Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Publishing - A Basic Primer

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit it - 2020 really snarled up my life. I lost the best publishing opportunity of my career, missed a lot of really fun trips and fell victim to the endemic malaise that seems to be affecting everyone. Instead of doing my regular three to five books this  year, I barely finished two. What’s worse is that I have five full manuscripts, all professionally edited and lacking only formatting and covers, ready to publish. And yet they sit (metaphorically) on my desk gathering dust. The dust, by the way, is unfortunately all too real. I don’t need a pandemic to help me skimp on housekeeping!

However - things do seem to be a-changing! I’ve seen a definite uptick in professional talks among writers. I’ve seen more interest in marketing techniques and websites and craft than I’ve seen in months. It’s like after a long enchanted (cursed?) hiatus the industry is coming alive again, bringing with it a steady stream of newbies or close-to-newbies eager to be published.

Many of the questions they ask (and there are NO stupid questions, by the way) show their ignorance about the most basic part of getting a book published - publishing itself. What kind, what charges, what to expect. 

So, as a battle-scarred veteran of many decades of publishing, I’m going to give a nutshell course about the basic types of publishing. Unfortunately there are no clear-cut dividing lines between the major types of publishing today; every form is blurred slightly or complicatedly with the others. The main thing is, what kind of publishing do you want and what will you do to achieve it? Make money? Be famous? Print your family history for your relatives? Just have the ego stroke of being a ‘published author’? Whatever you want there’s an outlet for it. Just know what you are doing and why - and be prepared to pay for it in some kind of coin.

Traditional publishing - this is the Holy Grail for many authors. A big publishing house which gives you an advance, takes care of all the expenses such as editing and covers, gives you lots of publicity and sets up booksignings and tours, and helps you make best-seller lists is every writer’s dream. The house will take writers under their wing, manage, guide and promote their careers and allow the writer to concentrate on writing. Yeah. Sure. Indeed, that’s the dream of many authors and - except for a miniscule few - it’s pretty much just that... a dream. 

Trad publishers these days in general offer small if any advances, all too often have pathetic edits, uneven quality of covers and do little advertising support other than put out their new release list and maybe a couple of press releases, as they now expect you to do almost all your own publicity. All for low-single digits percentage royalties per copy. The dream scenario does happen, but so rarely a lot call it the Cinderella Syndrome. Still, there is a cachet to being published by one of the Big Five - or maybe now it’s the Big Four; the number changes with unsettling regularity as the large publishers buy, overtake and generally cannibalize each other.

However, Trads have always and still do have the magic ingredient - distribution. In the days of paper-only books whoever could get them to the book outlets (bookstores, drug stores, wherever) held the whip hand. Those who self/vanity published often ended up with a garage full of books which they could sell only by contacting each outlet individually. Trads still have the advantage here, but with Print On Demand and a more savvy buying public the balance of power/distribution is slowly shifting. As long as there are paper books, however, I believe that as long as they control the major distribution networks Trads will always have a place, albeit a small one.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Vanity publishers. These in the main are predators out to make money from wide-eyed writers with stars in their eyes. It sometimes takes a sharp eye to tell a Vanity from a Trad, as their appearance is carefully crafted to appear as legitimate as the Trads, like the innocent-looking camouflage of a lurking predator. They don’t offer advances (but so few legit publishers do these days, either) and their ‘editing services’ are either pathetic or non-existent. The biggest tell that they are a Vanity is that they ask for money, and lately the contacts for all your friends and relatives as well. Heaven only knows what they do with the contacts, for the full responsibility of selling your book falls directly on your shoulders. Basically, you are paying an astronomic amount (often in the double-digit thousands) for a couple of hundred mediocre physical books delivered to your house to take up residence in your garage until you sell them. In these days of electronic publishing, the Vanity house might throw up an ebook on one or two of the main retailers, often for an extra fee.

As sales depend on distribution, those who control the distribution networks control the industry - and the Vanities don't have any distribution facilities or networks.

One very important thing to remember is that in this industry whatever the publishing model the money should flow TO the author. These Vanity companies make their money FROM the author. If they have no investment of their own in your book they sure aren’t going to push it. They’re getting their money from you, not from sales of your book.

That said, I will add one caveat - there is a single small niche where Vanity is not only acceptable but often desirable. If someone writes a family history, for example, or a collection of Grandma’s recipes - something for family and friends only, something they are not interested in putting out on the open marketplace, Vanity publishing is a viable option. Just be very careful in choosing which company you decide to business with. A very few of the Vanity publishers are trustworthy and provide a good product. Do your due diligence. Then just to be sure, do it again.

Next month I will discuss the newer incarnations of the industry - Hybrid and the 800 pound gorilla that started the revolution in publishing, Self. We’re still in the Wild West in this area, though things have begun to settle down a little because of - or perhaps in spite of - the constantly changing landscape of technology.

Now I wish to give each of you a personal good wish for a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Yule, Happy Kwanzaa, or whatever else you celebrate, and a very Happy New Year. I think we all deserve them.


Liese said...

Thanks for sharing. I would like to share a form of vanity press that tends to be quite reasonable: Barnes and Noble Press. They offer a private option that doesn’t require an ISBN and will not be on their website. I use this option for a group that publishes their own story collection each year.


Maris said...

Excellent overview of traditional and vanity. Looking forward to you next blog on self publishing.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I started seeing the uptick back in the summer. I think it tooks folks awhile to get things going again and adjust to doing things differently. Online connectivity and the shift to Zoom deals I think helped move everything forward as folks adjusted.

You may have not been as productive as normal, but you still did a lot. Be proud of that.

Morgan Mandel said...

I was first published by a small press, but they were bought out by another small press, which did nothing for their authors. After that I decided to do self-publishing, mainly because I wasn't get any younger and didn't care to wait for long months to find out whether or not a book would be accepted. I got my rights back, then had to get new covers, since the covers were owned by the publisher.

Lots more decisions to make for self-publishing, plus lots of competition, with all the freebies around.

Kathleen Kaska said...

I nice outline of the crazy world of publishing.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

At one time, self-publishing had a stigma attached to it. But not anymore with so many people doing it. You are right that small publishers do little to publicize their writers. The big publishing giants might not do much these days either. However, they have distribution. It's hard to get a major review without them either. That's why getting the right agent is so important.

Alicia Dean said...

It has been quite the year. Thanks for the informative article!