The Biggest Misconceptions About the Publishing Industry

by Savannah Cordova
published in Community

Whether you’re an author, a publishing pro, or just someone who hangs out on Twitter, you’ve probably heard — and likely internalized — certain stereotypes and misconceptions about the publishing industry. Some are easily disproved blanket statements, like “you can only succeed as a traditionally published author” and “no one actually reads self-published books.” Others are even more patently false: “a really great book doesn’t need editing,” “it’s only a matter of time before my book gets optioned for a movie,” and so on.

But a few publishing myths are more insidious, and even as someone who works in self-publishing, I’ve rarely seen them challenged. These are the misconceptions I’d like to address today — and which I hope you’ll recognize as false the next time you see them pop up! 

Misconception #1: A dozen query rejections is a lot 

One of the best-known anecdotes in publishing is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected by twelve publishers before finding a home at Bloomsbury. This bit of trivia has often been touted as encouragement for new authors, giving the impression that a dozen rejections is an unusually high amount, requiring a Herculean level of perseverance.

I do appreciate the “Never give up!” moral of the story, and I won’t deny how awful it feels to get rejected even once. But as any author who’s written their share of query letters will know, twelve rejections is not a lot. Maybe it was back in 1995, but in 2021 — with agents and publishers so much more accessible online, and receiving constant queries and submissions as a result — modern authors need to adjust their expectations.

It would also benefit most authors, both professionally and psychologically, to realize that generic form rejections and even delayed rejections (those that take weeks or months to arrive) are not personal. Top agents get hundreds of queries per week; they simply can’t respond to every author, and even form rejections may not arrive in a timely manner. I know it’s tough to let go of rejection, especially when an agent seems so cavalier about it — but try to take each one in stride and use this as an opportunity to fix whatever might be turning them off.

Though I can’t say what is a “normal” amount of rejections to receive, I will say it’s more than a dozen. If you’ve written a book in a competitive niche and you’re sending out tons of queries, it could be more than fifty. In that sense, the spirit of the famous anecdote stands: don’t give up! But also don’t expect to hit the jackpot on query #13.

Misconception #2: Your advance sets your career in stone

Some might recall this article by Heather Demetrios that circulated back in 2019, all about the author’s rollercoaster experience with trad pub: how she received high advances for her first few books, only for later advances to drop dramatically when the first books didn’t perform. It ignited major controversy in the publishing community, with some agreeing that Demetrios was taken for a ride by her publisher, while others argued she’d squandered the chance of a lifetime.

But if one indisputable truth emerged from all this, it’s that a big advance from a publisher — even multiple advances — doesn’t mean you’ve “made it” as an author. If your book doesn’t earn out (i.e. generate profits equal to your advance), you won’t receive royalties, your further advances will be lower, and you could even be dropped by your agent or publisher.

Despite all this, there remains a disproportionate industry focus on the importance of trad pub advances. Not that this focus is always bad; sometimes advances are a useful metric, as in 2020’s #publishingpaidme campaign. This movement sparked a much-needed conversation about racial disparities in publishing, and to be sure — whatever you think about what advances should signal — no one can deny that Black authors should be receiving much higher advances for their books.

Still, one can see how new authors might deduce that high advances are the ultimate barometer of publishing success… which, as we know from Demetrios’ story, is not the case. And authors like Roxane Gay and N.K. Jemisin, both of whom participated in #publishingpaidme, arguably prove the opposite: you can receive a paltry advance and still become a celebrated bestseller (though again, in an ideal world, the first part would not happen).

So if you’re an aspiring author, just keep in mind that your advance does not determine your career trajectory — and if you do manage to land a book deal, don’t let that initial lump sum distract you from the nuts and bolts of the deal itself. Instead, focus on tightening up other important aspects of your contract, such as release date, distribution channels, and setting a baseline rate for every book you want to sell.

Misconception #3: Publishers go all-out to promote their books

Another key point from the Demetrios article was that, despite the promise seemingly implied by a contract, a publisher’s interest in your work does not mean they’re going to promote it. This is a huge part of why most trad pub authors don’t earn out their advances — and debut authors are at a particular disadvantage, as they often have no idea what’s coming.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done on the publisher side. You can ask for more marketing support and opportunities (requesting that your publisher pay for ARCs, send you on tour, etc.), but most publishers don’t have the resources to promote every book they acquire. They do it for the biggest titles, sure, but otherwise rely mostly on word of mouth and their authors’ pre-existing platforms to move copies.

The silver lining is that you can start building your own platform at any time, before your book is even acquired. In fact, having a solid platform can significantly improve your chances of landing an agent and publisher in the first place! This is especially true for nonfiction authors whose subjects require a show of experience or expertise; if you already run a flourishing lifestyle Instagram, for example, you’ll have a much easier time pitching your lifestyle book.

An independent platform will come in even handier if you decide to self-publish rather than traditionally publish — and with all the wild unpredictability of trad pub, the control afforded by self-pub might be looking better by the minute. But before you decide to self-publish your book, take heed of this next point… 

Misconception #4: Self-publishing is cheap

Though there are many benefits to self-publishing, low cost is not one of them, at least not when done right. Yes, it’s possible to self-publish for almost nothing, but that book is bound to have a cobbled-together cover, strange formatting, and typos throughout. And sadly, no matter how amazing your book is at its essence, these kinds of issues will stop readers in their tracks.

The lesson here: if you want readers to invest in your book, you need to invest in it first. For reference, the average self-publishing author on the Reedsy marketplace spends between $2,000-$4,000 for a full slate of book-related services — this includes multiple rounds of editing, formatting, cover design, and possibly professional marketing as well.

However, you don’t have the budget for all of this, I recommend prioritizing cover design. It’s the first thing readers will see of your book, and one of the clearest indicators as to whether it’s a) a professional product and b) a good match for them specifically. Getting a professional cover design still isn’t cheap, of course — but if you keep your cover relatively simple and weigh plenty of options in terms of designers, you can get a bestseller-worthy cover for $300-$500.

(PS. Check out that post on the cost of self-publishing for more tips to save money, and Helen J. Darling’s post on indie author budgeting for a breakdown of key terms and best practices!)

Misconception #5: Every author should try trad pub first

“Traditional publishing > self-publishing” is one of those blanket statements that I think most people in the industry would recognize as false — but that doesn’t stop a lot of authors from categorically thinking they should try trad pub first. After all, self-pub will always be an option. Why not shop your manuscript around before you commit to publishing it yourself?

This approach makes sense if you’ve done your research and are well-informed and confident on the subject. But many authors out there have no idea what trad pub really entails, only envisioning that six-figure advance and glittering book tour — which, as we’ve covered, are far from guaranteed. For some of these authors, self-publishing will turn out to be the better path… but they’ll forge ahead with trad pub anyway, investing months or even years of their lives, only to find it wasn’t right for them after all.

Admittedly, without knowing you, I also can’t tell you which publishing route you should take. It depends on countless factors, from your feelings on creative control to royalties to mainstream recognition to literary awards. But I can implore you to do your own research and educate yourself further before you decide.

Look into your options, never assume, and when you hear something that doesn’t sound right — like one of these misconceptions, for example — don’t be afraid to question it.

Savannah Cordova is a writer and content creator at Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and low fantasy, as well as writing the occasional short story. She’s here to pull back the curtain on publishing so that every author can have the greatest possible chance at success.

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