AMA: Your Publishing Questions Answered (Part I)
Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for our AMA! We’ve answered them all to the best of our ability. In fact, there were so many great questions that we’ve split the answers into two blog posts. Click here for Part II!
Please note that these answers are based on our personal experience in the industry, and that every publishing house has its own style and opinions. Your mileage may vary!
We hope you all find this helpful on your publishing journeys.
1.) Is it possible to earn a traditional publishing contract without having a literary agent? (Other than through Swoon Reads, of course.)
Possible? Technically yes. But the majority of traditional publishers—especially the big houses—don’t accept unsolicited (aka unagented) submissions. Sometimes authors can get a traditional contract if they have personal connections at a house, or if the publisher approaches them for a work-for-hire situation. Or sometimes an author can make direct connections with an editor at a writing conference and will be invited to submit their work to that editor directly.
Tl;dr: Yes, it’s possible, but definitely more difficult.
2.) If someone was previously self-published, are they obligated to publish traditionally under a different name?
Not necessarily! There are a few different reasons an author might change their pen name when they make the move from self-publishing to traditional publishing. If they self-published adult sci-fi and now want to publish YA contemporary traditionally, they may use a pen name for their YA as a way to distinguish their different genres of work. Sometimes if an author has a less-than-stellar sales track under one name, their publisher may recommend they use a pen name for their new work to help get around that. Sometimes authors want to maintain a little anonymity in their personal life, or sometimes they use a pen name just for fun! There are tons of reasons why an author might use a pen name, but it’s ultimately the author’s choice to do so.
3.) What's the full truth behind advances and is the rumor true that a small advance means the publisher has little faith in your book?
This is kind of a tough question to answer, because advance levels vary wildly by publishing house, but getting a “smaller” advance does NOT mean your publisher has no faith in your book! (Honestly, we don’t know of any editor anywhere that would buy a book they didn’t love and believe in.)
Advances can vary based on a lot of factors. The book’s advance might get driven up by multiple houses being interested in it—agents get to hold auctions all the time. On the flip side, if there’s only one editor that’s interested, they’re not going to have to offer as much money to acquire it since there’s no competition. Debut authors also may get smaller offers because their books are untested in the market, but that’s certainly not a rule—we’re sure you’ve all heard of splashy six- and seven-figure deals for debuts.
And yes, of course a factor in advance level is how your publisher estimates your book will perform in the market, but a low advance doesn’t equal “this book isn’t going to sell.” A lot of publishers would happily take a “small” book that they think will earn out—meaning it sells enough copies to earn back the money paid in advance—over a “big” book that probably won’t. (And the higher the advance, the harder it is to earn out.)
It’s all a very tricky, nebulous system.
4.) If you write mostly fantasy but the first book that you trad pub is sci-fi, does it obligate you to continue in the sci-fi genre or can you expand to other genres instead (including never write another sci-fi book)?
Most publishers will probably want an author to write at least two books in the same genre to begin with. If they’re building your audience based on your first book, then it often helps if the next book will appeal to the same audience.
But, this doesn’t mean you’re going to be writing in that same genre forever! Plenty of authors branch into a new one for a subsequent book. Or, if you’re really prolific, you might publish one genre with one publisher, and a different genre with another. V.E./Victoria Schwab is a great example of this: She publishes her adult epic fantasy (Shades of Magic series) with Tor, her YA urban fantasy (This Savage Song) with Greenwillow/HarperCollins, and her middle-grade paranormal (City of Ghosts) with Scholastic.
5.) Which YA genres are considered “popular” or a better fit with publishers and which are considered longshots (harder to get picked up)?
This can greatly vary from publisher to publisher. And, even more bafflingly, it can vary greatly from week to week!
Which genres are and aren’t “working” for a publisher typically depends on how that particular genre is performing in the current marketplace, and the marketplace changes its mind all the time. A genre that’s hot one week isn’t guaranteed to still be hot the next week—let alone the next year!
Trends are impossible to predict to any degree of certainty. Even a book that a publisher is initially not sure about could end up being a surprise hit two years later when it actually pubs, and something considered to be a sure thing could flop.
Another thing to consider is that different publishers specialize in certain genres, often because of the specific skills and backgrounds of their employees. So it’s important to do your research and talk to your agent about where they’re submitting your book.
The important thing you should take away from this is don’t write to trends. Don’t write a book specifically because the genre seems to be popular. Write the book you want to write.
6.) Is there anything in publishing that you all personally feel isn't often talked about/overlooked in general?
Whew, that’s a tough one.
We would say one of the most overlooked aspects about publishing is just how many people are involved in making ALL of the decisions, from which books to acquire to what the cover should look like to how a book is marketed.
Often it feels like editors are seen as having all the power and making all the decisions about a book, but that simply isn’t true. There are a lot of different teams within a publishing house who get a say—and the different viewpoints brought by all of them are invaluable!
7.) In terms of word counts, what do you feel would be a hard limit for a debut in SFF YA/NA fiction?
Honestly? There isn’t a hard limit per se. Some genres like sci-fi/fantasy just inherently tend to be longer than, say, contemporary romance. We would estimate the average for a YA novel in general to be around 60-80K words, but there’s plenty of debut fiction out there that easily clears 100K.
We would caution against going too much longer than 100K, though. Firstly because yikes, that is a daunting length for an editor to read on submission. You don’t want them thinking of your manuscript as a chore before they even read it. Secondly, there is actually a point where a book will literally become too long for the publisher to afford printing it! So, less is usually more.
If you’re going through revisions and it’s getting up there word-count-wise, keep asking yourself if a given scene is moving the story forward and keeping the reader engaged. Is this scene necessary to furthering the plot? If the answer is no, you can most likely chop it.
ICYMI: Click here for Part II