As I’m not a celebrity (except in my neighbourhood where all the shopkeepers know what cigarettes this big foreign freak smokes without him asking) and I am not at all interested in popular genre stories, I tend to look at the whole self-pub/trad-pub (© A Oberg) conundrum from the perspective of writers who aren’t necessarily sure how marketable they are or which route is best for them.
Having established last time that niche and experimental projects are probably best served by self-publishing, this time I’ll take a look at traditional publishing, specifically with ‘midlist’ projects in mind.
The usual arguments for going with an agent and a traditional publishing house are as follows: an advance; professional production process (editing, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading and artwork); a marketing/sales strategy and budget; professional career guidance; more time to focus on writing; cachet.
Over the last five years, I’ve read plenty of blogs about various aspects of publishing, but nothing anywhere near this candid. As the author covers many points that I’d set out to explore (but from a far more informed perspective), I can just whiz you through a few extra thoughts I’ve had afterwards. It was published eight years ago on Salon by an anonymous midlist author, and I know it is only one person’s experiences and opinions, but as it’s written by a moderately successful writer from inside the industry — details of advances and copies sold included — it’s essential reading.
Now that you’ve read it, here are a few thoughts.
Advances: let’s say 5k USD for a debut writer. Now that’s just a figure and has little meaning, but one thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s nowhere near enough to quit your day job. Neither is 10k USD or even 10k GBP. To get a better understanding of current market conditions it’s useful to check Publishers Marketplace. They also have an email service called Publishers Lunch that delivers summaries of industry news and deals to your inbox. One last thing about advances: an advance is just that — an advance against future royalties.
Professional production process: A publishing house has a process to improve a manuscript (for me, a big positive). Working alone, in my humble opinion, is the hardest thing about self-publishing and a big advantage to going with an agent/editor/publisher. A possible solution for self-pubbers is outsourcing editing and proofreading to professionals. As there have been many lay-offs in publishing, there are more freelance editors out there these days. Choose carefully, though. It’s also an additional cost that may be out of reach for some writers. A possible disadvantage to the publishing house edit process is that you might not share the same vision as your editor or publisher.
Sales and marketing: the only thing that I can add to the anonymous midlist writer’s post is that regular blogging has now entered the author’s list of chores promotional duties. Oh, and in case you were wondering about promotion budgets for debut writers, I’ll let this best selling Texan fill you in about what that can mean.
Professional career guidance: there’s no getting away from the fact that the endorsement of an agent should do wonders for your confidence as a writer, and you’ll also surely have conversations that improve your understanding of the business and even the crafting of your manuscripts (if your agent’s any good). From the point of view of long-term relationships, the anonymous midlist writer highlights how rewarding working with editors who had great skill and passion was. Reading how much has changed inside the big houses by the relentless pursuit of big numbers and how that’s affecting author-agent-editor relationships struck me as a big loss for publishing. This point is honestly addressed by respected British agent Jonny Geller and his opinions about publishing in the broader scheme of things are well worth reading as well.
More time to focus on writing: Amanda Hocking is the obvious example because she moved to a publishing house after self-publishing glory to get away from all the non-writing work associated with managing a bestseller. If you’ve had a lot of sales and you’re dead set on staying a self-pubber, hiring a lawyer to deal with foreign rights and tax etc. and a publicist to help ‘grow your brand’ are just some of the things you’ll need to think about.
Cachet: this one seems to arouse a lot of emotion, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s probably fair to say that being published by Faber & Faber has cudos. It’s also fair to say that respected institutions are starting to take self-published work a lot more seriously. If (when, surely?) a self-published novel wins a major literary prize those attitudes will only shift further.
I’ll look at agent’s attitudes to self-published authors and potential hybrid models for combining different modes of publishing next time I post.
Next week, Andrew Oberg attempts to negotiate a housing contract while speaking in rhyming couplets and lit on Swedish vodka.