How to Explain Publishing to Your Fam: A Primer

Author’s Note: This post is about traditional publishing. My days of self-publishing are behind me, but that comes with a whole other dynamic and set of ins and outs to explain to people. Godspeed me, having to do this multiple times with multiple methods now.

So we all have that friend or relative (or twenty) who has no idea how the hell publishing works. My mom thinks my agent is a publicist. My dad doesn’t understand editors work for publishing houses. Everyone in the world thinks that now I have an agent, my book is soon to arrive on the shelf of their local Barnes & Noble within the week. You too have friends, family, and coworkers like this. I know you do because I have never met a writer who doesn’t. And also because publishing is a legitimately strange business, so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who are not glued to Twitter/Querytracker/Publishers Marketplace don’t understand how it works.

For you, and your struggling family, I have created a primer. Complete with visual aids if that is your jam. Let’s start with a very bare bones flow chart, then break it down, shall we?

Obviously, this is all assuming you don’t have to go back to the beginning and start over, which you might have to do… multiple times. At multiple steps in this process. But let’s make this as clean as possible and assume we live in a utopia and you have one book that goes straight through. (Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahaha)

Okay, so I know you, writer, understand all of this. But your well-meaning family doesn’t. And if I’m guessing right, no matter how many times you try to explain it to them, they still aren’t getting it. So let me break down some of these steps highlighting some of the most frequently asked questions I hear from non-writers and how I’ve navigated explaining them.

STEP ONE – WRITING BOOKS AND QUERYING

Writing books is mostly simple enough but querying really seems to confuse the shit out of people. And it’s hard to blame them. It’s confusing. Even for us. Who among us has not been tripped up by unwritten querying etiquette? Right. So here are some of my go-to favorite tips for trying to explain the whole querying thing to Uncle Donny three schnapps deep at Thanksgiving dinner:

Remember to tell them about the free bit. I don’t know about your family, but a few members of mine seem to get really hung up on the amount of unpaid labor that goes on in publishing. It could be the Steelworkers and Teamsters in them, but they seem convinced they must have it wrong about the free bits. Remind them. Often if necessary. In the simplest terms you can. In my household, I caveat almost everything with: THIS IS A FREE PART.

Compare Querying to Corporate. Query letter means nothing. But most everyone has prepared a cover letter and a resume. Many people have had to either take a skills test of some type or provide a writing sample. I have found this simple conversion to be handy in comparisons:

  • Query letter = Cover letter
  • Synopsis = Resume
  • Sample pages = writing sample

Keep it Simple. I have at this point entirely given up trying to explain to people who are not in publishing how requests work. Partial? Full? Meaningless. Pointless. Throw them out the window. Celebrate your wins with the people who get it. Is it mildly annoying that my dad STILL doesn’t understand what the difference between a full and partial is after I’ve been doing this for approximately 100 years? Yes. But not nearly as annoying as it is trying to explain it AGAIN. The people you love will be there to celebrate with you when that partial turns into a full turns into a call turns into an offer turns into a… you get the deal (ha! there’s a pun there!). Absolutely celebrate every win, but in my experience, cultivating who you celebrate the wins with can drastically improve your overall mental health and make the wins themselves much more enjoyable.

STEP TWO – AGENTS, SIGNING, AND SUBMISSION

Thissssss is where we really start to lose folks. Because at this point, if you’re having a normal querying journey, you’re probably a few (or more) years in STILL DOING FREE SHIT. That is admittedly weird in most every other business. Like even in the worst (US) economy most people are not job searching for 3-5 business years. Hopefully. But that is a totally normal thing to be doing in publishing. Add to that the part about how getting a literary agent is actually just ANOTHER free step and people are just checking out on you (or perhaps checking your temperature for a fever). Some ways I’ve found that can sort of help explain some of this:

Remind them that a new book or new revision means starting over. Just because I’ve been querying for three years or five years or ten years doesn’t mean it’s the same book or the same revision. Explaining that is helpful. “I decided to pivot and am trying to pitch a new book to literary agents. That means starting over from square one but hopefully this idea will hold more traction.” See, I say pitch instead of query. Again, query does not mean anything.

Literary Agent Comparisons. Most people do not seem to understand what a literary agent does. Some useful comparisons:

  • Real estate agent – They sell books instead of houses, they don’t get paid until they sell my book (to a publisher). Don’t forget to mention a BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there are waaaaaaaaaay too many houses and not enough buyers, so they’re only going to pick the nicest, fanciest, best ones (where your book is the house).
  • Recruiter – They are trying to land me the gig with the publisher and don’t get paid until they do so. BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there is like 1 job, 5 recruiters, and 100,000 potential applicants, so you (the author) have to apply first to the recruiter before you can even try applying to the actual job. This is probably a more accurate comparison but if the person you’re talking to doesn’t work in white collar corporate America it might not be that helpful.

Again with the free stuff. Yeah, you’re going to need to tell people that literary agents don’t get paid until you do. Call them a middle man. Remind people that yep, I am FIVE YEARS into pitching this book and have just gotten someone to agree to try to sell it. Correct. And they don’t get paid until they do it. Yes.

The Call. Call this an interview. Plain and simple. That’s really what it is anyway. The agent’s chance to interview you, your chance to interview them.

Celebrating. When you do finally sign with an agent, you’re going to celebrate the shit out of that win (as you should). This is going to confuse people though, especially if you’ve been querying for approximately forever. Because they’re going to think you’ve sold your book. Because really, why haven’t you? It’s been like… a decade. This is your opportunity to ignore the fuck out of them. Please refer to my earlier comments about cultivating the people you celebrate with. If your family calls your agent a publicist, or people blow up your Facebook or Teams messages wanting to know when they can buy your book, laugh and move along. Now is not the time to waste energy educating or get frustrated with people’s lack of understanding. You can do that all later. Now is the time to wear your tiara and celebrate.

Submission. Godspeed. Do we need another chart? Okay, yes. If only to break this long ass post up. I swear I write short books. Long tweet threads. Long blogs. Long emails. Short books. Do with that information what you will.

Submission is like Querying 2.0. Probably at this point even the people who love you most have dead eyes. They’re starting to wander off, checking their phones for the latest updates on… literally anything except this. Might be time to just go ahead and admit defeat. But if not, you can pull out the good old rinse and repeat methodology. Basically, submission is like querying version 2.0. Except, pause for effect, there is MAYBE MONEY AT THE END.

Three piles of coins with small sprouts growing atop each one. Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

STEP THREE – ACQUISITIONS

We are really only on step three, huh? Well, hopefully people have perked up because I mentioned money. We’re getting somewhere (finally). And yes, we are. Below are some optional steps to discuss about acquisitions if people have started listening again. If not, you can probably get away with simply saying acquisitions is when an acquisitions editor at a publishing house (the person with the buying power) acquires (aka buys) your book. Huzzah! BUYS! Money has arrived. I mean sort of, you know there are exceptions here but like for the basics let’s assume you’re getting some kind of advance and finally, finally, dear sweet baby Jesus, finally get paid. And so does your agent. Whoop!

Types of Sales. If you really want to get into this, you can tell people about the different types of sales traditional publishing has to offer, but I would recommend keeping it as short as possible so as not to get that dead-eyed stare coming back. Just keep letting them follow the money without getting too bogged down in the details:

  • Regular Sale – An editor read your book, liked your book, offered to buy your book. Sweet.
  • Auction – Multiple editors read your book, liked your book, and WENT TO WAR for your book. Admittedly, this is the scenario most of us are dreaming of but our families are like, “Whatever, greedy, money is money you’ve been doing this for free for 87 years are you really going to be picky?” And they are not wrong.
  • Pre-empt – Multiple editors read your book and liked your book, but one in particular really liked your book and decided to avoid the war they would make you an offer you couldn’t refuse and buy it before there could even be a war. For the publisher, this is sort of like that button on eBay where you can buy the item for the set price to avoid the risk of getting bid up at an auction, but you could also lose out on getting a lower deal. You as the author, of course, get the bird in the hand. This is also a Very Excellent outcome. Guaranteed any outcome that results in you no longer doing this for free anymore is an excellent outcome to your loved ones.

Advances. Okay, listen, we all know that advances are a lot to process. Not all publishing houses offer them, how they’re paid out is ridiculous. That publishing houses can take them back for sometimes no reason is wild. Want to explain earning out to someone not in publishing? No you don’t. Just tell them when the publishing house buys your book you get some money in advance and then some more when you fulfill other contractual obligations like turning in the final draft and the book going up for sale. Might also be worth telling them this is going to take a lot longer than they think (like all things publishing) and no, when your book sells they will not be seeing it stores near them in the next couple of weeks and/or months. Don’t we wish.

Editing (again). Time for that good old rinse and repeat situation. Just… repetition is everything in publishing. I’m going to have a chart about that here in a minute to summarize. Skip to the end if you want that because you, just like Aunt Darla, are getting glassy-eyed with this post. Yes, dad, I have to edit this book again. With someone who has the title of editor this time, though. Which is new. (Unless you’ve had your book edited professionally before you queried, which is also a thing that happens that I don’t even have the spoons myself to get into but am not knocking, to be clear).

STEP FOUR – FINISHING

I have a not very good title for this step because I have never found myself remotely near it (yet), but my friends have, and I’ve been in (?) around (?) traditional publishing long enough to know what goes on. So I have summed up all the fine tuning bits that make your book sparkle into a step called “Finishing.”

Line Editing. Yep. More of this. Just like… tell them it’s edited a lot. By lots of different people. Many of whom are underpaid and overworked. Remind them to support the HarperCollins Union.

Copy Editing. Rinse and repeat.

Title. No, you don’t get to choose your own title. Tell your family to get over it. No, cousin Susie, trust me, I don’t care what your friend from the office said or did or read on the internet, getting to choose my own title is NOT worth bootstrapping it on my own and self-publishing. Trust me. Oh boy, trust me.

Cover Design. Don’t get to do this, either. But someone who knows WAY more about the market and Photoshop does get to do it. It will be great. And if it isn’t, you will act like it’s great.

Formatting. The book is formatted (!) into a book looking thing (!) This is when you will finally be able to answer that annoying question every non-publishing person in your life has been asking you since you finished your first draft: How many pages is it? They probably don’t care anymore, because it’s now like… six years later, but you’ll be able to tell them.

STEP FIVE – LAUNCH

In my flowchart I labeled this “Marketing/Sale” because there are a few steps that happen in-house before the official go live date for your book, but the most important part of this step is:

Cat wearing a hard hat presses a red button with text that reads LAUNCH.

Marketing. LOADED QUESTION. PASS. Mumble mumble marketing stuff maybe there’s a lot of gray area TikTok mumble mumble not a lead title mumble mumble eARCs bloggers mumble mumble. OKAY, BYE IRENA, THERE IS STILL MORE PROMO THAN SELF-PUBLISHING, YES. But marketing is fraught and no, I really don’t want to talk about it that would need more words than you want to read because you’re probably already sick of me, right? MOVING ALONG.

Pre-events. Yeah, kind of same as above. No one wants to hear about the debate around whether it’s pronounced A-R-C or

An ark with a bunch of animals Photoshopped (poorly) onto it.

For the record, though, it’s totally the latter.

Distribution and Sale. YES. MY BOOK IS FINALLY AVAILABLE. IT IS OFFICIALLY PUBLISHED. AND MONEY. IT IS TIME ONCE AGAIN TO TALK ABOUT MONEY! We have arrived! You can BUY my book now! And review it, and add it on Goodreads, and do all the things you’ve been waiting to do! Here are some extra points to make now that we’ve reached the finale:

  • This whole process from start to finish if everything went absolutely perfectly and not a single thing ever went wrong (LOL!) would take 2-3 years. At best. Like if you fast drafted the cleanest book you’ve ever seen and threw it into the trenches and got a million requests right out of the gate and signed with an agent immediately and the book was almost perfect and went on submission right away and editors loved it and WENT TO WAR and pushed it through as fast as possible, you could MAYBE have a book on the shelf in 2-3 years.
  • This absolutely never happens to anyone. I mean maybe like three people ever in the history of publishing. More likely it is going to be a 5+ year process.
  • You will not be paid for most of it.
  • Neither will your agent.
  • You’re not quitting your day job anytime soon sobs.
  • You’re going to do the same things over and over and over (a chart on that is coming, I promise).
  • Publishing is not a meritocracy. It’s about luck and persistence and honestly privilege since it’s overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and male. No, Uncle Earl, I do not give a shit what you think you saw on Fox News about book banning or white dudes not being able to sell their books. They can. And do. They’re fine. Sit down.

Royalties. Remember what I said about trying to explain earning out? I stand by that. Just… don’t. Royalties are sort of similar. We don’t want to talk about royalties. But if you have to, keeping it simple might go something like, “If I meet contractual obligations I’ll start to earn a small percentage of every sale after a certain point. The publisher keeps most, my agent gets about 15%, I end up with an amount less than that. Nope, I do not want to debate that with you.”

REPITITION

If you’ve been keeping track, there’s a lot of repetition in publishing. Which you and I know and can appreciate. But sometimes seeing it laid out can help people who don’t come from inside publishing understand where and when it’s happening, so they don’t think you’re just… I don’t know, working harder instead of smarter or some other corporate jargon that cannot be applied to this business. So, as promised, here is my repetition chart!

There are a couple of bonus features in my chart, yes.

And because I know this is probably The Most Important Thing to most people’s Nephew Ryan who is surely not a 24-year-old techbro running a startup in his mom’s basement just dying for the chance to mansplain to you about how you should really quit it with this “starving artist” thing and “get a real job” I present for you the Publishing Money Flow Chart.

Don’t hate on the graph, Ryan. This is just how our business works. I didn’t make the rules. Trust me, I would have made better ones.

IN CONCLUSION

Did I do a good job summarizing this succinctly? Checks the wordcount. No. Did I work out some deep-seated family issues I appear to have? Yes. Also, I made some pretty charts perhaps you’ll find helpful when next you confront one of YOUR family members who “just doesn’t get it” despite your 87th explanation of querying. At the very least, I hope I made you laugh a couple times as I tried to untangle this messy business we all know and love and so fondly call “Publishing.”

Until next time! Xoxo,

Aimee

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