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A friend who is in the local University’s creative writing program sent me an email that had been forwarded around among students there about a “pitch the publisher” contest, inviting unpublished writers to attend an in-person “pitch session” with the heads of three small publishers. My opinion was solicited. I gave it. It was harsh.

Since I ended up writing a lot, and since I thought it might be useful to others, I’ve decided to recast my thoughts here as a blog post (maybe a little less harshly).

I’ve never heard of any of the publishers involved in this contest. Which may mean nothing. But it sets off alarm bells. There are a lot of well-meaning people who call themselves “publishers” who have no idea what they’re doing. One way they fill up their catalogs is with “contests.” If a publisher is worth working with, he/she probably won’t be having a “contest” to find talent. That’s maybe not always true. But it’s maybe almost always true.

More importantly: publishers are becoming less and less relevant these days — even big publishers, like HarperCollins and St. Martin’s, are struggling to justify their existence to authors. A publisher needs to be able to do a lot more than just pay the printing bill. A publisher has to justify the huge amount of your money it takes from every sale (I got eighty cents out of every twenty-dollar sale of my St. Martin’s book) by providing serious promotion, serious connections to the industry, and putting serious money into making a beautiful and attractive product.

Unless a small press publisher is a well-established force in its niche (like, say, Alyson for gay lit, or Fantagraphics for literary/”fine art” graphic novels), you probably don’t need them.

Here are some questions you should ask, and some research points you should look into, before pitching to any publisher:

  • How long have they been in business?
  • How many books have they put out?
  • How many of those books have you heard of?
  • Can this publisher help you get prime placement in bookstores? With the exception of employee recommendation shelves, prime placement in bookstores is something that publishers pay big money for. They won’t tell you the answer to this, but you can find out yourself by walking into any large bookstore and looking for the publisher’s most recent bestselling titles (which they will tell you, if they have any). How difficult are they to find? Are they in there at all?
  • Have you seen any of this publisher’s authors on television? Again, a good publisher can work that magic.
  • Heard interviews with them on the radio?
  • Have any of this publisher’s authors given readings/signings in your area lately? If the publisher is local, this may not be a good indicator, but it does at least show some effort.
  • What about nationally — can you Google the author’s names and find evidence of a promotional plan at all? Readings/signings anywhere in the country?
  • When you Google these authors, and find (inevitably) their blogs, what do they say about their sales? What do they say about their publisher?
  • What do the covers look like? An important role a publisher plays is creation of a beautiful end-product for sale.
  • Are this publisher’s books reviewed prominently (for good or for ill) in any major magazines (NY Review of Books, New Yorker, etc) or genre-important magazines (Locus for science fiction, etc). A strong publisher is able to “place” mentions & reviews — something authors aren’t able to do on their own.

If you are looking to go the publisher route, I highly recommend finding agents to pitch to, rather than working one of these “contests.” A good agent will give you validation that your work is good, and will also help you navigate it to the best possible publishing deal. Yes, they will take another sliver of your money — but a good agent will end up making your sliver and hers much larger.

Okay. Now. All that said?

What I really recommend is self-publishing your first few books in e-book form. That’s becoming the norm. Big publishers are picking up popular e-book authors after they’ve taken the initiative to build an audience on their own. After you’ve done that work, you’ll be in a much stronger position to negotiate with any publisher who comes knocking. And they will. And you may just decide you don’t need them after all.

There’s a lot of hype out there about self-publishing. Don’t believe all of the hype. Don’t drink all of the Kool-Aid. But believe some of it; drink some of it.