The Writing Life: Pay to Play
I was thrilled when I saw an e-mail in my inbox from a publisher I had queried about acquiring my debut novel, Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet, about a rookie sportswriter covering an intense season of high school football in a football-crazed backwater Florida town. The publisher had written me immediately after I had submitted my query to say the synopsis and sample chapters looked promising and to have patience while the editor reviewed the material.
When the publisher’s follow-up acceptance e-mail arrived about six weeks later with an attached “Publishing Agreement,” I thought I had triumphed over long odds as an unknown author by persuading a publisher to acquire my book. I had wanted to progress from a self-published author to one backed by the heft, resources and credibility of a traditional commercial publisher, which I believed would open more doors and opportunities to bring the novel to a broader audience. I expected there would be a payment for my work. But when I read the agreement, I realized it wasn’t quite that simple.
The experience has been part of my indoctrination into the complex, confusing and rapidly evolving world of book publishing. I discovered there would not be a dime coming my way up-front from this operation for the blood and sweat I poured into crafting the novel over three years and had already self-published, paying thousands to a self-publishing company to edit and format the book, design the cover, and prepare it for print-on-demand, e-book and distribution channels. In fact, the Publishing Agreement included a non-negotiable provision requiring me to pay about $1,300 for the publisher to essentially re-do many of the same tasks I had already undertaken to produce a self-published book.
That’s where my real education began. There are various kinds of publishing companies – self-publishers, indie publishers, vanity publishers, subsidy publishers, hybrid publishers and traditional/commercial publishers. The publisher I was dealing with called itself a “hybrid” publisher. Without going into great detail on the distinctions between the breeds, this basically meant that this particular publisher acts something like a self-publisher, but looks for books of a certain quality and rejects much of the sub-standard work that comes its way. This supposedly distinguishes it from a vanity publisher, so-named because such a publisher will publish anything of any quality by any author vain enough to pay for the service. The hybrid publisher functions like a traditional publisher in that it has access to certain distribution channels and performs some marketing functions to represent its titles.
But the bottom line about this type of hybrid publisher, I learned, is that it doesn’t assume the risk to make or lose money by selling new authors’ books. Any revenue that comes through sales for the hybrid publisher is likely gravy. The hybrid publisher’s bread is buttered through selling its publishing services to eager authors. That is the bigger incentive and target for the hybrid publisher’s resources, not necessarily marketing and selling the new authors’ books.
So now I have a choice to make. Would I earn back my investment by having the backing of a legitimate publishing company, or would I have no better sales than if I continued to soldier on by myself? Would it open more doors – book signing appearances and placements in bookstores, for example — or lead to more book reviews? Hard to say. Do I want to grant various rights and interests to the book to this publisher and diminish my control for a fairly small royalty? In exchange for what, exactly?
While stumbling in the dark, I discovered another option that intrigues me: Forming my own imprint, or publishing operation, as a sole proprietor. That will take more research, but I like the idea of full creative control – and it looks like I will have full responsibility for promotion and marketing anyway, whether I go with this particular hybrid publisher or not.
For anyone sticking a toe in the rather arcane book publishing industry waters, I can’t offer expert advice. I’m still learning. I can only offer the time-honored, sage warning for solicitors and buyers of any services or products anywhere: caveat emptor.