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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper:
On Publishers and Getting Published

1.  Who is your publisher?
2.  How did you get published?
3.  Why was it so easy for you to get published?
4.  Do you have to have a writing job to have enough writing experience to get published?
5.  How much writing experience did you have when your first book was accepted?

6.  What questions will a publisher ask a new writer?
7.  What are the chances of getting my own manuscript published?
8.  What are the chances of becoming a successful author?
9.  What does it cost the publisher to produce a book?
10.  What are the pros and cons of a vanity press? -- NEW!
11.  How desperately do you need to get published? -- NEW!
12.  Commercial publishing -- NEW!

13.  Have you ever had a falling-out with your publisher?
14.  What advice would you give to someone who wants to be published?


Factors that Influence the Success of a Book
Thirty-Nine Steps to Getting Published
Additional resources for writers

1.  Who is your publisher?

Del Rey Books, which is the SF/Fantasy imprint of Ballantine, which is, in turn, a division of Random House (which is now owned by German media giant, Bertelsmann AG).  Overseas editions of my books are currently published by Goldmann (Germany) and Muelenhoff-M (the Netherlands).

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2.  How Did You Get Published?

As my agent told it to me over the phone: he walked into the office of the head of Del Rey, tossed my manuscript down on the desk, and said, "This is the next Anne McCaffrey.  Are you interested?"  The editor said, "Yes." So I got a contract.

In actuality, I think my agent had to do a bit more schmoozing--meet the editor for lunch, talk me up over the phone, etc..  But it sounded good, didn't it?

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3.  Why Was It So Easy for You to Get Published?

Just because my first book sold quickly in comparison to some fiction doesn't mean I didn't pay (and am not still paying) my "dues."   I've been writing fairly seriously since I was eleven years old.   I didn't bother trying to get published before I had earned a science degree in writing and had worked professionally in a writing field for ten years.

I also didn't ask the publisher to take a chance on a proposal or on sample chapters.  I gave Del Rey their choice of three completed novels in several configurations (I held the fourth novel back).  What might look "easy" at first glance is actually the result of two decades of studying and working in writing fields.

I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.
                      - Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

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4.  Do You Have to Have a Writing Job in Order to Acquire Enough Writing Experience to Get Published?

Of course not.  But I do think you have to find a way to get enough experience in writing to hone your skills so that you can write a decent book.  If that means you get a job as a journalist, technical writer, ad-copy writer, or whatever, then great.  If that means you spend every spare minute outside of your day job writing stories, fine.  But you've got to do something to develop and tighten those skills.  

I look at it this way: natural talent in writing is like natural talent in singing.  Just because you have the potential to sing well doesn't mean you do sing well.  You might have a passably pleasing voice and be able to hit the note, but your phrasing might be atrocious ("Gladly, the cross-eyed bear," rather than, "Gladly, the cross I'd bear"), your breathing uncontrolled, your glottal stops as obvious as warts, and your vibrato uneven and forced.

For singers, training helps them learn to use their breath efficiently, shape their mouths and throats to get the sounds  they want, sing without developing callouses, etc..  For writers, training helps you learn to use characterization, alliteration, rhythm, cadence, pacing, and all the other tools effectively.  Natural talent in writing has to be developed, like any other kind of talent.

Also, the publisher doesn't want to have to be the one to educate and train you. You should be doing that for yourself, developing the skills you will need before you try getting published.  Being prepared, as trite as it might sound, guarantees that you have a better chance to take advantage of the opportunities you have to get published.

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5.  How Much Writing Experience Did You Have When Your First Book Was Accepted?

By the time Wolfwalker was published, I had twelve years experience as a professional technical writer and editor.  I had also--as is typical of aspiring writers--studied writing in school, worked on school newspapers, entered creative-writing contests, interned as a journalist on an Oregon newspaper, ghost-written dissertations and theses, tutored writing, and so on.

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6.  What Kind of Questions Does a Publisher Ask a New Writer?

One of the questions publishers ask of new writers is, what are you working on next?  This is not a statement of interest for contracts or publication.  The publisher asks this question to find out if the writer has more than one story in him.  If the writer has completed this one novel and has only vague plans or none at all for a second novel, the publisher realizes that they probably cannot "grow" this writer into a success.  In that case, the writer's first novel is the only chance the publisher has of making a success out of this writer.  

If, however, the writer already has plans for or has already started a second or third (etc.) novel, the publisher knows that even if this first novel is not a flaming success, the second novel could be much better.  A second novels also means that the writer will have gained some readership, and so this second novel will be expected to do better in the market.  A third will be expected to do even better, and so on.  Questions about a writer's future work give the publisher an idea of whether or not the failture-risk of that first novel will be compensated for by future work.

Another question sometimes asked is, how old are you?  In science-fiction, this question is often asked to find out how far removed from technology the writer might be.  For example, many people do not continue to educate themselves in the sciences after they graduate from college.  In other genres, age is another indicator of whether or not the writer has the life experience to write with depth or complexity.  Questions about age are leading questions to find out more about the writer's background and qualifications for writing in the genre.

A third question you might hear is, are you willing to commit to full-time writing?  This is an important question, and one that should not be answered without consulting your agent first.  Refer to the FAQ files for Agents and for Being an Author.

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7.  What Are the Chances of Getting My Manuscript Published?

Statistics?  I've heard that only 0.03 percent of all manuscripts submitted in the publishing industry in the United States each year actually get published.  That means out of every 10,000 manuscripts which are submitted, only 3 are actually published.

"I have read your book and much like it."
              - Moses Hadas

How does that translate into numbers of books?  In 1996, in all genres and categories, approximately 86,000 titles were published.  In science fiction and fantasy (SF/Fantasy) alone, approximately 1800 novels are published each year by all SF/Fantasy publishing houses combined.  

Were all of those titles published in 1996 new titles?  No.  Some are reprints (such as Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, or the new edition of The Joy of Cooking).  In SF/Fantasy, a significant portion of published novels are media tie-ins (Star TrekTM, Star WarsTM, RPG tie-ins, and so on).  Overall, in all genres and categories, Random House (the largest publishing house in the U.S.) published only 1500 titles in North American in 1997.  

But, you might ask, people are buying more books, aren't they?  Well, yes and no.  The Association of American Publishers just announced that although consumer book purchases are still growing--about 5% a year between 1991 and 1996, total book sales have fallen 3.4% in 1997.  Sales of paperback novels fell 6.2% in 1995, and 2.6% in 1996.  Time Magazine, April 6, 1998, reported that, from 1996 to 1997, hardcover sales of adult trade books slipped nearly 7%.  Warner Books published only 69 hardcovers in 1996, down from 80+ hardcovers in the early 90's.  Scribner just cut its mystery list from 24 books a year to 12 books a year.  And, Penguin Putnam announced early this year that it was closing two of its imprints:  Lodestar and Cobble Hill.

What does this mean for an unpublished author?  According to Suzanne Kirk, an executive editor at Scribner (quoted in the January 26, 1998, issue of U.S. News & World Report), "The trend in publishing is to try to bring out fewer books but bigger books."   This means that the unpublished author who does not already have a Big Name, can have a difficult time breaking into the industry.  People who are not writers by trade, but who have Big Names, are almost guaranteed a book contract, even if their product is shoddy and unreadable.  Financial losses by publishers who back Big Names with big contracts make it even more difficult to maintain previous budgets for category fiction and for taking chances on lesser-known or unknown authors.

The fewer-but-bigger-book trend has resulted in many multi-million dollar losses to publishers.  For example, Harper Collins paid $4 million to Jay Leno for his book titled, Leading With My Chin.  Of the 600,000 copies of Leno's book which were shipped to stores, 400,000 copies were returned unsold.  Ballantine (a division of Random House) paid a $3.5 million advance to Johnnie Cochran for his autobiography, and reportedly lost most of that when the book sold extremely poorly. Also, although independent stores are selling 80% of their orders, superstores are selling only 70%, and discounters (Wal Mart, K-Mart, Fred Meyer, etc.) are selling only about 60% of their orders.  Major publishers are seeing frontlist returns running as high as 36%.  (Frontlist returns are unsold copies of recently released books, such as those by Leno, Cochran, and Newt Gingrich)

"The covers of this book are too far apart."
                  - Ambrose Bierce

There's an adage about the industry:  publishing always seems to be in turmoil.  Rising warehouse costs, skyrocketing advances to superstars like Paul Reiser, Whoopie Goldberg, and Joan Collins--whose books do not pay back a pittance of their advances....  The loss of a tax break here, the increase in paper prices there, the introduction of new print technology last year, the announcement of production-management software this year....  The absence of up-and-coming authors who can consistently produce best-sellers as do Steven King, John Grisham and Danielle Steele....  More dollars to the Major Names; the shrinking of the midlist....  Bottom line:  An unpublished author is competing, with no reputation and no readership, for the dollars that are going to Major Names.  And, the unpublished author is attempting to enter an industry in which mergers and new technologies are making profound changes on an annual basis in both management and process.

This does not mean that an unknown cannot get published.  Publishers are always looking for another good book.  What it does mean is that the competition  for every publishing dollar is more fierce.  If you want to get published, you must create a resume that reflects skill, you should consider building a readership through short fiction or another medium, and you must present a manuscript that consists of a good story that is both well-written and engaging.  Even then there are no guarantees that a publisher will look at your manuscript.  At the most, you will simply have a better chance at getting your foot in the door.

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8.  What Are the Chances of Becoming a Successful Author?

First, you will need to define the term, "successful."   If you are asking about general statistics, then essentially, once you are published, there is only about a 10 percent chance that your book will "pay off," and that you will see royalties beyond the advance.  In other words, only 1 out of every 10 novels earns enough in sales to pay back the costs of production:  editing, marketing, printing, warehousing, distribution, accounting, etc..  Some of those 1-out-of-10 novels break even; and some make enough money that they support the rest of the less-successful ventures.  

You can think of it like this:  .03 percent (3 out of 10,000) of all submissions are accepted for publication.  Of those, 9 out of every 10 published novels fails to pay back its own production costs.  (Production costs include:  advances, rights, editing, cover art, printing, warehousing, distribution, accounting, inventory, and taxes.)

If the book fails to earn back its production costs, you will not see royalties beyond the advance you have already received.  Does this mean you were not successful?  After all, you did receive an advance, the book was published, and you have seen a copy of it in print.  If having your work in print is your only criteria for being a successful author, then yes, in that case, you were successful.  However,  I think many people would consider being published to be significantly different from being a successful author who sells well enough to make a living--or partial living--at writing, whose work has achieved some literary acclaim, or who has achieved fame or notoriety for some other writing-related reason.

Almost anyone can be an author;
the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being.

-A.A. Milne

Some fiction authors do become Mega-Name Authors (note the initial-caps).  These authors include Tom Clancy, Steven King, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham.  They are the exceptions.  Most published authors do not make enough money to support themselves.  Part of this is because one novel does not usually make a career, but provides only a single advance/royalty-income of $3,000 to $10,000.  Most authors must create and sustain a career in order to bring in enough money to support themselves.

So what  about being able to make a comfortable, not exceptional living?  Well, that 1-out-of-10 bracket of successful authors includes the mid-list authors.  These are authors whose work sells moderately well and whose books earn back their production costs and bring in a moderate profit, but whose novels do not make a significant splash in the industry.  The books are successful, but not so successful that the publisher is in love with the author's career.

This bracket also includes authors who are published and established, but who have become locked into having a reputation for being low- or mid-list in sales.  For those authors, book sales are often not enough to justify promotion for new projects.  Acquiring such a reputation can not only kill any promotion you might receive for new projects, it also means that no one expects you to sell particularly well even with a new book.  Distributors will not push your work, and book-buyers will not buy more than perhaps a single copy of your work at a time--if they buy at all.  All of which perpetuates or exacerbates the low-sales reputation.  

Authors in that position have few options:   Continue writing and hope that something changes; pump up (sometimes over pump) another book in the hopes of getting someone to finance promotion; move to a new genre; or switch to a pseudonym.  In the past week alone, I heard of two more established authors who are now writing under pseudonyms in order to break out of their low-list or mid-list brackets.  Even though those authors are starting all over again (which means building readership and name-recognition from the ground up again), they are betting that they have a better chance of becoming successful with a new name than if they stuck exclusively with their previous name/reputation.

What are the chances of becoming a successful, published author?  Slim.  Very slim.  Slim to none.  Rare.  --depending on your point of view, I suppose.  If this sounds bleak, good.  Better to go in with your eyes open, than create a rosy set of unrealistic expectations, quit your day job because you sold one short story, and end up putting yourself and your family in dire financial straits.

[ Links to professional author organizations and other writer resources ]
[  Six traits of successful, creative people  ]

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9.  What Does it Cost the Publisher to Produce a Book?

I've heard that it costs from $20,000 to $150,000 to produce a paperback book.  The difference in costs depends on a variety of factors, including advances, cover illustration costs ($1500-$3000 for the average mass-market paperback cover painting), size of the novel (200 or 1200 pages), and so on.  According to my own publisher (Del Rey/Random House), it costs approximately $150,000 to produce a mass-market paperback novel, including all costs associated with that book (rights, editing, cover art, production, printing, warehousing, distribution, sales, etc.).

For a hardback book, the breakout of costs, according to the January 12, 1998, issue of U.S. News & World Report, is as follows:
22%  Royalties, rights, and permissions
8%  Editorial
12%  Administrative and other associated costs
16%  Production
17%  Paper, printing, and binding
4%  Warehousing
21%  Sales and marketing.  

People often ask, who makes the bigger profit--the author or the publisher?  In reality, the biggest money-maker is neither the author nor the publisher, but rather the retailers, who take approximately 50% of the cover price as income.  With retailers taking the lion's portion, with rising costs, flat or fallen profit margins, and with other media ventures making significantly larger profits, publishers, just like other businesses, are looking for ways to cut costs and bump up profit margins.  

But surely, you say, publishers make good money?  Well, for a book publisher, the profit margin on a hardback book that retails for $25, is approximately $1.  Random House, the largest publisher* in America, was the only publisher to earn over $1 billion in sales 1996.  Simon & Schuster earned approxmately $830 million in sales in 1996, and generated only $200 million in profits in 1997.  Bantam Doubleday Dell, brought in $670 million in sales in 1996.   HarperCollins reported a drop in operating income of 69% in first quarter in 1997, a loss of $7 million in its last quarter, and was in enough financial difficulty to cancel over 100 contracts with its authors.

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10.  What are the Pros and Cons of a Vanity Press?

Hmm.  What I want to say is, there are no pros in vanity press.

I know of only two writers (there are probably a few others) who self-published with any kind of success.  The first wasn't even a fiction writer or novelist.  The second didn't go through a vanity press at all, but used the internet.

The only successful vanity-press author I know was the author of one of the first microwave cookbooks.  She handled the business out of her garage, hand-packing and shipping the vanity-printed books to customers.  At the height of its popularity, and before the microwave-cookbook competition cut into business, the book earned about $75,000/year for several years.

The other commercially successful, self-published author I'm aware of is Diane Gabaldon, who used the internet to post her first novel as a free work online.  She gained enough of an underground following that a print publisher picked up her work and, voila, she became published "for real."  She continues to be a popular fiction author.

If your only goal is to see your work printed between two covers, sure, go ahead, spend your dollars to print up your Christmas gifts for the family for the year.  Be aware though, that that's all the books are likely to be useful for.  It's unusual for anything out of a vanity press to be more than an ego stroke.  And, you pay through the nose for the privelege of having that ego stroked.

Vanity presses exist for a variety of reasons, and writers should beware that some are there to scalp the unwitting, scam the unwary, and exploit the desperate -- all through your pocketbook.  Use a vanity press to publish your dissertation or thesis, to print up a few copies of your family's memoirs, to bind your travel notes for posterity.  Use them if you're that desperate to see your work "in print."  But don't expect them to make you a professional author.  And don't tell a prospective agent or publisher that you're published when you had to pay someone to print your work for you.

'Vanity presses are called "vanity" presses for a reason.
They appeal to the writer's vanity, not the writer's sanity.
Stay away if you want to be a serious writer.'

                           - Kristine Kathryn Rusch, interview, 2002.

Remember to ask yourself what it means to be successful.  If selling two or three thousand copies of your work is enough for you to feel successful, to have the affirmation of some readers, to be "noticed" or to be "an author," then perhaps a vanity press is the right process for you.  For more and more writers, vanity presses and internet publishing offer exactly that:  an opportunity to get your word out to at least someone.

11. How Desperately Do You Need to Be Published?

To me, the real question is to ask someone desperate to get published is, why are you so desperate to be published?  If your goals are that focused on being published, instead of on writing, there must be a reason.  Is it money?  Considering the number of books that become commercially successful, I'd say that's a pretty ambitious goal for most aspiring writers.  Is it the adulation of strangers?  Is it the affirmation from strangers that your thoughts are valuable?  Is it the fantasy of being An Author?  Is it just to be able to say to yourself and your family that you've been published?

Self-honesty is important in determining realistic goals.  Figure out the truths behind your motivations, because that will help you determine what you're willing to do to get published, and whether a vanity press or Internet self-publishing is a better direction for you.

12. Commercial Publishing

Commercial publishing is for commercially viable ideas and books -- stories, works that will make a profit.  It's for stories that appeal to a large number of people, or which appeal to a select audience willing to pay enough to justify the publication of that focused work.

Don't get blinded by the assumption that a writer isn't a good writer unless he's published.  Commercial publishing is not the end-all and be-all of writing.  It's just an industry, like any other, in which some products appeal to large numbers of people, and so some businesses (publishers) are willing to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new product (a story) in the hopes that enough people will buy it to make the business a profit.

Yes, most aspiring writers don't get published because their work is simply not as well-written, polished, appealing, or interesting compared to other writers.  However, some writers don't get published because, even though their work is good or even brilliant, there's not enough market for those ideas.

Don't confuse publishing with writing.

Publishing is not about writing.  It's business.  It's about making a product and selling that product for profit.

Writing is about telling the story, about humanity, about the idea.

Do you want to be a writer?  Then write, and take satisfaction in the work that comes from your soul, and which says exactly what you wanted.  Do you want to get published?  Then become a businessperson and learn what the industry wants and how to deliver that product.

If you think that's "selling out," then head full-steam for the vanity press and pay your way to your goals.  If you're willing to work with a standard, commercial publisher to turn out a book that will probably be better for the process of objective input, then keep writing and keep trying to get published.  Persistence will help you stay with the process long enough to improve your skills, and hopefully, to improve them enough to reach both your writing and publishing goals.

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13. Have You Ever Had a Falling-Out with Your Publisher?

We've certainly had to resolve some issues--almost all of which dealt with electronic publishing terms during contract negotiations (refer to the FAQ file for contracts)--but so far, we have always been able to come to agreements that are mutually acceptable. 

Other than electronic publishing issues (which almost every writer seems to face these days), my relationship with Del Rey has essentially been conflict-free.  I have no horror stories, no ghosts in the closet, no hidden resentments.  Del Rey has promoted my work in everything from conventions to dumps (no, not the kind you take your junk to--I'm talking about those cardboard display boxes that hold racks of books in the bookstores).  They have helped me with presentations and given me excellent suggestions for speaking engagements.  In short, they have been considerate of my needs, appreciative of my work, and probably a bit too flattering of my ego.

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14. What Advice Would You Give to Someone Who Wants to Be Published?

Live.  Write.  Finish your work.  Be willing to accept critique.  Be willing to improve.

If you really want to be a writer...

Some industry advice.

Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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