Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Five myths about commercial publishing

Recently I read a post from a writer whose work is being printed by a new company that doesn’t have much of a web presence, let alone a reputation. The writer nevertheless stated that there was less risk associated with such a company than with Random House.

Yes, you read that right. Major, reputable, advance-paying publisher < new startup company which may or may not pay advances (no information available yet). It soon turned out that certain myths about commercial publishing were partly responsible for this, so I decided to write a blog post about them.

1. Commercial publishers make authors return advances

This claim is sometimes made by the supporters of vanity presses – where the money flows in the opposite direction. It might also come from small presses which can’t afford to pay an advance but try to make this a positive somehow. So they say that commercial publishers make authors return their advances if the books don’t sell enough copies.

In reality, there are only two circumstances under which commercial publishers require advances to be returned. The first is if the work delivered is unpublishable, and in this case, the writer is given a chance to make revisions. The second is if the writer doesn’t deliver the manuscript by the deadline and does not give notice of the delay. Even then, publishers are more likely to extend the deadline than to ask for the advance back.

2. Commercial publishers expect authors to handle all the marketing and distribution

“On the other hand, my publisher provides media contact lists and press-release mailing services, and I can purchase a more comprehensive media package, if I choose. Thus, I’ll receive far more publicity support from the self-publishing company than my partner and I had from our traditional publisher two decades ago.”

I found this quote especially interesting because the media receives far too many press releases already for vanity published and self-published books. And this service is what this author’s press provides for free. From the quote, it sounds as though she’ll have to pay for the rest.

This particular myth takes the form of a dichotomy – either you’re the famous bestseller author who gets a book tour and a full-page ad in the NYT, or you’re the small author who falls through the cracks and has to do all the marketing and distribution yourself. The reality is that even the least a commercial publisher can provide is more than a vanity press can or will – and may be out of the league of most self-published authors as well.

At a minimum, commercial publishers have publicists and distributors – either a division of their own company or distributors who work with them to pitch titles and have books carried in stores. They list books in catalogs sent out to buyers. They send free copies of books to reviewers. J. A. Konrath’s publisher, Hyperion, printed thousands of flyers, bookmarks and promotional items for him – free of charge.

3. Commercial publishers edit manuscripts excessively

I’ve seen writers express concern about all the changes a commercial publisher might ask them to make to the manuscript, and some vanity presses capitalize on this by assuring writers that their “unique voice” won’t be touched. If commercial publishers dislike an author’s voice or writing style to that extent, what reason would they have to offer a contract for the manuscript?

In reality, the edits commercial publishers ask for involve fixing problems in the story or trimming the manuscript. Cutting down the word count makes for a lean, trim manuscript which can be priced more competitively and will be more attractive to bookstores. If there’s only space on the shelf for one 800-page book or two 400-page books, which would be better for the author?

4. Commercial publishers only want authors who have published before

This is a common fiction. In reality, commercial publishers want excellent manuscripts. If an author has been published before and the book sold extremely well, then of course this gives the author an edge when submitting a second manuscript. But it works the other way around as well. If an author has been published before, and the book sold poorly, commercial publishers may be reluctant to take a chance again. It’s easier to promote a brand-new author than an author whose previous book flopped.

5. Commercial publishers reject manuscripts for trifling reasons

The color of a character’s hair or the fact that the writer is disabled (yes, I’ve read both of these before). In reality, most manuscripts are rejected because they aren’t good enough to be published. Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller provides thirteen reasons why a manuscript might get an R, and none of them had to do with a character’s appearance.

Non-fiction manuscripts might also be rejected due to a lack of author credentials. I recently read a Lulu preview of a book about how to publish one’s manuscript. The author’s previous experience was a single book put out by PublishAmerica, so using Lulu for a book about publishing was a good idea; commercial publishers would have been unlikely to consider the manuscript.

There’s a reason a lot of writers make their thoughts on publishing free. ;)


GunnerJ said...

FYI your link to Slushkiller goes to your own blog.

I had no idea people thought you can only get published if you've already been published. How does such a system even start?

Marian said...

Yikes, thanks for pointing that out. I've corrected it.

Some people also believe that agents only represent previously published authors, and publishers only publish agented authors. I'm baffled as to how they think anyone ever got published.

Anonymous said...

-- 5. Commercial publishers reject manuscripts for trifling reasons --

A writer formerly in my critique group latched on a single word of the first sentence of my book and said it was too "writerly." With utter conviction, he then stated that agents would reject it because I'd used a writerly word. The word, by the way, was 'edging.'

Marian said...

What kinds of words do writers use?

All of them, I imagine.

Anonymous said...


A fantastic, informative post. I hope the people who need to read it the most, find their way to it. Way too many myths out there.

Marian said...

Thank you very much, Rachel. What's disturbing is that this could easily have been a list of ten or more. I might do another such post in the future.

Velma said...

This is an excellent article. Thank you for your concise, succinct words on publishing.

Marian said...

Thanks for reading, velma! I appreciate the feedback. :)