Being a Better Writer: Working with Trad-Pub

Hello readers! Welcome to another Monday, to Being a Better Writer, and one of the last reader-requested topics of Topic List #16!

Yeah, we’ve come that far once again. There are only a few topics left, and before long—definitely before the month is out—we’ll be putting out a call for new BaBW topic suggestions once again! So, you know, be thinking about what you’d like to hear about!

In the meantime, though, we’ve still got a few posts to go, so it isn’t quite that time yet. But keep it in mind!

So, before we dive into today’s topic, as usual, let’s talk some quick news! Work on Starforge continues, but things have moved into a mad dash now. Literally or on my end, I won’t say, but the story and work on it is moving at a good clip. Might have the draft finished in another few months.

How about Axtara? How’s it been performing? Well, it did have a bit of a boost this weekend when the cover and a little blurb ended up on a Facebook group. The power of word-of-mouth! Those of you that have read it and loved it and want to see more, be sure to tell people you know about it! Or sands, if you’re the kind of person that hangs out on Booktube or frequents some book review sites, let them know about it! That’s how they find out about stuff!

Oh, and the invitation is still open for pictures of Axtara copies spotted in the wild! I’ve started seeing listings for it pop up in various bookstores (a number of them in … Germany?), so I know she’s out there!

And that’s it for the news! There isn’t much to talk about during the slump between books, I know. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the subject of today’s Being a Better Writer post! Let’s talk about working with Traditional Publishing.

Okay, immediately, right off the bat, I need to start with a disclaimer. I am independent. That means, for those unfamiliar with the parlance of the writing world, I’m not affiliated with a traditional publisher. This was my decision, but as a result, this means that what I have to say is inevitably going to be slightly biased, as again, I chose not to pursue the path of traditional publication for a number of reasons, and inevitably that will show in my position on some things.

But, as I was asked to share what knowledge I have picked up about dealing with a traditional publisher, I’m going to try to do my best here. So, let’s start with the very beginning.

Getting in with a Traditional Publisher

Okay, so you’ve done all the writing stuff that this site is so much about and finished your manuscript. You’ve polished it, had friends and family offer feedback, maybe even hired an editor to go over it and help you clean up any problems you might have missed. It’s ready, as far as you’re concerned. Ready for the world! So now you need to go about getting it to them.

Now, you’ve already decided that you don’t want to go independent. You want the traditional publisher route. So, how do you get there?

Well, the first and most classic option you have is what I’ll just call the Blind Slush Submission. That’s where you make a bunch of copies of your manuscript, you grab the generic submission address for every traditional publisher you can (not a large number anymore, so hey, you’ll save on postage), and fire your manuscript copies off through the mail in hopes of getting a bite. Then you wait (and hopefully work on something new).

And wait. And wait. And … yeah, you’ll probably be waiting for a while. The rule of thumb (last I talked with anyone still doing this) was that you wait a year before firing it off again. Or until you’ve heard back. Which you might have, you might have not.

Oh, and I should note that some publishers and editors frown on having submitted the same manuscript to multiple places at the same time. Sure, they might not even look at it before tossing it into the trash, but they’d prefer you not give someone else the chance to look at it in the meantime (I did warn you I went indie for a reason).

If this approach sounds like a long shot, well … it is. Look, trad pubs, especially now that they are so few, and with so many people sending in submissions over and over and over again (a rank you’ve just joined), the odds are slim of someone even actually looking at it. I’ve listened to editors ten years ago talk about how their pattern for the slush pile (mail-in submissions) was “read one, shove the next nine in the trash without looking, read another one, trash the next nine …” because they just don’t have the time to read through those submissions and do the rest of their job. And that was ten-plus years ago, when there were more trad-pubs than there are now (acquisitions and monopolies, hooray!) and those organizations employed more editors.

Basically, look at it this way. It took Stephen King years and over thirty submissions to get someone to even look at Carrie. Yeah, that novel that would go on to be a best-selling classic of American Horror? The one that’s sold tens of millions of copies? It got rejected so many times that King actually gave up, and his wife dug his manuscript out of the trash and pushed him to keep going.

Sands, Dune was rejected by every editor out there. It ended up being published by a company that published automotive manuals because the author couldn’t get the trad-pub of its time to take it seriously.

So the blind approach? Not your best shot (and yes, I say this knowing full well how many people freak out and offer their congratulations to people that announce they’ve sent out the blind manuscript for their first book, fully unaware of how the industry actually is). However, you have alternatives.

The first of these is the Researched Approach. Here, you don’t send a book to the blind-submission pile. You avoid that as best you can. Instead you pick a specific editor, someone who you suspect will like your book, and you send your manuscript to them.

This is actually trickier than it sounds. Some publishers keep their editors under lock and key (metaphorically, at least I hope), making it hard to determine who edited what and what they enjoy, while others make it abundantly clear. A good way to try and find an editor who might like your book is to find other books like it and check the copyright page inside the front cover to see who edited it, and then address your submission to their desk.

Oh, and when you do this, personalize that cover letter for them! Make things abundantly clear that you’re sending it to them specifically and believe they’ll like it. This still isn’t any guarantee of any kind, mind, but it increases the chance that someone will lay eyes on your submission.

Oh, and a note on cover letters: Each publisher has their own rules, so regardless of whether your manuscript is being sent blind or being sent to an editor directly, follow their requests. If they say “no cover letter” then don’t do it. Don’t think you’ll be going “above and beyond” by doing it anyway. You’ll be “going” straight into the garbage can. Publishers don’t have time for folks who can’t bother to follow their instructions.

Aside over. Now, again, a researched approach doesn’t guarantee anything. It does make it more likely that someone will at least glance at your work and possibly respond, maybe even read it. Sands, they might read it and enjoy it, but not have an opening in their market for what you’ve written (something like Axtara – Banking and Finance for example is unique enough that most publishers wouldn’t dare touch it simply because it’s not traditional and familiar).

So there’s that a approach. But it’s still not great. So let’s look at another option for getting in with a trad-pub: The Agent. No, these aren’t Matrix-style superhuman folks who’ll challenge a publisher to a wire-fu duel to get you book in, though that’d be pretty cool. Think of agents like … a screening service that you and the publisher pay.

Remember the slush pile? Well an agent’s job as the publishers see it is to circumvent that slush pile for the publishers. This is a person who may have ties with a publisher (or more likely several) and looks over manuscripts themselves, then submits only the best of the best they read from their slush to the publisher with their credentials backing it. This makes it much more likely for that publisher to take a look, especially if it’s a respected agent they’ve got ties with.

In fact, some agents now are going further. Now it’s not uncommon to find agents who start bidding wars between publishers. As in “Minimum contract starts at this rate, you all have six months to decide or the book goes indie!” Why? Because the agent knows that indie is capable of standing on its own two feet, and so do the publishers. It’s a balance of power thing I won’t go into detail on here, but it’s worth mentioning because if you’re determined to be with a trad pub, make sure you make that clear to the agent.

Now, of course, there are some compromises, as you might imagine. Just as a publisher wants the lion’s share of a book profit, so too does the agent want a cut. They don’t do this out of the goodness of their own heart. They want a fee, either flat, up-front, cut of the royalty, or all of the above. Your agent will vary.

But second, and even more vital, entering into an agreement with an agent is just like entering an agreement with a publisher. A lot of agents are almost like mini-publishers inside bigger publishers. You’ll make a contract with them, and you may be under some sort of agreement like you can only submit books to that agent and nowhere else.

So here, just as once you’ve had a bite from a publisher get a lawyer to check your contract. There are no exceptions. And if they attempt to hold you over a flame or make you decide without getting that contract checked (IE, “Well I need this signed today, so either agree or don’t”) immediately walk the other way. Some contracts with agents can be just as bad as with publishers. I recall one author I knew who hadn’t realized how much power their contract with their agent gave the agent until the agent had locked them into writing several books for basically no money at all, and worse, they were books that the author didn’t want to write at all (genre, subject matter, etc). Unfortunately. they’d given their agent that power, and were consigned to honor the contract until they’d seen it through.

Don’t make that mistake. Get your contract checked. Always.

But if you take that precaution and find a good agent, they can be a wonder for getting your manuscript to the head of the line. They can even circumvent problems with the publisher like “How do we sell this?” by presenting a marketing plan for them up front (something that, for example, a novel like Axtara would need).

Okay, now that might seem like everything, but it isn’t. There’s one last way to get in. And it’s the hardest, and most conditional, but the best way to jump the slush.

Know somebody. Yup, this old line. Look, you can try to make it through the slush, or get an agent. But the best way to get your book into the hands of an editor and a publishing contract on your desk? Make friends with someone like Stephen King.

Or rather, already be friends with him or someone who knows him (or insert author of choice here). Then give them your manuscript, and hope they like it.

This actually does work. Naomi Novik, the author of the Temeraire series and the utterly fantastic Spinning Silver? A solid bestseller with every one of her books? Only got published because her husband met Stephen King at a party and talked up the manuscripts she’d written.

Yes, that’s right. Plural. She’d already written several of the Temeraire books but hadn’t had any bites yet. King, intrigued, asked for copies, read them in a weekend, then, as the story was told to me, walked into his editor’s office after the weekend, plopped them down on the desk, and said “You will publish these.”

So yeah, this is an option. And quite frankly, as “cheap” as it might feel to skip past everyone, the bitter truth is that the publishing industry (trad pub specifically) has a track record of sucking at picking out what’s going to be good, mostly relying on their advertising engine. So if you have this option available to you take it. With both hands. Charge ahead. Don’t feel that you should have to jump through the other hoops to have “made it” the “real way” because that path is littered with the bones of great authors that the publishers never gave the time of day.

Seriously, if you have this option to get your work on someone’s desk take it. It’s perhaps, oddly enough, the most fair way in, too, because the chances of an editor looking at your work and fairly considering what can be done are at their highest. Take this path if you have the chance. Just, you know, trust your inside track. If they look at what you offer and shake their head, it either ends there and you go back to the drafting process, or you push the friend away.

You’re in, Now What?

So you made it in! A publisher has chosen your work! HUZZAH! First things first: Celebrate. Not “the celebration to end all celebrations, your life of work is over” (because it isn’t), but more the kind of “have a nice dinner and pat yourself on the back,” then get ready to work. Because your work isn’t over. Not by a long shot.

The first step? Get a lawyer to go over any contract before you sign it. Look for every pitfall, loophole, restriction … everything. Get a full list. Don’t assume that the publisher will “play nice” (because they won’t, most trad-pub is in it for them, not you). Go over that contract with a fine-toothed comb. Or rather, you do that, and also have a lawyer do it. A few hundred bucks now can save you a lot of heartache in the future. Are you going to be locked with that publisher from now on? For how many years? Who owns the rights to your work? Your name? How much revision can they demand? Who has final say in what gets published?

And here is where I need to be brutally honest: If you’re going Trad-pub, you’re most likely going to be giving up most of that. From rights to control, to maybe even your name, or what happens in the story (yes, publishers can—and often do—require changes to a story for “editorial” reasons usually closer to “well, we want to publish a story that does this,” meaning you won’t get control without notoriety), publishers have a range of what they expect to hold and what you’re allowed to keep.

There’s no solid line here, so I can’t say “expect _____.” Instead all I can say is read that contract and check everything. Does it lock you out of submitting a book anywhere or selling it on your own if the publisher doesn’t like the sales of the current book? Who pays for advertising and promotion? Who pays for the travel for advertising and promotion? How much editing is going to be done?

No, none of those questions are mistakes. In efforts to cut costs over the last decade, trad-pub has shifted more and more of the responsibility of things like editing, promotion, and advertising to the author. Sure, you might get a royalty of two grand, but if your contract specifies that you’re responsible for advertising, or travel costs for signings, etc … you might find that doesn’t even cover it.

And yes, if you’re wondering “Isn’t the point of going with a trad-pub over indie so that I don’t have to do those things?” well … Welcome to why so many trad-pub authors are going indie. I did warn at the beginning of this post.

So yes, you’ve got your in? Go over that contract. Check it out. And then decide if you want to sign it or not. Again, don’t let yourself be pressured into it. They want it, so on some level, you have something marketable. At the very least, you can walk away and try another pub, or if you get locked out for turning one down, you can go indie.

But read that contract. I can’t stress this enough. Because everything from that point onward, from how you interact with your publisher to how they interact with you, is going to be in that contract. From how much you get in an advance, to how many copies are printed … work it all out.

The Fine Details

And at this point? Well … my advice almost stops, and becomes somewhat generic. Because a lot of what happens after you sign that contract will be both normal, and entirely determined by your contract. There will be editing. There will be marketing. There will be an advance check. But all of that will be different depending on the publisher and the editor, and what you’ve agreed to. Which is why I stressed figuring whether or not you’re in agreement with it before signing that contract. Because once you’re in it, you’re in it.

You’re going to edit, though. Start work on another manuscript, most likely. And cross your fingers and pray for success.

But there’s one last thing I’m going to bring up: Taxes. Figure out early on how you’re going to need to account for your advance and your royalty. Because depending on how you’re paid, you may need to set aside money and start sending out quarterlies.

At this point though, that’s the best advice I can give. Because your work with the trad-pub at this point will be entirely set by your contract. It may be “fire and forget” or it may be “you do everything, they print some stuff.” Or it may be an interaction through mail with an editor. It may be in-person meetings.

I can’t advise you at that point. But hopefully, if you’re looking to work with trad-pubs, everything before this gives you an idea of what you’ll need to do and what’s expected.

In Summation …

Look, if there’s one thing to take away from this, it should be that no matter how you go about approaching a trad-pub, be it through an agent, an editor, whatever, you have a lawyer look at the contract.

The second takeaway is that it may take time, years even, to see a book that’s even been accepted show up in print. Years to get someone to look at it, years to get it accepted, and then years for it to show up in print. During which you will hopefully spend that time not just revising, but writing more books to send out as well.

The third and final takeaway should be that with all of this, you should not expect to become rich (or even make a living) publishing books through trad pub. That ship is mostly sailed. A few get in, like Novik, and make that reality, but what’s outlined above is also an alert that if you’re working with trad-pub because you want writing to be your primary income, well … it very likely won’t be, or not for a long time and a lot of books, or a TV deal. Which is similar to independent, but the royalty there is better.

But look, for some, it’s not about the money. It’s about the name. The brand. And if having a trad-pub novel is a goal you desires, well then may this article help you achieve it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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