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.



Filed under Agents, Books, E-books, Editors, Indie Authors, Self-Published Authors, Small Business, Taxes, Traditional Publishing, Writing

4 Responses to Traditional v Indie Publishing: The Pros & Cons of Each

  1. Fred Nolan

    Short stories are exhausting to begin with: not long enough for truly complex characters, but too long to sustain the immediacy of poetry and flash fiction. And now I read the part about how you received 1,800 rejections for various poetry submissions one year. Whew, you’re right. Tough job.

    What do you think about self-publishing short story anthologies, in e-book format or both print and e-book? If the author is facing insurmountable research and marketing anyway, why not set the research aside and double up on the marketing? This seems like a fair alternative to letting manuscripts collect dust, but I wonder if there are downsides I’m not considering.

    I should thank you for the free mentoring. I’d promised that bottle of Chardonnay from Napa but—true story—vineyards are reluctant to ship before September. Otherwise the wine gets too hot and breaks down. Until then, try Darioush (in their tasting room, if you can). Beautiful place, and the best Chardonnay I’ve ever had. It’s terrible with pesto, though. Nothing worse than a bad pairing.

    • Hey, Fred, welcome back from vacation,
      I hope you had a great time except for the bad pairing of pesto and Darioush. I wouldn’t think a white would go with pesto, but what do I know?

      I like short stories, but only when I don’t have a novel bursting to come out. Sometimes I take scenes that didn’t work in a novel and turn it into a poem or short story, but mostly, my brain wants the “drug” of novel- or book-writing these days. In fact, the only time I seem to write short pieces now is when they’re deleted from a novel or book, but I can make them work as a short piece. Just how it is with me, I guess.

      I assume you don’t want to publish a short story anthology, which would be a book with dozens of authors, each contributing a story or two, but a collection of your own short stories, where they’re all by you?

      Short stories are very difficult to get published as a collection unless each story has been previously published, they’ve won prizes, or the collection itself wins a prize and the prize is publication (that’s how my short story collection was “accepted” for traditional publication: it won the Grand Prize in an international contest). So, if you’re aiming for traditional publishing, you need the individual stories published or awarded prizes to get any agent to represent you, and most won’t unless your stories are published in the New Yorker or places like that. Literary Houses will consider short story collections without agents, but most of them won’t do story collections — I have no idea why. Sales figures, I suppose.

      Actually, the Press that accepted mine told me I could enter the stories into the contest — one of the entry-fee perqs was that you got editorial feedback on the 30-page entry — as long as I understood that UKA had never published a collection of short stories so I wouldn’t be winning any prizes. Since I really only wanted feedback on the collection as a collection, or on as much as would fit into the page-limit, I entered. A few months later, the publisher contacted me and said that the readers had enjoyed my stories greatly, and wondered if I had any more they could read. I sent them the rest of my stories. Several months later, still waiting for the critique I’d been promised, I got an email from someone introducing himself as my editor, with a copy-edited and designed manuscript of my short story collection attached. Confused, I contacted the publisher with whom I’d corresponded. She didn’t know what it meant either. Apparently, the readers had awarded me the Grand Prize and UKA was going to publish the book, but the correspondence had not reached either the Publisher herself or me. Of course, I was stunned. And excited. I think she was just stunned. But I asked what had happened to the critique I was supposed to get… The Publisher said, “We’ve never published a collection of short stories, and the readers insisted on giving you the Grand Prize? Isn’t that critique enough?” I had to humbly admit that I supposed it was… Still…

      Now, if you’re talking Indie publishing, that’s another thing altogether. And I would say, quite honestly, jump in, my man. You have a better chance of getting your stories out to your potential audience with Indie publishing, and you won’t make any less money than you would if you could find a traditional publisher.

      I don’t believe there are any downsides you are missing. Some short story collections sell well, others do not. I don’t know what makes the difference. I always make sure I have a range of selections free on my website, my blog, and of course, there’s the Amazon free sample (10%) that they can read. If the sales don’t happen, I give the books away free to get them jump-started, or at least to get some reviews. My BF always gets upset when I give books away free, insisting that I’m losing money, but if they sales are slow, what’s the harm in giving away copies to readers who might become fans, write good reviews, or tell their friends?

      As far as I know, market studies show that “word of mouth” is still the biggest way to move books (and it always has been), whether the books are Indie or traditionally published. That’s why it sometimes takes years for a book to become a “best-seller” or a back-list title (which consistently and regularly sells, but doesn’t hit “bestseller” status, since that requires something like 200K sales per week to hit the NYTBR bestseller list, for example).

      If I think of any downsides, I’ll let you know, but I can’t think of any. I’d go Indie. I’d also start a blog, perhaps focusing on some flash-fiction, to give people a taste. Some of the people on the twitter do it with twitter-sized fiction. Sean Hill has two successful flash-fiction books: he’s on the twitter as @VeryShortStory and one book features stories in 250 words, I think, and the other has 300-350. He’s very good. His twitter feed is brilliant. Some others who’ve published their stories as books after getting fans on the twitter are @MicroSFF and @AwfulFantasy (I don’t recall the published names of these last two, but their books are great). @AwfulFantasy is two guys who know SciFi and Fantasy inside-out and upside-down and parody it, along with any other genre that happens to get in the way, in their book. They put excerpts on their twitter feed.

      You’re welcome for the free mentoring. I always promised that if I ever made it as a writer, I’d give back, since no one ever helped me. For 31 years I taught University Creative Writing, and then after retirement, started a literary publishing house to give literary writers a chance — it’s traditionally a hard market, and there was no Indie publishing then. Now, I also try to help with my blogs, and am revising the MASTERING FICTION AND POINT OF VIEW book (first pub’d by Story Press in 2001) as a way to help since I no longer teach.

      Dang. No shipments before September. It’s like those fine European chocolatiers who will not ship in the summer months since the heat makes all the cocoa butter rise to the surface and ruins the chocolate. I do like those fine dark chocolates, so I know about companies not shipping during the heat. Yes, those dark chocolates are very fine. And I think they’d pair fine with pesto.

      Good luck, and do keep in touch. I love to read. I read incessantly, according to my guy, and I’ve found many good writers and books from my friends on the twitter.


  2. Fred Nolan

    Hi Alexandria,

    This is a great post, I’ve read it twice now. You’ve offered lots of frank detail, including some that I didn’t see coming. Some of us are definitely stuck in the mindset that a traditional publishing deal is an author’s validation.

    Is your advice the same for short story writers? Submitting short stories to contests and journals has to be at least as frustrating as trying to find an agent for a full-length manuscript. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

    All the best, and thank you!

    • Hi, Fred,
      Nice to see you here where we can talk for more than 140 characters 🙂

      I, too, believed that traditional publishing was validation that your book was a good story, was well-written, and would be in bookstores all over the country. But then, traditional publishing was the only arena up until a few years ago, and all agents and editors tell you they lovelovelove your book. Right up until the moment they take it out of print or drop you.

      I was a poet before I was a novelist, and wrote short stories after my first novel was published. I can assure you that, since you don’t get paid for short stories or poems — 1 or 2 copies of the issue in which your work appears is usually considered “payment — getting your work accepted by a prestigious or respected journal is, indeed, a validation that your work is good. Short stories are easier to “sell” to journals, and sometimes you actually get $50-100. Only big publications pay lots of money, but most of them have gone digital (like The New Yorker) and I don’t know if they handle stories any longer. If a legitimate journal accepts your story, it, too, is a validation of its quality.

      When my first few poems got accepted and I got copies of the journals, I received mimeographed, folded & stapled “journals” that were clearly done in someone’s basement. I quickly learned that going to the local University libraries, which carry literary journals, showed me not only which journals were book-quality (perfect-bound, for example, with a Trade Paper-like book cover) and which journals published work that was most like mine. Most of those are published by academic institutions, which usually get their money from outside funding or grants, rather than from sales of the journal itself. Once I began submitting to University journals, my acceptance rate improved because I was submitting to the kind of editors who read the type of poetry and short stories I wrote. I also won many prizes. This is part of marketing. This is where many authors need to do their research.

      That being said, you should expect anywhere from 35-100 rejections for each short story or poem that gets accepted. There seems to be a certain number of rejections each piece must get before it’s accepted; unfortunately, nobody knows how many it is, and it varies from piece to piece. In one year, I got 1800+ rejections from journals for individual poems alone. That didn’t count rejections for the poetry manuscripts, contests, agent-editor-publishing House rejections. I think I got about 15, maybe 20 acceptances for that year, which was an extremely high number of acceptances for one year.

      No agents handle poetry because those books are rarely published by NY Houses. When they are, the authors are already famous, like Joyce Carol Oates, or (former) bestsellers, like Erica Jong, or living with the son of the Publisher (if you don’t know the name of that woman, I’ll tell you in private): the publishers take those authors’ poetry books “as a favor,” not because they like the poetry or think it will sell (it usually doesn’t). Some agents will handle short stories, but not many. Few agents even handle literary fiction, which is what I write. Most handle commercial fiction and non-fiction almost exclusively because it’s easier to sell, and for non-fiction, they can get the Advance for a proposal rather than for a completely finished book.

      In any event, if you have a manuscript of either poetry or short stories, at least 90% of the work in the proposed book needs to have been previously published in recognized, national/international, prestigious, reputable journals. The editor who eventually accepted my first novel wanted the list of all my poetry and article publications before she officially bought the rights to publish my novel: she wanted to ensure that there was a market for my work, even though the genres were different. She also wanted to see a copy of my dissertation, which was in Creative Writing, and which was a book-length collection of original poems, each of which had to be published or accepted for publication before my dissertation was accepted by the University. Again, she wanted to make sure that there was a ready market of readers for my novel by seeing where I’d been previously published.

      Academic publishing Houses, connected with Universities, or small literary presses are more likely to look at manuscripts of poetry or short stories, and some of them are genre specific, so do your research: some are literary (my genre), some are science fiction/fantasy, some are mystery/suspense, etc. Don’t waste your time getting rejections because you’re submitting to the wrong publications. Also, if you’re submitting a manuscript, they’ll also want to see your previous publication of individual pieces.

      It is frustrating to enter contests. I was a finalist in so many book contests that I was constantly ready to give up. I spent thousands of dollars each year in copying and postage. I suppose they do it by email these days, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

      So, basically, getting poems or stories published in legitimate, prestigious journals — or winning a prize in a recognized national or international contest — is a validation of the quality of your work since those journals and contests rarely give you any money. If they do, it’s not much, maybe a couple hundred bucks and a copy of the journal. My book of short stories won the Grand Prize in an International Writing Competition, but the Prize was publication: I received no Advance money. Still, it was a validation of the quality of the work.

      It is all frustrating. It’s all marketing, so do your research. It’s another full-time job, and unless you can hire someone to do it for you, it’ll be you doing it all, Fred. I haven’t submitted to journals since I began getting my books published, so I’m afraid I don’t know which are the prestigious ones (though University journals are always a good bet and ones that are famous in their genre, like some of the sci-fi ones), and I don’t know anything about online journals.

      As for fees, there are many legitimate contests that charge fees (those judges don’t work for free, and they shouldn’t have to), but beware of outrageously high fees or contests that will not allow you to buy a copy of previous winners’ work (part of your marketing) or publishers/contests whose award-winning books are not available online at Amazon, B&N, etc. since most probably won’t be in brick & mortar bookstores.

      And if it makes you feel any better, with an agent at a very prestigious literary agency, my first novel was rejected 39 times before being accepted by HarperCollins. That agent then retired to have a baby, and gave me a recommendation to a larger Agency — the oldest in the country. I got an agent right away. Unfortunately, despite all the prizes, excellent reviews, and sales of my first novel, the second novel got rejected 87 times before my agent managed to sell it. If you’d told me that beforehand, I never would have believed it, and I might have been discouraged enough to quit. After my third book was published (MASTERING POINT OF VIEW), originally intended as a University textbook but which crossed over into the mainstream market in its first month of publication, I thought it would be easier to sell my third novel. Nope. It took 3 years of rejections — almost 200 of them — before it was accepted. In the middle of negotiations, the NY House was purchased by HarperCollins, who’d already “rejected” that novel. The editors at the smaller but very prestigious House were told not to buy anymore books since they had a huge list to be published. Since the editor was already negotiating with my agent, she didn’t consider it “buying” a book: she’d already technically bought it and was just working out the contract. My first editor at HarperCollins discovered that she was “buying” a book that the 1st editor had already rejected, and the new editor was laid off, and my book was officially “rejected” again.

      It is not an easy life, even if you do get published by NY. Unless you’re a bestseller, it’s hard for an agent to sell the next book. Unless you’re a consistent bestseller, you have no control or power. So, make sure you’d “die” if you didn’t write.

      Otherwise, find a job that’s a lot less stressful.
      Like working in the fast-food industry 😛


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.