Picture taken from this site.
What could be done by aspiring authors, trying to get their work published in a traditional way (I mean: without paying for it)?
I intend to write here primarily on the issue of unagented submissions, but my reflections would have also some validity in the case of search for an agent.
There are three key points: hard work, persistence, and caution.
The ultimate goal is a well readable, elegant, interesting text (not only for the one who wrote it), without errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, and plot – anyway, this would be an ideal situation.
Polishing a text by an author is most fruitful when efforts are quite proportional to the results. Nevertheless, this is often the case only at the beginning, but at some point, efficiency starts to diminish. The author won`t be able to see many of his/her errors. That`s why beta readers` feedback (at least two of them) is essential before submitting.
The chances of signing a publishing agreement are only about 1/500, when traditional publishers are considered separately. And this step is just the beginning. Great commercial success of an already published book (I mean at least 1 million copies sold) is far less probable for aspiring authors. Statistically, it would be only slightly more likely than to be killed by a meteorite. Fortunately (or not), this business is not a lottery.
Many people believe that (1) if an author has a good text, she or he would find a traditional publisher, sooner or later. When this sentence is treated like a dogma, it could be detrimental to many beginning authors.
Usually (1) is true, but sometimes books are very controversial or are targeted at a tiny group of readers, so authors give up their battle and/or seek alternative ways.
Even if (1) were always true, it would not mean that all books of authors who self-published or published with a vanity press, are without worth. Nevertheless, many people are eager to draw this unfair conclusion.
Publishers are primarily business persons, they need something they could sell well. A publisher would be ready to invest time, work, and money in professional editing, proofreading, and marketing only when she or he expects that a book might become successful. The problem is that the relation between quality of a text and the market value of it, is rather vague.
It would be far easier to publish a book for example about unusual sexual practices of famous actors than about two ordinary people simply talking while sitting on the sofa, but the better is a text, the greater are chances of publishing it in a traditional way.
Publishers could make a profit either on authors or on readers.
Bearing this in mind, I avoid people:
from the first group, because they are simply often scam artists, and usually do not care for quality and distribution of their “products”; they merely take advantage of the fact that many authors are enthiusiastic enough about their own works to pay publisher`s fee;
having unprofessional websites, and/or poor, ugly book covers, because it is an important warning; this means often that the quality of work is not especially important to a publisher;
making promises of success, for they usually play on authors` emotions, trying to allure possible clients by the testimonials, and photos of happy authors; this is the author who acts here as a petitioner, not a publisher, because reliable publishers have many more good proposals than possibilities to realize them, besides, they would not promise anything in regarding to sales, especially to a beginning author – far less even before seeing the text;
informing that some of their authors have to pay in order to have their works published, while others (the best) are published in a traditional way, because in practice in almost all cases it means that authors would be charged a fee; these are just vanity presses in disguise;
declaring that they divide the costs between a publisher and an author (so-called subsidy publishers), because in almost all cases an author would pay all the (usually inflated) costs;
informing that they publish books by mostly new, unrecognized authors, because it`s virtually impossible to make a living from it. They are also usually vanity presses in disguise.
Sometimes publishers promise that they do not charge a fee, nonetheless, they expect authors to buy their own books. This is also a kind of vanity press, often hard to detect at first.
And when hard work, persistence, and caution is not enough to become a published author by a reputable company, it`s high time to seriously consider the bitter possibility that the author doesn`t have writing talent. This wouldn`t be a tragedy at all.