What has a publisher ever done for us?

A short while ago, I got into an exchange online with someone about writing and the publishing process. We discussed a few different aspects on the subject, but I was surprised to find that they had a very strong feeling against using a traditional publisher. When I asked why, their answer was that it was because the author only gets about 20% of the income from a book, so it was like giving away 80% of your business earnings for all time, in exchange for a small start up loan (i.e. the cost of producing the book).

My response was that the “loan” can actually be pretty big, and that publishers do a lot more than just provide the costs at the start. This is a slightly expanded version of the answer I gave them.

The initial creation of a book is a long process and can be quite costly. If we assume we’re talking print books, then a traditional publisher is covering the cost of an initial high-level edit (going through and offering advice on how to improve the structure and pacing of the book, perhaps commenting on characterisation or areas that need improvement), as well as line editing, copy editing and proof-reading. A book can go past four or five pairs of eyes before it gets published (and still somehow typos slip through). On top of this, the publisher will be doing type-setting and laying the book out for printing.

How much all of this costs would vary based on the length of the book (most editors charge by the word count or page count, or by how many hours they spend going through the book), whether the publisher has those people as full time staff or if they contract the services out, how clean the manuscript is (a friend of mine who does line editing and proof reading work looks at a sample of the work first and charges based on how many problems it has, because a book with loads of typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors will take more effort to edit than one with only a few), and the level of skill and experience of the people doing the work. It’s hard to put a number on the cost for all these rounds of editing because it varies so much from book to book, but you’re probably looking at a couple of thousand pounds at a minimum, and it could be substantially higher for longer books.

Then there are things like the cost of a cover designer. Again, the cost of this would vary depending on whether the artist is an employee or contractor, but you could expect another few hundred pounds to go on this.

Then there’s the cost of printing the book, not to mention storing the physical copies and handling the distribution.

So before your book has even hit the shelves, a traditional publisher has already made a substantial investment in a book.

Then comes the second half of the discussion, around how what the author gets stacks up against what the publisher gets when the book is sold. The normal rate of royalties for a printed book is between 10% and 20%, depending on the publisher. This is based on the sale price. So if a book sells for £10, you could expect to see £2 of that money. But does that mean the publisher gets the other £8 as profit? No. Some of that will go to the bookshop. Let’s assume the bookshop takes 15% for transacting the sale, that leaves the publisher with £6.50. But there’s also the physical cost of the book – the paper and the printing – so that’s not all profit. Going by the print costs of one of my books as a model, that could be another £3.50 (large print runs are cheaper per book, so if you’re selling thousands or millions of copies, this cost would drop) leaving the publisher with £3 per book.

Please remember that these numbers are all very rough.

Now, you might look at these estimates and wonder why, even after the other costs are taken into consideration, the publisher chunk is still larger than the author’s chunk. The person who I was discussing this with originally seemed to believe that once the book was produced, the publisher wasn’t doing much to earn their cut. So here is a short list of what my publisher has done/is doing for me with my most recent book, Wolf Unleashed.

  • They organised the launch event and paid for the wine and nibbles
  • They got the book reviewed on Readers’ Favorite (it was a five star review, but the publisher couldn’t control that)
  • They print the copies of the book
  • They store the printed copies of the book
  • They handle distribution out to retailers
  • They handle the registering of the book on the distribution/ordering services that are used by the major retailers
  • They promote the book on social media
  • They have dealers tables at science fiction conventions to sell copies of the books they’ve published, including mine
  • They sell the book through their website

And that’s just the most tangible things. There’s also a less tangible aura of legitimacy that surrounds a book that’s been traditionally published, no matter who that publisher might be and whatever else they’re doing. I recently went into a branch of Daunt Books and asked whether they would stock a copy of Wolf Unleashed. To start with, the guy I was talking to was very reluctant, talking about how the stock decisions were made in another branch, and how I’d probably have to take a copy of the book in to show them, but when I mentioned that the book had a traditional publisher, he looked it up on his system and said he could order a copy in.

Having a traditional publisher isn’t a guarantee of quality, but it does substantially reduce the risk for bookshops because they know that someone who isn’t the author thinks that it’s a good book, and that it will have gone through some editing and proofing. Bookshops are vastly more willing to take a chance on stocking a book they’ve never heard of if they know it came from a traditional publisher, even if that publisher is a small one.

So when it comes to getting a paper book published, I would definitely recommend looking for a traditional publisher. E-books are a little trickier, since it’s much easier to publish an e-book yourself and the initial costs are lower, and you lose some of the intangible benefits like being in bookshops. On the other hand though, a lot of publishers offer a more favourable royalty split on e-books and they still help with getting the book out to a wider audience, so you probably won’t have to do quite as much legwork yourself to reach the same number of readers.

There are advantages to going the self-publishing route (speed of publication, complete control, the ability to publish books that are too weird or different to fit into normal publishing categories, not having to deal with piles of rejection letters) but if you’re going to make such a big decision about your book, you should know what you’d be missing out on if you choose not to go with a traditional publisher.

Submitting your novel

If you want to be an author, writing the book is only part of the book. You might have written an amazing story, but that means nothing if you can’t convince agents and editors to look at it. If you want to be traditionally published, you still have to go through the work of submitting the book to publishers and agencies. Here are a few top tips and things to think about when submitting your book. Some of these are based on my own experiences, some are based on advice I’ve heard from agents and editors over the years.

Send to the right place

I was at a talk once by an editor who worked with non-fiction children’s books. The publisher she worked for only produced educational books, but she said they still got hundreds and hundreds of submissions of fiction. Those were a waste of time for everyone involved because it didn’t matter how good those stories might have been, they were never going to get published by someone that didn’t publish stories. Pay attention to what the publisher does and doesn’t accept. If they have a big notice on their website saying that they don’t accept science fiction and fantasy submissions, there’s no point submitting your sci-fi novel. If they only publish romance, there’s no point sending your horror. You are basically guaranteed to be rejected if you send the book to the wrong place.

Most places accept electronic submissions these days, but you used to have to print out sample chapters and post them in, which meant each submission cost actual money to send. Now, you don’t waste money in the same way, but you’ll waste your time and the publishers. Better to focus on finding a publisher who does print the sort of stories you’re sending them.

Spend time on the cover letter

When you send in a submission, you send it with a covering letter or email. Some books get rejected here if the cover letter makes it sound like the book isn’t particularly interesting or isn’t what the publisher is looking for. Take your time to craft a description of the book that explains the key concepts, genre, and target audience of your book in a few short sentences. You don’t need to explain all the intricacies of the plot in the cover letter, but you need to explain how it’s going to be marketed. You want someone to read your description and think, “Yes, I’d be able to sell a book like that.”

Keep your cover letter short, describe your book in a way that makes it sound interesting, explain who would be likely to buy your book, and then proofread the whole thing at least five times. I’m serious about this last part. You don’t want to be rejected because of a typo in your first sentence.

Get someone to check your synopsis

When you submit a novel, you almost always have to send a summary of the plot. This is called the synopsis and it describes the key events that happen in the book from start to finish. Different publishers and agents provide different guidelines for how long your synopsis should be – 1 page, 2-3 pages, 500 words, 1000 words, etc. You may end up writing your synopsis several times to fit with all these different submission guidelines. I always find this incredibly difficult because there’s so much that happens in a book and it’s hard to know what to cut out. As well, you need to create a synopsis that’s coherent. Again, this is something I struggle with because I know all the background and everything that I’m leaving out, so something will make perfect sense to me while it’s thoroughly confusing for someone else. When I’m submitting a story, I will get someone to check the synopsis for me. It’s important that this is someone who hasn’t read the book because they will be in the same situation at the person to whom you’re submitting the story with no prior background knowledge. They will be able to spot any points where you’re assuming knowledge the reader doesn’t have.

This is not a definitive list of advice, but hopefull this will help you out if you’re at a point where you’re sending your story off to publishers. Good luck.