When I started out in the book publishing industry as an editorial assistant, I managed what was disparagingly known as the “slush pile.”
This substantial pile was where all of the unsolicited submissions from hopeful authors sat until my junior eye perused them, either deeming them worthy of the managing editor’s attention or relegating them to my form-letter rejection stack.
When I became a senior editor, the process of dealing with what “came in over the transom” remained unchanged. Almost all of the books we published came from agents or were projects we created. The rejection rate in traditional publishing was 99% then, and it still is today.
There was every reason to believe that things would never change – that the few would always decide the fate of the many. (After all, even Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times before it was published.) And then, in November 2007, Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing – an ebook publishing platform with a worldwide distribution network. It allowed any writer, virtually anywhere, to upload his or her book and become a published author.
At about the same time, Canadian publishing saw the closure, merger or multinational takeover of several houses (mine included), leaving even fewer options for authors looking for a publishing deal. The book publishing landscape was finally changing, and with this awareness (and, in part, out of necessity), a large cache of talent – editors, designers, publicists – made the move from working in house to on contract. Now authors could publish digitally and avoid the prohibitive cost of a physical print run, and they could get the professional help they needed to create a quality publication.
But not everyone sought help, and a lot of poorly edited books with bad covers hit the market. Sure, there were the breakout self-publishing successes (take David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber, for example), but there was a key lesson to be learned by authors who wanted to do well, and it was this: you can’t do it all yourself, all the time. Self-published authors need a good editor and a good cover designer, and they need to treat the launch of their book as a business. That means they need to invest in help, and they need to view their book as product, know their audience and market it to them strategically. That’s what Greta Podleski did when she self-published her latest cookbook, Yum & Yummer, in the fall of 2017. It has sold over 310,000 copies to date, outselling new releases by Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi.
The good news is that today, there are a lot of print and online resources, as well as self-publishing consultancy companies like mine, that writers can access for help. While our business model is a collaborative, team-building one in which authors maintain creative control over their work, there are a variety of consultancies to choose from, and authors should read the fine print and work with the company best suited to achieving their goals. This is an exciting time to be an author, and the truth is, with the small (or non-existent) advances and extremely variable marketing support offered by publishing houses to first-time authors, the traditional route is no longer the golden ticket that it was once perceived to be. There are fewer reasons for authors to work with publishing houses, especially when they can get the help they need to publish independently and retain their copyright, get to market quickly and earn a higher royalty rate than the approximately 10% of list price that a traditional house will offer. This shift toward autonomy is the future of book publishing, and it is an overdue and welcome change. •
Rachelle Kanefsky is co-principal of Behind the Book (behindthebook.ca). She and her partner have over 25 years of book publishing experience and have worked in some of Canada’s most esteemed houses, including Macmillan Canada, HarperCollins, Raincoast Books, and ECW Press. Today, they help authors across Canada self-publish award-winning books.