The Pirates of Publishing

Pirates? Arrrr, matie, pirates! And they’re taking over the publishing world. Hold onto your purse because the publishing waters are full of cutthroats.

With the ever evolving publishing paradigm, the big publishers have closed ranks – so that it’s harder than ever to get in. If you have a phenomenal track record or (or a really big cannon) ... or present them with a book that seems like a sure-fire winner, you may be able to break down the doors. Otherwise, your chances are akin to a dinghy in a hurricane.

So, what options are left for new authors?

Small publishers for long fiction or collections are all looking for breakthrough books. So write a breakthrough book. That was easy, eh?

But even that may not work, if no-one recognizes it as a breakthrough book. And publishers that can see and cultivate the “potential” in unpolished gems disappeared sometime last century. You’ll need your manuscript sharpened like a rapier – which means spending money on it upfront. Like thousands of dollars for editing. That way, you’ll stand a chance at landing one of those $50-100 advances I keep hearing about.

While there’s a measure of truth in that, the best of the small presses sometimes offer advances in the $500-$2000 range and pay generous royalties. Many of the good ones are supported by arts funding and are restricted to “literary” works only. A few genre houses have really nice covers and publish a good number of titles per year (anything over 20 is a red flag – more on that below). But even the best of these publishers are understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. They may or may not put your book out on schedule, send review copies, include you in their publishing catalogue or offer the kind of distribution you’ve been led to expect. They may go out of business tomorrow. The best small publishers are the ones that sincerely do everything in their power to help your book succeed. If they fail, you can at least come away feeling that you made a good choice of publisher.

The worst of them? Well, don’t get me started. Oh, yeah. I’ve already started. So fine. The very worst ones buy lots and lots of titles – a flotilla of titles, if you will. So that your book will be buried deeper than any pirate treasure – and often unfindable even on their website. They often pay royalties only, with no advance (although those $50 – 100 advance companies are out there). Most publish only e-books because they don’t want even the expense of preparing them for print on demand. Basically, they buy anything that has any chance of catching on, put in minimal work (although again – some do nice covers – because good covers can help sell almost anything). In one writer’s experience, they listed all their many books alphabetically in their online catalogue, so that books starting with a T (as in The) would be right at the end of their list of new books – ie: the second or third page of the website... and that “ unless someone went looking for it, it wasn't noticeable. Note to writers: Pick a title that starts with an up-front letter!!” I imagine it working like the old telephone yellow pages – where the best spots in the listing can be secured by those with the foresight to call their books 101010023 Miles from Earth or Aardvark Aliens of Alpha 3.

I think it’s important to note that some of these publishers started off with good intentions, but ended up keelhauling the very authors they set out to help. Writers who get into these publishing mills lose their rights; the faith in themselves; their faith in the system; and, possibly, their sense that being a writer was a good idea in the first place. In other words, be careful. Do not sell all rights (including movie and subsidiary rights) for eternity. Don’t get so excited about actually selling a book that you fail to notice what a bad contract you’re signing. If you just can’t resist, then at least, make sure there is a rights reversion clause in your contract (so that if the book doesn’t sell a certain amount, you get all your rights back on request). 

In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about hybrid publishers and self publishing.


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