Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are:, (useful, but subscription required),,, and for the literary market, (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

Myth #3: Writing is Easy if You’re Any Good at It

Alternately, I could have titled this post something like, If you think writing is hard, you must not have any talent–because that’s how I often hear people phrase this idea at conferences and retreats. Either way, it’s completely untrue, though I can see how people might come to believe it.

It’s easy to become discouraged when the words aren’t flowing right, when you’re stuck in a fictional morass, when you know there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It’s particularly easy to become discouraged early in your writing career, because until you’ve got some practice under your belt, the work is never as good as you want it to be. I’ve read wonderful books all my life, you think. Why can’t I write one?

Here’s the reality: Writing is hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. Like all acts of artistic endeavor, creating something out of nothing is challenging. There may be other things that are as hard, but I don’t think there’s anything harder. We rarely have any trouble expressing ourselves verbally. So why is it so hard to put words down on paper? Perhaps a neurologist could explain it. I can’t, but I know it’s true. My next novel (Challengers of the Dust, out September 9) will be my 43rd book. So at this point, you might imagine I have this writing thing down, right? Wrong. It’s still a struggle. The first draft is always a fight to wrestle onto paper, and even then I’m typically so dissatisfied with it that I bury my face in my hands and think, When did I forget how to write?

Of course, the secret is to not stop there. Take a brief break, and then start on the next draft. Each time, if you’re putting in your maximum effort and working consistently, you should begin to see improvement. This is what writing is all about (and also the subject of my most recent Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing). Your first draft will never be publishable. Writing is a process–and no steps in that process can be skipped without diminishing the final product. Good writing is the result of relentless editing and revision and reconsideration.

I will say this–I do believe that with practice you may find writing getting, not easier, but a bit faster. That is, once you have your writing process down cold, you may find the time it takes to produce a first-rate book decreasing. It will never be fast, but it may become faster. What causes some experienced authors to be labeled “prolific” is not that they find writing easy but rather that they’ve made writing a daily habit and they’ve got their process down.

So if you’re out there thinking, writing is so hard for me, I must be a terrible writer–you’re wrong. Writing is hard for everyone. You may need more practice. The more you do, the quicker it will get. Just don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. And whenever you have an opportunity to learn more about this challenging quest you’ve undertaken, go for it.

One more note about the forthcoming Rose State Writers Conference: This year, for the first time ever, a VIP Dinner will precede the Friday night program. This will give you a chance to dine with and have photos taken with the Guests of Honor. Since there’s food involved, there’s an additional charge, but I encourage you to take this opportunity to rub shoulders with the people you hope to emulate. You might even have some fun!

Excellent Editing link

Rose State Writers Conference link

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

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So gross unit sales are rising, but…

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…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

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As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.