While it’s worth trying to get the attention of big publishers, it’s a long, tough haul and there are certainly no guarantees. This is not to say that you should give up on the dream — many authors have succeeded despite multiple rejections — but remember that you do have other options and, believe or not, those other options might be better for you.
Hitting a Home Run in the Minor Leagues
In Canada, at least, one of the benefits offered by smaller publishing houses and self-publishing options is that it’s a little easier to work outside of the mainstream of literary fiction. Author Claude Lalumière explained that the shifting business model in big publishing houses caused them to abandon some of the less popular writers and alienated whole swaths of their readership. This forced many readers to turn to niche publishers for their fix because the large houses were no longer churning out the kinds of content they craved.
So, while a smaller publisher will produce a relatively low number of books in any given year, they are far more likely to pick up manuscripts of particular genres, and when they do, it’s because they have a ready-made audience for that kind of book. While this is no guarantee of success (stern reminder: there are no guarantees), this is great news for unknowns and lesser-knowns who want to publish something a little out of the ordinary.
However, your options may still be limited here. As author Nicole Chardenet points out, “if you don’t write literary fiction, there are only a handful of publishers, all very small, who might be interested in your work. And you can hit them all in an evening — seriously.” Additionally, smaller publishers have fewer staff members but still get a lot of queries and submissions, so getting noticed is still a major challenge.
In general, if you want to get picked up by a publisher of any size, I strongly suggest that you consider working with an agent. (For tips and links on finding an agent, see Part I.)
There are also vanity presses (be very wary of these) and small publishers who specialize in “assisted self-publishing,” but this is essentially self-publishing with a guiding hand. You still need to pay for editing and probably bookbinding as well, but in some cases the publisher may help you get funds through crowdsourcing or assist with marketing costs and responsibilities. But be forewarned that even if you are expected to pay any fees or costs related to publishing, the publisher will likely own the rights to the book you have paid them to produce. The UK-based Society of Authors has some good advice — and some warnings — about dealing with vanity presses.
Becoming Both Star Player and Team Manager
For those who are tired of rejections or who just want to take charge of their own fate, there is always self-publishing. It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it — cut out the middlemen and take all the credit and profits yourself! Hey, it’s your book after all.
But this is just another dream that reality is going to squash like bug on a windshield. Publishing is an exhausting venture, and doing everything yourself sounds great until you’re stuck wrangling all of the details and footing all of the costs. You can cut corners, but expect to get what you pay for.
First and foremost, you need to catch the big stuff. Participate in a workshop or focus group, or find beta readers (i.e., friends, family, other writers whose judgement you really trust and who don’t mind reading your entire draft for free). Ideally, you want to get strong feedback early on so you can identify significant problems with the plot, character/world development, and general writing style. If everyone complains about an unbelievable character or cheesy deus ex machina, fix it now. You may also want to seek the advice of a professional editor who can offer substantive editing or a manuscript evaluation to make sure you’ve cleaned up all the big issues before you proceed (see descriptions on my Services page).
This may mean rewriting your entire manuscript. Scary yes, but it’s better to handle criticism BEFORE you publish. It may be true that a handful of authors have made it big writing books that are fifty shades of awful, but if your work gets publicly slammed early and often, or if it’s so difficult to read that no one even bothers to finish it, your odds of success are even lower than average. And do you really want to be the person who publishes bad work?
Granted, this kind of advice is hard to take. Criticism hurts, even when it’s constructive and delivered gently, and if someone tells you your work contains fatal flaws, well … But before you hit the bottle, consider what your reader/editor is telling you, and consider these points before you panic.
Next up is stylistic editing and copy editing. This is where you really, really need to make local revisions to clean up sentence and paragraph structure to ensure that the content flows smoothly and there are no continuity errors. (How did Johnny get home, wasn’t he just at the store…?)
Finally, you want someone who will proofread your content for typos and other mistakes.
Tired yet? You still need someone to help you design your cover art, prepare the book layout and format all your content, and check that all your formatting is done correctly and consistently. (You may want to hire a proofreader who can check both written content and layout and have both jobs done at this stage.) You also need to consider distribution (e-book, print, both?), marketing, and publicity.
In short, self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. You’ll need to be patient but tenacious, and exercise due diligence when choosing editors, publicists, printing companies, etc. Yes, you get all the profits from sales, but until you make back all the money you spent producing the book in the first place, there are really no profits to speak of.
The Hunger Games
Sadly, no publisher of any size can guarantee you a robust income as a writer, but if you work with small publishers or if you self-publish, you shouldn’t expect your writing career to pay all of the bills. It might happen, but author and publisher Hayden Trenholm expressed concerns that “mid-list” writers and those who are in mid-career often suffer from falling incomes, while author and editor Vanessa Ricci-Thode points out that arts funding for authors who venture away from literary fiction is practically non-existent in the Great White North. This means that finding success in the writing world may mean keeping your day job and fitting time to write into a busy schedule.
But don’t give up the dream just yet — get out the elbow grease and burn a little midnight oil here and there. Consider all your options, redefine success, and brace for failure. That’s right, look catastrophe straight in the face and give it a big, fat raspberry because you’re going to forge ahead anyway. In fact, considering and preparing for worst case scenarios may actually shore up your mental strength and help you face the challenges ahead.
The Brave New Publishing World Series:
Where Have All the Authors Gone?
Whither Shalt Thou Publish? Part I
Whither Shalt Thou Publish? Part II