I started off in traditional publishing and by and large have found the experience to be a positive one. Many years and grey hairs later, this is what I have learnt about being a traditionally published author:
For most authors, your advance is all you’re ever going to get from your publisher. Probably
When you sign your traditional publishing contract, you are given an advance.
This advance is:
- the publisher’s sign of good faith in your book
- an ‘advance’ on your future sales.
Yes, some authors make the headlines for their 5/6-figure book advance, but these authors represent approximately 0.5% of authors.
I know someone who was paid £600 advance for her first book and this went down to £500 for the second. This was in the early 2000s and I’m pretty certain that her publisher’s advance has gone down even more, since. Some people don’t even get an advance.
We shouldn’t blame the publisher. The rise of digital publishing has had a profound effect on the publishing industry, (take a look around you: when was the last time you saw a bookshop?).
Back to your advance…
Your advance is paid in instalments, usually 50% on signing your contract and the remaining 50% upon completion of your book.
Since most books do not earn out their advance, you should consider your advance your last pay cheque from your publisher – and hold on to the day job.
You may never make a dime from foreign translations of your book
My first book was translated into Dutch and German and the Nigerian rights (the right to publish the book in Nigeria) were also sold.
Yes, I did get an advance from the sale of those translations, but that was it. After that, there were one or two royalty cheques from the Dutch sales, and absolutely none from the German sales.
In fact, the only country I got a regular royalty cheque from my foreign sales was Nigeria. And from conversations with other authors, it would appear that this is normal.
This could be from a number of reasons:
- the book didn’t sell in those countries
- the royalties got lost in bureaucratic hell.
Experience and anecdotal evidence from fellow authors suggests that the first scenario is what happened to the German translation.
I also know of authors who weren’t even notified of foreign sales of their books, much less get an advance. Admittedly, this is more likely to happen if you do not have an agent. Such authors typically find out about their foreign translations while surfing online. Cue tons of (covert threatening) emails to their publisher.
Your books may not sell
Traditional publishing is a strange business model. It’s probably the only industry that gets 95% of its sales from 5% of its workers. And yet, it keeps on pouring money into discovering new work (that’s you, fellow writer), hoping to find the one author that will make the bestseller lists and keep their staff in jobs for at least another year.
And you wonder why your editor and marketing department get annoyed with you when you refuse to do any marketing for your own book?
Having said all the above, being traditionally published is great
Despite all the above, being a traditionally published writer is still the holy grail of publishing. While there have been some successful independent authors, the fact remains that self-publishing still has a branding problem, in that it is associated with poor writing.
Truth is, I know some non-traditionally published authors that have written fantastic books. I also know (quite) a few that have written terrible books.
The galling truth is that a traditionally published author with a poorly edited book (editors are a scarce resource in publishing houses nowadays) is likely to have more literary credibility than their self-published counterpart. And that’s due to the latter’s industry image problem – Abidemi Sanusi
Yes, it’s frustrating. But, it’s just the way it is.
Nowadays, I consider myself a hybrid author. With the rights of my earlier, traditionally published books now reverted back to me, I made the decision to self-publish them myself on Kindle.
This hybrid model appears to be a trend with previously traditionally published authors. I personally know a lot of authors who have self-published their earlier work (the ones that the rights have now reverted back to them), while at the same time still working the traditional platform. In fact, some have even gone as far as to self-publish the books they call their ‘labour of love’. These are the books that they know publishing houses would ‘never buy’ from their agents.
So, what does the future hold for publishing in general?
I don’t believe that traditional publishing will die – it will simply evolve to meet the challenges of the digital age. For writers, I think the trend is definitely moving towards the hybrid model, because it gives them the flexibility they want.
As for me, this is my publishing modus operandi:
- fiction=traditional publishing
Over to you: do you see yourself as a traditional, independent or hybrid writer and why?