Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t intend to crap on traditional publishing or further beat the dead horse of traditional vs. self-publishing. The purpose of this article is to discuss a trend I’ve witnessed firsthand among aspiring authors. There are good and bad reasons for pursuing any type of publishing. It sucks being at the bottom of either ladder. How you choose to publish isn’t wrong, but why you pick a particular route definitely can be. That said, let’s begin.
The publishing industry is changing — not exactly breaking news. The institutional gatekeepers of yesteryear are fading and the pie has been cut into millions of tiny slices. Many of us are scrambling just to get some crumbs from the crust. But one thing remains the same: the blissful ignorance and vain imaginations of many aspiring authors.
Through interactions via email, social media and various conferences, I’ve been surprised by how little these acolytes understand about how the publishing business really works. Sure, they’ll be the first to point out the uphill battle they face but the next words out of their mouths are usually some variation of “I won’t get discouraged, though, because [insert name of filthy rich author superstar] got rejected X amount of times before [insert name of filthy rich author superstar’s bestselling book/series] got a publishing deal.”
I’m a pretty optimistic guy with dreams of my own I don’t want crapped on, so at this point in the conversation, I usually smile and ask them how long they’ve been pitching their book. Responses vary, but I usually follow that up with “have you ever though about self-publishing?”
Most of the time, the answer is no. Here’s a sampling of the responses I get when I ask why:
- “I want to be a real author.”
- “I don’t want to sell just ebooks, I want paperback and hardcover copies as well.”
- “I don’t want to do anything other than write.”
You get the idea.
What many of them don’t realize is that the scenario they’re imagining is vastly different than the reality they’ll face as a debut author. The dream they’re imagining is exactly the same thing vanity publishers have painted for gullible author-hopefuls for years. The irony is that these acolytes will still turn up their noses and sneer at vanity-published authors without realizing they’re pretty much getting the same raw deal.
With the list above in mind, let’s look at the facts behind traditional…er, I mean vanity publishing for new authors:
- Authors are validated by “real” books that are in print, not those fake digital things.
- Publishers take a large percentage of royalties and do little, if any promotion for the author and his/her book.
- No advances are given.
- A lot of hoopla is made at the time of publication and then…nothing.
- Distribution to bookstores is limited.
- Contracts are structured in favor of the publisher, not the author.
- Books (especially those fake ebooks) are often extremely overpriced.
- Authors are dropped as soon as their books stop selling. (Although in no way do I consider Michael Fletcher part of the vanity trend, this recently happened to him: read about his experience and the aftermath.)
- Even after choosing to to pick up the option for the next book, rights to the first work often remain with the publisher.
To be fair, I don’t think any traditional publisher charges authors at any level to publish their book with them (at least to my knowledge) like vanity publishers are infamous for. [UPDATE: since we published, Churck Wendig wrote THIS awesome article about how much writers should pay to be published. Check it out] I would make the argument your contract is likely costing you money, though, — especially if you’re “one and done” when your books doesn’t sell like planned. If you don’t believe me, sit down and make a list of what a publisher really does for their 80+ percent of the royalty haul. It’s not as much as you think.
Things get worse when you realize hallowed, prestigious bestseller lists like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times are often gamed by wealthy “authors” buying (or arranging to have bought) vast quantities of their book to push them up the charts. The so-called honor of being a NYT Bestseller equates in many cases to who wrote the biggest check. The system is biased and flawed internally, designed to play up to the VANITY of people who pay to have their ghostwritten books hit the chart. (To be clear, I’m not discounting the mighty feat achieved by those who got their books on one of these lists the honest way.)
The bottom line:
Know what you’re really getting and what it’s going to cost you to get it. Both sides of publishing have unique offerings and challenges. Signing your life away to legitimize and stroke your writing ego is a mistake. Going the traditional route just because it’ll validate you as a “real” author with a “real” book is an awful career move. Check out the Authors Earning Report here for evidence of that. Still not convinced?
You’re so vain.