Earlier this year, I decided to sell a book to a publisher.
I’m not talking about a book I’d already published. Dutiful readers of this space will recall that I’ve already done this once, in 2018, when John Joseph Adams Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) bought the rights to The Spaceship Next Door, a book I originally published myself at the end of 2015. I’m talking about a new book nobody had seen before.
Now, when I say nobody had seen it before, I’m including myself, because when I made this decision I hadn’t written the book yet. I had an idea for one, but when I contacted the imprint’s eponymous editor to say, “hey, what do you think about seeing a new manuscript from me?” I had exactly nothing to show him, other than the following sentence:
Robby apparently slept through the apocalypse.
I’m sure there are authors out there who can get a book deal based on a pitch that includes nothing more than a six-word sentence and their name, but I’m not one of them. I still had to write the book. (For there record, John’s answer was something like “sure, I’d love to look at a new manuscript when you have one.”)
I wrote the book, and I sent it to John, and he liked it. So as not to bury the lede any further, here is the official announcement of the acquisition, from the Publishers Marketplace:
Gene Doucette’s APOCALYPSE SEVEN, about seven strangers who have woken up to a world without power or people who will have to learn how to survive long enough to figure out how they managed to sleep through the apocalypse in the first place, to John Joseph Adams Books, for publication in Spring 2021. (World)
(You can also find that at John Joseph Adams Books, especially if you—like me—don’t have access to Publishers Marketplace.)
So, that was pretty cool! I decided to sell a book to a publisher, and then I sold a book to a publisher.
Now I want to discuss why I decided to do that.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this space talking about writing and the marketplace from the perspective of a self-published author. At times, I’ve advocated strongly against pursuing a publisher at all, and am on record saying that an author of genre fiction would be better off, by far, if they self-published first. (I stand by this.) My instinct, then, had been to write a piece here in which I explained the value of being a hybrid author, compared to being 100% self-published, or 100% traditional published.
I kept hitting a roadblock—this is my third attempt at this article—for what are probably obvious reasons. You can’t just decide to be a hybrid published author. (You also can’t decide to be 100% traditionally published. You can decide to pursue traditional publishing exclusively, but that’s not precisely the same thing.) You need a publisher to be cool with the idea too. Finding one of those can be difficult and time-consuming. Is it worth it? I think it might be, if you’re trying with the right kind of project.
Aside: What all these terms mean
Traditionally published is what everyone who isn’t an author thinks of when someone tells them they published a book. It means the author has a contract with a publisher, who has subsequently published their book and made it available for sale. The cost of publishing is borne by the publisher, in exchange for a percentage of the net receipts from the sale of the book. The author is paid in royalties, which is just a percentage of net receipts. If the author has been paid an advance, they’ve received money in anticipation of future royalties. In this case, the author won’t receive any royalties from future sales until the advance has been paid.
(Note: if a publisher asks the author to bear the costs of publishing, they are not a traditional publisher, even if they claim to be. They’re either a vanity publisher, or they’re a scam. Money should flow toward the author, not the other way.)
Self-published is when the author deals directly with distributors in order to make his or her book available for sale. All editing, formatting, cover design and marketing that would be performed by a publisher in the traditional path is done by the author (and whoever they hire) instead. The distributors take a percentage of every sale, and the author gets the rest.
It’s important to note that the percentage the author receives in this model is substantially larger, even if it doesn’t sound like it. In both models, the author is receiving net receipts, but the ‘net’ we’re talking about is different.
Example: a self-published author who says they get 70% of every ebook sold vs. a traditionally published author getting 25% are not talking about the same net. The 70% is from the cost of the book. (So, they would get $7 from an ebook costing $9.99.) The 25% is of the net amount received by the publisher for the sale. The distributor is still getting 30% (or more) of that sale first; the author and the publisher are splitting what’s left. (So, assuming the distributor keeps 30%, the author is getting $1.75 from an ebook costing $9.99.)
A hybrid author is someone who has some books traditionally published and some books that are self-published. I have nothing more to add, but I do want to draw a distinction between this and a hybrid publisher. A hybrid publisher is a publisher that authors pay to perform some of the tasks self-publishers do for themselves, such as formatting and interfacing with distributors. You’ll note that the money is flowing in the wrong direction. My personal opinion of hybrid publishers is that they are rebranded vanity publishers. Your views may differ.
The value of print
The reason I decided one morning to sell a book to the publisher is that this particular publisher can do things I simply can’t do. Or, one thing really. A publisher can do the editing, marketing, and book design better than I can on my own, but, I can get those taken care of well enough that I don’t need help. But one thing is irreplaceable: they can get print editions into bookstores.
Getting into bookstores nationwide (and worldwide) requires a bulk print-and-distribution supply chain that can’t be substituted for by anything available to self-published authors. The architecture is old, creaky, and complicated—look up reserve against returns sometime if you want to have some fun—but it produces better-looking print editions than print-on-demand, and at a lower per-unit cost. (Which is why self-published print versions tend to be more expensive than publisher versions.) And, it puts those editions into bookstores.
There’s been a lot of noise from the self-publishing corner of the universe about the inevitable death of print over the past few years. (I believe I even wrote one such article myself.) But lately, as the ebook market has settled and contracted, these declarations have begun to sound less like predictions, and more like prayers. Because effective print production and distribution is the one thing a self-publisher simply can’t do, it would be better (from the self-publisher’s perspective) if that marketplace just ceased to exist.
It’s not going to.
Print and ebook markets also have surprisingly little crossover. A lot of people discovered my novels for the first time when they saw The Spaceship Next Door in their local bookstore, and a decent number of them went on to buy my self-published books after that. But in print only; they’re not interested in ebooks. (The converse is true as well; if I put out a book in print-only I’m pretty sure most of my readers who prefer ebooks wouldn’t buy it.)
So, by putting books into bookstores, I’m reaching a new audience, one that I have no way to reach except by going through a publisher.
Economics, and the real value of self-publishing
The main reason I continue to stand by my earlier advice about genre self-publishing has more to do with economics than anything else. Self-publishing means not getting into brick-and-mortar bookstores, but it also means retaining all the rights to your work, getting income monthly, and publishing as often as you wish.
For instance, you’ll note in the announcement that Apocalypse Seven isn’t going to be published until the Spring of 2021. (If you’re reading this in the future, It’s early October, 2019 right now.) If I published it myself…well, I finished writing it in May. It would have been available for sale for at least four months by now.
The publisher’s schedule means that after the advance, I won’t make anything off of this book until…well, who knows? The book has to earn back the advance first, and it won’t start doing that for eighteen months. No idea how long after it hits the market before it pays out, provided it ever does.
If we took print out of the equation—if it really did cease to exist—I probably wouldn’t take that deal over “earning steady monthly income starting four months ago”. And if I didn’t have other titles available, and the opportunity to publish more whenever I feel like it, I might not take it at all, print or otherwise.
But, I can keep on self-publishing while I wait. I don’t know how many books I’ll manage to publish between now and Spring of 2021, but it won’t be zero. That wouldn’t be the case if I was 100% traditionally published, regardless of how many books above zero I wrote in that time. This is one of the great things about self-publishing.
Another great thing about self-publishing is that, if the publisher decided to pass on Apocalypse Seven, or if they liked it but we couldn’t agree on the terms, I had other options.
Is pursuing a hybrid career worth it? Most of us can’t just decide to sell a book and then sell the book. At the same time, being a hybrid can really deliver the best of both approaches, so it’s something to consider.
It’s just not easy, and I’m sure most of the self-published authors reading this are already telling themselves it’s not worth the trouble. Maybe so! But if any of you are thinking about it, here’s some concrete, workable advice:
- write a standalone book.
That’s it. That’s all I have.
Okay, I’ll elaborate.
Self-published genre authors mostly write series books, because series books are much, much easier to promote and sell, especially in the ebook marketplace. (The reasons here are many, but one has to do with the lower cost of commitment to a book for the reader.) Meanwhile selling a series to a publisher is much, much harder, because a publisher isn’t going to commit to three books for a new author without knowing if the first one is going to sell.
Conversely, standalone books are so tough to sell in the ebook marketplace that most self-published authors don’t even try. But! Traditional publishers like standalones a lot, and know exactly what to do with them.
So write a standalone, and then…
Yes, okay, that’s not necessarily fantastic advice, because a sufficiently large publisher—meaning one big enough to provide real print distribution—may be impossible to reach without an agent, and I have no advice on getting one of those. (I don’t have one.)
But, having the manuscript to sell is a good start.
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