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  • Writer's pictureMichael Gray

How Publishing Your Book Really Works – Part One

I’m going to spend several blogs going over the ins and outs of publishing your book. These are the questions my clients most frequently ask. So I want to cover all you need to know about publishing. This first blog will go over how the publishing industry used to work. This is vital you know this because vestiges of it still remain and will affect your publishing decisions. Let’s get started.

In 1971, you’re a struggling writer trying to get your first novel published. It’s tough coming up with great ideas much less getting someone interested in your work. For most first time writers of this era, they would have to draft a one-page query letter and mail it to hundreds of

publishers hoping to interest them. However, you just happen to have a literary agent. This agent has contacts at publishing houses and they rely on him to send in good material, not

junk. You tell your agent you have two ideas: one about pirates and another about a man-eating shark terrorizing a community. He encourages you to pursue the shark story. You draft a novel and your agent finds a publisher to pay you a $1,000 advance. However, after reading the whole novel, the publisher isn’t happy and makes you rewrite much of it. You do the work and resubmit it. On their staff is an editor who rips through it making lots of changes. When he’s done they have another person who professionally proofreads it. When the publisher is completely happy with the manuscript, they send it to their marketing department. These folks design a cover and create some advertising content. Two years after you wrote it they finally print the book and Jaws eventually hits the bestseller list for 44 straight weeks.

Here are the takeaways from this story and process. First, the publishers were the gatekeepers. If they didn’t like you or your work, you didn’t get published. Second, the publishers loved agents because they brought them prescreened material. This saved them time from sorting through an inbox of unsolicited manuscripts and letters called the slush pile. Third, certain agents soon became valued to the publishers since they only brought them killer stuff. They established relationships that allowed a writer’s material to get placed in the right hands fast thus speeding up the process. Fourth, the publisher had full authority to demand changes or make their own, the writer be damned. Fifth, the publishers decided how it would be marketed and had the final say on the title. Sixth, the process usually took two years. Seventh, the publishers took almost all the financial risk. They printed up the books and took all of the losses if the books didn’t sell. Sure, the writer was out his time and labor but the publisher was writing real checks. Lastly, the publisher made all of the money. The writer would get an advance but received nothing else until the earned royalties equaled the advance. And believe me, the royalties were minuscule.

So why did writers participate in this scheme? Two reasons: one, they had no choice. The publishers were the master puppeteers. Two, if they had a bestseller, suddenly the dollar amounts changed. The publisher would pay a larger advance for the second book and there was a chance of selling the movie rights to the first book. That’s where the big money lay. Think of all the motion pictures, TV series, and made-for-TV movies that have been produced from books. It’s staggering.

Just know this: the publisher (a) decided if you got published; (b) took all the risk; (c) and made all of the money. Oh and one more thing: the publisher kept all of the records. They told you how many books were sold each month and how much you were owed. “Sorry, Mr. Writer but you haven’t earned out your advance retainer yet. We’ll let you know when we need to send you some money.” That’s how it used to be. It was their game, their toys, and their rules. Stay tuned for Part Two and the changing publishing landscape.

Michael Gray is the Texas Ghostwriter and is based in Dallas, Texas. He published his first book twenty years ago and has since published more than 100 books, with almost all receiving favorable reviews from critics and readers alike. Contact Michael at 214-377-1125 today and "tell the world your story" tomorrow.


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