“Gee, I wish I could write a book”
by Marcus A. Nannini
How many times have you heard that? Naturally you follow up with a question along the line of “So why don’t you?”
The responses run the usual gamut of:
“I don’t have time.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“I don’t really know what to write about.”
“I don’t think I have enough ideas to fill a book.”
“I don’t have the education.”
“I lack the necessary…” and on and on.
In reality, the publishing industry today is broader and easier to enter than at any time in history. With a little money, anyone can publish a book of any length or type: romance, sci-fi, nonfiction, textbook, coffee table book, YA, children’s picture books. There are no longer limits on seeing any type of book through to publication in a short period of time. Consequently, legitimate excuses for a person not fulfilling their dream to write a book are becoming fewer and further between. The burgeoning self-publishing industry has opened doors.
I believe the rapid transformation of the entire publishing industry has given a huge shot in the arm to the “how to write” industry. Regardless of the genre you desire to engage in, there is a seminar out there to address your perceived shortcomings as an author. All you need is time and money. Money can get you a grammatically correct book, but it cannot make the book engaging. Neither can Grammarly. But if earning money from your book sales is not a priority for you, you can publish whatever you write without regard as to whether you will find a paying audience.
The transformation of the publishing industry has caused many side effects. One of them is the consolidation of the major publishing houses to the point where there are now only five of them: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Shuster.
Last time I checked, the so-called “Big 5” were paying a minimum advance of about $10,000 to new authors. A handful of larger publishing houses, one tier below the Big 5, pays advances ranging from $500 to a few thousand dollars, but the overwhelming majority of publishers pay no advance whatsoever. Worse yet, many of them place the journeyman’s portion of the marketing on the shoulders of their authors.
Then there are self-publishing houses. Authors pay them to publish their writing. The payments can include cover design, editing, and limited marketing packages. The self-publishing companies take no risk. They only take your money. Taking money while assuming no risk brings me to the topic of literary agents.
As the publishing industry merged its way to the Big 5, it also became necessary for a new author to acquire a literary agent just to enjoy the potential opportunity of placing a given book proposal in front one of the Big 5’s acquisition editors.
A significant number of literary agents now spend substantial time partaking in writers’ conferences across the country. Don’t for a minute let yourself labor under the impression that they appear at conferences for free. Ostensibly they attend the conferences for the purpose of seeking out new clients. But why would they take a week out of their lives to attend a conference to do what they can do far more efficiently on their laptop? Ever hear of a writer’s conference being held in Anchorage, Alaska, in February? Of course not. San Diego, however, is pretty nice that time of year. Conferences use literary agents to as selling tools (aka bait) – nothing more and nothing less. If you spend the money to attend a conference under the belief that your elevator pitch will net you a fat contract, I would think twice about how else you could invest the same money to further your writing career.
I believe most literary agents are content with the business they have. Their main source of new clients is by referral. Personally, I consider soliciting literary agents a colossal waste of time. YOU could feasibly spend as much time seeking an agent as you could have re-editing your entire book six times, resulting in a better book. Time cannot be replaced, so consider where and how you spend it. And speaking of spending…
Literary agents will cost you anywhere from 10 to 20 percent off the top of any earnings coming your way. I understand 15 percent is the current standard. OK, everyone is entitled to earn a living. But who literally pays the agent? You might think the answer is that the author pays the agent. Guess again.
The publisher pays the agent the full amounts due the author and leaves it to the agent to turn around and pay the author their net after commissions and costs. You read that correctly. When you sign a contract with an agent, you are placing someone between you and your money. Is that smart? Is it safe? You tell me. I intend no offense regarding the integrity of literary agents. I am simply pointing out the facts of life.
Let’s say you have agreed to a $10,000 advance from one of the Big 5, payable in three installments, each triggered by an event, such as the signing of a publishing contract, sometimes called an Author’s Agreement. The triggering event for the first installment results in either the author or the agent sending an invoice to the publisher for the amount then due. Assuming the agent acts as quickly as the author would act and sends the invoice off ASAP, there is at least a 30-day gap before the payment might be received – payment to the agent, that is. Not the payment to the author.
The author, meanwhile, sits around and waits, not knowing if or when the publishing house has sent the first installment payment. Frankly, I was taught never to surrender control of my money, yet such a surrender is exactly what an author is expected to do. Apparently, in the land of literary agency, trust is a one way street; don’t trust the author to pay the agent in a timely manner and expect the agent will always pay the author the correct amount and in a timely manner. I don’t know about you, but trust must be a two-way street in all my relationships.
So how does a writer get in front of the Big 5 – and keep control of the finances? It is not easy, but there are avenues out there. First, you need to establish a track record of writing books that get picked up by legit publishers. The goal is for the first book to net you a larger publisher for your second book.
The second book nets you either a still-larger publisher or a more generous advance with your existing publisher. You are then in a position to catch the attention of the Big 5, either directly or through one of the back channels sometimes made available. Back channels are discovered through meticulous research; when you find them, make certain you grant them an exclusive and be clear as to the period of time the exclusivity runs; for example, three months.
If your book is good enough you can find yourself with a $10,000 advance without paying $1,500 plus costs to an agent, not to mention the agent fees which continue into the future. Of course, a key to gaining access to the Big 5 is writing a book that is “good enough.”
Once you have a finished product, it takes only a matter of a few minutes’ research to locate several extensive listings of publishers seeking to publish books in your genre. You need to pitch them, but first be sure to examine each publisher’s website to confirm they routinely publish books in your genre. And make certain they do not require you to pay them for anything.
Write a good pitch, and you will receive requests for more information, perhaps even for the manuscript. It will happen, and within a few months you can find yourself with an executed contract for the publication of your book. I tend to use a variety of pitches rather than rely on just one. Do your research and, as for your pitches, run them past friends. If they want to read the book after reading your pitch, there is a reasonable expectation you will catch the attention of an acquisitions editor.
If you fail to engage a publisher after scouring the country for one, take a step back. Reconsider your project and maybe work through another edit. Then start the research again and send out another round of pitches. Or go the self-publishing route if you are thoroughly convinced you have exhausted all potential publishers and your book is the best you can make it. I have listened to many authors read from their books-in-progress and often wondered why they were not going all-out for a publisher rather than self-publishing. Never sell your writing short.
Time and money. If you self-publish, you will burn time and money on a larger scale than if you were with an indie publisher who picked up 100 percent of the publishing expenses. I include vanity presses among the self-publishers.
Indie publishers will usually participate in the marketing with you, which will be a big help in terms of both time and money expended. Larger publishing houses may take on a larger share of the marketing, as they have their own sales, marketing, and distribution teams in-house. I must also stress a book published by a genuine publishing house can and will open critically important doors that self-publishing cannot, but that’s for another post.
Get your first book done and published by a publishing company to whom you do not pay any money. Garner good reviews from independent third parties. Write your next book and piggyback that book onto the critical successes of book number one. Your first book need not be a big volume seller to garner the requisite credentials critical to climbing the publication ladder and earning better “advances” with your next books.
Marcus Nannini began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the sixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel.