I’d like to make this first blog post something uplifting and inspiring. I suppose, in some skewed way, it will be. But it won’t be a pep-talk about how you can write that novel in three months or less, or what “rules” to follow when constructing a plot with believable characters. I’m not going to fill this page with words of wisdom from other authors about how we all have to start somewhere, and rough drafts can always be revised into best-sellers.
I’ll save all those rainbows and butterflies for another time. This debut blog post is about something a little more practical, and I hope it serves as both a warning and a heads-up for budding authors about to decide between the path of self-publishing and traditional publishing.
So…Which is Best?
That all depends on what you want, and what you think your book is worth – and not just in the monetary sense. Let me begin by stating I had a two books contracted by a small (I later found out the correct definition wasn’t even “small”, it was what is known – in the publishing world- as a micro-publisher – more on that in a bit) publishing company which was just getting off the ground. I was the fourth author signed to the company – my first manuscript was accepted summer (August, I believe) 2015. I submitted it on a whim, just to see what might happen, despite some author friends telling me I should wait and research that publisher’s reputation a bit more.
But I submitted anyway. Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20. I didn’t expect much to come of it, and so when I was offered a contract – you can bet I got stars in my eyes. Someone liked my work (the first 5000 words and the synopsis, anyway). I would get to see my book under a REAL publisher, in print form, and maybe! In a bookstore. And, like many new authors, I was stupid and signed the contract without sitting on it a few weeks and deciding what I really wanted out of publishing with a traditional company.
How Did It Work Out?
Not so hot, as you may have guessed. Why? I didn’t listen to the good advice of more experienced authors, both those who had self-published and those who had gone through reputable publishers. I was too overwhelmed by the thought of being a “real” author. My definition of that has changed drastically in the past 10 months, by the way – but at the time, and though I had originally planned on self-publishing, having a publisher champion my book made it seem like I could finally say to friends and family who had doubted I could ever write anything someone would want – “Look! I did it! I didn’t fall flat on my face after all!”.
And let’s be fair – writing is often a lonely, doubtful profession. Many authors struggle to find support from those closest to them. I have my co-author and husband at my side, but I think that’s a rarity. Most of the writers I know have very few people at their backs, encouraging them. And that could be why so many new authors sign with publishers that aren’t going to be doing them any real favors – the sense of accomplishment is too great. The sense of achievement, of proving that you -are- worth something is intoxicating.
But, y’know. There’s that hangover period. And mine hit like a sledgehammer about 6 months after signing my contract. I found out the company had no actual revenue to put into promoting the books it had published. No business loan or grant, no income from other books already released, (their first came out a few months after I had signed) and no way of paying its handful of employees – all of which were working off royalties. Royalties that, mind you, barely existed, since there was only a handful of poorly selling books out at the time.
Fast-forward to this spring. I began to sorely wish I had not signed my book rights -let alone the rights to my second manuscript – to a company that left me more worried than excited about publishing. In fact, I felt more depressed about being published than ecstatic – a thing no author should EVER feel. I wish I had researched more carefully, gotten a lawyer to scan over that contract and asked the hard questions, such as “If she’s signing over first rights and 90% of royalties, exactly what is she going to get in return that she couldn’t do for herself?”. I wish I had checked sites like the Absolute Write Water Cooler and Preditors and Editors. But the stars in my eyes had blinded me to all those “should haves”, and I was new and innocent to the publishing journey. I’m still new, but I’m no longer innocent.
Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. After my release dates were pushed back several times and my spirits sank to rock bottom about the whole ordeal, my rights (along with several other authors) were given back and my two contracts terminated. This turn of events – something that might have devastated me to think about 10 months ago- came with a huge sigh of relief. I was free. I was excited again. And I was never, ever going to hand over my hard work to a publisher I didn’t feel confident in or hadn’t researched thoroughly.
I learned my lesson, and am grateful for the experience so I know what NOT to do in the future.
So…I Shouldn’t Sign a Contract With A Publisher?
Recently, Alan Moore (co-creator of the Watchmen and several other famous graphic novels) was quoted as saying: “Publishing today is a complete mess. I know brilliant authors who can’t get their books published,” Moore says, explaining that many publishing houses are afraid of taking risks on fiction. Moore’s solution? “Publish yourself. Don’t rely upon other people.”
I’m not saying you should never, ever sign with a traditional publisher. While I’ve learned to be quite leery of small publishers (and large), I still believe there ARE good, solid and reputable publishers of all sizes out there. However, there is a reason many authors, debut and famous, are now looking more seriously at self-publishing. It’s hard work, yes, and it will be -you- doing the majority of that work (unless you hire professionals to help you, and that can be an option if you have the money to spare – many of us do not), but if a publisher offers you nothing more than you couldn’t already do yourself (and sometimes -less- than what you could do yourself) but wants the lion’s share of royalties for it?
Turn and run.
If that publisher doesn’t have several, decently-selling books and a good reputation in the publishing world and on various “background check” websites designed for authors to avoid getting scammed?
Turn and run.
If the publisher cannot offer a very concise, clear and proven schedule, budget and road map as to what their marketing plan and release dates might be?
Turn and run.
If the number of authors or staff terminated is greater than the number of books being released?
Turn and run.
And, lastly, if you find yourself in the situation I had been caught in – becoming less excited about publishing with a company you have signed for, watching their books flat-line, watching release dates get shuffled multiple times and hiring their own authors as “editors” because there are no funds to hire experienced editors?
Get your rights back, turn and run. Don’t waffle about it like I did, hanging on a thread that maybe you’re misjudging the situation. Your gut feeling is, almost without a doubt, the right one.
My story may have ended on a positive note, but it could just as well been a disaster – my book could have been published with no marketing and sank to the slush pile. I could have had a book cover I was so displeased with (I had to do my own cover art, despite asking to outsource it with funds from my own pocket – I have some artistic skill, but quickly discovered I have no talent for cover design), the mere sight of it made me not want to even own a copy of my own book. I could have had a book with my name on it so riddled with errors – it may have doomed my career forever.
Do not do what I did. Don’t risk it. If you can’t find a publisher you are 100% confident in, who offers fair compensation and a proven marketing strategy, a solid roster of books, stellar cover art and experienced editors – do it yourself. You may have to pay out of pocket, yes, but you’ll have full control over everything – from choosing an editor to selecting cover art you feel will help sell your book.
But whatever publishing journey you choose, NEVER sign anything until you get the stars out of your eyes. All that silvery success you find yourself bathed in might turn out to be a whole lot of mud if you aren’t very careful.