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Publishing Jungle

Several friends have asked me when I’ll publish my book. An innocuous question, right? I’d probably have asked the same of someone too, before I learned more about the world of publishing fiction. I’ve been studying this for the past year, from the middle of the jungle it’s become, and I marvel at how “last century” my ideas were. Now I need to answer an email from a friend who just asked me about publishing so here goes:

In the olden days, when a writer finished her book, she found an agent who agreed to represent her with publishers. Agents and publishers didn’t charge their clients – they made money only when a publisher bought the rights, published, and sold copies of the book. It was in the agent’s interest to choose clients wisely and to nurture relationships with publishers. It was in the publisher’s interest to choose wisely from what agents offered and to market the book effectively.

In the 80s publishing houses started merging and consuming each other until there were only 6 big ones left in the US. Then Random House and Penguin merged in 2013 and there were only 5. These are big businesses whose mission is to make money — not to promote good literature, or educate the public, or do anything particularly noble. In light of that, it’s interesting that only 30-40% of the books published by traditional publishers ever make any money — at least that’s the number that gets bantered about. It suggests that traditional publishers often make poor choices.

Many would-be authors certainly think so. The journey towards a contract with a traditional publisher is slow and painful and often leads nowhere.

Of course, there’s always been the option of “vanity publishing” —paying a small press to publish. But this was an expensive, not to mention stigma-ridden route. Then new digital printing techniques allowed “print on demand” and that solved the expense problem. Authors could get their books printed “as needed” and sell them from their homes. The internet and social media let them market their stuff; some made money — in rare instances became best-sellers — without having to get a foot inside the door of the exalted big houses.

And then, along came Amazon! Authors could upload a book, have it printed on demand and sell it – no cost to author. Now anyone can publish a book, although few sell more than 100 copies. Yet there are so many of these books out there that self publishing accounted for 50% of the business in 2017. Many (most?) are terrible — I’ve seen them. Poorly formatted, unedited for basic grammar and punctuation, let alone story and structure — they’re just awful. But there’s a strong movement afoot to improve the quality of self published (and indie) books. There’s a huge growth of support services — all levels of editing, book cover design, formatting for print and electronic publishing, and marketing. This is a booming business. Authors pay some or all of the costs — the business models are evolving daily. The result is that there’re many self published books every bit as professionally published as those from the Big 5.

And, back to those Big 5: today they expect (as do traditional agents) that books have already been professionally edited before they even want to look at them. Then they’ll impose their own in-house editing and have the final say on title and cover designs. They provide some marketing for their authors but not much. Authors are expected to promote themselves with websites, blogs and social media. And most traditional publishers are not keen on taking chances on unpublished authors. Six to eight thousand new books go up on Amazon every day. The author's got to find a way to set herself apart from the pack.

So what’s the advantage to an author of struggling to get traditionally published anymore? The answer, as far as I can tell, is status, a leg up on getting the book into bookstores and libraries, and advice from those with experience. But is that worth the pain and time involved? It’s not a simple question.


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