I have a friend who, after two decades of writing several novels, is ready to throw in the towel.

This person has published a non-fiction book in the distant past. You would think she would have some inkling of the changes in the publishing industry since then.

The reason she's failing is that she has bought into the mantra: "I need an agent. I need a major publishing house." Because the blinders are on, she has failed to notice that the publishing world is in the same economic crisis as the rest of us. She reads reads articles such as those touted in this month's issue of Writer's Digest: PUBLISHING 101, Your Publishing Survival Guide. She proudly tells me she's on over 30 agent and publishing Internet sites.

I asked her, "And what have they done for you in 20 years?"

I've told her the ugly stats my Googling has uncovered of the publishing industry. Here's how they read:
132 million manuscripts are submitted yearly. 1% will be published.
3,000 manuscripts are published daily
Of those published, only 2 % sold more than 5,000 copies.
16% sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
82% sold less than 100 copies.

IF a manuscript manages to get through the slush pile, 90% will be rejected after the first page is read.
98% will be rejected after the first chapter is read.
30-50 will get through to serious consideration.
In a good year, a publisher can put out 10 books. In a bad year, maybe 5.

New York used to be the center for publishing. Now the publishing industry is governed by The Big Six. All but Simon & Schuster remain American. Publishers know that 70% of the books they publish will never earn back their advances. The system is as archaic as the Guttenburg printing press.

My friend is convinced she will be the exception to the stats. She knows the formula: Query letter, synopsis, the dreaded outline, the first three chapters. There is a reason this is called “submission.” The author goes through all the steps, kowtowing to the powers that be, which may be a 22-year-old with a red pen who just got out of college.

I published two novels and a short story anthology without going through any of those steps. How? I went with small publishers.

Small publishing outfits have filled the void. Computer technology means there doesn't have to be huge print runs. With Kindle on the scene, an writer can be author, publisher, editor, promoter and banker. We can finally sell our imagination without selling our souls.

I have to do the major part of my marketing, but even Big Publishing is requiring authors to do the same. What I love about the publishers I've worked with is that I have a big say in my cover art. I'm in personal communication by email and phone. My current publisher has even made me one of the the Marketing Mavens of her house. I'm allowed input on strategies to make the publishing outfit more profitable. I'm under no pressure to produce a book every year and can take my time getting my words right.

I'm glad my friend has hopes, dreams and goals. I just wish she wasn't unrealistic and inflexible. Her four novels could be on the shelves today. As I tell her, "You can't market what doesn't exist." While she waits for that agent to come calling, I'm selling books at speaking venues, mystery conferences and conventions. While she feels rejected at this stage, I'd say she's rejecting opportunities within her reach.

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Comment by Lou Allin on September 3, 2009 at 5:58am
Sunny never said that getting published by a small press is "as good as" making it in the big leagues. She's merely encouraging people to explore their options, as long as they realize the pros and cons. And yes, big leagues or not, you have to be a tireless marketer. Sadly, introverts are not going to make it no matter how good their book is. Maybe someone can come up with an author who never leaves the house, or better yet, is dead.

If you're twenty five, maybe you have the time to write a bestselling novel and wait ten years in your hunt for an agent and a major publisher. The rest of us don't.


I have six books published by a small Canadian press which just happens to have won the top mystery/crime award in Canada three of the last five years (not my titles, alas). Fact is, though, that the print runs are probably two thousand max and that selling across the border costs another five percent so that the royalty is down to 5% for the author. Two of my standalones from Five Star have library print runs of fewer than a thousand, though in hardcover. Total revenue each? Max $3000.

So yes, I could be waiting for that agent to come along and make me the next Alan Bradley, who wrote The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. He hit the jackpot with Doubleday. But he spent decades paying his dues first.

Just be glad you're not on the street selling fifty-cent copies of your poetry......wait...that's what Margaret Atwood did over forty years ago. She's Canada's bestselling novelist now, for whatever that's worth (10% of US royalities and a few movie deals). Somehow I think she'd agree with Sunny. Stop griping, keep writing, and don't look behind you.
Comment by Holli Castillo on September 3, 2009 at 5:45am
I wouldn't be published if I had waited for the big houses to want me. I had an agent looking at my novel, who ultimately decided she couldn't take new clients, and then an independent publisher (I don't like the word small) published me. I recognized I was starting as a nobody, and wouldn't have expected a big house to put tons of money into advertising my work, because I'm not Grisham or King or the flavor of the week.

My suggestion for Sunny's friend would be to pursue the big houses if she wants, but to also pursue the independent publishers and smaller agencies. I didn't want to overlook any possibility of getting published when I was querying.

I have gotten my book into several bookstores in my hometown of New Orleans, and both of the Barnes and Noble, one on each side of the river, carry my book. Whether you're with a giant publisher or a little known press, unless you are the luckiest person in the world, you'll be marketing your own work if you want sales, whether you pound the pavement, knock on doors, send out postcards, or join author sites, or do all of it.

Getting published is a crap shoot, just as is getting a movie role if you're an unknown actor or getting a recording contract if you are an unknown singer. It's not always about being the best at the craft, (look at Britney Spears), but about doing what is necessary to make it. You should do anything you are capable of doing to increase your chances.
Comment by J. Michael Orenduff on September 3, 2009 at 5:43am
Jack Getze responded to Sunny Frazier's 'Whose Fault" post by saying that most bookstores want discounts, easy ordering through their regular distributors, etc. He is right. But many small presses offer exactly those things. Oak Tree Books who published Sunny's latest, Where Angels Fear, gives industry standard discounts and distributes through Ingram with all books fully returnable. By continuing to stereotype small presses, we play into the hands of the publishing cartel and suppress creativity and variety. Yes, a small press doesn't have market clout, and the authors has to work harder. But the products are frequently as good and often better than the same old same old from the big guys. Where Angels Fear is better than any of Janet Evanovitch's books. It will never sell as many copies, although it is listed by Amazon on the Evanovitch page as a book customers also bought. But if it hadn't been for a small press, I and many others would have missed out on a book we genuinely enjoyed.
Comment by Sunny Frazier on September 3, 2009 at 5:13am
Seriously?
Smart, efficient and cheap marketing is a necessity at a time when no publisher is going to hand over a ready-made publicity campaign to an untried writer. I know I wouldn't gamble big bucks like that! At some point, the author has to "man up" and face the fans or make the fans. I know authors who sell less than stellar books through personality alone. They've convinced me to part with cash because I like the way they speak and they make their plots sound intriguing.

The days of languishing away in a garret waiting for the unwashed masses to discover the genius of an author are over. We're all out there competing for attention and readers. We blog, we post, we get on sites such as this one. Yes, it's all so much easier being at home safely behind a computer and hidden from the perils of the real world. I think more good authors get swept under the rug because they've used the words "I can't" and "That's just the way it is." NO. That's the way you choose to make it.
Comment by Dana King on September 3, 2009 at 4:48am
These are all good ideas, and I envy those who have the imagination, energy, and personality to pull them off. The catch is, not all writers can. Asking an introverted writer to do a lot of these things is like asking a writer of cat cozies to write a hard-boiled piece, or asking a noir writer to write a romance. They might be able to do it, but it will go against the grain, and the end result probably won't be pretty. The big houses aren't as good as they used to be about this, but for some people, a sustainable career is only going to be possible if someone provides assistance with the marketing. Doesn't matter how well they write. That's no one's fault; that's just how it is.
Comment by Sunny Frazier on September 3, 2009 at 4:33am
And yet. . .
A group of our local writers got into the Visalia CA Costco, local books set in the San Joaquin Valley are at the Yosemite airport, Fresno, and on a shelf at Borders. Maybe things happen more readily in rural areas where authors are few and far between. I'm the only mystery author in my town--two towns and a Navy base, actually. Lots of support. My books have been sold in a flower shop, stationary store and a coffee shop. We don't have any big bookstores.

I don't take "no" as the last word. When I couldn't find any new venues, I worked to revive the Local Authors Program at the Kings County Library and got the town of Hanford to do the first BookFest ever in the area. Everything was donated--the venue, tables, publicity, flyers. The American Legion members did all the set up and clean up, the Senior Center provided the historical building and the Legionaires even brought the 40+ authors who showed pizza and water.

To me, it's a matter of getting the community behind you or getting off the stick and creating opportunities. One of my friends has an upcoming signing at a Holiday Inn Express. Still trying to figure out how she pulled that off!
Comment by I. J. Parker on September 3, 2009 at 1:24am
There is some truth to that. But she cannot stop marketing if the books are in fact viable. For that she needs some input from knowledgeable readers. Shelf space has be paid for. Places like airports and CostCo et al carry only best sellers because they have limited space.
Comment by Sunny Frazier on September 2, 2009 at 2:00pm
Look, given a choice, would you rather be unpublished or published by a small press? Because this woman doesn't have the connections or the know-how to pull herself out of the slush pile. Your books are on Amazon, right? Kindle? You've got some small bookstores in the area, you've talked to the corporate office of Borders (much more friendly than B&N), you've found other places, maybe gift shops or airport bookstands, Costco? An author can't sell what doesn't exist.

And, if the big brass ring is the one you want, write another book, series, genre and pitch it to agents and publishers. You'll still be involved selling as an author with a small house, not sitting around wasting time for a dream that may not happen. Isn't that a better way to look at things rather than grousing about how things are? Glass half full, Jack. Or, perhaps it runneth over.
Comment by Jack Getze on September 2, 2009 at 11:09am
When you say her four books could be "on the shelves," what shelves are you talking about? Because I'm with a small publisher, too, and Barnes & Noble won't stock them. Border's either, except where I've gone to visit. Most bookstores want the big discounts, co-op money, and easy ordering through their regular distributors. I think you're kidding yourself that publishing with a small press is as good as being published by New York.
Comment by Karyne on September 2, 2009 at 9:43am
The ability to see change and flow with it is critical to success. I am busy learning as much as I can about the current publishing atmosphere so I will be in the know when I'm ready.

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