Navigating the Traditional Publishing Route

For most, navigating the traditional publishing route is like entering a foreign land. It can be an exciting new world to discover, but you may get into trouble if you don’t know what to watch out for.

As someone who has helped dozens of clients navigate the traditional publishing route, I’ve seen four key stages where an author is most likely to make a misstep that could cost them time, money, or even lose their chance at another book deal. They are: finding a literary agent, signing with a publisher, working with an editor, and promoting your published book.

If you’re mindful of these areas, and you get the right help along the way, you can avoid lots of potential problems, and not only have greater success, but more fun too.

(Note: this is by no means a complete list of every potential pitfall. Make sure you have the right people to guide you through each step!)

Key Stage #1: Signing with a Literary Agent

While the industry has standards for how literary agents are supposed to behave, not all agents live up to what’s expected. Know that unless you are submitting work for feedback through a writer’s conference, legitimate literary agents will NOT charge you a fee upfront to read or evaluate your work, at any stage–from outline, to proposal, to manuscript. They will never charge you to pitch your book to a publisher either. Agents get paid by receiving a percentage (15% as of this writing) of your royalties on your book sales in perpetuity.

Key Stage #2: Ready to Sign on the Dotted Line with a Publisher

If you make it this far navigating the traditional publishing route, it would be a real shame if a misstep meant that you snatched defeat from the jaws of victory! Let’s explore some of the things to watch out for when you think you’re ready to sign with publisher.

Protect your brand and intellectual property (IP)

First off, never sell your copyright. The publisher is buying the rights to publish your copyrighted material. You do not need to, nor should you, surrender your copyright.

Further, be sure your book deal doesn’t include an “IP grab.” Meaning, don’t give up any other IP rights without a negotiation. These may include movie rights, rights to publish audiobook or ebook versions, publishing rights in other countries, even the rights to use your own content in your business!

A client of mine who had a multi-million dollar online business got an offer from a publisher of over $200,000 for their book, but in the fine print, the publisher also would have had a claim on the entire business. I advised them to have their agent negotiate this language out of the contract. No dice. My client ended up walking away, and rightfully so.

 Run the contract by a publishing attorney who specializes in IP

No matter how good your agent is, they aren’t an attorney. And they might not understand all the nuanced impacts that a book deal could have on your business. This is why I always refer my clients to an attorney to read their contract first and catch any areas that might spell trouble.

And last but not least, if you’re having trouble finding a traditional publisher…

Before you turn down a deal, make sure you look at all the angles

If your agent has been in the hunt for a few months, and you don’t have a lot of offers, or all the offers are for a lower advance than you’d hoped, it’s worthwhile to consider accepting it. Though each publishing house has its own tastes, the industry’s formula for determining how much to pay an author for the publishing rights is pretty well standardized.

If you’ve been offered a low advance, it’s because the publisher has low confidence that you’ll be able to sell a lot of copies of your book. And this is not going to change much by holding out for another publisher. It’s more likely that if you turn down the offer you have, your next offer might be even lower, or maybe you won’t get a deal at all.

So, instead of saying no right away, consider what else you might be able to negotiate in your favor, such as a lower price from the publisher for when you buy copies of your own book for resale, or a higher royalty once you sell a certain number of copies. These are all possibilities that you could discuss with your agent before you turn down what otherwise would be a solid offer from a reputable publisher.

Key Stage #3: Working with Your Publishing House Editor 

You’re almost there! You’ve found an agent, and signed a traditional publishing deal, and now you’re working with the editorial team at the publishing house. Here’s three guiding principles to keep in mind as go.

Respect that your editor has published a lot more books than you

Take their suggestions seriously. In most cases, it’s coming from a genuine place, and, in my experience working with several different editors from multiple houses, their advice is sound. They want to see your book succeed just as much as you. And they have a lot of experience in this arena.

You can speak up…

I have never met an editor who was too stubborn to have a conversation. If they suggest something that you don’t like, get with your editor and explain why. Work with them to find a compromise. Remember, they want you to love your book too! Just be courteous and choose your battles wisely. If you object to every little thing, or don’t have legitimate reasons behind your objections, then you may find your editor less willing to accommodate you.

…But don’t gossip!

The publishing industry is like a small town, so be cognizant of what you say, how you say it, and who you say it to. Don’t tell negative stories about agents, or editors, or other authors, or bad mouth others’ books. You never know who has worked on what. If you’ve had a bad experience with someone, only talk about it to the people who need to know. And always be diplomatic with your criticism.

Be kind and courteous to your agent and editor, and their assistants, and anyone else you work with to get your book done. I can guarantee that if you’re a nightmare author, word will get around. And your behavior could poison the well at other agencies and publishing houses too.

Key Stage #4: Book Launch and Beyond

Lots of authors think that once the book is out, their work is done.

Wrong! Your work is just beginning. Besides, you don’t want to have done all that work to write your book only to have no one read it.

Like one of my agent friends says, “If you write a book and no one reads it, did you really write a book?”

Start promoting early

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen authors make is that they wait to start promoting their book until it’s out. That’s too late. Start promoting at least 6 months before your book is published. Get your endorsers on board, get your community excited; whip up anticipation, so you can launch with momentum!

Play the long game

Most authors promote their book heavily for a few months, get disappointed that sales are slow, and stop. That’s a shame because most of the time, a book needs at least a year (or two) of consistent, daily promotion efforts before it really gets its legs. Do something to promote your book every day for at least a year after it’s published.

Follow through on your commitments

Publishers nowadays are looking more and more for pre-pub commitments for bulk sales, especially from authors with small to mid-sized platforms. Make sure to only make promises you can keep. Because your publisher will hold you to them.

The Bottom Line is This:

Like all journeys, the route from idea to published book is wrought with potential missteps that can prevent your success. You can avoid all of them if you know what to look for.