Tips and Tricks for Traditional Publishing

So, you’ve been offered a publishing contract? That’s awesome! Writing a book under contract is exciting and can also be a more than a little daunting. You may be feeling unsure of yourself, wondering why a publisher would want YOU to write a book. That’s very normal. Rest assured, most publishers do their homework and only want to deal with writers they feel are able to a good job. You also likely have many questions about the process. Hopefully, the following will help shed some light.

I’m not an expert when it comes to writing and publishing books. I’m also not an attorney nor any sort of literary agent. I have, however, had several books published, to varying degrees of success. All of my books to date have been what we call traditionally published. Far different from self-publishing, this means I have entered into a contracted agreement with a publisher to produce a book, for which I have received an advance against future royalties as well as a specified number of “author copies” of the book (we’ll get to those in a bit). For its part, the publisher earns the bulk of the money on each book sale but also pays most or all expenses involved in the physical publication of the book.

The advice and information that follows is centered upon traditional publishing. Along the way, some of the suggestions may be just as applicable to self-publishing so even if you have little interest in securing a book deal with a publisher and intend to go your own way, odds are you’ll find something worthwhile here.

Every book deal begins with the contract. This is a legally binding agreement between you and the publisher. Among other things, it is what sets out the royalty rate, the advance, the number of author copies, and the rights you are selling to the publisher. While it is at least theoretically possible to change the contract terms at a later date after the initial signing, don’t count on that happening. Let’s put it this way, I accomplished it once and I hope I never have to go through it again.

Step number one is to read the contract thoroughly and be sure you understand each and every single sentence. If you run into something that doesn’t make sense or you are unsure as to the meaning of a word or phrase, ask a reliable source for clarification. I have come right out and asked the publisher what they mean by a certain paragraph and said inquiry is always done via email, so the response I receive is in writing and I can fall back on that if need be. The contract you are offered will always favor the publisher in all things. This is normal and a customary way of doing business. It doesn’t mean the publisher is evil, wicked, or some sort of modern day Scrooge. It is just how things are done, nothing personal. However, just about everything in the contract is negotiable to one degree or another.

Now, it is at this point, right exactly here, that many new authors get scared. They fear negotiating the contract terms because the publisher might just toss their hands up and say, “Screw this,” and move on to another author. Look, the truth of the matter is, every publisher expects an author to counter-offer at least some of the contract terms, typically the ones that involve money. Provided you have more sense than God gave a potato, you should be ok with countering the terms you want to swing over to your side of the table. In other words, if they offer you an advance of $5000 and you counter with $20,000, they will probably post your email in the break room so everyone can point and laugh. On the other hand, countering with, say, $7000 and negotiating it down to $6000 is far more likely.

Let’s talk a bit more about the advance for a moment. The advance is money they are paying you BEFORE the book is published and is a payment against future royalties. For example, let’s say your royalty rate means you’ll earn roughly $2.00 for each book sold and your advance is $5000. This means you’ll need to sell 2500 copies of your book before you’ll earn any more money. This is why I always say to negotiate your advance from the perspective that it might end up being the only money you earn on the book. The market is funny and difficult to predict. I’ve had books that we were convinced were going to sell a ton but didn’t and books that we felt were only going to sell a few thousand copies sell like crazy. You just never know.

With that said, you don’t want an advance that is just huge, unless you truly believe you’ll earn it out (sell enough copies to cover the advance). If you don’t sell enough copies to earn out the advance, it might be the last book you do with that publisher.

Advances are typically paid in two installments. The first upon signing the contract and the second upon submitting an acceptable manuscript. Some publishers break it down into more installments, such as a third upon signing, a third when you get halfway done, and the last when the manuscript is complete.

Now, let’s talk about royalty rates. For the uninitiated, the royalty rate is what determines how much you earn per book sold and is expressed as a percentage rather than a solid dollar figure. There are a whole lot of pieces to this puzzle but suffice to say, you want the royalty rate as high as possible. The rate offered varies wildly between publishers but as a rule of thumb, you want something in the neighborhood of 13-15% on hard copies and 25% on e-books. Anything substantially less than that should be negotiated higher if at all possible.

Royalties are typically paid out twice a year, though some publishers still cut checks quarterly. In most cases, you’ll be paid for the previous complete cycle. Meaning, if your publisher pays twice a year, the check you receive in December will be from books sold January – June. Few things move quickly in the publishing world, best to just understand that up front.

Author Copies
Every publishing contract will specify a set number of author copies that will be given to you at no charge when the book is published. All too often, authors overlook this section (I know I did with my first contract) and fail to negotiate it properly. In my experience, it is common for a publisher to offer as few as 10 copies, perhaps as many as 20. Shoot for at least 40, preferably more (though asking for 100 is probably going to get you laughed at). These are copies of your book that you’ll want for sending to family and friends. Plus, any that are left after that you can sell yourself at a tidy profit. Let’s say you have 30 copies of your book available to sell (after you’ve handed out copies to loved ones) and you unload them for $12 each. That’s another $360 you’ve earned on top of your advance and (hopefully) royalties to come.

When you enter into a publishing contract, what you’re doing is selling the rights of your book to the publisher. Read these sections of the contract carefully. What you want to avoid is giving the publisher ALL of the rights, leaving you with nothing. For example, many publishing contracts will include movie rights, TV rights, merchandise rights, and that sort of nonsense. If your publisher isn’t in the business of making movies, they have no need for those rights. I’m a firm believer in retaining as many rights as you can. No, the odds of your book being made into a TV miniseries are on the downside between slim and none but why give up the rights if you don’t have to do so?

There are, of course, many costs involved with publishing a book. Cover design, artwork, indexing, and other expenses all add up. Those should ALL be covered by the publisher. Your job is, or should be, to write the manuscript and edit it as requested by the publisher. That’s it. Be sure to check your contract and make sure all of those other expenses are being paid by the publisher.

One last thing to consider with the contract is the deadline they are giving you. It should go without saying that meeting your deadline is critical. There is a lot that happens after your manuscript is submitted and it is all scheduled out based upon that deadline. If you blow it, you’re setting everything else back, which tends to make editors and publishers unhappy to say the least.

Give yourself ample time to complete the project on time. Writing a book is more than a little different from writing blog posts or magazine articles. While you might be able to tear through, say, four blog posts in a day, you may find it more difficult to get through even half of one chapter in the same time frame. Remember, we’re talking about a book that could be as few as 50,000 words or as many as 100,000+. Plus, photos, illustrations, tables, charts, whatever else you plan to include. My first book, Prepper’s Home Defense, clocked in at around 50,000 words and took me a full six months to write. As time has gone on, though, I’ve gained more experience and am now able to write a book-length manuscript in about 3-4 months.

If you have thoughts of booking flights for a whirlwind book tour from coast to coast, um, forget it. Unless you’re willing to foot the bill for all those expenses, it just isn’t going to happen. While there are a few publishers out there who send authors on tours like that, they are mostly reserved for big names, not small fry like you and I. In fact, most publishers today don’t have much of a budget for marketing, at least not when compared to back in the day. In short, you’re on your own for the most part when it comes to marketing your book to the masses.

That said, many publishers are rather generous with sending out review copies and if that’s the case with your publisher, take full advantage of that. Compile a list of as many bloggers in your niche as you can and ask them if they’d be interested in reviewing your book. Add to that list family and friends who are willing to write a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and elsewhere. Jot down the names and mailing addresses for niche magazines as well. The more reviews that get out there quickly, the better. However, and this is important, OBJECTIVE reviews are critical. If you are contemplating buying a book on Amazon and the only reviews there were obviously written by family members who give the impression that they think the sun rises and sets in the author’s butt, how interested will you be in buying the book? It is also considered good form for those folks to mention in the review that they received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Don’t expect your publisher’s marketing department to set up radio/TV interview and any of that other fun stuff, either. If they do, great! But, consider that a bonus rather than just a matter of course. You’re going to have to do your own homework and reach out to those resources yourself.

Which Comes First, the Book or the Contract?
This is the interesting thing about traditionally publishing a book. You can sell the book before it is written. In fact, this is what the advance was originally intended to be – a means of supporting yourself as you worked on the book. Of course, most advances paid today are a pittance compared to years ago and you’d be hard pressed to live on those funds for even a few months in most cases.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about non-fiction here. Few novelists are able to sell a book before it is written, unless they have already built a successful reputation. Non-fiction, though, often works in this manner. Personally, I like this arrangement as it allows me the time to work with the editor to craft the book we both envision, working together as the book goes along, rather than trying to edit the hell out of it after the fact, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Editors Are Not Evil (at least not all of them)
An editor’s job is to make your manuscript be the best it can possibly be. To that end, they will request changes here and there throughout your book. Some of these edits will be to fix typos or grammatical errors. Others may be more substantial, asking you to rewrite sections to make them easier to understand. Do not be a diva about this and scream and cry about the editor wanting to change the “voice” of your book. Most editors know what sells and what doesn’t, pay attention to what they tell you.

That said, I have run across situations that made me very uncomfortable, such as an editor trying to add a few thousands of their own words to my book. That is going beyond what is acceptable and we had to have a rather unpleasant conversation about it. Let your conscience be your guide in such matters.

The Publishing Process
While this differs a bit between publishers, here is how the basic process typically works. You complete your manuscript and submit it to your editor. This may be done chapter-by-chapter or all at once when the book is finished, depends on the publisher. Many publishers, when working with a first-time author, will go with the former to ensure you’re staying on task.

The editor will go through the manuscript once or twice, requesting changes here and there. The manuscript will be returned to you with those changes noted. You’ll go through and address each of them, then send it back.
The manuscript will then be sent to a proofreader, who will edit the entire thing again. They will, no doubt, find additional changes that need to be made. You’ll get the manuscript back with those changes noted and you’ll send it in when you’ve addressed them all.

At that point, the book will be formatted and you’ll usually get it back one last time. You’ll be able to see how the book will actually look, more or less, when it is published. You’ll go through the entire thing to check for any lingering typos and such. The book is then sent off to the printer, often roughly a month or so before the publication date.

Speaking of publication dates, these are often something of a moving target until the book actually arrives at Amazon and elsewhere. I’ve had books get to Amazon’s warehouses and it still took a couple of weeks before they went “live” and were available for immediate shipment to customers. There are also occasional snafus with the printer, delaying the book for a few weeks or more. The point is, even if the publisher, Amazon, and other booksellers are all showing a publication date of, say, September 1st, don’t count on it until it actually happens.