Why traditional trade book publishers drive me up the wall

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It’s time traditional trade publishers dragged themselves out of the 19th century

In a recent discussion group someone was sounding off about traditional trade publishers and how wonderful they still are. My own experiences suggest otherwise. Here is a compilation of the points I made (while foaming at the mouth with indignation…)

Many of these companies do still function in 19th century mode and are fighting tooth and claw to preserve the status quo, as are many literary agents, despite overwhelming proof that they are operating within horribly outdated business models.

Frankly, the only real advantage trade publishers offer the author is distribution to bricks-and-mortar booksellers, and considering that online book sales are overtaking these by volume  things are looking a bit desperate for them.

And their waiting period of anything up to two years from writing to publication is ludicrous for nonfiction books in modern times, as many will be out of date by the time the “busy” publisher gets around to publishing them.

Some major publishers (e.g. HarperCollins) have seen the light and are exploring new, more flexible ways of working. Fortunately, too, there are some publishers who offer a more co-operative approach (e.g. Bookshaker.) Finally, there is all out self-publishing which is the preferred route for many authors now, both of fiction and nonfiction.

Surely vanity publishing and self-publishing are the same thing?

There is a significant difference between vanity publishing, where since the 1940s you pay a lot of money and receive a crate of printed books, and self-publishing and co-operative publishing where you are offered proper publishing services on a “Chinese takeaway” basis. Very few authors now use vanity publishers and thank Heavens for it.

Self-publishing requires more of an investment upfront on the part of the author to obtain the required services, but of course s/he starts making money from the first book sold – unlike the traditional way which works on a small advance basis where the book first has to earn this back before the author gets anything.

Ah, but conventional publishers will market your book properly

As for marketing, trade publishers tell you they will market your book but unless you’re a reality TV star or a topless model all they’ll do is list your book on their website (if they have one yet) for a few weeks before transferring it to their backlist.

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My Gordon Setter: better at book “publicity”
than some human publicists

If you want your book to be marketed you have to do it yourself, which is exactly the same as with self-publishing. Although with the latter you can actually hire publicists who know what they’re doing and get much better results than leaving it to a trade publisher’s “publicity department” consisting of three young lady Oxbridge (or Ivy League) graduates with cut-glass accents, streaky blonde hair and about as much knowledge of marketing as my Gordon Setter has – probably less.

But traditional publishers need time to get your book ready for market

Speaking as an editor and author myself, the long drawn-out process of editing, proof-reading, cover/jacket design etc. as done by the trade publishers is a joke.

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Ever felt so angry you want to burn someone’s house down?

Woolly-stockinged librarians take many weeks to edit a piece of work (the norm for copy/line-editing and proof-reading is anything up to 2,000 words per hour) and often they don’t understand a word of what they’re working on. I nearly exploded with rage after one of these characters got hold of a manuscript of mine called “Writing Words That Sell,” in which my co-author and I promoted writing as you speak for advertising and other marketing purposes.

The editor decided that her librarian’s English must dominate so changed every single contraction and abbreviation in the 80,000 word manuscript back to its full and glorious Victorian original. By the time the MD of the publishing house phoned me with very embarrassed apologies (and agreement to change it all back again), I was ready to go and burn her house down.

You get the best designers working on your book cover, don’t you?

With this nonsense still being conducted in many publishing houses, you can understand why the process takes so long. And although authors are allowed to comment on the book cover or jacket design the publishers come up with, they have no say in the final decision.

The very first book I ever wrote was a how-to guide to buying and wearing jewelry, in which my co-author (an upmarket London jeweler and gemologist) and I recommended that to look at your best you shouldn’t wear too many pieces on the same “limb” and never mix gold and silver colors closely together.

Before consulting us and obviously not having read the book or even glanced through its key points, the clever publishers commissioned a full color photoshoot of a hand model wearing about ten rings and three or four bangles on one arm/wrist, with a frenzied mixture of gemstones and colored metals. This was then put into artwork (before digital days) and shown to us as “final proofs.”

I won’t repeat the language my co-author – a very articulate and noisy Dutchman – used on this occasion but a new photo shoot was organized very quickly. What a waste of time and money! Why can’t trade publishers get their heads out of their pompous, know-it-all orifices and just ask the ****ing authors?

And it wasn’t as if this was some cheapo book they were publishing for a bargain basement knock-off deal. The advance they had paid us was equivalent to current amounts of well over USD $11,000 or GBP £7,000 which wasn’t bad for first-timers in soft-cover nonfiction.

So are traditional publishers doomed?

You would be forgiven for thinking so. But there are still those who believe that the kudos of being published by one of the “majors” is worth all the anxiety and frustration. From a PR point of view, maybe – if your potential readers/purchasers are likely to care. From a practical point of view, no way. And from a realistic point of view – considering that successful nonfiction book marketing now is about sheer business sense, not snobbish PR or “publicity” practised by backroom Sloanies over lukewarm white wine at publishing social occasions – no way, either.

I’ve had over 30 books published, only 7 of which are self-published eBooks and 3 of which are with a co-operative publisher (no advance, but no financial investment from me either). For the remainder I have worked with trade publishers and almost without exception they have driven me doo-lally. I may have sold a lot of books with them, but I sell more with the modern methods. Go with a traditional trade publisher? Never again. Not until they grow up and drag themselves into the 21st century.

Your thoughts? *she ducks while rotten tomatoes are thrown at her*




  1. This year my 3rd book – The Go-To-Expert – will publish, and my 1st book will have its second edition published.

    I agree with many of your points, particularly about exactly how much marketing support you can expect from your publisher.

    I’ve been published by both the FT and Kogan Page. I’ve had a very easy production experience each time around. Although it did take me a few anguished phone calls to get the title of ‘how to make partner and still have a life’ just so… The corporate publishing folk didn’t understand how important the ‘make’ and ‘have a life’ were.

    Interestingly, the FT for the Go-To Expert could have turned around the manuscript within 3-4 months. Which was a record for them.

    What you do get with a good trade publisher is normally a very well produced book. If you go into it with your eyes open, I.e. The marketing is up to you, then you will not be disappointed.

  2. Hi Heather – great to see you here! Interesting what you say about FT doing things fairly quickly … one of my titles – “Powerwriting” – was published by Prentice Hall (also Pearson) and it took forever, but that was 12 years ago.

    It’s also interesting to know how the editorial people didn’t “get” your title. As you’ll have seen from the article above I have been through that one, too… how anyone can copy edit a manuscript without having at least some idea of what the subject matter is all about, I honestly don’t know.

    I once had a copy editor – can’t remember which publisher now – who phoned me to thank me for brightening up her week (with a book about business writing) because she found it so much more interesting and lively than her usual run of boring legal books…

    I hear what you say about the quality of trade publisher’s books. That’s more of a black mark against POD and cheapo digital printers, though, I think, and anyone self-publishing needs to make sure they don’t try to economize on quality of design or paper.


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