Straight From the Publisher - The Odds Against

by Colin Ingram - Date: 2006-12-07 - Word Count: 1346 Share This!

As you probably already know, it has become increasingly hard-in fact, almost impossible-for new authors to have their books published by a major publisher. There are many reasons for this, but foremost among them is that there are far too many aspiring authors chasing a limited number of book buyers. Also, from the view of the publisher's desk, literally hundreds, often thousands of unsolicited manuscripts and query letters arrive by mail each week. Obviously, publishers do not have the time to look at them all.

Major publishers know from past experience that almost all manuscripts written by unpublished authors are not suitable for them. In fact, most submissions are of poor quality. But even among the good ones, very few books submitted to publishers fit into the narrow niche of subject matter, book length and timeliness needed by the publisher.

But most of all, the major publishers are looking for blockbusters-best sellers. And blockbusters happen when the author has a big celebrity name or in those few instances where the major book reviewers give rave reviews to a previously unknown author. In general, if you're not a famous actor or politician, or you're not in the national news for a lengthy period, major publishers are generally not interested in your book, no matter how high the quality or how important the message.

If you include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your submission, your manuscript will probably be returned, along with a polite rejection slip. Most likely, no one will have actually looked at it. On those rare occasions when a reader at a major publishing house does look at your material, you may receive a letter, saying something like: "We feel your manuscript has merit and we would like to hold it for further evaluation." Wonderful! Some publisher has at least recognized your existence. But then you probably find yourself waiting month after month for some action. You call again and again, but receive no definite response (or any response!). Finally, after a long time, sometimes as long as one or two years, you may receive another letter from the publisher which reads like this: "After carefully evaluating your manuscript we feel that it does not fit our requirements at this time. Thank you for allowing us to read your material and accept our best wishes for your success." Great! You've just spent a year or more spinning your wheels.

Even if a publisher accepts your book and you are fortunate enough to get a cash "advance," they may not print it. This happens because some publishers often sign contracts for more books than they can print, just to be sure they have enough to fill their catalog. Then, as the deadline for firming up their decisions approaches, they select those they are going to drop. Try reading the fine print in a publishing contract; it probably states that the publisher has up to 12 or 24 months to actually publish the book but is not obligated to actually print it!

Here is the point. If you follow the typical route of most aspiring authors, the odds are something like 10,000 to 1 against your being published by a major publishing house. Of course, you may be the lucky exception. In fact, if you're lucky enough to become famous that your name is a household word, then you can name your publisher and name your price-they will be lining up at your door.

Let's say you do get lucky and a major publisher wants to publish your book even though you don't have a famous name. Will you have a best-seller and get rich? Not very likely. Most published books lose money-it's the big "blockbusters" that make enough money to compensate for the losses or modest profits on all the other books. The point is, authors whose books are not big sellers do not make much in the way of royalties because of the small percentage that the author receives.

While the major publishing houses can be counted in the dozens, there are thousands of small publishers, or "small presses" as they are called. It is a bit easier, but still difficult, to get your book published by a small press. If you do, the same situation applies; unless your book becomes a big seller, your royalties will usually be insignificant.

Traditional publishing works well when strong demand exists, or can be generated, for your book. But did you know that unless you have a celebrity name, traditional publishers do little or no promotion of your book? They'll list it in their catalog, they'll send out review copies, and they may get you on a few radio shows and organize some book signings, but they won't advertise or publicize it beyond that. Surprise! You are the one who has to promote it.

With traditional publishing, all the advantages are on the side of the publisher, and the author usually gets the short end of the stick.

There is an interesting alternative-self-publishing. This phenomenon has been growing larger every year, occasionally with extraordinary results. To name just a few, "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-both self-published-have sold in the millions! And thousands upon thousands of new authors are self-publishing their books and sometimes making a name and a profit for themselves.

There are several advantages to self-publishing. For example, in traditional publishing, the publisher gets to decide the title of the book, the design of the cover and even has editorial control over the contents of the book. With self-publishing, the author has control over everything. In traditional publishing, the author gets a very small percentage of sales as a royalty; with self-publishing, the author keeps all the revenue.

With traditional publishing you may think your book is selling well but it may not be enough for your publisher to justify a reprint-so you're stuck. No more books! But with self-publishing, since you get all the profit, even modest sales of your book can continue to make money for you each time you reprint. A disadvantage of self-publishing is that the author has an up-front cost to publish the first printing. But there are creative ways for authors to finance the first printing (example: advance sales), so that their initial investment does not have to break the bank.

Another potential disadvantage of self-publishing is that there are several technical details (obtaining copyrights, International Standard Book Number, Library of Congress registration, obtaining an electronic bar code, listing in major book data bases for bookstores, libraries, and so on). But there are also hundreds of small publishers that specialize in helping authors with these details.

The third disadvantage of self-publishing-and most daunting to new authors-is how to promote and market your book. However, you would have much the same challenge with traditional publishing, because traditional publishers offer little in the way of guidance (and usually no money) to help promote your book. There are many books and tutorials that guide authors in promoting and marketing their books, but they all require work-by you.

Speaking realistically, self-publishing is not for everyone. If you want someone to simply take your manuscript off your hands, and all your responsibilities end there-keep trying to find a traditional publisher. Maybe you'll be lucky. But if you want to retain control over the final form of your book, and if you're willing to work at promoting your book, self-publishing has clear advantages.

As the title of this article suggests, the odds are stacked against you. The great majority of authors remain unpublished. A majority of those who do find a traditional publisher make very little in the way of royalties. And many self-published authors end up with cases of unsold books in their garages and attics.

Nevertheless, having your own book in print is the tangible manifestation of all the effort you have put into researching and writing it. It gives you a wonderful feeling, and deservedly so, for it's a real accomplishment. But more than that, even with modest sales your book will be read by many readers and your message will spread in ways that you cannot even imagine.

Is it worth it? You decide.

Related Tags: book publishing, publishers viewpoint, publishing odds

Colin Ingram

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