Six Myths — And One Fact — About Traditional Publishing

The world of publishing changes almost daily.

But despite the constant upheaval that defines the marketplace, many would-be authors are still laboring under some old “assumptions” about publishing that are simply no longer relevant.

Here are a few of the biggest remaining misnomers, as well as a few new truths, that all authors — independent or otherwise — would be wise to keep in mind.

Myth #1: Traditional publishers serve the reading public as “gatekeepers”

This is an old argument: with a bloated book marketplace being invaded by millions of self-published titles, readers can count only on publishers to maintain quality literary standards, as they allow only the best stories to be told.

It is false for many reasons.

For one thing, publishing is a cold business. Publishers put out books that they think will make money, keep people employed, and feed families all down the supply chain — from the publishing house to the bookstore. There is no noble mission to protect readers, only to protect profits.

It’s true that traditional publishers are full of book professionals. Some of them are pretty good at spotting talent. The best placement editors also have an instinct for what the market wants to read. They’ve published a lot of wonderful books. (And more than a few stinkers too.)

But if the gatekeeper myth were true, surely no good manuscript would ever be rejected, right?

Well, here are a few that didn’t make the cut:

Robert M. Pirsig was rejected by 121 publishers. His book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” went on to sell 5 millions copies in the 1970s. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected by more than 40 publishers. And we all know the story of how JK Rowling’s first book was turned down by eight publishers before Bloomsbury offered her a 2,500 pound advance for “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Publishers don’t deny quality. There are many successful and high-quality books published independently, too.

Myth #2: Traditional publishing is where you can make the big bucks.

Here’s the truth: thanks to today’s self-publishing revolution, you have an equal chance at huge sales results whether you go the indie route, or pursue traditional publishing.

In fact, the vast majority of authors will tell you that there is not a lot of money to be found in a traditional book deal. Sure, you get an advance check, which on average comes in around $5,000 to $10,000 — unless you are a celebrity. But then you have to earn that back before you see another dime.

Moreover, the royalties associated with publishing through one of the major houses are paltry. If you publish through a large house, you can expect to make around $1 to $2 per book sold. To make matters worse, most publishers only pay authors twice per year — so you can’t expect to see your monthly income increase because of your book.

In 2016, the US Authors Guild — comprised mostly of traditionally published authors — sent an open letter to the Association of American Publishers demanding better contract terms. In it they stated, “Authors’ income is down across all categories. According to a 2015 Authors Guild survey — our first since 2009 — the writing-related income of full-time book authors dropped 30% over that time period, from $25,000 to $17,500.”

A full-time income of $17,500 for the average traditionally published authors? These numbers show that money is only one of many reasons why writers seek to publish their books.

Myth #3: Traditional publishers will provide all the marketing support.

Remember the days of Oprah’s Book Club? Prominent book publicity tours that included chats with Matt and Katie on “The Today Show?”

Those days are long gone — even for potential bestsellers.

As marketing resources have become more scarce, publishers are only promoting titles they consider likely to succeed — such as a book by a celebrity author, a book on a subject that is currently red-hot in the news, or a book by an author whose previous books have sold well.

What’s leftover for all the rest? Not much. Especially for unknown authors. You might appear in the publisher’s catalog, in a press release, and may get featured at a trade show, but you can’t count on publishers landing you an appearance alongside George Stephanopoulos.

Truth be told, many traditionally published authors are funding their own advertising, just like self-published authors.

Myth #4: A publisher will ensure my book gets on the shelves of all the nation’s bookstores.

The biggest knock against self-publishing is this: it’s nearly impossible for those books to make it into brick and mortar bookstores.

While it’s true that traditional publishing is almost the only route to bookstore placement, shelf space is far from a sure thing for a new author.

It’s a numbers game. With nearly 750,000 new books coming out each year, the best a commercial publisher can do is try to get your book on a bookstore’s shelves. The truth is, even the most powerful publishing houses can only persuade bookstores to shelve a fraction of their new books.

This leaves precious little space for yours.

Myth #5: Once you land a book deal, your author career is set for life.

Loyalty to authors is largely a thing of the past. The length of the traditionally published author’s career is controlled by his or her publisher. And today, it’s all about sales of the last book. If your new book doesn’t perform, the publisher will not want your next one.

In fact, your first book must perform exceptionally well before the next one will be considered for publication. And the odds are long: only one to two percent of all books published become bestsellers.

Plus, there’s an additional catch in almost every publishing contract — and it doesn’t favor authors. The standard publishing contract stipulates that publishers get first right of refusal on your next book — meaning, they by no means have to publish your next book if they don’t want to.

Myth #6: If you self-publish, you kill your chances of landing a book deal.

This is perhaps the biggest fiction currently pervading the space. The truth is, if you self-publish a book and achieve some success — by, say, selling 1,000 copies or more — you can dramatically improve your chances of landing a traditional book deal.

Publishers want authors to come to the table with a ready-made “platform.” In other words, they want to know that you already have an audience. Selling a significant number of books on your own proves exactly that — and raises your appeal.

But it’s not just about sales results. Talent scouts for traditional publishers will scrutinize everything an author is doing to promote their writing career. Do they have a website? A blog? How is their social media presence? Are they doing speaking engagements? Book signings? All these factors will weigh into a traditional publishers’ decision.

Now here’s the one new truth that has emerged in today’s publishing landscape: the biggest reason why people still pursue traditional publishing is ego.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. It would be fun to tell your friends, parents, your high school English teacher and your ex-spouse: “I have an agent and a publisher lined up to publish my book!”

But that’s where the advantages of traditional publishing end. There are so many compelling reasons to self-publish today, but I’ll just list the top three:

  1. Money: By self-publishing, you’re not sharing your royalties with greedy publishers. Indie authors will make more money by selling 500 books than traditionally published authors who manage to sell 5,000.
  2. Time: The traditional publishing timeline is long and slow. On average it’s 24 months from edited manuscript to showing up in bookstores. In the same two year period, an indie author could have written, published, and promoted three titles.
  3. Control: When you sign a traditional publishing contract, you are signing over all your control of the book. The words, ideas, pages, cover ideas — they’re no longer yours. You’re pretty much at the mercy of Mr. Bigtime Publisher — until they throw you out on the street because your book wasn’t a bestseller.

In the end, there is still much to celebrate about receiving a book deal with a traditional publisher. The added credibility can bring plenty of opportunities related to speaking, consulting, and much more.

But it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you pursue a traditional publishing dream. It’s not what it once was, nor what most envision it to be.