As some of you know and fewer of you care, I teach creative writing for SNHU Online, the biggest not-for-profit school on the Web. One of my excellent students recently asked me what I thought about agents and publishers regarding who can send what to whom. That got me rolling on the different kinds of publishers in the Age of the Internet, and I thought you might find my reply interesting.
First, let me say that my time in the trenches has taught me that “publishing” is not a monolith. Especially since the rise of the Internet, there are as many different kinds of publisher as there are markets for books. To wit:
Big publishers: This is your Simon & Schuster, Random House, FSG, and so on. Each of these have many imprints as well for their different lines like romance, mystery, &c. They pay big advances and put lots of books into stores — which is why you see so many of their books in the remainder section of those stores when they don’t sell all 500,000 copies in hardback. It’s still a successful business paradigm, but less so in recent years when there are so many more ways for readers to buy books. (Some “publishers” that may seem like small houses are, in fact, imprints of these big houses. That SOMETIMES mean they play by small press rules, but not always.) Agents are most always needed to get one’s manuscript considered by the big publishers.
Of course, first you must convince an agent to take you on.
Small publishers: A lot of smaller presses want to stay that way, giving authors and editors the chance to focus sharply on each work. Smaller presses publish fewer books than the big publishers, of course, but offer an advance and do “big publisher” promotion for their authors, like TV and radio interviews, book trailers, and so on. The general rule here is that agents are helpful to get your manuscript read, but they aren’t always strictly required, especially if their focus is on genre books like romance or mystery. The volume of books needed to keep up with the demand of genre readers mean that their submission rules are often looser than those of the big boys, as a steady stream of new manuscripts is needed for this.
Also, some writers work slowly.
Niche publishers: Although small publishers may focus on one genre (or may not), niche publishers work not just on one genre, but often on one subgenre within that genre. Permuted Press, my new publisher, is a niche publisher. They focus like a laser beam on apocalyptic fiction and thus are the biggest name in that field. Niche publishers are often not as well funded as small publishers since they aren’t an arm of a big publisher, but they work hard for their authors: Their books get in stores, they send authors to conventions, and all sorts of good stuff like that. They may or may not offer an advance, but they work with their authors personally, building a relationship the way they did it in the old days of Maxwell Perkins and the Lost Generation writers. A big difference between niche publishers and small/big publishers is that an agent is almost never required for submissions of manuscripts to niche publishers. (This then means that their response time might be ridiculously long, but that’s the price you pay for access.)
There are a lot of different subgenres.
Micro-publishers: My good friend, who is a PhD and professor of English, just saw his book of short stories published by what I term a “micro-publisher.” What this means, in essence, is that this publisher has no more access to markets, reviewers, bookstores, and other means of promotion and distribution than would someone who was self-publishing (see below for my definition of “self-publishing”). These micro-publishers are a category created by the rise of Print On Demand (POD) technology and Amazon.com (as well as other, smaller online distrbutors). A “pro” of getting your work published by a micro-publisher is that your book is receiving the imprimatur of an outside entity, which looks much better on a resume if you’re trying to get teaching gigs or speaking engagements. A huge “con” of micro-publishing, however, is that the publisher has almost no investment in seeing your book sell even one copy — micros never pay advances, so they don’t need to push your book in order to recoup their investment. Essentially, a micro-publisher should be avoided unless the author him- or herself is really good at self-promotion. (However, if that’s the case, why not self-publish?) An agent can send your work to a micro, but is not at all necessary. It’s best for, as in my friend’s case, publishing as support for tenure in education. Also, his book is great.
You could click here if you wanted to.
Self-publishing: This is not the same as “vanity publishing” (defined below) … but it’s close. These days, anyone with a manuscript can see it put into print (using POD) and ebooks (using electricity) with self-publishing services such as CreateSpace, iUniverse, Lulu, and more. If you have design chops, you can do your own cover, or these are offered by the services and you can let them do what you can’t. (For a price, of course.) I’m very fortunate in that I know how to use Photoshop and have a little bit of an eye for design, and my wife is a professional book editor who makes sure everything on the interior is shipshape. My first novel was with iUniverse way back in 2000, and then I used CreateSpace for my second and third novels as well as my short story collection. (I had shopped Ain’t That America and Darwin’s Dreams around to agents and publishers and got NO play whatsoever.) I was a full-time professor at the time and just wanted my books out there. A few copies sold here and there, but the end result — with Deadtown Abbey, my last book published with CreateSpace — is that they got noticed and I got a 10-book contract with an actual publisher. A physical book (or ebook, I guess) is something that can be put into the hands of people who might be able to look at it and recommend it to the Publishing Powers What Is. It worked for me, and it could work for anyone. You obviously would not need an agent, since you’re submitting this to yourself, if you will.
“I’m a tougher negotiator than I realized. Darn you, me!”
Vanity publishing: This category is for those “authors” who have a manuscript that they pay to get printed, edited, have a cover designed, and everything else that a publisher would do. They rarely have access to a distribution pipeline like self-publishers have. (But sometimes they do.) This is for books with little to no value in the marketplace, such as family histories, many books of poetry, or screeds for or against something or other that no one other than the writer would want to be associated with. My novel Asians Are Bad Drivers, rejected at every level of publishing, would fall into this category.* Anyone who could possibly get an agent to do anything for them would never fall into this category. It’s as embarrassing as forgetting to bring your fruit aspic to a Mormon picnic.
I hope this is helpful. You must identify what markets your book would be best suited for, and then figure out what publishers or agents you need to submit to in order to get the book to that market. Other than short stories, I recommend that writers always keep in mind where a book might be most profitably published (and that means more than money profit). Short stories rarely require an agent, especially for online magazines and journals.
Some markets are swankier than others.
Finally, get thee a copy of the current Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and use it. It will save you much heartache and wasted time.
* This is a joke. There is no such book … yet. But seriously, even self-pub presses such as CreateSpace won’t accept works advocating violence or hatred against anyone. That’s one HUGE difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing.