Thursday, September 17, 2009

Understanding The Traditional Publishing Route by Charles Jacobs

Massive changes has occurred in the world of traditional publishing. The most impressive and beneficial is the burgeoning of indie publishers, smaller, independent companies that prize quality and diversity in books and care deeply about the authors they work with.

At the other end of the spectrum is the sadness that has dominated what at one time was a dedicated and flourishing concentration of major publishers who too believed in quality and diversity. Unfortunately, that has changed dramatically. Most major publishers today are members of large conglomerates, and as typically happens when privately-owned companies are swallowed up by a conglomerate, quality gives way to greed, and the bottom line becomes the dominant force in decision-making.

That’s what’s happened to most of the names we once revered. Take for example, names like Doubleday, Knopf, Random House; they are no longer independent. They have been swallowed up by a conglomerate called Bertlesman. It’s not even an American company. Based in Germany, it is the largest publishing conglomerate in the world.

What does this trend mean to you as an author? With few exceptions, the major publishing houses care little about newcomers or even published authors who are not yet household names. Instead, they concentrate on publishing books by long-established authors and memoirs of Hollywood stars, leading politicians or disgruntled politicos and bureaucrats who have left the Beltway. Despite the occasional breakthrough by a first-time or novice author, you stand little chance of connecting with these publishers.

But that doesn’t mean that the only choices left to the majority of authors are Publishing on Demand (POD) or self-publishing, both of which we have just finished discussing in a series of weekly columns. Fortunately, the population of indie publishers has grown geometrically over the past decade, and they hold out the welcome mat to every writer who can provide a well-written, interesting manuscript.

The Process

Traditional publishing is quite different from either self-publishing or POD. The author becomes involved in a joint venture with a literary agent and a publisher. All three play a critical role in the process as it moves through contract negotiation and into editing, followed by production. A breakdown by any one of these three participants can doom the book to failure.

Let’s begin by looking at the way an author reaches out to a traditional publisher, whether major or indie. All of the majors require that submissions come through a literary agent. They will not accept a manuscript directly from an author. That’s not true for many of the indies. Although they prefer you work through an agent, many will accept a direct submission from you.

There is an accepted method of submitting, whether it is to an agent or to a publisher directly. Step one is to open the door with a query letter. If you are lucky enough to receive a favorable reply, that is followed by a book proposal in the case of nonfiction or by submission of the entire finished manuscript of a novel.

The Literary Agent

Many publishing experts claim that the process of convincing a literary agent to accept you is more difficult than finding a publisher. You have to understand that an agent’s income is directly related to the earnings of the book. He/she is compensated by a percentage (usually 15%) of the monies earned by the sale of the book. Therefore the agent must be extremely cautious when selecting a book to represent.

It is often a challenging task to find an agent, but it is well worth the effort. The agent’s services go far beyond just the placement of your manuscript with a publisher. He/she becomes your alter-ego in dealing with all aspects of the publishing process. Negotiating a contract with a publisher is a literary minefield. No author should attempt it by him/herself. An experienced agent or literary attorney (not just any general practice attorney) knows the pitfalls to be avoided and fights for the best advance and royalty payments.

More than that, the agent helps you to improve your book proposal and frequently even your manuscript before submission to a publisher. Agents develop close relationships with editors at the publishing houses of the genres they deal in. Agent lunches are legendary. They meet with editors regularly both to keep abreast of industry trends and to promote their clients’ books. As a results they understand the idiosyncrasies of the editors they deal with as well as their likes and their dislikes.

On the publisher’s side, editors rely on the judgment of the agent to prescreen books and recommend those that represent a value to their specific publishing house. That usually means a book recommended by an agent goes on the top of the pile to be considered by the editor, and that is a huge advantage.

The agent then shepherds the book through the production process, ensuring that you are given a quality product. Once the book is published and distributed, the agent becomes your “banker.” Royalty payments from the publisher come directly to the agent, who then distributes the money to you and maintains detailed financial records for you.

Finding an Agent

Directories of agents are published that will show you the genres the agent prefers and give detailed information on contacting him/her. There you can find lists of the books recently placed by the agent, contractual terms and additional information that can help a savvy writer shape a query letter and proposal that will capture the interest of the agent.

Carefully review the listings in the Guide to Literary Agents published by Writers Digest Books. It is updated annually, so make sure you check a current edition. Literary Agent Jeff Herman has also written several excellent directories as well as books on finding an agent. Writers Market, a book we’ve frequently mentioned in earlier columns, also contains a directory of agents, both those who charge fees and those who don’t. I recommend you stay far away from an agent that speaks of a fee for critiquing your book.

Make certain that any agent you select is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). You can feel comfortable that you have picked a bonafide agent if they are members of this excellent organization. Select five or six agents that seem to fit the needs of your book. Turn next to their web sites and study them carefully to ensure they are a good fit for you. Look for clues to shaping a query letter that will attract their attention as it introduces you and your book

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Charles Jacobs

Charles Jacobs's writing has been honored with numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, New Jersey Press Club, Working Press Association, the North American Travel Journalists Association, ForeWord Magazine, Axiom Books, USABook News, NY Festival of Books, Garden State Journalists Assoc, Indie Awards, Florida Publishers Association


  1. Great article, Charles. You have helped a lot of writers understand this often confusing business. Thanks. Please come back again and share some more wisdom on this subject.

  2. Yes, thanks very much. Now even indies prefer agents? Forewarned is forearmed, and sure enough I have two forearms.

  3. Joylene - I can't believe it. Great minds I guess. I told Carol that my next blog was going to be more serious - about writing in fact & yikes - you've covered a portion of my topic already. No worries. I'll leave the draft & put it out there one of these days. You did a great job with this post. Promise I won't steal (too much from it. DE

  4. I'm more exhausted than I realized - didn't see the author's name - just assumed. Great article though. Oh well - so I look dumb. Not the 1st time.

  5. It's okay, Dave. Nobody noticed. lol. I knew you'd notice eventually. You may not be quick, but you're smart. That counts for something. Right?

  6. David, it's a long tough road, but listen to that inner voice. When you think you're ready to find an agent, you'll have the best resource available: the Internet.

    I've had 3 agents, 1 was a renown agent in NYC who put me on the shelf for 2 years because she was too busy promoting her famous clients.

    Hardships are part of our chosen profession. They toughen us up and make that special day even more delightful.

  7. I'm checking out Charles' book. It sounds like something I really need to read.

  8. Great information Charles---thanks so much! I'm looking forward to reading your book.

  9. What frustrating is you send to one of the small indies because the large ones aren't accepting unsolicited queries, then you end up waiting anywhere from 10 to 18 months for them to make up their minds. And even then, because they can only publish so many titles a year, you wait forever for your book to come out, discovering too late that they have absolutely no monies to help you market your book.

    Sorry for venting. I feel better now.

  10. I left a comment, but it didn't appear. It's been that kind of a day. I just wanted to thank Charles for his post. We need more of these. I have 100 questions, but will settle for one. First, I do know that larger houses are no longer putting in extra money for marketing either. All their funds go to the best sellers.

    My question is: Why are there so many articles promising that if you market online as they instruct, you'll become a best seller?

    Okay, I have one more question to add to the one above: is online marketing worth the effort? Who's buying those books? I can't afford them. I buy my books from the discount counter.

    Actually, I think I left my previous comment on the wrong blog. Sorry.

  11. Although I don't agree with some of the points made, it's an interesting post. There are certainly an abundance of the smaller indies turning up, although it's fascinating that the term not only applies to individual publishers but now also is being used by some self-published authors. Lots of changes in the industry for sure. Thanks for sharing your point of view, Charles.

  12. Thanks, Katt, Robin, Sam, & Careann for stopping by and leaving Charles a comment. We're all writers and knowing there's an audience for our work is reassuring. And the wonderful thing is, we don't have to agree. We just need to listen and be heard. Hallelujah.

    Keep writing everybody. And thanks again, Charles.


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