Last time I briefly went over the basic types of publishing options available to today’s author. Today I plan to “expose” myself as I let you in on some of my own experiences—some of them wonderful, some not so great, but all important in terms of my learning curve. Perhaps you can find something of use and apply it to your own situation.
I used to think finding an agent and securing a traditional publishing deal was the pinnacle of writing success. It would prove I was legit. However, 35 books and 14 years later, my thinking has changed. I’ve signed 19 traditional contracts, had an agent, said good-bye to that agent, used a vanity press twice, and started my own publishing company so I could DIY it. I’ve dipped my toe in pretty much every arena and hopefully learned a thing or two along the way.
My first book deal was a fully traditional deal, in that there was no charge to me. All editing, design, etc. were solely on the publisher in what seemed like endless rounds of back and forth communication. I later learned that this particular publisher also charged for services (a vanity press), but in my case, there was no charge of any kind.
I signed a seven-year deal for a 6% royalty on the cost price. The book originally came out in hardcover and sold for $30. Since my royalty was on the cost price, not the list price, I ended up making about $0.87 per book. Even if you’re not a mathematician, you can see that I would have to sell a lot of books to make any money! Also, once the book was published, that was it. No further changes could be made for the duration of the contract. I no longer had the rights to my own work. As a newbie, I didn’t care! I was just thrilled to have signed a real book deal, and I was naïve enough to think that my books would suddenly start flying off the shelves.
For my next book, I decided to use the same publisher, but this time I used their fee-for-services option (vanity publishing). Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a lot of advantage to that since they still set the pricing, had control over the work, and I couldn’t make changes once it was published. The total cost was only about $1000—cheap by most vanity standards—but I can unequivocally say I will never do that again. I used the same publisher for my third book, but this time they offered a “pre-sale” contract. Basically, I had to pre-sell a certain number of books and they would foot the cost. It was better than paying outright, I guess, but in the end, I actually paid out a lot of those pre-sales myself to get the ball rolling. So, in effect, it was pretty much “vanity” wrapped in a different package.
Live and learn. I had to wait out the seven years on each of those contracts with little input, control on pricing, or anything else. That’s when I started thinking about starting my own publishing company so I could republish them once I got the rights back and made the changes I wanted.
After those first three books, I knew I really wanted to seek an agent. It had always been a dream, and though I’d had some interest from agents in the past, I’d never secured anyone to that point. Then, somehow, fate smiled down on me, and I found a lovely agent named Steve Hutson, who took me on with my fourth book, Wind Over Marshdale. He secured a deal with a small boutique publishing house called Astraea Press, and based on my past experiences, the royalty percentages were pretty good. However, agents get their cut of the royalties, too. (In my case, 15%.)
Anyway, I signed a deal for the sequel with Astraea as well (even though Steve and I didn’t agree on this at first), and he also started shopping around another couple of books from the “Three Strand Cord” series.
In the end, we decided to amicably part ways after a couple of years. He had to make a living and my books weren’t affording him the income he needed, and frankly, we didn’t always see eye to eye. He did his best for me, but I was beginning to realize that the bureaucracy of the traditional system, with all its gates and red tape, was not something I was interested in pursuing anymore.
A far as the deals he’d secured, I loved working with Astraea Press. They were a nice, tight community (of 400 authors!) that truly made me feel like I was part of something special. Even though I could have gotten the rights back a lot sooner, I didn’t see a reason to. I liked the security I felt in that group. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and earlier this year, they had to close their doors. So, the rights came back to me, whether I wanted them or not.
As far as other traditional deals, all of my stage plays have been through traditional play publishing houses. Since I no longer have an agent, I exclusively pitch to those that don’t need one. I’ve been lucky to find 11 deals so far over a 14-year span, some of which have been quite lucrative. (And some not so much!) Since this is a very different animal than pitching books, I won’t go into too much detail here. Similar to pitching to magazines, you have to be hyperaware of the needs of each publishing house and do your research. Enough said.
I signed a few other traditional deals with another “not to be named” publisher, all of which I got back within the year. So, no real harm done. Other authors who worked with them did not fare as well. So, I guess I was lucky. There was some expanded reach with that company, and we did regular podcasts to promote our work. So, I learned a few things about marketing, too, for which I am grateful.
These days, I enjoy the freedom of doing it myself. I can avoid the pitfalls of overspending, time wasted, lack of control, and just general frustration that comes when you rely on other people. The downside is I have to be very vigilant about being accountable. There is no one on the other side pressing me with deadlines, etc. Quality control and distribution can also be challenges. Yes, I always had to do most of my own marketing, but now the buck really does stop with me.
This way of doing things seems to suit me, though. I have no illusions about becoming rich or famous. I just want to write books and plays and maybe have a few people read them. Yes, it’s nice to make some money—enough to fuel the habit anyway—but I don’t expect to be able to retire on my author’s income. It is a supplement, and that’s okay with me. I feel like I’ve landed just where I want to be. I’m grateful for that and all I’ve learned along the way.
Tracy Krauss has more than 20 books and plays in print and has successfully launched several titles onto Amazon’s bestseller lists for sustainable periods of time. She has taught seminars using this model and hopes that what little insight she has gained can be used by others. Website: tracykrauss.com