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Does Trad Publishing Require an Interpretive Dance Routine?

Published on April 17, 2024

I read two interesting and related blog posts earlier in April from authors that I wanted to share here.

The first is from Lorraine Wilson called Is There a Book Submissions Arms Race? I was led to this post via a response/follow up post from Lilith Saintcrow titled We Gotta Talk about (Trad) Publishing.

My background

Before I dive in to why I’m sharing them here, let me just remind everyone that I used to work in trad publishing as an acquiring editor/editorial director (for 15 years!) and while I do now run my own business that depends quite largely on indie publishing, part of my business is still working with trad publishers, authors interested in trad publishing, and I also still have ties (some of them quite close) with some agents and others working in publishing.

All that to say, of course I have opinions and biases. We all do. But I also have a whole lot of behind-the-scenes knowledge and personal experience as an acquiring editor, working within a publishing house, with a sales team trying to get books into retailers like Walmart and B&N.

The setup

We’ll start with the post from Wilson. In this post, she talks about the submission process, working with an agent, and trying to get noticed by editors in an increasingly tough market. It’s an interesting post with a lot of speculation and I’ll let you read it yourself but here’s the main point:


She discusses a trend where agents add/suggest the author add extra material to submissions to make them more attractive, such as moodboards, audio recordings, character art, and other creative embellishments. This approach aims to make submissions stand out in crowded editor inboxes and is described as part of an emerging “arms race” in the submission process.

Lilith Saintcrow’s post responds to this and she says:

Here’s the thing: Trad publishing is not only expecting authors to write the damn book and wait to find a reputable agent (one should do one’s due diligence in that area as a matter of course), but also expecting a writer to wait half a year to a whole year** for an editor to even look at the work, and then expecting us to do all the marketing as well?

What precisely are we paying trad publishers a percentage for, then? Cover art, when multibillion-dollar trad houses are using plagiarism machines to make the covers for even hotly anticipated titles? Marketing, which we’re supposed to do ourselves? Editorial services and support, from editors so overworked it takes them a year to answer emails? Really?

Really?

An agent gets a percentage of work sold, so it’s in their interests to find a way through the tangle. But is that way forcing the author to do up fucking moodboards or audio, or other labor-intensive gewgaws? Seriously, what the hell is this nonsense? We’re supposed to do the agent’s job as well as the editor’s and the marketing department’s, in return for…what, exactly?

I have so many thoughts about all of this. SO MANY THOUGHTS. Far too many thoughts for an email, so maybe we should schedule a live call where we chat about the state of trad publishing? I just thought of that while I was typing this out, so if you think you’d be interested, just click here and it will register your interest (don’t worry, it doesn’t commit you to anything, just tells me if we should make it a thing!)?

But here’s the TL;DR of my thoughts:?

Trust me, most editors don’t want bells & whistles in a query or anything that’s going to require even more time from them. As these posts mention, in-house editors are slammed, they are tired, and they enough to look at. So do they want bells & whistles that they have to spend more time with? Generally nope. Things that bring the work alive in a way that makes it easy to sell to the retail buyer (Walmart/B&N), sure.*** Things that just are shiny and meant to glitter but provide no substance and just require more time and energy resources? No.

A slightly more expansive answer:

Remember, when editors get a submission, the #1 thing they’re looking for is a book they can take to the sales team to take to the retail buyer and get it put on the extremely shrinking shelves. Right now, that’s mostly books that have TikTok/BookTok appeal. Think I’m wrong? Go stare at the book selection of your local Walmart for a bit and then come back to me.

So what has TikTok appeal? Books with a great marketing hook, a compelling story, characters the readers want to wear skin suits of (yeah, I said it, lol), and just an overall easy-to-sell and easy-to-market package.

That doesn’t take mood boards, character art or chapters read aloud. That takes an author paying attention to the market, crafting a pitch that hits the current market notes, and then writing a book that delivers on that pitch. And then it requires an agent who really knows their shit, has excellent connection to the editors at the various houses, understands what is selling and what editors are looking for, and who can pull together a pitch that those editors will want to take the time to read–because they know and trust those agents.

There are things required of the agent and author in this ecosystem, and character art isn’t one of those requirements.

Now, that said, does having a marketing plan help? Sure, acquisitions editors and acquisition teams are always going to look at an author’s platform, what they’re already doing to market themselves and if they have an online presence or platform. Sometimes that can tip the scales.

Is it required to have any of those things? Again, no. I know many debut authors who’ve gotten contracts (yes, recently) on the basis of their manuscripts, having no or little social media presence, no marketing knowledge and not much knowledge or idea of how they’re going to embark on any of it.

On the flip side, because I think there are so many excellent points in both Wilson’s and Saintcrow’s posts, trad publishing is not the same environment it used to be. In-house editors are playing the role of acquiring editor and project manager, with a lot of the editing being sourced to contract editors (like me!) because they don’t have time for the in-depth editorial work. Which is a shame, because editors are editors for the love of the books, not the love of project management.

Publishers do have less to offer than in previous years: less opportunity to get into more retail spaces, less marketing dollars, less people working on the books as they cut staff to cut costs (it’s counterintuitive and THAT is a whole other conversation), less publicity opportunities, more expectations of authors to do social media marketing with less support, and just…a whole lot less of everything.

Except more AI. It’s a fact that we’re going to see more generative AI being used by publishers because if there’s one thing those corporations love, it’s anything that saves them money and allows them to either cut more staff or hire less people.

But if your dream is to publish with a trad publisher, then that is your dream and other people shouldn’t be able to tell you it’s ridiculous, outdated, try to talk you out of it because it’s not their dream or otherwise say “you don’t need a publisher” because maybe, the fact is, you do need a publisher for whatever reasons of your own. You do it your way!

Publishing is unlikely to ever return to the “good ol’ days” (a phrase steeped in racism, misogyny and barriers to entry anyway) and indie publishing is not the perfect solution for everyone either, so the best path forward is always going to be the one that best fits within your own vision of success.

Ultimately, you tell me: is that path for you going to be trad publishing, indie publishing, or a hybrid?

If you have questions about all this, let me know. Talking about trad publishing is still one of my favorite things, especially now that I don’t have to have a filter 🙂

~Angela

* This is a quote from Galaxy Quest. Great quote. Fun movie!

** It’s taken editors 6 months to a year to respond for…decades. That’s not new. However, if you have a good agent, editors usually get back in much less time than that.

***In the trad publishing ecosystem, it goes author sells to agent, who needs to know they can sell it to an editor, whose main job is going to be to get projects that the sales team can convince the retail buyers (again, Walmart, B&N, Indigo, etc) to put it on the shelves. The reader is important in that they’re the ones who will buy it, but the ultimate gatekeeper and who needs convincing is the retail buyer and they want to see that readers are going to flock to it because TikTok made them do it.

Written by Angela James

A #1 New York Times bestselling indie editor and author career coach, Angela James (she/her) has enjoyed 20+ years in genre fiction publishing and has edited bestselling books and authors, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Paper Princess by Erin Watt, as well as hundreds of other authors such as Shelly Laurenston/G.A. Aiken, Kylie Scott, Autumn Lake Jones, A.C. Arthur, Alexa Riley, Ilona Andrews, Lilith Saintcrow, Josh Lanyon and more. She is also the creator of Before You Hit Send: a popular online self-editing and writing workshop as well as From Written to Recommended, a robust author community, and the Book Boss group coaching program.

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