Publishing: A lot of Smoke and Mirrors?

In which I’m made to eat my words as I come full circle through the maze of publishing to discover that the grass isn’t necessarily greener over there; it’s still mostly desert scrub from every direction…


Last year I wrote a general post about the publishing industry which resonated with a lot of independent authors:
It came about through sheer frustration at the lack of visibility and the cost of producing books. A turning point came when a small press offered a contract for Silver Rain. This is it, I thought. This is the change of direction I need… but be careful what you wish for! Don’t get me wrong in that I had huge delusional ideas at this stage. I was simply seeking greater visibility and some respite from the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.
And all the outward signs were good: they took five back-catalogue titles and one new title, to make six contracts.
This material represented several years of my life, several thousand pounds’ worth of investment in terms of editorial advisory, editing, proofreading, designing, formatting for ebooks and paperbacks, advertising… I could go on. Producing a quality product and promoting it to its best advantage doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t have these skills yourself, then one needs to employ freelance professionals, as I’ve reiterated many times. Of course, we know there are a lot of ‘home-made’ books out there which don’t quite cut it, but this is certainly not the case for all self-produced work. What is slightly disconcerting is that I discovered this isn’t necessarily the case for traditionally produced work, either!
If this is you and you are maybe considering that contract from a small press, think carefully. This is of course my specific experience over 12 months but my advice would be to submit one, stand-alone title before you make a decision to move completely to traditional publishing. I’d been used to working on a one-to-one basis with professional freelancers who knew my material well. But the change of pace and method of working may come as a shock. Your book becomes a commercial product held in a queue, maybe dropped down the enormous cliffside of titles waiting for attention if a more promising book or a more glamorous author comes along in the meantime. This is a hopeless situation when the previously hard-working self-published author has a substantial back-list waiting to be dealt with.
The process of trade publishing has less to do with the quality of material than you might presume, but it has a lot to do with what is or isn’t marketable at any one time. This isn’t bad business, it’s about making money to stay afloat. Small publishers are in exactly the same boat as the independents, but with far more overheads and problems with staff. Some of these staff may be inexperienced or learning ‘on the job.’ These small companies are up against the same fast-moving on-line industry as any independent but perhaps without the resources to manage it effectively, let alone build a lively following on Twitter; a following which has the power to engage. Traditional publishing, by its very nature, is painfully slow and this produces a massive clash with the shifting sands of on-line business. 3413411700_1de8699dbdWe perhaps don’t realise how fine-tuned independents have become in this respect. We all know marketing is a full-time job. Looking after the detail which includes fine tuning those book descriptions and keywords, sustaining an active presence on social media sites, writing articles and taking advantage of the best days to run a promo deal for that new political saga set in Scotland… it’s not going to happen. Imagine trying to handle the marketing at this level for 500 authors with several titles each… Impossible. And publishers have no magic formulas or special concessions when it comes to on-line sales. A high degree of luck is still perceived as par for the course. So, no specific sales strategy, then…
And while we’re wading through these muddy waters of what defines a self-published book from a traditionally produced book, let me mention yet again two common misconceptions that seem to linger on despite the glaring facts: that traditionally published books are somehow superior, and that those high-ranking, best-selling books on the virtual shelves must be better somehow than those books bumping along the bottom of the Amazon rankings, or boxed up for a rainy day in the back of someone’s office. Wrong! 
self-publish-cartoonOver the course of a year, my sales dropped lower than they’d ever been. My branding was confused and I was losing the tiny amount of traction I’d managed to gain in the market. Overall, I was left feeling enormously let-down and misinformed. Despite this, the experience was invaluable as a means to recognise exactly who I was and where I needed to be. Needless to say, I parted company with my publisher and I’m relieved to be back as an independent. My sales have increased, where previously they’d been depressed. This includes both ebooks and paperbacks (in a local shop). The overriding conclusion has to be that whatever I was doing before, was in fact more successful than I’d presumed!
Authors who’ve started their journey with a small publisher may know very little about the huge network of independent authors out there, let alone the complexities of social networking. ‘Oh, I’d rather leave all that to my publisher,’ is a common cry but maybe a mistake to ignore the bigger picture.
Orna Ross: The Alliance of Independent authors:
The independent network of freelance writers remains a growing industry. Many traditionally produced authors are making the move to publish themselves and cross to the dark side – although there are still problems with visibility, the overriding comfort is that there is never a compromise with the work you’ve produced and personal satisfaction cannot be left out of the argument. I’ve heard nightmare stories where authors with agents or publishers have been asked to re-write their books to a different genre or incorporate a different setting, because ‘Cornwall is trending right now.’ Bland covers, hit and miss advertising and the general lack of cohesion is not uncommon. The industry is flawed, floundering, and fluctuating. This is because there are real choices open to writers to maintain their individuality and creativity, and boats have been rocked.
uk-author-earnings-4I also think independent authors tend to be tremendously supportive and understand the value of teamwork. I’m not sure this carries over into the trade arena where a lot of authors there are happy to let their publishers assume the responsibility, in whatever capacity. Lots of first-time authors who’ve landed that coveted contract for a first book are struggling with the on-line media. i18n-bestsellers-uk-top-100000-correctedTrade publishing, no matter its size is still something of a closed-shop and this is where the vast majority of authors are unaware of the basics because they’ve come in at a level where the opportunities to learn, are restricted. The days of hiding in a garret and leaving it all to the agent or publisher ceased to exist when the Internet happened. Now, readers, customers, clients or whoever, seek out that social interaction which goes beyond selling the product. There’s only one person who can sell your personality and that is you. There might only be one person who can sell your material on-line, and guess who it is… the good news is that you get to keep all the royalties!
So, before you sign on the dotted line, ask exactly what the publisher can specifically do for you which can’t be accessed in any other way. And above all, be careful what you wish for.
Jan Ruth. Dec 2015.

46 thoughts on “Publishing: A lot of Smoke and Mirrors?

  1. I was just about to log off when your tweet about this popped up in my bottom right hand corner…..

    I’m so sorry this has been such a bad experience for you – but at least you’re out of it now, and with your original covers back, too!

    What you’ve written here confirms something I’ve long suspected – that unless you get accepted by a Big Five publisher (what I have always understood as ‘traditional publishing’, though I can see by what I’ve read here the term can be used more loosely), with what I always understood was meant by a publishing deal – ie, an advance, books in high street shops, proper targeted advertising, you may well be better off doing it all yourself. I’ve recently corresponded with someone who was over the moon to get her ‘publishing deal’, only to discover later that the publishers had less idea about the market than my cat, priced her out of it, arranged book signings for her then failed to get the books to the shops. No advance, no expenses; the experience has been awful for her, and has actually put her off writing. A rotten shame.

    This is such a good warning to new writers who think they can sit back and relax because a small company has offered them a contract, and even, as Orla commented, consider themselves to be ‘better’ than the self-published. I remember someone who signed a contract with a company that was little more than a printing press with a website, really, saying to me ‘never mind, I’m sure you’ll get published soon’. A year later, she told me this company had sold precisely 32 of her books via their site. In that time I had sold a few thousand. I think it’s tempting, if you’re a new writer who likes to do things ‘properly’, to think, ‘well, I don’t know much about the industry, I’ll go with a publisher so my books have more kudos’. All I can say to that is – buy the Writers and Artists Year Book and do your homework before making any descions. Ask around, and don’t be swayed by the glory of being able to say ‘my publisher’.

    Both your observations and Orla’s should be essential reading for anyone, before signing a contract with a small or independent publisher. Now – all the best with the new book, and the cover is wonderful! x

    Liked by 6 people

  2. ps, before I get slagged off by lots of publishers who really look after their authors, please can I add that I am sure there are some good ones around? It’s just that this is the third report I’ve heard like this in as many weeks, alas. I can really understand how tempting it is, when you’ve been self-publishing for years and it’s SUCH a slog… it’s all about doing your homework, I suppose.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sorry you’ve had such a negative experience, but thank you for sharing it, Jan. This post is so useful for anyone weighing up their publishing choices. I know there are some great small publishers out there, but as you say, authors need to do their homework. I was stunned to discover that some small presses don’t even proofread the books they publish.

    I think you express the situation perfectly when you say: “The industry is flawed, floundering, and fluctuating.”

    Let’s hope there are positive and exciting times ahead.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh Wow! What an experience, I must say I see more and more authors who don’t have access to their book when they are left to market them and get book reviews, when they are with small publishing houses and there are SO many of them popping up all over offering WHAT? And for HOW MUCH? I asked an author just yesterday could she get her book on Goodreads, so I could post my review and she said she didn’t have control over that, the publishers handled that and she didn’t know when it would be done – missed marketing opportunity straight away. Glad to have you back on the dark side Jan.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jan, so many writers think of being published as seeing stacks of their books in a window display. I agree with you that reality is much more dispiriting (unless you’re JK Rowling). I work both sides of the divide, and I still love publishers and publishing, but I made the choice to go indie on my own major books rather than chase agents, so that probably says pretty much everything. One of my traditionally published booklets has sold 192 copies in two years. Total royalties $68.56.

    I’m glad you were able to get the rights to your books back.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jan. I shall share on my FB author page.

    I often consider (about twice a day, actually) whether I would be better off with a traditional publisher. I’m exhausted after 4 years of successful self-publishing. Worse, I find I’m writing less and less because I can’t focus on telling the stories when I spend so much time *selling* the stories.

    I had the experience of being traditionally published (3 novels) by a small independent publisher and then a medium-sized publisher. Both were unhappy experiences for all the reasons you outline above. I remember vowing I wouldn’t write another novel so I’d never have to go through all the frustration & heartbreak again. But then I went indie and I wrote 4 more.

    My agent still talks about trying to find me a traditional publisher and Amazon’s publishing arm showed a bit of interest a while ago, but I’m very wary. For me it’s not about the money. It’s about artistic control and whether that publishing deal would free up the brain space to write and have a life. Your blog post has given me a lot to think about.

    I’m so sorry your experience wasn’t a happy one, but actually I’m pleased to have you back on our side. 🙂 And I love your covers and your brand look! You are obviously the best person to manage your own writing career. May it go from strength to strength.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Linda. I felt exactly the same, and for a while the change gave me a boost… then reality stepped in. It was never about the money for me either but this experience taught me that small press are no different to any individual publisher out there when it comes to sales – in fact they’re in a worse position in some ways because they can’t give one-on-one attention to anything.
      The frustration and heartbreak was real and if you’ve previously been self-published to a good standard I really wouldn’t recommend a small publisher.
      Thank you for your considered response, and yes, I do love my covers… the sense of satisfaction that my books are the best they can be in this respect far outweighs any false promises from publishers.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There is such satisfaction in doing it for yourself. I lost my last publisher in 2012, and I now have more than 15 titles out there. No one to disagree with, and plenty of support, suggestions, recommendations, advice, help, and patronage from readers and other indie authors. Go girl!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Excellent and thought provoking post, Jan. Just directed somebody to it! You have such a strong brand, as well. Sounds like a great learning experience, if nothing else.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m so glad you’ve returned to the Indie scene, Jan and I always thought your original covers were better to be honest. I’ve learned so much from you and other generous authors on the Indie path and, although I’ve had many doubts about self publishing, I do appreciate the royalties, if not the endless trumpeting of my own work, which, frankly, I loathe. I’m so grateful to you for sharing your, sadly negative, experience but it does stiffen the sinews to keep plugging away at both the writing and the promotional work. I have to say, I was beginning to flag and have been a very interested observer in your traditional experience and have read this post and the subsequent comments with great interest. Welcome back.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Alex. I think we’d all prefer not to self-promote but to be honest, whichever route you choose it will never go away. A publisher simply produces the files. Promotion of oneself would still be down to you.
      But thanks for the welcome, I’m glad to be back in such a supportive community.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for a very honest and insightful post. I had my first novel published as an ebook by a small publisher earlier this year. Like you, I had very little understanding of what that meant. I knew that authors now had to build their own platform (no matter who had published their work) but I had not fully appreciated how difficult it would be to get noticed and sell books in a crowded online marketplace. As a new novelist, I did not have the knowledge, wherewithal or funds to self-publish. For me, being able to say that my first novel was taken on by a publisher (no matter how small) is still very meaningful. I can appreciate that indies have more control over their work (which is a very good thing, and I may look into going independent in future) but a good small publisher should also be able to work with authors to make their work more visible. I think all of us are struggling to keep up with a marketplace which is undergoing constant, rapid change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I can only comment on my own experience and I’d love to think that there are some publishers out there with a handle on the whole industry but it’s increasingly tough and I do believe there is a big chunk of luck involved if everything goes to plan.
      I’d never put any off submitting their work but if, like myself, you’ve a backlist to deal with and an existing platform/brand, I’d think very carefully…
      Overall, my advice would be to submit one book, and see what they do with it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the good advice, and I think you’re right that luck has as much to do with it as anything. Best of luck with your series. It looks like you’ve created a very solid brand (not easy to achieve!).

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Sorry you went through this disappointing experience, Jan. I remember watching the story unfold in your Facebook updates and you certainly gave it your best. Your reasons and analysis here are very interesting reading. It seems that traditional publishing is best suited to authors who’ve previously done nothing but write. But authors who’ve already learned how to thrive in the self-publishing world, as you have, are ahead of publishers now.

    I’m off to tweet!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Very timely Jan. Heavens you have been productive! So many books! I am wrestling with this dilemma at the moment, but in the first exchange it seems the possible publisher and I are at odds about the title, the cover, and no doubt more to come! Mine is not a novel and has a very small market, and I was/am tempted because I hoped not to have to wrestle! Polite wrestling already underway!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I feel sure every experience with publishing a specific book will be a different one, dependent on so many factors. I hope I don’t put authors off submitting anything! I guess the problem comes when polite suggestion begins/has to take a back seat, as per my own experience and when the material has already been ‘out there’ so to speak, it can force yet another perspective on matters. Best of luck!


      1. Thanks Jan. Yes having published unaided what a new publisher now wants to add to a stable does give a different perspective on suggestions that seem….well, not entirely comprehending!

        Liked by 2 people

  13. Wow, great article, Jan. I just read your other one about getting a publishing deal, and now see that you’re self pubbing again. Very interesting, and sharing this much information is greatly appreciated. I was pubbing with a hybrid press until recently, when they closed their doors, and am now mulling over many options. This article is really helpful. Again, best of luck with your books and writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. A great post – thanks. Confirmed my suspicions and my decision to stay Indie! I have heard some horror stories from trad authors that have convinced me that trad publishing is only interested in highly commercial work (which is fine – it’s a business after all). Unfortunately much of what is commercial is aimed at the lowest common denominator and does not encourage great writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. It so much depends on who the publisher is. I found mine via an article in Writing Magazine. The contract was approved by the Society of Authors. They did a careful editing job and produced a cover that booksellers tell me is very effective. They did not force editorial changes on me and involved me in choice of cover. I have friends whose books are every bit as well written as mine and are self-published, but doors are closed to them that are not closed to me: membership of writers organisations, literary festivals, library listings.

    Those are the main ‘pros’. The chief ‘con’ in my case is that it is Print on Demand which deters bookshops except one or two local ones, and the lack of marketing or promotion resources.

    I have signed a contract with the same publisher for my second novel.

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It does depend on the publisher, but doors are not as closed as you think! I’m already in shops and libraries and do all the same festivals. The Alliance of Independent Authors is a huge organisation and open to all independent publishers… and the print on demand option is used by a lot of small press too. We are lucky to have lots of choice but I’d never sign over all my rights to a single publisher again.


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