I speak with aspiring authors almost daily, so I’ve heard numerous misconceptions about how the Book business works. These misconceptions cause authors time, money, and aggravation. Here are the 12 wrong assumptions I hear most often:
- Now that self-publishing is so easy, there’s no reason to ever go with a traditional publisher. There are a number of advantages to self-publishing your book, but there are also advantages to traditional publishing. A mainstream publisher gives your book credibility and is much more likely to get it placed in brick-and-mortar bookstores. You also have a professional team behind you, and you’re given some money for your book. The downsides are that you make less money per sale, have to wait a while for your book to be released, and have less control over the final product. But self-publishing requires that you pay for everything yourself with no funds to help you.
- You have to pay traditional publishers to print your book. No! A traditional publisher pays you to publish your book. If a publisher asks you for money, it’s a self-publishing company. I don’t care if it calls itself a “hybrid” or not — it’s still self-publishing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t kid yourself about the difference.
- All publishers want you to finish your book and submit it directly to them. Nope! First of all, only small traditional presses will take your book directly from you. Big publishers only take submissions through literary agents, so you have to first submit to them. I recommend submitting to as many agents as you can (yes, even 100 or more) because it isn’t easy to get one. If you’re writing fiction or a memoir, agents and publishers want to see the whole manuscript before they buy it. If you’re writing prescriptive non-fiction (which means self-help, teaching memoir, i.e. a “how-to” book), they don’t want to see your whole manuscript. They want you to submit a book proposal, which is like a business plan for your book. These usually run 50–75 pages, so they are quite a lot of work. It’s best that you don’t write your self-help book first, as your publisher may want to change its structure after they see your proposal.
- Literary agents charge you a fee up front. No reputable literary agent will charge you money. They take a percentage of the advance the publisher gives you (usually 15%) if and only if they find you a publisher.
- When publishers pay you an advance, you also get royalties when your book sells. When a publisher buys your book, they give you an advance against royalties, which means you only receive royalties after your book sells enough to earn back its advance. Most books never sell enough to receive any royalties. So for the majority of authors, the advance is all they get.
- Publishers take care of the promotion of the books they publish. Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, most of the marketing of your book is on your shoulders. Your publisher may help you a bit, but unless you’re a big name author, you are expected to do most of that work yourself — and pay for it.
- All publishers care about is whether a book is good. Every editor would love to choose books solely based on their literary merit, regardless of whether or not the author has a following. But publishers wouldn’t be able to stay afloat if they did that. So some excellent books get passed over because the author doesn’t have enough of a built-in audience (what’s called a “platform” in the biz). It’s just the reality. If you don’t have a platform, you may have no choice but to self-publish.
- Book authors make a good living and don’t have to do anything else for money. Big name authors like John Grisham and J.K. Rowling make lots of money from their books, but the majority of authors do not. Few people make a living writing their own books.
- Your book will be more attractive to publishers if it’s meant for everyone. There’s a saying in the industry that if your book is for everyone, it isn’t for anyone. Whether you’re self-publishing or trying to get a traditional publisher, you need to narrow down your targeted readers so that your marketing efforts are manageable and viable.
- Self-published books can get into bookstores just like traditionally published books. Even traditional publishers don’t place all of their books in the stores, so it’s very difficult to get a self-published book into a brick-and-mortar bookseller. That said, you can try to get smaller independent bookstores to carry your book.
- All non-fiction books should contain a lot of research. I have seen numerous prescriptive nonfiction manuscripts that sound more like research papers than books. While there’s nothing wrong with including research in your book, an author is still expected to be an expert on the topic. It isn’t enough just to regurgitate the work of others.
- If a book is good, publishers will rush it to the market. The traditional publishing process usually takes a year or two from the time your manuscript has been turned in. I have worked with authors who are sure their book will be so urgent that their publisher will rush it through the process. This is rare and highly unlikely.
Whether you decide to self-publish or try for a traditional publisher, it’s important to know how the process works. I have seen far too many authors make frustrating and costly mistakes because they didn’t learn about the industry before they started writing.
While some of the realities of book publishing are sobering, that’s no reason to feel discouraged. It’s still such a rewarding process, and a book can propel your career in a myriad of ways.
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