Breaking in to traditional publishing is a coveted milestone for many aspiring authors. It seems like an impossible dream, especially when you’re languishing in the query trenches or enduring a long, slow death on submission. There are countless articles on how to survive those periods. The magical allure of a future debut keeps many authors going. When the dream comes true, it is life-changing.
However, there are some things about the life of a published author that they don’t tell you when you’re chasing the dream. The struggle, as they say, is real. As someone who has five books and a serial published under his belt — and looks to have three books coming out in 2022 — this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Here are some realities that most authors will face after they break in to traditional publishing.
1. You have more author things to do, but less actual writing time
Most authors have full-time jobs, families, and/or other commitments. Thus, the amount of time we can devote to writing is limited. When you break in to publishing, lots of non-drafting responsibilities begin infringing on that time. First, of course, you get an edit letter from your publisher. Those revisions can be significant. Sometime after you turn those in, you’ll have copy edits (for my first book, there were more than a thousand copy edits to approve). Then there are page proofs. On top of this, you’ll be fielding requests for interviews, guest posts, and other things as the promotional engines whir into motion.
All of these things take time. That time doesn’t magically appear in your schedule. It occupies some of the space that you used to devote to writing prose. Furthermore, most of these things have deadlines and timetables because the publishing train has left the station.
2. More writing opportunities but less total freedom
The term “breaking in” as applied to traditional publishing is, in some ways, an apt metaphor. Once you’ve had a book published, some of the barriers no longer apply. The most obvious reason for this is that you’ve established a relationship with a publishing house. Your contract might be for multiple books, but even if it’s not, it will almost certainly have an option clause on your next book.
Both of these things — subsequent books or option books — come with timetables. A next book under contract has a due date. An option clause has a period of consideration your publisher gets on your next work, which usually can’t begin until delivery & acceptance, publication, or some specific time after publication. In general, it’s a good idea to submit that material as soon as it’s permitted. Publishing has a long lead time, so if they want another book it’s good to get into the schedule.
The bottom line: you have deadlines for books/proposals. Often those things come first in your priorities. This is fine — these are opportunities, after all — but you have less freedom to write in different age categories or genres. This is why I encourage authors to write something else while they’re querying or on submission. Not a sequel to the book in question, but a completely different project. It’s not only a good distraction during a fraught period, but also an opportunity to write what you want while you have that freedom.
3. Published authors still get rejections
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if breaking in meant that you never had to endure rejections again? Oh, my sweet summer child. If only that were true. Unfortunately, rejections continue at almost every stage of the game:
- Your editor or publisher may reject your proposed (or written) option book.
- You can go on sub with another book. You know what that’s like.
- Your published book may be denied for all manner of things, like trade reviews and BookBub featured deals.
I wish I could offer some sage advice here on how rejections don’t hurt. They absolutely do. But hey, at this point you’ve gotten one “yes” already. Odds are, you can find another.
4. Book reviews matter but they’re very hard to get
Book reviews have enormous influence on a book and its author. In this context, I’m talking about reader reviews (also called ratings) that appear on e-retailer sites such as Amazon, Kobo, and B&N, as well as on social media sites like StoryGraph and LibraryThing. The importance of book ratings is evident from their placement on book sales pages. To illustrate, here’s the Amazon page for my first book:
Notice that the average rating and number of reviews is prominently displayed in the so-called “golden triangle” of the screen. It’s one of the first things a visitor to the page sees. Cover image, title, author, reviews, and then price are all prominent. It’s well established that all of these factor heavily in the buying decision.
We can also reasonably assume that reviews factor into algorithms that affect a book’s visibility, such as search. Yet reviews like these are difficult to get (and in some cases, keep; Amazon routinely removes reviews posted by someone with a personal connection to the author). You can’t buy them. The only thing you can really offer is a free copy of the book, which… doesn’t hold a lot of sway. People who review books can get them free for life. That’s how valuable reviews are.
As an author, all you can do is ask. You can put a note in the back of the book and make occasional pleas on social media. You can also beg, cajole, or good-naturedly badger anyone you know in real life who mentions reading your book.
5. How publishing money works
There is good information out there about how money works in publishing. Literary agent blogs like Pub Rants have covered this in depth. A lot of authors enter the industry with some basic knowledge of things like advances and royalty rates. Yet experience is the best teacher. Often it requires becoming an author with actual money coming in before you appreciate some of the nuances. Here are some of the less-widely-known nuances of money in publishing.
An advance is sliced into parts.
At a minimum, you get half on signing and half on “delivery & acceptance” (a milestone that usually means the manuscript is off to the copyeditor). Of late, many publishers have increased the number of slices to three or four. Since they’re usually milestone-based (on publication, or on printing), you have to wait to get each slice and most of those milestones are controlled by the publisher. It’s a lot of waiting, and hard to live on.
Sales in digital format are paid on net, not on list prices.
This rate is very standard — 25% of amount received — and it applies to both ebooks and audiobooks. That “amount received” is determined by the distributor. The majority distributor for ebooks in the US, Amazon, pays the publisher 70% of the sale price. That price is set by the publisher, though. For a $6.99 ebook, the amount received is $4.89 and an author’s royalty is $1.22. That’s not bad.
But what if your publisher decides your ebook should cost $2.49, as Harper Voyager has done for The Rogue Retrieval? Well, then you earn 43 cents for each sale and there’s nothing you can do. This is something authors should keep in mind when negotiating deals, especially in genres where a substantial proportion of sales are in digital formats.
Subsidiary rights are worth money… and publishers know it.
You can license various rights beyond the ones usually licensed by a traditional publisher (typically World English print/ebook rights). Foreign language (translation) rights and dramatic adaptation (television/film) rights, for example, can be sold or optioned to third parties… as long as you retain these as part of your deal. After all, they have value and the publisher may ask for them.
At this moment in time, literary agents who negotiate book deals are often able to retain translation rights for their clients. Retaining audio rights, in the present market, is very valuable for the author because there’s a good chance your agency can sell them to an audio publisher like Recorded Books, Blackstone Audio, or Audible. Doing so generally means more money for the author (and sooner).
Unfortunately, most large publishers are aware of the value of audio — it’s a key profit center in the current market — and so they require audio rights for book deals. They have not, to my knowledge, increased advances to cover the amount of money it costs authors. It’s more of a “take it or leave it” thing.
6. Royalty statements are voodoo
This reality check will probably not surprise anyone who’s heard the grumblings about them, but royalty statements can be frustrating in many ways. First and foremost, they don’t come nearly often enough. Most traditionally published authors get two statements per year (usually in April/October or January/June). Often you don’t get your first-ever royalty statement until a full reporting period has passed, so you could be waiting 9 months or more to see how your book is doing.
There are several disadvantages to this practice, but one of the foremost is the lack of granular information about your book’s performance. The effects of any promotions or visibility boosts or marketing efforts — which generally are short-lived — are only reported well after they occur, and even then are obscured by the rest of the data from that period. In other words, you can’t really see which promotional efforts have been effective, and by the time you learn anything it’s far too late to capitalize or change strategies.
This is an area where indie authors have a huge advantage, because most of them have access to day-to-day sales data in close to real time. Many publishers are improving aspects of sales reporting with virtual dashboards, but there’s still a long way to go.
Another common source of frustration about royalty statements: reading and understanding the information they provide. There’s usually a summary page with condensed information: how many copies sold in each format during the period (and cumulative), along with royalties earned. The subsequent pages tend to break down these results by format, territory, and royalty rate (when this differs among sales channels/formats) which is not terribly useful. The most glaring omitted detail is a sales breakdown by distributor, i.e. how many are sold by Amazon versus B&N versus independent bookstores.
7. There’s always a bigger fish
Fishing is one of my favorite things to do and that’s been true since I was a kid. This hobby also provides lots of useful sayings that are broadly applicable to other parts of life. One that’s especially true for publishing is there’s always a bigger fish. When you debut, your book is the most important thing to you. It’s your baby, your long-awaited prize, your great big flag in the sand to say I did it.
However, odds are that your publisher is releasing dozens (or hundreds) of books every year. The resources they have at their disposal — sales priorities, publicity, promotional strategies — are finite and must be spread across the entire list.
Importantly, publisher resources are rarely divided equally across the list. The books that represent their biggest investment — often a frontlist titles from a big-name authors and books the editor had to win at auction — get the biggest slice. The authors of those books will get all kinds of things that you don’t, even though you have the same publisher. They’ll get the high-profile coverage, interviews, and bookstore placement. Increasingly, publishers seem to bet big on certain titles that are likely to sell big, at the expense of midlist authors.
Are you wondering if your book is the publisher’s frontlist title? If you have to ask that, the answer is probably no. A frontlist spot with a huge marketing push is something that will be apparent at the offer stage.
Outside the pond of your publisher, in the wider world of publishing, you are definitely not the biggest fish. You’re competing for eyeballs, reviews, and attention against the established names in the industry. George RR Martin. Stephen King. JK Rowling. You are a teeny-tiny fish compared to these lunkers.
8. The many many micro-disappointments of author life
Some authors think that if they can get that book deal, it’s smooth sailing from that moment onward. I wish that were the case. In truth, the life of a published author is not all cupcakes and rainbows. It can be, and often is, a wonderful experience overall. However, in the day-to-day experience, you must inure yourself against what I call the thousand micro-disappointments.
Like micro-aggressions, these can be little things that don’t individually break your spirit, but they add up over time. Here are some examples:
- You hate your book’s cover.
- Your title needs to change and you don’t love the new one.
- A close relative or friend won’t read your book.
- A close relative or friend reads your book but doesn’t like it.
- Your book and its cover go up on Amazon/Kobo before your cover reveal.
- A total stranger left a 1-star review online.
- A total stranger left a 1-star review online because shipping took 5 days.
- There’s a new “Best [Genre] of [Year]” list and your book is not on it.
- There’s a new “Best [Subgenre] of [Month]” list and your book still wasn’t on it.
- Your book wasn’t nominated for an award.
- According to your royalty statement, you sold negative books last period (due to returns).
- You visit your favorite bookstore and they don’t have your book on the shelf
- Another author with a similar, possibly worse book got ______.
The list goes on and on. In fact, I’d love for you to leave your own
micro-aggressions micro-disappointments in the comments section of this post! (all comments are moderated, so give me some time to approve them) (I inadvertently asked you to leave your own micro-aggressions. Please don’t, and thanks to Diana Urban for the catch). I’ll bet you have some.
9. You may need new support groups and confidantes
If you’ve made it this far in the publishing journey, you probably found some friends and confidantes along the way. People who were with you through drafting, revision, the query trenches, and submission hell. You vented to one another. You commiserated together. Writing friends like this are critical if you want to stay sane.
Unfortunately, not all of your friends will land agents. Even if some do, they may not get book deals. It sucks in general, because you’ve found some success and hope that they will, too. At the same time, your new stage of the journey brings new types of challenges and disappointments. You may need to find other confidantes who are experiencing some of the same things you are. Often you can make those connections with other authors at the publisher (very useful for discussions) or with your agent-siblings.
No matter how you do it, find some people who are at a similar stage and make friends. This doesn’t mean that you drop your previous comrades-in-arms from the earlier stages. After all, they have the benefit of knowing and understanding what you both went through before. Besides, there’s always a chance they’ll go on to be one of those bigger fish.
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