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Understanding Publishing

Submitting to Publishers

Whether the publisher is large or small, you need to ensure that your submission is professionally formatted and follows the publisher's guidelines. You can look up how to format your manuscript, write a synopsis, and so on, anywhere on the Internet; the specifics of each publishers' guidelines can be found on the publisher's website. You have to have the right general format to assure them that you're a professional not a time-wasting-amateur; and you need to adapt that to their idiosyncratic requests to show them that you can follow directions (i.e., will be easy to work with) and that you're sending the manuscript to them specifically, not just mailing out a hundred copies to everyone willy-nilly. When you submit to a publisher (or agent) they need to know there is some reason you think your book is the right book for them, so demonstrating that you've at least read their website is a step in the right direction. If you send them your generically formatted manuscript when they've asked for a specific modification (say, British spelling or no indented paragraphs or single spaced), they will send you back a generic rejection.

Legacy publishers (large publishers operating on a traditional publishing business model) pay a small advance against anticipated royalties: for a first-time sf/fantasy writer, expect between $3500 and $6000; the median is $5000. [You may occasionally hear of some first-time author getting a much larger advance, but that's unusual and likely the result of factors over which you have no control: e.g., they're a celebrity or a social influencer that comes with two million followers; or have written the exact book to cash in on a trend nobody else noticed; or have incriminating photos of the publisher. Well, maybe not that last one, but something exceptional.] If your book sells less than enough copies to cover your advance, you still get to keep the money—but don't anticipate a second sale to that publisher any time soon. If your book sells more copies, you get more royalties. If it sells well, you get even more money, and you may be able to sell additional manuscripts to that publisher. The bigger and more reliably your books sell, the bigger future advances. The smaller your advance, however, the more likely it is to 'earn out', and therefore the more likely the publisher is to be open to publishing your next book.

[There is also the consideration that getting published by a big-name publisher provides legitimacy with Revenue Canada, so that writing expenses can become tax deductions from your day-job income. More than one writer has told me that they only made $3500 from selling their book, but received $35,000 in tax deductions (for computers, software, books, home office, etc.) over the next five years... Of course, that only works if you have a decently paying day job.]

Smaller regional or niche publishers may offer you smaller advances based on their correspondingly smaller printruns and anticipated sales volume. Again, if you sell more, you get more.

Small and micro publishers, based on a Print on Demand (POD) business model, may not offer any advance at all. These companies usually offer more editorial support—particularly development editing—to compensate. They still hope to make money with your book and if it sells you usually get the same royalty rate as you would have with a larger press.

In the old days, things sorted themselves out pretty well. One started at the top of the food chain, submitting to the big brand name publishers offering the largest advances, and worked one's way down as one collected rejection slips. Authors whose manuscripts were brilliant and ready to go got scooped up by the large publishers; who didn't need, therefore, to do much developmental editing. Authors whose manuscripts were promising, but perhaps not quite there yet, worked their way down to the smaller presses which weren't able to provide much in the way of advances or guaranteed sales, but whose editorial support helped develop these authors to the point where they became publishable. Occasionally, authors who had paid their dues in the small press market would be picked up by a larger press.

The problem is that as the larger publishers have consolidated, the number of houses publishing SF has gone from about 45 imprints 45 years ago, to the maybe five or six sf/fantasy lines left today. Consequently, everyone ends up submitting to the same five or six publishers, and the resulting log jam of submissions has meant that many beginning authors often find themselves waiting years to even hear whether their book is being rejected. Since almost no press accepts simultaneous submissions (outside of agented auctions), working your way down the list of publishers from the top to bottom could well take decades. Submitting through an agent can considerably speed this process, but many agents have similar backlogs themselves.

Consequently, it may make sense to start with a medium or small press, which can at least tell you whether they will accept your manuscript in a matter of months, rather than years. A list of outstanding regional and niche market presses interested in fantasy and SF is included on the links page.

Beware, however, of vanity presses. If the publisher asks you for money up front, it is a vanity press. Never, ever pay a press to publish your work, especially in this day and age when self-publishing is relatively inexpensive and straight forward. If you cannot wait to see your book in print and don't want—or can't get accepted by—one of the smaller niche publishers, publish it yourself. Self-publishing is significantly cheaper than what a vanity press would charge you and you get 100% of whatever revenues are generated instead of the 20-80% royalties promised by the vanity press. Better your own made-up company name and logo than the name of a press known to reviewers as a vanity publisher. Self-publishing may well be a risky commercial venture (see self-publishing pages on this site), but it is far better than the guaranteed losses of vanity publishing.

Book Distribution

Traditional Distribution
When you sell your book to a large corporate publisher, they print a minimum number of copies (say, 6000 hard covers or 60,000 pocket books) and send them out into the world through three basic distribution channels: bookstores, book racks, and Amazon.

Publishers try to sell to bookstores by sending their sales reps around to the head offices of the chains, and sending out catalogs to independent bookstores. But this is not always as straight forward as it sounds. The largest chains know that publishers have to get their books on their shelves, so some of the bigger chains and distributors hold 'conferences' at which they invite sales reps to meet with store buyers—but publishers have to pay 'conference fees' to attend. When I was a minor editor with a small press back in the '90s (i.e, not Five Rivers) the publisher could not afford to attend the national 'conference' and mount a presentation in their own session. Luckily, their distributor invited my boss to tag along with several other small publishers to attend—not an actual session—but the 'meet-and-greet' coffee break, available for a mere $5,000. Given that my boss was one of several presenters for a half hour coffee break, how thorough a sales pitch for any particular title in our line up could the publisher make? But here's the kicker: at the conclusion of their presentation, the publisher went to the washroom, where, from her stall, she overheard three of the sales reps complaining to each other how they had not studied literature at university for years just so that they could be reduced to selling 'scifi'. It was obvious that the presentation had fallen on deaf ears. (Though my boss then gave a follow-up impromtue presentation on literary value of SF, and the literary pretentiousness of certain uninformed university graduates and, thanks to the embarrassment factor, extracted a promise from those three reps to at least read our anthology with the Margaret Atwood story, so I'm guessing this particular story had a happy ending.)

So much for sales reps. That leaves the catalogues. All publishers' catalogs follow a similar format: each lists the offerings for each imprint (genre) for each month; each month has a 'featured' title that gets a full two-page spread; a back-up title that gets a full page, and two to four 'also rans' that have to share the next two pages. (As a new writer, your book is listed on page 35, in the small print, at the bottom of the page.) Busy buyers glance through the catalog, order a couple of copies of the featured title (it's another vampire series), one copy of the back-up (warring spaceships on the cover look promising), and glance quickly over at the also-rans, and may or may not choose one of them depending on their mood. Good luck with your cover art, cover blurb, and page placement.

But bookstores only account for a portion of the market. There are also the paperback bookracks in drugstores and airports (though not as many as there used to be even a decade ago). The person filling those racks follows a very simple routine: each week two boxes of books arrive and the clerk sets them down in front of the racks. Then they move the books on the middle racks into the spaces left by sold books on the lower racks and the books on the top shelf into the holes thus created on the middle racks. This leaves enough room on the top shelf for the two boxes of new books. If not enough books have sold to create enough spaces, they remove the books from the bottom row and rip off the covers. The covers are sent back to the publisher as proof the book was not sold, the coverless books are pulped, and the publisher and distributor settle accounts.

Thus, each title starts on the top rack and makes its way down to the bottom rack. Count the number of rows in the racks in your local drugstore, and that's how many weeks your book has to sell: six racks = six weeks. 60,000 copies sounds like a lot of books out there, but they only have six shelves/weeks before the 20,000 that went into the drugstore stream turn into pulp.

[Incidentally, you can help your favorite authors sell their books by the simple expedient of moving their titles back up to the top rack. The stockboys are way too busy to pay attention to book covers or titles and rely entirely on position, so I've routinely kept my friends' books on sale for months (or until they've actually sold) by switching them back up to the top rack. It only takes a minute or two of your time whenever you happen to be in the drugstore or etc.]

Here's the problem: eight weeks after one's book is released, half the printrun is already pulped; copies remain in bookstores for a while longer, but the sales force is focused on the featured titles of the current month's releases, so there's no ongoing promotion of one's title. Eventually, the copy sells or is sent back by the store, and that's it for this time.

Once your title has been out for a few months, unless it's been featured on The Daily Show by Trevor Noah, or there is some other sign of continuing public interest, the publisher will remainder the remaining copies. Warehousing stock that isn't selling steadily is simply uneconomical for the publisher, so they generally don't. And without going viral somehow or a pending movie release, there is no reason for them to reissue the same title a second time to start the cycle over.

Technology has made this situation even worse. Now, when the bookstore or drugstore cashier runs your book through the scanner, that barcode information is instantly compiled so that the publisher knows on Thursday how many copies of your book have sold since its launch on Tuesday. The problem is, there are six editors sitting around the conference table with the publisher, each vying for a bigger share of the promotions budget for the book they sponsored and edited. If their author sold more copies in that first two days than you did, they will denounce your book as a dead duck and demand your advertising budget be transferred to their 'more promising' title.... This means, that instead of the six weeks your book used to have to sell, realistically, decisions are being made about its success within the first two to three days it's out there.

If one is extremely lucky (a lot of it is luck) and your book sold the minimum required to maintain the publisher's interest in you, there may be a next time. Readers who enjoyed one's first title are more likely to pick up one's second—if they are the type of readers who happen to note author's names and patronize bookstores, or happen into the drugstore during the right six weeks. As readers buy and enjoy one's first few novels, one slowly builds name recognition and sales, and slowly, slowly, moves up to the 'also-ran' or even 'back-up' feature of this month's catalogue. But you still only get six weeks in the racks and six months in the stores. Only the most popular and established authors may expect to find more than one of their titles on bookstore shelves at one time.

Print on Demand and E-distribution
Of course, there is now an alternative publishing model. Eliminating the waste of printing, shipping, distributing, and then pulping thousands of unwanted copies, print-on-demand (POD) allows publishers to dramatically cut costs by only printing copies as they are ordered. Online booksellers like Amazon order enough copies to fill this month's orders, and only reorder when they start to run low. Books remain listed even after the last copy has sold, because the publisher just prints off another copy, if and when an order comes in—no warehousing costs are incurred.

Ebooks up the ante and lower costs through the outright elimination of paper, printing, storage, and shipping costs; and the elimination of shipping wait times as they can be downloaded directly to the e-reader whenever the consumer is near wifi. As with POD, books remain listed for much longer. Indeed, I strongly suspect that many booklovers will find themselves loading up their various e-readers with the entire cannon of an author they enjoy, just because they can, even if they never actually get around to reading more than one or two of the books. The technology is still contested territory, with all the players (publishers, distributors, booksellers, authors and consumers) fighting to maximize their share of the pipeline. For example, the 10% of cover price traditionally remitted to authors in royalties, is based on calculations that include paper, printing, shipping, and distribution, so with those gone, what is a fair percentage of the cover price today? Publishers will argue that they still have to pay for editors, cover art, book design, and that booksellers (Amazon) still take 40%, while consumers expect the savings passed on to them. The bigger publishers keep ebook prices high so as not to kill their own print sales; and even if the ebook price is down to, say, $3.99, that's bad news for the author: the consumer may be saving, but 10% of $3.99 is obviously a lower payout compared to even 10% of $10.99; unless of course one is able to sell three times as many copies because the price is lower. As you see, such calculations quickly become extremely complicated. The bottom line, however, is that publishers, distributors, and consumers all want the biggest share of the savings, leaving authors—where exactly?

It's not always about the money. When going with a publisher, it's important to ask what they are bringing to the table in asking for the rights to your book. Big advances are an obvious incentive, but if you're a first-time author don't expect much there. More important, perhaps, are the services you don't have to pay for that you would be out of pocket if self-publishing. Editing and cover art are the two big expenses self-publishing, but there is also book design, printing (if hard copy), storage, shipping, and so on. Not having to pay for those things yourself is in fact a pretty big investment in your book, so maybe worth going with a publisher. Legacy publishers also provide bookstore distribution, brand name recognition (readers assume legacy publishers provide at least minimal quality control) and the prestige of selling to a big-name publisher to consider. An author might choose go with a legacy publisher just to convince friends and family that it's a 'real' book.

On the other hand, as one works their way down to the smaller presses . . . it's not always clear what one is getting from the press in exchange for a significant share of your book's earnings. Is their editing better than you could arrange yourself? Their covers? Their distribution? I'd like to think the answer was 'Hell, yeah!' on the editing when I was Senior Editor for Five Rivers Publishing and we had a fabulous art director. So, maybe! But . . .when they hand the manuscript back to you with only a few typos corrected (which feels flattering), does that really mean your book is as good as it could be, or are you not getting the extensive editing you need and were counting on?

'Hybrid' publishers that charge you for editing and covers and so on...what exactly are they bringing to the table? I suppose they're guaranteeing the quality of the editing and cover art and taking care of the business end of things... but personally, I can count on one finger the hybrid or service agencies that I would recommend.

I've also increasingly heard similar complaints about the large corporate publishers. Do they really commission original paintings for your cover anymore, or are they using the same clip art as independents? If a huge author like Rob Sawyer ends up with a picture of Jupiter on the cover of Blue Mars was that artistic license...or a careless, unmotivated art director?

The other thing you need to know about the world of publishing is that it's changing rapidly. Everything I knew 40 years ago when I started out is completely outdated today. I've updated this column three times since first posting it in 2006 and I'll probably have to change it again next time I come back from a big conference. If you're serious about getting published, you should probably be going to the better writers' conferences to keep up with trends. For Canadian speculative fiction writers, I recommend Creative Ink (May-ish) for those in the Vancouver area, When Words Collide (Calgary, each August) for Western Canada, and CanCon (Ottawa) if you're in the East. WorldCon and World Fantasy are also important to connect with agents, publishers, and knowledgeable authors outside of the country.

[I'd also recommend not believing everything you read on social media. Ads for "How I sold a million copies on Amazon and you can too" are often problematic because whatever trick that individual used, they also used up, because once everyone jumps on the latest bandwagon, burn out for that technique quickly follows.]

All that aside, publishers are still publishing books which means they're still looking for the next big seller which means you can still submit your manuscript to the agents that sell to legacy publishers, or to medium and small presses directly. What do you have to lose?

Last updated April 12, 2020