I’ve made enough noise on my social media that I hope my friends and followers are aware that I’m close to having another book published. As I’m going through the process, readers I know are asking me questions that made me realize how much most of the general public don’t know about today’s publishing business.
“You have a publisher. Aren’t they taking care of the promotion?”
“ Where will you go on your book tour?”
What they’re thinking about is the writer who is with one of the big five: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. With some exceptions, these writers are celebrities (Obama) or established bestsellers (Grisham). Some new writers do make it through the system by landing an agent and then a book deal, or even by self-publishing and catching the attention of one of the big five with high sales.
The publishing revolution that took place a few years ago significantly changed the industry. Some companies folded or merged. Vanity, hybrid, and small presses proliferated. Self-publishing gained in popularity, and has gradually gained credibility by producing professional work. Each year approximately 2.3 million books are published by authors or small presses. Only between one and two percent of writers are published by the big five.
When I explain today’s system, most people are surprised that there are so many roads to being a published author. In the past, there was pretty much only one—land an agent, sign a contract, receive an advance, and then pray you earned out that advance, so you didn’t have to repay it.
Today, you can do-it-yourself: write the book, hire an editor, buy an ISBN, buy a cover design, pay for or do your own formatting, set up the distribution, and advertise. (this list isn’t necessarily complete or chronological)
Vanity presses are another option, and when you use them, you pay them to publish your book. They might do a good job with the details of publishing, but that’s not guaranteed, so after you pay the $4,000 or more, the book may not be a professional product. It’s up to the author to check everything very carefully. Usually, all the royalties are the author’s, and they retain their rights.
In 2018, IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association, 2018) set out criteria to help authors find a reputable hybrid press.
Some small presses take on the responsibility of putting the manuscript through the publishing pipeline without fees. The author won’t get an advance, but they will receive a percentage of the royalties. Good companies do some promotion, but the lion’s share is the author’s responsibility. Some rights go to the press. Others go to the author.
One of the biggest factors that has driven many authors away from traditional publishing is time. It can take years to find an agent--more years to sell a manuscript. And there are times a manuscript won't find a home even when agented. However, even after a sale and a contract have been negotiated, it can take additional years to see the book in print.
This is an exciting, challenging business to be a part of because it changes constantly, and the competition is fierce. Then when a book launches, it’s an adrenaline rush. No wonder there are so many people caught up in writing books and publishing them.