Yesterday we surveyed the short story market, where you can find the right magazines for your stories, how you can sell the same story again as a reprint and to an anthology, why short story collections are such a hard-sell to publishing houses, and how and when you should self-publish them.
Today we are going to talk about novels. There are only two real ways to sell your novel, and the choices are, for the most part, mutually exclusive, so you have a big decision to make. The first way is to a trade publishing house (both large presses and small, independent presses), and the second is to self-publish.
If you want to sell your novel to one of the large trade houses, in most cases you will need a literary agent to submit on your behalf.
There are exceptions, some imprints like Tor still take unagented submissions, but for the most part, editors state that they will not read submissions that are unrepresented.
To get an agent in the US, you must send a query letter first, a short email describing your book and your publication history.
In the UK, the situation is slightly different, where it is standard to write a cover letter and include the first few chapters of your manuscript right from the off, postal submissions are more common, and a lot more weight is placed on the synopsis.
If the agent is interested, they will request to see either the first few chapters, or the rest of the manuscript.
If they are then interested in representing you, usually a phone call takes place first to assess mutual suitability then, assuming everything is fine, an offer of representation is made.
If you are happy with the terms, and they are usually standard – 15% on the earnings of that book for life, whether you part ways with the agent in the future or not – then you sign the agreement and the agent begins submitting to editors (after you make any changes she feels is necessary first).
The number varies from agent to agent, but agents tend to sell at least half of the manuscripts they represent. If the agent is successful and sells the manuscript to an editor, you will receive an advance on royalties.
The average advance for a first-time author of fiction with a large publishing house is between $5,000 and $10,000.
Most books do not “earn out” their advance; in other words they don’t sell enough copies to cover the royalties they would have paid out without an advance.
If your book does well, or breaks even (which requires less sales than earning out), you may get a larger advance, and a larger print run, for your next book. If your book does poorly, you may struggle to get a contract for your next book.
However, the tricky part is getting an agent in the first place.
As they only receive a percentage of your earnings (both from the advance and any royalties you receive), they only take on clients they feel will make them money.
This is understandable, but it means that most agents only take on a handful of new clients every year, after all, most of them will have a large number of existing clients, all of whom will have their own demands on the agent’s time.
Agents receive thousands and thousands of submissions every year, and your chances of being plucked from the pile are very small.
However, if you bag a big-name agent, they are more likely to score you a big deal. And if the publisher lays out big money on your advance, this means they will have to print huge numbers of your book to recoup that outlay.
This means that they will invest significant resources in promoting your book, as they will need to sell all those books they have printed. If you are lucky enough to be in this situation, it’s the surest path to success in the literary world.
Agent-hunting is tough. You must be prepared to deal with a lot of rejection, sometimes helpful, sometimes snappy. You mustn’t take it personally, they are not rejecting you , they are rejecting your book, just as when you pick up a book in a store and set it down after a paragraph or two because it’s not quite right for you.
You also must be prepared for a long haul. Many writers don’t succeed in gaining representation until they have sent out over a hundred query letters and submissions, sometimes a lot more. Many writers also don’t succeed with their first book, or even their second. You must be prepared for it to take time.
There are excellent resources to help you find agents, write query letters (a special art), and deal with any tricky situations that come up along the way. Be warned, there are a lot of unscrupulous agents out there.
The golden rule is to never ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, pay money to an agent. If an agent refers you to a particular editing service, don’t use it, it’s a huge conflict of interest. To check whether an agent is one of the bad guys, go here.
Small, independent publishers are often overlooked by writers who feel that it’s either a large house or nothing (or self-publishing).
But this is a mistake. If anything, smaller houses are in a better position to exploit the changes in the publishing industry.
Most embraced e-books long ago, are more flexible with their pricing, and many have already abandoned frustrating things for customers like DRM and territory restrictions on e-books.
If you write in a relatively unpopular genre, if yours is more of a niche book, or if it is something that the larger houses consider less marketable, a smaller house could be the way to go.
The disadvantages of a small house are a (usually) smaller advance, if you get one. Initial print runs are smaller too, and they sometimes have problems matching the distribution of the larger houses. And if your book isn’t on sale somewhere, it can’t sell.
On the plus side, you don’t need an agent to submit to them, they provide a much more personal service, they will fight hard for each individual book they publish, and some have a great reputation for producing quality rather than quantity – small presses garnered a huge amount of nominations for the major awards last year.
Again, here you must do your research. The best thing to do is to look at the books in the store that are similar to yours. Check who they are published by (and who the agent is, if it’s a larger house – it will usually be in the acknowledgements).
Go to their website, check the submission guidelines, follow them. Prepare for a long wait, it can take between 6 months and a year to hear back. You can get more information about smaller presses here.
Before I list the benefits of self-publishing, I must give a warning.
For the most part, if you self-publish your book, you are closing the door on traditional publication for that book forever. Unless your sales numbers are great (and chances are they won’t be), no trade house is going to want to publish it.
If you decide to go down this road, just remember, it’s a one-way street. You can attempt to publish your next book through a trade house, but this one will be gone.
The biggest mistake self-publishers make, aside from putting out an unprofessional product (poor cover, editing, formatting, marketing), is publishing too early.
I spent 18 months searching for an agent, and got as far as the phone call twice, but it didn’t work out. That sucked, as did all the rejections and waiting around, and getting your hopes up only to have them dashed, but I am in a better position now because of it.
First off, I’m tougher. All that rejection thickens your skin. And if you can’t handle the idea of rejection, how do you think you are going to handle your first poor review?
Second, my book is a lot better now. I received lots of helpful feedback along the way from agents and editors, and I have gone through three further drafts since I first started submitting. When I think back to the book as it was, I hang my head.
And if self-publishing had been as viable an option then as it is now, I may have considered it. If I had done it, it would have been a disaster.
The key here is to have some kind of solid critiquing network. Whether that is a professional writer you know, a knowledgeable beta reader, a good writing group, or an online forum where you can get feedback, you must have somebody impartial that will give you an honest, proficient assessment of your work.
They aren’t doing you any favours if they just flatter you and ignore the flaws. This goes for whatever publishing option you decide. Your novel must be perfect whether you submit to a trade house or decide to self-publish.
You must educate yourself thoroughly on every option, and make your own decision. Don’t be swayed by headline-grabbing advances or stories of self-publishing success. Decide what’s best for you based on your own circumstances.
If you have gone through all of these steps, and decide that you still want to self-publish your novel, you must realise that it is very difficult to be successful – the vast majority only sell a handful of copies.
The only way of giving yourself any chance to succeed at self-publishing is to treat it like a business. You must write the best story you can write. You must hire a professional editor. You must get a professional cover. You must format your book properly. And you must market it well.
If you have any short stories written, I would suggest that it might be best to self-publish these first. There is less risk involved, and if you mess it up, you won’t have ruined your most valuable work. It can be great practice too, if you then decide to self-publish your novel.
I would also recommend publishing it as an e-book only first. Print self-publishing is a minefield. It can be done right, but it can be expensive, and you have lots to learn before you can consider it – even more so than digital publishing.
If your novel does well as an e-book, then you will have the resources to do a print version, if appropriate.
I am producing a continuing series of posts called INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS, and you can follow me, step-by-step, as I make my first steps into digital publishing, and see if it is right for you.
If you want to learn more about the changes in the publishing industry, I have written a series of posts called THE NEW DIGITAL LANDSCAPE, which should help.
And if all this is getting too much for you, try a haiku.
Tomorrow we will take about the various digital sales channels where you can sell your work: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, and Xinxii.