Susan Mary Malone

3 Lessons From the Traditional-Publishing Model
(And how those can help you)

by Susan Mary Malone, Columnist

August 2014

“. . . we can learn a good deal from what Traditional publishing has gotten right. . . “

More and more writers intend to self-publish, although many still shoot for the traditional-publishing goal. But whichever the focus, we can learn a good deal from what Traditional publishing has gotten right, and where it has failed. A lot of the latter is, of course, why the big publishers now find themselves drowning in a roiling sea. But what, exactly, can you take away from that model?

First off, the bad news. We all know Traditional publishing is in the toilet. Imprints are shrinking, houses are merging. Which translates into editorial staff being laid off and agents shutting their doors. A couple of huge reasons exist for this. One, of course being that the big houses got way behind the e-book curve. Now, as they scramble to catch up, they’re also having to actually put up storefronts. Horrors! Harper Collins just two weeks ago opened an online storefront. They must now sell directly to customers, rather than just through the established distribution channels (we won’t get into the Amazon wars here). As brick-and-mortar bookstores fold right and left, outlets have shriveled up.

The second thing that has bitten them has gotten us all—the explosion of books these days. Two years ago, one million e-books were published. That number last year was three million. And this year the projection is 15 million books. Fifteen million! Couple that with declining readership in general, and a perfect storm brewed up publishing’s insanity. Adult nonfiction-book sales peaked in 2007, according to BookScan. And even the explosion of e-books couldn’t make up for the decline in print sales. 2011 saw a 5.8 % decline in combined sales. And that’s continuing.

So, what can we learn from what the Traditional folks did right?

“Writing well really is Rocket Science. This all takes a while to learn.

1. Focus on the Product—the actual book—first.

This seems like a no-brainer, right? But I’m contacted weekly by writers who say, “I just wrote my first novel. I have the cover designed, the PR person in place, and I have to deliver it next month. I need it edited.” Yikes! Writing well really is Rocket Science. This all takes a while to learn. Writers have railed against the Traditional model forever for being so slow, and the Gatekeepers often seemed to allow passage via arbitrary rules. But having to work in this system forced writers to learn their craft. To write, read, study, revise, write. It brings up the old story of Hemingway, who left his first three manuscripts on the train—forever lost. Of course, he was devastated. But said later it was the best thing that ever happened to him—he learned to write on those first three.

“. . . the audiences for the genres are out there. Re-create the wheel at your own peril!”

2. Know the Specs of your Genre (which translates to your Audience).

Again, seems like a no-brainer, and anyone reading this is serious about writing, and already does this, right? But again, folks contact me all the time, saying, “I don’t want to obey publishers’ rules. That’s why I’m self-publishing.”

Here’s the deal: The Traditional folks are terrible at spotting trends, what’s going to sell, etc. But, they are fabulous in hindsight! The reason the different imprints exist, the categories and sub-categories, is because publishers discerned why readers bought the books they did. In other words, there’s a reason that Cozy Mysteries are 70K words, and have no graphic sex or violence—that’s what those readers want and expect. Conversely, if you’re writing Urban Lit, you danged sure better have the latter. Again, because that’s what those readers want and expect.

The point being, the audiences for the genres are out there. Re-create the wheel at your own peril! Writing for the different genres is not that difficult, and actually doesn’t hamper creativity—it enhances it by giving structure to the process. And that way, you can target an established audience for you book, which shoots you over the sales curve.

“Take that time to build your author platform. ”

3. Timing.

New writers are often horrified to learn that even if they sign a Traditional contract, the lead-time is on average 18 months. Another reason folks want to self-publish—they don’t want to wait that long.

But a two-fold reason exists for this lead-time. The first being of course positioning a book on a publisher’s list. But the second (and more to the point for our purposes) is that the timing allowed for the marketing to get put into place—jacket blurbs, an author’s website, reviews (done via ARCs—the important reviewers still require them), bookclub placement, and now sites such as Goodreads with giveaways, etc., all need to be set up well in advance of the book actually coming out. These days blogging is king. And one needs to be doing so seriously and consistently at least 6 months prior to publication, and really, a year beforehand as that takes a while to build. Take that time to build your author platform.

So, yep, the Traditional model is treading water these days, barely keeping its head above turbulent seas. But you can still learn from what they’ve done, and not drown with them! Take advantage of that knowledge.

Until next time, Happy Writing!

Susan Mary Malone

Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, I Just Came Here to Dance and By the Book, and four co-authored nonfiction books, including What’s Wrong with My Family? With many published short stories to her credit, Malone also contributed to the anthology Wild Women, which includes Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, among others. A freelance book editor, nearly fifty Malone-edited books have now sold to Traditional publishers.