Monday, 25 August 2014

Publish or Perish? Part One

By Jeanette O’Hagan
 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Last week after meeting a friend for coffee at a major shopping centre, I had a spare couple of minutes before picking the kids up from school so I wandered into a local bookstore, drifting inevitably to the Young Adult section.

Shining beneath the bright lights of the book store, the kaleidoscope of colourful book covers lined up in neat rows on the tall shelve dazzled and enticed me. Big names and popular titles in bundles faced forward, catching the eye. The lesser stars – with maybe one or two copies – shyly flaunted their spines on lower shelves. I pulled out titles, flipping through the pages, enjoying the satin feel of the paper, the smell of new print. I recognised familiar names and titles and discovered new ones.

And I knew that’s what I wanted. One day, perhaps, my fantasy series will be there, on the shelf, a physical presence to be picked up, flipped through, taken to the counter, bought, savoured and devoured. Not for fame and fortune, but so that my stories to be shared and treasured.

Well, maybe. I have discovered in the last few years is just how difficult it is to be published.  I’m not an expert – just one aspiring author among hundreds of thousands, or is it millions, who has learned a few things along the way but what I have learned I would like to share with you.

First, be clear about what you want and why you write.

Sometimes we write for pleasure or as a means of self-discovery. Publication is far from our thoughts. Or we may be writing for our children or for friends and family. These are all worthy reasons to write. Often, however, we do want a wider audience to read our scribblings because we believe we have something to say or something worthwhile to offer. We have a sense of calling, that this is the direction God is leading us. 

Second, be realistic without being discouraged.

Writing is not a fast track to fame and fortune. Despite the outliers like J. K. Rowling, most writers struggle to make a meagre living even when their writings are published and this is even more true for Christian writers or writers downunder. It often requires many years and at least three and maybe ten books before an author’s name becomes noticed. Nor is it easy to be published in the first place. To be a writer takes time and determination. Remember, in the end it is God who gives success.

Third, there are different ways of getting our words out there.

Publishing a book is not the only way we can share our work with others. We can blog or seek to  have short pieces (like stories, poems, articles, devotions) published in journals, magazines or anthologies or even experiment with micro-fiction and poetry on mobiles. While we may want a world stage, God blesses small things as well as the large.

Fourth, don’t cut corners.

We may be excited about finishing the first draft of our manuscript. We want to get it out there but we should also take time to hone our work. Edit and re-edit. Have critical friends and beta-readers look at our work. Take time to learn what publishers and our target audience are looking for. Keep learning and improving our writing craft.

Fifth, decide which type of publishing model suits your situation.

Not all publishers are the same. Each publishing model has pros and cons.Another thing to ask is whether we want to publish with a secular or Christian publisher or imprint.

Sixth, beware of the traps.

In the excitement of being offered a publishing opportunity – always make sure you read the small print. Understand what you are giving away in terms of rights and what the publisher is offering you in terms of services and royalties. We may just want to get our work to readers but making naive mistakes about contracts (e.g. when rights revert back to the author or which rights are given away etc) can actually prevent that from happening. Sometimes wolves can be dressed in sheepskins!

Different publishing models

Now that you have decided you want your books published, what do you do? Basically, there are three types of publishing models: Traditional publishing; copayment publishing; and indie or self-publishing. I will examine some of the pros and cons with traditional publishing in this post and tackle the other two models in the next post (to be published on Thursday 28th August).

The Traditional Publisher

A traditional publisher makes a contract with the author for use of the rights to his or her manuscript and then, at no cost to the author, produces and markets the book, giving back to the author a percentage of the profits (royalties). They may pay money in advance which is then earned out by incoming royalties.

Traditional publishers may be big multinational companies like the big 5 . The Big Houses have multiple imprints including inspirational and/or Christian imprints in the USA.There are also medium sized publishers and small presses. In Australian and New Zealand Christian publishers are generally small niche presses(like Wombat Books/Riza Press, SplashDown Books, Acorn Press or YouthWorks).

Big Houses offer access to big bookshop chains, Big W, and international markets; smaller presses are often more involved with their authors and are more likely to be actively seeking manuscripts. Many (bigger) traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts and will only accept submission through an agent or Manuscript Services. However, some of these publishers now accept email submissions at specific times (eg Allen and Unwin Friday Pitch or Pan-Macmillan Monday).

Traditional Publishers
No upfront costs & publisher takes the full financial risk of publishing your book.
They regularly receive thousands and thousands of manuscripts. It is hard for your manuscript to be noticed in the slush pile.
The publisher may give you an advance.
Royalties are generally low – 1-15% on the sale price of the book, paid twice a year. For more info.
Publisher arranges editing, cover design, typesetting, printing and distribution.
Your manuscript needs to be original, well edited and well written to be accepted, not just good but exceptional.
Publisher provides some marketing and promotion.
First time and mid-list authors will still be expected to do most of their marketing and promotion.
Publisher usually has access to distribution networks.
Often your manuscript may only be considered if you have a significant ‘platform’ especially with non-fiction (i.e. reputation and connections with significant groups of people – such as web and social media presence; contact with target groups and/or speaking circuit etc)
Publisher has experience and expertise in the industry and knowledge of the market.
While you have some degree of creative control, this is limited. Some things like pricing will be out of your control.
They may offer you a contract on a second book or series.
They may decide not to publish your books for various reasons but will still own the rights (depending on your contract).

Traditional publishing may suit you if you have an outstanding manuscript; have a sizable platform or clearly defined target market; and/or would like to benefit from an established or trusted publisher’s expertise and experience in book design, marketing and distribution.

You need to be aware that it may take a long time to be noticed (if at all). Only a small proportion of authors seeking to be published traditionally are eventually successful. If you are successful, you will still be expected to promote and market your book. Always check the proposed contract for gotchas. Don’t sign a blank cheque. 

Traditional publishing is probably not for you if your book is for a small niche market, or doesn't fit into a clear category (i.e. cross-over fiction or it bucks the trends).

Traditional publishing is not the only option. In Part Two I will examine the viability of alternatives like subsidy and self or indie publishing models.

Image ‘Hope Definition’ above courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Jeanette has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She is currently caring for her  children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad fantasy fiction series.  She is actively involved in a caring Christian community. 

You can find her on her Facebook page or websites Jeanette O'Hagan Writes & .


  1. Wow, what a comprehensive post. Thanks for that Jenny. I'm aiming for traditional publishing at the moment, but it's good to be aware of just how difficult that process is. I really like your point about not cutting corners. It can seem like a long wait, but if you send material out before it's ready, it will most likely be rejected and you've "done your dash" with that publisher or agent. Good on you for your persistence. I'm looking forward to Part 2.

    1. Thanks Nola. That's a good point about sending material out before it's ready. It can seem long a long wait but praying that with persistence and perseverance God will eventually open the doors and find a home for our work All the best with your novel. :)

  2. Hi Jenny,
    This is a great post that everyone should take on board. To add to the picture painted by your description of the book shop shelves, we were once told by staff that most of them have a shelf life of only six months, as it's such a busy industry with more titles appearing all the time. I was amazed to think that even once our books have reached the goal of getting to this prime spot, their time there is often limited. We definitely need lots of persistence to keep going.
    I like your reminder that there are different ways of getting our books out there. I've been enjoying blogging and writing book reviews just as much as writing fiction these days, and reminding myself that if it's encouraging and informative, it's all one and the same.

  3. Thanks Paula.

    Great point about the shelf-life of books. Bookshops have only so much room on their shelves and need to find room for new titles. I guess it's a bit like the cinemas, most movies are screened for a few weeks, blockbusters may be screened for longer while small niche films may only get one or two screenings - depending in part on demand.

    And on another note, I have enjoyed reading your blogs Paula - always thought provoking like your books - but I do look forward to another Paula Vince novel if and when there is one in the making (no pressure lol). It's true though isn't that God uses a variety of media and forms to touch people's lives. After all, your namesake Paul - never wrote a book, just a bunch of letters to churches and co-workers and look at the impact those letters have had!

    Wishing you the best with all your writing endeavours.

  4. Great post Jenny. And very informative too. I liked the way you laid out all the pros and cons of traditional publishing. I confess that despite many rejections I am still hoping that I will eventually be noticed by a traditional publisher.

    I also liked the way you shared all the important things to consider in our writing - why we write for one. I think that's so important myself.

    Well done for a very readable and informative blog! May you find your trilogy on a bookshop shelf one day in the near future! I wish you every success.

    1. Thanks Anusha :) I'm hoping too so appreciate your good wishes. Wishing you success in publishing as well. God bless.

  5. The more that's out there on the pros and cons the more it helps writers starting out. Thanks Jeanette, discouragement can really put up a road block when aspiring writers believe that publishers are eagerly waiting to read their work. We all just have to keep on keeping on. After all, that's what the Christian life is all about, isn't it?

    I'm curious, which publishing model are you hoping to go with?

    1. Hi Rita, You are right, it can be very discouraging. And agreed, perseverance is vital to both the writing and the Christian life :)

      As for myself, I'm hoping to go the traditional route but am also considering self-publishing if that doesn't happen within a certain time frame. Often the advise I hear is skewed by the source - traditional publishers sometimes pour scorn on indie-publishing and Indie publishers are just as dismissive of the traditional route. I think there are benefits and drawbacks on both sides of the equation.

  6. Great post Jenny. Lots of useful information. I was published by a traditional publisher being offered a contract for three books - the first two published 2005 and 2009. (1 more to go) My contract states that they have first right of refusal for my first three manuscripts. Ken and I got a lawyer to look at the contract and explain anything that we didn't understand. I know it can be a bit expensive to go this route but it is worth it in the long run if you can manage it. There is so much to take in on these contacts and it's quite daunting for a first time author. Looking forward to your next installment.

    1. Thanks Lesley. Well done on your three book contract - I enjoyed reading more about that journey on Iola's blog.

      I think you absolutely right - we need to read the contract very carefully and, ideally, get someone with legal expertise in this area to look it over. This is where an agent can help and/or writing organisations like the State Writing groups (Queensland Writers Centre) and ASA (Australian Society of Authors). One of the things that can trip people up is the reversion rights - at what point and under what conditions the rights revert to the author. I have heard horror stories of authors whose books are virtually out of print or was never published but they can't do anything with it because they signed over rights that don't revert back in these situations. Another author published 2 books with one publisher and then went with another publisher when the first wasn't going to publish the third book. The third book did well but she can't access the first 2 books even though they are virtually out of print because of ongoing e-book sales. She would love to publish them in a boxed set but can't do this either.

      I think Jesus' words apply 'Be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.' Mt 10:16

  7. Hi Jeannette,
    I love this post and think that it will benefit many people who are writers but don’t know the publishing industry. It is a great overview.
    I loved how you talked about the different motives for writing and for wanting to find a publisher. Writing is one thing that (as you say) can be shared in a variety of ways now. I’m so glad you mentioned this. Not everything we do or aim for should be to be published, but there are times when we feel strongly we have something to say. (This is what happened to me and it took me 5 years to find a traditional publisher) There is so much info in the blog. Well done. Looking forward to your next one.

    1. Thanks Brian. Yes, I think knowing why we want to publish and realising that there are different ways to get our writing out there helps us think through the issues. Good on you for getting the traditional publisher for your work. Wishing you success in this.

  8. Good job, Jenny! :-) Yes, it's a hard road when you're trying to get published. Don't give up!