Ten Things Nobody Tells You About the Publishing Industry
An author offers some hard-earned tips.
There’s more to authoring than conquering the blank page. Dozens of unique quirks of industry factor into the experience of a creative. If you’re an aspiring writer with traditional publishing in mind, pay attention. Here’s what to expect from author life:
The industry moves slowly. Very slowly. The publishing machine is overloaded. More manuscripts are submitted than agents and editors can comfortably review. Even established authors can wait weeks or months to hear back on submissions. And even once you receive an offer, the contract process takes time. That’s just on the acquisition side—on the publishing side, editorial cycles can lag, with digital-first projects taking up to a year from contract to publication and print projects taking up to two.
Advice: Unless you’re writing timely nonfiction, settle in for a leisurely ride.
There are more gatekeepers than you think. At the pitching stage, it can seem like the only person separating you from bestseller status is the right acquiring editor. In reality, players at several key stages need to get behind your work. Prereaders often triage submissions for editors. Individual editors who love your manuscript may have to sell your project to a wider team. Accepted manuscripts might have to pass muster with print retailers for wide distribution. Critical publications may or may not opt to publish a review, let alone a favorable one.
Advice: Don’t jockey to get any one individual to fall in love with your book; conceptualize projects with multiple stakeholders in mind.
Not every deal is a good deal. For most early-career authors, being offered a contract—any contract—feels like the goal, like it will validate the quality of our work and our status as authors. What seasoned authors know is that different publishers have different goals, different marketing philosophies, and different access to readers. And each contract has its own small print. A “good” deal is a deal with terms that are balanced and fair to both parties and that serve the author’s career goals.
Advice: Don’t be afraid to negotiate or to decline an offer that’s a bad fit.
It matters how big a fish you are, and what size the pond. Signing on with a major publisher carries cachet, but where you fall in the pecking order matters. Sometimes, it’s better to be a big deal at a small publisher than it is to be an underling at a big house. The same could be said of agencies and agents. The most time, effort, and (in the case of publishers) marketing dollars will go to the authors they plan to invest in the most. It won’t matter if you’re with a big-name publisher or agent if the horse they’re betting on isn’t you.
Advice: Only work with people who will treat you like a priority.
You’ll have to sit on good news. Congratulations! You’ve been offered your next great deal. Now, get ready to wait. Publishers and production houses time their announcements strategically. You will have little control over when, where, and how such announcements happen.
Advice: Develop fulfilling rituals that encompass private and public celebration so that victories don’t feel anticlimactic.
You’ll feel more competitive than you’re proud of. Publishing is not a meritocracy. The more you hustle for book contracts, rights deals, awards, and accolades, the more inequity you’ll see. The quality of the books you write won’t always line up to the size or status of the deals you land, let alone the level of recognition you’ll receive as a creator. A culture of competition among authors can amplify hard feelings on all sides—from jealousy among authors who feel passed over to a sense of abandonment among authors whose friends dwindle the more successful they become.
Advice: Set individual goals and learn to feel content as you meet them, regardless of what others have achieved.
The goal line is always moving. Authors don’t just write books—authors build empires, with multiple business aspects and income streams. Some authors focus on subrights. Others book speaking engagements, develop course franchises, sell merchandise, and seek out other sources of revenue. Ambitious authors raise the bar, inspiring (and sometimes intimidating) other authors. The more time you spend in the industry, the more possibilities you’ll see.
Advice: Be ready for the hustle if you want the bigger things.
Readers are a tricky bunch to please. Even if you’ve written a literary masterpiece that every critic exalts, readers judge based on arbitrary factors. They may gripe about a story element that is transparently stated or editorial decisions that fall within the boundaries of genre; they may even penalize authors for perceived moral transgressions (e.g., profanity, religious persuasion, or sex).
Advice: Don’t focus on the readers who will never like your work. Cultivate the readers who will.
It takes a long time to get paid, and income is sporadic. The industry pays advances for a reason. The editorial cycle relegates authors to long waits before their first royalty checks arrive. Publisher payouts range from monthly to quarterly to biannually, with longer lead times if you’re routing through an agent. And even when money is rolling in, bigger checks come with new releases; sales taper off as books age.
Advice: Build financial scaffolding designed to weather inconsistent income patterns.
The intangibles make the struggle worth it. If all of this sounds terrible, just wait until a fan writes you an email telling you how much your book meant to them, or until a mega-author sees your work and says something kind. Wait until you’re at a book signing and a fan is ecstatic (I mean, ecstatic) to meet you. Wait until you find your writer community and realize that you’ve made a set of lifelong friends. There’s even more gravy if you’re doing well—from bestseller lists to international travel and seeing your work adapted to the screen.
Advice: Don’t be discouraged. The intangibles will come, and they make up for a lot.
Kilby Blades is a bestselling author of romance and women’s fiction and a digital marketing veteran.