Being dreamers, we sometimes imagine our stories featuring prominently in our favourite magazine or lying in a bookshop’s window waiting to be picked up. The idea of getting published appeals to us... and our egos. Ego is something we have at least a little bit of, or else we wouldn’t trust our prose and poetry to paper to begin with. And as writers we also have a very vivid imagination, but sometimes these two perks can play tricks on us when it comes to the world of publishing.
For this guide, I spoke with:
professional editor, and
authors in print.
They're here to stop me from being an absolute starchy root vegetable when jumping into the wonderful world of publishing and doing something regrettable.
Let's get this potato rolling:
A publisher is someone who publishes stuff. You send him or her your work and they either love it or hate it. Sounds easy enough; just pop that thing in the mail. BRRRRRT! Buzzer sound: behind every publisher there is a team, and also a theme: not only will your work be read by more than one person, but it also has to match with what the publisher is looking for.
When you decided to seek out a publisher, did you start out with a different idea of what it entailed compared to what you know now?
: “One thing I didn’t know when I started was how many people would be involved in my novel’s production. Everything is collaborative. Multiple staff at my publisher’s office read my novel before they even offered to buy it.”
: "I expected to submit my work to a bunch of agents in the hopes that one of them would take an interest and ultimately find a publisher. Ten Little Astronauts demanded a different approach as very few publishers will consider novellas, but if I were submitting a more conventional book then I’d probably be approaching agents as I originally expected."
Would you say doing your homework before contacting your publisher(s) of choice has been advantageous in any way?
: "Yes and no. It’s always worth tailoring submissions to a particular agent or publisher – and you certainly want to confirm that they publish the sort of book you’ve written – but I’ve found that the information on their websites is sometimes incomplete or out-of-date. Before approaching Unbound I sent Ten Little Astronauts to a publisher known for crime fiction who I noticed had already put out both sci-fi and novellas. Their response? They were no longer publishing sci-fi or novellas."
: "Doing my homework absolutely helped. After finishing my manuscript, I spent a couple months learning how to write query letters and I also did a bunch of research on contracts and what I ought to ask for. The writers’ guild in my country sells a cheap instructional guide and a model contract that were very useful. And one of my former writing professors vouched for my publisher, and I spent a bunch of time Googling them, so their reputation made me feel more secure about signing with them.
"I actually wish I’d had more time to prep. We moved so quickly from submission to the offer that I never researched other publishers. In other circumstances, I would’ve spent awhile considering which ones felt like the best match. I just fluked out in getting a good one right away."
Editor, which percentage of unsolicited material would you say makes it to the pile for consideration?
: "All unsolicited material is considered. I read everything and all work is considered fairly. It really depends upon the theme and what sort of submissions we receive in regard to the percent of work that makes it to the final cut stage for each reading period, so it's hard to give a round estimate in my case. We typically publish less than 5% of that we read at cahoodaloodaling
How many people will have read the same thing before it gets accepted?
: "At cahoodaloodaling
, we have our submissions broken into categories so it depends on each style of art. As for poetry, everything is read by 3 regular editors and a guest editor. We sometimes have extra readers, but that changes issue to issue."
Did anyone else hear an alarm going off? This sounds a lot like submitting to an industry. Best to put your foot down, hold your head up high and protect your artistic freedom - if your work is good enough, it'll sell itself. Which imperfections are you lenient towards, and which are unforgivable?
Wonderul though that may sound, your attitude and distrust can actually throw a wrench in the works if you're not careful. Getting your work published is a joint effort of the publisher and the author, based on mutual respect.
: "We're fairly tolerant of small errors, as it's easy to overlook those sort of things as writers. We're all guilty of it. Carelessness is obvious, though. If a submission is poorly edited or off topic, it's a sign the writer didn't respect their own work or our time and we promptly decline the work.
"My personal peeve is when a writer clearly disregards our guidelines. Most editors volunteer for their positions out of a love for literature and publishing, so it's insulting to have our time wasted by those who don't respect the work we're doing.
"It won't matter how stunning the writing is; if simple rules are ignored, I instantly lose all interest in the submission. For example, if a writer submits 7 poems when we have a limit of 3, I won't read anything past the third poem and likely won't publish anything from the manuscript. Same goes for off-topic work in regard to our themed issues."
What is the singlemost grievous mistake an author can make with either their attitude or methods?
: "A lack of humility is a major turn-off. As editors, we don't care if you've been published three times or 400. Be proud of your work but don't tell us you've been in thousands of magazines. It's absurd and probably untrue, anyway. Also, don't rant and rave on social media about a decline or anything else. It's juvenile and is viewed as pouting. Everyone gets declined and usually more often than they get accepted, so suck it up and take the opportunity as what it is: a chance to try your work elsewhere or to possibly apply edits. We're all growing and the path is different for each of us; the quicker we acknowledge this as writers, the better."
When getting published, were you especially concerned about something, beforehand? Did those concerns end up alleviated, in the end?
: "I was concerned about pretty much everything! In particular though:
- I had this lurking fear that if I asked for too many changes in the contract, the publisher would decide I was a ‘difficult author’ and withdraw the offer. But the company president was very patient and thorough in explaining things, and happy to negotiate. I’ve kinda learned that once a publisher falls in love with a book, they really want to make it work, and keeping their authors happy makes everything easier.
- Getting locked into something: My publisher initially offered on three books (out of a five-book series), but I decided to only sign for one book at the time. I was worried that if I hated working with them, I’d be stuck with them for years, and that if the whole thing bombed, I’d have ruined my series and my career. I’ve been quite happy though, so we recently agreed to do the whole series together.
: "When I released my first self-published title, I was somewhat concerned that it would discourage publishers from considering my work if it didn’t perform well. By the time I was seriously approaching publishers, my self-published books were helping to demonstrate that there was an audience for my writing, so it’s no longer a worry for me. I can’t say for sure that it wouldn’t be a problem in general, however."
What have your experiences with the people working in the publishing industry been like?
: "I don't have an agent specifically so can't comment on how much work they'd consider doing on a book before passing it on to publishers. However, I can say that in general no agent or publisher is going to take on a book if they have to change everything about it. My editor at Unbound has been pretty happy to leave things as-is.
"However, I did end up changing the names of all my characters to avoid a potential legal issue: initially they were named after the characters in And Then There Were None, and there were concerns that might not go down well with the Agatha Christie estate. That's purely a precaution, though, and I believe that ultimately I was given the final say. Unbound have also asked me to add some additional content to the back of the book, but I was considering suggesting the same thing myself so that's hardly a compromise.
"If you refuse to make any changes at all, traditional publishing probably isn't for you: there's no point having an editor if you won't even consider their feedback. In my experience, the people least willing to edit their work are the ones who'd benefit from it the most."
Now there's a thought: self-publishing. None of the compromises, and all of the royalties!What should an aspiring self-published author keep in mind?
... What's also all for me is the work of getting the book print-ready, and all of its marketing.
: "I suppose in the most basic terms, my advice for newcomers would be:
- 1. Don't neglect your marketing strategy. However nice it would be to just publish and wait for the profits to roll in, your book isn't going to market itself.
- 2. Don't expect too much, especially at first. This is always true in publishing, but probably worse with self-publishing than mainstream: you won't be able to rely on it for income. I don't just mean "don't quit your day job"; I mean "don't even expect a nice bonus every few months".
- Also, 3. Self-published books need editing, proofreading and snazzy cover art just as much as mainstream-published ones do. Be ready to take on the work of an entire team of people, or at least of its hiring managers."
: "You are responsible for EVERYTHING. Not just the text – which should be up to the same standard as you’d expect to find in a bookshop – but the cover design, the interior formatting, the task of uploading and updating the book wherever it’s sold (potentially twice – ebook and paperback), and of making sure that people know the thing exists once it’s out there. Traditionally each one of these things is a job in its own right, and potentially a job for a whole team of people. It’s a lot of work, and slipping up in any one of these areas can totally scupper your book’s chances of success."
But what were your reasons for going self instead of trad?
- : 1. Keeping ultimate control over everything, from "I don't want anything I write to ever have DRM attached to it" to "I must have my Artistic Vision (TM) preserved" to "I'm going to typeset my FFM collections in Quivira so I can use Unicode characters to illustrate section breaks and you can't stop me." Relying on other people always means relinquishing some control.
- 2. Vague, mostly unsubstantiated feelings that mainstream publishers are The Establishment, value profits over authors, and will definitely screw you over.
- 3. Psychological comfort. Self-publishing is easier in two respects: it minimises the chance of rejection (barring terrible reviews and such), and it almost entirely eliminates the need for professional-type social contact (barring marketing tactics). For someone who's insecure or has trouble with social interactions, this can make the having-to-handle-everything-alone thing entirely worth it.
And has your perception of either changed, since?
: "My perception of traditional publishing has indeed changed, in large part because I've seen the way mainstream-published authors talk about their publishers. They certainly have their complaints about the industry, but the consensus seems to be that what you get in exchange for giving up total control is generally very much worth it. Any decent editor won't compromise your vision: they'll just polish it until it shines.
"Does this mean I regret self-publishing, or that I'll avoid it in the future? Nope. At the very least, I'll continue putting out my FFM collections myself: they're probably not saleable any other way, and they do a good job of getting my work out there. Also, having an actual book you've written and designed entirely by yourself in your hands is an awesome feeling and makes the accomplishment that much more real.
"I am starting to go for trad-publishing short stories, though - even aside from the validation and the money, it will get my work to a different and wider audience. Trad- and self-publishing can complement each other. As for the half-revised novel I'm working on, I'm honestly not sure what I'll do with it when I'm done: I'm thinking I might try trad publishers first (having largely gotten over many of my original hangups) but if it doesn't work out for any reason, I will always have that self-publishing option open."
Now what's a potato to do?Is publishing traditionally something you would recommend?
: "Yes. People have (rightly) made the case that traditional publishers provide most authors with little publicity, and that royalties from self-published books are generally higher. However, a publisher will ensure that the book itself is of the absolute highest possible quality, providing design and editing services that a self-published author would have to pay for out of their own pocket. Their support is also a vote of confidence, demonstrating that they’re willing to invest in your work financially."
: "I absolutely recommend traditional publishing. Self-publishing comes with the benefit of complete creative control, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s an editor’s job to improve books. They have experience and training, knowledge of the industry, and enough distance from a manuscript to view it objectively.
"Plus, letting a publisher handle the business side of things lets you focus on writing. Even if you’ve got the full skillset of book design and marketing and so on, all that time is time not spent putting words on pages. And even a small press still has more reach in terms of distribution and sales than most authors do."
Is self-publishing something you'd recommend?
: "Also yes. Traditional publishers will only consider a comparatively narrow range of books. If you’re working on something for which there isn’t a huge, obvious market, self-publishing is a great option to have. It gives you a chance to reach readers for yourself and potentially demonstrate that there is an audience for it after all."
How does an author decide between the two?
: "If there’s a publisher out there willing to produce the sort of book you’ve written, I’d recommend sending it to an agent (or the publisher directly, if they accept unsolicited submissions). If not, consider self-publishing."
In parting, which words of advice would you have for your peers?
: "Advice for trying to get published: rejection isn’t a judgement on a work. Agents and editors can have any reason under the sun for rejecting a book. Maybe they already have a similar project, or they don’t know how to market it, or they don’t love it quite enough to spend years working on it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, and it doesn’t even mean they disliked it. It definitely doesn’t mean the author is bad.
If your book gets rejected once, try somewhere else. If it keeps getting rejected, write a better book. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s only a book that gets rejected, not you."
: "Get out there and meet people! Also, don’t focus entirely on finding a publisher for your masterpiece. There are lots of opportunities out there if you’re willing to contribute to anthologies or work on team projects or get involved with challenges such as NaNoWriMo and Flash Fiction Month. A few small successes will get you further than many attempts to get one specific novel published."
: "Advice for when you’re in the publication process: this whole thing is about compromise. So there’s two opposing things you have to do simultaneously:
"Be prepared to change your work. Try to go into it with an open mind. I see the logic behind everything my editor insisted I change, and most of it was either things I hadn’t realized, or things I was thinking of anyway and needed a push. It’s my beta readers who are shocked and resistant to change!
"At the same time, stand up for whatever’s most important to you, and be prepared to explain why. My editor and I disagreed on a character’s motivations, and she suggested removing a key scene with him, but I argued in defense of it and she conceded. It’s important to me for its commentary on real-world issues, plus the sequel would’ve required significant reworking.
"The simplest and most effective way to handle these contradictory things is to just wait before responding to anything. Mull over it for a few days. Let the sting of critique fade, envision your book in the changed form. Rarely, if ever, is a kneejerk reaction the best one."
: "Read as much work by as many writers as you can. Your own work is bettered by what you learn from those who came before you. You also learn what publishers are looking for by seeing what they've previously published. As a writer who randomly submits to a journal or press without any knowledge of editorial preferences, you're wasting your time and that of the editors.
"Also: edit, edit, edit. It's great to feel like your work is at its best, but most final works aren't first drafts. Share your work with others for opinions; sometimes we miss our own errors or can't see that our intent is unclear. A small circle of trusted opinions will do wonders for your work."
That will be all. Thank you dearly,
... and thank you readers, for reading.