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Traditional Publishing
How and Why It Works Like It Does

Written by Brad Fregger, Founder/CEO Groundbreaking Press

The questions are:

"Why am I having a problem finding a publisher?"

and

"What happened to author's advances, media tours, and advertising?"

The truth is, it's always been hard to find a publisher. For most new authors who do find a publisher, or even published authors with a couple of books that didn't sell particularly well, the advances, media tours, and advertising always have been pretty much nonexistent. It's always been up to new authors to promote their own books.  Those who did--and did it right--at least had a chance at success.

The publishing business is not an easy one, not even for major publishers who are watching their market share dwindle. Stop and think about it for a second.

The Traditional Publishing Challenges

First, it's hard to know which books are going to sell. It seems like the big name publishers guess right fairly often. That's because you only hear about the successes. Publishers don't talk about the books on which they lost money. The times they guessed wrong and decided not to publish, you only found out about when the authors didn't give up--they persevered until they finally found a publisher who would take a chance on them. Or they decided to self-publish and were successful. You never heard about the many wonderful books where the author got rejected a dozen times and decided to call it quits. It's hard to read rejection letter after rejection letter--sooner or later you decide they're right and you're wrong, and you put your book away and try to forget about it.

Second, because it's so difficult to know which books will sell and which won't, publishers like to hedge their bets. They choose to publish books written by people who are well known as authors, or maybe they are famous in another area.  For example, Jack Welch, the ex-CEO of General Electric, wrote Jack - Straight From the Gut. With a well-known person, the publisher feels more confidence that their efforts will yield results. If you're not in this category, it's going to be much harder for you to find a publisher.  Even the small publishers, who can't compete for the famous people, have to find their niche.  If you want to publish with one of them, you have to fit in their catalog--you have to make sense as a part of their overall offering.

Third, when a publisher finally decides to take on an author and publish their book, they've only just begun the effort needed to make this happen. To start with, they have to get a finished manuscript. Often this means a lot of "hand-holding" as the author struggles through the final stages of writing. Then they have to spend hours and hours (time and money) editing the book, which involves more hand-holding as the author deals with the changes being made. When that's finished, the book has to go through copyediting, another massive task that never seems to get finished. Finally, the master is done and the book is ready for printing.

That's not it, is it?

"Wait a minute," I hear you saying, "you forgot the cover!"

You're right, the cover needs to be designed and produced, and believe me, this is no easy task. Again, the publisher has to deal with the author, who may or may not like the cover choice(s) being presented. In addition, there are the opinions of the editor and the artist to be dealt with.  Every iteration costs money and time. Finally, the cover is ready to go ... we're ready to print.

So how many do we print? What's a reasonable first run quantity? Whatever they decide, it's going to cost them a lot of money--money wasted if the book doesn't sell.

Finally, they have to decide how much money, time, and resources to spend promoting the book. They must spend that money where they're going to get the biggest bang for their buck; they have to go with those authors who are already well-known. The rest of the authors get tossed into the black pit of retail hell. Those few that rise to the surface, for whatever reason--sheer luck, right time and place, author effort--begin to get their share of resources and a chance at "best seller" status.

Don't forget that publishing is a business: if the publisher isn't profitable, they won't be around for long. It isn't that they don't want to publish everything that looks good, or even that they don't want to promote everything they do publish--they simply can't afford to, not if they want to stay in business.

But there is good news!

The good news for authors is that the world has changed. In the past you had to print 5000 books in order to get the price down so that you could sell your book into the retail channel. Now, with print-on-demand (POD) publishing, you can print as little as one copy, or as many as you want, and still make a profit selling to retailers at their standard discount. In addition, your upfront costs are dramatically reduced--probably less than 15% of what they would have been just a couple of years ago. The initial costs can even be lower, using POD and printing a dozen books initially can cut your printing and binding costs to less than $250 for a 5.5 x 8.5 book of 200 pages or less.

Or print 100 copies and use them to develop interest in your book--send them to reviewers, major retailers and distributors, libraries, even publishers. As the demand begins to build, print only as many as you need, and only when you need them. This could--and sometimes does--lead to an offer from a publisher who likes your book, sees the interest building, and wants to take advantage of your efforts by adopting a book with potential that's already beyond the initial stages of production. This can only happen if you've done things properly--if the book is well written and produced with a professional look and feel.

The bottom-line: what's going on isn't the fault of the publishers, it's just a fact of doing business and the need to be profitable if you plan on staying in business. However, as an author, you now have some real viable alternatives: more publishers to choose from, both small and large, or even the opportunity to self-publish your book.

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