You wait – no, you work like crazy – for years, occasionally losing hope that it will ever come to anything, and then all the sudden, someone else believes in your book enough to make it happen. I have a book deal. I signed a contract, with a proper publisher. That Book I Wrote is going to be on bookstore shelves, and on Amazon, and people I don’t know are actually going to read it.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I have waited most of my life for this.
I’ve signed with Unbound, an imprint in London that’s affiliated with Penguin Random House. Unbound launched in 2011 when three industry veterans wanted to create a platform for books that were worth reading, but were probably not going to get picked up by the major houses because they’re unlikely to sell in tremendous quantities. With the publishing industry in a tough spot that’s only going to get tougher, it makes perfect sense. This profile is a concise snapshot of how they work, with a few differences nowadays (I’m not pitching an idea, they accepted my completed manuscript). They’re the ideal imprint for someone like me, a total unknown with a literary fiction debut. In fact – and here’s something I thought I would never in a million years be saying – I turned down an offer of representation from a literary agent because Unbound was the better choice for me.
To understand why, it’s helpful to know a bit about what the publishing industry is like now, so read on. I also want to tell you a bit more about how Unbound works. In traditional publishing, an agent signs an author, then pitches the book to editors at publishing houses. If editors want to buy the books, they make offers or go to auction, the agent gets 15-20% of the amount, and the author gets an advance (a chunk of money up front). The amount of the advance is based roughly on how big of a seller the publisher expects it to be. The book then goes into production, pre-orders get taken, and typically a year or so later (give or take – it can be a lot faster with topical nonfiction), the book appears in stores and online. The author must earn back the amount of the advance before they start earning royalties, which is a small percentage of the price of each book.
Unbound does production and distribution like a traditional house, but the business at the beginning is slightly different. They do buy some works off literary agents, but other projects, like mine, are sent by authors directly. And instead of predicting the number of copies that will sell and giving an advance from the start, they require the author to crowd-fund a certain number of pre-orders of the book before they start production.
Wait, what do you mean, crowdfunding?
Well, it’s not crowdfunding in the strictly Kickstarter meaning of the word, in that you pledge some money for something that hasn’t been done yet and you run the risk of getting nothing in the end. My book is already written, and these pledges are like how you’d pre-order a book that had already been printed and was waiting in the warehouse for its release date. When I hit the target Unbound has set for these pre-orders, that triggers production, and from that point forward, this operates like traditional publishing: editing, design, printing, and distribution. If I hit my target, you are guaranteed a book in your hand or on your e-reader, and I am guaranteed a book in shops and on Amazon. If I don’t, you get a refund or credit you can spend on another Unbound author’s book (and there are a lot of interesting ones on offer).
This is a new way of doing things, and because I’m a researcher by profession, I carefully looked for any red flags in this model or in the contract. Specifically, I can assure you that Unbound is not:
- A vanity press. You know those publishers that will take anything, no matter how ineptly-written, and print off hard copies if you pay them enough. Unbound maintains its standards and only accepts certain projects through an application process – I made sure to rummage around and find people’s comments on social media about being rejected. Crucially, I’m not paying Unbound to print. The initial run is funded by pre-orders and this passes the smell test because when you’re a small press, you need proof that there’s a market out there for what you’re going to create. Otherwise, you’re left with a warehouse of unsellable copies. (This aspect of the publishing business is part of what makes it so hard for an unknown debut author to get a foot in the door. A traditional publishing house is taking a massive risk on untested, unproven you compared to their celebrity clients who are guaranteed to sell a million, so even if you write wonderfully, if they can’t be relatively certain you’ll shift loads of copies, you’re a bad business risk. Unbound has essentially outsourced that risk to me, freeing them up to focus on the meat of the book. More about this below.) Products from vanity presses never see the bookstore shelf. They don’t sell at all unless you push them on friends and family who are too polite to say no, because they have no distribution channels are their prices are usually ludicrous in order to recoup what the author paid to the publisher. Quite frankly, anybody in publishing (whether an agent, editor, or publisher) who tells you that you must pay them before they give you a contract is a scammer or a vanity press looking for a sucker, and you should run a mile. Then catch your breath and run another mile.
- A self-publishing service. There are no gatekeepers in self-publishing, which is why, quite frankly, so much of what is self-published is awful. There are no editors unless you pay for them out of your own pocket. There are no decent covers unless you pay for a designer out of your own pocket. There is no publicity unless you do it yourself, or pay a publicist out of your own pocket. You get the picture. Again, you’re highly unlikely to see a self-published book in an actual bookstore. You can buy them on Amazon, but chances are you’re looking at an amateurish cover and reading text that definitely could have used some tightening up. Self-publishing can work well for genre fiction (e.g. romance, sci-fi) where it doesn’t really matter if the prose is top-notch. But I write literary fiction. Unbound had an author longlisted for the Booker Prize – you don’t get that with a self-published work, because the people who matter in the literary fiction world do not give self-published books the time of day. Is that unfair? Probably, because there are certainly decent works of self-published literary fiction out there. But it’s not worth readers’ time to separate the wheat from the chaff because the ratio is so grim. To be harsh but honest, most self-published works are self-published because they aren’t good enough to be taken on by anybody who publishes books for a living. Again, that might not matter to you if you’re looking for a light romance, but that’s not what I write.
Unbound’s print distribution is through a division of Penguin Random House. Their books are on the shelf in Waterstones (Americans, that’s like the Barnes & Noble of the UK) and independent bookshops alike. You can judge a publisher by their covers, and Unbound’s are excellent. The CVs of their staff are impressive. And most importantly, another author I greatly respect who is currently working with Unbound had nothing but wonderful things to say about their editorial process and his interactions with the team. This author previously had his debut published by a traditional house, and he thought the Unbound team cared more about the quality of writing rather than the marketing. That mattered a lot to me!
So, why are you going about it this way?
In a nutshell: Unbound’s mission is aligned with what I want, their team is experienced and proven, they have high standards and legitimate practices, and they more than pass all the smell tests.
It helps to take a look at the state of the publishing industry. Ever since I interned at one of the major New York houses as a student, I’ve been learning about it. In college I thought it was what I might do for a living, and even though I ended up not pursuing that path, as a writer I knew I would need to be as familiar as possible with the business side of things.
Like any other business, publishers are looking to make a profit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if you are hoping for quality over quantity, trying to get literary fiction published for an audience outside your immediate circle, the truth is that you’re facing an uphill battle.
Here’s what I am not:
- A celebrity who can bring in tens of thousands of sales on name recognition alone, regardless of what’s written between the covers.
- Someone who writes for a living (anyone from a serious journalist to a popular lifestyle blogger) and thus has a ready-made platform – again, something that can bring in thousands of sales on name and reputation.
- Someone with an MFA, which, while certainly no guarantee of writing ability, at least gives some assurance that someone has the basics down, and which opens up doors through networking and name recognition. (I made the conscious choice to *not* get an MFA because, quite frankly, I didn’t want one. Writing was something I could practice and cultivate while pursuing my other interests as well, and without spending thousands more dollars and several more years in formal education for a degree that wouldn’t be a magic bullet anyway. The postgraduate qualifications I did get, in social policy, were things I absolutely needed to pursue my career. You don’t need an MFA to write, and it’s certainly no guarantee of publication. There’s also a debate about whether MFAs can lead to a kind of workshopped-to-death homogenous writing style, but that’s for another day.)
- Someone who writes the kinds of books that sell like hotcakes to a very broad audience. Under this category you can file a lot of genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) and highly accessible commercial fiction. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into. But I’m not into that, and I don’t write that. I like language for language’s sake. I like spending time deep in description, painting an atmosphere, wrestling inside my protagonist’s head. I write literary fiction.
All these things add up to make me a bad risk to the publishing industry: I’m a complete unknown writing in a genre that doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal.
But I’m a pretty good writer. I’ve got that going for myself on the other side of the balance.
What Unbound is doing through requiring crowdfunding of pre-orders is essentially outsourcing the risk to me. Doing so allows them to be able to take the risk of going with a writer like me in the first place, because they don’t have to worry that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend even more on the production, and then potentially not come close to recouping that initial investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors – hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then they go ahead and invest their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. I don’t get an advance, but any books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a very nice profit split.
Don’t get me wrong – you can get a traditional publishing deal for lit fic if you start in an agent’s slush pile. Many people do. But many, many more do not, despite boatloads of talent and perseverance. Your odds of doing it are extremely tiny, and even if you do get that deal, that brings me to my next point…
Traditional Publishing is Not (Necessarily) All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Even in the past decade, so much has changed, and absolutely nothing is certain, both for the houses and their clients.
You may sign with a literary agent, then part ways a year later when she hasn’t been able to sell your book to an editor at any publishing house. You may sign with a literary agent, then find out that she won’t even shop it around unless you make changes so massive that it’s no longer the book you wanted to write. You may get that book deal, but your advance is so tiny that when you calculate all the hours of work you put into the book, it works out to far below minimum wage. Then, because you are the unknown debut author and your publisher is busy promoting celebrity clients, you may never sell enough copies to earn out your advance, meaning you never see a penny of royalties. And those royalties could be as low as 8% on the net price (what your book is sold to the bookstore for, not the cover price). Or you may spend most of your advance on hiring your own publicist because, as previously mentioned, you are not a priority to your publisher – even though one reason you held out for a traditional deal is because you thought these houses would be publicity powerhouses. Or perhaps everything seems to go well, you sell that book, you get a lot of attention…but then, when it’s time for your next work, you’re tackling an unfashionable topic and suddenly the people who used to sing your praises don’t want to know anymore.
Sadly, these are not exaggerations. I’ve met authors, highly talented authors, who went through these things. And I’m hearing about more and more of them who get the deal and then have their enthusiasm shattered by reality. I don’t want to put myself through those emotional rollercoasters, becoming demoralized and seeing my work come to nothing, if there’s another legitimate option.
With very rare exceptions, the publishing business is not about finding and nurturing the most talented writers. If it was, Fifty Shades of Grey would have been laughed into oblivion a long time ago and that dreadful novel Morrissey wrote would have been subject to some very tough love. It’s a business like any other, and it’s stressed, and it’s about selling enough widgets to make a profit. Nothing more, nothing less. Both authors and readers must divest themselves of any illusion that there’s something special and noble about book publishing the way it has traditionally been done. At its core, it is no different than any other business, and writers should treat it that way.
I’m pretty sure that there is no industry other than publishing in which we hold onto our romantic dreams so tightly in the face of bitter reality, even though said reality is slapping us in the face and telling us to get a bloody grip. And I’m not immune to this, either. I dreamed of the big deal even though there was such a tiny chance of it happening.
But I’m also a highly practical person, and I’ve never been afraid to do my own thing. I’ve also seen talented people go their own way in indie music and film and produce extremely impressive work. Now I’m going to try to do the same thing, and I am confident I am working with a skilled team of people who actually care about the written word. I feel like I’m in control more than I would have been with a Big Five house, and for the first time, I feel like all the work I’ve put into this manuscript – years at this point – has been worth it. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to innovate. Of course, we should do our research and our due dilligence, because there are scammers born every minute, but when we find a quality thing out there that we believe in, and that the people involved clearly believe in, then I see no reason not to hop aboard. Full speed ahead. I’m so excited about this project and eager to help fuel innovation in the industry.