Why Traditional Publishing?

I’ve been pursuing publication for about five years now, with very little to show for it. It can be very discouraging, to say the least. This inevitably raises the question of why I keep trying to break into traditional publishing, particularly when self-publishing has become such a prominent alternative mode to getting one’s book out there. Well, let me tell you.

For many people, self-publishing is the best choice. With the advent of ebooks and print-on-demand, it’s no longer necessary to put up a lot of one’s own money to have a book printed. You can make your book available to anyone who wants it without having to get through any gatekeepers, taking charge of the entire process on your own. I’ve considered it, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for me. There are two major reasons for this. The first reason is practical, with lots of little sub-reasons. The second is purely emotional. Both are important to me. Let’s start with the first.

1. Traditional publishing consists of much more than printing words on a page. The bulk of the money is spent not on paper or on any of the physical trappings of a book, but to compensate the considerable team of people involved in the process (which is why even though we instinctively want to pay a lot less for a non-physical ebook, it’s really not fair – but that’s a tangent I’m not going to pursue right now). Each team member contributes valuable skills to the creation of the finished product. And I want that team. If I had to do it all myself, I just wouldn’t do as good a job.

a. The literary agent

This one is much disputed by a fair number of people. It’s just a middleman, right? (Nah – a lot of agents are women. Hah. Anyway.) But I’ve had a few glimpses at what agents do, and it’s really quite valuable. They’re facilitators, people who’ve built up relationships with editors and publishers. They do their research and have a strong sense of what’s selling and what isn’t. Most of them are actively involved in the process of getting a client’s manuscript polished and ready for submission to editors. I don’t know editors; I don’t know everything about upcoming trends and what’s on its way out. And I’d really love to have someone who’s nearly as passionate about my work as I am, fighting in my corner. They don’t charge potential clients any reading fees (if they do, it’s a red flag that it’s probably a scammer), yet they’re willing to dig through the slush pile anyway, always hoping to find that novel that grabs them. An agent doesn’t often sign with a new client unless they really love their work. And much as it’s discouraging for me that no agent has yet fallen in love with one of my books, I’m holding out hope that one will.

b. The editor

Here’s another person who’s passionate enough about a book to convince their publishers to take it on. And they have the ability that the author doesn’t, to take a step back and figure out what works with the book and what doesn’t. Authors are, well, pretty heavily biased. It’s almost impossible to look at their work with detachment. It’s an editor’s job to do that. My greatest weakness in writing is that I dread re-writing. Writing the first draft is my favorite part; everything after that leans toward drudgery. And I know that’s something I need to work on, because an agent or editor isn’t going to snap up a half-baked manuscript that’s in need of serious revisions….but if I can just get it polished enough, I really look forward to having a professional help me craft my work into something fully publishable. You can hire freelance editors, of course, but their rates are usually way out of my price range, and they don’t have the same clout as someone connected to a publishing agency.

c. The copyeditor

The regular editor sees the big picture; the copyeditor watches the details. Every writer needs someone with fresh eyes to look over their work and find the mistakes they missed. Just while writing this post I’ve churned out more than a few typos, and I probably won’t catch all of them even on the re-read. You’re much more likely to miss mistakes in your own writing; your brain just naturally tunes them out and replaces them with whatever you intended to write. It’s not enough to have a spellchecker. Machines can’t catch everything. A copyeditor can also catch inconsistencies with details like the spelling of characters’ names or things that don’t match up from one section of a book to another. Again, after you’ve written a book it’s pretty overwhelming to go back and make sure everything on every page adds up. But that’s a copyeditor’s job, and they’re usually very good at it.

d. Formatting

I haven’t actually gone through the publishing process, so I can’t tell you every precise task that goes into it, but I know there’s someone involved in the way the words will look on the page. Don’t take this for granted. You might be willing to read something in a Word document for a family member or friend, but if you’ve paid money for a book, you expect it to look professional. The margins, the spacing of the words – all of that needs to be arranged so that it’s easily readable, doesn’t strain the eyes, and has a certain subtle aesthetic quality. This is something we usually only notice if it’s done badly. When it’s done well, it’s invisible. I know almost nothing about formatting. It’d be far preferable to have a professional do it for me.

e. Cover design

Going along with that, a book needs a cover. We don’t publish books with plain leather covers anymore. We expect an attractive arrangement of the title and the author as well as some kind of artwork that encapsulates the feel of the book. Even ebooks need a thumbnail to click on. We can say the old cliché as much as we like, but everyone judges a book by its cover. Now, I have absolutely zero skill in graphic design. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to sell my novel through self-publishing if my cover looked like it was made by a four-year-old. Which it would, if I had to do it myself.

f. Promotion and distribution

Let’s be realistic. Publishers don’t put much money into promoting a book unless it’s one of the big ones. That’s actually how the industry works – the hugely popular books that everyone is buying earn them enough money that they can afford to pay advances to the lesser writers, whose books may never earn out that advance. It’s kind of a strange model, but it means that the big sales help the little guys. So the little guys pretty much need to do their own promotion. How is that any different from being a self-starter and publishing the book yourself? Well, it goes back to a and b. I’d have a team of publishing-savvy people who can give advice about how to promote. And who might do just a little promoting themselves. So instead of being one of those sad writers on Twitter with a constant stream of “BUY MY BOOK IT’S AWESOME” tweets, I could be putting the word out there with more finesse. Theoretically, anyway.

So that’s a look at the resources that I’m aware of, at least, that come from getting your book published in the traditional venue. There’s probably more. And of course there is also the stress of having deadlines, of needing to meet other people’s expectations, of having to collaborate even though writing is primarily a solitary task. I know even if I get a publishing deal it won’t all be sunshine and roses. But I think the pros outweigh the cons, and for me they far outweigh the pros of self-publishing.

2. Now, having offered a very rational delineation of practical benefits, let me add that I want validation, darn it! I want to have perfect strangers, professionals who have no biased motivation to like my work, decide that it’s worth publishing. I want to get approval from the gatekeepers. Is that shallow? Maybe. Still true. Most of my life I’ve dreamed of going to the bookstore and finding my book on the shelves with a shiny pretty cover – not because I’ve paid or engineered to put it there, but because a publisher wanted to put it there, wanted to invest in my talent. For many, self-publishing is a viable avenue. For me, it would feel like giving up. That may change someday; who knows? But for now, I’m going to keep pursuing my dream.