When I started thinking about writing books, there were two ways to get published:
1.Find a “regular” publishing company, which would pay you an advance, and undertake the cost of publishing, marketing and selling your book
2.Publish the book yourself. You would pay to have the cover designed; to print the book; you would store thousands of copies yourself; you would undertake to market and sell it.
Generally, the second option was called “vanity” publishing. I think that was for two reasons. First, the thought was, if a publisher didn’t want it, it probably wasn’t very good anyway. You would be paying to fulfill your own ego. Second, the whole effort would likely be “vain” in the sense that it wouldn’t really pay off, either financially, or terms of recognition.
But times have changed; in the publishing world, they are still changing, and rapidly.
I entered the book market after 2001. Veteran authors and agents have assured me that it is nothing like the good ol’ days anymore. I expected to have trouble getting publishers to accept my stuff. Everyone knows that Steinbeck, Dr. Suess and pretty much every other famous author was rejected dozens of times.
What I didn’t expect, was that it would be nearly impossible to get a publisher to even READ my book. Or even a chapter or two. In other words, it wasn’t my book that got rejected. It was the opportunity to even evaluate my book at all that was rejected.
Obviously, I needed an agent. THAT was when I realized the true state of today’s book publishing industry. Even agents rejected the chance to represent my book before reading a single page. Now, I know all about writing query letters and book proposals and so on. I was a master of precis and synopsis in all my years of formal schooling. I saw plenty of books like mine – or of lesser quality – on the shelves of bookstores. And it wasn’t like I was trying to sell something wacky, like a musically scored, erotic Amish suspense fantasy.
I have since had two agents. I found them only because I knew someone who knew them. I have a few friends who are authors. One of them has a long-term NY Times bestseller. They all found their agents because they knew someone. Their agents sold their books to publishers, because they knew someone.
So, the first rule of publishing the “traditional” way, is that you need to know the right people. Good luck with that. If you’ve got the connections, more power to you.
I found another rule at work too. My agent gave my manuscript to an editor he knew. She loved the book. She took it home with her and read the whole thing for the fun of it. Then she came back to my agent and said, basically, “I love the book. But the author is not a celebrity, so we can’t sell it. We’re going to pass.”
So the second rule is this: if you are first time author, the publisher wants a “sure thing.” They want to know beforehand that your book will sell. They don’t care if it is written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and has the intellectual depth of Scooby-Doo, as long as they can be sure they will make money on it.
On the other hand, they don’t care if you are the next Sinclair Lewis either. They aren’t looking for literature, they are looking for money. Really, you can’t fault a publisher for that. They are in business to make money. If they didn’t make money, you wouldn’t either. On the other hand, they seem to be so darn scared of losing money, that finding a publisher that is willing to take a risk on a new author, is almost like winning the lottery.
Once again, I am told by many people in the “traditional-publishing” world that it wasn’t always this way. They also agree that it IS this way now.
All this is to say that non-traditional publishing – perhaps even what we used to call vanity publishing – has a more significant role to play in the market than ever before.
Now, there are definitely some folks who need to go with a non-traditional route because their writing is simply not good enough for someone else to invest in.
On the other hand, the failure to land a “traditional” publishing deal may have everything to do with the industry, and almost nothing to do with the talent of the writer. These days, that is more true than it has ever been.