Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing

Last night I read an article about a woman who complained she felt cheated after self-publishing her novel with a large online company. The woman admitted to being “very ignorant about the publishing industry” when she agreed to a proffered contract, but said she believed the hype on the company’s website, including a promise that her book would be available through major bookstores.

The hard truth hit her when she tried to set up a signing in a popular chain bookstore. The store’s assistant manager keyed the title of the book into her computer, but after one look at the publisher’s name, immediately nixed any talk of a signing. Why? Because the publishing company would not accept returns.

Try as I might, I couldn’t summon up a whole lot of sympathy for this woman, and I’ll tell you why.

Despite all the information available both in public libraries and on the Internet, she didn’t do her homework before signing away her rights to a company that many in the writing business call an ‘author mill’ for unsuspecting novices.

A little digging on the ‘Net would have revealed that the company in question has a checkered past that includes lawsuits by disgruntled writer clients. While calling itself a ‘traditional publisher’, it provides few of the services furnished by legitimate presses large and small, like comprehensive editing, access to wholesalers and distributors, and accommodations for bookstores to return unsold stock. In short, this ‘author mill’ survives by publishing anything sent to them, then pressuring the authors to buy their own books for resale through ‘special author’ deals.

The uncomfortable truth associated with the above story is this: like the woman featured in the article, too many ‘wannabe’ authors toil for years writing and rewriting their novels while devoting little or no time to learning the ins and outs of publishing.

I was once a wannabe author. Unlike the woman in the article, I began to educate myself about the business side of writing long before my first novel hit the bookstores. I didn’t learn all I needed to know at the time, but I made a good start at it, and I continue to study the publishing industry as it evolves into a much different animal than the one I first became acquainted with fourteen years ago.

I certainly don’t claim to be the last word on publishing; there are people who have been writing for decades who could expound on the subject much better than I. But just as others in the business have shared their knowledge with me, I’d like to share what I’ve learned with those who hope to someday see their work in print.

With that objective in mind, I’ll be writing a series of blogs on “What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing”. I’ll be covering topics such as the history of publishing in the U.S.; the consolidation of publishing companies by multinational corporations; the rise of the small press world wide; understanding publishing statistics; royalties and advances; publishing terminology; services provided by agents and editors; e-book and print-on-demand technology; book promotion and niche marketing; contracts; bookstores and libraries; and media savvy re print and Internet advertising.

I welcome all comments and suggestions from readers of this blog. Please add to the discussions here by sharing your knowledge of the publishing industry with us. Feel free to correct me if I occasionally make a blunder; mystery is the genre I work in, so romance, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror writers – among others – may look at some aspects of publishing differently than I do simply because of the varying demands of their genre.

I'll be making new posts to “What Every Writer Should Know About Publishing" on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Mondays on Cicero's Children are reserved for book reviews while the week still ends here with "Fun Fridays".

Hope you can join me on Thursday when I open this series with a brief history of U.S. publishing.



  1. Years ago when I began, I fell for a couple of schemes, agencies that promised editing etc. for a price and then did nada, and I did self-publish a book with a crooked outfit. That was before the Internet and lots of great information. Still, when I did know a lot, I had a publisher that didn't pay royalties at one point. It's a tough business, the more you learn the better off you are.

  2. I once signed a very bad contract for a book. I knew it was not written in my best interests when I signed it, but I was at a point in my life where family concerns were all consuming and I doubted I'd ever write again. I was foolish, and I know it now. I knew how the industry worked, but I didn't use what I knew to my advantage. So now I'm hoping these blogs will prevent other writers from making the same mistake I made.

  3. It's a huge topic, and I look forward to your posts covering it. I co-host a writers series at an independent bookstore, which will be doing an event about the state of publishing today, featuring some pretty heavy hitters from the industry. I'd like to extend an invitation to any of your readers who might live in the area. Here's a link to the website (scroll down to October)

  4. This is so worthwhile! I look forward to more posts.

  5. Jenny, I checked out your link and wow! Do I wish I lived closer to Watchung Booksellers. Your upcoming programs look sooooo good! I'm sure you'll draw a crowd to both of the programs advertised on the website. You're doing a great service to writers by hosting this series. I wish you all the best!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Vicki. Please jump in and add your thoughts on my upcoming blogs. You're an accomplished writer, so I expect you could bring a good deal to the table in this discussion. And although I know this is late in coming, congratulations on your 2009 Anthony award nomination for In A Dark Season. I saw you at the award ceremony, but didn't get a chance to congratulate you then. I'm glad to see your books are attracting the notice they deserve!

  7. I hope a LOT of writers see this. I remember how thrilled I was that IUniverse (or was it Publish America?) wanted to publish me. Thanks goodness I got good advice and declined. Also declined the agent who wanted an upfront payment.

    Everybody's out to make a buck--can't blame them for that. But hey, I'm out to make a buck, too!

    I'm looking forward to the next post!

  8. Mary,
    What a wonderful service to writers you are providing. I'm looking forward to reading all of your articles.
    M.T. Logan

  9. Thanks for the kind words, M.T. and Kaye. I just posted Thursday's blog in the series, "A Short History of Publishing".

    Pirated books and government censorship of the printed word is nothing new. Read this post and you'll see how it affected publishing in the American colonies back when copyrights provided little protection for anyone.

  10. Thanks for the kind words, Kaye and M.T. I just posted Thursday's blog in the series, "A Short History of Publishing".

    Pirated books and government censorship of the printed word is nothing new. Read how it affected publishing in the American colonies back when copyrights provided little protection for anyone.

  11. Mary, I do believe you have your work cut out for you here. Thanks for tackling it.

    Morgan Mandel

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