Fellow authors sometimes write to me for recommendations in terms of which publishing companies they should consider when submitting their historical fiction novels. At this point in my career, I’ve published with several different companies, big and small. I’ve also dabbled in self-publishing. I can only speak from my own experience and the knowledge I have gained from friends, industry surveys and conferences. That caveat aside, here’s my take on it.
My answer is, invariably, it depends. It depends on your goals, your sub-genre, your time period, your skill level, and the resources available to you. I come at the problem from the perspective of someone who wishes to be a working writer and achieve a wide readership. If those aren’t your goals, some of this advice won’t apply to you. That said, here we go.
Self-Publishing is a viable but limited option at this time.
At the time of the writing of this blog post, historical fiction is a genre whose readers are primarily aficionados of the printed book. Self-publishing need not be digital only; in fact, two of my own self-published books–A Day of Fire and A Year of Ravens—are both available in print. But the most difficult aspect of self-publishing is achieving the necessary distribution in brick and mortar stores to reach historical readers. It’s by no means impossible, and there are success stories of brilliant author-entrepreneurs who have found a way. Authors like E. Knight and Libbie Hawker have made it work for them and maybe it can work for you too. But it’s a hurdle. There’s a learning curve. It also requires a monetary investment.
Big Five Publishers still dominate in distribution and marketing.
If you’re looking for your novel to be a big breakout bestseller, you should probably write something other than historical fiction. Just kidding! Mostly. Historical fiction is a niche genre. At the time of this writing, the industry is ruled by thriller novels and romance. But historicals have some unique advantages; first of all, they are a part and parcel of other genres. There are historical romances and historical thrillers. There are even historical fantasies. A second advantage is that historicals have a very long shelf-life. They’re already ‘dated’ by definition. And if they cover a time period of interest to certain people, there’s an evergreen effect. (For example, people are always going to be interested in Cleopatra, and therefore, there’s a resilience to my Nile books about her daughter that wouldn’t necessarily be present if I’d chosen to write about a random person in the ancient world.) Because of the nature of historicals, they can often be considered more weighty and literary than other genres, and, depending on a whole host of factors, have great potential when it comes to subsidiary rights like film and foreign sales.
This combination of advantages lends itself well to the strengths of major publishing houses. Big Five publishers can negotiate that precious front-table space in bookstores. They can put a marketing budget behind your project. They can get you industry reviews, appearances, advertisement, and superior distribution. The question is: will they?
Not all books are treated the same way by publishers. They don’t get the same budgets or resources. It’s possible your book was doomed to obscurity just by virtue of a better (or at least more perceivably marketable) book coming out from your publisher in the same month. These factors are largely out of your control. And I cannot stress this enough: Publishing is not a merit based business. The only thing you can do is write the best, most marketable book that you can, and be proactive throughout the publishing process so that if a lucky break is coming your way, you can seize it.
When a big five publisher decides to put their weight behind your book, you feel it, and it’s glorious. When they don’t, it’s an exercise in frustration and disappointment. Sometimes even embitterment. But which of the big five publishers is the best one for your book? I have no idea. There are so many different imprints that it’d be impossible to say which one was best suited to someone else’s work. This is where an agent’s advice would be handy, and is probably essential given that most of the big five don’t take un-agented submissions.
With big five publishers, editorial feedback can range from non-existent to excellent. Marketing and publicity support can range from non-existent to excellent. Contracts can be great and fair, or draconian. Loss of control over your work can be to your benefit (if you don’t know what you’re doing) to disastrous (when you know better).
When I write a book now, I tend to know right off the bat if it’s the kind of book that requires a big five publisher or not. If it’s the kind of book people already search for, I have more flexibility. If it’s the kind of book that won’t be found by readers without a big team to support it, then it’s big five publisher or bust.
No matter what the circumstances, what I have loved most about working with major publishers is the professionalism. No matter how frustrated I have become at any juncture, everyone has behaved cordially and professionally. Everyone has given generously of their expertise and I’m entirely persuaded by the strength of a team effort. I’ve met fantastic industry professionals and have nothing but mad respect for the people I have worked with.
My author friends who have been published by Amazon imprints seem happy.
I have not published with any Amazon imprint at this point, but would consider doing so in the future under the right circumstances and with the right project. I know of many success stories, particularly from the Lake Union imprint. Amazon publishing imprints seem to go out of their way to make their authors happy with little gifts and recognition that go a long way in a profession that can be so solitary and devoid of validation. And of course, Amazon has a number of tools at their disposal to help with distribution and visibility in the marketplace. As of the time of the writing of this blog post, I think it’s a great option.
Small press publishers are hit or miss for historical fiction, but mostly miss.
This is the part of this essay that is likely to get me into the most trouble, but I’m going to stand by it, with a few qualifications. Firstly, I’m specifically talking about historical fiction; small presses can be the best option in many other genres. Secondly, it’s important to note that not all small presses are created equal. Some have agreements with larger companies that aid them in getting distribution to libraries and bookstores for your print books–and I don’t just mean that they’re available to libraries and bookstores, but that they are actually in the stores, on the front tables, not just in the stacks. Some small presses can push industry reviews and garner awards and all sorts of success for your book. But these are rare, so you need to do your homework. Find out when the last time was that the small press had a historical hit a NYT or USA Today bestseller list. What about Amazon top #100? (And I don’t mean in the genre, but overall in the store.) If the answer is never, that tells you that there’s an upper limit to your success with this small press. When was the last time the small press garnered reviews for its books by Kirkus, Library Journal, etc. If the answer is never, that tells you the industry doesn’t take books from this small press seriously. When was the last time the small press bought up ad space or special promotions like Bookbub? If the answer is never, then you know you will probably be better off self-publishing. Does the small press make the book available in print? If the book is going to be available digital only, that is, for historical novels, a bad sign. What’s the cover art for other titles like? If the cover art on existing titles is so-so, that’s a disastrous sign. Talk to other authors who have published with them and ask them, confidentially, what it’s like to work with this publishing company. The worst, most abusive behavior in the industry that I know of has come out of small presses. If you hear stories that have even a whiff of fraud, abuse, fiduciary incompetence or simple disrespect for an author’s time or personal life, you need to run the other direction.
So there’s you have it. The Drayvanian philosophy on publishing options–subject to change as the industry grows and evolves. And it always does…