Romy's Blog

Buyer Beware: not all publishers are created equal

Over the next few weeks I'll be posting a series called Buyer Beware. Aimed at beginner writers, this series looks at who is who in the publishing business, and how to tell serious players from scammers.

Back in those halcyon days when you were just another reader, I'm going to bet you couldn't have named the publisher of any of the books you read.

Whether the book was published by Sphere or Picador, you didn't really care, right?

Now that you're writing, you might not feel much different. After all, you'll just be happy to have your baby published, see your name on its cover, hold your book in your hands, and be able to tell people "I'm a published author" - right?

Wrong! If you don't pay attention to who to submit to, what types of books that publisher publishes, and whether they're really the right fit for you, you risk making a very costly mistake in your career.

So, why are all publishers not equal?

Well this seems pretty straightforward. After all, a Ferrari is a very different vehicle from a Datsun, even though they are both cars. Now before you scoff and say "Duh! Of course I want the Ferrari of publishers!" I want you to consider this: of all the drivers entering the market for the first time, how many can afford (or handle) a Ferrari? Don't dismiss the Datsun, because it might, in fact be the right entry level vehicle for you.

Who are these Ferraris of publishing?

Commonly known as the Big Five, these are the five multi-national conglomerates who dominate the print book scene (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster). Within each company, are numerous imprints, each specialising in a different type of book (for example, Dorling Kindersley is an imprint of Random Penguin specialising in illustrated reference books).

Chances are, most of the books in your local book store are published by an imprint of one of these corporations, and for most authors this is the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of traditional publishing.

But the Big Five are corporations, which means their editors have to defer to sales, marketing and finance people, all of whom who are typically risk averse. This means that they will rather publish the 20th unauthorised biography of Kim Kardashian than your masterpiece.

Most of these imprints of the Big Five publishers only accept agented submissions. If you don't know this and submit your novel to them anyway, chances are the deafening silence that will greet your submission will be very demoralising.

And even if you do get snapped up by one of these publishers, there are no guarantees your book will be a success. Publishing is only a step away from gambling. And if your first book doesn't take off and earn big, the publisher will dump you faster than a hot potato.

So if you're an unagented unknown, without a Kardashian-size platform, what's your next option?

Middle of the Road

Before you reach Datsun level, there are some very serviceable Toyota options. These are publishers like Kensington, Sourcebooks and Amazon's imprints (as opposed to their KDP self-publishing program). A few of the Big Five imprints also have digital-first imprints which offer fewer bells & whistles (like up-front advances and print book distribution in Exclusive Books) but which are more open to first time authors.

While the advances and book sales might not be as high as you'd expect with a Big Five publisher, these middle of the road options are still highly reputable, very experienced at marketing your book for maximum sales, and likely to give you second chances if you don't become a runaway success straight out the gate.

Solid entry level publishers

At Datsun level are dozens of small, independent publishers. With lower overheads, these are the publishers who can take risks on first time writers. Their staff also tend to have more time to work with new writers than a hot shot editor at a major publisher might have. (Let's face it, if your imprint is also responsible for publishing Stephen King, chances are he's going to get the lion's share of their attention - and their marketing budget).

These usually digital first publishers may not have marketing budgets, or be able to get you hardcovers in the major retail stores, but they will be patient teachers, guiding you into the wonderful world of edits, cover briefs and POD (Print on Demand) without too much pressure and risk. I started my career with one of these publishers, and have no regrets!

Not-so-solid entry level publishers

And then, sadly, there are those smaller publishers who look great on paper (and have the website to prove it) but don't have the substance to back it up. Perhaps they are still very new and inexperienced. Perhaps they're a higher level player hitting financial troubles, with rumours circulating about royalties not being paid and authors jumping ship - and the publisher ends up here on this list. Too often, publishers in this category don't last very long.

Into this category of 'not so solid' also fall the Vanity Publishers, but since this blog post is already long enough, I'll leave that for next week's post.

I suspect by now your head is spinning. You're thinking: "Where do I even start?!"

Here are my suggestions, in four easy steps:

  1. Step One: Take a deep breath, and forget about which publisher to submit to. Finish your first novel. Set it aside. Write a second novel. Go back and revise the first novel. Then ditto for the second. Okay, by now you've hopefully matured enough in your writing to start submitting.

  2. Step Two: Browse book stores (and that includes Amazon) and look at your favourite contemporary books - who publishes those books? Note: this only works for recently published books. If the book you're looking at was published more than 5 years ago, it's not impossible that imprint has closed, changed its focus, or only publishes re-prints.

  3. Step Three: Research! Go to Google and type in "list of publishers" in your genre. Guaranteed, some A-type writer in your genre has compiled and posted a list. Visit the publishers' websites and check out the types of books they publish. Do they publish what you write? Do they accept unagented submissions? Google what other authors are saying about that publisher - do they look solid, or on rocky ground?

  4. Step Four: Talk to other authors. Most writers (especially in the Romance genre) are very approachable and willing to answer questions. Join Facebook groups or writer forums for writers in your genre, and ask for publisher recommendations. Find a community, make friends, and listen to and learn from other writers.

See - that's not so hard!

Next week I'll be looking at Self Publishing - how to distinguish between genuine self publishing service providers, scammers and vanity publishers.

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