ON PUBLISHING FICTION
© Anthony G Williams
Amended 27 December 2009
I first starting writing non-fiction articles on military technology topics a quarter of a century ago. These were submitted to specialist magazines and were almost all published, almost always by the first publication I sent them to. When I wrote my first non-fiction book, Rapid Fire, I sent it round to various publishers, being accepted by the fourth one I tried. Ever since then, my non-fiction books have only been written after I have received a contract for them. These have all been published via the traditional publishing route.
However, my two (so far) novels have both been self-published. I am occasionally asked to discuss this, so I have put together these notes to provide some information and opinions on this subject for the guidance of prospective authors. I must stress that these are based solely on my experience with one British self-publishing company Authors OnLine (AonL) plus what I have been able to gather about the workings of the traditional publishing process. For the sake of brevity, the self-publishing and traditional publishing routes will hereinafter be referred to as SP and TP respectively.
What is SP?
This can take various forms. Some people set up their own companies to publish their work, and do it all themselves. In my experience, this is particularly common for non-fiction books covering technical topics too specialised for publishers to want to deal with. These tend to be sold by word of mouth among the small communities which share those interests, and while their quality of production varies greatly, the quality of their content is usually very high. Some post their work on the internet, free to all (as I do with the non-fiction articles on this site and, more recently, with one of my novels). But most SP fiction is handled (usually, but not always, for an initial fee) by an intermediary company which specialises in this.
The services offered by an SP company vary, as does the cost structure. At one end of the scale, there are "vanity publishers" who will charge a five-figure sum to produce 500 copies of a glossy hardback which they deposit on your doorstep for you to deal with. I cannot recommend this, unless you have money to burn and simply want to give copies to all your friends, relatives and acquaintances. If you want to sell your book, you need to take a different approach.
AonL offers a "menu" of services, starting with arranging for the private printing of a book which the author is not interested in offering for sale, all the way up to a full proof-reading, editing, layout, cover design and production service. Needless to say, the fee they charge varies accordingly. The minimum for those who want to sell their books is a package which consists of: posting the work on the AonL website as an e-book to be downloaded for a fee; arranging for the sale, printing and distribution of hard-copy books on a "Print on Demand" (POD) basis (which means just what it says: instead of a bulk print run, the books are printed when ordered); obtaining an ISBN number; sending a copy to the British Library as required by law; and putting the books on the amazon.com and amazon.co.uk websites.
The pros and cons of SP and TP
What follows is my personal opinion: others may disagree.
Certainty of publication
The biggest problem with TP is in finding a publisher. They are so swamped with manuscripts from aspiring authors that most of them don't bother to look at them unless they're sent to them by literary agents who they trust. So it's better to get a literary agent. The next problem is that most literary agents are so swamped etc that they don't bother to look at them either, unless they are from established novelists or people who are well known (which these days usually translates as people who are famous for being seen on the TV). I'm not sure how many aspiring novelists fail ever to find a publisher, but I'm told that fewer than one in a thousand books submitted (to agents or directly to publishers) gets printed. I'll repeat that: one in a thousand. Are you sure you wouldn't rather buy lottery tickets and save a lot of time?
Another aspect of the TP market, particularly where the bigger companies are concerned, is that they are primarily interested in only two types of author: those who regularly produce best-sellers, and new writers who look as if they might produce best-sellers. So even if you eventually manage to find a publisher and your first novel does reasonably but not spectacularly well, you might be dropped in favour of the next young hopeful and have to start looking for another publisher all over again, with the added disadvantage that other publishers are likely to know that you have been dropped for being a slow seller. I have read that these companies make a loss on 90% of the books they publish - all their profits come from the 10% of best-sellers - so the threat is real. This article from a US mid-list author gives some idea of the pressures and difficulties writers face today. The UK fiction publishing market is apparently even tougher than in the USA: one major UK publisher has reportedly decided to drop any author whose work fails to sell 100,000 copies in the first three months!
The most immediate benefit of SP is that you know that your book will always get published, unless the content is illegal, offensive or illiterate. This is, however, a double-edged sword, because it means that not only will your own brilliant masterpiece appear; so will the much-less-brilliant efforts of hordes of far less talented writers. I have never tried studying the quality of SP novels, but I am advised by those who have that it is generally very low, which gives SP fiction a bad name. This has consequences which I will come to.
With SP you are in charge the book will appear precisely as you specify. With TP you have to negotiate with the editor, whose views might be very different from your own. I have even read of an editor unilaterally changing the ending of a novel. The other side of that coin is, of course, that your pride and joy might actually be significantly improved by some experienced editing. However, there are websites where aspiring authors can publish their work for criticism, which can be valuable as long as you bear in mind that even experienced critics' opinions of books can vary significantly: just because someone says it's brilliant (or rubbish) doesn't necessarily make it so. And books which received critical acclaim are not necessarily the same as the best-sellers: Paolini's 'Eragon', Rowling's 'Harry Potter' books and Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' come to mind as recent examples of best-sellers which had a critical reception.
One bonus of SP is that if you would like to alter anything in your book after publication, you can do so at any time and all subsequent copies sold will be of the revised version. There is of course a fee for this, at a flat rate regardless of how many changes you want to make at one time.
Should you be lucky enough to write a best-seller, your TP company will probably put pressure on you to write a sequel because there is already a captive audience, so success is much more likely. My own field of speculative fiction (SF) in particular seems to favour trilogies these days which may run to trilogies of trilogies if they continue to sell. This is fine if you are happy to keep writing about the world you have created, but restricting if you'd rather be moving on to something else. Also, many of the longer series seem to run out of steam and end up disappointing their readers.
Speed of publication
A clear win to SP, and the principal reason why I chose SP for my first novel (after a brief attempt at TP). This novel was actually available to purchase as a paperback about two months after I first contacted AonL. Even if you find a TP company immediately, it is likely to take several times longer than this before your novel appears. And, as indicated above, it can take a very long time to find a publisher (if indeed you ever do), because you might have to try several different ones and each one might hang on to your manuscript for a long time - possibly several months - before rejecting it. This site provides some horror stories concerning how long some publishers have done this.
It's probably not worth trying the TP route unless you have great determination and tenacity. Frank Herbert's 'Dune' - now recognised as one of the great SF novels - was rejected by nearly twenty TP firms before it emerged in the mid-1960s; Stephen Donaldson's first book in the 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant' series (the SF publishing sensation of the late 1970s) by over forty; and even J K Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was rejected by several publishers before one decided to take a chance on it (there must have been some very red faces in those companies ). That incidentally illustrates that publishers don't always know best when it comes to picking winners, particularly with respect to stories which are different from those on the current best-seller list, a thought which might give you some comfort when the umpteenth rejection letter arrives.
The basic message to those who want to break into TP is that if you had better be prepared to keep trying scores of agents or publishers over a period of several years. Some new authors do get published sooner than this, but many never succeed at all.
A clear win to TP. SP books are almost always produced via POD, which means that they will not be printed until paid for. Bookshops will generally only take books on a "sale or return" basis, which means that SP books will rarely be found on their shelves so you will miss out on the "casual browser" market. SP books have to rely mainly on the internet for their sales, which is less of a problem than it used to be. Amazon.co.uk reportedly had 11-12% of the UK book market in May 2006, up from 5% five years earlier. It further increased its share of the UK book market to almost 20% in 2008, and is probably now higher still given the continued collapse of the big bookselling chains (most recently Borders). In the USA, Amazon Media showed a rise in the value of sales of 29% in 2007 and 16% in 2008, over a period when conventional booksellers have seen no increase. However, Amazon is threatening to drop listings of POD books except for those published by its own company, BookSurge. This is currently still the subject of a legal challenge in the USA.
The bookselling market in the UK is in a state of flux following the ending of the net book agreement (= price-fixing by publishers) a few years ago. Supermarkets like Tesco now sell novels at big price discounts; but the catch is that they only offer best-sellers, so that doesn't help you if you're trying to become established. In fact, it works to your disadvantage, as it makes it more likely that someone who's just looking for a book to read will pick one up with the weekly shopping instead of making a journey to a bookshop. And even in the few remaining large chain bookshops, the books which get the prominent displays are those for which the publisher has paid the chain a substantial sum to obtain just such a display (apparently, this can earn the shops almost as much as their income from book sales). They will only do that for those which they believe will be best-sellers. I have read that 80% of the books on the shelves of any bookshop never sell a single copy in that shop.
There is one aspect in which SP has a significant advantage over TP: the continued availability of your book. TP companies will typically print a certain number of copies initially. If the book hits the best-seller list, they will print more. But if it doesn't, that's it and if the first print run doesn't sell out within a certain time, your precious book will suffer the indignity of being remaindered. With SP, a small annual fee will ensure that your book remains on the system, ready to be downloaded or printed, indefinitely. And it will never be remaindered.
Marketing and reviews
With SP, the most you are likely to get is publicity on the company's website, plus the entries on Amazon. Everything else is up to you. With TP, the publisher usually undertakes the marketing of your new book for you (although you may be asked to turn up at book-signings etc). However, small-press publishers - who are likely to be more receptive to new authors - are unlikely to have the resources to afford much marketing, so you may have to do a lot yourself. Even the big publishers will tend to focus their marketing effort on a small percentage of their books, and will usually put their maximum effort behind established authors.
Obtaining reviews in magazines (paper or on-line) is an important but difficult area for SP novelists. There are only so many review slots I don't have any figures but I suspect far less than the number of books published so the reviewers need to be selective. And the easiest filter to use is whether or not the book has emerged from the TP route, since in that case it has already had to pass through a screening process. Some sites explicitly reject SP book reviews on principle, others probably do so in practice. So the SP author has to try harder
If your book has a local setting, then local newspapers may provide a news item about it, and local bookshops are worth approaching to see if they will stock some and host a book-signing.
It is a good idea to prepare a fact sheet on your SP book, providing a synopsis of the plot, a photo of the front cover and the details which booksellers want: the ISBN, page size and count, publishers name and address, and distributor contact details. This can then be sent to on-line booksellers and to prospective reviewers.
It also helps if you have your own website or blog so you can display details of your book and post the first chapter or so free for all to read (if your SP company doesn't do that for you).
Costs and income
Not all SP companies charge a fee for making your book available, but in those cases you have to do nearly all the work involved yourself. In most instances you will have to pay something up-front, so you will have to sell a certain number of books before you break even. You can expect to get a bigger slice of the income than with TP, but note that the percentage you receive is of the price at which the company sells the book which, unless it's a direct sale, is far less than the cover price. While it is not possible to give precise figures, with AonL the break-even point is likely to be in the region of 250 copies if you've paid for the minimum service, and around 1,000 if you've chosen the full support package.
It is also worth noting that POD is a more costly production system than TP, so the book's asking price will be higher. On the other hand, the e-book version will (or should) be sold for substantially less (about 40% of the hard-copy price for AonL) and because there are no print costs and no middleman, you may actually receive slightly more per sale than for hard-copy sales.
The more limited availability and marketing opportunities for SP books mean that total sales will be a small fraction of those for the average TP book. I have read that most SP books sell no more than 200-300 copies, with anything over 1,000 being considered a best-seller. Unless you are already a very well-known and popular author, you will not make much money out of SP. However, books produced by the small-press TP firms may not sell much (if any) better. To put this into context, a couple of comments I read in the UK press in 2007 were that the worst-selling two-thirds of the c.85,000 books on sale at any one time sell an average of just 18 copies; and that the best-selling novel of the six shortlisted for the 2007 Booker prize had sold only just over 1,500 copies by August of that year. Furthermore, the size of the market is declining. Jo Fletcher, the editorial director of Gollancz, commented in a 2007 interview in Vector magazine (published by the British Science Fiction Association) that the typical initial print run for a UK paperback was now 4,000 copies, compared with 10,000 in 1986.
If your book is accepted by a TP firm you can expect to be paid an advance, which in exceptional circumstances can run into six figures if big firms get into a bidding war. However, advances are reportedly falling even in the case of the larger TP firms, partly because few books sell really well, and partly due to the financial pressures described below. And a big advance may count against you, as it means that your book has to become a best-seller for the TP firm to make any profit; if that doesn't happen, that's likely to be the last time they publish you.
The future: a personal view
This is an interesting time for the development of fiction publishing because the traditional bookselling process is coming under threat for a variety of reasons. Some of these have already been mentioned: competition from supermarkets for selling the most profitable best-sellers (sometimes at knock-down prices, as a loss-leader) is hitting the profit margins of the declining number of specialised bookshops, while Amazon is steadily making inroads into the rest of their market as they can list a wider variety than even the largest bookshop can offer. TP profits are also being squeezed by the bulk-buying power of Amazon, the supermarkets and the big bookshop chains, who can demand substantial discounts off the normal trade price. This increased competition means that TP firms are unlikely to take risks they need to feel confident that any book they publish will sell well, and they therefore strongly favour authors with a record for writing best-sellers. This is not good news for aspiring authors.
The SP market is so far insignificant in terms of the percentage of sales achieved, for the reasons outlined above. However, certain market trends may help their development: the growth of Amazon and other online booksellers (where SP novels compete on equal terms with TP books) and, in the longer term, the potential for e-book sales as the hardware becomes more versatile and affordable (overall, over 15% of the sales of my first novel have been e-books, but most of those happened early on - the current figure is about 7%). In the past year or so, the introduction of improved e-book readers such as the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle has boosted interest in this market, but high costs seem to be keeping down sales. You will also be faced with the problem of getting your book published this way if a proprietary format is used. A paperback-sized, weatherproof, multi-function device, with clear double-page screens, able to act as a personal organizer, phone, video viewer, camera, GPS system etc and with a memory big enough to store a library of several hundred books could have the same revolutionary impact on the e-book market as MP3 players have had on popular music distribution.
This still leaves the problem for SP books whether in e-book or hard-copy format of filtering: how to tell the good from the bad without the TP selection process doing this for you, particularly if magazines and specialist websites refuse to publish reviews of SP books?
From my own experience, I think that there are several potential answers to this. My own book-buying, spreading over several decades, has been through three chronological stages. First came browsing through specialist bookshops for hours on end, looking first for my favourite authors, then evaluating new authors by examining the synopsis on the back and the comments made on the cover to decide what to buy. The second stage came when I discovered the late, lamented, Andromeda SF bookshop, which distributed a regular publication consisting of descriptions of the books on sale, frequently with brief review comments by their own staff. I ordered almost all of my SF novels from them for many years, and felt bereft when they closed down.
Now I rely almost entirely on the internet, supplemented by the reviews in Interzone, in Vector (the magazine of the British Science Fiction Association) and in Prism (the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society). SF discussion forums provide many pointers to new books (and often have helpful comments such as "if you liked X, you might like Y"). These sources provide me with a shortlist of books to consider, which I then check out on Amazon. Further information there, including reader reviews, will help me to decide, although it should be noted that reviews may often be written by friends of the author but that can, of course, also apply to more formal reviews. I have even heard of a reviewer giving a polite review to a fellow-author's work which he thought was poor, because he was afraid that the author would otherwise gain revenge when the reviewer's next book was published. You will note that with the exception of Interzone/Vector/Prism reviews, the personal book-buying process I now use completely bypasses the traditional method of choosing and purchasing books, and does not distinguish between TP and SP novels. I suspect that this approach can only grow in the future. It does depend, however, on SP books getting some reviews in the first place, which takes us back to marketing.
The basic problem is that the number of aspiring authors has been rising (aided by the development of word processing) while the number of readers - or, at least, purchasers - has been declining. There are now far too many of the former chasing far too few of the latter. As a result, the vast majority of authors will never see any worthwhile financial return for their efforts. This includes some good authors who in earlier times would almost certainly have been successful. Frustration with the difficulty in finding a publisher is driving more people down the SP route.
It is important to be aware that there is significant prejudice against SP books among those involved with TP, as it is strongly believed that they are not likely to be any good. Some of the criticism is rather crude: there is a tendency to lump all SP activities together as "vanity publishing", whereas that is only a small fraction of the SP market, and to quote "Yog's Law", which states that money should always flow to the author, not from the author; which is fine as a long-term principle, but ignores the fact that even TP authors will incur costs while writing or marketing a book. I regarded my up-front payment of publishing costs as a (tax-deductible) investment on which I aimed to make a return. Also, many involved in the publishing business appear to regard the years of struggling to try to get published to be a rite of passage that all aspiring authors should go through: self-publishers who bypass all of that seem to be regarded as somehow cheating. If you have self-published and want to try the TP route, it is probably a bad idea to mention your SP activities to agents or TP editors, as it is likely to count against you. Unless, that is, your SP book has been that very rare best-seller, as happened a few years ago with Christopher Paolini's 'Eragon', which sold about 10,000 SP copies before being picked up by a TP company (and made into a film). That is, however, very much the exception, no doubt assisted in this case by the fact that the young author's family were involved in publishing.
It is also worth noting that most readers neither know nor care whether or not a book has been self-published - all they are interested in is a good story. So if you can get a buzz going about your book, you can achieve respectable sales: it's just a lot more difficult to get there with an SP book.
For now, there is one simple conclusion: if you want to be taken seriously as an author by the publishing world, let alone become a best-seller or even to make some useful income out of it, you have no realistic option but to grind through the TP process and hope for the best. SP is great for those who write for fun, like to see their books in print, want to stay in control of the process, can afford the ante and aren't too bothered about sales. Me? I'm somewhere in between: I do write for fun, but it would be nice to have a wider readership and more recognition.
I initially chose the SP route because my first novel was about an alternative Second World War, and the 60th anniversary of the end of that conflict was imminent. I didn't want to miss that marketing opportunity so, once I realised how long the TP process was likely to take, I decided that I couldn't afford to wait. I was sufficiently satisfied with the book's success (lots of good reader reviews and a best-seller by SP standards) to go straight to SP for my second novel. That has had few sales: Scales is a more conventional SF thriller which is aimed at a wider - and more heavily populated - market. Books like The Foresight War, which appeal to specific and easily-reachable (via discussion forums) niche markets are probably better suited to SP than is more mainstream fiction. This issue is explored in more detail HERE.
I am very conscious that both TP and SP have significant advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell, the hard work with TP is all about finding (and then keeping) a publisher, the hard work with SP is all about getting your book (favourably) noticed. If a large TP company approached me and asked to publish my novels in the usual way, I would agree because I'd like that recognition and wider readership, but the chance of that happening is exceedingly remote.
Finally, all aspiring authors of fiction should bear in mind that to succeed it is not enough to write a good, appealing, story. You also need to be determined, thick-skinned, patient and lucky (or, in a few cases, just extremely lucky, as in winning the national lottery lucky). That applies whichever method of publishing you decide on.
Anthony G Williams is the author of The Foresight War and Scales
Click on the titles for details, reviews and to read the first chapters online