When Traditional Publishing Works, and When It Doesn’t

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Traditional publishing used to be the only way to get your work out into the world. You would work for months or even years on a final draft of your book and then send it out to agents, praying that one of them would like it enough to represent it. These days, with the proliferation of self-publishing, traditional publishing is only viable in a narrow set of circumstances.

But when you need to go with a traditional publisher, you’ll regret not doing it. That’s what happened to me.

When lightning strikes

In 2014, I published a book that took off and became a Platinum Bestseller on the platforms I published it on. I was elated by its success because before it I had gone through a half-decade of submitting to agents, magazines, and publishers with some, but very little, success.

This book was my middle finger to the gatekeepers who kept me from getting any of that sweet, sweet pie.

About a year later, my success in the American, European, and Australian markets was leading to piracy in those places and got pretty bad in places like Russia and China, where they don’t give a damn about our copyright laws. I approached my mentor in the publishing game about it, and she said there was nothing to do overseas, but things could get fixed in the American market, for a hefty legal fee.

That was the first time I wished I had a traditional publisher and an excellent agent to represent me.

The second time came in the form of what should have been a lucrative deal with a Brazilian publisher. They wanted to translate my work into Portuguese and be the sole publisher of that version. The idea of going international in multiple languages, and for a decent percentage of international rights, sounded incredible. I signed without a second thought.

I was getting paid for that deal every quarter, and the first few payments were pretty decent. Then they missed one. I figured the royalty would come, and I was too busy with a new project to chase it down. Then six months went by, and I got in touch with the publisher — I had seen pictures of them at conventions with posters of my book at their busy booth and knew something was wrong. They sent me sixty bucks and refused to send sales figures to justify it.

Sixty bucks?!

Once again, I needed an agent or publisher to turn to but had none.

When you need a traditional publisher

You can tell from my story that a traditional publisher has some definite uses. A big publishing house has a legal department capable of chasing down contracts and violations of copyright law. They can get websites shut down and can represent you in court.

Now, let’s be real. Most of them won’t.

I hate to say it, but unless you dominate in your market with a bestseller, a traditional publisher just doesn’t care.

Without that bestseller status, you become one of the 80% a traditional publisher loses money on and won’t see a profit or point in fighting the piracy, even though they own a portion of that work and should want it protected. To them, if the profits don’t earn out the legal fees, it’s a wash. For the author, those profits are all they have. Not so for the publisher of a hundred or more books that year.

If you have one of those bestsellers, the profits will justify the legal costs. A publisher will chase that money for you if you have a bestseller. That’s the narrow circumstance where having an agent and traditional publisher works for you: when you have a bestseller that they’ll care about almost as much as you do.

When a traditional publisher hurts you

If you’re trying to get off the ground as an author, fighting against the gatekeepers of traditional publishing can destroy your will to keep writing. Many authors don’t make it past the short story stage because their confidence was too shot to think a novel is within the realm of possibility for them.

I spent years submitting to big houses, magazines, even Marvel Comics before I got tired of fighting gatekeepers. Fortunately, self-publishing had been a thing for a few years and was beginning to lose its stigma for being second rate, terrible writing.

I think it was when Anne Rice made the switch to cutting out the middle-man of traditional publishing that made me take a look at it. Then, the nurse who had watched my distressed baby in the NICU said that she was quitting her job because self-publishing her novels was making more than her (pretty damned good) day job.

That was my moment. Screw the gatekeepers.

You don’t need a traditional publisher or agent to:

  • Look for alternative funding, like Kickstarter. Your publisher is probably going to want a cut of that money.
  • Immediately click publish and start generating sales. Traditional publishing takes months to years to get a contract, and then (if you got a contract at all) at least a year to get your book to the shelves.
  • Determine your publishing schedule. Traditional publishers often won’t take a chance on a single book. Better have that trilogy finished before you start pitching. And if you want a fourth book…back to the negotiating table.
  • Build a sales funnel. Your traditional publisher will require you to do a lot of the marketing through social media and blogging, but they get to say where the CTAs in your book’s back matter point to, and it’s never your newsletter.
  • Cater to a small but cult following of fans that don’t support the publishing house but could set you up with a nice income as an individual author. If your publisher isn’t raking in the dough, they are not going to publish any more material in that line and will block you from doing so.
  • …anything else that gives you control of your work, scheduling, or marketing.

It’s no surprise that most self-publishers who end up making deals with a publisher for their next book end up regretting it and fighting for the rights to come back to them. For these authors, the bestseller they lose to piracy is not worth what they would have lost with the rest of their backlog if they had gone with a traditional publisher.

If you’ve finished writing a book and are looking to make a go of it with a traditional publisher, you’re better off self-publishing until one of your books turns into a bestseller, then signing a deal with a traditional publisher for that book. They’re better equipped to take care of that book in the long run. When you’re trying to get your book out there and build an audience on your own, however, you’re far better off going it alone.

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