Someone said it takes a village to bring up a child; it’s the same for writing a novel. This was certainly true for me.

Experts say you should write about what you know, so I wrote about my parents’ love story, set in country New South Wales, as Australia was exiting from the Second World War. This was a time when big changes were happening in this part of the world.

I probably showed my work too soon, and to the wrong person/people early on. However, I found an excellent manuscript assessor, and finalised the novel, utilising skills I’d developed over years of creative writing practice and research. I’d also learnt, after long hours in feedback groups, how to self edit my work, both at the macro level and at the micro and middle levels.

I then taught myself how to upload an ebook to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. [KDP]. It proved to be tricky at first.

Going Back to the New Millenium

As Amazon released its first eReader, the kindle, in 2007, I became increasingly interested in the slowly emerging ‘Internet’, and the opportunities it brought to writers everywhere. Just as I was experimenting with all things digital, I joined a writers’ group at Waverley Library and ended up volunteering as a creative writing convenor in 2009. My first step was to create a list of guidelines for giving and receiving feedback; I’ve found that it’s essential for the happy functioning of a group and many others have caught on now.

I had completed Creative Writing Studies at The University Of Technology, Sydney, in 2005. And gradually I’d become fascinated with the concept of ‘blogging’, digital marketing and self-publishing. My own blog The Craft of Writing, journals the past ten years of my educational experience, beginning as a complete Internet newbie, to a digital expert in the field of publishing and creative writing.

What I learnt about Traditional Publishers

A Definition: To greatly simplify matters, a traditional publisher acts as a gatekeeper and pays an advance to authors.

It wasn’t long ago that if you wanted to be published, there was only one route: submitting to a publisher. A traditional publisher, if you are lucky enough to have your manuscript accepted, will pay you an upfront amount of between $5 and $10, 000 or anything up to $50 000. Obamas, the former first couple of the United States, received $60 million for two books. There are exceptions. The catch is that royalties gained are deducted from the cash payment.

Most of the large publishing houses require an agent to represent you. It’s almost impossible for a new writer or author to get published in Australia by the big 5 unless an agent is involved. And it is just as difficult to gain an agent as it is a publisher. Pan Macmillan, Penguin Australia, Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins and Simon and Schuster are busy representing established authors, or taking on famous people such as presidents, sports stars and politicians.

With the onset of digital publishing, printing a book has become cheap. In fact, you can use POD (Print-On-Demand), which prints and mails books out as they’re ordered. To order one of my own books from Ingram, I pay about $25, of which half is the printing and half the shipping costs.

In the US fewer than one percent of submitted manuscripts are published. Without counting self-published titles that makes upwards of 300,000 new titles a year. (If you count self published works, it’s 600, 000 – 1,000, 000 books. Publishers nowadays are positively swamped with submissions. There is so much material to choose from that naturally publishers have become more selective. Queries outline ‘the bones of the story structurally and thematically’ and are written by the author. The competition is intense. 90% are culled just from a query letter. (Source: Jane Friedman).

Large commercial publishers receive hundreds and even thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each year. Some, such as HarperCollins, read only half of them and of those that are read, only about five end up on the shelves of a bookstore. In 1998, Penguin publisher Julie Gibbs noted that her company received an average of 70 unsolicited manuscripts per week – that is, some 3,640 a year – of which only three or four were considered worthy of publication.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Flying High

First the bad news: Most people who write a book will never get it published; half the writers who are published won’t see a second book in print; and most books published are never reprinted. What’s more, half the titles in any given bookshop won’t sell a single copy there, and most published writers won’t earn anything from their book apart from the advance.

The truth is that you and I will still go on writing and enjoying writing because of the passion involved. And you might find that your writing improves greatly, when you are freed from the pressure of seeking a publisher. Plus, there are nowadays other options to the traditional approach.

For a long while, I decided not to expect anything from my writing apart from the personal fulfilment of having learned my craft and believing that I would, maybe, one day create a work that hadn’t existed before.

Authors seeking traditional publication undergo a tortuous procedure that involves identifying appropriate publishers, querying, pitching, contract negotiation…. I went through the hoops, even though I was already published on my own creative writing blog, where I’d learnt how to be correct and dot all the I’s before I ever pushed the publish button.

A blogging mentor suggested that I go through the ropes of being published traditionally and trial the ‘literary speed dating’ event held by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). All six of the publishers and an agent I met at this event expressed glowing interest in my pitches for Karrana, and gave me their cards. I tried about seven or eight in the Independent Publishers stream. Nothing much followed my queries and written approaches.

One of the problems for me was that learning how to write these written pitches involved using the left (logical) side of my brain, and took me away from creative writing, which had become my passion.

For a new writer, especially, this process is intimidating and scary as they try to navigate the competitive, unfamiliar territory of the publishing world. It’s exhausting and, at times, disheartening. No one likes rejection. It’s your baby, for goodness sakes!

Reputable Independent Traditional Publishers in Australia, such as Text Publishing, Scribe Publications, VenturaAllen&Unwin, Affirm Press, and Black Inc are also often unwilling to accept a writer’s unsolicited manuscript without an agent’s referral, even though they may advertise to the contrary.

There are Small Presses and Small Presses…

Small presses are an important alternative for writers who don’t want to go the agent-to-big-publisher route, but prefer to avoid the DIY work of self-publishing. Most reputable small presses cannot afford to pay advances, but nor do they charge you an upfront fee.

Respected Small Presses, such as Pantera, Giramondo, Cordite, and Transit Lounge, usually cannot afford to pay advances or assist authors greatly in having their books placed in large bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

These smaller publishers are often under-staffed and not always able to provide complete editing or distribution facilities for new writers. But they’re a good option for a writer starting out.

If a small press requests payment for services, this should be a red light to a writer. Legitimate publishers do not charge an author to publish their book. Important side note: If the small press makes you pay upfront for their in-house editing, design, or production—or makes you pay for copies of your book—they’re not a traditional publisher, but a hybrid publisher or a publishing service. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with utilising these services if you choose to. And you may finish up with a book, or a publishable manuscript, of which you can be proud.

Hybrid publishers combine certain aspects of traditional publishing and self-publishing.

In the case of assisted self-publishing or publishing services (called ‘vanity presses’ in the old days), these companies sometimes adopt the moniker of ‘hybrid publisher’ to look more innovative or attractive to authors. You can’t blame them for doing this. But know that they’re not really a hybrid publisher, unless they can offer value and/or distribution and marketing muscle that can’t be secured on your own as a self-publisher, or with a small publishing press.

The best hybrid publishers conduct some level of gatekeeping, offer value that the author would have a hard time securing on her own, and should also pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal. (Fifty percent is common). If the hybrid publisher presents itself as little more than ‘Here’s a package of services you can buy’, then it’s most likely a dressed-up self-publishing firm.

Keep in mind that…

Traditional Publishers get a lot of manuscripts, and may take a while to respond — preferring to work on the basis of ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’.