There are thousands of aspiring authors, thousands of unpublished books, and millions of readers who have not connected with particular books or authors. Between the writers, the books and the readers, are the publishers. Have you ever thought of writing and publishing a book? Perhaps there is a half-written document in a folder on your PC somewhere, or notes in a file in a cabinet. Or even a finished novel of which you are quite proud, but which has never been published.
If you ever contemplated this, you will find that the ménage à quatre of authors, books, readers and publishers, which has existed since the printing press was invented, is a mysterious and prohibitive thing. For those of us who only so far as to review books and are mystified by what gets into print, it is just as incomprehensible. How, for goodness’ sake, does one do this? In this series of articles, I’m going to relate what I’ve found out about the infernal “how” of getting published, from the point of view of an amateur. I was helped by the astute and candid insights of two authors who have recently got their novels published, Jon Gliddon, author of Break in Communication, and Ruuf Wangersen, author of The Pleasure Model Repairman.
Anthony Bourdain on “trying before buying” a career
Getting a novel published is like trying to break into acting, or into the world of professional cooking. Be prepared for a lot of rejection. My favourite chef-author, Anthony Bourdain, once said in an interview to try working in your choice of job for a year before you commit to it. Try it, sure, but HOW?”
“Every responsible cooking school should tell you before you get in deep in the student loan, before you leave another line of work, before you take a right turn in your young or old life, they should tell you certain things. When you get out you will probably be making minimum wage or close to it, for a very long time. It might be tough to pay off the student loan, okay, given that. You will not be ending up on Food Network any time soon, probably never. The business you’re about to get into is hard. It is a business with an overwhelming likelihood of failure. It is a high-pressure, physically demanding, relentless business filled with futility, injustice, substance abuse. You will be foreswearing any possibility of a normal life, or normal human relations outside of the restaurant business. Is this the life for you?
“Are you the sort of person who loves and feeds on that kind of life, as I did, or are you a normal person? That’s all – that’s a threshold. So I always recommend that before you go to culinary school, for God’s sake, please go to work in even an Olive Garden, any busy restaurant, for a year. Get your ass kicked, understand what you will really be, what the world, the life, is really like. And if you still like it, if you still love it, if you say ‘You know what, I don’t care if I get famous, or if I never even see the studios of Food Network, I don’t care, this is the life for me’, go forward, and definitely go to culinary school. (Indiana Humanities interview, September 30, 2010, The Spirit and Place Festival “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert”, Clowes Memorial Hall.)
Bourdain, even in 2010, had a realistic and unromanticized view of the industry he was in – filled with “futility, injustice and substance abuse”, hey? But I have seen that the publishing industry is a daunting place, in which innocent authors can have their tender, creative egos (and budgets) shredded.
Rejection letters by the truckload
It is to be expected that, in the search for a publisher, an author would get quite a few rejection letters. LitHub has a fairly factual list of famous authors who got many rejection letters from publishers over years. They just kept going. For some, it’s a thing of pride to have been communicated with by an actual editor in an actual publishing house, who may even have given advice. (I know I kept mine for years.) Some, like J.K. Rowling, when she was writing under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, before the Harry Potter books happened, actually make their rejection letters public. So, just be prepared for a lot of rejection, whether for a script, novel, poetry or comic book.
Guides from the industry
Acknowledging the difficulties inherent in getting published, earlier this year the textbook publisher, Packt, issued a guide to book promotion to help their many first-time and potential authors. Packt publishes Technology eBooks and Coding eBooks for technology professionals – a hard sell, to say the least. (I’ve been on the editorial panel of five Packt books.) Their guide, therefore is the result of hard lessons in the publishing game. These types of books are hard to sell (and read).
Also providing proof of concept for how to launch a book successfully is Goodreads’ June 2018 case study of the marketing of Celeste Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere. The book was on the New York Times’ Hardcover Fiction list for 34 weeks. The difference is that this is Ng’s second novel, and she had the established (and moneyed) team of her publisher, Penguin Press, to do what needed to be done.
In both instances, the publishers have as their main points as: 1) find yourself a literary agent, 2) get published, if necessary by yourself, 3) get reviewed, and 4) keep marketing. Of course, all this is much easier said than done.
I interviewed two recently-published authors, Jon Gliddon, of Break in Communication, and Ruuf Wangersen, of The Pleasure Model Repairman, to get their insights into the aspects of the publishing process listed above.
Step 1 Find a publisher – What publisher?!
“You may have heard that ‘you can’t get published without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve been published.’ The first, sadly, is increasingly true, but the second is a myth – and a pernicious one, because it pushes many writers into the arms of dishonest and incompetent agents. Previous publication credits will certainly make you stand out in the slush pile, but they’re not a requirement. No successful agent will refuse to consider a promising manuscript just because its author hasn’t published before.” (Victoria Strauss, Literary Agents, published on SFWA, Writers Beware, updated Oct. 17, 2017, rtrvd. 2018-07-25.)
Strauss’ comment is important, and must be read carefully. Note that she says it is not true that you cannot get a literary agent unless you have been published. In other words, you can get published without an agent, one way or another.
Which companies dominate book publishing?
If you are looking to get published, with or without an agent, these were the top 20 publishers in the world in 2017, based on 2016 revenue, according to Publisher’s Weekly:
- Pearson, owned by Pearson PLC, UK, $5,617-million revenue in 2016
- RELX Group, owned by Reed Elsevier PLC/Reed Elsevier NV, UK, Netherlands, US, $4,846-million revenue in 2016
- ThomsonReuters, owned by The Woodbridge Company, Canada, $4,819-million revenue in 2016
- Bertelsmann, owned by Bertelsmann AG, Germany, $3,697-million revenue in 2016
- Wolters Kluwer, owned by Wolters Kluwer, Netherlands, $3,384-million revenue in 2016
- Hachette Livre, owned by Lagardère, France, $2,390-million revenue in 2016
- Grupo Planeta, owned by Grupo Planeta, Spain, $1,889-million revenue in 2016
- McGraw-Hill Education, owned by Apollo Global Management, US, $1,757-million revenue in 2016
- Wiley, owned by Wiley, US, $1,727-million revenue in 2016
- Springer Nature, owned by Springer Nature, Germany, $1,715-million revenue in 2016
- Scholastic, owned by Scholastic, US, $1,673-million revenue in 2016
- HarperCollins, owned by News Corp., US, $1,646-million revenue in 2016
- Cengage Learning Holdings II, owned by Apax and Omers Capital Partners, US/Canada, $1,631-million revenue in 2016
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company, US/Cayman Islands, $1,373-million revenue in 2016
- Holtzbrinck Verlagsgruppe, owned by Georg von Holtzbrinck, Germany, $1,226-million revenue in 2016
- Shueisha, owned by Hitotsubashi Group, Japan, $1,053-million revenue in 2016
- Kodansha, owned by Kodansha, Japan, $1,004-million revenue in 2016
- Informa, owned by Informa PLC, UK, $963-million revenue in 2016
- Kadokawa Publishing, owned by Kadokawa Holdings, Japan, $949-million revenue in 2016
- Oxford University Press, owned by Oxford University, UK, $939-million revenue in 2016
As you can see, stupendous amounts of money are involved. Publishers Weekly lists 54 publishers in the complete version of this ranking. Note that many of them publish reference works, handbooks, school books, academic papers and research. Each has their niche, and will not accept works that will not fit into their “stable” and will not have guaranteed sales to justify their expenditure on marketing.
Faced with this scenario, many authors publish their books themselves, and sort out their own promotions. Once the book gets traction, an established publisher, like one of those listed above, may contact them for a second printing or printing in a different format.
Big publisher, niche imprint
A trend in 2018 is for established publishing houses to accept unsolicited (un-agented) submissions, though for very specific reader demographics, specific genres, and in a very specific format: digital/ebooks. These include the following publishers’ imprints (an “imprint” being a trade name under which a publisher publishes a work – a single publishing company may have multiple imprints for different demographic consumer segments):
- Loveswept and Flirt (Random House’s digital-only imprints focused on romance and women’s fiction);
- SMP Swerve (by St Martin’s Press – SMP – an imprint of Macmillan, for romance and all sub-genres of romance);
- Forever Yours and Forever (imprints of Book Group, print-on-demand of any book over 50,000 words in length);
- Alibi (Random House’s digital-first imprint for mysteries and thrillers);
- WITNESS Impulse (digital-first imprint of HarperCollins, for mystery novels);
- Tor/Forge (Tom Doherty Associates, an imprint of Macmillan, for Sci-Fi);
- Avon Romance (the romance imprint of HarperCollins);
- Harlequin (the HarperCollins digital romance imprint);
- Carina Press (a Harlequin digital-first, adult fiction imprint, but also contemporary, paranormal, LGBTQ+, and science fiction);
- DAW (an imprint of Penguin, for Sci-Fi and Fantasy);
- Hydra (Random House’s imprint for digital first Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror);
- HarperLegend (the HarperOne imprint – HarperOne being an imprint of Harpercollins – for what they term “visionary fiction”).
Regardless of the hopeful mention that you can get an agent even if you are unpublished, my research indicates that the odds are against any author wanting to publish their first book. Even if they know which publishers you want to approach, they are unknowns and outsiders to the industry. The challenge is finding that agent who will be their shining knight on a dashing charger to the draconian publishers, and show them the way through this jungle of information. Both the authors I interviewed found their publishers without having appointed literary agents to represent them.
Jon Gliddon comments:
“It’s something of a mine-field when you start out. Agents, editors and publishers, all of course trying to make a living, i.e. charge you money. It’s a bit like stepping in to the crocodile pond. For me, and other ‘first timers’ I’ve spoken to, the primary concern is whether the story is good enough. With your first book there is no objective bench-mark you can judge it by. I felt very protective of the first draft; are people going to laugh when they read it or just shake their head? It sounds strange but the book was part of me.
“I think the publishing world is very scary for the first timer and very much about who you know. It’s ‘celebrities’ that sell books, many of them badly written. Clearly some new authors break through, but that vast majority stand little to no chance of getting a publisher. Someone likened the first time book as a pebble in a mountain avalanche.” (Jon Gliddon interview, 8 July 2018)
Judging by the sheer size of the publishers listed above, it is quite appropriate to feel, as Jon says, like a “pebble in an avalanche”.
Jon, finding himself in a “Catch 22” situation, and needing, but not having, a track record to be considered by a publisher, went down the route of self-publishing, using a company called The Choir Press, based in Gloucester, England, for his first novel, Break in Communication. Ruuf Wangersen did the same thing, opting for San Francisco-based, small, independent publisher Montag Press to get his first novel, The Pleasure Model Repairman, on the shelves.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“‘Only a fool writes for anything but money,’ Samuel Johnson wrote in the 18th century. If that’s true, and it probably is, I’ve been a fool more times than I care to count. I will say that I’ve been a much happier fool when I’m writing what I love to write. Here’s the rough-and-tumble fact of it: The overwhelming odds are that when you’re writing your first book (and even your second) you will be writing it for free, you will not receive a contract or advance from a major publisher, and you will not get an agent. I say this with utmost affection and empathy.
I also say let the statistical truth of all that, free us to write what we love, what we want to write, exactly what we would write for free. And once you’re dancing down that path, write hard, write the thing the best you can write it, and who knows? Maybe the phone ringing on your bedside table is that literary agent and they’re calling with good news. Best of all they’re calling because they love your work as much as you do. And if that call doesn’t come through, not right away, where does that leave you? With no regrets. All respect to Dr. Johnson, the far, far better quote (for my ‘money’) is: “Never for money, always for love…” Talking Heads. They didn’t just write it. They sang it.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
To get through the rejections, that’s what you need – the drive to write what you love, money or not. But also, remember: finding the right publisher for you is like finding someone to marry. It has to be a good match to have good results.
If you want to get information about independent publishers, self-publishing (a.k.a. “vanity publishing”), the many terms used in this particular part of the publishing industry, and reviews of independent publishers, visit the website of the Independent Publishing Magazine.
There is no easy way to find a publisher
As “Mark Watney” said to the students at the end of The Martian (2015):
“At some point everything is going to go south on you. Everything is going to go south and you’re going to say ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math, you solve one problem. Then you solve the next one, and then the next and if you solve enough problems you get to come home.” (The Martian, writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel))
In both Ruuf and Jon’s case, they did the math, did the research, ran the numbers, and found themselves publishers that they could afford and work with. Self-publishing means, of course, that you, the writer, pays for the publishing. You don’t get paid. It is therefore important that, once you have made that investment, that you sell enough of your book to at least break even.
Literally where to find agents and publishers
Both Jon and Ruuf felt themselves at a disadvantage in the industry when they started out. Is there anywhere a budding writer can look or research to find out what is what? Writers are sometimes referred to the Brewer’s Writer’s Digest handbooks. They seem to be an industry perennial. The version I’m looking at is Writer’s Market 2018, the 97th edition (!) and it is almost 900 pages long, with thousands of listings of everything a writer should know, from agents to publishers to awards. How accurate it is, I don’t know, but it is somewhere to begin. It would be up to the individual to locate, test and rate the publishers and self-publishers that they find in the handbook. There are many other handbooks in the series, for many different genres and markets.
As J.K. Rowling was advised in the rejection letter she got, in the UK a reliable resource is the annual Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is published by Bloomsbury, and contains over 4,000 listings entries on who to contact and how across the media and publishing worlds. She must’ve followed the advice because she comments on Amazon that it is “Full of useful stuff”.
However, whether you go the self-publishing route, or the e-publishing route, or make submissions to established publishers, there’s no getting away from doing the basics, the first step of which is learning about the industry, and from there to step 2, developing your “platform”. More on that later.
Ruuf Wangersen comments that research, in-depth research into small, independent publishers is what got him his break.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“‘I’d rather be lucky than good.’ [Baseball player] Lefty Gomez said that, and I live and breathe that fortune-dwelling, fuzzy-dice-dangling creed. I was fantastically lucky to be taken in by Montag Press and its extraordinary managing editor, Charlie Franco. But I’m also a bit of a research freak and I’m convinced that homework helped me set up a situation where luck could flash and ignite.
“I spent an inordinate amount of time researching small and independent imprints. Here I reveal the flip side of thinking that any hours spent researching literary agents is wasted (in my unwashed opinion) while time spent reading and learning about quality independent publishers is essential. It’s the best and only way to identify the little houses in that vibrant village that might be just right for your own book.
I fully agree that caution should to be exercised where “editing and design” services are offered for a fee, but not to prevent poorly written books from getting into print. It’s caution on the part of the writer I care about, and that they avoid the seamy milieu of predators acting as editors (hopefully most writers are now aware of the key online resources that help identify the legitimate sort). But if I can extrapolate from my own contacts and experience, the majority of small and independent publishers are hard working, book loving, immensely talented people who are straight-up passionate about seeing that their authors and books succeed.
They will literally sizzle the midnight tincture right along with you to see these things happen. Humble opinion ardently expressed — while you’re making your book everything you can make it, explore small and independent publishers like you’re the matchmaker and the match.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
Self-publishing and vanity publishing
Many North American writers’ associations and unions warn authors against “self-publishing” companies, especially those that mix editing and design services with publishing. They say that, like “vanity publishers”, self-publishers enable poorly written books to get into print, something that would never happen in an established commercial publishing house. I asked Jon Gliddon what he thought of this statement.
Jon Gliddon comments:
“They [established publishers] would say that wouldn’t they. Their domain is being seriously threatened by the likes of Amazon. But yes, I’m sure that has allowed a lot of books to be published that should not have been! It is Amazon that has opened the door to masses of writers, like me, who otherwise would not have been published. I did use a publisher that specialises in self-publishing, but you of course pay them.
There’s a lot for a newcomer to get their head around. Front and back page design, ISBN number/s, legal copyright, editing, conversion to eBook, signing up to Amazon print-on-demand, Book Depository etc.etc. One thing is for sure, in this day and age a novel has to be available on Kindle.” (Jon Gliddon interview, 8 July 2018)
Self-publishing includes actually starting up an imprint, as a business, to publish your own books but also other similar works that have the same problems getting published the usual way. For instance; Viggo Mortensen, the actor and poet, started Perceval Press in 2002, to publish his own art and poetry works, and similar books. And since 2011, Anthony Bourdain Books released nonfiction titles through HarperCollins imprint Ecco Books, after Ecco published Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, his first book, in 2000. (The imprint will stop now that he has died.) Bourdain was also the “inspiration, partner, friend, and publisher” of roadsandkingdoms.com, which publishes well-written food and travel guides and books. More interestingly, actor/artist Shia LaBeouf used his own company, Grassy Slope Entertainment, Inc., to publish his comic books Let’s Fucking Party and Stale N Mate, which was probably necessary considering the negative reviews they got.
Celebrities who branch out into writing often start their own more-or-less independent imprints. In April 2016, Random House announced the creation of Lenny, an imprint curated by actress Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner; in 2010, comedian and author Chelsea Handler launched her own imprint, Borderline Amazing, at Grand Central Publishing; Johnny Depp founded Infinitum Nihil at HarperCollins in 2012; and Gwyneth Paltrow launched Goop Press at Grand Central Publishing, etc. etc. In most of these cases, the authors are used to marketing and promoting themselves, and will do so with their own books as well as others in their stable.
However, if you have enough business sense, contacts, marketing knowhow, and money to start your own imprint then perhaps you do not need to earn a living from writing books in any case.
Next post: A bit more about Literary Agents
(In case anyone has forgotten Ruuf’s reference, here it is, in Talking Heads’ This Must The Place (1983): “Hi yo I got plenty of time / Hi yo you got light in your eyes / And you’re standing here beside me / I love the passing of time / Never for money Always for love / Cover up and say goodnight . . . say goodnight”)