity is a different animal, and it’s worth doing. But an author–unless they are unusually gregarious, or get folded into “right” author circles on social media–is unlikely to be able to do enough to move the sales needle in any significant way, and publishers know it. You can say no to this. There may be consequences to that (talk to your agent), but if you’re not comfortable sitting in a bookstore signing the odd copy while people file in and out, you don’t have to do it. Blog posts and podcasts can be great fun, if you’re that sort of person, but if you’re really not? Say so–or at least ask your agent how much of a deal-breaker it would be for you to politely refuse.

Trade publishing won’t make you untold riches.

Writing won’t make you rich.

This holds true for trade and for self. Art in general isn’t a big money-making proposition in this world. Advances notwithstanding, trade is no different.

When I sold in 2014, advances were typically paid out in three installments: on contract signing, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication. Anecdotally I hear some publishers are now pushing this out to four installments, but for the sake of the math I’ll stick with three.

Let’s say you get offered a $60,000 advance for your debut novel. (In SF, this would be excellent.)

Upon signing the contract–which can take months after the offer has been made and accepted verbally–the publisher pays out $20,000. 15% goes to your agent. Of the remaining 85%, you probably want to set aside at least 30% for the IRS. So your disposable income off that first check from your excellent advance is…$11,900. Good money! As a one-time payout, not permanently life-changing.

Your second payment is on delivery of a completed manuscript. This, IIRC, means you’ve integrated all the editorial feedback. For me this was probably 5-6 months after signing the contract, which took 6 months after the verbal agreement. (Note that 6 months is long for a contract negotiation–but 6 weeks or longer isn’t unusual at all. Nobody signs the boilerplate.) After that, it’s usually 4-6 months before the book comes out.

So in total, your excellent advance is getting you $35,700, paid out over 12-18 months. And this may be the only income you ever see from this book.

In most parts of the US, this is not quit-your-day-job money.

I have heard from multiple established SFF authors that it took about 10 years of steady sales before they had anything resembling a steady income. Most of these people still had another source–either a day job, or a spouse with a day job.

There is more money in trade publishing than self-publishing.

There’s just not that much money in publishing.

What Self-Publishing Won’t Get You

Self-publishing won’t allow you to publish cost-free.

This isn’t completely true. You can indeed publish on Kindle Direct Publishing without paying anything. If you have a cover. If you know how to format the interior yourself. If you don’t care if you sell a single copy. (Robert J. Ryan, in Amazon Ads Unleashed-a good reference on a complicated subject–claims 1/3 of self-published books on Amazon sell zero copies.)

If you plan to sell a product to people, you need to invest a little money.

A cover needn’t be elaborate, although it pays (literally!) to pay attention to genre conventions on this. Interior layout sounds like it should be easy, but in fact misformatted ebooks are common, and they can indeed prevent people from buying (or finishing) your work. You’ll need to invest time, money, or both to produce a properly packaged book.

(And if you’re saying “But it’s self-pub, Liz! Nobody cares!” remember a) people do indeed care, more than you may think; and b) you’re asking strangers for money, and they deserve your absolute best for their investment.)

And then there’s advertising. In my experience, you need to advertise. Mentions on social media might get you bumps here and there; newsletter trades, blog tours, that sort of thing will garner you ripples of attention. But if you want sustained sales over time, you need to advertise. Bargain book lists are good, especially if you price your book fairly low and/or have frequent sales. Product ads are better, and can get you sales at full price, if that’s your strategy.

Advertising costs money, and in the beginning it won’t make you a profit. If you take the time to learn, the ads will start to pay for themselves; but you need to have patience, and you need to have money to invest in the learning phase.

Self-publishing won’t free you from Big Corporate.

Here’s the thing: if you want to move a self-published book in the US, you’re going to be working with Amazon. Amazon has, by at least one report, 92% of the self-publishing market.

Amazon is a behemoth. They are neither your friend nor your enemy. They are, like every trade publisher out there, a capitalistic endeavor that optimizes for their own profit. They are not your friendly ally; they are a service provider, and everything they do is weighted to their advantage.

Which is fine, because that’s how things work in publishing. People have to eat, including Amazon coders. They want you to make money as well, because they want to attract more people to their services. But never doubt where the scales are weighted: just like trade publishers, they make sure they’re covering their own costs before you see a dime.

Amazon offers some incentives for people to go KDP-exclusive: Kindle Unlimited, Daily Deals, and probably a few other marketing perks I’m unaware of. It’s worth thinking about this: 92% is a pretty compelling percentage. What you choose is going to depend on a lot of factors, including how much you’re planning to push outside the US; Amazon doesn’t have quite the same stranglehold in other countries. And there’s the single-point-of-failure factor. Understand what you’re in for before you choose.

Self-publishing won’t insulate you from the Publishing Machine.

In self-publishing, you are the Publishing Machine. You are marketing. You are sales. Even if you hire other people to do this work for you, you’re going to need to keep a close eye on your balance sheet to make sure what is and isn’t paying off for you.

A published book is kind of like a feeding shark: if it’s not constantly circling, it’ll sink like a stone. Which means constant fine-tuning of your strategy.

The good news is there are a lot of things you can do with a self-published book to tweak its visibility. The bad news is they take time to learn, and (as mentioned earlier) they’re largely not free.

Publishing is a retail business. In trade, you’re just the manufacturer. In self, you’re the manufacturer, the salesperson, the marketer, the publicist. You’re everything but the retailer. It can be fun–I quite enjoy it–but make no mistake: it’s a lot, and it can suck up a lot of time.

One similarity most successful self-publishers share is that they’ve learned the business side. If you want to move copies, it pays to learn how copies get moved.

A corollary here is you’re not going to get Success Without Work in self-pub. There’s a pervasive myth–perpetuated by trade publishers, really–that merit automatically rises to the top. That’s utter and complete bullshit. You can write the best book ever written on the planet, and if nobody knows it’s there, nobody will buy it. There is nothing in Amazon’s algorithms that will look at your book, think “Well, this author seems nice!” and promote the hell out of it. You are going to have to market, and probably spend money, and even then it might be many, many months before you start seeing consistent sales. Book marketing is a slow build, and if you’re looking for instant gratification, you’re just going to shoot yourself in the foot.

Patience + decent writing + $$$ = success. (But mostly patience.)

Self-publishing won’t give you equivalence.

You’re not going to get stocked in bookstores. Your best bet, if you want this, is to find an independent bookstore and talk to the manager; some places will take copies on consignment. You’re not going to get stocked at B&N, though, even if you elect expanded distribution.

You’re not going to get talked about like trade authors are talked about. This is less true in some genres–both Romance and Erotica are, I find, very self-pub friendly–but in something like SFF? Nope, not even in passing. (Given that most SFF authors aren’t talked about even if they’re trade published, though, this is maybe not a doomer for you.)

You’re not going to get on the bestseller lists, outside of etailers.

Any translations and audiobooks are going to be at your own expense. Movie/media rights? I wouldn’t even begin to know how to contact people who might be interested. You want swag and related products, you’re once again the only salesperson on the job.

Self-publishing won’t provide an entree to trade publishing.

Another rumor I see flying around is the idea that you have to have lots of books out before a trade publisher will consider you–the old “you have to have experience to get experience” conundrum.

While there’s some evidence it can help a little in categories like litfic to know the right people (often via an MFA from a well-known school), in general this is false. Trade pub loves a debut author. If you self-publish and do any numbers, you’re not a debut author. If you don’t do any numbers? That’s a different issue.

And yes: Amanda Hocking. Andy Weir. A few others I can’t think of off the top of my head. But in general? No, a self-published catalog isn’t a stepping-stone to trade. If you’re going to self-publish, do it because the model suits you, your workflow, your project, your ambitions. Don’t do it because you expect it to get you a trade deal, because it won’t.

Self-publishing won’t exact revenge.

I include this one, only because so much of the self-publishing discourse I see–from a lot of quarters, not just authors–seems to emphasize somehow sticking it to trade pub, or proving trade wrong, or showing trade up as some kind of lousy business model.

Trade publishers don’t care about self-published books. They don’t dislike them, or work against them, or try to thwart them–they don’t care. They don’t think about self-published books at all.

Trade and self are two separate industries. There’s some overlap in their customer base, but a lot of readers devoted to self-published series and the sort of rapid-release model that does well there are not the same readers who will preorder a book from their favorite mystery author a year or more in advance. There’s no good or bad here–but they are largely different markets. Trade publishing, like most industries, frets over a lot of market forces; but self-publishing just isn’t a big deal to them.

You can self-publish for any reason you like. If you need to feel like trade drove you to it, that’s your prerogative. But if you fantasize that you’re somehow getting your own back, you may find yourself disappointed. Your self-published book–even if it’s successful beyond your dreams–is not going to make every agent, editor, publisher who rejected you whack themselves in the head and say “Damn, I was such an idiot!” At best, you might find them thinking “Good for them! Nice book!” before they go back to their own work.

Nobody’s in this to spite you. You can’t spite them back.

Self-publishing won’t make you untold riches.

“But Liz,” you’re saying, “you already had this one for trade. Where is it I can earn the untold riches?”

I dunno, man. The lottery? Las Vegas?

Another bit of self-pub discourse I see–largely from people selling advice, but also from authors who seem to want very much to believe it–is all the money Amazon pays out to authors. I see people claiming to earn millions in a year–not many, but they’re out there and talking about it.

I don’t see a lot of articles talking about net vs. gross.

I’ve made what feels like a lot of money from my self-published books. I’m quite happy with my sales. But my royalties are so far about 40% of my expenses. Do I hope this changes? Yes! More books will help with this. Of course more books will also mean more expenses, so it’s not going to swoop up exponentially. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be profitable?

Be skeptical. Take a long look at the people claiming the big numbers. How many books do they have out? How frequently do they publish? Do you see advertising? Sales? Understand what these people have done. Understand how realistic it is for you to do the same things. (I, for example, can’t write four books a year. I literally cannot do it.) If you want those results, you’re going to have to work for them. All things are possible! But they’re not likely to be quite as shiny as they look from a distance.

That last line seems like a good summary: Publishing is not as shiny as it looks from a distance.

But if there’s one other thing I’m trying to communicate here, it’s this: trade publishing and self publishing are not in competition with each other. They are not opposites. They are not oil and water.

They are two different avenues to two different–if overlapping–customer bases. They are both satisfying and wildly frustrating in different ways and for different reasons. You won’t like what you think you’ll like; conversely, the bits you figure you’ll despise might work out pretty well.

The biggest decision, I think, is choosing to put your work out there in the first place. After that, it’s all mechanics, hard work, and a metric fuckton of luck.

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