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Traditional Publishers vs Hybrid & Vanity Publishers



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Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Novel


I was 40 years old before I became an overnight success,
and I’d been publishing for 20 years.

Mary Karr
The Liars’ Club

When my first novel was accepted by HarperCollins — the HarperCollins, formerly Harper & Row, publisher of so many authors whom I adored — I thought that all my days of rejection were over. When my book began to be sold to foreign publishers via Harper’s Foreign Rights division, earning out the HarperCollins Advance within 6 months of acceptance, i.e., earning out its Advance before the book was published, I thought I was on the road to full-time writing. When the pre-publication and publication reviews for the first novel started pouring in — all good, and some absolutely stellar — I thought that all my years of hard work and ceaseless rejection had finally earned me a somewhat easier writing life.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The subsequent rejections started almost immediately.

With my editor.

Despite all her claims of loving my work, of wanting to be my editor for the remainder of my writing career, of wanting to publish all my books, etc etc etc, my editor did an abrupt about-face when I submitted my second novel to her.

Though my first novel was on the Holocaust, my editor found the second, on serial killers, “too violent.” She rejected it based on the violence.

If you know my work, you know I don’t do graphic violence. I was briefly hurt, and I wondered where all the “love” for my work had gone, but resolved, on my agent’s advice, not to take the rejection personally.

Despite the fact that my agent loved the second book and didn’t understand the editor’s rejection, we couldn’t take the book anywhere else because Harper had an “Option” on my next book, meaning that they had the right of first refusal. Further, if they rejected the book and another publisher accepted it, Harper had the right to match the other publisher’s offer on the book.

I’d thought the Option clause was a guarantee of future publication by Harper, but it was really just the publisher’s hedge against the ever-unknown-and-unknowable market. If the book did well financially, the publisher would have its own guarantee of publishing my next book. If the book didn’t do well in sales, the publisher could simply reject it and be legally free of any future obligation to me and my work.

Oh, the things you don’t know when you’re new to traditional publishing.

Because my agent loved my second book (though not the title), I assumed that she would simply sell it to another publisher. Granted, it might become my third book published instead of my second, but that didn’t bother me. I was already working on my third novel, so it didn’t matter to me which order the books were published in. I asked my agent where she would be sending the second novel.

“Nowhere,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Harper has the Option.”

Publishers don’t usually want books under an option clause with someone else, she informed me, because no matter how much the new editor wants the book, if he makes an offer, it’s likely to be “taken back” by the publisher that has the option. Though the first editor didn’t like the manuscript originally, most have a tendency to change their minds the moment another publisher makes an offer.

The Option clause in practice seems to work something like this: Editor 1, who is at the first Publishing House and who bought the rights to publish your previous novel, doesn’t think the next book you’re offering will sell, so Editor 1 rejects the manuscript. Editor 2, from the second House,  thinks the book will sell, and he makes an offer on your new book. Editor 1 now thinks that Editor 2 sees something she missed. Editor 1 then “re-evaluates” the book by simply buying it — for whatever price Editor 2 offered — hoping that Editor 2 was right about the book’s potential market.

Does that mean the book ends up with an editor who doesn’t really like the book?
That’s exactly what it means.
So why does the editor who originally rejected the book then accept it?

As in, the money the editor believes the book might earn despite the fact that she didn’t like it enough to buy it originally but which the second editor did think the book might earn.

What a convoluted process, and what a headache for the author.

My agent didn’t want to “shop the second novel around” because of the Option clause, but she had yet another reason not to shop the second book around: my first novel hadn’t even been published yet, so we had no sales figures. Further, no reviews had come in, not even pre-publication reviews.

That’s how early we were in the publishing process when this rigmarole was happening. The first novel had just been sent to the printer (about 3 months after acceptance, since the printing took about 6 months in those days) and no galley copies were available to send out to reviewers, who usually want the books about 6 months before the book’s publication date. We had no reviews or sales figures. My agent suggested we wait and see how the first book did before we shopped the second novel around. She suggested that I continue work on my third novel, which I did, erroneously assuming that the second novel would soon find a home.

Meanwhile, HarperCollins still had the Option clause on my “next” novel.
I was floored.
Hadn’t they just rejected my second novel?
Why was the Option clause still in effect?

“Because we don’t want to hurt the editor’s feelings,” said my agent. “If she doesn’t get a chance to publish the next novel you write that she’s madly in love with, she’ll be hurt, then angry. We don’t want an angry editor.”

I wasn’t happy about putting my second novel in Limbo, but what could I do? In traditional publishing, authors are not the ones with any power. Only bestselling authors have any power, and they only have it as long as they remain bestsellers.

It’s the traditional publishers who have all the money for Advances, so their editors have all the power. The agents earn their livelihood by pleasing the editors and bringing them books that they want to publish. No one in the traditional publishing system is going to buck the system.

Especially not 25 years ago where there were no other viable options for writers who wanted to become authors.

I returned to work on my third novel, assuming that, since it was not about serial killers, my editor would once again “love my work.”

She didn’t.
She liked the book.
Or, rather, she liked the idea of the book.
She thought the book itself needed some work.

“What kind of work?” I said, since she was talking directly to me about it, rather than through my agent.

“I found Claudia’s childhood scenes somewhat unnecessary,” said the editor. “Can you cut all of them out?”

I didn’t think Claudia’s childhood scenes were unnecessary, which is industry jargon for “boring.” I thought the childhood scenes were an important part of her character, her interaction with her husband, etc. I talked to my agent, who agreed with me about those scenes, but suggested I delete them anyway, to make the editor happy.

“After all,” said my agent, “she likes the book, which is more than we can say about the other novel.”

I agreed to the revisions without a contract.

What did I know?

Though I’d been published in prestigious literary journals and University magazines, I’d never had a book published. And lest you think that there were a great many options in those days, let me make it clear that there were no other options for writers to become authors 25 years ago.

There weren’t even any viable options as recently as 10 years ago. My last traditional publishing contract was issued in 2007, for my collection of short stories, which won the Grand Prize in an international writing contest, and that contract had no “electronic book” clause because ebooks hadn’t been invented yet, and without ebooks and portable e-readers, there was no way to self-publish and get your books in front of an audience. Period.

So, I spent another year revising my third novel, taking out all the childhood scenes involving the protagonist. My agent liked the new version of the book. She told me that she missed the protagonist’s childhood scenes but said that if she’d never read them in the first place, she might not have noticed that the book seemed “a bit less good than the original version.” She happily sent it to the editor, anticipating an offer.

My first novel had been published by then, and been out of stock for 6 of the first 8 weeks it was in print due to unanticipated demand. Editors were the ones who decided print-runs in those days before print-on-demand publishing, which means “print the books on demand” when the bookstores or consumers want them rather than trying to anticipate how many books need to be printed and warehousing the printed books until the bookstores order them.

After sending my newest version of the novel to my editor, my agent was happily preparing her negotiating stance, anticipating getting at least the same Advance for the second novel as she’d gotten for the first.

The editor promised to get back to my agent by Friday of the week she received the novel. Since the acceptance for my first novel had happened relatively late in the day, I waited all Friday to hear from my agent. When I called her around seven in the evening, she said she hadn’t been able to reach my editor all day.

“Not to worry,” said my agent. “I’ll get her first thing on Monday morning.”

Then, on Saturday afternoon, I got the letter from my editor.
Rejecting the second, substantially revised version of my third novel.

“I was wondering if you could do a bit more revision,” she wrote, “and put in something about Claudia’s childhood.”

“WTH?” I said, although that phrase wasn’t widely abbreviated at the time.

First thing Monday morning, I called my editor, certain that she didn’t mean what she’d written.

She did.

I reminded her that she’d been the one who’d asked me to delete all those scenes. I read her the letter that she’d sent to my agent, rejecting the novel the first time I’d submitted it to her. She told me that she remembered not liking the childhood scenes but that, upon reading the new version, she found herself “wondering what Claudia’s childhood had been like” and realized that she “missed those scenes and wanted them back.”

This time, I was furious.

I didn’t care how important an editor she was or that she was in line to become a VP at HarperCollins. I called my agent and told her about the rejection letter and the phone call with the editor. My agent was stunned: she hadn’t even heard from the editor though she’d called several times that morning (apparently, while I was on the phone with the editor myself).

My agent insisted that I fax her a copy of the third rejection letter: I don’t know if she was more upset about the rejection or about the fact that the editor had written to me directly instead of telling my agent that she didn’t want the book.  All I know is that my agent was livid.

My agent also wanted me to send her copies of the first two rejection letters from the editor: the one for the serial killer novel, which mentioned the book and its characters by name, and the letter for the first version of the third novel, which mentioned the characters by name and asked me to delete the protagonist’s childhood scenes. The newest rejection letter again mentioned the characters of the third novel by name and suggested that I put all the deleted childhood scenes back in.

My agent was going to break the Option clause.

“Now we have three rejections, in writing, of three different manuscripts,” said the agent. “That’s the end of HarperCollins for you.”

And, unfortunately, it was.

Though HarperCollins had put my first novel into its HarperPerennial line, the book was taken out of print shortly afterward.

“Apparently, Harper doesn’t understand the definition of ‘perennial’,” my agent said.

I always thought my first novel was taken out of print because my agent revoked the Option clause.

And the first novel was taken out of print about a month before Patrick Stewart optioned the novel for film.*

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

It was another three years before my third-written-but-second-published novel was accepted, in part because my first agent had her first child (at age 49) and took an extended maternity leave: when she returned, she would no longer be representing literary fiction. Instead, she was going to “concentrate on nonfiction only” because she could get Advances for her authors based on proposals (novels typically have to be completely finished before traditional publishers make a decision).

My second agent, who was recommended to me by my first, sold my next novel (with the protagonist Claudia who, by then, had all of her childhood scenes restored along with a new title for the book) and then proceeded to attempt to sell that publisher my serial killer novel.

The second publisher insisted on an Option clause on my next book…

But that’s another story, for another post, though the story is almost the same as this one except for the fact that the younger, less politically powerful editors loved the serial killer novel and wanted the publisher to buy it, but the older, more politically powerful editors, though they were “awake all night reading the novel,” felt it was “too scary” to publish “because nobody would read it” (despite the fact that they themselves had been unable to put the book down), and the younger editors who loved the novel didn’t have the political influence necessary to push the novel through the negotiations…

Oy, vey…

Nevertheless, I did learn some important things from all these torturous negotiations and editorial submissions and rejections of my second novel, and I want to share them with you (please don’t think that you have to learn these same lessons from my experiences).

  • There’s no end to rejection in a writer’s life, even after he becomes an author.
  • I don’t want Option clauses. (Even Amazon’s traditional publishing imprints include Option clauses in their contracts.)
  • I won’t substantively revise any novel unless it is already under contract. (Most publishers won’t even offer a contract if the editor wants substantive revisions.)
  • “Moles” operate at both traditional publishers and agents offices: moles surreptitiously pass manuscripts on to Hollywood and get paid for sending them those “stolen” manuscripts. (That’s how my serial killer novel, which was rejected by the HC editor, got pirated, including entire plot, scenes, characters, etc, by a very famous director/screenwriter and made into a film that so closely resembled my book that I found out about the theft of my novel from my friends who saw the movie and said, “OMG, that’s Alexandria’s novel…” My serial killer novel also got stolen by at least two others who made it into less “artsy” film versions of the exact same story, even including some of the actors who’d appeared in the art version, forcing me to revise my own novel so that Hollywood couldn’t say I stole it from them… but that’s another blog… and a seriously angry rant, lemme tellya.)
  • Having a book copyrighted, even with a registered copyright, doesn’t stop piracy of Intellectual Property, and it costs an unbelievable amount of money to hire an IP attorney and get a Cease & Desist against publishers or others who have pirated your work.
  • Traditional publishing, though it depends entirely on writers for its existence, doesn’t give a fig for writers or even for previously published authors because there are so many writers out there who’d literally give their books away to traditional publishers just to see the books in print.
  • Authors should never, ever give up.

Of course, now that authors have the option of publishing their own books at very little cost, as opposed to the previously very expensive and career-killing option of self-publishing, I don’t even think I would want to return to a traditional publisher.

Okay, maybe I’d try traditional publishing again if I was offered a big Advance, but it would have to include a humongous Advance since I never made any money in traditional publishing beyond the initial Advances. Until that happens, I’m happy putting all my out-of-print books back into print myself and doing my new books through the small publishing House I started after I retired from University (originally intended only to help other literary authors get published, not to put my own books back out into the market).

The main thing I learned from all the rejections by HarperCollins after it had accepted and published my first novel is that rejection never ends. Ever.

So get used to rejection, concentrate on writing your books, and never, ever give up.

Because, really, who would have predicted ebooks and the way they transformed the entire monolithic publishing industry?

Related Posts


Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View


How to Pitch Your Book


* Though the film was fully funded, it never got made… sigh… and authors only get paid when the film gets made… more sighs… (back to post)



Filed under Agents, Authors, Books, Indie Authors, Memoir, Real Life of a Writer, Traditional Publishing

Traditional Publishing, Cry Me a River


I wanted to be a writer and a published author since I was 6 years old. For the better part of my life, the only way to be a respected writer was to get a New York agent, who would adore your work and want to represent you for the rest of your life, then sell it to a reputable New York publishing House, where the editor, too, would love you and your work, and promise to publish everything you ever wrote. You were my sun, you were my earth…

Oh, you had to pay your dues first: there was never any question about that. And pay, I did. Spending 12 grueling years full-time in college while working several jobs to support myself and pay for the outrageous tuition so I could earn a Ph.D. and teach university in order to have the summers off to write full-time. Getting all the poems in my dissertation published or accepted for publication in “recognizably acceptable and prestigious literary journals” before defending my dissertation. Doing all the classwork and 7 hours of oral comprehensive exams for “a real (read: traditional) Ph.D.” in World Literature since a “Creative Writing Ph.D. isn’t scholarly” (which is how I unintentionally, on the school’s part and mine, ended up with two Ph.D.’s — one in Creative Writing & one in English and Comparative Literatures). Spending hours whenever I wasn’t teaching and countless sums of money I needed to pay bills on agent queries instead (no email queries in those days) and on mailing manuscripts, hoping for that one agent who would love me and my work, and make a commitment to me. Writing, writing, revising, writing some more. You didn’t know all the ways I loved you, no…

Finally, at the age of 36, I found my first agent, from a well-established & reputable agency, with many years of experience. She promised to love me forever and represent my work for my entire career. She sold the novel to HarperCollins — a dream come true, to have your first novel sold to THE HarperCollins. That editor swore she was with me for the rest of my writing life as she slipped the ring on my finger. You told me you loved me…

Then came the “divorce.” My agent, who at 50 was having her first baby, was “releasing all her literary fiction clients forever” (that meant me) and would only take non-fiction clients after her child began pre-school or kindergarten. At least she told me over the phone while I sobbed, heartbroken. You told me you loved me; why did you leave me all alone?

My HarperCollins editor “just didn’t feel” my second novel, even after two rounds of her suggested revisions. She suggested I return to the first version, from three years earlier, and let her see that again. Unfortunately, she still “didn’t feel it” and wrote it in a letter instead of calling me and telling me in person (well, over the phone) as she’d promised. After 5 years of writing and substantive revisions, she still just “didn’t feel” the book. All of these things people told me keep messing with my head…

My next agent loved the book, promising that she never wanted children and so wouldn’t be “retiring” to have one, so planned to love and be committed to me forever. Then her mother died, leaving her enough money to travel the world, while the president of her agency kept insisting that she represent more commercial (genre) fiction and non-fiction, which brings in more money faster, than literary fiction. After he’d been harassing her for a year after her mother died, she decided to take her inheritance and travel Europe, perhaps never coming back. She’d always love me, she said, and the agency would always get the percentage of the two books she’d sold to two different NY publishers (neither of which was HarperCollins). “I’ll always be fond of you,” she told me, as I wept, “and I’ll always be in touch with you.” I never heard from her again. You don’t have to say what you did: I already know it…

How many times do you want to hear the same story? Because they’re all the same. I love your work and am committed to you and your professional career as an author for the rest of your life. From New York agents, from editors at the Big-5 publishers in NY, from editors at prestigious literary houses who claimed “the Big Houses only care about money: they don’t love you like we do.” You told me you loved me; why did you leave me?

From Hollywood agents who option your work to celebrity movie stars then forget your name after the option expires. From Hollywood celebs who trust and love you enough to give you their home & cell phone numbers and say, “Call me any time, Honey. We’re connected forever,” then tell their agent to ask your agent if you could please not call up “just to see how they’re doing or what projects they’re working on” since, after all, everything between you is over. Don’t it make you sad about it?

Now traditional publishing has become even more difficult to enter as traditional Houses chase the next, ever unpredictable trend in their quest for more money — please don’t ever mistake that anyone in NY cares about the quality of the writing or even the story, unless it makes tons of money. And don’t try re-inventing the vampire genre: haven’t you heard? It’s out. Now angels or sparkly werewolves or kids who can see demons and fight them with Ninja-deadliness or members of the inanely scripted Duck Dynasty fill the shelves of Wal-Marts and K-Marts with their books, T-shirts, and camo-backpacks. Now you tell me you need me when you call me on the phone…

Agents are becoming more obsolete because traditionally published authors — who’ve had their wonderfully written books with great stories and characters taken out-of-print (OP) for no discernible reason, and can’t get another agent to sell the OP titles again to another NY publisher because to NY, an OP title “lost money” whether or not it really did — are turning to e-books and POD to get their titles back out to their public. So what if they have to do the design work for the interior and cover themselves (or pay someone else to do it)? At least their books will be available for their public again. And, what’s this, the author will also be making money? Your bridges are burned, now it’s your turn to cry…

Now, New York agents, editors, publishing houses, and publicists alike are crying “foul” as they wring their handkerchiefs. They’re begging for another chance — giving Amanda Hocking a $5 million Advance on her next unwritten trilogy to prove they’re receptive to “new talent.” But Hocking only got that NY agent, Advance, and publishing contract because she already made $2 million with her previous series, published herself, without any help from NY, thank you very much. Cry me a river…

In case you didn’t know it, New York agents, editors, and publishers have always gone after self-published authors who did well financially. Not those who did well critically. Financially. Just ask the authors of the successful Self-Publishing Manual who got a contract with HarperCollins, then sued the company for “keeping a substantial amount of their royalties.” Which means, in short, that the authors made more money as self-published authors of a How to Get Happily Self-Published Manual than they made after a traditional NY publisher put it out. No chance for you and me… Don’t it make you sad about it?

Newspapers, blogs, magazines, even the traditional NY publishing Houses themselves love to advertise just how much money they’ve given to self-published authors who “took the risk” and successfully put their work out on their own. The authors themselves gush about their new publishers. You know that they say some things are better left unsaid…

Until the authors don’t get the money from or see the sales with the traditional publishers that they saw when they did everything on their own. The damage is done, so I guess I’ll be leavin’…

Cry me a River, Traditional NY Publishing…


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JK Rowling & What Traditional Publishing is Really Like


Yesterday, on The Twitter, I made a few comments about JK Rowling’s “new” novel, which was published pseudonymously in April 2013 — because, she claims, she wanted “to know what it feels like to be a new, unknown author”  and to see “how well the book sold without her name on it”.


A more disingenuous statement I’ve rarely heard in my life, but coming from JK Rowling, it’s simply a prevarication. Either she actually does not know how the book business works, after all these years and all her success, or she is merely playing a game with the rest of us authors and readers.

Let me tell you what Traditional Publishing is really like.

First of all, the business is much smaller than it seems. Editors deal with certain kinds of books: like any other readers, they have their preferences. Agents quickly learn what these preferences are, as well as what editors are looking for, in terms of books to buy.

Agents have to sell books, so they have to know which editors want to buy which kinds of books. It’s not a spy-industry. It’s a business. It works because people know their jobs. That’s why, for example, children’s book agents can’t sell adult books: they don’t have the contacts and don’t know the market, i.e., they don’t know which editors would be interested in the adult books.

Editors and agents are friendly with each other. They know about each other’s private lives and families, employment history, author “stable” (as it’s called in the business) and their “lists” (books agents have sold or books editors have published that have done well financially, which is basically the only kind of “doing well” that traditional publishing recognizes). It is not a secret. Editors and agents know exactly with whom they’re dealing.

Second, an agent’s job is to sell the book he represents, and, thus, to make his own commission. This is how he makes his living.  Selling the book is the agent’s job, and he’ll do anything to sell it for as much money as he can possibly get.

Including telling the editor who the “real” author behind that pseudonym is.

Everyone in the business knows who JK Rowling’s agent is, as well as the name of  her editor and publisher. Everyone in the business knew exactly who had written the “unknown author’s book” The Cuckoo’s Calling, even if the famous, bestselling author did want to use a pseudonym.

Which is how the “unknown author” of the “first novel” The Cuckoo’s Calling received an Advance of $500K.

By the way, some reporters claimed they “investigated” the author because they were “suspicious” since the “first novel” was so well written. They may have been intrigued or surprised or even interested enough to check out the author, but it doesn’t take any 007 to get author information, not even on an unknown author.

For example, reviewers commented constantly on the fact that my first novel was so polished and well written. They researched me. When my first novel was published, reviewers not only discovered my educational background and the names of multiple journals where I’d been published, but where I lived, how old I was, the University where I taught and what classes I specialized in, even that I was unmarried and had no children. They probably also knew what kind of car I drove and that it had 185,000 miles on it, but they didn’t care enough to put that in the reviews. No investigative reporters were sent to spy on me or to question my friends, family members, previous boyfriends, or colleagues.

In short, they found me.

Even the New York Times Book Review‘s writer, Patrick McGrath — himself a critically acclaimed, bestselling novelist — mentioned virtually my entire life, teaching, and publication history, which is how I know he researched it — saying that “it [was] hard to believe [I’d] published such a polished” and sophisticated first novel, kindly adding that I had, however, “done it.”

(Note to Professional Reviewers and/or Reporters: if an author has been writing and publishing for almost 20 years, he can and sometimes does publish a very polished, sophisticated, and well-written first novel. Not all first published novels are poorly written. Sometimes, and, again, I use myself as a case in point,  first-time-published novelists have written several bad novels while learning the craft: those poor novels have just never been published.)

The NYTBR reviewer who researched the author behind my first novel found me behind my author’s name as well as my publishing history and the exact amount of my Advance. What those reviewers who were impressed by my writing did not find behind the author of my first “very polished and well written novel” was that JK Rowling was the “real author” pretending to be a nobody, or a $500K Advance.

In any event, keeping with JK Rowling’s touted “fiction” that no one knew she’d written the book — which I don’t believe — before the sale, the editor will always find out the real author’s name eventually since the contract (and the Advance monies check) has to be made out to the real author’s name, not to some fake name.

That means that someone in the Contracts department also knows who the real author is, and at least one person in Accounting. And we’re not even talking about all the people who work in the agent’s office who’ll know the author’s real name.

Also, there is a place on every traditional contract for the real author, whose name the contract is in, to put a pseudonym if he wishes to use one for that particular title. (There are many authors, Nora Roberts among them — whose Wikipedia entry lists all her pseudonyms and the titles under each — who write different genres under different names: the editors buying the books know that Nora Roberts is behind that pseudonym when they make offers on the books.)

Though a pseudonym may appear on the book, everyone in the publishing House — from the editorial assistant to the person who executes the final contract to the person who cuts the check — and in the literary agency — knows exactly who the real author of the pseudonymous book is. JK Rowling’s specious protest notwithstanding.

Those are the first few problems I have with the story that no one knew that JK Rowling was the real author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling, ostensibly by Robert Galbraith.

And this doesn’t even count the fact that, in interviews, JKR said she’d “hoped to keep the fact [that she’d written the book] a secret [my emphasis] a little while longer” (Huffington Post). Her hoping to keep it “a secret” means that someone — I suspect, everyone — knew that she was the author behind the book.

Why did she wish to keep it a secret?

She claims that it was because she wanted to see how an “unknown author’s first book sold.”

I have problems with this statement:

1. She already knows how an unknown author’s first book sells because she was an unknown author with a first book at the beginning of her career.

Unfortunately, her experience is not that of 99.99% of authors, even if they are traditionally published. She also already wrote an adult book, which got poorly reviewed — sometimes savagely so — but which was still a bestseller despite its bad writing and poor reviews simply because it was written by JK Rowling.

I’m guessing she used a pseudonym for her second adult novel because she was attempting to avoid the poor reviews rather than to see how the sales went.

2. She got a $500K Advance. That is simply not the kind of Advance an “unknown, first-time author” gets.

Several people contacted me on The Twitter claiming to know of authors who were “complete unknowns” who received 6-figure advances for their first novels. However, they would not reveal any names, so I was unable to verify those Advance claims (though I would never have revealed the names: I simply said I would retract my statement about unknown, first time authors not getting such enormous Advances).

Also, upon further questioning, it seems that many of the books had been published in Europe (at the very least, in England) and were already bestsellers there before getting the supposed 6-figure Advance from an American publisher. This fact alone  eliminates the “unknown author, first book” factor since once a publisher has sales records, the author is no longer an unknown commodity. Indie author Amanda Hocking is proof of that.

Furthermore, several of the books (none of whose titles was revealed)  had been optioned for film. Having a book optioned for film by someone in Hollywood who has a track-record for actually making the books he options into films — someone like Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, or Jerry Bruckheimer — is also an entirely different game from simply having a book optioned for film. Less than .05% of books optioned for film ever get made into film, so the author never gets any money.

Another question: if the book wasn’t already published, how did it get optioned for film? A book’s getting optioned for film usually implies that the book has already been published, which means the Advance has already been negotiated and paid. Of course, the agent could have inserted a Bonus clause stating that the author would get additional monies — not the Advance, which cannot change — if the book ever got optioned for film, but that is not what these people — all agents and editors, by the way — told me had happened.

Also, regarding the $500K Advance — unless the editor is extremely famous and has a string of bestsellers to his name and has his own Imprint at the publishing House, no single editor can purchase a book. An editorial board purchases the book, after said individual editor, along with several political editorial allies who’ve read the book, convince the editorial board of its potential financial merits and to purchase the title in question. (Yes, publishing is just as political as any other successful business, and if an individual editor cannot raise the political support necessary to persuade the House to buy the book, then the book, alas, does not get purchased.)

After the decision to buy the book has been voted on,  the editorial board decides the maximum amount that the editor can offer the agent selling the book for an Advance. The editor is not permitted to go above the amount unless the editorial board approves. An editor cannot purchase a book on his own, for any amount that he wishes (unless the aforementioned conditions are met). That’s simply not how the business works, and it hasn’t worked that way for at least 20 years.

Here’s another issue I have with JK’s claiming no one knew she’d written the book and that she simply wanted to see how it would sell without her name on it. The “unknown author’s first novel” The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in hardcover in April 2013, and, in 3 months, sold approximately 1500 copies. Those are tremendously good sales numbers for an unknown author’s first novel in hardcover. An editor would confirm that. So would any experienced agent.

They are not good sales, however, for an author who got a $500K Advance and who is expected to “earn out” (pay it back to the publisher through sales) as quickly as possible.

Those are not good sales numbers for bestselling Harry Potter-author JK Rowling.

Those two reasons alone, no doubt, are why it was “discovered” upon “reporters’ investigation” that JK Rowling was the real author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a discovery that, in fact, sent the novel to the top of the bestseller’s list. Exactly the place where, no doubt, the publishers wanted it to be.

And what did JK Rowling mean when she said that she’d “hoped to keep [the fact that she was the author] a secret for a little while longer“? That sounds like it was always her own, her publisher’s, or her agent’s intention to reveal that she was the author behind the pseudonym. So why the farce?

Had she gotten good reviews, would she have revealed it sooner? Had she hit the bestseller list in the first three months under her pseudonym, would she have revealed — with triumph, no doubt — that she was, indeed, the author of a financially successful adult novel as well as of the Harry Potter series?

As you can tell, my problems with JK’s story are increasing.

3. JK Rowling claimed that she didn’t know the reporters had found out that she was the real author or that they were going to publish articles about it.

First of all, these so-call investigative reporters, if they were responsible, would have had to verify with the publisher and agent that JK Rowling was the actual author behind that title before they published those articles. Are we to believe that the editor or publisher or agent verified the author’s real identity without telling JK Rowling that they were doing it? That simply would not happen.

JKR knew that the jig was up and appeared for the interviews in full “famous, bestselling author” makeup, hairdo, and fashionable outfit. Despite her protests that she didn’t know she’d been found out before the reporters contacted her, she knew.

That’s how traditional publishing works.

No one is anonymous because contracts and checks have to be issued, and taxes have to be paid on all monies earned.

No one is pseudonymous because the editor has to know the track-record, i.e., sales figures of previous books, if any, of the author of the book they’re interested in buying.

If the book is the author’s first published book, then the editor will request a list of the author’s previous publications — in journals, etc — or the author’s other experience in publishing. That’s how my editor discovered that I had Ph.D.s and that I taught University — neither of which she knew before she bought my first novel, so neither of which influenced her decision to buy it.

She did want to know that I already had “an established audience,” however, and every single journal or anthology in which I’d been previously published was sent a copy of my first novel gratis, i.e., I earned no royalties on those books, in hopes that the journal would review it or, at the very least, that the readers who worked for the journal would buy copies of said novel.

So, I simply don’t believe that no one knew that JK Rowling was the author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling.

I don’t believe that JK Rowling’s name had to be “leaked to” or “discovered by” investigative reporters. Reviewers themselves can find out amazing things.

The “unknown, first-time author” of The Cuckoo’s Calling was not selling sensitive state secrets that might cause a nuclear war. It’s a novel, for heaven’s sake, and one that sold 1500 hardcover copies in 3 months, which is pretty darned good.

Unless the publisher paid the author an Advance of $500K and wants that money back right now.

Unless the author is Harry Potter-famous bestseller JK Rowling, who probably sells that many books in a day.

Unless said best-selling author JKR, who received mostly bad reviews for her previously published adult novel — though those negative reviews had not impact whatsoever on the sales of that book — wanted to publish under a pseudonym to avoid further comparisons to her Harry Potter novels, and avoid more bad reviews about her second adult novel.

No investigative reporters lost any sleep trying to discover much about the “unknown” author of the “first novel” The Cuckoo’s Calling. Someone at the publishing House or at the Literary Agency simply called them up and told them, probably promising them interviews with JK Rowling as incentive to write stories about it.

The publisher was not happy with the sales because it wants to get that $500K Advance back as soon as possible, so the editor revealed the “secret.”

JK herself wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reviews and decided she might as well get the money she’ll get as a bestseller, and so revealed it herself or instructed her agent or editor to release the information.

In any event, the “unknown” author of the “first novel” The Cuckoo’s Calling has been revealed, after 3 months of mediocre reviews and relatively good hardcover sales, to be Harry Potter bestselling author JK Rowling, shooting the novel into the realm of bestseller virtually overnight.

Now everybody involved is making a tremendous amount of money.

And that, my dears, is really what traditional publishing is all about.


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Traditional v Indie Publishing: The Pros & Cons of Each


So many Indie & self-published authors long for a traditional publishing contract that I thought I’d put some of the pro’s & con’s of each, having been in both worlds for the last 30+ years, with books of all genres (but still considered literary fiction: by different genres, I mean novels, short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction / creative writing).

Traditional Publishing


  • The author doesn’t pay for the cover, the design, the production costs, etc.
  • The agent does the work of finding the right editor for the work
  • The author gets a (usually modest) Advance
  • The author feels important and “validated” as a writer
  • The reason for most rejections is that the agent/editor doesn’t think the book is perfect the way it is, and, honestly, they have, literally, hundreds of millions of authors and manuscripts to choose from so they do not work on an imperfect manuscript, no matter how much promise it shows — so the author shouldn’t take rejections personally (which, unfortunately, doesn’t make them any easier to deal with, especially since editors’ reasons for rejection are usually something like “I just didn’t feel it” or “I’m not 200% in love with it” rather than something specific about the quality of the work or the writing).
  • Smaller niche or literary Houses are usually more welcoming and helpful (in the editing phase of the book) to new or relatively unknown authors than the larger traditional publishers are, so there’s always a chance you could get your book published with one of them


  • Being accepted by an agent is not validation that you are a good writer: rather it is an educated assumption that the agent thinks s/he can sell it
  • If the agent doesn’t sell it in what s/he considers a reasonable amount of time (which varies depending on the agent’s age, number of children, place in career, place in Agency, personal life, etc.), you will be unceremoniously dropped, despite any previous promises that he’s “committed to you for life and wants to represent your career, not just one book” (oy, vey, if I had a few dollars for every time I’ve heard that…)
  • If you do get a sale and you’re a relatively unknown author (which is most of us, no matter how many books we’ve already published), then your Agent gets 10-20% of the Advance — before it gets to you
  • Smaller niche or literary Houses are more likely to accept you but because of their size, they usually don’t have any money for Advances
  • The Advance gets paid in multiple installments: often two. The first 1/2 is usually paid 3-4 months after the sale (it takes time to gets those contracts through the appropriate channels), and the second 1/2 when the book is published (if you have a good agent, that will be paid no longer than 1 year after sale, whether or not book is published, which also gives publisher an incentive not to sit on your book for years)
  • I have heard of Advances being broken up into 4 or more payments, over a period of 2-3 years, at the minimum (If you’re Stephen King, getting $50M for your next three books, and the installments are divided into 6ths: 1st/6th when first manuscript delivered, 2nd/6th when first book published, 3rd/6th when 2nd manuscript delivered, 4th/6th when 2nd book published, etc., then this isn’t a bad deal, but not all of us are Stephen King, and even Stephen King complains that his NY publishers steal royalties from him…)
  • In addition to the 10-20% you have to pay to the Agent, you have to pay Federal, State, Local, and Social Security Self-Employment taxes on the total amount of the Advance, even though your Agent takes a significant percentage of it. (When my first novel was sold 20 years ago, I netted about 40¢ on every dollar I got in the Advance. I’m not saying I wasn’t happy, just extremely disappointed. I’d known about the Agent’s percentage of the Advance because that’s in the contract with the Agent, but I never even thought about the amount of taxes I’d have to pay, and, at that time, didn’t even know about Social Security Self-Employment taxes, which, like other taxes, are a percentage, not a fixed dollar amount.)
  • A sale to an editor at a publishing House is not validation that you have written a good book or that you are a good writer, no matter how many times you get told that — on the phone or in person
  • If an editor buys your book, it means the editor believes that the House can make enough money to “earn out” the Advance (i.e., make back the Advance money that it gives you, which is why most Advances are so small) and that the editor believes you will have enough sales to earn out that Advance
  • The editor decides, by contract, the title of your book (so don’t get too attached to it: titles are marketing tools), the cover, the back cover copy (marketing). The author gives up any and all control over all this — over the plot and characters, too, by the way — when he signs the coveted traditional publishing contract
  • The book better be perfect because most editors don’t do any actual work on the book: that’s not their job. Marketing is.
  • The author is responsible for the proofreading after every single version of the book that goes through at the publisher’s: House editing (to make sure they do things like spell “gray” with an a rather than “grey” with an e: don’t even try to argue with NY publishers on this one: they won’t give in), Design editing, Production editing, Foreign language editing (if you have any foreign words in your manuscript), Continuity editing (which ensures that if it’s snowing in the beginning of a scene, it’s not summer by the end of it; trust me: these editors miss a lot of that stuff, so you’ll have to do the final continuity pass yourself).
  • You’ll proofread your manuscript so many times that you’ll hate it by the time it’s ready to go to the printer, you’ll wonder why you ever wrote a book in the first place. Any and all mistakes found in the final book are there forever (the House will not go back to the Printers for typos or even serious mistakes, like their accidentally omitting a chapter or two)
  • The author has no say on the cover chosen. If you’re lucky, the editor will show it to you before the book is finished and ready to go to the printer. If not, you’ll be surprised (pleasantly, one hopes)
  • The author has absolutely no say over the title, though sometimes the editor will pretend to ask you if you “approve”. (If the author says “no”, the editor will call the agent, who’ll call the author, and tell him that it is a better title, so accept it. So don’t get too attached to your title: many famous authors report always having thought of their published books under the title they wrote it, rather than under the title it was eventually published, Erica Jong, among them.)
  • Once the author’s book goes to the printer, don’t expect the editor to remember your name. S/he has other authors/books to deal with.
  • If you’re lucky, the publisher will send out copies of your book to reviewers. You will not know whether this happens, or to which publications the book is sent. There is a reason for this: publicists handle it, and publicists cannot, under any circumstances, check to see if a book is going to be reviewed. To do so automatically and permanently pulls the book from the publication’s “To Be Reviewed” list, so publicists do not ask. If your book is reviewed, your editor will receive a copy of the completed review by fax or email about a week-10 days before the review is to be published. The editor will forward it to you if it’s good; to your agent if it’s bad, so the agent can break the bad news to you.
  • The agent acts as the buffer between an author and his editor, so you will rarely talk to your editor. You will never be able to complain about anything to your editor: you complain to your agent, who puts it in “politically acceptable traditional publishing language” before deciding to pass it on to the editor, if the agent deems it important enough to pass on. If not, at least you got to vent to your agent.
  • 99% of authors get no money or assistance from the publisher for promotion or publicity. If the House thinks your book might have a better than average chance of good sales, then you might be asked to pay for your own publicity or book tour if you live in a relatively big city. Most authors are not considered important enough to do book tours, and that’s why they don’t.
  • You will be responsible for all your own publicity and promotion, so you might as well get comfortable with Social Media, since that is where most authors connect with their readers and make sales.
  • Authors must usually have several titles in print before they show any significant sales. One book just won’t make you rich, so don’t expect it to. Once you’ve published your book, you have to work on its marketing & promotion while writing/editing/revising/publishing your next. (This is the same whether you are traditionally or Indie published.)
  • You have to make a website, do a blog, get on FaceBook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc since the publishing House doesn’t have time to do that for any author except the bestsellers, who usually have publicists or managers anyway.
  • As a traditionally published author, you lose control over every single aspect of your book, including plot, characters, title, cover, marketing. You cannot even reveal the cover of your book (on your blog or FaceBook page, for example) unless the publisher allows it (as Amanda Hocking discovered when her new series was accepted for publication for NY: Hocking was used to revealing her covers as soon as she got them done and liked them; her “chafing” under the publisher’s rules was obvious in her blog — but, hey, that’s part of why she got her $5M Advance)
  • If a book does not earn out its Advance, it could be taken out-of-print (OP) in as little as 6 months. If it looks like it may earn out, the book may stay in print a year or so. Even if it earns out its Advance early and substantially, the book could still be taken OP within a year or two, for no discernible reason whatsoever. Your editor will not have the decency to tell you this: s/he will tell your Agent, who will tell you. That’s how it works in this business.
  • Once a book is OP, the book is “dead” in NY jargon. Publishers don’t want it because they assume that it didn’t earn out its Advance, even if you have proof that it did. Agents don’t want to represent it because they know that the publishers won’t be interested in buying it. So the book is dead. In the past, the authors were just, frankly, screwed when this happened. Now they can put the OP books back into the market themselves thanks to ebooks and POD printing.

My first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, earned out its Advance 6 months before it was published. It got literally hundreds of good reviews — no bad or even mediocre ones except for the person who thought that novels about the Holocaust should not be written, only non-fiction, but that was his only complaint about that book — was shortlisted for several prestigious prizes, and then won several very prestigious national awards and prizes.

HarperCollins, who’d reserved the option to have the Trade Paper rights, put the book in its HarperPerennial line, which my agent happily assured me  meant that the book was now considered a back-list title — one that continues to sell slowly but steadily over the years and so always remains in print — and offered me her hearty congratulations. The book was taken OP less than a year and a half later. No reason was given. When I remarked, to my  agent, that Harper obviously didn’t know the definition of “perennial,” she laughed; I didn’t.

The only reason a new agent got the book back into print — without any Advance whatsoever — was because Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Jean-Luc Picard fame, optioned it for film to play the male protagonist himself, and received funding for it. When my agent sold my second novel, she convinced the new publisher to put The Kommandant’s Mistress back into print by giving it to them for free: the publisher, of course, was hoping that the film would be made and that he would get rich from the associated movie-book tie-in sales (the cover would’ve then featured the stars of the film, including Patrick Stewart). As soon as the film was dropped (Hollywood politics) and the option released, the 2nd publisher took the novel OP.

  • An author earns anywhere from 3-10% of the cover price of each book sold. The bookstores earn 35-55%, the Distributors (like Ingram & Amazon) earn 15-20%, the printing costs are subtracted from any remaining monies, the publishing House gets the rest. Of the remainder, the House is supposed to send the author’s percentage to his Agent; if that happens, the Agent will take his 10-20% before forwarding any remaining monies to the Author. (Don’t expect any money beyond the Advance: even Stephen King claims he doesn’t earn any royalties & has threatened to audit his publishers, at the very least. Whether he actually did it, I don’t know: they may have just given him a larger Advance for his next books, to quiet him down.)
  • Neither the agent nor the author has any direct access to the sales records of his book, though NY contracts usually stipulate that the author may audit the publishers’ books. Agents discourage this, however, as authors who insist on doing it get blacklisted in the industry (no future sales), and the authors have to pay for the very expensive audit if the publisher’s sales figures are shown to be correct (you can guess how many times an author’s won an audit)


Indie Publishing


  • The author has to pay for everything: cover, editing, proofreading (if he’s not good enough to do it himself)
  • The author has to learn marketing books fast and well (faster than if accepted by a NY House, and as well as their professional publicists) if he expects any sales whatsoever, and marketing is where most authors fail miserably, with poor titles, worse covers, bad/boring book descriptions (which include the all important Pitch)
  • The author is solely responsible for the quality of the finished product, i.e., the book — an area where NY publishing Houses excel — and readers/reviewers are quick to complain if the product does not meet NY standards
  • The author must pay to produce a high quality product if he cannot put it out himself (NY Houses pay for this, so Indie authors must assume these costs)
  • The author gets no Advance monies
  • The author gets no validation (really, just an expectation) that his book will sell from someone experienced in the book business, i.e., an Agent or Editor at a traditional publishing House
  • Bookstores like Barnes & Noble do not recognize the term Indie Published Author. Anyone not traditionally published by a NY House is self-published, according to Barnes & Noble, and their stores do not order or stock books of self-published authors. Period.

Previously traditionally published authors who’ve put their OP books back in print through Ingram’s Lightning Source or Amazon’s Create Space may be considered for stocking at their local B&N, but must provide proof that the book will probably sell — e.g., good reviews, or royalty statements with sales figures — but even if the local Events Manager/Coordinator approves, B&N’s NY Corporate office has to approve, which is not likely to happen, not even for critically acclaimed, award-winning authors like me: I’ve already tried.

  • Libraries and Academic Institutions will not order books of self-published authors: they also do not recognize term Indie
  • Authors are unlikely to get any reviews from prestigious newspapers or publications like The New York Times Book Review because they don’t have access to the proper submission channels. In any event, these publications require 6-9 months lead time for considering books to review before the publication date, and most authors are not wiling to get their book into final form, then wait 6-9 months in the (mostly unrequited) hopes of a review, before releasing book to public
  • Authors must usually have several titles in print before they show any significant sales. One book just won’t make you rich, so don’t expect it to. Once you’ve published your book, you have to work on its marketing & promotion while writing/editing/revising/publishing your next. (This is the same whether you are traditionally or Indie published.)


  • You retain all control over all aspects of your book, from cover to title, from sales reports to amount of royalties earned
  • You determine the distribution markets, i.e., Amazon, Barnes & Noble ebooks, Smashwords, etc.
  • You determine your Royalty Percentage (35-70% for ebooks on Amazon, for example, and approximately 60% of the cover price for Trade Paper books
  • You determine the format: ebook, Trade Paper, Hardcover, audiobook
  • You decide when, if, and whether your book ever goes out of print (OP)
  • If you do take your book OP, you can always revise it, and put it back into print without hiring an agent to try to sell it to another publisher
  • Other Indie authors are usually relatively nice about helping each other out (though there are some pretty selfish ones who even join organizations designed to help out Indie authors, then do nothing but promote their own books)
  • It’s easier to make sales by connecting directly with your readers on Social Media
  • The piece-of-the-selling-pie is bigger than it is in NY with traditional publishing, though you probably have to work harder to get your piece
  • You have access to all your own sales reports, without auditing anybody or getting blacklisted in the industry for questioning/auditing your own royalty reports as you do in traditional publishing

Overall, having been in the traditional NY publishing arena for over 30 years, and in the Indie publishing market for the last 3, I would choose Indie publishing any day over traditional publishing. But then, I’m good with covers (I minored in Art History), titles, back cover copy, and other marketing, having taught creative writing on the University level for over 30 years, having been a visiting artist/author at writing conferences all over the country for the past 20 years, and having been a really quick study on the marketing aspect once my first novel got published.

(For example, my original title, The Kommandant, was changed to The Kommandant’s Mistress, after a “persistent rumor in the camps about the Jewish inmate with whom the Nazi Kommandant was obsessed” and modeled after John Fowle’s famous The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even I knew that The Kommandant’s Mistress was a better title than my original, learned how to make titles with more Urgency & market appeal, and have never had a title changed since, on any of my traditionally published books).

Also, after retiring from University, I opened my own traditional publishing House to help other literary authors — the only market harder to break into than literary fiction is poetry, and no agents handle poetry collections — so I gained a lot of experience from the publishing & marketing side before the Indie/ebook markets were ever even available to previously traditionally published OP authors like me.

(In case you’re wondering, even my House’s contract gives the publisher all control over the title, cover, back cover description, etc., though I do help my authors with minor editing to improve the Urgency, Voice, POV, etc. It’s rare that an author has a marketable title from the beginning, though sometimes it takes only minor tweaking to make it work, and if it doesn’t work at all, I always get the new title from something inside the book itself. And as for covers, no author has ever come up with a good cover on his own, though a couple hired professional artists or photographers after I couldn’t find a cover and told them what I was looking for. Then I just tweaked the cover. But the author didn’t come up with the original concept, I can assure you. Most authors are just not experienced in the visual arts: they’re wordsmiths.)

And just to show you how my covers of my own Indie published OP books stack up to the covers done by NY Houses, here are the covers for the first and second editions of The Kommandant’s Mistress.

K USA HC 1993 HP 1994 web

(HarperCollins 1st edition cover, under the name “Sherri” because the editor said my real name wouldn’t fit on the cover of the book, 1993 & 1994)

K USA Arcade 2000 web

(Arcade’s cover for the 2nd edition, also under “Sherri” so they “wouldn’t lose the name recognition” of reviews/prizes, 2000)

And my own, Indie-published cover for the novel, now re-issued under my real name, in a Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition (you can let me know, in Comments, which cover you like better: so far, the votes are all for my Indie cover). And yes, the license for that phot0graph cost me quite a bit of money: I had to save for months to get it. I do the design (title/author name placement over photograph or other cover art) for all my House’s covers myself.

The Kommandant's Mistress

The only reason I would ever return to traditional publishing would be if someone extremely famous and well-financed optioned one of my new books for film because that would give me a greater chance to get a large Advance — something I’ve never gotten. Even then, the Advance would have to be large enough for me to give up all control and access to my sales figures (again). Since I’ve already been down all those roads, I simply don’t see that happening.

Still, if a traditional publisher came to me with an offer of $5M, as they did with Amanda Hocking, I’m certain it wouldn’t take too much persuasion to give NY one book…

Otherwise, I’m now an Indie author. For life.



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