I've kicked around the publishing game for a while. In the past decade I've had two books published by traditional publishers, and four by digital publishers. On the flip side, I've collected more rejections than I can count. I've experienced the high's and the low's, and now I'm going to share with you some of what I've learned...
First of all, the phrase 'traditional publisher' is a misnomer. There is nothing traditional about publishing in the current climate. Now the term implies a publishing house which is a bit long in the tooth, maybe a little bit resistant to change. Traditional. Like antique furniture. They publish paperbacks, maybe even hardbacks, but have a very basic website and minimal internet visibility. They probably advertise in the classified section of the local paper, if they still advertise at all.
On the other hand, digital publishers specialize in, surprise, surprise, digital e-books for computers and reading devices. Even phones. Some digital publishers do distribute actual, physical copies of books. These tend to be Print on Demand (POD) and are so expensive, hardly anyone buys them.
The tricky part is the huge grey area between trad and digi publishers. This is filled in part by vanity publishers. They are a different proposition entirely, and one to be avoided. If anyone tries charging the writer money for any 'service' at any stage of the publishing process, they can safely be considered a vanity publisher of some description. Under no circumstances should the writer pay the publisher. It should be the other way around. They might tell you they like your book, that it will sell by the truck load, that you should pay them X amount of money to produce X amount of copies, and pay them RIGHT NOW to take advantage of this special limited offer they have going on. After you have paid for the cover design and editing, of course. If you are foolish enough to go through the process and pay the fees, you will end up with a room full of books you then have to sell on your own just to recoup some of your outgoings, which is virtually impossible.
Digital publishing houses hand out contracts like confetti at a wedding. Some even publish via Smashwords or KDP, something the writer can easily do themselves. Most 'name' authors are contracted to one of the larger publishing houses, who are very selective about who they take on. They are generally unwilling to take a punt on a 'new' author purely due to the costs involved, and because they have so few books to promote, they can afford the necessary investment and the books sell. Some sell very well.
But it seems the lower down the chain you go, the less selective the publisher becomes. The result is that smaller publishers often have dozens or hundreds of authors tied to contracts with dozens or hundreds of books to promote simultaneously. It's the scattergun approach. Instead of having a hundred authors each selling a thousand copies of their book, they have a thousand authors each selling a hundred. Of course, with so many authors and books to promote, and with less staff and a smaller marketing budget, the publisher can't actually do much actual promotion. If any. That is left to you, the writer. Right across the board, publishers now seem to be doing less and less marketing. Instead, they lean on the authors to generate sales. This strikes me as lazy, exploitative, and a bit tyrannical. In theory, the system works; get loads of people to write books then sell them on your behalf, handing you a hefty slice of the profit.
But in practice, it just doesn't add up, and here's why - most of their 'clients' are new authors who have no existing platform, and very little experience of marketing. That's where it all breaks down. Being semi-pro at best, the vast majority juggle real-world jobs and responsibilities and have very little time to do any book promotion, or even learn how to do it. Nobody ever sits you down and tells you what to do. You are expected to just know how to market yourself. Even if you DO know what to do, securing reviews, doing interviews, blog tours, book signings, giveaways, competitions and the like, even utilizing social media, all takes time. Time that most writers would rather spend writing.
Now, if they are doing all the promo and marketing themselves, any author worth his salt has to ask what the publisher actually does to justify the percentage they demand from the writer's sales (usually 40-50%). In most cases, they pay an in-house designer $30 to knock up a cover, do a rough edit of your book, then bung it on the internet and hope for the best. When the money doesn't start rolling in, they send out abrupt emails to their writers asking what promotion they are doing. Which, of course, is code for, 'I'm not making enough money from you. Make me more money!'
I had such an email from a publisher recently, and after explaining in detail what book promo I was doing/had done, I felt compelled to sign off the email with, "Now tell me, what promo YOU are doing?"
Of course, the publisher didn't reply.
At times it feels like I'm doing all the work, and giving away a large proportion of my (very minimal) profit in exchange for little or no service. Not any more. I've had enough. I'm going solo. It's the indie life for me. For fiction, anyway. Non-fiction is a little bit different. That way I can write what I want without editorial interference, set my own prices, and keep track of where the money goes. Who even needs publishers these days?
Get ready for X.
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