Recently, a few writer-friends on the Absolute Write message boards and I were lamenting the fact that many inexperienced writers get tricked into believing that vanity presses and borderline-vanity presses are traditional publishers. We were talking about the numbers, mostly—how did so many new writers even find these publishers?
It all became shockingly clear: search engines.
We found that new writers often type phrases like “book publisher,” “find a publisher,” “book publishing,” or “novel publishers” into search engines like Google. And what comes up when you do that? Vanity presses all over the first page, with enticing messages like “Publish fast! We want your book!” Many writers don’t dig much deeper than that. They find those first few publishers, submit their manuscripts, and take the first “acceptance letter” that comes their way.
See, vanity and fringe presses caught on a lot faster than I did. They figured out what new writers were searching for and they optimized their web pages to make sure that when a writer typed in keywords like “book publisher” or “novel publisher,” their pages would come up first.
Now, I love the Internet. It’s a fabulous tool. But search engines are not the best spot to start your research when you’re a new writer in search of a book publishing contract. They’ll take you to the last-resort places first.
If you’re truly serious about building a career as an author, whether you plan to write novels or nonfiction books, you won’t skimp on the research. Aside from the time you spend actually writing the book, researching your publishing options may be your most valuable effort in the publication process. If you put your heart, your labor, your discipline into this manuscript, doesn’t it deserve the best home you can find for it?
Choosing a publisher is no simple task, and it’s not a decision that should be based on impatience. Yes, the easy way out is to find one of these “we’ll accept anything” publishers, turn in your manuscript, and have your book in your hands in a matter of just a couple of months (maybe even weeks). Unfortunately, it’s the easy way out only until you actually try to sell the darn thing—then it’s about the hardest road you could possibly have taken.
The next simplest way to find a publisher is in the Writer’s Market. I look forward to its publication every year; it helps to keep me up-to-date about thousands of markets for my work. You can search through it in hardcopy or online, and it has a genre index at the back so you can flip to book publishers that match your genre quickly. However, it shouldn’t be your only tool.
You may choose to look for an agent first, or you may choose to go it alone. Agents typically take a 15 percent commission from sale money; legitimate agents do not charge anything up-front. A good agent can help you get read faster, can help you get read in places that are typically closed to unsolicited submissions, and can help you negotiate the best possible deal.
That said, I’ve made more than half of my book deals on my own. I tend to be more proactive about my career than an agent ever could be, and I’m not afraid to negotiate. It’s all a matter of figuring out what works best for you.
If you choose to fly solo, there really are better ways of finding a publisher than doing random searches or reading books of guidelines. Here are my best tips:
1. Read Publishers Lunch (www.publisherslunch.com), which gives a run-down of book deals. It tells you which publishers are buying which types of books, and usually includes the name of the editor who acquired the book and the agent who made the deal.
2. Read Publishers Weekly (www.publishersweekly.com). It’s expensive, but you can probably find it at your local library. This will keep you up-to-date on industry happenings, trends, who’s buying what, and staff changes.
3. Read books! This may be the most obvious, yet most overlooked suggestion. The best way to target your submissions is to find books in your genre or on similar topics at a bookstore or library, then copy down the name of the publisher. Check the acknowledgments section, too, to see if the author mentioned the editor or agent. Then you can hop onto Google and type in the publishers’ name. More often than not, on any publishers’ site, you’ll find a link to submission guidelines. Barring that, there should be a mailing address or e-mail address at the very least. You can cross-reference information with Writer’s Market once you’ve found publishers that interest you, too.
4. Ask around. Let’s say you found a book in your genre that you enjoyed, but you’ve never heard of the publisher. There’s no harm in looking up the author, then sending off a polite e-mail to ask if he or she is having a positive experience with that publisher.
5. Search Amazon. Look up books you’ve read or heard of in your genre or category. Amazon lists the book publisher in each book’s entry. Then look up the publisher in a search engine or guidebook.
Assuming you want to earn a living from your writing, it’s important that your book reaches a large audience. That means it needs adequate distribution. Unfortunately, most print-on-demand publishers can’t achieve decent bookstore distribution because of a number of bookstore-unfriendly policies (no returns allowed, lower-than-average discounts to bookstores, lack of a bar code or price on the back of the book, etc.), not to mention the overall poor quality of vanity-published books due to a lack of editing and lack of editorial standards. This is not the crowd you want to be in if you plan to be a professional writer.
Above all else, you must be patient. There’s much more to book publishing than I could ever share in a short article; luckily, there are plenty of professional authors who are more than willing to share their expertise with you. Don’t rush your manuscript out until you feel secure that you understand the way the industry works. A few good clues: Do you know what a distributor does versus a wholesaler? Do you know which trade magazines’ reviews are important? Do you know why it’s preferable to get royalties on list price instead of net? Do you know why it’s important to have an “out of print” clause and what it should look like?
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing the answers. Everyone starts someplace. The only wrong thing is rushing into the publishing industry before you get those answers. The more naïve you are about the process, the easier it is for unscrupulous people to get hold of you.
A traditional publisher will never pressure you to buy your own books, to pay for editing or cover art or even your own copyright. They’ll cover the expenses. You’ll be expected to pitch in with publicity efforts, but it won’t all fall on your shoulders. With vanity and fringe presses, these standards aren’t there. Those companies make money from authors instead of from readers.
I know the road can seem long and difficult. Most authors receive many rejection letters before that first acceptance letter. But it’s a worthwhile wait. In a case like this, your first “instinct” may not be the best one. The kinds of publishers you probably want to deal with are not the ones who are screaming, “Click here! We’ll publish your book!” They’re the ones who are busy actually selling books instead of concentrating their efforts on luring in new writers.
Keep working at it until you find the right solution. Take as much care in finding a book publisher as you would a marriage partner; get to know the publisher before you commit, and understand what you’re getting into. When you begin walking into bookstores and seeing readers picking up your book, you’ll thank yourself that you took the time to get it right.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of www.AbsoluteWrite.com and the author of many books, including Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, which comes with a free editors’ cheat sheet at www.jennaglatzer.com. Her latest book, Fear is No Longer My Reality, which she co-wrote with Jamie Blyth of The Bachelorette, is hot off the press.