This is the sixth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.
I have published four of my books with commercial or trade publishers and the rest have been self-published. Both forms of publication have their advantages and disadvantages. This week I will address the advantages and disadvantages of commercial publishers.
The first thing aspiring novelists should know about major publishers is that on average they accept only 1% of all books submitted to them in any one year.
Second, the major publishers don’t really want “niche” books. Just like the big pharmaceutical firms, they want every book they publish to be a “block buster.” After all, they have large staffs and fancy, expensive New York or London offices to finance. In fact, the overheads are so high that despite being very picky about which books the publish (see above), they still lose money on 9 out of 10 books. In short, books have to have the potential make a lot of money before a major publisher can afford to invest in them. Books most likely to make "big bucks" are books by celebrities – or already successful authors. I recently heard that publishers won’t even look at a book from an author who doesn’t have 2,000 twitter followers. It’s not easy to have that number of followers, if you aren’t already famous.
Last but not least, because the majors want books with “universal” appeal, very, very few accept “unsolicited” manuscripts. This means that in most cases you will need an agent in order to even approach a commercial publisher with a manuscript. (Next week I will discuss agents.)
The greatest advantages commercial publishers offer are well established and extensive distribution networks, marketing expertise and large marketing budgets. If a commercial publisher decides to invest in a book, they can - and do - spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars doing so. They can buy bookstore window space, space in airport bookstores, ads in important publications, TV-spots, radio-spots, etc. etc. etc. They have the relationships to editors and talk-show hosts that will increase the probability that your book will be prominently reviewed, that you will get invited to appear on TV or give radio interviews – all those things you see successful writers doing.
But every aspiring author should understand that publishers can’t afford to do that for every book they publish. Big as the marketing budgets appear to be, they are nevertheless finite and far too small to market all titles equally. Publishers need to allocate resources carefully. What this means is that they invest the bulk of their marketing resources in only a tiny percentage of their titles. Furthermore, they tend to invest where they expect the greatest return on investment. In plain language: the more famous you are, the more marketing support you can expect. If you are already a celebrity (rock star, national politician, popular athlete), your book will be given the lion’s share of the marketing budget. If you are the new kid on the block, the first-time author, you are going to get the scraps. These can be so meager you may hardly notice anything.
Despite the comparative success of my four non-fiction books, I have found self-publishing more satisfying for my novels. I’ll discuss why in future entries.