Monday, December 11, 2017

If You Don’t Understand the Publishing Process, Do NOT Publish

Impatience is a virtue.

Like most flaws and bad experiences, there are benefits to the negatives. College was the worst time of my life, but it taught me great strategies in dealing with passive-aggression and social politics. My hypersensitivity makes me emotional, but have an extremely high interpersonal intelligence. My fear makes exhausts and limits me, but it forces me to learn and understand patterns quickly.

Patient authors are likely to never publish at all. I personally have been writing for 15 years now and am actively submitting a manuscript to agents for the first time this year. In my writers groups, the ones who have map out a reasonable allotted set of months to finish never do. The ones who want to publish, “This year,” are those who get it done.

Impatience is the strongest motivator in finishing. It’ll inspire the writers to take risks, not over think things, and get their work out there. Actually submitting is the name of the game, and few people are ever going to be certain if their work really is ready.

So why wait to publish?

The criticisms of impatient authors are not without merit. Most self-published books have quality errors due to haste; not just typos, but rushed pacing, no real ending, non-atmospheric summation, and just sound like the writer was trying to get something out as fast as humanly possible. It’s not just the prolific authors who have a fanbase to appease—who often learn how to write quickly through practice—but many beginning writers intentionally and arbitrarily decide to write a low wordcount from the jump because it seems less daunting.

I don’t agree that the worst thing a writer can do is publish before she’s ready. I believe it is far, far worse to hang onto something out of fear. Never submit something you know is half-assed, but persistence and putting yourself out there are the foundations to success in any situation. In some cases, it’s better to take a chance and get rejected than not.

But, that being said, there are definitely ramifications to publishing far too soon, and the biggest one is when contracts are actually involved: in other words, the scam.

Some weeks ago, a woman excitedly posted a Facebook status about her book being picked up. Immediately, red flags were sprung. Something about the way she said it, “A publisher has picked up my book for their self-publishing package!”

“Picked up… self-publishing package”?

That’s not how self-publishing works.

I went to their website—a Facebook page, their website was a broken link—and it became immediately obvious that this was not a good deal. A scam? Maybe not, in that I believe scams have to be intentionally malicious. It seemed more like a small start-up of people who probably didn’t want to work with big publishers and thought they could do it themselves without really understanding how the process works.

But even if it wasn’t about stealing money, it was not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination. No ability to buy books online, cost of books was much greater than market value, authors paid for editing and brought in their own covers. They were looking for editors on Facebook. The one book they were promoting’s deadline was being pushed back for “editing reasons.”

In truth, anyone who calls themselves a “Hybrid Publisher” is offering a bad deal; the hybrid is always the worst of both worlds for the writer. The writer pays while losing creative control, and as of yet, no hybrid publisher has a good enough reputation to ease writers into getting in bookstores. Unless they can offer buy-back, they have a proven record of quality control, and they can offer the books at competitive prices, the self-publisher will have the same amount of difficulty getting her books in on her own.

I nervously messaged the author my concerns, not sure I was overstepping my boundaries. She was grateful for the heads up and, luckily, we parted ways on good terms.

Not long after, I came across a discussion on Two tech-based individuals decided to change the ways of publishing by creating an algorithm and a contest in order to maximize writers’ chances of success without having to deal with “gatekeepers.” There was a great deal of controversy because it involved putting your book up online, which loses you First English Language Rights, because they didn’t seem to be having a great deal of success getting their books out there, and because they just didn’t seem to know how the publishing process worked period.

But! One of their writers, Erin Swan, has been picked up by Tor, a publisher of some of the best speculative fiction writers in North America.

Problem is, publishing is evolving, and it’s possible that a company that doesn’t work like the others is really being innovative and might be the best for you. I remember some years ago being at a writers conference that disparaged self-publishing which then embraced it the following summer. I don’t particularly recommend Inkitt for a myriad of reasons, but is it a scam?

Which brings me to yesterday. A young woman posted an (almost illegible) rant about a publishing company taking her for a ride. No contact, leaving her in the dark, making her pay for editing and cover art, trading her editors, and now threatening to sue her over 200 dollars she owes them.

I’ve previously worked as a paralegal; my boss, a humanitarian and court-appointed criminal lawyer, charged the court 180 dollars AN HOUR. When she took on cases that weren’t being paid for by the government? More like 600. Here we had three young English majors in charge of a “publishing company” threatening to bring the author to court despite multiple breaches in contract by subverting deadlines over 200 dollars.

I’m normally not the type to get annoyed at the victim, but I was astounded with her naivety.

“It looked like a contract you would get from a lawyer too!” she insisted when I suggested that maybe their threats weren’t anything more than idle.

Don’t ever sign something if you don’t understand it.

The author had no idea what the job of the publishing house was supposed to be. She had no idea she would be charged over a thousand dollars when signing, and she had no idea that wasn’t typical.

Going to their website, there were red flags everywhere. Typos and spelling errors, a lack of focus in what they actually did, no online store, poorly crafted covers, only three books in their portfolio.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re looking for. If you don’t have a strong understanding of proper syntax and punctuation, it’s difficult to recognize that someone else doesn’t either. If you don’t know much about how books reach stores, you don’t know when you’re being taken for a ride or if it’s pretty standard.

So learn. Do your research. Understand the difference between self-publishing, traditional publishing, vanity presses, and scams. Understand what a small press is expected to do for you. Understand what an agent is. When interested in a publisher, find out more about it. Look at their website, Google search them. Be clear on what the expectations are, what it’s offering, and what you get out of the contract. Research options even if you know you aren’t interested in them because it will help you protect yourself in the long run.

If you have a manuscript, and you’re ready to publish, here’s the things you should consider…

What does an agent do, and do I need or want one?

Your experience with each agent will vary, but typically your agent will make suggestions to your manuscript for quality and marketability. After alterations have been made, she will then query editors she thinks will be interested. If your book is picked up, she will then negotiate the terms—her experience in the market will make her better equipped to recognize good and bad deals—and read through your contract to protect you.

Publishers who are inundated with manuscript submissions will work solely through agents to cut out some of the poor quality. Agents also, typically, have working relationships with editors and understand their interests as well as have a foot up due to familiarity.

If you are self-publishing, there are some agents who will take on your work as an advisory role and may be able to help with strategy and promotion, though that is a fairly uncommon choice, especially because there’s not a lot of money for the agent in that route, so it begs the question of their credibility.

If you are interested in working with the big publishers and/or as a career writer (in traditional avenues), working with an agent is just about a requirement and will protect you in the long run.

If you are self-publishing or interested in a small or localized printing—such as you have a memoir that would only interest a small area—you may consider forgoing the agent.

How much do agents charge?

An agent will NEVER charge a fee or any upfront costs. Any attempt to do so is a scam. Sometimes they may charge for reimbursement fees, but that will be spelled out in a contract. They make a percentage of the author’s sales, usually 15%. Publishers pay money to the agent, the agent deducts her commission and forwards it to the writer.

How do I terminate a contract with an agent?

Both parties should have the right to terminate a contract at any time. Prior to having made a sale, this can be as simple as sending an email, however some contracts do state the specific procedures. Some ask for a certain amount of notice or for it to be a physical letter. Also, it’s important to remember it’s a small world and not to burn bridges.

In the publishing industry, a lot of contracts are book-by-book, and that’s a good thing. Some are you work together until you decide otherwise, some have a time limit. The only real one to be cautious about is if the agent wants first rights to the next book, or all proceeding books.

What does a publisher do?

This also varies, and has changed a great deal over the last decade.

Typically, a publisher…
                -Financially finances the project, including editing, design, the author, and some of the marketing. (Yes, the publisher pays you.)
                -Has experienced, in-house professionals who have been vetted through years of work.
                -Has one or more editors work with the author to improve and polish the manuscript.
                -Creates a cover design, formats the interior.
                -Offers promotional strategy and budgeting (this has shrunk in the recent years.)
                -Pays printing costs.
                -Has connections with brick-and-mortar bookstores.
                -Is able to buy back unsold books from bookstores.

Some publishers are ebook only nowadays. Some are start-ups and you’re taking a chance on their reliability and experience. Some try for a “hybrid” of sorts, which is usually in the worst interest of the writer.

The important thing is to understand why you’re pursuing a publisher in the first place, if they actually offer what you’re seeking. Don’t let attention blind you just because you feel wanted. Is the contract what you’re actually after?

Small press or large press?

It’s not wise to tell an agent you’ll only accept offers from the Big 5, and many people don’t really have a choice; they get offers from who they get offers from. However, it is still portion of the decision making, and even if you’ll gladly go with whoever you can—or maybe especially—you should still understand the difference, predominantly…


Truth is, some small presses are nothing more than self-publishers promoting other’s books. The important thing to realize is that small presses have limitations, but they might still be valid options if they will do certain things for you. If you know they produce quality work (by checking out what they’ve made), with good editors and designers, it may be worth selling your first book through them for both financial and reputable reasons. Or it might you might decide that having a print version is most important to you and know to pass on the offer.

The problem with small presses is telling which options are valid and which ones are scams. With big publishers, you can check the name and history, know their works offhand, and easily require standard expectations. When dealing with a small, it’s extra important to do your homework. There are little things you can do like check their website for ease of sales, prices of book should be on par with the market, and real businesses will be filed with the government for tax purposes, which is viewable online.

Is self-publishing actually an option?

Self-publishing is hard. I would argue harder than the traditional route, but it also depends more on what you like to do and what you’re good at.

But yes, it’s an option. People have been successful with self-publishing, and a successful self-published book can be later picked up by a traditional publisher. However, if you are considering this route, you must understand why the self-publisher was successful, and what happens if your book flops.

There are still stigmas against badly selling indie books. It suggests some naivety and arrogance, plus you’re showing the results of what your capabilities. Poorly selling traditional books aren’t a good thing either, but it’s just not the same kind of black mark.

If you’re thinking about self-publishing, think long term. What are your goals, and how are you planning on going about them?

Self-publishing is not an easier way into traditional publishing. If your endgame is to be picked up by a trad. publisher, the easiest method is through persistence, education, and networking via the standard means.

The works that do best in self-publishing tend to be more commercial.

You will make more money off each sale, but you will have to sell your book for less. Even if you sell on par with trads, their costs are lower.

You won’t get (and don’t want) extra credit for being an indie. Your book still will need to be at the same level of quality. Writing with poor execution because your story “is good enough,” just ends up burning readers.

You can, theoretically, do it for free, but you need to be diversely talented, sociable, and dedicated.

Don’t bank on being the exception or the Chosen One Penguin is going to happen across and mentor. Make a game plan.

Don’t just trust what you read on the internet.

That includes this post. This is just an overview of what I have learned about the process through years of discussion, workshops, conferences, and reading, but I’m no expert. Things change, misinformation is past on, misunderstandings and Chinese Whispers occur. People outright lie on the internet. Post a question about any binary grammar rule on Facebook and see an acute split of opinions. One half with be adamantly supporting the wrong answer.

Think about your sources. Use your best knowledge and instinct. If something seems wrong, ask more questions. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t let anyone bully you just because you don’t inherently trust them. Be diplomatic, but cautious.

Find people who have done what you want and learn about their history.

Think about whose career you’d like to have. Next Stephen King? Read his autobiography, On Writing. Read his interviews. Read articles about him.

Inspired by the success of The Martian? Think about how much he charged, how much he spent, how he promoted, and his history as a writer.

Be careful about hand picking and choosing tactics. Too many writers shoot themselves in the foot by feeling entitled to certain luxuries without regard to context.

Before you publish, know what it means. 

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