Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Navigating the Treacherous Waters of Publishing - Part 1

Traditional Publishing

The world of publishing offers many venues for new authors – depending on how much time, money and effort you’re willing to put into getting published. The stigma used to be that traditional publishing was for real authors, and all those self-published authors were poor and possibly crazed writers with too much financial backing.

The tides of the industry are ever changing, and although the shadow of the large publishing houses still looms over most of the book market, there are some gems out there that are definitely worth exploring.

But first, let’s see what the traditional publishing industry has to offer. My disclaimer here is that I fully intend to generalize and lump them all together, and I’m mostly referring to the crushing conglomerates. Every house, every editor and, in fact, every human being is different, and that's what keeps things interesting.

Traditional publishing houses, mostly the ones located in New York (and in Toronto for Canada), have the power that few others have – guaranteed distribution north and south of the border. I mean States and Canada, just to be clear.

An author published by these houses is also secured in the knowledge that their books will hit all the main shelves, from Barnes & Nobles to Chapters-Indigo, as well as be available at the click of a button on the net. It’s across the continent and cyberspace, and it’s big. Wow.

But what else do they do for you? The editors will of course try to make your book better, helping with plot rewrites, language edits and creating more powerful endings. Published authors have various opinions on editors – Terry Brooks edits his own stuff; John Saul is in love with his editor. That’s all about relationships and writing philosophies.

For the Cyrano de Bergerac out there, for whom it would be most difficult to see but a single comma moved, this is definitely not the route to take.

Although I believe good editorial work is most often needed, I’ve heard of authors being burned by the editorial process. A regretful fantasy author once lamented the death of a character where they would have lived, had they but stood their ground with their editor. Having read the book mentioned above (not saying which for fear of spoilers), I have to admit, the death scene added nothing and really kind of sucked (and I usually like death scenes).

Anyways, editing can be bad, but for most first time authors, let’s face it - it’s a good thing.

So traditional publishing houses edit and distribute. What else do they do? (warning – incoming rant!)

Well, they give you absolutely no powers over the cover of your books. I’ve heard from some first time authors that they didn’t even see the cover until they received their contributor’s copies. And, let’s be honest, their most junior and crappiest artists are usually assigned to new authors, or the artists whose only style is, well, the same as everything else out there, at least in popular fiction.

In fantasy, your book is almost guaranteed to have two people (maybe three!) on the edge of a cliff or by a tree staring into the distance with purpose (or straight at the reader – wow!) In romance, you have two intertwined lovers, half naked, sporting dark of red hair, regardless of what the characters actually look like, completely dependent on which dye colour is in at the supermarket right now. Horror is easy: it’s either a solid colour with a stylish icon like a lightning bolt, or there’s a half-shadowed face in there. Be afraid.

And it’ll be mass market format, which is fine. The publisher, after all, has already demonstrated a lot of faith in the first-time author by bringing the book to the presses. Let’s not push our luck.

Marketing? Nah. You do that on your own, honey, so you’d best hope you like the book cover, or come up with another clever way of selling your book. Publishers have limited marketing funds, and most of them are spent advertising the latest John Grisham-esque novel in the New York Times. I work in communications and marketing, and so don’t mind tackling the challenge and would in fact enjoy it, but how many new authors just don’t know what venues are available to them? They might have written the best book of the century, and they’ll barely be read because our media-heavy capitalistic culture is clamoring for attention elsewhere. That ain’t cool. New authors should at least get some guidance. It would only be in the best interest of the publishing house to sell more books, really.

Rights? You retain the copyright, of course, but you’ll have to surrender a slew of other rights. Some publishers now claim in their contract that publishing right remains theirs as long as the book is available in print OR online. That means they can keep a half-hidden link to your masterpiece, amongst the newer, flashier stuff, and no one can buy a copy for years, and still you can’t pitch it elsewhere. Even long after only dust remains of your printed work. Neat, eh?

And even to quote yourself on your own website you have to ask the publisher’s permission. I mean, let’s be serious, what are they going to do, sue you? And many publishers refuse to let authors post a first chapter as a marketing ploy, refusing to let too many words slips through their itching hands. I know many authors, some of them bestselling, who post multiple chapters, and it’s only enticed me to run out and buy the book.

Ok, that was my rant. And my fears with traditional publishing. Not that they’ve proven to be extremely warranted fears with all of these rejections I’m accumulating...

Let me end my (long) piece on traditional publishing by saying this: of all the negatives of traditional publishing, there is something that marks it above all other types (no, not just distribution, though that is nice) – when you’re accepted and published by a traditional house, you already have a team of professionals who believed enough in your words to pick it out of their slew of submissions, put good, long, often thankless hours into it, and then backed it with the capital necessary for your words to find their readers.

And that’s why I believe , regardless of everything else, that traditional publishing is still the best way to go. Once you make it past all those judges and get approved, you can be confident your first book is as good as it’s likely to get, and it’s already been championed.

And isn’t it nice to be believed in?