Thanks but No Thanks, Big Five. I'd Rather Be At SWP.

As any of you who have read my recent blog posts know, I finished my first novel a few months ago, and, a few weeks ago, my agent submitted it to a fairly heady list of some of the biggest editors in the business.  And guess what? I got a deal! A good deal, from one of the Big Five (which until recently was the Big Six, until Penguin and RandomHouse merged to form an entity that comprises a whopping 25% of the book market) within weeks of submitting the manuscript. 

But I’m not taking it.

Why not?  The short answer is, the deal wasn't good enough.  My agent (and I) had hoped I would get an offer I couldn't refuse -- the kind of offer that lets you know a publisher is going to put your book at the top of its list and put the considerable weight of its infrastructure, budget and expertise behind you.  But those offers are extremely rare, and, unsurprisingly, I didn’t get one like that. I got one a lot like the offer I got on my first book, which I accepted gratefully nearly ten years ago: from a major house, with a good advance and a well-respected editor attached.  But then, as now, the message was not, “We will do anything to have this book!” It was more like, “We like this enough to publish it and see what happens. (And you'd better have a good platform.)” 

It was the kind of deal I'd told myself I wouldn't accept, and yet...I still considered taking it.  Even as the founder of an independent press, with an attractive publishing option of my own, it was enormously hard to shake the conventional wisdom that says it is always better to publish your book with a Big Five publisher, no matter what the advance is, or whether you think they will make your book a priority, than it is to publish with an indie, or (quelle horreur), to invest in publishing it yourself. First try to get a traditional book deal, the thinking goes, and if you can't, then move on to explore other options. 

In the end, I was able to think clearly, and arrive at the right decision for me. For many writers, going with the deal I was offered would absolutely be the right decision. There are many factors to consider, perhaps most importantly whether you can afford to wait on book sales and forgo an advance. It isn't a simple matter of super-big-deal or CreateSpace-here-I-come. (That would be really silly.) I am here to argue, however, that it is high time to break free of viewing the traditional book deal with a big publishing house as the primary goal, neglecting to consider other publishing options until that avenue has been exhausted. These options should instead be considered side-by-side. Because in light of the opportunities new technologies present, unexamined acceptance of the average midlist book deal is shortsighted at best. At worst, it can be damaging to an author's career.

I'm currently at work on a piece explaining why I am one hundred percent convinced this is true. At the heart of it lies the critical question authors should ask of any book deal: what am I getting in exchange for what I'm giving up? Please stay tuned! And in the meantime, a big shout out to my fellow authors at SWP. I am so proud and excited to be officially joining your ranks. (My novel will pub in fall of 2014.)  We are on the cutting edge together, and, despite my recent detour--or perhaps even more enthusiastically because of it--there is nowhere I'd rather be.

(Any questions about whether SWP is on the cutting edge might be answered here: check out this press release about our recent distribution deal with Ingram Publisher Services!)

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Comment by S.C. Rhyne on October 28, 2013 at 7:32am

This was one of the first posts I saw, and why I joined First off, it is an honor to offered a contract by a traditional publisher, especially from one of the big 6 houses. But, what many authors need to know is that those contract details aren't always in your best interest. I recently met another young writer, who was offered a contract by....a big 6 house, and they would publish his book and anything else he wrote for 5 years afterwards. They didn't do any promotion for his book, and I don't think he had a lot of support, so he decided to publish on his own. Unless you're a top performing writer (top 10% like Nicholas Sparks, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling...) the pub houses don't spend a lot of time/energy/resources marketing you. But some people may argue that having the name behind your book carries weight. I don't think that's true, because unless I'm doing citation/bibliography I rarely look for who published it.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on October 24, 2013 at 9:15am

Oh thanks Maureen, I will check that out!  And thanks for all the other good wishes!

Comment by Maureen E. Doallas on October 24, 2013 at 6:10am

There is a new magazine, Scratch, that is exploring issues in the publishing industry. Your topic about going or not going with a Big 5 publisher might be a good fit for the magazine. (It is making its inaugural edition openly accessible but is intending to be a subscription-based online mag.)

Comment by Anjuelle Floyd on October 24, 2013 at 2:24am

 Congrats on making the right decision concerning your book and saying, "Thanks, but no thanks to one of the big 5."  I really liked your post.

Comment by Laura Nicole Diamond on October 23, 2013 at 12:05pm

Kamy, thanks for your response. It is really helpful. When I decided to submit to SWP, I will feel better knowing that the standards are as high as those in traditional publishing. In fact, it never occurred to me before that SWP may be judging the quality of writing even more than the traditional houses may be, because of the business model.

Comment by Jane Galer on October 23, 2013 at 11:48am

Congratulations, Kamy! I completely support and agree with your decision. You join the ranks of Jane Austin and Virginia Woolf...there is no better way to break the strangle hold of the Big Five than to take the step you have taken. Welcome to the new world of publishing!

Comment by Jessica Vealitzek on October 23, 2013 at 11:44am

Thanks for addressing that, Kamy. I was worried, too, and still find myself feeling a little defensive at times. And it's hard to explain it to people or to change an assumption without sounding defensive. You put it very well.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on October 23, 2013 at 11:38am

Laura, I am SO glad you asked that -- to tell you the truth, some part of me felt the same way, and I think that it was that in addition to wanting to see what another deal might like look like, I wanted to know if it was "good enough." What I learned was that the judgments being made about my book had almost nothing to do with how good it was, and almost everything to do with internal concerns at the houses, marketing, and things like "category," "brand" and "what's 'in'" right now. It was a big lesson for me in learning to trust myself and my judgment about my work -- and also Brooke's.  Brooke is actually a really tough editor, and made my book 100% better than it was before. SWP standard's are up to the industry with one wonderful difference -- because our business model relies on author's payment for editorial and production, we can judge manuscripts PURELY on how good they are, not on whether we think they will sell.

Comment by Jean P. Moore on October 23, 2013 at 6:24am

Congratulations, Kamy, on your offer and on your decision to refuse it! I am certain, like you, that you and Brooke have created an innovative new model for publishing that will become THE new model others will try to emulate. I couldn't be happier about my decision to join your ranks! 

Comment by Laura Nicole Diamond on October 22, 2013 at 9:55pm

I'm very happy for you, both for the publisher's offer and for your clarity of purpose to go with SWP. Mazel tov!

I wonder if you might address a concern I have as a first time novelist -- is my book good enough? Fiction is outside of my comfort zone, so I have been working on the premise that getting a traditional publisher to say "Yes" to my novel would bless and confirm that it is indeed good enough. I know SWP does some level of vetting, but I intuit that the publisher's standards would have to be higher, because they are taking a bigger risk. What do you think? Thanks so much for your words of wisdom on this. (And your decision to go with SWP does say a whole lot!)


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