A Look at Three Ways to Get Published

I recently attended a talk by literary agent April Eberhardt. Her talk, The New Era of Publishing: How to Choose the Best Option for You,” outlined the rapidly changing publishing landscape.

Her thesis is that “the power is shifting to the author.” As an example, she noted that the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Bertelsmann, and Simon & Schuster) were responsible for 80 percent of all titles in the US three years ago. Now they’re responsible for 60 percent.

She quoted a few stats about the explosive growth in e-readers … but all you have to do is read the news to see abundant evidence of that for yourself.

Eberhardt had a few other principles:

  1. There is no one “right” way to publish.
  2. Authors and readers no longer need publishers to find each other
  3. There are a variety of business models developing now, including ebook self-publishing services like Smashwords, and smaller self-publishers like Publication Studio in Portland. Eberhardt noted the beginnings of “agent presses,” a hybrid business model where publication costs and profits are shared.
  4. The route to publication changes – that is, it could go from traditional publishers to e-publishing. For example, Joe Konrath left his publisher to sell his self-published e-books online.

After outlining the principles, Eberhardt outlined pros and cons of the three most common paths to publication:

Traditional Publishers

Pros:

  • Publishers do much of the footwork, including publicity
  • The status of being a published author

Cons:

  • The odds. Competition for agents is fierce. As former literary agent Nathan Bransford commented, “Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest.”
  • The ratio of agents to editors is also bad
  • Advances are shrinking
  • It can take up to two years from signing with an agent until publication
  • Authors still do marketing and promotion themselves
  • You may or may not make a profit, since 99% of books never earn out their advance. And in that case, you lose your opportunity to publish your next book

Small Presses

Pros:

  • Status,
  • May pay, limited marketing

Cons:

  • Submitting is a lot of work, including research and following publishing guidelines
  • They may not respond (or if they do, it may take ages)
  • Competition is tough
  • Up to two years between acquisition and publication
  • You will have to self-promote
  • You probably won’t make a profit

Self-Publishing

Pros:

  • You control the rights
  • It’s relatively easy
  • It costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to self-publish well (that estimated cost includes hiring an editor, getting your book laid out/formatted, cover design, and marketing/promotion)
  • You make money as soon as you recoup costs
    • The web is a good marketing tool:
    • It’s good if a book targets a niche
  • You can experiment with various marketing approaches
  • You can choose title, cover art, story – you can even publish two different versions for different markets (I would have liked to see an example here, but didn’t get a chance to ask that question)

Cons:

  • Self-publishing still carries a stigma
  • As Eberhardt says, “self-published books have to be better than traditional books.”
  • It’s still a lot of work to find readers and make sales.

During the Q&A at the end, it was interesting to see how many people were focused on the traditional route to publishing (and the status boost). Also interesting was a comment she made about agents, which is that they sell to the big six – there’s not enough money in selling to the smaller presses to make it worth their time.

What I would love to see (and haven’t yet) is a gauge on how real the “stigma” is. Because two examples leap to mind where an ebook, a print-on-demand book or a self-published book could have further advantages.

  1. A book with niche appeal. In grad school I wrote a golf novel. While there are a lot of golfers out there, it’s clearly a book that’s going to appeal to golfers, but not to many non-golfers. Yet a publisher needs to gamble that they can recoup costs on a book, so if its subject matter has limited appeal (instead of broad-swath, Dan Brown appeal), you can see why a publisher would avoid the risk.
  2. A book that’s time sensitive. Think about the “life cycle” of the book. Say it takes a six months to write and another six months to edit, and then you sign with an agent within six months of submitting it. Say the agent sells it in three months (all this is relatively fast, by the way). Then the book will go into production for at least a year. That’s three years. If your subject matter is at all dependent on current events, that’s a long time.

What do you think?

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The Wind-Up, and the Pitch …

I spent the weekend at the Willamette Writers conference, which was a most excellent good thing, though it has little to do with used cars. If you’re a writer and you’re anywhere near Portland Oregon the first weekend in August next year or in years hence, you ought to go. (I’ll delve more into that in a later post.)

I should back up and say I spent Thursday night at the conference, too, since I went to watch pitch practice. Pitching is the fine art of selling your book or screenplay idea to an agent or editor or publisher — verbally, in person.

In the world of publishing, 99.something percent of selling from author to agent (or ed. or pub.) doesn’t work this way. Instead it functions via the query letter, a one-page letter intended to both describe and inspire interest in your project, and say a little about yourself (answering the subtextual question, “why I am the perfect person on this earth to write this book”).

Queries are an art form in themselves, and writing one is an excellent way to figure out whether what you’ve written has a coherent plot (or not). Even if your plot hangs together, queries aren’t easy; they’re actually so bedeviling, there are entire books and blogs (Miss Snark and Query Shark) devoted to the subject. The best way to think of them is like the copy on the back cover of a book. Does it describe the story and get you interested? Does it give you an idea what it’s about, but not give away the ending? Did you buy the book as a result? Then it’s a winner.

The pitch is different, because it adds the exciting and dangerous prospect of … fear! After all, if you write a crap query, you’ll get a rejection letter. Disappointing as that is, you are spared the humiliation of sounding incoherent and stupid while describing your book — the same book you’ve slaved over, poured your heart into, agonized over for months or years — to a stranger.

On Thursday that’s just what I saw. These people stood up and stammered out a description of their book in front of a panel of four agents and a room of eighty people. Such bravery!

Saturday morning it was my turn. I had a pretty well-grooved pitch, thanks to practice, and a helpful book called “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read.” Oh, and having done this before. Experience helps.

That said, my first pitch had the distinct, smoky aroma of crashing and burning. Part of it was because the agent wanted to know about me before asking about my project, so I ended up explaining weird biographical details, and then explaining why I was explaining them, which meant my carefully crafted message about the book, its positioning, story, hook, and themes were all scattered like wreckage on the table between us. He said he was going to pass on the project, since it sounded “too quiet.”

I sat for a moment, quietly gnashing my teeth, frustrated that because of our messed-up miscommunication, I hadn’t been able to get to describe the non-quiet parts of my pitch. Well hell.

Things got better, slowly. The next agent I pitched asked for a partial. The agent after that passed, but her pass I could live with. She said my pitch was fine, she just didn’t care for sports books in general, and golf books in particular.

Because my Saturday was all carved up with pitches, I didn’t spend much time going to the workshops. Instead I spent time hanging out and talking to people. And what did we talk about? I asked people about their projects. and naturally, people want to know what I was working on, too. So, I told them. And you know what? It sounds just like a pitch.

It sounds like a pitch because the only difference is that at the end, you’re not trying to close the deal. Want to get better at pitching? Then describe your project in casual conversation as many times as you can. Here’s the script:

Person you’ve just met: “What are you working on?

You: “I’m working on …” [and off you go, giving a short description that makes it sound interesting, and makes them want to read it.]

I explained my project at least five other times on Saturday alone. And I noticed that as the day progressed, my pitch kept getting better. More organized, more articulate, and I was able to make all the points I wanted. I had pitches at 10:30, 2:15, 3:30, 4:00, and 4:30, and I snuck in two with people I hadn’t been able to schedule. By the last one I was one well-trained pitch-monkey. I pitched the book seven times on Saturday, making me the Herbert R. Tarlek of publishing, missing only the white shoes and white belt.

True, this is all very unnatural. But ultimately I think it’s for the better. Yes, it’s more work. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you’re going to get rejected. Right to your face.

But y’know what? That’s what makes you an author instead of just a writer. You’ve got to believe your stuff is that good, even if not everyone else does.

That said, I am now going back to revise my manuscript …