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What to Expect from Major Publishing Houses

Bonnie Marlewski-Probert ask a series of very pertinent questions on the subject of what an author can expect from a major publishing house. Here are those questions along with my responses:

1. Because this book is outside our normal niche, if I sign a book publishing contract with a major house, what can I realistically expect them to do in terms of promotion? And for how long can I expect them to promote the title?

In terms of promotion and marketing, you can only expect what the terms of your contract specify. Realistically, you cannot expect _anything_ more than the most minimal effort in your behalf. The "life span" of your title would rarely extend past the season (spring or fall) in which they release it. The major houses do not live off their back list as small presses and regional publishers do. Once the season is over, your book with that major house is history.

2. Am I better off doing the book myself and hiring a PR firm to promote the title, set up TV/radio interviews and if so, how does that work? Who pays who and how much and when?

If you are a novice or mid-list author, you must expect to shoulder almost all PR efforts yourself. It's not going to be the major house's publicity department that lines up speaking and appearance opportunities for you -- it's going to be you and/or someone you hire for that purpose. If you do bypass a major house and publish the book yourself, begin with a business plan that has line-item budgeting for PR.

When hiring a professional PR resource, submit your proposal to several different ones and ask for their bid. If you approach half a dozen of the more seasoned independent publicist firms (and just vette some of the names on this publisher forum to create your list) you will get a reliable idea of how much things cost, from sending out publicity releases to reviewers, to pitching media for appearances, to arranging a book tour, etc., etc.

3. If I did sign with a major publishing house, who sets up the book tours/promotional tours and who pays for those expenses? does the writer have any input to encourage the publishing house to spend more money to promote the book?

Again, all these items must be specified in your contract -- otherwise you are on a collision course with disappointment. Novice and mid-list writers have very little clout with major publishers as to how large a promotional budget is going to be. And promotional budget determines PR staff time, book tour allotments, review copy numbers, etc. By the way, it all comes out of the author's end as being figured out in advance by the majors on how much they are going to pay you up front (remembering that royalties won't kick in to you until the major house's advance is earned back from book sales).

4. When the publishing house no longer promotes a title, what recourse does the writer have in terms of promoting the title themselves? Can I buy back the rights to the book? Is that a sound idea or is it not worthwhile?

Usually authors can. But again, that should be an item in your original contract. Whether or not it's a good financial idea depends on whether or not you think you can keep selling copies of your book season after season, year after year, once the major house has let the title go out of print (remembering that a single season is the typical lifespan for most books put out by major houses).

5. If you sign a publishing deal with a major house and the standard contract indicates that they want first refusal on the next X number of your books, does that have to remain in the contract or can I have that removed so that they have no option on any future titles?

You can negotiate anything. Whether or not you would be successful depends on how badly a major house wants your book. Wanting first refusal rights to your next book(s) is a major house's way of trying to stake a claim in case you are one of the writer's whose first book with them turns out to be quite profitable. It's usually not a good idea for the writer to be locked in that way. Try to avoid it if you can, but if it turns out to be a deal breaker for the major house, then think of how badly you want them to put your book out -- there is no right or wrong answer here, it's just a matter of badly you want them to publish you.

6. Last, but surely not least, are there any list members who have signed with major houses and can you share your experiences with the rest of us? Good/Bad? Would you do it again?

I can even respond here too. More than half a lifetime ago I wrote and self-published (with the help of my step-father who bought an old 19th century hand operated printing press as a hobby) a book on Mormon history ("The Contributions Of Joseph Smith To Plural Marriage"). It was a one thousand print run. It sold out in about six months. I was approached by a major house for bringing it out as a mass market paperback. I was dazzled. I was also still in college, with a wife and a son, working part-time as a janitor, dependent on family and scholarships to continue.

The money was good, but I turned the deal down. The house (long since defunct, a casualty of the 1980s "merger mania") wanted to have me do a bit of re-writing (a combination of dumbing down and sensationalizing up!).

I've never regretted my decision -- and I still have a couple of copies of that old book that I'm saving for the next generation of grandkids.

So the bottom line on whether or not to have a major house publish your book is this:

They never have your best interests at heart -- nor should they. They should have their shareholders, employees, and customer's best interests at heart, with yours as a kind of corporate afterthought -- the more successful your book in making money for them, the nicer they'll be to keep you -- because now it's in their best interests to do so.

Ever notice how its the writers who are lowest on the prestige totem pole in the Hollywood film and television industries? I often think that same phenomena seems to holds true within the corporate bowels of the major houses.

A major house is more experienced at the art of the deal than you are. If you want something from them (promotional budget, publicity assistance, advertising expertise) you will have to have it clearly and concisely spelled out in your contract -- or it probably won't be there when you need it.

Plus there's another problem with the majors -- they tend to have an horrific turn over of staff. So the editor or publicist you begin with, may well not be the one you end with.

This is one problem usually not encountered with small press, regional, and specialty houses.

Good luck!

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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