Traditional Publishing: My Two Cents

Traditional Publishing: My Two Cents

I’m a literary agent. My job is to find book projects that I think have a viable market. I then edit them, use my contacts and charm to get the project sold to the right publishing house, negotiate the contract, and represent the authors’ best interests through the whole publishing process.

Literary agents have taken many forms over the years; we’ve gone from being straight up contract advisors, to gatekeepers, to editors, marketers, and sales people. Ahh… for the days when literary agents just negotiated contracts. But being completely entrenched in the process is what makes it so rewarding and otherwise worthwhile. It’s an investment, for sure, and one that I make happily for the right projects.

I advocate traditional publishing

While I certainly see the advantages of self-publishing, I am still an advocate of traditional publishing. Why?  Because I see, time and time again, what publishing houses bring to a project in terms of editorial and marketing expertise. They do a substantive edit, copyedit, and proof read.  They figure out the best way to tap into the appropriate market. They know what they are doing. Publishing companies have a reputation. A good reputation. For, you know, publishing books.

The numbers don’t lie. At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing in 2013, compared with 8.8% of traditionally published authors. While you certainly don’t need to make 100K in order to consider yourself a successful author, the chance for success are definitely in your favor if you choose to traditionally publish.

Do authors need publishers?

Certainly not as much as they did “back in the day.” The advent of self-publishing and e-books brought one of the main reasons writers needed publishers (national retail distribution), to its knees.  That ace of spades morphed into the joker at alarming speed. So while one can, respectably, publish on your own, I still have this vision of most self-published authors flapping about unconstructively in the wind of book-land. It’s a full time job, and one that can only be done properly when considered as such. It involves a fair amount of financial commitment, a colossal amount of time commitment, along with a learning curve that will be going straight up.

I can hear the naysayers now, “If you’re published with a big house, you still have to do your own publicity.” While it’s true that you need to work your ass off if you want it to work, traditional publishing has the traction and reputation with media that a writer simply doesn’t have on their own. Any hope of getting mainstream media attention will only come through a publishing house. And why on earth wouldn’t you be willing to work your ass off for something that you made, that took you upwards of YEARS to create?

Self-publishing advocates also talk about the timing. The publishing companies do take a year plus to go from “Yes, we want to publish this,” to “Look! Your book is in the store.” The reasons for this are many. They polish it editorially, present it to the marketing, publicity, and sales teams, get catalog copy drawn up, design the jacket, formally sell it “in” to the stores, make galleys for reviewers, sell foreign rights, serial rights, special sales…the list is long and necessary. All of this work beforehand has to be in place to give each book a successful launch.

Choices are always good, which is why this is a great time to be in publishing, but in the age of self-publishing, I’m still an advocate of traditional publishing. Publishing companies are called big bad wolves, but for crying out loud, they are businesses after all. Businesses need to make money. It’s never a good idea to forget that book publishing is a business.

While self-publishing is appropriate for many and has been getting a lot of attention lately, traditional publishers bring clout and legitimacy to a book project that makes them a valuable asset to an author.


Update: I posted this on June 12, and just a few days later there was this article in the New York Times, by Toni Horowitz, an author who has an interesting take on the new digital/self publishing atmosphere. Of course my favorite line is, “At this point I called my literary agent, whom I’d foolishly failed to involve in the project…” [click here to read NYTimes article]