I know I’ve answered this in drips and drabs throughout my discussions on getting an agent, but I figured I’d address this head on, today.
What Is ‘Traditional’ Publishing?
Traditional publishing is what gets you widespread publication and shipped to every mainstream bookstore in the country. Whether it’s hardback, trade paper, or pulp paperback, you’ve got a physical item to go on the shelves in the stores.
There are quite a few steps that go into traditional publishing
The main parts of traditional publishing are the author’s advance, the physical books for sale, and the fact it doesn’t cost the author a dime.
While it rarely goes this smoothly, these are the expected stages most traditionally published authors go through.
- You query your drafted, revised, and polished manuscript to an agent – because a lot of traditional publishers won’t even look at unagented works
- An agent requests your full manuscript, loves it, and offers you representation — and you accept.
- Your agent submits your manuscript to Acquiring Editors at publishing houses, tweaking the message based on insider knowledge and using their connections.
- An acquiring Editor (I capitalize “Editor” to differentiate between someone who marks up your manuscript, and someone who also gets to pick manuscripts to be published by their house) likes your manuscript. Or, in the dream situation, several Editors are interested and there’s a bidding war…
- The Editor takes the manuscript to their boss or board of marketing people, something like that, and gets them to sign off on the manuscript acquisition.
- The Editor offers you a contract.
- Your agent negotiates to make sure you get the best terms – working as a contract lawyer specializing in book deals.
- You sign the book deal!
- Your publishing date is scheduled, often a year out.
- Usually a round of edits or even a full revision.
- You see the draft copy and make minor punctuation/spelling only level edits.
- You deliver your final manuscript.
- Part of your advance is paid out. (some often comes before this)
- Your cover is announced (sometimes you get to weigh in — that’s something your agent can try for).
- Your novel is published! Happy book birthday.
- The rest of your advance should be paid out.
- The book sells over 5,000-20,000 books and you ‘earn out’ your advance [depending how big it was] (happens to like 5% of books)
- You sell more books and actually start getting a percentage – (keeping your backlog in print can help, especially with sequels, etc.)
Traditional publishing isn’t a guarantee for a salary you can live off. All but the top 5-10% make under $20,000 a year — decent enough if you’ve got someone to split the bills with, but nothing to write home about.
However, unless your novel is already a sensation, you’re likely going to have to hustle to get traction and do a lot of marketing on your own. In the oversaturated market, and the multitude of social media platforms, finding an audience is a challenge.
Who are the Traditional Publishers?
While there are many other publishers that do ‘traditional’ publishing, you usually hear about the “Big 5” publishers. These publishers print about 60% of the English-language books.
- Penguin/Random House
- Hachette Book Group
- Harper Collins
- Simon and Schuster
(Although, Simon and Schuster got sold in November of 2020 to Penguin/Random House. The merger isn’t complete, but it’s about to be the ‘Big 4’).
All of these publishing houses have things called “Imprints”, which are smaller, more niche publishing departments – their romance house, kids chapter books, or mystery house — that sort of thing.
What’s Small Press?
Small press runs the gamut between traditional publishing houses not owned by the big
54, presses that do the uploading/cover getting of self-publishing for you, and vanity presses (where you pay and they print your stuff), and everything in-between.
What’s Indie Publishing?
Publishing it yourself. There are many publishers you can work with, but most right now are using Amazon’s Kindle Direct/CreateSpace to publish e-books and print-on-demand physical copies.
You get complete creative control over everything from the layout of the pages, to the fonts, to the cover.
This is the most welcoming platform for genre defying books, books that are outside the ‘acceptable’ wordcount lengths of traditional books, or books that would otherwise be overlooked by traditional publishers.
Why Do I Want Traditional Publishing?
I’ve got a few reasons:
- The book presence.
One thing neither small press nor indie can do?
Get you into every Barnes&Noble in the country. Even with a nice marketing budget, which few authors or small presses have, all the marketing and hustle just can’t get you in front of as many people. Except in e-book. And that market is so crowded and overwhelmed, getting any notice requires, skill, hustle, and a fork-ton of good luck.
- Fear of not having the right hustle game
I’ve got a fair amount of hustle, but knowledgeable and kind with a touch of sass (which I hope is my image?) isn’t controversial enough to get viral clickviews. No tragic backstory of my own, no massively timely issues book, no love for sparking twitter-wars.
- That delicious external validation that says “yes, your writing is good enough”
I’m still querying agents and polishing my manuscript. Let’s hope the right agents and the right market aligns for me.
Do you have a book? Which way did you go?
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
#19: Your book gets made into a movie! (Hey, it happened to “The Martian” by Andy Weir – who self-published it first, by the way… which is how it eventually came to the attention of a traditional publisher. Had it stayed in a drawer, there would’ve been no “Mark Watney”!)
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Oooh! I missed that one. That’s like Bonus Points!
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