About a year ago, I got a phone call that changed my life: Harper Voyager made an offer to publish my debut novel, The Rogue Retrieval. That unforgettable moment vindicated my decision, some two and a half years earlier, to pursue the so-called traditional publishing path: finding a literary agent to shop a manuscript to major publishers. Now, with events like #SFFpit and Pitch Wars approaching, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences as a first-time traditionally published author.
Lesson One: It’s Harder Than Ever to Break In
A wonderful facet about our modern digital age is that just about anyone who’d like to can become an author. Today, writers benefit from widespread access to computers and the internet, which allow us to study craft, research publishing options, and connect with the literary community. Unfortunately, this low bar to entry only adds to publishing’s supply-and-demand issue: there are far more manuscripts than there are slots to publish them (just as there are too many books and not enough readers, but that’s another story).
Literary agents serve as the primary filter between the huge number of aspiring authors and the limited quantity of acquiring editors at major publishers. You approach literary agents by writing a query letter. As I’ve already demonstrated, the hard numbers reveal that this is almost always a slow process with a ~90% rejection rate.
I almost hate to tell you, but the field is equally (if not more) competitive once you’ve landed an agent. The majority of agented authors don’t sell their first book, just as the majority of published books don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. This is a tough industry at every stage in an author’s career.
Lesson Two: The Importance of Literary Agents
If he or she sells your book, a literary agent will collect 15% of your advance/royalties pretty much for life. This seems like a lot, especially to someone outside the industry. However, a good literary agent almost always earns this commission several times over, by offering these advantages:
- Working on spec. Legitimate literary agents do not charge reading fees, and they only get paid when the author gets paid (i.e. after selling a book). Until that point, they essentially work for free. This can be a lot of work, too, especially when an agent provides editorial input.
- Contract negotiation. While most agents are not lawyers, they understand the terms and language of publishing contracts and negotiate those to the author’s favor as much as possible. Not everything is negotiable, and major publishers have a lot of power, but agents know where and how to push for things. Like on option clauses and reversion-of-rights, which can have significant impacts on an author’s career.
- Unique opportunities. Agents can also provide access to additional paid writing opportunities, invitation-only markets, and promotional opportunities. They often do this for free, by the way, as part of their investment in an author’s career.
- Career advice. Agents know and understand the market, so they’re uniquely positioned to advise their authors on what to write next, how to make a project more marketable, etc.
- Buffering and advocacy. An agent serves as an essential buffer between author and publisher. This is especially important when things go awry, as they so often do in publishing. The agent basically gets to deliver the bad news to both sides. There will be bad news. Maybe the author hates the cover, or the editor needs to push back the publication date. The agent helps smooth over these rough patches to preserve the vital author-editor relationship.
Lesson Three: The Power of a Publisher’s Name
Authors have more options than ever for publishing their work, from self-publishing to small presses to major publishers. Every option has both advantages and disadvantages. It surprised me to learn that self-published and (most) traditionally-published authors face similar challenges. As a non-celebrity, first-time author, I didn’t get:
- A big advance
- A marketing team with a huge budget
- A fancy hardcover with national print distribution
Most unproven authors don’t get these things from their publishers. The onus for promoting a book is squarely on us, just as it is for indie authors. But we have the name of a major publisher, which is a powerful thing indeed.
Case in point: last year I visited an independent bookstore in a quaint historic downtown near where I live. I’d done my research, so I knew that it had new owners who’d saved the store from closing. I bought a book and went to the checkout, where the proprietress happened to be working (buying a book is hands-down the best way to start a conversation with a bookstore owner, in case you didn’t know).
Me: I’m so glad your family took over this bookstore.
Her: Aw, thanks! We are, too.
Me: I’m an author myself, so I know important independent bookstores are.
Me: I actually have a book coming out next year
Her: *Drops eye contact* Oh. That’s nice.
At that moment, I’d describe her entire demeanor as guarded. Do you know why? She thought I was a self-published author. Which would mean that I worked with Amazon and sold most of my books in digital form. Unfortunately, this has very little to offer independent bookstores. They sell physical books, usually bought at a steep discount (and on a returnable basis) from major publishers who provide other sources of revenue, such as co-op space.
Her assumption is quite reasonable: There are many more self-published authors than traditionally published ones, especially where I live. Now, watch what happens.
Me: It’s, um, with HarperCollins.
Her: Ohhhh! That’s fantastic? Which imprint? My Harper rep is so-and-so. Here’s my business card. We’ll have to get you in for an event next year!
As a local traditionally published author, I’m not a competitor: I’m an ally. She can order my books through her normal channels, on a returnable basis, and I can help sell those books. She can invite me to events, knowing I’ll drag some family and friends along.
Ten months later, that’s exactly what happened.
This is one of a dozen stories in which being able to name-drop my publisher helped me gain exposure and sell books. The backing of a major publisher is a powerful endorsement of the author’s work: it means that industry professionals believed in my book enough to invest in it, and that tells a reader that maybe he or she should as well.
That, my friends, is a good reason to pursue traditional publishing.
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