The Truth about Big Publishing

A couple of weeks ago, I asked several of my writing groups this question:

If you could ask a Big 5 editor a question about the industry, what would it be?

I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with editors from some of the biggest publishing houses in the world this past week, as well as a few different agents. To be honest, I was a little terrified going into it. I feared I would be viewed as the outsider who self-published, ICK! That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Here’s what they all had to say…

Self-publishing has lost the stigma it has carried for so long. All of the editors were very open to submissions from self-publishers. With that being said, there was still quite a bit of eye-rolling about self-publishing, but that’s fair; there’s a ton of crap out there, and you know it. However, self-publishers who have worked hard to be professional, have invested their own time and money into the process, and have been successful with sales and reviews have a much higher probability of getting picked up by a publisher. Why? Because they already come with fans, and they’ve proven they are dedicated to making writing a long-term career.

Now, that doesn’t mean they are going to jump at the opportunity to REPUBLISH your self-published work. I wouldn’t count on that at all unless you have hit the sweet spot of sales numbers. By sweet spot I mean your book has sold enough to prove it’s marketable but still hasn’t exhausted its market.

But for new work going forward, it is a good idea to let them know how your self-publishing endeavors have fared. Unless, you know, your sales numbers have been abysmal. You should probably keep that to yourself.

You asked. They answered.

Here are some answers to specific questions:

Where do you see big publishing houses in 5 years especially in light of print on demand and eBook options?

This was incredibly interesting to me. We all know the tides of publishing have changed. Barnes and Noble is really the only bookstore left standing, and the big publishers are all working together to help keep them standing. It’s only a matter of time before major print runs become obsolete, and big publishing is bracing for it. For the time being, in an effort to keep Barnes and Noble afloat, one publisher told me they won’t buy your book if they know Barnes and Noble won’t buy it. She even went so far as to say she has incredible, future best sellers from proven authors stuck in a drawer because it’s not what is marketable at the moment.

The lesson from this for you? Remember this when you get those rejections. It doesn’t necessarily mean your book isn’t publishable.

Why do literary agents think they are worth such high prices?

There were some amazing literary agents at this event. And the biggest realization I had is: ALL AGENTS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL. Some, like the ones I met with, don’t stop at simply selling your work to publishers. They help with branding, marketing, planning, editing, brainstorming…the list goes on and on. They would certainly, in my opinion, be worth their commission.

On an almost-unrelated note, Janet Reid wrote a great article over the weekend explaining this. You should read it. Why don’t big name authors just self-pub and make more money?

Does self-publishing a good product that gets good reviews (though not stellar sales due to limited marketing reach) negatively or positively impact how they view potential authors?

The literary agents I talked to said they pay most attention to the reviews. Publishers and agents realize new authors don’t have a platform to market to right away. An existing platform is certainly a bonus, but they are realistic about newcomers to the business.

Would you change your mind, if you knew I was a ghost writer for three of your best-selling authors?

I didn’t ask this one specifically because it doesn’t apply to me, but it was clear whatever experience and credentials you can present will help your query stand out among the masses.

Are you willing to work with authors who publish with multiple companies and also self-publish?

This was an overwhelming YES which completely took me by surprise. I think everyone I talked to actually encouraged hybrid authors because traditional publishing still takes (at the very minimum) a year to get a book into print.  Hybrid authors can self-publish in the interim to keep their platform “hot” and active. I hope it goes without saying that the self-published stuff needs to be up to par with the quality of the traditionally published work or this just won’t work.

What type of story or voice gets you excited? What tense/person do you prefer for fiction/fantasy?

This definitely varies from person to person, genre to genre, and is heavily dependent on the target audience.

Do they simply look at the story itself or do they take a close look at the author themselves?

They look at both, but as I said before, they are very realistic when it comes to new authors. They focus heavily on the MARKETABILITY of the story, not just if it’s good or not.

What I Learned

  • The best thing I took away from all this was the big, scary, intimidating mask I’ve always seen on the big publishing world was stripped away. These editors are amazing. They’re fun, down to earth, and incredibly kind and gracious.
  • Attending conferences is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL if you want to publish well. Even if you’re self-published–no, especially if you’re self-published. Why? Because you’re your own publisher, and you need to keep up with the big boys. Learn all you can from them if you want to compete.
  • Barbara Vey is amazing. You should look her up. She’s the queen of selling yourself as an author, in my opinion.
  • Always carry business cards. (Thanks, Barbara!)
  • Liz Pelletier (CEO & Publisher) of Entangled Publishing is brilliant. If you ever get the chance to sit in on one of her lectures, DO IT. You’ll thank me later. (Side note: I’m convinced Entangled is an excellent publisher who is on the cutting edge with hybrid authors. They accept unsolicited submissions.**)
  • Choose your literary agent wisely. A big name can be far less valuable than someone who is willing to get in the trenches with you and be a huge advocate for your work. Check out The Seymour Agency.
  • Join writers’ associations like RWA, Thriller Writers of America, etc. If I heard this once, I heard it a million times from everyone at the conference. Publishers and agents want to know you are invested in this business.
  • Sourcebooks is a great publisher particularly for Wattpad writers. They accept unsolicited submissions and don’t require the author to remove the story from Wattpad**. (Funny story. My friend Juliet Lyons just signed a 3 book deal with Sourcebooks, and her editor was one of the editors I met with! Small world!)

I’m forever grateful to The Seymour Agency for providing me with such an amazing opportunity. I can’t wait until next year!

**Note: I have not worked with these publishers. I’m only giving my overall impression. ALWAYS DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

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