Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Dear New Novelist: Do Your Research

It's a big publishing world out there. When you have your finished novel edited and ready to go, the question becomes "What do I do with it?" We live in an age where the options are more and more every week. You could self publish, and you'll have a dozen choices for platforms and formats: Amazon-exclusive, wide-net (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc), Lulu.com... ebook only, Print-on-Demand (POD), both? You could submit to one of hundreds of small indie publishers who have open submissions. Or you could aim high for one of the big publishers who can get you into physical bookstores, but then you usually have to start with an agent, and there are hundreds more to choose from there.

It's a daunting, overwhelming selection no matter which path you take, and that's why today's lesson is important.

Dear new novelist,


It's a big publishing world out there, and in any big world, you're going to find people taking advantage of the newbies. Anyone can hang out an agent or publisher sign and tell a newcomer anything they want, and without doing research, who's to tell them otherwise? It can be so exciting to get that first "yes" that you'll miss or ignore all the red flags, and the worst scammers will tell you "this is how it is." Vanity publishers, places that take your money to print your book for upwards of ten thousand dollars, will tell you that paying to publish is totally normal (it's not. There's a writing law about it.) Lazy publishers will tell you, "Even the Big Five expect you to do all your own advertising and marketing" (they don't.) Scam agents will tell you that you need to have your book edited first (probably true), and they know this editor who will edit your book to perfection for a few thousand from your own pocket (probably their spouse,sibling, or shady business partner. Expect your money to be pocketed and your book never sold.) Even honest publishers with good intentions but little experience can fail, taking your novel and your money to bankruptcy with them.

What I'm trying to say is, not all agents, publishers, and publishing options are equal, even on the same level. Some small presses are more stable than others. Some larger companies can have issues behind the scenes that are leading then on a quick ride to closure. Even some vanity presses are more legitimate and better values (because there are cases where vanity publishing is acceptable or beneficial, often things like coffee table books with lots of pictures or books by public speakers who sell at their speaking engagements). The only way to learn all this is to do your research: before, during, and after.

Before submitting anywhere, look them up. The Absolute Write Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum has hundreds of publishers and agents, along with peoples' input on them based on personal experience or website evaluation. Sometimes the company or agent being evaluated will give their own input, which can also be eye-opening to their public behavior (and door-closing if they're behaving badly.) The Writer Beware blog (supported by the SFWA) also keeps up with the publishing world and reports on trouble brewing. Other things to look up at this stage:
  • How publishing works on all levels, from start to finish
  • What agents and publishers do for you to earn their share of the cover price, and how much their share typically is
  • The pros and cons of a big publisher, a small publisher, a new publisher, an old publisher, an old agent, a new agent, and self-publishing. 
  • The difference between net and gross in contracts and how not knowing this can screw you over
  • The difference between being able to order a book in bookstores and finding it on the shelves
  • The difference between an agent and a contract lawyer or literary attorney
  • The difference between a new publisher/agent with previous publishing/agenting experience and a new publisher/agent with no previous experience or only experience being published
  • The difference between Print-on-Demand and print runs 
  • The red flags to look for while vetting agents and publishers
  • Anything and everything that anyone tells you is normal or typical in the publishing business
During submission, it's easy to miss some of those aforementioned red flags and submit to someone who may not be as on the up-and-up as they seemed. When you get that "we'd like to publish you" email or "I want to represent you" call, it's not too late to do some in-depth research. Dig around the internet, or at least Google "[Publisher] scam." If you find out that this isn't who you want, you can always say "no." You should also be allowed to reach out to the people who will be your fellows with the company or agent and ask some questions. Do so. You may find out some things going on behind the scenes that aren't public yet, like withheld payments, illness causing delays (a major issue with small, one-man companies), or just slow response rates. There have been people who've signed contracts with companies in the middle of collapsing who hadn't paid their writers in months just because that failing company said, "Yes". Don't let that happen to you.

After you've signed the contract, it's still good to keep an eye out for what's going on and act appropriately to preserve your stories and ask questions. Publishers going under can be quick, or a slow crawl, and if you don't act in a timely manner, you might lose any books with that publisher for years. Agents can get sick, retire, quit, or move agencies with little notice, and you want to know what will happen to you under those circumstances so you can plan accordingly.

Basically, the more you know, the safer you, your novel, and your wallet will be. And trust me, in this business, you want to be safe. How many potential shining stars have died out unnoticed because they went with a bad publisher? Answer: lots. Don't let yourself be one of them. Do your research. It's for your own good.

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