How the Publishing Process Works in the United States: A Writer’s Perspective

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici


Two of the most major transformations in the U.S. publishing industry over the past few decades have been a) the rising importance of literary agents since the 1980’s and b) the rise of e-books in the early 2000’s. While in Romania and France unagented submissions remain the norm, it’s almost impossible to publish a book with the large publishing houses in the U.S.– particularly fiction–without representation by a very reputable literary agent.  Agents sift through the enormous number of submissions and recommend to the editors of the major publishers the books they believe will sell well. I found this out not from a book about the publishing industry, but directly from one of my favorite American writers, John Updike.

Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici

In 2003, when I had finished a few chapters of my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (published by Editura Curtea Veche in Romanian translation under the title Intre Doua Lumi), I wrote a hand-written note to John Updike. I told him about my background and the subject of my novel—namely, life under the Ceausescu regime in communist Romania and immigrating to the U.S.—and asked him, if he liked the chapters he read, to recommend me to his literary agent. It was a longshot, but worth a try. To my pleasant surprise, he responded–also in a hand-written note–offering very positive input about the sample chapters I had sent him but telling me that he never had a literary agent. He worked directly with the publishing house. This was common practice during the 1960’s, when John Updike began publishing. By 2003, however, unmediated contact between writers and editors was practically unheard of in the U.S., where the major publishing houses had long instituted a policy of not accepting unagented submissions.  So how does a writer go about finding a literary agent?

Intre Doua Lumi de Claudia Moscovici

You can do it the hard way, which, quite frankly, has relatively small chances of success: buy the latest edition of The Writer’s Market, which lists the contact information for literary agents in the U.S. There you have to figure out who are the most successful agents as well as sift out agents who charge to read your manuscript (this practice has become increasingly unpopular) from those who don’t. Then you send them a query—by regular mail or, more rarely, by email—introducing yourself and your credentials; describing your book; explaining why you think it would sell well and including a few sample chapters. I later found out from agents themselves why this impersonal process is not likely to yield positive results for most authors. When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I organized a few panel discussions at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). In 2007, Amy Williams, who is Elizabeth Kostova’s literary agent, and Susan Golomb, Jonathan Franzen’s agent were two of the guest speakers in these panels. They discussed, among other things, the publishing process, explaining that they receive as many as 100 to 200 submissions a day from authors seeking representation. This deluge of queries is colloquially called “the slush pile”. Like most very successful agents, they usually sift through the queries and focus mostly on submissions by successful authors they know of or authors recommended by successful authors they know. Only rarely do they find in the slush pile unknown and unrecommended authors they wish to represent, and even in those cases, they are usually students at very reputable M.F.A. programs or have published with important magazines or literary reviews. So if you don’t want to go through the time-consuming process of finding an agent or don’t make it past their slush pile, what do you do next? As mentioned, writing directly to the editors of the major publishing houses is no longer an option nowadays. So logically, you would try avenues that don’t require agent representation: medium-sized or small independent publishing houses.  This avenue, however, has also become increasingly narrow over the past ten years.

During the 1990’s many of the small and independent publishing houses have folded or were bought by the major publishers. There are some noteworthy exceptions: my own publishing house, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, which is, as they advertise, the “largest independent publishing house in North America” has continued to expand by buying smaller publishers and has begun to publish fiction works by successful authors who have already published scholarship with them (as was my situation). There are also several small publishers that publish between 2 and 10 books a year; academic publishers that publish mostly scholarship (and are often non-profit or low-profit, partly sponsored by universities) and increasingly few medium-sized publishing houses like MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco.  I’m including below a list of some of the medium-sized and small independent publishing houses in the U.S.:

If you succeed in publishing your book with one of these independent publishers, you may be more fortunate than you think. Although smaller publishing houses have correspondingly smaller publicity budgets than the big publishers, please keep in mind (as the agents on the panels I organized discussed), that the big publishers don’t divide their annual publicity and promotion budget evenly among the hundreds of books they publish each year. Celebrities that publish with them—such as Paris Hilton or former president George Bush publishing their autobiographies—have their own publicity agents who help a lot with the promotion of their books. In addition, because of their name recognition, the media helps spread the word and the popularity of their books.  So basically the major publishers invest most of their annual publicity budget on the new books they believe will sell best. Those are usually represented by the most reputable literary agents and sell at auction. An auction is when several of the big publishing houses bid for the same book. To offer an example from one of the book fair panels I organized, in 2005 Little Brown & Company won the bid for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, an exquisite work of literary fiction about the legend of Vlad Tepes/Dracula. They invested about 2 million dollars, or a large chunk of their annual publicity budget, into promoting that novel.  This bid paid off because the novel was very successful internationally as well as because it sold movie rights to Sony Pictures in 2007. As we’ve seen through the enormous success of the Harry Potter and Twilight Series, novels that become blockbuster movies grow exponentially in popularity.

But by far most writers publishing with the big publishing houses don’t fall into the category of “celebrities” whose books practically sell themselves or hit the jackpot with getting most of the publicity budget of that publisher for that year. In those (majority) cases, even if they manage to catch the interest of one of the best literary agents and to publish with a major publisher, they still have to work very hard to promote their books.

Ebooks and Self-Publishing

Given that the odds are heavily stacked against new authors, it’s not surprising that many of them choose to self-publish e-books, via, for instance, the very popular Amazon Kindle program.  Unlike publishing with vanity presses that charge a lot of money to print books, this option is easy and inexpensive. But there’s a large downside to it as well: there are so many books out there, particularly now that anyone can self-publish their work on Kindle and other venues, that the sea of information has become so vast that each author who lacks a large promotion budget and media connections is nothing more than a drop in the ocean of books and deluge of information. To rise to the surface requires a lot of ingenuity, luck and networking.

Like many authors, I’ve been asked the question of where do I believe the publishing industry is heading next. I think that self-publishing will grow and that the future is already here with e-books. E-books have the advantage of cutting out most of the distribution cost. This is a huge advantage for both authors and publishers, since the cost of shipping books all over the world is very high. This is why authors generally receive only between 5 and 10 percent royalties from the (hardcopy) books they publish. The percentage of royalties depends in part on the number of copies sold (the more it sells, the bigger the royalties for the author) and in part on what kind of contract a given author or agent is able to negotiate with the publisher. Still, for most authors, 5 to 10 percent profits is not enough to make a living just by writing books. Since e-books don’t have the same distribution costs, authors can negotiate more advantageous contracts. E-books are also very convenient for readers, since it’s so much easier to carry around with you a Kindle or Nook than twenty or thirty books.  It’s true that many people still prefer to leaf through an actual book. But I believe this preference is largely a matter of habit; of what they grew up doing. In the next few years, my daughter’s school system is planning to replace hardcopy textbooks with e-books. This transition will soon happen in schools throughout the country, such that the kids starting primary school will probably not even hold books in their hands. Those growing up strictly on e-books in school, with little standard of comparison, are not likely to prefer actual books as adults.

Foreseeing such major transitions, the major publishing houses are trying to adapt best to the new media and new demands of readers. I’m including below a relevant article on this topic by Christine Kearney (Reuters) about Book Expo America:

The one major current downside of e-books is that they’re still, for the most part, tied to the companies that produce the e-readers—such as Amazon for Kindle—which are not universally adaptable to other reading programs. If they were, then the risk of losing profits would be much higher: it would mean that anyone could forward a book by email, so nobody would need to pay for it.

Hypotheses about the future of publishing:

a) Print books versus e-books

So what predictions do I make about the future of publishing in the U.S.? I think that for the generations of readers that were brought up on print books, they will continue to cherish reading an actual book as well as adapt to the convenience of e-books. The new generations, brought up just on e-books in schools, will choose them over hardcopy books in the same way that kids brought up on computers don’t use typewriters.  The publishers that can see into this near future and dominate the e-book market will be the ones that will rise in power and influence in the publishing industry.

b) Promoting and marketing your book(s)

The era of the timid or reclusive author, shying away from or outright rejecting the media and contact with readers, is long gone. Whether you publish with a big publishing house, a smaller independent publisher or on your own, you have to be willing to share your work with others through every venue and opportunity you can. Aside from networking, promoting through the new media—such as book trailers, music videos and films—will grow in importance. We are becoming, internationally, visual cultures predicated upon instant gratification. Videos make a direct and immediate impact on viewers, tempting them to find out more about your book. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with very talented Romanian photographers, actors, musicians and music producers on the book trailers for my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua LumiAndy Platon, Anthony Icuagu, Marcel Lovin, Ioana Picos, Mihai Marin, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, Elena Rotaru, Elena Xing, Andrei Dombrovski–to which I’m extremely grateful and with whom I hope to collaborate again for future book launches.

Film in particular is a mixture of all the arts and a feast for the senses. Authors who succeed in working with movie directors and having their novels made into films will increase the chances of success for their books.

c) Literary agents

As mentioned, the influence of literary agents in the U.S. and Great Britain has risen to enormous proportions during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but it is now waning for two main reasons. First of all, as I explained earlier, there’s a bottleneck of “slush pile” submissions. This means that the most reputable literary agents are no longer accessible to most authors. Secondly, self-publishing has improved—in both reputation and the possibilities for success it offers–giving authors the chance to succeed on their own. The number who succeed in becoming best sellers in any venue or through any process is very small. This will not change, no matter what changes the publishing industry undergoes. Huge mainstream success is hard to attain and depends upon so many factors outside the author’s and publisher’s control. But keep in mind that success is a journey not a destination and enjoy every step of the process of writing, publishing and promotion, each of which presents so many challenges and rewards.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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