Where do you start when you're looking for a publisher?
First, sorry for breaking the Internet rules about not being text-heavy. It can’t be helped, there's a lot of information to impart.
So many people have asked me about writing for epubs, that it’s time to put a page down, because I find myself repeating the same things.
There are merits and drawbacks to choosing any publisher to send your work to. I’ve been writing in the digital-first genre for a number of years, and so I know my way around a bit, and I thought it might be time to share some of my findings in the hope that they might prove useful.
How I started
In brief, here's my history – I currently write for all the major epubs (see below for my definition), but I also write for a few smaller ones. Don’t forget, I do have a name and a reputation, so someone entering the market today may not have the same experience I did. In some ways, I hope you don’t!
My first offer to publish came from RFI West (Starlight, to be precise). Now long gone, thank goodness, because this was not a good company to get involved with, although some of the members of staff have gone on to be stars of the ebook field. From what I heard, there were one or two people who turned the whole thing bad. Someone I trusted wrote to me and told me not to sign the contract. So I didn’t, I signed with NBI. And Awe-Struck. The latter company is still going today, as an imprint of Mundania Press. NBI had authors like Anne Aguirre and Linnea Sinclair, as well as yours truly and it disintegrated when the owner disappeared. Ran off with the money, leaving many of us six months in arrears for royalties.
Once I could get my rights returned (luckily, some of the senior editors with NBI had that power, and before they closed down the website, they sent us letters of release) I had work accepted by a new, promising company, Samhain. The editors came from the runaway success Ellora’s Cave, so I figured they were a reasonable bet. They were and are.
At about that time, I was contacted by someone I knew at Triskelion, asking if I could try my hand at a paranormal romance, as one of their series authors had let them down. I did, and loved it.
Twelve titles later, Triskelion went bankrupt. That was a complete nightmare. Although Triskelion proved not to be the company we all thought at one time, it was the standard bankruptcy clause in the contract that proved problematic. In the US, you sign your book contract under state law. Unfortunately for us, the bankruptcy courts have federal powers. That means they can ignore the bankruptcy clause and claim all author contracts as assets. Worse, they can possibly claim back any rights given back to an author, if they take the view that the company was deliberately dispersing assets before the bankruptcy in order to cheat the courts. And another piece of bad news, they freeze all assets. That means the countdown clock on your contract stops until something happens to the contract.
We were lucky. In the auction of assets, a friendly publisher, Siren, bought the contracts and immediately gave all the authors release letters. I’ll always be thankful to Siren for doing that.
At that time, I’d won some awards and built a reputation, and so the major epubs became interested in me. I now publish with Kensington, Samhain, Carina, Loose-Id, Total E-Bound and Decadent. And I also self-pub. Since the Triskelion debacle I’ve become very wary of letting one publisher control my career.
And nothing stays the same. Recently one of my publishers got into difficulties and it was with great regret that I decided to break the ties. Although they still have much of my backlist, I don't intend to send them any more new work, and I got the rights back to the work in the editing queue. There is absolutely no rest. The market never stays the same, and constant vigilance, and keeping up with trends is vital. But so is your experience and your needs. Go for what you want, not for what people say you should want.
I’m not even going to try advising you about contract negotiation. Go to the experts, the agents and the lawyers, or somewhere like the Society of Authors, which will look over a contract for you if you’re a member, and tell you where the red flags are.
Choosing a publisher
Every publisher has its benefits and drawbacks, and sometimes the different lines owned by the conglomerates like Penguin and Harlequin can be different. I can go into far more detail on epublishers, but some of this advice will work just as well for big publishers. I’ll concentrate on the US, since my experience of markets elsewhere is limited.
Don’t forget that in this time of change, no publisher is rock solid, but the risk does decrease as the size of the company increases.
Remember these guidelines and you should choose the publisher that suits you best.
1. Look at the website. Is it professional, easy to navigate? Are the books given prominence on the front page?
2. Study the authors. Do you recognise any names? Would you be happy to have those authors’ books next to yours on the virtual bookshelf?
3. Cover art. Is it attractive?
4. Look at the “about” page and see how many employees the company has. Note how many of them are also authors. There’s nothing wrong in that, but it is important that some of the managers and editors aren’t authors, otherwise their work will receive prominence rather than yours.
5. Check the submissions page and make sure what they’re looking for is a match to what you have to sell. Don’t annoy them sending something they won’t publish.
6. You can write to a few of the authors listed, especially if you know them personally. They will often give you details they wouldn’t give in public, especially if they know you. You will get sales figures, hear some inside stories. What you can’t do is pass that information on in any way, shape or form, or even say which authors you were in touch with. It’s totally private information, just for you. The author is trusting you, so respect that, or the system will break down, and it’s enormously useful.
7. Go to conferences and conventions. Get appointments to pitch your work. See what the publisher does at the convention, not just for the author, but for the reader and the distributor. Go to the bar and listen. That’s often where the really interesting stuff goes on, and any seasoned conference goer will know that.
8. Find out where the publisher sells books. If they’re listed in the big wholesale catalogues like Ingram’s. If they’re listed at the big digital outlets. Amazon is the biggest, but also check Barnes and Noble, All Romance Ebooks, Diesel and the Apple store to see if the books are listed there.
9. Go to places like Absolute Write Water Cooler forum and Preditors and Editors to see what you can glean there. Remember that very often, it’s opinion.
10. Do listen to rumours but don’t always believe them. Sometimes smoke signals do mean something is going wrong. Sometimes it can be a malicious ex employee or ex author, so be really careful.
In the American market, the top of the market is dominated by the Big Five. That’s Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan. To this, particularly in the romance market, I’d add Harlequin, whose sales are huge. There are also significant companies like Kensington, Sourcebooks and St Martin’s. The big advantage is the reach of these companies, and the unit sales. You can get famous and sell masses of books. The romance market doesn’t stretch much beyond the USA. Other countries have their own bestsellers, but very few have an outreach past their home country, unlike names like Steven King, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy, whose reach is worldwide. The days of multimillion advances for first time authors has gone, and was always rare, and advances are shrinking. However, in most cases, royalties are still low.
The other thing an author needs to bear in mind is that most of the imprints have to appeal to the masses, so niche books are a hard sell to the big houses. Never say never. Most prefer to be approached through an agent, who performs the work that inhouse interns used to do—going through the slush pile for the stars of the future. With big name authors reclaiming their backlists to self publish, and some agents offering this service to their clients, this puts pressure on the big publishers to sell big. Your artistic integrity will be challenged. So decide what you will compromise and what you won’t, and don’t get too precious about it. This is the commodity end of the market, and your manuscript will have to pass the marketing panel as well as the editors.
Now I’ll concentrate on the epublishing market, more accurately known as digital-first, because the books often come out in print as well as e-format, but the emphasis is on electronic. The usual and accepted method is to pay the author no or a small token advance, and then royalties, which are higher than you can expect to get in New York. The author should pay nothing towards the production of the book. No editing charges, no cover art, or any of the listings in the various distribution catalogues. As in all the markets, the author will have to pay for marketing and promotion, such as a webpage and advertising.
At the top of the digital-first tree are the publishers who are established, may have had books in the NYT and/or USA Today bestselling lists, and have a fairly large staff. That would be Samhain, Carina and Loose-Id, with publishers like Siren and The Wild Rose Press also very strong. All but Loose-Id have had books in the national best seller lists. All except Loose-Id accept romance novels of all heat levels, from highly erotic to kisses-only. They offer royalties between 30 and 50% of list price. However, waiting times to hear on your sub are longer than for other epubs, and acceptances are much harder to obtain. Editing is thorough and cover art usually excellent. Do not expect a cozy family atmosphere at these places. Authors number in the hundreds in some cases, and the emphasis is on business. (That suits me, because all the publishers I worked with who claimed family privileges went out of business!) Sales are usually lower than the big six, but the higher royalty rate means the author can usually make a decent amount from them, especially if they’re prolific and build up a backlist. With epublishing, the gold is in the backlist. Every new book released results in a nice nudge to the backlist.
There are more in the middle field, where reputations are relatively solid and sales are good, though not usually exciting. There are a plethora of companies in this section. i write for Total E-bound, and Decadent Publishing. There are lots more, including Liquid Silver, and Desert Breeze. Here is where you’re getting into riskier territory, and it’s important to do your homework.
Small and startups. These are more often mom and pop setups, so be careful. Companies here rise and fall, and sales are often miserable, though a break out company can make it all worthwhile. The powerhouse that was Ellora’s Cave started here, after all, when Jaid Black saw an outlet for the steamy books she couldn’t sell to New York. You have to be extremely careful here, and don’t give them your magnus opus, or the first in a proposed series. Small publishers may recruit a few big names to add to their roster, or sometimes big names will like the publisher’s approach, or they’re looking for a niche market for a particular book. Sales are usually poor, but breakouts have happened.
With the advent of Kindle self-publishing and some famous self-published writers who have broken through to the big time, this is an increasingly popular sector.
In my opinion, to do really well, you have to work very hard on making yourself a platform. people who will buy your books for sure, and people who will chat about your book. Genuinely, not in a kind of reciprocal arrangement or even, in a number of cases, a writer taking a pseudonym to promote their own work. Don't do it, you will get found out.
The other way you can do well is to republish a book you have the rights back to. Presumably you already have a following, and they will be glad to have your backlist to choose from. Some agents and publishers are offering to do this for you, but they will want to take their cut, so think carefully about it.
Companies are springing up to format and edit the book for you. Check these out as carefully as you would check a potential publisher.
So what should a new writer do?
These days I’d advise that the author takes a portfolio approach. They’ve been doing it in finance forever. Assess the risk, and balance it. Maybe write for a smaller but reputable publisher to get your name out there and get your publishing credentials, which will open more doors for you. Send work to the big epubs and the big six, but don’t expect to see results much inside a year, by which I mean your book on the shelf, virtual or otherwise. And that’s after acceptance. Send work to the medium sized epub, which will take around six months on average. And maybe take a flyer on a small publisher you feel good about. Distribute your work and look at self-publishing a couple of titles.
Respect your backlist, and keep it current. You can write series, or you can provide a link to your work, like keeping to one genre.
You can take a top-down approach, and work through the agents and publishers. But your list is your own. Work out what you would be happy with, what you would count as a success. Ignore friends who proselytize at you and tell you so and so is the best publisher ever, and you’ll never need another one. This is business.
If you have any questions, email me