How Publishing Works: A Short and Likely Inaccurate FAQ for a Writer's Friends and Family

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Most people don't know how the publishing industry works, and that's okay. Unless you're an author or someone invested in the process of getting books into the hands of readers, you really shouldn't be expected to know the particulars, anymore than I should be expected to know the whole process involved in getting a PhD or how to rebuild a transmission. But a lot of writers, self included, sometimes speak industry jargon ("I queried some agents today and just subbed a partial!") as if the uninitiated will understand, and that's never helpful for anybody.

I've been asked a lot of questions by friends and family over the years about how a book gets into their hands, and I've picked out a few of the most common ones to answer below. Maybe this will save you from a lengthy discussion of your own, or maybe you'll learn something as well. Or maybe your experience will differ and you'll want to provide your own feedback in the comments section. Either way, I hope this post is helpful in clearing up some of the perceptions people may have about you when you tell them what you do for a living.

1. What happens when you finish a book or a short story? 

After it goes through a series of edits and rewrites and is ready to go out into the world, I will either make a decision to publish it myself or use more traditional means, like finding an actual publisher. My short stories are usually self-published these days because they serve as billboards for my name and my "brand," if you will. I also have a little business to sustain and its a good and quick way to get my work out to people and make a couple bucks in the process. The traditional short story market has become harder and harder to break into every year, and many publishers do not have the circulation or the resources to get your work in front of a lot of readers, or even pay you in many cases. This means the competition to get into one of the few remaining big publications is stiffer than ever. I spent a lot of years cycling my short stories through various magazines, and it's a very long and drawn out process that produces very few results. I found this to be frustrating. Now, some people do really well at it. If you can have at least a half dozen stories in circulation at any given time, it can really pay off and it's still a good way to build a name for yourself, get into some of the big writing organizations, and bring in fans from various places. But I don't write enough short stories to make that approach feasible. I'd rather have readers reading my work as soon as possible, and e-publishing short stories through Amazon and other stores has become a very viable way to make that happen.

Novels are different. No one will ever sustain a living off of short story income alone these days. Novels represent the bulk of a writer's work, blood, sweat, and tears, this is where the real meat of our income will happen. Even though self-publishing is a viable and fast option that can generate a few dollars if we're lucky, the best way to get to the top is still through traditional publishers--a company of people who read submitted work and then, if accepted, will do the printing, artwork, distribution, and publicity necessary to bring in more readers. In this case, I will usually go through a querying process either with agents or with publishers who take unsolicited submissions.

2. Whoa whoa whoa... You're doing that jargon thing again. What is an agent, and what is an unsolicited submission? 

An agent is someone who represents the author and his or her work. They act as advocates and intermediaries between author and publisher, and finding one who will take on a new writer is also a very frustrating and lengthy process, because we essentially have to "audition" by sending in a query letter (this is essentially the sales pitch for our book) and sample pages. If they like us and think they can sell our book to a publisher, they may take us on (these are very big ifs, because there are far more authors than there are agents to represent them, and they reject tons of great writers every day). From then, they will submit our work to the big publishers. This is called a "solicited submission," and all but a few of the major New York publishers require them. And if the agent manages to sell the book, they will negotiate the contracts and basically work on our behalf to make sure we're getting the best deal, all in exchange for 15% of the receipts.

An unsolicited submission means the author submits the work themselves, sans agent, and there aren't many big publishers who will take these. Tor is one I can think of off-hand, but there may be a couple others. Most times, it's the smaller and mid-sized presses who will take submissions directly from authors. For instance, my publisher Hobbes End is a smaller press who didn't require an agent to submit, and there are many more out there.

So if you wonder why any of your writer friends and family can't just send their work to Random House or one of those other big New York publishers, it's because it would be a complete waste of time and resources. Unless your friend or family member has an agent, or knows someone who knows an editor at said publishing house, they can pretty much forget about it it.

3. How much money will you make when your book is published? 

I read a sad statistic recently that half of all self-published authors make less than $500 a year. So that ought to tell you something. I am lucky to not be in that bottom percentile right now, but I'm still not able to pay the rent on my earnings. As for traditionally published books, the money is anyone's best guess, but the odds are not in anyone's favor that they will be the next Stephen King or James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer. Getting into that league requires a certain amount of luck and destiny, and unless we're one of the lucky few whose book is sucked up into the zeigeist, we will not likely be able to quit our day jobs with the earnings of one book alone. A lot of big publishers will advance an author anywhere from a couple thousand to several thousand dollars (and upwards into the millions if we're talking about a celebrity) against future earnings. Then, after they've sold beyond the amount of the advance, they start getting royalties checks. Most debut authors with big publishers won't get much of an advance, if they get one at all. Usually it's between $0 and $5000, but it's all decided by their number crunchers and how much they can expect your book to earn after running it through their fancy algorithms.

Small publishers usually don't offer advances, but just royalties on sales. Royalties are a percentage of each book sold, and they are paid either monthly or quarterly. Yes, if you have a career as an author (like a lot of entertainers), your paychecks will either come once a month or every few months. And you'll have to figure out your own taxes.

Many authors can expect to make anywhere from a few cents to a couple bucks off each print sale (lets just say 10% for the sake of easy math, but it can fluctuate between 8 and 15%), but this is dependent on several factors. For instance, Amazon, the world's largest bookseller, will lop about 50% off the cover price before they will even carry it. This means that a publisher who is listing a book for a retail price of $10 will only get $5 when they sell through Amazon. And then the author's cut is 10% of that, or fifty cents. Again, this number can vary somewhat, but that's the gist of how it works, at least through one retailer, but it's similar for everyone. Then there are ebook royalty rates, which are generally much higher (around 40%). If movie and foreign rights are sold, or if a bigger publisher buys the rights from a smaller publisher, there is potential for more money, of course, but those are also big ifs. To simplify it all, most debut or mid-list authors will be lucky to earn out their advances, and if they do, they probably won't get much beyond that unless it turns into a major success. In other words, a whole year (or decade, depending) of work may only net an author five grand. Or less. Much less.

The only way authors make good and sustainable income is if they write a lot of books. A pittance for one book becomes several pittances for several books, which then becomes decent money. That is unless the book sells so poorly on debut that the publisher takes the book out of print and dumps the author like the dead weight they've become.

4. When you get published, will I be able to go into a bookstore or library and find your book?

Without getting into the particulars of book distribution and such, I'll just say "maybe." In many cases, no. It costs publishers a lot of money to print books. It costs them even more to purchase shelf space for those books all over the country, and unless the book is a prominent release and a guaranteed big sell (see: books you usually find on those big displays in the front of the store), you aren't going to be as likely to see your friend's book in a chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble. And with the fall of Borders, the industry lost a LOT of shelf space, which means it probably comes at an even higher premium now. But that's not to say it CAN'T happen. Publishers employ sales people for this reason--to go out and work with distributors and retailers to get their company's books into their stores. If the book is self-published, though, you're even less likely to find it on any shelf, unless the author has worked with independent bookstores who are more flexible. That being said, most publishers should have all of their books on distribution lists, which means you could conceivably walk into a Barnes & Noble and go to the customer service counter and ask them to order the book for you.

However, as authors in today's hostile climate, we've been forced to adjust our definitions of success quite a bit. Winding up on a big bookstore shelf is great for the ego, but it doesn't always mean the book will sell. Most titles will sit on the shelf for a specified period of time--say six weeks or so--then they will be taken down and shipped back to the distributor or publisher, where they will most likely be destroyed or sold off in some kind of fire sale so that they can recoup their costs. If more of an author's books are being destroyed than sold, they will likely be dropped by their publisher, and quite possibly their agent. After all, they're not getting paid if the book doesn't sell, and there is no shortage of writers out there eager to take that spot. With online stores being the main draw these days, it's a lot easier for a publisher to move an inventory of books, even though the publisher (and the author) isn't making as much money. So it's a double-edged sword, and most writers have to find a balance between a happy ego and a happy bank account. As for the library, if enough people request that a library carry a book, they may just put in an order for it. So it's not so simple as "publish book, be in bookstore." The bottom line is the bigger your publishing agreement, the bigger the risk the publisher has taken on you, and that means the more you must sell. It's a very scary thing in many ways.

5.  How long does it take for your book to get published after they accept it? 

The bowels of the publishing industry are long and slow. With few exceptions, a piece of work accepted by a publisher today will most likely be up for sale anywhere from a year to eighteen months from now, on average. It could even be up to two years. Publishers only release so many books per calendar year, and there is a long editorial process, followed by generating marketing plans, doing cover art, working deals with distributors, securing advance reviews, etc. It's a process not at all unlike making a film. Even in the modern age, patience is the most important virtue any author can have. Unless you self-publish. Of course, then your patience has to switch gears from being about anticipating the release to waiting for sales to increase. Anyone who is impatient about things happening immediately probably shouldn't be an author.

There is a lot more I could go into here about the industry, but those are the basics and the questions I hear most often from people when they learn I'm a writer. I am often amused and flattered when people think there is a lot of prestige associated with it, because I guess it just feels like a very unglamorous profession. Athletes, singers, and actors have to push their bodies to the limit and assume great interruptions to their lives  and get up in front of thousands of people on a regular basis in order to do what they do. It's hard not to feel a little bit like a dope when you do most of your work in your pajamas behind closed doors, only to emerge for a little bit to go to book signings and then go back into solitary confinement to write the next book.

A lot of my own perceptions have been altered and/or shattered since I entered this business a number of years ago. It's changed a lot since my own literary heroes got their big breaks. Gone are the days when the agents used to court the authors, and you could get your deal directly from the big New York players all on your own. It's a lot harder to break into this business and make a name for oneself, and it's often full of disappointment and anxiety and tiny bouts of depression, but like sports and movies and music, there is a lot of reward in the doing part of things, which I guess is why we keep at it.