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Mar 202011

Just a few weeks ago, I explained to the staff nurse at Nortel why I wasn’t interested in self-publishing. Now, I’m preparing myself to do exactly that.

What happened?

I finished Pale Queen’s Courtyard in 2009, and submitted it to a fiction contest organized by UK mag SciFiNow. The prize was publication by Tor, which is pretty much the largest genre imprint around. I made the short-list of ten entries, and while I didn’t win, I wasn’t terribly disappointed. Surely, I thought, this happy little bargaining chip would help to find an amenable literary agent and, eventually, a publisher.

And so, I threw my hat into the traditional publishing ring, which goes something like this:

1. Write book. Submit pitch, typically a query with an example chapter or two attached, to literary agent and/or publishing house directly. Most publishers say they don’t take unagented submissions (some are telling the truth). Most agents don’t represent writers who aren’t coming to them with a publisher’s acceptance.

In many cases, submissions are done through I’m-actually-serious-people-really-do-this traditional mail. With paper. I know.

2. Wait up to six months for a response.

3. Receive a response, maybe. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a form rejection. If you’re really lucky, it’ll be a personalized rejection (this is a very good sign). Publishers generally have the decency to send you a rejection. Agents appear to be bound by monastic vows of silence.

4. Do it again.

5. And again.

6. Years pass. Hopefully, you’ve been writing and pitching other things during those years. Income from writing so far: $0. Unless you’re mailing out paper, in which case you have costs.

7. Hark! An agent has taken notice. Or perhaps a publisher has done, which is infinitely better, because just getting a literary agent signed is no guarantee that said agent will be able to sell your book. Writer is now asked to do a number of rewrites to fit a (generally) educated guess as to what sells in a given market. These usually go pretty quickly.

8. A contract is signed. If you’ve got a good agent (or an IP lawyer, or a strong understanding of publishing contract law), this contract won’t give away too many rights (translation rights, for instance, can be sold to foreign publishers at a later date for an added revenue stream). A good contract will allow you to reclaim other rights if your writing goes out of print.

9. Writer receives advance. This is essentially a loan against royalties. If a book ‘earns out’ – i.e. if you make more money from royalties over time than you were paid in advance – any additional royalties go to you. Otherwise (and most books don’t earn out), the advance is all the money you’ll see from a given novel. Advances are typically small – first-time writers can expect something under $5k.

Royalties are roughly 10-15% of the sale price of a book. Agents take 15% of royalties. If you’re lucky, your agent might actually have done something to help sell your book.

10. Book goes on shelves, probably a year or two after you actually sold it. Well done!

You receive your advance in installments, maybe earn out eventually. You get very little promotion, beyond having your books on an actual shelf. Sometimes, you’re contractually obligated to do your own promotion, often at your own cost.

After a while, unsold copies of book are pulled from shelves and returned by the bookstores to the publisher for full credit. Yes, seriously. Books returned in this way are destroyed by the bookstore and can’t be resold. Yes, seriously. Publishers make significant money from the sale of recyclable paper to Charmin. Congratulations! You are now out of print, but can take solace in the fact that people the world over are wiping their asses with your work.

11. Alcoholism. Actually, it’s probably best if you hit this step earlier in the process.

12. Return to 1.

Readers may at this point be wondering why anybody would willingly submit themselves to this train wreck of a business. The answer is disappointingly prosaic.

Until recently, it’s been the only game in town.

Tune in next time, and I’ll explain why that’s no longer the case, and why I have withdrawn from the traditional model.

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