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“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” —Charles Peguy
Before we roll out the step-by-step strategies of creating a winning book proposal, we’ll explore the two primary areas that will guide your trajectory in the publishing world: working with an agent (or not), and self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. If you’re certain you’re going to work with an agent (wise choice) in order to get a traditional publishing deal, this section will be affirming. If you’re thinking about going digital first, and then getting a print deal, read on. If you’re wondering why you even need a publisher in these tech-empowering times, pay close attention.
To publish or self-publish? That is THE question.
Creating a book is an intimate experience. You give shape to your innermost thoughts and feelings, and share them with critics and other lovers of ideas and stories. And then you shop that baby until the cows come home. How you do this is a very personal decision. When we talk about publishing, we have to break it down into two categories: self-publishing and traditional publishing for print, where a physical, printed book is produced. where you actually produce a physical, printed book. You’ll manage the entire production and distribution process yourself— that’s self-publishing. Or, a publisher will do it for you—that’s referred to as a traditional deal. There’s a middle ground between these two where a publisher for hire will assist you with publishing your book for a service fee and production costs. They may even handle order fulfillment—that’s sometimes referred to as a “vanity press.” And then there’s digital publishing, on the Internet, in pixels. E-books. Obviously you can self-publish digital material, and, after you get a deal with a traditional publisher, they may choose to take your printed product and release a digital version. So, to self-publish or to sign with a publishing house? Well, your answer also depends on more than just what your motivation is. Profit or creative gratification aside, it matters how talented you are and how timely your material is. In other words, are you really crazy, or just a little bit crazy? The best way we’ve found to walk through this landscape is on two paths, according to your top priorities. Here they are: The pros and cons...
The Pros + The Cons of... All of It:
Let’s start with the most important aspect of making a commercially successful book. Forget content and design, forget marketing and PR—for just a moment. Getting your product into the hands of booksellers and book buyers should be your A-1, paramount, big-daddy priority. We want people to buy and read your work. Self-Pub: If you choose to self-publish, distribution will be your greatest hurdle. In the eyes of major book chain buyers, you’re likely a nobody. The head buyer at Costco or Barnes & Noble has established relationships with sales reps from publishing houses. They have buy-meets at book shows and scheduled times where they order dozens and dozens of titles at a time for the upcoming season. Problem is: these people won’t even take your call. You will have to hire an independent sales rep to pitch your title. Or… you can go to local bookstores and pitch your book yourself. And that is hell—a hell possibly worth trudging through. But you’ll need to put your armor on, wear your lip-gloss and your best smile. Be prepared to schlep books in your car trunk for weeks, months even. The novelty could wear out fast. Pub House: Distribution is done for you. It’s that simple. This is the single most important reason to try to get yourself a book deal. Publishing houses have tentacles that reach far into book shows and bookstores across the planet. This is the essence of their power. You want that.
Self-Pub: Guess what? You’re now a book designer, content and copy editor, color expert, typography and paper specialist—and you thought you were just a gal with something important to say. Even if you hire out your book to a graphic designer (and you probably should, for anywhere from $500 to $20,000 in design fees depending on the type of book you’re producing), the aesthetics of the book rely on your approval. Do you know what cover will appeal to consumers next season? Do you have access to the recycled paper printer you want who can print in bulk? For better or for worse, you will have total creative control. Could be a painful learning curve. Could be a beautiful thing. Pub House: We know more than a few authors who didn’t know what their book cover was going to look like until they saw it for the first time on Amazon—tragic, but true. You may have zero say in how your baby is dressed. Could be a disaster. Could be a breeze. Fortunately, the end result is often far
better than you’d imagined, or could have created on your own (remember, they’ve been doing this a while and know a thing or two about not making you—or them—look bad).
Time to Market + Time to Live
Self-Pub: The turnaround time with a self-published book can be as fast as you can drive the process. Once it’s written and edited, you can have a print book in your hands in as little as two months. Zoom. Digital books, even more zoom. Pub House: Prepare to go gray before you see your book in stores. Unless you’re writing about a time-sensitive topic of major cultural relevance (like, a meteor drops to Earth and you happen to be working on a book about How to Survive a Meteor Crash), then you’re likely looking at eight months to two years from the time you sign your publishing contract to the day your book smiles up at you from the bookstore window. That’s a long time, even in dog years. You might be a different person by then—have a different business model, partner. So, make sure your book’s message feels universal and timeless—for you. It could take many months for you to find and nurture a relationship with an agent who’s a good fit for you. Hope for soon (a little grandiosity will carry you through the slow times), but plan on a minimum of three months. Then there’s the actual shopping of your book—your agent taking it out to publishing houses to get the deal. There’s the brokering and negotiating of the deal, too. We’ve seen it take several months just to finesse a contract, and in the case of pending media, it’s not totally unheard of to deliver part of a manuscript before a contract is even inked. Even if your negotiations happen quickly, there’s this thing called the publishing calendar—whereby the publisher determines which season your book will be released. (War exposés don’t sell well at Christmastime, and every love author wants to ride the trajectory of cupid’s arrow in February—with only so many slots.) Traditional publishing is a lot like the fashion industry. There are a lot of players involved and they each need time to do their job: the editing department, the foreign rights department, the designer, the offshore printer, the marketing team selling to stores two seasons in advance, the publicity team pitching to magazines with up to nine months of lead time (and believe us, magazine coverage is your friend), and the warehouse who needs time to ship to stores.
Self-Pub: You own your copyright. This means that you’re free to re-purpose your stuff in any way you feel moved. Publish it on other sites, repeatedly publish excerpts from your program or your book on
your own website, and put it in any print form you want. With the exception of going from hard cover to paperback and making minor editorial additions, traditional publishing is a one-shot deal. You can make improvements. When you self-publish, you’re at full liberty to create a 2.0, new-andimproved version of whatever you do, as quickly as possible. Pub House: When you get a traditional publishing deal with a publishing house, typically a contract will state that you only have the right to re-purpose, to re-use approximately 20% of the material from that book for yourself. This makes sense in terms of the publisher wanting to drive people to purchase your book, but it stinks in terms of future product development and raising your visibility online. The intellectual strength that your publishing team could offer might take your book from good to amazing. If you’re blessed with a thoughtful editor, she or he will take your work to the next level and in doing so, not just make your work more lucid and rich, but may very well influence the quality of your writing for the rest of your career. The power of this cannot be understated. Nor can the potential agony of getting an editor who’s a dud. This is precisely why you should work with a freelance editor before submitting to your in-house editor—to make your text as strong and formidable as possible in case you’re partnered with a harried, hands-off, or otherwise ineffective editor at the publishing house. What you get when you go with a publisher is an editorial team. Your relationship with your editor can feel like a magical marriage, or it can feel like prison torture. A good agent will know who the good editors are and do some matchmaking for you.
worked with some who seemed to miss the whole raison d’etre of my work and there was a lot of conflict, much of which went unspoken. And, I’ve had one of those magical marriage experiences, where my editor challenged my thinking and respected my voice, and she made me a better writer by helping to make a better book. Could I have paid for that if I wanted to selfpublish? Yep. Absolutely. I could have found someone who would challenge me, who had the eye and the skill. But working with a first-rate editor from a major publisher, who would also act as a project manager, champion and translator amongst all of the factions… invaluable.
D: I’ve had both heaven and hell experiences with editors. I’ve
Self-Pub: You make 100% of the profit. After expenses, you keep every cent. No agent commission. No split with the publisher. If you do it right, you can be earning as much as $10 bucks on a print book, perhaps more, and certainly much more profit per unit on a digital product. Yipee! Hopefully that’ll be enough to re-coup the capital you put in to fund the book—graphic design, perhaps an indexer, various registration costs, administrative support. It could all add up to thousands of dollars— easily. You can invest your revenue into future publishing projects, you can put food on the table, or you can take the time you need to go find yourself an agent, and have a deal brokered for traditional publishing, which will likely take many months. Pub House: A book advance is an incredibly civilized concept. You get paid in advance to write your book. How very renaissance. You typically get a third of the advance money when you sign your contract, a third when you deliver your final manuscript, and a third when the book is off the printing press. Different payment cycles can be negotiated by your agent, like getting paid in two hefty chunks. That’s always nice. Reality Check #1: The vast majority of authors never see a dime after their book advance, simply because they need to sell enough copies to “earn out” their advance. After you’ve sold the amount of your advance in books (essentially paying the publisher back for their investment) then you start to realize a royalty on books sold after that—which is usually in the lower range of a whopping $2 per book. So the typical scenario is no royalties, no foreign rights monies. Nada. Get your advance money and run. Reality Check #2: Big publishers have accounting departments that exist outside of their editorial departments. Your check is coming from one arm, so to speak, that doesn’t necessarily embrace the urgent needs of the other arm. Your editor may want your book in twelve weeks, while your first check (the one that was “supposed” to keep your belly full while you sat by the fire and wrote) is still “in the mail.” In other words: Don’t quit your day job. Yet. Reality Check #3: The credibility and cachet of being a published author, especially with a publishing house (as opposed to self-published), increases your earning potential all the way around. It’s a badge of honor that can bring in speaking gigs, higher consulting fees, and media exposure for a very long time.
Publicity + Marketing
Self-Pub: Got contacts? You better have. Facebook friends may not get you on the bestseller list. You need editors’ emails and TV connections. It’s timing consuming and critical to your success. Not your thing? You’re looking at a minimum of $5000 to hire a publicist to run a decent campaign for you. Pub House: They’ve got contacts—oodles of them. Media editors and producers are accustomed to being pitched by publishing house staffers and PR firms—not directly by authors themselves. Most publishing companies have a scope of contacts that very few of us as independent creatives have. They will have a publicist who will help develop and execute the overall strategy of how you and your book are going to be pitched to the media. You’re going to get a marketing person who may work with major retailers and unique outlets to get your book sold in those venues. That said; don’t think for a minute that your publisher will take your book to the mount and tout it long term. Nope. It’s a rare exception that any book is nurtured beyond a very concentrated, one-time push to the media that lasts about three weeks—if you’re lucky. You have to stay in the driver’s seat of your campaign. Whether you self-publish or land a book deal—long-term publicity and marketing will ultimately be fueled by the strength of you and your team, and your combined stamina.
traditional deal expecting your publisher to create all of your opportunities. They may or may not attract the media for a variety of reasons, so it’s wise to think of them as a partner while you generate your own magic. But, sometimes life happens and you just flat out can’t generate. When my husband of nineteen years left me for another woman during the two biggest simultaneous deadlines of my life—one for Hyperion and one for Simon & Schuster—I didn’t have a second to actively promote myself when my favorite of the two—the aforementioned collaboration with my son, Tosh (Generation Green)—came out. I was too busy trying to save the farm, my kid, and not go completely insane with grief. I never sent out a single press release, and despite teaching my clients how to get stellar testimonials, completely forgot to include my own! (Imagine—a huge leader in the green field wrote that we’d written the new blueprint for a generation and that every school NEEDED our book—talk about a dream endorsement—and I
L: When luck meets opportunity: You never want to go into a
failed to send my blurbs in time. Our book was printed without ANY raves inside or out! Zippo.) Yet, week after week, our “green team” (as we called them) at S&S were making calls and doing their thing. Our editor, Annette Pollert, would email me the most beautiful messages: “Linda, Family Circle is doing a story on your book next month.” “You and Tosh just won a major magazine parenting award!” “Linda! The Sierra Club is endorsing you.” “Are you sitting down? You’ve won another one—a prestigious environmental award!” “Teen Vogue is proﬁling Tosh in August, and Seventeen in the spring.” The good news just kept coming in, and I could barely get out of bed. If I’d selfpublished, I would have been s#*t out of luck and all of my timely research in the book would have been hideously out of date by the time I’d resurfaced.
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