The Biggest Surprises About the Traditional Publishing Process

So you've written a novel; now what? In this series, debut author-to-be Crystal King describes the traditional publication process from start to finish: the lead-up, what to expect along the way, and how building her social media platform has made a difference. In this installment of "On the Path to Publication" Crystal talks about the most surprising things she's discovered about the publishing process.

As a writer that is connected with the GrubStreet community, I've had the great fortune to know a lot of published authors. It's given me a bit of a leg-up when it comes to knowing what to expect about the whole process of becoming published myself. I'm extremely glad for that connection as I know it's made things a little bit less mysterious. Still, it's a weird, winding path that often makes little sense, especially to those who haven't gone through it themselves. Trying to explain the weirdness to my family and friends is both amusing and exasperating. 

Here are some of the things that have surprised, informed, shocked or awed me (or other debut authors I know) along the way. Note that I'm mostly talking about publishing with a traditional house...things may be very different for indie or self-published author.

  • The publishing process is REALLY long, especially if you sign the contract toward the end of the year, too late for the next year's schedule. From the time I agreed to the deal, to publication, it will be 18 months. 

  • You only get paid twice a year. For my publisher that's in February and October. But in order for me to be paid in October of this year I would need to have published my book before the end of March. With an April 25th date, it means that I won't get my first royalty check (IF I earn out my advance) until February 2018.

  • Subsidiary rights come with their own advances which can go toward paying down the main advance with the publisher. For example, let's say an author receives a $10,000 U.S. advance. A Polish deal may come in later with a $3,000 advance (and yes, these piddly numbers are common for debut authors). That $3,000 advance is usually split between author and publisher. Let's say in that deal the author receives 75% royalties on books published in that country (usually international royalties for authors are much higher than domestic). That's $2250 for the author and $750 for the publisher. Except that if the author hasn't paid off the advance, then $2250 goes right back to the publisher toward the advance. Now the author would only have to earn $7750 in book sales to start earning royalties. This process was totally unexpected for me, and my audiobook, Spanish and Czech rights mean that I am much closer to being able to earn royalties than before. 

  • Movie and television options SOUND cool but the majority of options never really pan out. It's essentially a producer renting your book for the OPTION to make it into a script at a later date. And even then if they script it, it may not get filmed. So be careful about getting your hopes up. More on this from Jane Friedman

  • A lot of bestsellers don't sell very well. What constitutes a "bestseller" is almost a subjective sort of thing. 

  • I also read somewhere (but can't find that now, of course) that it takes, on average, five novels before an author can quit their day job to write full time. Sigh. All the above is why. You need volume, a following and a bit of luck. And elbow grease.

  • The actual way that everything unfolds is different for every publisher and every author. I did get a general schedule for the edits that was expected of me, but I've heard that some authors don't get something so granular up front (but you should ask for it) which may leave you in the dark on what's happening in the long spaces between editing or waiting for the book to come out.

  • Marketing and publicity aren't the same department (one cares about book reviews/book events, the other about advertising, giveaways, etc.). Budgets are not necessarily revealed to you. And publishers are mostly only going to help you market your book in the six weeks prior to the book launch and a few weeks after. I learned the hard way that my marketing expertise and enthusiasm for crazy ways to get awareness for the book are not something that my publisher was going to be as excited about. At first that was disheartening and frustrating, but when you look at how many books the small publicity teams have to market over the course of the year, they just don't have the bandwidth. It's why many authors elect to hire an outside publicist (which I decided to do) to help boost efforts. You can expect to start talking about your ideas when they assign you a publicist, usually about 90-100 days out from the book being launched. Some of my debut colleagues didn't get word about their publicist until a month before. Even then, try to keep in mind that your book is one of many that they are publishing. 

  • Book tours just aren't much of a "thing" anymore. With the digital age that we are in, going to a bookstore to hear an author is a little passe. We buy our books differently and we can browse them differently. Nowadays, bookstores expect you to bring a built-in audience with you (at least 30 people), which is sometimes hard for a debut author, especially in far-flung places. Additionally, publishers don't pay to send you places like they used to. Unless you are crazy famous and they've arranged for your tour, they expect you to pay your own way to wherever you want to do readings. My publisher is only helping me set up a few readings. I'm ok to do more on my own but they don't see readings as much of a viable place to spend what little time they have to promote the book. 

  • I've mentioned this before, but WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOUR BOOK LAUNCH by M.J. Rose and fellow Grubbie, Randy Susan Meyers, is a good, quick look at a few things that authors should be thinking about before their book launches. It's the manual that they wished they had when they started, and that I was glad that they wrote as I'm making my way toward that countdown date.

  • No One Cares As Much About Your Book As You Do. Over and over I have read this, been told this, and have come to try and accept this. Having this understanding early on will make a big difference in the emotional rollercoaster that publishing a book can be. 

Hopefully, these tips will be useful for you as you try and navigate the waters of the world of publishing. It's a hard road, and often a confusing one with many forks and decisions. It's also part of the reason why you should make sure that you are in the book business not because of the money, but because of the love of what you are doing. When the money is tight, or the publishing rocky, then you can shift your focus back to what really matters--the story you have to tell. 

Photo credit: “surprise” by Tobias Scheck is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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About the Author

Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website:

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