Writers’ Craft 12: Agent, publisher or indie?

How to bring your work to market

In the past 20 years the reasonable choices available to a writer have expanded considerably, and the delicacy around some of those choices has diminished. Was a time if you wished to publish your work, you were left with some very stark avenues. You could choose to publish through an established publishing house, and used to be you didn’t require an agent to be read by any of the large publishers, let alone the mid to small publishers. Or you could choose to self-publish through one of the many usurious vanity presses who were willing to take your money and leave you staring at your empty wallet and basement of books.

By the turn of the 21st century, you couldn’t get a chance to be read by many of the mid-level publishers, let alone any of the majors, unless you were agented. And the major publishers had undergone buy-out after buy-out, so that today, with the conclusion of the Penguin Random House purchase of Simon & Schuster, there are now four major publishers where before there were legion. In fact, this latest merger places approximately 33 percent of all new books published through the new entity of Penguin and Simon, according to an article in The Atlantic, with 49 percent of books sold occurring through Amazon. If you think you’re going to stand a chance with any of the divisions under those massive umbrellas, you’re truly a dreamer, or truly a literary genius. Well, perhaps not so much a literary genius as a writer who is well-connected.

Part of that savvy connection has, and can still be, introduction through a well-respected and connected literary agent. But again, agencies, like many publishers, started closing their doors to new clients, and refused to accept unsolicited queries shortly after the closed-door policy of publishers. Kind of reminds me of the old conundrum of: you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job.

That conundrum often led to the belief networking is the key to obtaining that audience with an agent or publisher, and that networking often meant the author spending considerable time and funds on conventions, and workshops led by known literary entities. Sometimes it works. Most often it doesn’t. And in my opinion, placing hope in this kind of networking is another field of shattered dreams. Do these things if you have the funds, time, and enjoy large social gatherings. But don’t go with any realistic expectation of being discovered. You stand about as much chance of that as the aspiring actor in the golden age of Hollywood hanging out at the 50s malt shop. And many dreamers did, only to end up working at said malt shop to pay for room and board.

But I digress from the point I was making. Back when, as I said, you went through an established publishing house, or you turned to one of the dream merchants who took your money, published your book for you, and left the business of marketing your book to you. The cost was, and still remains, significant, with the author having to warehouse and distribute, which is another whole field of shattered dreams. I tend to talk about that a lot: the field of shattered dreams. I’m truly not being pessimistic; I’m just trying to forewarn you of stark realities.

But what about today’s market?

Since the 1980s, much has changed in the publishing industry with the development of print-on-demand, ebooks, and audiobooks, and those technologies have been very significant catalysts of that change. Publishing platforms and built-in distribution channels started popping up across the global internet landscape since the ’80s, allowing anyone with a dream to bring their books to market. Lulu was one of the first credible print-on-demand platforms back at the dawn of the 21st century, with distribution to all the major chains across the globe.

By the time the calendar ticked over to 2010, Ingram had firmly established it’s own print-on-demand giant, Lightning Source, and self-publishing never looked back. With the power of their massive distribution to both major chains and indie booksellers, a robust user interface, and reasonable cost, self-published books skyrocketed. Their success became noteworthy enough that Amazon launched their own print facility, which was followed by others. And of course ebooks were another engine driving the publishing revolution. Digital book platforms and aggregators sprouted like mushrooms.

As a matter of fact, the publishing industry, fueled by the self-publishing movement, saw over 1.7 million books self-published in 2018 in the United States. By 2019 that figure rose to 4 million. There are further informed and staggering statistics regarding the evolution of publishing over at Berrett-Koehler Publishers’ website. I suggest you slide by there and have a good read.

The number of published books in 2020, during this pandemic when people have had more time to pursue their literary dreams, has increased dramatically. I don’t have the figures to hand at the time of writing this, my apologies. But given more people are writing, and more people are publishing, it’s wise to remember you’re going to be just one more small fry in an ocean of fish. Doesn’t matter what publishing avenue you choose. The reality is you’re stacked up against millions of new books.

Your choices today

You have three choices: agent, publisher or indie. The second choice breaks into three choices: Big4 publisher, mid-level publisher, or small publisher. Good luck with the first, because that will require an agent, and I’ve already discussed that labyrinth above. Your second choice can also face the requirement of an agent. Your third likely won’t require anything other than an excellent manuscript, and an excellent cover letter. But don’t for a moment assume that pitching to a small publisher is going to mean sub-standard professionalism. Having run my own small publishing house for over a decade, I can attest to the fact standards of excellence were always a part of our mandate, and I know that standard is echoed by many of my colleagues.

Your first choice can garner you an advance. Don’t get excited about that, because it’s an advance against royalties, and if you don’t sell sufficient copies after a certain length of time, you may find your book remaindered, and a requirement to pay back the advance, if your agent hasn’t negotiated the elimination of that clause. I know of authors who have had exactly this experience, of having to pay back an advance. It does happen. And even if you do sign with a large publisher, you will still be required to do most of your own marketing. Gone are the days of the book tours and publisher-hosted signings, of massive ad campaigns. That pretty much disappeared before the 21st century, and certainly has now unless you’re one of the known literary luminaries of the world. Even for them, however, marketing more and more rests upon their own shoulders, not that of the publisher or agent. Don’t believe me? That’s fine. Go do the research.

Your second choice may garner an advance, and certainly will land you in brick and mortar stores. But just as with any publisher which deals with on-the-pavement stores, beware of returns. Booksellers are notorious for beautiful, bountiful displays of books to entice customers onto that retail footprint. Be aware, however, that after 45 days those unsold copies — and there will be unsold copies — will go hurtling back to the publishers’ distributor, and you’ll find your royalty statement reflecting those returns, perhaps into the negative figures. It happens. I remember this from my own experience with a mid-level publisher.

Then you have to add into the mix the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally we’re still going to be under varying degrees of lockdown through 2021, depending on the political will of our respective governments. That’s going to mean more online and curbside pickups. No browsing through stacks of books. Shop online. Have it delivered. Or pick it up. And given that businesses will adapt to this new reality, or die, it’s likely those strategies will carry forward into whatever new world we emerge on the other side of controlling this virulent and quickly-morphing virus, let alone convincing the global population to opt into being vaccinated.

In my opinion, developing your career choices and marketing strategy to include bricks and mortar stores is the same as wanting your book to be published in scroll format or wax tablets.

But back to your publishing choices: let’s look at the small publisher. All of the above applies. But there are also a lot of other fluid ingredients in the mix. Many small publishers won’t offer an advance, because it’s just not financially feasible. Many have limited distribution and marketing capabilities, but many will work closely with an author on cooperative campaigns to maximize exposure, developing very tight relationships with their authors. A small publisher is not to be overlooked, just because you have stars affecting your vision.

Or there’s the indie route. That means you’re the author not only of your literary work, but of your entire professional publishing career. I favour this route, I will admit. Why? More control. If I have to face doing my own marketing if I go with any size publisher, then I might as well control the entire chain. And remember, this opinion comes from a woman who ran her own publishing house for over a decade, championing Canadian voices to a global market, and one who has been published through a mid-sized publisher.

If you go indie, it does mean shouldering the cost of development to get your work to market. That can be expensive. You’re going to need to hire a recommended, respected developmental editor, not just a copy editor. That may run you several thousand dollars. Then you’re going to need to invest in publishing software if you’re going to undertake the layout yourself. Sure, there are people who self-publish solely through Amazon’s KDP, and use Word for their layout, allowing Amazon’s engines to do the conversions. But if you want a truly professional layout, you’re either going to purchase publishing platform software (I use Adobe’s InDesign through their Creative Cloud subscription service, and highly recommend it), or you’re going to hire a layout artist who can do that for you. Be sure the individual you hire can also provide you with current ebook format for upload, because if you’re going to publish, do so in print and ebook, and even look at developing your own audiobooks, because that’s a burgeoning market and you will want to have your book available in all formats in order to maximize exposure and sales. Again, I caution you, audiobooks are a truly expensive undertaking whether you’re going to hire someone to do that for you, or undertake it yourself. You can use Amazon’s ACX platform and choose a royalty share contract with a voice artist. But, again, there’s a caveat — where isn’t there in the publishing industry — in that ACX has worked all manner of tricky clauses into their contracts which may leave you stuck with them and their draconian measures for up to seven years. And there’s isn’t thing-one you can do about that. I speak from frustrating experience.

You’re going to also need a good cover artist, unless you have a background in that field as well.

Then you’re going to have to decide what self-publishing portal you’re going to use. I use Lightning Source, which also has another division specifically for individuals rather that publishing houses, known as Ingram Spark. Either are robust, excellent platforms which offer you global distribution and lots of tutorials, as well as competitive pricing. There are many other platforms, the lead among them Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. I don’t use KDP simply because I don’t trust or like Amazon’s underhanded way of doing business, and I figure Jeff Bezos gets enough of my dollars without adding to his billions through publishing my work. I do upload my ebooks to their platform, but I don’t publish print through them.

If you’re thinking to minimize your printing cost by going offset, it’s important to know you’re going to look at a minimum run, anywhere between 500-3000 copies, depending on the printer. While the cost per unit can be cut in half using this method, it also means a huge capital outlay. But that’s not even the beginning of your difficulties, because then you not only have to find somewhere clean, dry and secure to store all those books, but you’re going to have to find a way to bring those books to market. It’s highly unlikely you’ll convince a distributor to take on your work. Why? Remember those statistics about the number of book published every year? Yeah, that’s why. And if you think a simple call to the marketing division of any of the chains is going to open the door, well, best go make your bed in that field of shattered dreams.

I know, I know: Lorina, why are you pissing all over my bliss?

Sorry, mate, just trying to give a helping hand here, truly.

Just be sure you do your homework and thoroughly investigate what you’re getting for your investment. If looking at print, research what the company’s print quality is like. Do they do in-house printing, or contract it out? Many platforms contract out and in fact use Lighting Source. If doing ebook, check distribution channels. Same with audiobook.

Sounds like a lot of research? It is.

But remember this: even if you’re publishing through a publisher, you should know this stuff. Why? Because the better informed you are, the better you can control your own destiny.

Whatever you do, never lose sight of the true meaning of being a writer: to tell a story, to share, to create. That should be the foundation of everything. All else? Well, it’s all else.