So many people out there are trying to break into print, wanting to write the next Great American Novel. It is almost on the same par as “The American Dream”. The Florida Center for Literary Arts at Miami Dade College is one place that has seen tremendous growth over the years with their offerings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir writing workshops. Everyone has a story to tell or “a novel inside them waiting to be written.” However, it seems that as more and more people crowd into creative writing classes and workshops it is becoming increasingly difficult to break into print by way of traditional commercial publishers such as Random House, Simon & Schuster or other large publishing houses with numerous imprints catering to diverse markets. One of the biggest difficulties for a first time author breaking into print, assuming his or her work is a near saleable piece, is cost.
Traditional book publishers’ primary consideration is cost and profitability because they assume the risk; they pay authors, handle the business and marketing expenses. When considering a piece for publication, their utmost priority is the return on their investment. It is easy for them to invest in a writer with a good sales record, particularly with a couple of New York Times bestsellers under his or her belt such as established authors like a Sandra Brown, a Tom Clancy or a John Grisham, on whom they will take a chance of paying a lucrative advance. Costs of publishing have increased exponentially over the past thirty years. The marketing budgets of many publishing houses for first time authors have shrunk. An author cannot just be the person who writes in a lonely room anymore. The author must be market savvy, be able to go out to book signings and face crowds of people who are curious about the written product.
Too often the public has heard media reports of hefty book advances paid to celebrities for their “tell-all book” that has not even been written yet and is probably unlikely to be a piece written by the celebrity. In the world of the traditional publisher, the advantage a celebrity has over the thousands of aspiring authors is “name recognition”. In today’s world of media hype and pop culture name recognition converts to dollars in the bank.
Traditional publishers are so inundated by the competitive field race of first time authors trying to break into print that whatever unsolicited manuscript the publisher receives goes into what is called a “slush pile”. Once that happens, a writer would be lucky if he or she gets a response – specifically a rejection – after six months. For an aspiring author with no name recognition it is difficult to get one’s foot in the door of a major publishing house in New York or Boston, even with the possibility of having produced a potentially excellent story. The temptation exists to go the self-publishing route.
If the writer is unknown the traditional publisher will be taking more of a risk in investing money in an unknown commodity. This is a cost factor that could hinder the progress of an aspiring author, although the cost is on the publisher’s end. This cost factor in traditional publishing has led to the kind of limitations and constraints that have caused the growth in the self-publishing industry.
With self-publishing it is the author who assumes the risk by paying for publishing, editorial and even marketing services. The upside of the self-publishing method is that aspiring authors may see their work in print faster than if they had sent their work to a traditional publisher. The downside is that with self-publishing, the cost to a cash-strapped aspiring author can be exorbitant, especially if the all important editorial and proof-reading service is added to the expense list. Because of the cost, the editorial service is usually missing from many self-published projects and it becomes evident in the final product, which is why on the whole, self-published works have a reputation for poor quality. Another downside to self-publishing is, because of the different relationship commercial book stores have with vanity presses compared to traditional publishers, a book store is less likely to carry a self published book than a traditional commercially published book. One major reason is that vanity published books are non-returnable if they are not sold. Commercially published books can be returned to the traditional publisher if unsold by the bookstore which is a very important part of a contract between publisher and bookstore.
The two main self publishing methods are vanity (subsidy) publishing where many copies of a book a run off the press for which room space needs to be found until they are sold. The other method is print-on-demand where one copy of the book is set then as the name suggests, is printed on demand as needed. Because the number of people desiring to be published is larger than the narrow conduit into the world of the published, many aspiring authors seem willing to take the route of self-publishing. The expanding self-publishing industry seems geared to meet the needs of the many writers who live with stacks of rejection slips. Some of the better known self-publishers are Authorhouse, Amazon’s Booksurge, iUniverse, Xlibris and Booklocker. Many of them have publishing packages starting from $400 upwards depending on how elaborate the book project will be, with everything from basic black and white cover to elaborate cover designs and page layout and graphics. For example, at Authorhouse the fee for one year of the Bookseller Return Program is $699 and this does not include editorial or publishing services. This is the new feature that allows a self-published book to appear more desirable to a commercial bookstore by allowing the return of unsold books. Most self publishers do not have this feature or their authors cannot afford this feature.
The gap between the heightened sense of desire to be published and the difficulty in attaining that goal can cause vulnerability to scam artists with unscrupulous business practices. David Kuzminski, editor and founder of the Preditors & Editors/Anotherealm website, keeps a weekly track of alerts and warnings about dishonest practices in the world of publishing. The National Writers’ Union performs a similar task but it goes much further into the areas of assessment of publishing contracts and assisting writers’ who may have already been scammed.
In the area of cost and profitability in commercial publishing, the biggest story in pop culture currently is the rags to riches story of J.K. Rowlings, author of the highly successful Harry Potter books who wrote stories while sitting on platforms in train stations with her baby in a stroller, scribbling ideas in a tacky note book, getting numerous rejection slips before her first story gave a galley reader a twinkle in the eye and the bravery to challenge the presiding editor to take a chance on the manuscript. Her net worth in the United Kingdom is reputed to be as high as Queen Elizabeth II liquid net worth.
On the local front the annual Miami International Book Fair boasts visiting big name authors which in recent times have included Toni Morrison, Edna Buchanan, former Florida Senator Bob Graham, and Terry McMillan; local mystery writers Christine Kling and James Hall, who have conducted writers’ workshops at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. These writers, national or locally homegrown, can discuss their own personal adventures trying to break into the world of book-print.
There are those who profess that self-publishing is the best thing they have ever done in terms of return on their investment. In a report by a former officer of the National Writers’ Union Bruce Hartford, “print on demand publishing is seen as an increasingly attractive alternative to small press publishing.” (NWU, 2007). However, there are those like Jeanette Windle who would not recommend self-publishing. In her Internet website she says that even the top selling authors like Tom Clancy and John Grisham “suffer the indignation of slashed sentences, tightened dialogue, and chopped paragraphs. The best of writers is not necessarily a competent editor. Too often, the mark of a self-published book is a lack of polish in the final editorial process.” (Windle, 2001, To Self publish or Not, para.11).
In Leonard Bishop’s book “Dare to be a Great Writer” (1988 p.71), he says of rejection by traditional publishers “Publishers realize that many of the books they issue are ‘hack and nonsense.’ Too many are unaware of the literary works they reject.” On the other hand, in another section of Bishop’s book he says “While legitimate or known trade publishers do not always publish quality novels, they do advance the writer some money, rather than take it from him, as do the vanity presses.” (1988, p.53).
Judith Appelbaum asserts in her book “How to Get Happily Published”, “A demonstrably false series of assumptions keeps a great many writers from seriously considering self-publishing, which is a shame because a lot of people could earn more money and have more fun if they brought out their own work.”(1992, p.153).
In conclusion, there is a clear indication that the high cost of doing business in the world of traditional publishing has led to expansion and growth in the self-publishing industry. The aspiring author will tread the murky waters between self education, practicing and improving the writing craft until the big break comes, by attending workshops and creative writing classes; while skirting the foothills of the dark mountain of self-publishing with all its expenses and risk to the cash-strapped author with no name recognition. As with every industry there are pros and cons; success stories and stories of disappointment, and vulnerability to scam artists preying on those with too strong a desire to “rush the process”. Whether people’s motivation to write is based on making money or in the desire for self expression regardless of whom might be paying attention to the expression, writing is a solitary endeavor and is likely to have a deeply rooted source in the individual who would be prepared to mortgage his house to get his book published. Kurt Vonnegut in a 1970 interview said “you must be passionate about something in life, because it’s a high-energy performance to create something the size of a book.” A writer would need ample stores of passion and energy – and talent – to surmount the hurdle of the high cost of book publishing.
Applebaum, Judith. How to Get Happily Published. 1992. Harper Collins, NY
Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer, 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction. 1988. Writers’ Digest
Books, imprint of F&W Publications, Inc., Cincinnati, OH.
Florida Center for Literary Arts. Miami Dade College. http://www.flcenterlitarts.com
Hartford, Bruce. (2007, March) National Writers’ Union.
Retrieved 6/6/07 from http://www.nwu.org/nwu/index.php?cmd=Homepage
Kuzminski, David. Preditors & Editors. http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/
Vonnegut, Kurt. Interviewed by Loretta Leone McCabe. 1970. On Being a Writer. 1989. Edited
by Bill Strickland. Writers’ Digest Books. Cincinnati, OH.
Windle, Jeanette. (2001, September) To Self Publish or Not.
Retrieved 6/6/07 from http://www.jeanettewindle.com/to_self-publish_or_not.htm