Essential Edits
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Understanding Publishing

Submitting to Publishers

Whether the publisher is large or small, you need to ensure that your submission is professionally formatted and follows the publisher's guidelines. Google or the reference section of any library or bookstore can provide you with books on how to format your manuscript, write a synopsis, and so on; the specifics of each publishers' guidelines can be found on the publisher's website.

Legacy publishers (large publishers operating on a traditional publishing business model) pay a small advance against anticipated royalties: a first-time sf/fantasy writer, for example, may expect between $3500 and $6000; the median is $50001. If your book sells less than enough copies to cover your advance, you still get to keep the money—but don't anticipate a second sale to that publisher any time soon. If your book sells more copies, you get more royalties. If it sells well, you get even more money, and you may be able to sell additional manuscripts to that publisher. The bigger and more reliably your books sell, the bigger future advances. But note: large advances are not always your best bet: the smaller the advance, the more likely it is to 'earn out', and therefore the more likely the publisher is to want your next book.

Smaller regional or niche publishers may offer you smaller advances based on their correspondingly smaller print runs and anticipated sales volume. Again, if you sell more, you get more.

Small and micro publishers, based on a Print-on-Demand (POD) business model, may not offer any advance at all. These companies usually offer more editorial support—particularly substantive/structural editing —to compensate. They still hope to make money with your book and you usually get the same royalty rate as you would have with a larger press.

In the old days, things sorted themselves out pretty well. One started at the top of the food chain, submitting to the big brand name publishers offering the largest advances, and worked one's way down as one collected rejection slips. Authors whose manuscripts were brilliant and ready to go got scooped up by the large publishers; who didn't need, therefore, to do much developmental editing. Authors whose manuscripts were promising, but perhaps not quite there yet, worked their way down to the smaller presses which weren't able to provide much in the way of advances or guaranteed sales, but whose editorial support helped develop these authors to the point where they became publishable. Occasionally, authors who had paid their dues in the small press market would be picked up by a larger press.

The problem with this traditional model is that the major legacy publishers discovered that it was easier to capture market share by buying up the competition then by trying to predict which books would sell. Thus, there has been a steady consolidation of publishing into the hands of a few giant corporations (e.g., Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Shuster), so that the number of publishers to whom one can submit has shrunk considerably. To take speculative fiction markets as one example, the number of houses publishing SF or fantasy has gone from 42 imprints 35 years ago, to the maybe five or six major sf/fantasy lines left today. Consequently, everyone ends up wanting to submit to the same five or six publishers, with the resulting log jam of submissions meaning that many authors end up waiting years just to hear whether their book is being considered. Since almost no press accepts simultaneous submissions (except for agented auctions), working your way down the list of publishers from the top to bottom could well take decades. Indeed, most of the major publishers simply no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, forcing writers to first seek an agent. But not all agents are created equal, so the log jam of submissions just shifts over to the top five or six agencies, which have therefore started charging reading fees to deal with their own backlogs.

Consequently, it may make sense to start with a medium or small press, which can at least tell you whether they will accept your manuscript in a matter of months, rather than years.

Beware, however, of vanity presses. If the publisher asks you for money up front, it is a vanity press. Never, ever pay a press to publish your work, especially in this day and age when self-publishing is relatively inexpensive and straight forward. If you cannot wait to see your book in print and don't want, or can't get accepted by, one of the smaller niche publishers, publish it yourself. Self-publishing is significantly cheaper than what a vanity press would charge you and you get 100% of whatever revenues are generated instead of the 20-80% royalties promised by the vanity press. Better your own made-up company name and logo than the name of a press known to reviewers as a vanity publisher. Self-publishing may well be a risky commercial venture (see self-publishing pages), but it is far better than the guaranteed losses of vanity publishing.

[Note that there are many different variations on the vanity publishing confidence game. One new wrinkle is a very large and successful company (which shall remain nameless because we don't want to be sued) which offers what looks like a legitimate contract, but then comes back after the fact to offer the author various additional "promotional bundles". The fact that they have 1,000 commission salesmen phoning authors with high cost offers to publicize their books, and (at last count) only one staff member responsible for paying out royalties earned, ought to be a hint as to what is really going on here. Still a con! The principle is simple: money always flows from the publisher to the author. Any time money flows the other way, you are a victim. The publisher has to supply the publicity, just like the editing, cover art, layout, book design, printing, and so on, or what exactly are they bringing to the table for their share of your sales revenues? Authors go to publishers because the publisher takes on the upfront costs and the risks of putting the book out there. If any part of that cost or risk is put back on the author, it is a con, and if they are trying to con you out of money there, how much do you trust anything else they've told/sold you? The only time the author should be paying for publicity, or any other service, is when they are self-publishing, and therefore acting in the role of publisher.]

Book Distribution

Traditional Distribution
When you sell your book to a traditional, large corporate publisher, they print a minimum number of copies (say, 60,000) and send them out into the world through two basic distribution channels: bookstores and book racks.

Publishers try to sell to bookstores by sending their sales reps around to the head offices of the chains, and sending out catalogs to independent bookstores. But this is not always as straight forward as it sounds. The largest chains know that publishers have to get their books on their shelves, so some of the bigger chains and distributors hold 'conferences' at which they invite sales reps to meet with store buyers—but publishers have to pay 'conference fees' to attend. When I was an editor with Tesseract Books back in the '90s, the publisher (Edmonton's Books Collective) could not afford to attend the national 'conference' hosted by the major bookstore chain and mount a presentation on their own, but luckily their distributor invited them to tag along with several other small publishers—to the 'meet and greet' coffee break, available for a mere $5,000. Given that Tesseracts was one of several presenters for a half hour coffee break, how thorough a sales pitch for any particular title in Tesseracts line up could the publisher make? But here's the kicker: at the conclusion of her presentation, Tesseract's publisher went to the washroom, where, from her stall, she overheard three of the sales reps complaining to each other how they had not studied literature at university for years just so that they could be reduced to selling 'scifi'. It was obvious that the presentation had fallen on deaf ears. (Though the publisher then gave an impromptu presentation at the sinks on the literary value of SF, and the literary pretentiousness of certain uninformed university graduates and, thanks to the embarrassment factor, extracted a promise from those three reps that they would at least read the Margret Atwood stories in the Tesseract anthologies, so I'm guessing this particular story had a happy ending.)

So much for sales reps. That leaves the catalogues. All publishers' catalogs follow a similar format: each lists the offerings for each imprint (genre) for each month; each month has a 'featured' title that gets a full two-page spread; a back-up title that gets a full page, and two to four 'also rans' that have to share the next two pages. (As a new writer, your book is listed on page 32, in the small print, at the bottom of the page.) Busy buyers glance through the catalog, order a couple of copies of the featured title (it's another vampire series), one copy of the back-up (warring spaceships on the cover look promising), and glance quickly over at the also-rans, and may or may not choose one of them depending on mood. Good luck with your cover art, cover blurb, and page placement.

But bookstores only account for a portion of the market. More paperbacks are actually sold through bookracks in drugstores, bus stations, department stores and so on. Most of these are not managed by book buyers in the location where they are sold, but by the local distributor. Where I live in Alberta, the company is Provincial News. They handle thousands of bookracks...and the guy driving the truck knows nothing about the books. He just follows a very simple routine: each week he arrives and carries two boxes of books into the bus station, drugstore, or wherever and sets them down in front of the racks. Then he moves the books on the middle racks into the holes (left by sold books) on the lower racks and the books on the top shelf into the holes thus created on the middle racks. This leaves enough room on the top shelf for the two boxes of new books. If not enough books have sold to create enough spaces, he removes the books from the bottom rack and rips off the covers. The covers are sent back to the publisher as proof the book was not sold, and the publisher and distributor settle accounts. The coverless book is pulped, and that's that.

Thus, each title starts on the top rack and makes its way down to the bottom rack. Count the number of rows in the racks in your local drugstore, and that's how many weeks your book has to sell: six racks = six weeks. So 60,000 copies sounds like a lot of books out there, but they only have six shelves/weeks before the 40,000 that went into the drugstore stream turn into pulp.

[Incidentally, you can help your favorite authors sell their books by the simple expedient of moving their titles back up to the top racks. The distributor's workers are way too busy to pay attention to book covers or titles, and rely entirely on position, so I've routinely kept my friends' books on sale for months (or until they've actually sold) by switching them back up to the top. It only takes a minute or two of your time whenever you happen to be in the drugstore or etc.]

So here's the problem: six weeks after one's book is released, three quarters of the print run is already pulped; copies remain in bookstores for a while longer, but the sales force is focused on the featured titles of the current month's releases, so there's no ongoing promotion of your title. Eventually, the copy sells or is sent back by the store, and that's it for this time.

Once your title has been out for a few months, unless it's been featured on Oprah or there is some other sign of continuing public interest, the publisher will remainder the remaining copies. Warehousing stock that isn't selling steadily is simply uneconomical for the publisher, so they generally don't. Remaindered books are sold to chains or special discount stores at a fraction of cover price to bring in a little bit of money to offset losses for the publisher, but your contract specifies that no royalties are paid on remaindered copies. (Which means when you buy book off the remaindered table or discount shelves at Chapters/etc., the author isn't getting paid.) And without that appearance on Ophra or a pending movie release, there is no reason for the publisher to reissue the same title a second time to start the cycle over.

Technology has made this situation even worse. Now, when the bookstore or drugstore cashier runs your book through the scanner, that barcode information is instantly compiled so that the publisher knows on Thursday how many copies of your book have sold since its launch on Tuesday. The problem is, there are six editors sitting around the conference table with the publisher, each vying for a bigger share of the promotions budget for the book they sponsored and edited. If their author sold more copies in that first two days than you did, they will denounce your book as a dead duck and demand your advertising budget be transferred to their 'more promising' title.... This means, that instead of the six weeks your book used to have to sell, realistically, decisions are being made about its success within the first two to three days it's out there.

If one is extremely lucky (a lot of it is luck) and your book sold the minimum required to maintain the publisher's interest in you, there may be a next time. Readers who enjoyed one's first title are more likely to pick up one's second—if they are the types who happen to note author's names and patronize bookstores, or happen into the drugstore during the right six weeks. As readers buy and enjoy one's first few novels, one slowly builds name recognition and sales, and slowly, slowly, moves up to the 'also-ran' or even 'back-up' feature of the month in the catalogs. But you still only get six weeks in the racks and six months in the stores. Only the most popular and established authors may expect to find more than one of their titles on bookstore shelves at any one time.

Print on Demand and E-distribution
Emergent technologies have provided an alternative publishing model. Eliminating the waste of printing, shipping, distributing, and then pulping thousands of unwanted copies, print-on-demand (POD) allows publishers to dramatically cut costs by only printing copies as they are ordered. Online booksellers like Amazon order enough copies to fill this month's orders, and only reorder when they start to run low. Books remain listed even after the last copy has sold, because the publisher just prints off another copy, if and when an order comes in—no warehousing costs are incurred.

Ebooks up the ante and lower costs through the outright elimination of paper, printing and shipping costs; and the elimination of shipping wait times as they can be downloaded directly to the e-reader whenever the consumer is near wifi. As with POD, books remain listed forever. Indeed, I strongly suspect that many booklovers will find themselves loading up their various e-readers with the entire cannon of an author they enjoy, just because they can, even if they never actually get around to reading more than one or two of the books. The technology is still new, however, so much of it is still contested territory, with all the players (publishers, distributors, booksellers, authors) fighting to maximize their share of the pipeline. For example, the 10% of cover price traditionally remitted to authors in royalties, is based on calculations that include paper, printing, shipping, and distribution, so with those gone, what is a fair percentage of the cover price today? Publishers will argue that they still have to pay for editors, cover art, book design, and that booksellers still take 40%, and that consumers expect the savings passed onto them. So an ebook that costs $3.99 instead of $10.99 for the paperback means the consumer is not paying for paper and printing etc.; but 10% of $3.99 is obviously a pittance compared to even 10% of $10.99; unless of course one is able to sell three times as many copies because the price is lower. As you see, such calculations quickly become very complicated.

It remains to be seen how the ebook market will play itself out, as the various e-readers are currently incompatible, all of the currently available readers require further refinement, and many readers remain resistant to giving up the print book. But for many authors, POD and epublishing are the most successful channels for selling their books. Only the major publishers can get into bookstores (other than the easily ignored "local authors" shelf) so bookstore distribution remains a mythic ideal rather than a practical plan for most new authors. I used to worry about not getting into bookstores until I realized that I myself—formerly a regular weekly customer—hadn't been into my local Chapters for months, and then I only bought a Mother's Day card and nonbook gift. I buy all my reading from Amazon or Kobo, because I mostly read on my phone or Kobo these days; and most of the cutting edge books I want to read aren't in chain bookstores, which by definition cater largely to the lowest common denominator mass market. Just saying.

Last updated April, 2017


Editors Association of Canada