You have the finished manuscript in your hands. What a giddy feeling of accomplishment! Take a moment to celebrate, because that manuscript proves you are a writer.
Once the euphoria wears off, you face a series of crucial decisions, the first of which is whether you will pursue publication via the traditional route or through a self-publishing platform. Before making a decision, do your research. A source like Preditors and Editors helps writers to find reputable agents and publishers.
Traditional publishing still carries a cachet of third party acceptance and assumed quality. Formerly the gatekeepers of literature, publishers still provide many of the same services they always have: editing, cover design, formatting, marketing. Don’t assume that a new author has any expectation of receiving the same level of service as an established author. Authors seldom have input as to cover design or book formatting. They often undertake the bulk of marketing responsibilities. Publishers spend the largest share of their available resources on those authors whose work predictably generates the biggest sales volume.
Few traditional publishers—especially the major publishing houses—accept unsolicited manuscripts. That forces authors to submit their work to literary agents who represent their clients’ interests and submit to publishers on the authors’ behalf.
Just like authors have preferences with regard to genre, so do agents. Remember, publishers and agents only accept that which they believe they can sell and from which they can profit, which makes them risk-averse. When researching agents, check to determine the following:
If you find a publisher or agent who handles your genre and, even better, has published books that resemble your manuscript, then review the submission guidelines. Both publishers and agents have extremely low acceptance rates and will use any excuse to discard a submission. Therefore, follow the submission guidelines exactly. Do not deviate. No agent or publisher will accept an author who demonstrates from the outset that she cannot follow directions.
Most agents and publishers request a query letter to begin the process. The exchange now almost entirely occurs online, so editors and agents struggle to handle the deluge of inquiries. Therefore, keep query letters short and succinct.
There’s an art to writing an effective query letter. Think of it as your “elevator speech” introducing you and your manuscript to the editor or agent and including a brief statement of your expertise and the marketability of your book. Unjustified declarations such as “This is sure to be a bestseller” will result in automatic rejection.
The first paragraph of the query must “hook” or intrigue the recipient. Therefore, avoid such pedantic pleasantries such as “I am submitting my story for your consideration.” They know why you’ve contacted them, so don’t state the obvious. Regardless, brevity does not excuse rudeness. Sites such as Reedsy, NY Book Editors, Writer’s Digest, AgentQuery, Manuscript Wish List, and Writer’s Relief offer practical advice to help authors make their best presentations to agents and editors.
One last word: Many publishers and agents reject simultaneous submissions. Authors who choose this path play a waiting game. Be patient and don’t pester.
Self-publishing is not the same as vanity publishing. Reputable literary agents make their income from the sale of manuscripts to publishers. Many so-called agents claim to offer representation, but compel authors to pay for manuscript editing and other services. Reputable agents may suggest editing; however, they do not make using their editing service a condition of representation.
Vanity publishers produce books for fees paid by the authors. Vanity publishers may also charge for such services as cover design, document formatting, and editing. Sometimes, they offer marketing services—at an addition cost to the author. Reputable publishers make their money from book sales, of which they pay authors a certain percentage. In other words, smart authors don’t pay publishers. Reputable publishers pay authors.
New authors often have little understanding of royalties. While an agent may succeed in negotiating a higher royalty, the agent earns a commission on those royalties. Most publishers offer new authors royalties between 5 and 7 percent of sales revenue; big name authors receive 15 to 20 percent. All additional income earned from book sales goes into the publisher’s coffers to pay for the service the publisher provides. Agents may claim 10 or 15 percent of royalties. Publishers remit royalties to agents who then take their commission and forward the balance to their authors.
Self-published authors, also called independently published or indie authors, make the decision to go their own way for a variety of reasons. Some authors have what they believe are fabulous stories that they don’t interest an agent or publisher for whatever reason. Other authors find themselves ahead of the curve or targeted toward a specialized niche market an agent or publisher finds lacking in potential profit. Still others prefer to keep the majority of revenue earned from their books rather than to pay third parties for work they can do themselves. Finally, some authors have control issues and prefer to dictate every step of the publishing process for their books.
Independently published books have a regrettable and oft-deserved reputation for poor quality. Read through negative reviews. Readers who encounter execrable writing, sloppy grammar and punctuation, and clumsy formatting leave scathing reviews to warn others not to waste their time or money.
Being an indie author means taking control and assuming responsibility for every aspect of the book before and after publication. Many such authors succumb to the temptation to save money and undertake cover design and document formatting. Few succeed at it. To echo the advice of innumerable experts: Unless you’re a graphic designer, don’t design your own cover. That goes for formatting the interior of the book, too.
Cover design grabs a potential reader’s attention. Many genres have standard themes for cover design, visual cues that enable people scanning titles online or browsing bookstore shelves to quickly and accurately determine the book’s genre. A competent graphic designer with experience in the publishing industry will understand the nuances of great cover design and put that knowledge to work for your book.
To ensure a quality product, indie authors usually spend a lot of their own money on professional services without any assurance that their book will recoup the expense. This is one reason why professional editors and designers usually decline profit sharing offers. For you, the book is likely a labor of love or at least interest; for them, it’s a job for which they expect to receive compensation commensurate with industry professional rates. This realization also tempts indie authors to minimize expenses by skimping or skipping critical steps in the process. Understand that if you will not invest in your own project, you cannot expect others to spend their money on it either.
Especially pertinent for indie authors: Even before you upload your manuscript to the platform, you must begin to build interest in the book. If you haven’t already done so, use this opportunity to build your brand, too. The work of generating demand for your book never ends. It involves promotion through social media. It entails sending advance review copies to readers in exchange for their honest reviews. Acquiring reviews may include paying review sites for their professional opinions: remember the fees pay for their time and insight, not for positive reviews. Yes, this means giving away copies of your manuscript and taking the risk that a morally compromised person will share it.
Regardless of which site(s) you use, you should receive regular reports on book sales and royalties. The Internal Revenue Service considers royalties as taxable income. Maximize your book’s earning potential by protecting your copyright. Rampant copyright infringement robs authors of deserved income. Since most authors cannot afford to retain a copyright attorney, it makes sense to subscribe to an online copyright protection service such as Blasty, which makes it harder for people to locate illegal copies of your work.
In 2014, TechCrunch analyzed the number of new books published and observed shrinkage of e-book market share and unit sales. The reason, they said, was a glut of e-books. In January, 2017, Just Publishing Advice calculated that Amazon alone listed over 5 million e-books and 48.5 million total books. In short, competition is stiff, readership isn’t increasing, and your chances of capturing a profitable share of the book sales pie grow ever smaller. Fewer than 10 percent of indie authors earn more than $1,000 in royalties per year.
For those lucky few, a career as an author can’t be beat. You earn an income while working on something else that you hope will also generate revenue.