Your manuscript is polished to perfection, and you’re ready for your work to reach the hands of eager readers worldwide. But how do you span that gap between a written novel and a published book?
One method is trade publishing, which we’ll explore in this article.
What is Trade Publishing?
Trade publishing or traditional publishing means going through a company for the production and distribution of your book. In real trade publishing, money moves in only one direction: from the company towards you, the writer, and never the other way around. (If a company charges you money for the production of your book, it’s either a scam or a vanity publisher.)
In trade publishing, you sign a contract with the publisher in which you sell the rights to produce and market your writing, whether in print form or in digital form. In return, you receive royalties—a certain percentage of all sales generated by your novel.
The Stages of Trade Publishing
Going through an established company for the production of your book is a cumbersome process with many steps.
- Selecting an agent. Literary agents know three things: what editors like, how to pitch to them, and how to negotiate a good contract for you. Instead of pitching directly to an editor, you have the option of obtaining an agent and letting him or her do the legwork.
Almost all of the big firms (such as Random House, Penguin, etc.) consider only agented writers. However, smaller companies (e.g. Page Street Publishing, DAW Books) may allow you to submit directly to their editor.
- Submitting your work. Pitching your work to either agents or editors is usually a stressful process, but it cannot be skipped. Most agents/editors have similar requirements from a submission packet. It usually has to include a query letter introducing you and your work, a synopsis, and sample pages from the manuscript itself.
Based on these materials, the agent/editor will either decline your submission or else ask to see more of your work, which may eventually lead to signing a contract with that agent/editor.
- Signing a Contract. If you’re working with an agent, a contract will detail how much he or she gets paid in case your novel sells. As with publishing houses, you should never pay an agent for representing your novel. They will get their cut of your royalties if and only if your novel sells. The agent will then help you negotiate a good contract with a publishing company.
If you’re working directly with an editor, the contract will involve your advance payment (if any) and royalty rates, subsidiary rights, and so on. It’s important to understand these many terms and their intricacies. A percent more here or there might translate into hundreds if not thousands of dollars later on.
- Editing and proofing. Serious publishing houses will edit and proof your manuscript. You will likely be an active player in this stage: editors may request changes from you, and you will have to approve line edits and proofreading notes.
- Cover art. The publisher will bring one of their artists to design a cover (also called a jacket). How much influence you have over the final product depends on the contract you’ve signed. Some authors have no control, while others are given limited input.
- Publishing and distribution. Finally! Once the novel is laid out and ready, the publishing house will begin to distribute it. This may mean a print run which will be delivered to bricks-and-mortar stores (usually by medium to big publishers), a print-on-demand catalog which is made available to many online stores, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble (usually by smaller publishers), or a digital product which can be distributed over the Internet (by publishers of all sizes).
- Royalties. Now begins the fun. Royalty payments are made to you, the author, based on how many copies your novel has sold during a given period of time. You will either receive all royalties or share them with your agent, depending on your arrangement.
Challenges of Trade Publishing
Traditional publishing is a cumbersome process, which means there are a lot of obstacles.
- Competition. The average literary agent gets about ten thousand queries each year, and in a good year they might take on two new clients. Email has made it possible for more people than ever to submit their work. As Jim Butcher once said, you’re not competing against established writers. You’re competing against every other newbie who wants to break in.
- Reply time. Agents and editors are constantly drowning in the slush pile (the pile of manuscripts to be read and evaluated). Be prepared to wait at least three to six months for an answer. Some don’t reply at all if they’re not interested, and some companies get so overwhelmed that they might close their doors to submissions during certain periods. You need to be patient.
- Lower royalties. Trade publishers offer less royalties than the self-publishing route. On the other hand, they usually have greater exposure to offset the low percentage.
- The public’s taste. Even if you get published, your books might flop. The Great Gatsby is a notorious example. It sold poorly when it first came out. George Martin’s fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag, was projected to be his first best-seller, and instead it killed his career (though not for long).
Payoffs of Trade Publishing
Can it be worth all the aggravation? Tradition publishing has some upsides, as well.
- A quality product. Publishers will help you make the most of your novel in terms of professional editing, layout, cover art, etc., without any cost to you.
- Print distribution. Signing up with a big publisher is the easiest way to place your novel in physical stores around the world. Make sure your contract covers this issue.
- Prestige. Traditional publishing is a big thing to put on your resume, especially if you’re going for a writing career. Being published traditionally, especially with the big publishers, gives your novel an automatic badge of quality that self-publishing lacks.
- Literary awards. Many awards except only traditionally-published candidates. There are more options for your novel to shine.
- More time to write. Unlike with self-publishing, your publisher will take care of all stages of production for you. Your input may be required now and then, but you will not have to manage this project on your own, and can focus your energies on writing more great novels.
Is it Right for You?
If you have plenty of patience, a thick skin, and high-quality writing that appeals to the masses (as opposed to tight niches), by all mean, consider traditional publishing. It’s a highly rewarding path—for those who manage to place a novel with a publisher.
If you’re more of a hands-on person, need absolute control over every step of the process, and have the time and energy to run the show yourself, self-publishing may be more fitting for you. Read more about self-publishing here.
Whatever you do, keep on writing!