Breaking Publishing Rules

In the same vein as my Breaking Writing Rules post, I’ve now surveyed the options for publishing, and here are some early returns. It’s long-winded and is really the story of what I’ve learned and how I discovered that my new avocation could become too expensive if I’m not very careful.

Here are the rules (I’ve underlined my new vocabulary words):

First, get an agent

Conventional wisdom is if you want to get published by the Big Five publishing houses, you need an agent. And this is true. Not just the Big Five but many smaller publishing houses simply won’t accept “unagented” submissions.

What an agent does is help you get a publisher. Sometimes they work hard, other times not; sometimes they are highly successful, other times not.

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Agents are treated as elite gatekeepers, who can make or break a writing career. Some take months to reply to a query. Some won’t even answer emails — they are too busy and important. My classic movie image of the agent wearing out shoe leather to get their author noticed is wrong.

Conventional wisdom says it’s hard to get a good agent, and that you may be rejected by 40 or more of them before you find one, and that’s supposed to be ok. I have been querying agents. This has become a whole industry; there are classes and workshops you can buy just on writing a good query letter.

Over a dozen agents have rejected my literary novel so far. For the first mystery novel, two agents (one of whom requested my work after seeing my pitch on Twitter) asked to read the whole thing before rejecting it.

Get an agent for your whole career

This one is a little more controversial. If you write repeatedly in the same genre, it makes sense. I have finished four books: one reference book, one literary novel, and two mysteries. The reference book doesn’t need an agent, since it would go to an academic press anyway. The others are in two different categories.

If you read agents’ wish lists you plow through many, many agent profiles at various websites, some of which you have to pay to access. You are paying to access lists of gatekeepers, put together by gatekeeping organizations who let you in for some cash, in return for doing the legwork of collecting lists.

Already I’m getting a little edgy about this. Frankly, I expected to work on not being hurt when my work was rejected by publishers. I did not expect to have my work rejected by those who hadn’t read it and were only intermediaries. Agents don’t get paid by the author — they take a cut of book sales.

Try small presses who take unagented  submissions

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I’ve been trying a few of these. They tend to be very kind, and one even told me why they were rejecting my literary novel, which was helpful. (It helped me understand that they didn’t understand what I was doing with the book.)

Authors sometimes complain about the strict rules that small presses use regarding the formatting of submissions. I have no complaint when they want perfect copy, a certain font, a certain subject line. Most, however, publish very few books a year, because they can’t make much money, especially with printed books. They need known authors and popular works to make ends meet.

Some ask for your marketing plan. What will the author do to market their work? Are they known on social media? How many “followers” do they have? Gone are the days, says the conventional wisdom, when publishers did your publicity. You have to do it yourself, market your books everywhere with professional social media, book tours, and…

Writing conventions

Thanks to pandemia, I’ve been to several of these online. I’ve blogged about them, and absorbed much advice. But the more I attend, the more the advice is the same, and it’s often from the same people. And every speaker is trying to sell their own books. They also recommend more books on writing. I’ve bought half a dozen of the books recommended at conferences. Most of them have gone right back out to the thrift store.

One can also take a class, to learn the tricks for writing a best-selling book. I did this for mysteries. For classes, the instructors seem to be mostly writers teaching classes to supplement the sale of their books. And every website on how to write and publish has a link to the author’s books at the bottom. It’s hard to make a living writing books.

Conventional wisdom is that to be known as an author, one must get known at the conventions, and join groups of writers. The larger organizations charge dues, of course. I will need to join both mystery writers and historical novelists for a start. In the meantime, I’ve joined Facebook groups. Some of the people are quite wonderful. But even in groups which claim to eschew self-promotion, many of the posts reference the poster’s book, and how to buy it.

Everywhere I go to meet writers, I find writers trying to sell their books to other writers. That seems odd.

Don’t like it? Self publish!

Long ago I edited my high school newspaper. I remember going to the printers to check the galleys, moving things around and re-pasting with rubber cement. When I got my first typewriter, I created a family newsletter. My first computer was also used for a primitive form of desktop publishing. In a sense, I’ve been self-publishing forever, so this sounds possible.

Conventional wisdom says avoid hybrid presses. They are the old vanity presses. They offer various options, from submitting camera-ready copy to having a Word file and no idea what to do. Either way, you pay thousands up front, and these “self-publishing companies” help with everything, including formatting, printing, and distributing.

I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process. Even if you just want to publish just an e-book, you have a choice of several services and programs. Conventional wisdom says. . .

Hire professionals

First you need beta readers for the manuscript. Alpha readers are family and friends. Beta readers are those who read manuscripts and give an honest opinion. They can be paid or you can read their work in exchange.  (I wish I were willing to read other people’s poor writing, but frankly I do that for a living already.)

Then hire an editor, they say. Otherwise your book will be crap. Go to Fiverr or Reedsy, and find a good editor. I go there, and find there are many types of editing, including developmental, copy, and line editing. Editors charge for each kind, often hundreds for a full novel. More power to them.

Hire someone to design your book cover (and the back cover and spine — that’s separate), they say. Super important to have a great cover, because people buy books based on their cover, even e-books. Oh, and hire someone to do the internal formatting of the text, which is different for e-books and print, and someone to write the blurb. I mean, yeah, they say, you can just go on Amazon and upload a pdf, but it won’t sell because it won’t look professional.

Then you need reviews, or the book won’t sell. Kirkus is respected: $425 minimum. Join reviewer groups, many with a fee, and create mailing lists of your readers. Give out free copies (Advance Review Copies) to get people to review before your launch. Without reviews, you’re sunk. And you need some quotations for the cover. And you might need to hire a publicist.

Rake in royalties through self-publishing

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There seem to be two six-hundred pound gorillas in the self-publishing room. One is Amazon and the other is Ingram. Both have a huge distribution network. Seeking the widest possible market is to go wide. Going deep is doing everything with Amazon; going wide is looking toward global distribution of the print book as well as the e-book, but not having access to Amazon’s perks.

Love Amazon? Then great, because you might get 70% royalties for your e-book with their KDP publishing program. But that’s if you sell the e-book at between $2.99 and $4.99. Better yet, use their KDP Select exclusive deal, where you can’t sell anywhere else, or you won’t get that much and, more importantly, your book won’t rise up in the searches so no one will find it. They’ll also print the book for you, but the price will be high.

Don’t like Amazon? Pay a company like Draft2Digital to create and distribute your e-book. Some of these companies take up to 60%, and of course if the book costs too much it won’t sell. For print, they set minimum prices to recoup their costs. My mystery comes out at about $13 for a paperback, which seems high. For print, keep in mind that Ingram Spark itself is really two companies, a publisher (Spark) and a book seller (Ingram Books), and each takes a cut.

Just want to use Amazon as a seller? You can get your e-book published somewhere like Draft2Digital, and printed somewhere like Lulu (which may have better quality but is more expensive than Ingram), then sell both on Amazon. Amazon will take an additional cut after your self-publishing company does.

Any of these, if you get about $1 for each book you sell, consider yourself lucky.

None of this is what I’d call “self-publishing”. Self-publishing is grabbing the manuscript from your shy sister in the village, running down to the print shop in town, and having books made, paid for by your rich uncle in the country. The closest thing we have now is selling the e-book on your own website. Then you’d become a distributor and marketer. If you have lots of people who are following you on social media, this might work. (For me, I’d be reaching about 45 people at most, and reaching readers is more important to me than profits.) For print books, you could pay for printing, then send books out of your house. There’s postal service in every village.

Face it: it’s gonna cost you $4,000 at least

All along this yellow brick road on the way to publishing Oz are people and companies who need to get paid. And that’s after one pays $125 for single ISBN (and you need two if you’re doing both paper and ebook) from the only company authorized to sell them in your country. (They offer additional services for pay, naturally.) Plus $125 more if you need a bar code for the paper version. And $85 to register copyright if you want to be able to sue anyone who violates yours. So add these to the cost of beta readers, editors, e-book formatting, print-ready formatting, cover design, interior design, blurb writing, printing, publishing, distributing, and selling.

Really, one conference speaker said, self-publishing will cost you as much as hybrid publishing, from $4,000-10,000 per book to do it right. If you can’t get an agent your only choice is hybrid or self, and either way it’s the same cost. My mission, of course, is to do more for less. A lot less.

So now what?

Somewhere through all this, I realized that I should self-publish, not because it makes money or I have more creative control, but because I won’t be cooperative with the marketing. This is true even if by some miracle I had a New York agent and a Big Five Publisher. I have no intention of sitting at Barnes and Noble hawking my book from a table, pretending I’m an extrovert and talking to strangers. I don’t think I’ll want to sit on a panel or stand behind a microphone and talk about my book.

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It’s a book. It’s supposed to be read, by a reader, privately, wherever they prefer to read. I speak to the reader through the work, their head against mine. A book tour sounds like the fourth circle of hell. It should make absolutely no difference who I am, what I look like, or whether I like cats or holiday in the Seychelles. I’m already struggling with the author website.

And there’s the money. I can’t spend too much, for a variety of reasons. So here’s my conclusion:

  • Writing — I have thus far spent $50 on Scrivener, plus money for printer paper and ink, and numerous books for research (but that’s education).
  • Beta readers — I have good, highly educated, and creative alpha reader friends.
  • Editing — I believe I can navigate through the editing myself, despite the pitfalls.
  • Book cover — There are free book covers, and I can tell a crappy cover from an uncrappy one. Or I’ll be nice to artist friends.
  • Interior formatting — I’m trying Calibre for the e-book, but could also use Reedsy’s book editor or Ingram’s if I go with them for print.
  • Blurb — If I can write a book, I can write a blurb.
  • Reviews — Reviews will have to come afterwards, from people who’ve read the book and care to say what they thought, without me paying them.
  • ISBN — There’s no way out of the ISBN cost if I want a paper book, and I do. I won’t read on a backlit device, and there are others like me, especially among those who would enjoy my book in the first place. $295 for 10 should do all three books.
  • Printing — Since I don’t want horrid-looking amateurish books, I can’t do anything about the printing service taking a cut for their profit, because they’ll be producing a tangible item and need to stay in business.
  • Distributing — If I want anyone other than friends to read the book, I will have to access a distributor and pay them. This cost is combined with printing for Ingram and Amazon.
  • Selling — The “bookstore”, virtual or physical, will take a cut, even if I do Print on Demand.

    Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
  • Ethics — If I go down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil or twist myself into ethical pretzels, the result would be Amazon KDP Select for e-book distributing, and Ingram for print book publication and distributing. Then get out the Sir Kensington’s mustard.

I see now that, rather than having an income stream from writing, it is far more likely that I won’t so much as break even on the costs. It’s likely I’ll get pennies for each copy sold (if I don’t actually have to pay out for each copy), and will never recoup the money I spend getting it published even with the absolutely cheapest option. I’d still rather they be out there in the world. I didn’t write them to sit in a drawer.

I’ll start a new piggy bank. If it doesn’t work, as they say, watch this space. I might serialize the novels and put them up on line for free. In fact, I may do that anyway.





2 thoughts to “Breaking Publishing Rules”

  1. We are in a post-literate world. Virtually no one reads, and of that group of no one, only about .06% read books. This is why it’s almost impossible to sell them, even if they’re good.

    The easiest way to get a book published is: be famous. Doesn’t matter what for, and being infamous or even sufficiently bizarre works just as well. You can also marry, divorce, sleep with, or sue someone famous (or infamous). Your book will not need to be good, and other people will compete to sell it for you. (Heck, other people will write it for you.)

    I’m being encouraged to publish a book of poems. I may as well stand out in my yard and try to get hit by an asteroid.

    1. Aha! Not a single website said I have to be famous, but I believe you’re right!

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