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Publishing Routes: Traditional Publishing?

Once the writing is done, what do authors do? In these series of articles, we are exploring which path is the right one for you. In week one we gave an overview on how the publishing business works, then we looked at self-publishing, small presses and this week we look at traditional publishing.


Brief History:

A traditional publisher acquires the rights to create, produce and distribute a book, making sure that these costs are covered by the income derived from its sale. They are also in charge of the marketing and advertisement of a product.

They operate at corporation level, often worldwide and are responsible for half of the output of the book industry.


Does ‘holy grail’ mean anything to you? If it doesn’t, shame on you, go read up on your Arthurian legends! Or at the very least, go watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Seriously though. If you land a contract with a traditional publisher, you’ll be strutting like John Travolta at the end of Staying Alive.

Yes. We are not passed that stage yet. And why? Because that’s where the money, access to the bookstores, big advertising budgets and sure entry on the nomination lists for big awards lie. This is huge, especially for unknown writers – we have a book-flooded market (one of the downsides of digital printing being so easily available) and any advantage you can get to rise above the crowd, you should grab with both hands.

Pros Of Traditional Publishers

Ease of access. A tough one. The vast majority of traditional publishers only receive submissions through agents, and it’s unlikely they will consider unsolicited manuscripts. However, some do. In fact, the Bloomsbury’s Writers and Illustrators Yearbook lists all UK (and some foreign ones too) publishers and their guidelines. If you bother reading the submission guidelines on their websites, it should be pretty straightforward.

Waiting times. Take a seat, put your feet up and relax. Ok, so this isn’t necessarily a pro, but you’ve chosen this route, and you knew there would be waiting. And wait you shall. Three months is the average time to receive a reply, or letter of rejection. Don’t fret and most importantly, don’t submit mailing list-style to the other twenty publishers on your checklist. It won’t be taken kindly.

The vast majority of traditional publishers only receive submissions through agents, and it’s unlikely they will consider unsolicited manuscripts. You have a 2% chance to make it out of the slush pile, so you want to go in recommended by someone, like an agent. But being chosen, makes you forget all the wait in a heart bit.

On being your own boss. Forget it. The situation is similar to that of small presses, if not worst. The contract you sign (which I hope you are going to read thoroughly) will limit your freedom, especially when it comes to delivery of the manuscript, correction, cuts, sequels, etc. They are investing a considerable amount of money on you, and may have already given you a fabulous advance - the least you can do is dance to the music. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to accept everything without questions, you are still the author after all, but allow your agent to discuss details. It may not seem like it, but it’s another pro: he/she will keep you sharp and on time, and away from procrastination.

On being the creator. Again, not anymore. This was a big pro for small presses, and it is a huge one at this level. So you can’t pick the artist who will illustrate your graphic novel: don’t cry about it – they will not use a six-year-old – not unless they mean it. They have not become big publishers by executing a series of suicidal purchases and appointments through the decades. They are about to pay for the biggest make-over your manuscript has ever seen. They will not keep you out of the loop, even if in the end the final say on certain matters stays with them.

As owner of a small press, I know many people in the traditional publishing sector, and they are nice people. Sure, money is a big part of their business, and hello, it is a business, but in order to make the money, they need you. Never forget. The contract you sign is there to protect you as well as them, if they don’t a good job you can hold them to their word.

The marketing side. Here is the biggest pro of them all. No wonder royalties for authors of traditional publishers are so low compared to the previously examined cases: what they don’t give the authors, publishers put into the marketing, advertisement, securing a prominent space inside a bookstore. Make no mistakes, even if you are traditionally published, and your book is in Waterstones, it does not mean it will be a success. It has to be seen by the customers, it has to be reviewed by the staff and left as suggested reading. Part of the money will see to that as well.

There is a whole world of thing to do that you wouldn’t even be able to accomplish through a small press, let alone self-publishing. In this sense, traditional publishing still leads the way and the advantage it grants you as an author, is manifold.

Traditional Publisher: Is It For Me?

I’m not expecting a resounding yes, here. As with all important decisions, you must consider this carefully.

Speaking from experience (self-published author, published author, owner of small press), I would argue that no matter the path you choose you will need to work hard at it. The amount of perseverance required to go after an agent, a small press or a traditional publisher is substantial, in the same way that planning a successful self-publishing project is.

The key is to play to your strength and to recognise your weaknesses. A self-published author shouldn’t waste money in a flashy cover if they are going to let their book disappear in the Amazon see, without telling people, because they are not bothered with marketing, self-promotion and Co. On the other hand if writing is all you want to do, then put your efforts into finding an agent, small press or traditional publisher.

If all you care for is to put your writing out there, but you are not concerned with money or exposure, then consider one of those writing sharing platform, like Wattpad, because self-publishing, even when done at a basic level, will require some effort, including the fact that you must register to your tax office and do a self-assessment every year on the money you earn.

Ultimately, to become a professional writer you must wear a professional mind-set: as well as enjoying the writing process (which I assume/hope you do) you must be a business person too. Perseverance, practice and a clear goal: what do you want your writing to achieve and how hard are you prepared to work for it?

Decide that, and your path will become clear.


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