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Tough Love and the Realities of the Publishing Industry
Writers, I’m here today with some tough love. If you’re not in for a post about the realities of the industry and what it means to enter traditional publishing, put this one aside for now.
Because I am both a writer and an agent, I am lucky (or crazy) enough to be on both sides of the publishing coin. I have been on submission as a writer and I’ve submitted the works of writers. I know how it feels, as a writer, to be on submission, and I know how it feels as your agent.
Being in this position gives me a broader understanding of publishing that I think many writers don’t necessarily have or think to go looking for. I find that it gives me a clarity I didn’t have before publishing. In light of this, I'm writing this post to help you, as a writer, arm yourself with understanding. Some of the realities I’m about to dive into might feel harsh, but it might also help you, as a querying writer or a writer on submission or a writer with five book deals whose agent is shopping for a sixth, understand what’s going on when you’re feeling anxious or confused. So here we go.
1.) Publishing is not a lottery or a pageant, even though it often feels that way.
Publishing is, first and foremost, an industry.
I had a conversation with an editor recently that really helped me put into context some of the angst many writers are feeling these days. So many of us, and this is in part because of the pageantry around announcing book deals on social media and movie deals and so on, view getting a book deal as a sort of Cinderella situation. Suddenly, this writer has found their fairy godmother, and when their book is out in the world, the writer will want for nothing. Everything will change – they’ve basically just married a prince and now have the keys to the kingdom.
The reality is: Publishing is an industry like any other. It has its flaws. There are many ways in which it needs to change. But at its core, it is still an industry first and foremost. Publishers pay attention to markets and audience and they purchase books according to what they believe will resonate most with their readers. That’s not to say no one takes a leap of faith and that those leaps don’t pay off – but that’s still part of the business. When you write a book and submit it to an agent or a publisher, you are telling them that you have a product you believe people will pay for. If they agree with you, they’ll shop or pay you for your product. If you continue to provide a product that consumers respond to, publishers will continue to buy it.
2.) When your agent tells you not to quit your day job, you should probably listen.
It’s an unfortunate reality that not every writer is paid what they’re worth. Most are not. Traditional Publishing has its issues, and these are issues you should absolutely take into account when you decide to try that route. Selling a book probably won’t change your life the way many of us believe and hope it will. Aside from adjusting how you do taxes and doing some book signings, there’s a good chance not much else in your life will change.
Selling a book is no guarantee of future sales, is no guarantee of audience engagement, is no guarantee of anything at all, except that your publisher sees a great potential in your work and has given you some money in exchange so they can present it to a larger consumer base. Even six figure deals are not guaranteed sales. We ooh and ahh over them on social media, we covet them and wait for our own, but the truth is, six figure deals are a gamble on the part of the publisher that sometimes don’t pay off. And most writers are NOT getting six figure deals, despite how it might look on Twitter.
3.) One book deal is not a guarantee of another.
This goes back to what I was saying about market and audience. Publishing houses are paying attention to what’s hot, what’s selling, what readers are responding to. As a business, first and foremost, they’re looking for books that will generate revenue and subsidiary rights sales. They might have taken a chance on your first book. But the reality is, they might not do that again. And it won’t be because your writing has degraded or your ideas are bad – it could be as simple as, “our research is telling us that audiences aren’t responding to these ideas right now”. And that research might be right and it might be wrong, but either way, it’s the publisher’s right to use that information how they see fit.
At the end of the day, a book is like any other product – sometimes, people just aren’t interested. Sometimes, it's not marketed properly. Sometimes, it's ahead of its time. Those products are discontinued and new products enter the market. This is a fact of life, and it’s a fact of publishing. There are no guarantees.
4.) Traditional Publishing is not the only form of publishing.
Okay, yes, as an agent, it feels a little strange to point this out. But it’s true! There are certain books that do really, really well in the self-publishing space and don’t do as well in traditional spaces. Are you the kind of writer who can pump out a book or two or even three a year? Self-publishing is perfect for quick writers with very commercial style who have a lot of books in their arsenal. It’s great for genre fiction, especially romance. And more and more, there are options for bookstore distribution through services like Create Space and Ingram. The things you lose out on: professional editing, professional book design, professional marketing. There ARE freelancers and companies who provide these services, though, and many of them are excellent.
Obviously, there are pros and cons for both routes.
5.) Being a traditionally published writer requires a lot of self-care, self-compassion, and humility.
If you choose to go the traditional route, understand that the burden for your mental health is yours and yours alone. You might find yourself tempted to pressure your agents and editors to answer for low book sales or the rejection of a book you were sure would sell. Take a step back and consider the parts of the picture you don’t see. Ask your agent how you can do better, if there are things you do on your end that might help with marketing and visibility.
And if there’s not? Take a step back. Take deep breaths. Take a hot bath. And focus on something else. Your next WIP? A work project? A new hobby? Bottom line: practice self-care. The industry is hard, and if you want to be in it for the long haul, you need to make sure you are doing what you need to do for your own emotional health, no matter what.
Publishing is a tough business. It’s hard on mental health. It’s a time suck that might not pay out in the end. Ultimately, when you choose to try and publish traditionally, you are making a choice to enter an industry with specific needs and goals. These are the things you must understand if you choose to attempt publishing in the traditional way. Make this choice with the understanding that your life may or may not change, and that the Cinderella story is a lovely one with little basis in reality for most writers. Recognize the limitations of your expectations. Publishing doesn’t owe you anything. It has to protect its bottom line. Go forth understanding this, and you will be better equipped to protect yourself and understand what’s going on.
If you’re feeling disheartened, consider this: at the end of the day, it’s the reader whose buying habits inform publishers what to take risks on. We make a lot of fuss about finding an agent and editor and a publishing house and so on. But every last one of us is trying to cater to a reader we know exists. So write what you yourself want to read. Write what you love and don’t worry about being Cinderella. Just worry about being you.