Saturday, December 7, 2013

“Do You Know Any Good Publishers?”

About two years ago I was sitting around “writing” (i.e. “reading articles about writing”), and I came across an interview with a traditionally published author. I didn’t know who he was exactly, and I certainly don’t remember him now, but he was fairly successful as a novelist and in the most accepted sense of the word.

He told a story about an aspiring author’s comment during a book signing. The man came up to him, tapped on his book, and asked, “How much did this cost you to make?”

The author said, astonished, “Not a thing.”

This was the first time I had heard the belief authors were supposed to pay to be published. At the moment, I was really surprised. Yet, with actual statements like, “I’m going into self-publishing because I don’t have the time, energy, or money to do it traditionally,” getting round the internet pretty frequently, it has started to become apparent to me that it is a fairly common thought.

The publisher finances the project. That’s the reason an author would agree to share his profits.

Which is why I wonder what these potential writers think a publisher does, and why I don’t know how to answer the most typical request on any writer’s forum, “Do you guys know any good publishers?”

That depends on what is meant by “publisher.”

Some people mean self-publisher, some people mean traditional publisher, and some don’t know the difference. Despite the repetitiveness of the question, this unfamiliarity with the publishing process remains, this is the reason behind so many successful scams, and is why so many people get burned.

Publishing is just like any other business. You have the guy with the money who pays the people with the skills. He gets to decide who he hires, and he looks at a resume (query letter) and a portfolio (the manuscript). The only real difference is that, one, the author has already done the work, and, two, it’s the author’s brainchild instead of the guy with the bank account.

So the power therein is a little unclear. The publisher works sort of like an investor as well as a boss, the author is expected to take a good amount of personal investment and opinion into the scene, and instead of it being majorly the boss’s name on the line, it’s the artist’s. Sure, HarperCollins looks a little bad when producing a terrible book, but most people won’t even know who the publisher was. John Smith is the idiot who thought it was a good idea.

(Not that Mr. Smith could ever been an idiot.)

The symbiotic relationship between traditional publisher and author works like this:

The publisher puts up the money so the broke author doesn’t have to. If the project fails, the publisher is the only one financially affected. But in return for this risk, if the project succeeds, the publisher gets the profits, paying the author with royalties.

The publisher has more resources; they can buy the books in far higher bulk and thus have cheaper costs, they have a working relationship with bookstores and so can get their novels on shelves easier and book signings faster, and they have a better reputation which, in this business, means a lot. No one is looking for typos because they assume there won’t be any. They are experienced in the commercial aspects of novels. Each person in the company has made a lot of their mistakes already and learned from them, warned each other about them, and developed a system to prevent them from happening. They have a good sense as to what works and what doesn’t. The publisher tackles the writing world from the financial angle which allows the author to focus on the artistic one.

The symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the author in self-publishing:

They are the same person.

Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like. The author, instead of turning to a company for investment, fronts the financial side of it by himself. This allows him to have complete control over his own project and reap all the rewards. But it means that he is on his own.

The self-publisher does not have a good reputation. Currently (and that must be emphasized because the literary world is changing fairly fast), the majority of people see the self-publisher as the “I needed the instant and guaranteed gratification for my work that self-publishing supplies, and am too lazy and/or arrogant to get a ‘real’ book, and so slapped whatever unedited crap I spewed onto paper on the internet and expect destiny to take over from there.”

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case, and I’m not trying to dissuade anyone who is interested in this avenue. I’ve read many good self-published books. But, to be fair, I have read a lot more terrible ones. Or, at least, started to.

My point is that, while there are a lot of reasons and benefits to self-publishing, before an author takes that route, he can’t be disillusioned about how people are going to see him. As A.A. says, the first step to solving a problem is by admitting there is one.

Self-publishing is that it is just like starting your own business. If a writer is not good with business or marketing, or very inexperienced, he needs to consider that before trying to start his career in this way.

Can you get people to friend you on Facebook? Follow you on Twitter? When you were selling candy bars for girl scouts/boy scouts/sports/school electives, did you do a good job? Did you hate it beyond all belief? Have you promoted and produced any sort of smaller projects before? How did those go? Do you have enough money to pay for advertising? Do you know how books are advertised? Have you ever tried to make money via self-employed means before?

Because of the current stigma, an author who has self-published a book that was not a surprising success now has a black mark on his career. Publishers aren’t impressed by this action, and worse, they tend to believe you’re going to be harder to work with (see above perception), and if you don’t provide the name of the publisher in your query, they’re going to think (know) that any “published” book is just self made. If you don’t mention it at all and they look you up on the internet and see it, they’ll be annoyed that you didn’t talk about it. (I’ve heard agents complain about this.) This leads to very limited options in terms of proper etiquette when trying to switch back to the traditional route.

This is to say there are reasons not to do self-publish if you’re not prepared to make it successful. Considering how many times I’ve read a blog that said, “I was just going to put my book up on the internet and let whatever happen happen,” I know it’s not uncommon for authors to never have any intention on putting in the effort.

Self-publishing isn’t easier. It’s just that the hard work comes when the book is already out.

Authors who want to be traditionally published have every reason to go for that route first. Many self-published writers didn’t bother with it, for various motives, and turned straight for the guarantee. Make sure that the publishers really are a bunch of tasteless suits before assuming that they’re not going to like what you wrote. They very well might like it, and there’s a lot of benefit to having financial back than having control and no support. Traditional publishing may be the worst route for an artistic and financial genius, but it allows for skill compensation for us without both.

If your goal is, however, to just have a book in your hands and not have a long standing career (which really is some people’s), then we can turn our heads to the vanity press. This is a publishing company that, by means of the print-on-demand option, will (as an unsaid rule) accept pretty much anyone and make a printed book available to the public online. They aren’t actually created until someone orders them, so the press isn’t out any money.

The problem with vanity presses is that they are poorly edited, (I believe not at all), and very expensive compared to other books. That’s how they make their money. They get authors to buy the novels themselves (sometimes in a hostile, manipulative manner), and some from their families, and then, by sheer bulk of the creations, create a profit that way.

This is great if you don’t care about getting readers or them in bookstores. It is a perfect way to have your story in tangible form for twenty bucks. If that’s someone’s goal, (and only goal) I actually would recommend it.

Or, you could actually go the self-publishing route, have them offer the book on print-on-demand, and buy one of your own for a couple of bucks.

In this day and age, it is really easy to get a book available without paying a dime (a singular book). This is important to remember. If your goal is just to have one or a few copies of a story, then you can do it by paying for the books themselves and don’t need to put in thousands of dollars.

All an author needs to understand about a self-publishing company is:

They are a printer not actually a publisher. All they are doing is creating a tangible product you paid them to make.

Some will offer more services as well as printing. This is not necessarily a scam, but the author is still in charge. First, he should have the right to only pay for printing. They might advertise that they have great graphic design artists for the cover, that they have great editors to look through the book, and, in all honesty, this is might be true. But because it’s the writer’s money, he needs to be and to be able to be the responsible one. Before paying for any of this, he should know who’s doing it and what type of work she does. He should also be able to bring in his own artists. If the company says, “Ours or nothing,” or especially, “You must pay for a graphic designer/editor before we will print anything,” it’s a scam and you can get a better deal through other companies. There are too many options to put up with this.

Lastly, and this is the most important part, a self-publishing company should work by commission OR by an upfront charge, but not both. Anyone ever asking for both is definitely a scam. Either the company charges you for printing/specific services (in which you know exactly what those services are), and then you’re on your own, or they don’t charge you anything, but get a percentage after a book has sold.


You pay for hard copies. They print those hard copies (in the exact form you have given them) and send all of them to you. The price should be low enough that you can sell them to others for the same amount an average, traditionally published book would go for. Then the company has no investment if the book sells or not. They do not edit, market, or design the novel for you. They take the product as is, no acceptance or rejection involved. (Avoid any self-publishers that have a submissions process.)


You pay nothing. They offer print-on-demand and ebooks online. When someone purchase the copy, (say for $10), they keep a percentage ($2 to $4) and you get the rest ($8 to $6). You should be able to buy your own books for their “percentage” price ($2 to $4), not the retail price ($10). (In this case of not paying anything, it’s because you have also designed and edited it yourself instead of hiring someone.) They do not edit, market, or design the book for you.

Maybe you added some extra services that they offer:

You pay $300 (for example) for a cover design. You pay $3,000 for an editor. You hire a P.R. agent to do the marketing. You need to include those in your cost of books and consider how much you’d need to charge to make that money back. If it gets ridiculous, do some research for what’s normal.

But you never, ever pay for a Printing Fee, a Reading Fee, Marketing Fee, or any extraneous/ambiguous price. You should know exactly what you are getting out of your money, and how much you should be spending on that service. You are paying to get something very specific back, and not paying for their “time” or “consideration.” It should make clear sense as to what the purchased service is. You should be able to opt out of the other options as well/bring in your own artists. You should not be pressured into buying your own books. If they mix traditional publishing with self-publishing, it’s a scam. Luckily, they will advertise it like it’s a good thing. Lastly, the services should be a separate distinction from the printing process. You pay for the service one at a time, and should never be pressured into doing something faster. If you pay for editing, they shouldn’t be charging you for printing. You pay the editor, she edits. You wait as long as you want. You pay for printing (maybe with a different company even), you get the physical books. You should not have to pay for the printing of ebooks.

If you are looking for graphic designers and editors, I recommend working outside the self-publishing company and seeking freelancers. You have more control and more personability that way, and are less likely to be pulled into some sort of money grabbing scam.

The publishing world is changing quickly, and as time goes on, the more self-publishing becomes acceptable. But with more and more authors producing their own work, the more there are people able to collect on our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing; it’s just important to understand it first, and realize that it’s the choice, not the norm.

So as to the question, “Do you know any good publishers?” the answers are…

If you are looking for a traditional one, you probably want an agent, not a publisher. For those, look in the current Writer’s Market and the acknowledgement section of books in your genre (most authors thank them.) Most publishers do not take anything without an agent, which is why they are usually your first step. And many of them get furious at receiving unsolicited work. If you really want actual publishers, all books have theirs listed in the copyright page. Writer’s Market also has some that will take unagented work.

If you are looking for a self-publisher, CreateSpace works great for paperbacks and ebooks. They have good spines and look great (depending on the cover given). I have heard that Lulu has nice products and more options, like hard cover (also are a little more expensive). IUniverse is a scam, Publish America is a vanity press. Do a Google search if you’re unsure about any company.