The Publishing Landscape by Roland Fishman
If you are a writer who wants to publish your novel, you have more options available than ever before. But the path to publication can be confusing, frustrating and challenging, even for experienced writers.
This series of articles about getting your novel published aims to give you an understanding of your publishing options and which is most suitable for you and your novel.
To gain a perspective of the current publishing landscape, I researched online materials, some of which are excellent, and interviewed publishers, editors, authors, agents and other industry professionals.
This article is the first in a series exploring in a broad sense traditional publishing, independent/self-publishing and online publishing.
Other articles explore:
- The detailed pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing
- Steps to take when seeking an agent and the all-important query letter
- Writing a compelling one-page synopsis
- Steps to take when self-publishing
- The digital marketing required to get your work out into the world.
Before getting into any of that though, I want to say a quick word about the attitude we recommend writers adopt when approaching the process of writing and publishing a novel. It also applies to screenplays.
Before submitting your work to agents and publishers or self-publishing, take the time to make your novel as good as it can be.
Charles Finch, a USA Today best-selling author and essayist, said, ‘To me, the single biggest mark of the amateur writer is a sense of hurry. Amateur writers are usually desperate to be published as soon as possible. And I understand that feeling – you just want it to start, your career, your next book, whatever. But I wonder how many self-published novels might have had a chance at getting bought, and finding more readers, if their authors had a bit more patience with them?’
Before submitting to agents or publishers or independent/self-publishing, we recommend you take the time to make sure your novel is as good as it can be. Take your novel as far as you can, then get feedback from a professional editor.
The good news for novelists is that after going through an extremely challenging period post the Global Financial Crisis, the advent of digital publishing and the closing of major book retailers, Borders, Angus and Robertson and others, the Australian book industry has bounced back and is in a relatively healthy state.
Susan Wyndham, who was Literary Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald for many years, and wrote an article entitled ‘The Last Literary Editor’ for Meanjin, said, ‘It’s been tough for book publishing for the past 20 years, but while sales of most books aren’t exactly booming, the landscape has improved. I’m not saying the book is king, there’s so much competing media, but predictions that the book is dying keep proving false.
‘A large segment of the community is passionate about reading and many are sentimental about printed books. Covid has been surprisingly good for book sales as people have had time to read. There’s a real sense of community between authors and readers, especially through events and online interaction.’
David Fugate, the founder of Launch Books Literary Agency, represents renowned authors such as Andy Weir. Andy self-published his novel, The Martian, which went on to became a best seller and then a major movie starring Matt Damon. David said, ‘I think it’s amazing that it’s no longer a question of if your work will be published, but how.
‘I also find it tremendously gratifying to know that if what you’re doing is good, you absolutely will have an opportunity to find an audience for it. It just feels like a much more hopeful, positive environment in which to be a writer. In fact, I often tell writers that now is the best time, in the entire history of the written word, to be a writer.’
When you are ready to consider putting your work out into the world, you should…
Getting Your Novel Published – Put your best work forward
If you’re looking to go down the path of traditional publishing, remember that you only get one shot with industry professionals. So make sure it’s your best shot.
Ingrid Ohlsson, a publisher at Pan MacMillan, said, ‘If you want to find a traditional publisher you must do everything you can to make your story as good as you possibly can before submitting it. If the manuscript is good enough, everyone sees it.
‘The stories that tend to find a traditional publisher usually have high stakes and confront their main character with increasingly challenging problems.’
This sentiment is echoed by Writers’ Studio alumnus Erina Reddan, whose second novel, The Serpent’s Skin, was published by Pantera Press. Her advice to anyone wanting to find a publisher was to first focus on creating a terrific manuscript.
‘Putting out a sloppy manuscript is a waste of time. Your manuscript has to be as clean and powerful a presentation of the story you are trying to tell as you can possibly make it. The only way to do this is to test it with people in the industry.’
Literary agent Fiona Inglis from Curtis Brown concurs. ‘We get so many submissions, you have to really stand out to get our attention. We don’t have time to a read a manuscript if something is not up to standard.’
The advice to make your work as strong as possible doesn’t only apply to traditional publishing.
Oliver Sands, who along with his partner Ged Gilmore and fellow Writers’ Studio alumni, have independently published half a dozen books, says that before self-publishing, a writer should get a professional editor to help strengthen their work. He also recommends hiring industry professionals to produce the novel, design the cover and layout the text.
‘It is a big mistake to skimp on professional editing,’ Sands said. ‘If your book is sloppily produced, it will sink. You owe it to yourself, your book and your readers to make your book as good as it possibly can be.’
Robert McKee, whose book about scriptwriting, ‘Story’, is considered a classic, said, ‘Unrecognised genius is a myth. For writers who can tell a quality story, it’s a seller’s market. Always has been. Always will be.’
The traditional publishing path: two case studies
A number of Writers’ Studio alumni have had books published in 2021 with traditional publishers, including Zoe Coyle (due to Covid her book publication date was moved to next year), Louisa Larkin, Elizabeth Farrelly, Erina Reddan, Maya Linnell and Loraine Peck.
The traditional publishing path has worked well for Louisa Larkin who attended the Writers’ Studio courses many years ago.
By October 2021, she will have published seven books, including crime thrillers as L. A. Larkin and cosy mysteries as Louisa Bennet featuring Monty, a dog detective. Her latest thriller, Widow’s Island, was published by digital imprint Bookouture and highly praised by Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series. She signed a two-book deal with Bookouture and will have another novel coming out in September 2021.
I attended Louisa’s book launch for her first novel, The Genesis Flaw, in 2010. I asked her husband, Michael, a talented writer whom she met in one of our classes, how his writing was going. He shook his head and replied he was too busy with his job in finance, saying that Louisa was the one who was focused, dedicated and driven to succeed as a writer.
When she was doing the classes, she worked in communications and her aim was to become a professional writer. She will have two novels coming out this year. She promotes her books via social media, her website, book clubs and book blogs that are genre specific to crime fiction. She said book bloggers are like reviewers. ‘They are real influencers.’
This summary of Loraine’s writing journey is adapted from the Curtis Brown UK and Australian websites.
‘A native of Sydney, Australia, Loraine Peck started out as a painter, then a magician’s assistant, croupier, bartender, sales manager and finally a marketing director and consultant to the property industry, working in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US.
‘She finally succumbed to her burning desire to write thrillers by undertaking a creative writing course with The Writers Studio, in Sydney, in 2016.’
This is an excerpt from an interview. Note Pippa Masson mentioned below is a senior Curtis Brown agent.
Interviewer: You’re represented by Curtis Brown agent Alice Lutyens. Can you tell us a bit about how you worked with Alice to get your book ready to submit to publishers?
Loraine: ‘Alice read The Second Son in two days and told me she loved it. It was one of the happiest days of my life when she decided she wanted to represent me. Then the work began. We went through three rounds of new drafts.’
Interviewer: Your debut novel The Second Son is to be published by Text – what was the first thing you did when you heard the news of your book deal from Alice?
Loraine: ‘I screamed, jumped up and down and then I may have cried. Both Harper Collins and Text Publishing wanted to meet with me and then both put in offers. These offers were discussed, then a second round of offers came in from both publishers. Alice, Pippa and I agreed Text had the winning offer. They had a bigger intention for the book. It amazes me daily that I’m a writer now.’
Interviewer: If you could pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?
Loraine: Enrol in writing courses, learn the craft and write the book you want to read. Because you’ll be reading it over and over and over.
Getting a traditional publishing deal for your novel: The role of timing and luck
Every writer has their own journey. Many writers have to spend years learning the craft. Some need to write several novels before reaching their potential.
Stephen King said, ‘I wrote five novels before Carrie. Two of them were bad, one was indifferent, and I thought two of them were pretty good. The two good ones were Getting It On (which became Rage when it was published) and The Long Walk.’
Other writers enjoy what seems like (but usually isn’t) overnight success.
Getting picked up by a traditional publisher can be a matter of timing and luck.
Many years ago I got to know Steve Berry, the New York Times bestselling author of twenty novels, at a writing retreat in Fiji. One evening over mineral water at the outdoor bar, he told me how, when he’d started out, he’d written four novels that no one was interested in publishing.
Then, when The Da Vinci Code was a huge success, publishers became interested in his novels, which were in the same genre. ‘I now have seven million books in print,’ he told me many years and many books ago.
If you try to write what’s in vogue, though, you’ve probably already missed the mark. As literary agent Fiona Inglis said, ‘Australian crime fiction, especially that set in rural towns, is having its time in the sun. But if you consciously try to follow the trend, you’re already too late.’
You have no control over the vagaries of the marketplace or how your novel will be perceived by agents and publishers. If your novel doesn’t get picked up, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve written a bad novel or lack talent.
All the publishers and agents I spoke to said they’ve rejected novels that later became very successful. The most famous example of a rejected novel that became a bestseller is the first novel in Harry Potter series, The Philosopher’s Stone, which was rejected by seventeen publishers.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was published eleven years after the author’s suicide through the efforts of writer Walker Percy and the author’s mother, Thelma Toole. The book became a cult classic, then a mainstream success and earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
And recently there is the South African author, Karen Jennings. She struggled to find a publisher for her Booker-nominated novel An Island, which only had a print-run of five hundred copies.
‘It was incredibly difficult to find a publisher,’ she said. ‘I finished the novel in 2017. And no one was interested. When I did finally get a small publisher in the UK and a small publisher in South Africa to co-publish, they couldn’t get anyone to review the book. We couldn’t get people to write endorsement quotes, or blurbs.
‘I felt very ashamed of myself because my publishers had put a lot of faith and time and, obviously, money into it. And it’s not that I personally was expecting fame or fortune or anything, but I felt that I had disappointed them. So it’s quite an extraordinary moment now to suddenly have all of this attention and I’m not quite sure how to handle it.’
The lesson being write your novel and have faith, you never know when you might find an audience.
Getting your Novel Published – Self-publishing: Consider, why do you want to publish your novel?
Advocates of self-publishing prefer to call it independent publishing. Though independent publishers also refers to a publisher who are not aligned with the big houses such as Penguin and Harper Collins.
Joanna Penn, who has sold over 500,000 books, says, ‘The term self-publishing implies doing everything yourself and doing it more as a hobby. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this and it’s wonderful to create books in the world for the love of creation. I self-publish photo-books for my own pleasure, I helped my 9-year-old niece self-publish her first book and I helped my Dad self-publish for his 65th birthday.
‘But I use the term independent author, or indie author, for what I do. I work with top freelance professionals to create a quality product and this is a business for me, not just a hobby. I make a multiple six-figure income as an author entrepreneur and being an indie is a positive choice, not a last resort.’
Joel Naoum, currently the non-fiction category manager at Booktopia, put self-publishing into perspective when he said, ‘The question I always ask a writer is: what do you want from publishing your novel? What is your motivation?
‘If your primary aim is to make truckloads of money through self-publishing novels, this is unlikely to happen.
‘If your motivation is the pleasure of seeing your novel in print and having other people enjoy your work, particularly strangers, then that is achievable and a worthwhile goal.’
The Paradox of Writing
Authors can see how readers respond to their work through reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and other digital platforms.
While writing this article, my novel, No Man’s Land, published in 2016, received a 5 Star Amazon Review. The reviewer said, ‘Once I started, it was hard to put it down. I finished it in less than 24 hours. Hoping that there will be another one to follow.’
Not only was it very gratifying to receive this review, it reminded me of one of the paradoxes of writing – how much time, craft and discipline is required to write a novel that keeps readers turning the page. The payoff of creating a novel that readers enjoys makes all the hours of hard work feel totally worthwhile.
Reading a positive review by a professional reviewer is extremely validating, but nothing touches a writer’s heart more than a spontaneous review from a reader who has been engaged in and enjoyed the author’s story. For many, this is a driving motivation behind writing a novel and makes all the hard work feel worthwhile.
One author who decided to self-publish after being rejected by traditional publishers is Theresa Miller. ‘When I didn’t get picked up by a traditional publisher, I was in a dark place. I sulked for a year… I thought I was a crap writer and didn’t have the talent to make it.
‘I had no interest in self/indie publishing. Then I attended a lecture about self-publishing and hired the person giving the talk [Joel Naoum] to help me produce my book.’
Theresa says that she is happy she went down the self-publishing path. ‘I found it very affirming. People I know and people I didn’t know have contacted me and said how much they enjoyed my book.
‘It is actually better than a publisher giving you a thumbs up. Much better to get the thumbs up from readers.’
Still, Theresa says her aim is to use the success of her first book as a vehicle to get a traditional publishing deal for her next one.
From traditional publishing to independent publishing
In years gone by, the only realistic path for a novelist was securing a book deal with a traditional publishing house such as Penguin, Harper Collins, Allen and Unwin or Pan MacMillan. To get a novel published required passing through a series of gatekeepers whose job it was to determine which novels were ‘worthy’ of publication. Rejected manuscripts were either tossed into a bottom draw or used as doorstops.
For those lucky enough to get a publisher this was no guarantee their novel would find a market or make much money.
When a book is published by a traditional publisher, they tend to do a six-week PR and marketing campaign – and then move on to the next book on their roster.
If a book fails to sell or keep selling, it soon disappears from bookshelves, ends up in the remainder pile and is forgotten by the publisher and booksellers.
Historical fiction author Wendy J. Dunn has written four novels set during the Tudor period, including her recent Falling Pomegranate Seeds duology imagining the life and times of Katherine of Aragon. Her novels have been published by boutique publishers in Australia, Spain and the USA.
In 2019, she received only around $20 in royalties from her publisher in Spain for the first novel of her Catherine of Aragon story, which was released in 2016. She approached the publisher and asked what he intended to do to boost sales. His reply – ‘It has had its day’ – made her decide to take back the rights and self-publish her novels.
‘I decided to take back the power, and it is the best decision I ever made. I now have control over my writing career and am earning much more money from my books.’
Wendy says her publishers were initially supportive and nurturing and when the books first came out, they got right behind them. ‘But after about three months they moved onto other priorities, which is understandable and just part of the business.’
Now, self-publishing her books, she loves having control over her creative process and has seen her novels find many more new readers. Wendy writes blogs, promotes her work on twitter and other social media platforms and has earned royalties of around $1200 per month in the first half of 2021.
She does recognise the advantages of traditional publishers, though. ‘If you can get a major publisher who can get your book into bookstores, go for it and see how you go.
‘But if it doesn’t work out, you have other options. And exciting options too.’
The prestige of traditional publishing (and some drawbacks)
Most writers who have finished writing a novel want to find a traditional publisher. And without question, there are a number of significant benefits to having your novel published that way.
Ingrid Ohlsson from Pan Macmillan said, ‘Being published by a traditional publisher gives a writer a sense of legitimacy and prestige. It enables them to work with an experienced team, get their books into bookstores and traditional publishing gives a novel its best chance of being reviewed and getting onto the bestseller lists.’
Getting a traditional publishing deal is a real achievement in itself and worthy of celebration.
But the industry is cut-throat and competitive. Finding an agent or traditional publisher is rarely easy for a first-time novelist. Additionally, if an author does find a publisher, they lose a degree of creative control, the royalty rates are far lower than independent/self-publishing and the book will not necessarily succeed in the marketplace.
Perhaps most frustrating of all, the traditional publishing process can move at a glacial pace.
Elizabeth Cowell, a professional editor who worked in traditional publishing for thirteen years and now works as a tutor at the Writers’ Studio, said, ‘It often takes two years from approaching a publisher or agent to getting your book out into the world. Not only the fact that books have to be slotted into a publishing schedule, but agents and publishers can take months to make decisions.
‘Books that are coming out are always far more important to a publisher than unknown authors who are on the bottom of the pile. An unpublished manuscript is never a priority.’
The newfound respectability of self-publishing.
For writers who struggle to find an agent or publisher, or simply don’t want to wait and wish to control the process, there are viable options available to get novels professionally edited, designed, laid out and published on a variety of platforms.
Authors can then use digital marketing and social media to promote their work and find a readership. And, thanks to print on demand, books never go out of print.
Elizabeth Cowell said, ‘It used to be that self-publishing was seen as second rate or vanity publishing. But that is just not the case anymore. Many books have been successfully self-published and picked up by publishers.’
Independent publishing isn’t for everyone – it involves a great deal of hard work for the author – but it does have its benefits. Oliver Sands said, ‘Feeling you have to be traditionally published is a lot about ego and being able to say ‘I’ve got a publishing deal.’
‘There is still snobbery about traditional versus indie publishing, even though many indie authors make more money than traditionally published authors.
‘Most trad publishers only put money behind the big authors. Often they only get attention for around six weeks, have an initial spike and then have a short shelf life.
‘Just because you indie publish one book doesn’t mean you can’t then go the trad (traditional) route with your next book. You can prove your book sells, gather reviews and then that makes you a more attractive proposition. Use the first indie book to leverage a trad deal.’
But for that to happen your first book has to be strong enough to earn good reviews.
The publishing landscape has changed since Louisa Larkin had her first book published in 2010.
‘When I started out, the aim of aspiring writers was very focused on getting a traditional publisher who would prepare a book for publication, promote it and get it into the bookstores.
‘Self-publishing was regarded back then as second tier. Not so anymore. And in the last ten years a new middle ground has emerged: online publishers. They offer all the skills of a traditional publisher, plus a team dedicated to online sales. What they don’t do is distribute books through bookshops.’
Her current publisher, Bookouture, sells ebooks, audio and printed books exclusively online. Its website says, ‘We don’t pay advances, but we do pay high digital royalty rates of 45% of net receipts on sales of ebooks and audio editions.’
Louisa said, ‘Online publishers now specialise in maximising sales online. Bookouture is brilliant at it. They are highly professional, understand all the algorithms and all aspects of digital marketing.
‘They are very thorough and professional. You have a dedicated editor and there is a four stage editorial process, structural, line and copy edit and a proofreading.’
Another huge advantage of working with an online publisher is they have a much faster turnaround. Louisa delivered the manuscript for her next thriller in April and it will be published on September 28, only five months later.
‘I love the publishers I am with. I feel like I have found my home.’
Every author must find the publishing path that works best for them. As Elizabeth Cowell told me, publishing success comes from a combination of hard work, dedication, talent and a decent dose of good luck.
All you can do is focus on what you have control of, producing the best book you are capable of writing.
Sophie Cunningham, author and former publisher for twelve years, said, ‘Don’t write to make a million dollars. Great if it happens, but it can’t be your motivation. Write because you have a story to tell.’
Please scroll below for all the articles published in this series.
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