Monday, July 23, 2012

What Traditional Publishers Offer—and What They Don’t

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

6053973411_879fb8384bRecently, I’ve realized through emails and direct messages that there’s sometimes some confusion about what traditional publishers offer writers.

The reason this concerns me is because I get the impression this is causing some writers to pursue traditional publishing when they might otherwise have chosen to self-publish.

One person who contacted me about my thoughts on publishing mentioned that they didn’t have much money for promo and needed a traditional publisher so that the publisher could take care of all of that.

Others have thought that publishers send authors on books tours and set up their websites and social media for them.

Others have had fairly grandiose ideas about the size of an advance for a typical genre novel from a debut author.

What I’d like to do with this post is to tell what my experience as a midlist writer with both a major publisher and a midsized press has been. If you have a six-figure deal with a publisher and a high concept novel, this won’t apply to you. :)

In my experience, traditional publishers have:

Edited: They’ve done both global/developmental editing and proofreading. If you read all the editorial notes and changes in your submitted manuscript, you can get quite an education…for free.

Provided covers: These covers have been created by either an in-house art department or sub-contracted to artists that the house uses.

Promoted: They have submitted review copies to major book reviewers (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly) and industry magazines. They’ve included the books in the publisher’s catalogue. They’ve sent copies to the most well-read book bloggers for my genre. Upon request, they will send copies to smaller newspapers who want to write a review or a story (local papers, for instance.)

Distributed and provided good shelf-placement: They’ve distributed copies of books to bookstores and, in my case, provided extremely good shelf-placement for them.

Intervened with issues: When I’ve had a problem with something to do with social media (for example, I had a migration issue with Facebook), they’ve intervened for me directly with the platform/service and gotten quicker results.

Provided promotional copies of my book: Provided me with free copies of my books for my own promo purposes. I receive, per my contract, ARCs for the first book of a series, and author copies prior to the book’s release. If the book goes to large print, etc., I receive copies of those books as well.

They have not:

Provided promotional materials for me. If I want bookmarks, pamphlets, or business cards, I purchase them myself.

Set me up with a website or other social media platforms. We’re on our own with this one…and they’d like for us to have an online presence.

Sent me on a book tour.

Paid for me to attend conventions or conferences.

Paid me large advances on books. If you’re a debut genre fiction author, it would not be unreasonable to expect a $5,000 advance for each book (in some genres, like mystery, you’ll get a 3 book deal) and then royalties once you earn out. Your mileage may vary, but just a heads-up in case you’re planning on paying off your car loan with your advance. It would be best to think of your book money, as a debut genre writer, as something to provide extra money to your regular income (wherever your regular income comes from.)

This advance money is usually not paid out all at one time. In my case, the money I receive for an advance is in three parts: a portion when I sign my contract, a portion when I deliver the manuscript and it’s accepted, and a portion when the book is published.

Remember, if you have an agent, your agent will generally receive the publishers' checks and take 15% of the check as payment (if they negotiated that particular contract).

Royalties may be paid out every six months (or quarterly, depending on your publisher) along with sales statements and you might reasonably expect to make 8% of the publisher’s suggested retail price on a mass market paperback. You might expect to receive 25% of the amount received by the publisher (this is net income received by the publisher) on digital copies sold of the work.

Obviously, this is a much smaller amount than Amazon, for instance, would currently pay in royalties for a book priced at $2.99 and above (they pay 70% royalties for sales of these ebooks.)

Again, this information is specific to my own experience working with a midsized press (Midnight Ink) and a large publisher (Penguin) and in writing genre fiction. Some publishers pay larger advances for new writers, but then it can be harder to earn-out (and you want to earn out, if you’re writing for a traditional publisher.)

This post is not intended to negatively reflect on traditional publishing—it is what it is. There are pros and cons of writing for a publishing house. But if, for instance, you write science fiction/fantasy, romance, or mysteries and you’re trying to decide whether you want to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing, hopefully this will give you some additional information to help make your decision.

Looking back over this post, I guess you could say the biggest pros for traditional publishing are that you get your editing and covers and store distribution for free and that you receive some payment in advance. The cons would be that you don’t have as much control and you could potentially make more money long-term by publishing a book yourself (if the book is good and if it finds an audience).

Cons for self-publishing would be the initial investment for editing and covers (which can potentially be recouped later in the process), frequent lack of presence in brick-and-mortar stores, and no advance payment. Pros for self-publishing would be the potential to make more money in the long-term and more control over the product itself.

I think that the right path to take depends on the book and the writer and what works for one writer or one book may not work for another writer or another book. (How’s that for noncommittal?) :)

If anyone would like to ask a question, I could try to answer it out of my own experience. Or if anyone would like to share their own experiences with either traditional or self-publishing—as a way to supply information to other writers—I’d love for you to chime in.

Wednesday I'll talk a little about discoveries from my self-publishing experience (again in the for-what-it's-worth department). :)

Image: Frank McMains c.c.