Hard Truths: Why being unpublished is better than being poorly published

Aspiring is a tough infinitive. It’s one of those painful words like “Almost” or “Nearly.” You’ve probably got the Google Reader set to success stories, and your friends and crit partners insist you’ll get there.

So you go through this excruciating process: [see this publishing process in Gif’s]

But what happens if you never got an agent? or you got one but the book didn’t sell?!?

Wait, a minute. That’s not right. I have an agent. This is the part where my book sells, right?

Yes and No. Agents don’t have a measured ratio that magically predicts your success. Some say the average agent success rate is 50%, some say it’s 85-90%. I’ve seen as little as 30% noted. The point is, even the best agents don’t have a 100% success rate (NOTE: 100% agent, if you are out there, please be my yoda.)

So, Dear Unsold Author, when PUBLISHER X approaches you and/or your agent, you jump at the chance. I can see why. You don’t know much – okay, anything – about PUBLISHER X and there’s not a lot of information available, but they are joyfully full of promises and they want to publish your book.


 Publishers believe in their promises, vision, and ability. Rarely, does a malicious criminal mastermind lurk behind a curtain intent on taking your hard earned royalties. But even the best intentions, in the hands of an entity that cannot execute them, don’t make the experience or outcome more bearable when promises go unfulfilled and communication breaks down.

Now, it’s important that you understand two things:

1.) I’m not talking about mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. If your editor forgot to send that blurb request on Monday… it’s not a reason to run screaming into the hills.

2.) Does this mean you shouldn’t give small presses a shot? No, not at all. I’m a fan of the small press. Houses like Other Press, Angry Robot, and Merit Press are doing wonderful things. Does this mean avoid start-ups? No. I was a start-up agent once… but I was never a bad agent. It’s about learning the difference.

So how do you know if you’re dealing with a bad publisher? Alarmingly, you may not. Hopefully your agent will guide you, and there are questions to protect yourself.

First, I can’t stress enough the importance of talking to others about their experiences.

Talk to the authors you know are already working with this publisher. Are they happy? Why or why not? How are their books doing? Would they keep working with that publisher? You check-out YELP before taking your in-laws to dinner, and this is way more important than your in-laws.

What are the advances like on average? Are you getting one? And if you’re not how good are these folks going to be at selling your book? Are the royalties competitive? Will your editor be freelance or fulltime (a.k.a. do you really have a champion there?). Who is handling foreign rights? Sub-rights? Publicity? Marketing? What’s their business model? What are the digital and print distribution plans? What’s an average print run? Marketing Strategy? What industry contacts do they plan to send review copies to? Will they be paying to advertise? Ask them to name some books they’ve released. How are they selling? They probably won’t tell you, but do your homework. Action will always speak louder than words.

All I am really saying is: An announcement on Publishers Marketplace, does not a publisher make.  

But, having any publisher is better than having none?

Nope. Dip that thought in some wrong sauce and take a big ole bite.

Here’s a few things that can go wrong. (Bearing in mind that ALL of them can go wrong and you wind up in a bath robe face down on the kitchen floor crying into the grout because the tile feels cool and you’re too upset to get to the sofa).

1.)    Publisher promises you that your book will be in digital and paperback and they’re getting a major distributor. But you’ve not asked the right questions and you soon discover that “paperback” means print on demand and the cover is designed by createspace. No hate to POD or Createspace, they do a great job! But this means you’re paying the publisher to have your book self-published. Granted, I’ve heard of some legit houses using KDP successfully, thanks to genius editors, publicists, and rights managers –> all firmly in the plus side when considering the legitimacy of a house.

2.)    You could hate your cover. Like hide-your-book-from-people HATE your cover.

3.)    You could wind up without a publicist, without a sub-rights manager, with out a marketing plan. There’s no budget for advertising or promotion and because your advance was twelve dollars you certainly can’t pay for it.

4.)    No one reviews it because the Publisher doesn’t have the network to get people talking about it. You’ve been promoting and promoting and promoting to no avail.

5.)    Or you’ve been promoting it gangbusters, and all your fans rush to the intertubes to discover the list price is outrageous. Your readers are upset that they have to pay so much for the book. You just keep apologizing.

6.)    Publisher won’t negotiate. They require all your rights: film, television, Graphic novel, video game, first born, and merchandising.  You lose enormous chunks on the license of rights.

7.)    Publisher goes bankrupt. So your novel technically belongs to the creditors at this point? It depends on how the contract is worded. It’s likely assigned to successors and assigns.

And you want to know the worst part about this disaster?  The Publisher Still Owns Your Book. You can’t just change your mind. Generous houses might let you petition release. And even then, though grateful,  you’ve paid to not be published. And you know what? It will have been worth it.

Because signing with a disreputable publisher can hurt your career. Even more than being a debut author? Yes. You know how my Dad was always like “Victoria Elise Marini!! get over here. You spent WHAT on those shoes?  The only thing worse than bad credit is no credit?” **

This is not like that. Bad is worse than none. Why? Because when that novel comes out from a shady place and sells badly (it will) it’s going to be extremely difficult to sell it again and in some extreme cases, future prospects will be wary.

I had some glorious witty wrap-up planned, but my eyes hurt.



** I have stellar credit. Thanks Dad! Love you!


5 responses to “Hard Truths: Why being unpublished is better than being poorly published

  1. Some great info in this, Victoria! Thank you for sharing ;o)

  2. All I can add is to read other works by that publisher. I have read some works by small publishers and I knew immediately I never wanted to work with them. The editing was horrendous. And I know no one is perfect and typos happen…but not one every other page.

    Great post!

  3. Excellent post. I’ve had both bad agents and bad publishers. Learned a lot from both experiences that I’m not anxious to repeat.

  4. Speaking as the owner of a small digital press publishing since 2000, I agree with most of what you’ve written. However, signing a contract with a digital press is not “paying the publisher to have your book self-published.”

    Those of us who chose to develop a digital model, in contrast to the traditional one of wasting paper doing print runs, work very hard to ensure the author’s experience with us is a professional one. We have perfectly valid financial reasons for utilizing CreateSpace for Amazon sales, while all other sales not fulfilled directly are handled via the standard distribution channels.

    There are also contractual reasons why our ebooks are distributed using KDP, Pub-It and so on over which we have no control; those decisions are made by the retailer.

    So, while your caveat is excellent in general, it shows a lack of knowledge of how digital publishers, some of whom have been in business successfully since the mid-1990s, conduct that business. Perhaps this is why I keep hearing how agents have “exhausted the possibilities” for a manuscript which the author then self-publishers, even though neither our house nor those of my colleagues have been contacted.

    It might behoove agents with excellent manuscripts they can’t place with the usual suspects to become acquainted with the actualities of digital publishing before condemning all on the basis of insufficient data.

    • Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth. However, I did not say nor did I suggest that having a digital publisher is no better than being self-published. Quite the contrary, I have worked with digital only presses, such as Avon Impulse, and am quite knowledgeable about how they practice and why they are successful. I think houses like Impulse and independent digital houses like Entangled (though they may not be digital only anymore!) are doing great things. Furthermore, I realized that plenty of legitimate houses like Harlequin use KDP. But, I believe that a publishing house that offers no other benefits (editorial, marketing & promotion, rights management, solid business model etc…) and opts to publish through KDP and createspace, is not offering anything to my client that he or she can not get through self-publishing. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify.

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