Bottom Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 Words Or Less)
Selling a book used to mean four things: a respectable advance, a respectable promotion budget and effort, your book would appear on store shelves, and your publisher would gladly publish anything new you had to offer. Thanks to industry consolidations, just 6 media megaconglomerates now dominate American publishing, and they are bottom-line focused with a vengeance. In an industry that has historically, consistently seen profit margins ranging from 4-8%, media megas are determined to squeeze out 15% or more. They don't want books they predict will bring in typical 'midlist' sales (5-40,000 copies), so they don't buy so-called 'small' books from new authors, nor from authors who've been raking in steady, reliable sales for years. Now, for all but celebrity, bestselling and prestige clients, advances are paltry, promotional budgets and efforts are nonexistent, there's no guarantee your book will appear in brick-and-mortar stores, and your publisher won't want your next manuscript unless the one they just bought sells more than 40K copies. This deal could only be more unattractive if authors also had to deliver coffee to the publisher each morning, yet aspiring authors everywhere continue to grovel at the feet of the media megas. WHY?!
Go On An' Run Yo Mouth, I Got Nuthin' But Time Version (Can't Promise It Won't Go On Forever)
From where I sit, there are far more reasons not to sign with a mainstream publisher than reasons to sign with one. They've killed the midlist, they've adopted Hollywood's blockbuster marketing model, they've chipped away at advances and promo budgets for all but their prestige and bestseller clients, and now that Borders is reducing its in-store stock by 20% to display more titles face out (a move they've reported has led to a sales spike, so you can bet it'll be rolling out to B&N too), big publishers can't even guarantee a new author's book will be shelved in brick-and-mortar stores anymore.
What's astonishing is the fact that so many aspiring authors still see mainstream publishers as the gold standard in authorship and are willing to give up so much---even risking their entire future careers by putting all their literary eggs in one basket with that first manuscript sale, betting their future prospects on the slim chance their book hits big in spite of DIY marketing and poor exposure---in exchange for some kind of perceived status. The emperor clearly has no clothes, so why don't more of my peers see it too? To be sure, bestselling authors have their publishers to thank, in large part, for their careers. But given that bestselling authors make up maybe 1-2% of all published fiction writers at any given time, we've all got as good a chance of hitting the lottery as entering that rarified group. And if we don't enter that rarified group, we would've done better if we never published anything with a big house to begin with. Lemme break it down for you:
First off, it's widely accepted that only about 5% of all manuscripts submitted to publishers get contracts, and marketability/screenplay-likelihood is as large (or larger) a factor in rejection as quality of the work nowadays. Maybe 25% of that 5% is made up of manuscripts from famous, prestige, or previous-bestseller authors, and these will get the lion's share of attention, advances and promotional budget. The rest will get paltry advances of a few thousand dollars, which sounds all right until you realize that's your payday for the past months or even years of work you put into writing the manuscript. It's less attractive still when you realize the publisher's sole contribution to marketing your book will be promo copies, and you'll have to spend most or all of your advance on marketing. Have fun trying to sell your book, because the publisher can't guarantee it will be shelved in brick-and-mortar stores, and doesn't even want to broach the subject of audiobook or ebook editions until or unless some worthwhile sales figures come in. "Worthwhile" to these folks are sales on the order of more than 40K copies, and if your book doesn't cross that threshold the publisher (and all its imprints) won't want to publish you again. Talk about a vicious circle. Compounding your misery, you're facing an uphill battle in trying to sell future manuscripts to any of the other 5 major publishing conglomerates because you'll be viewed as damaged goods.
Some of us will make it, and the risk will have been worthwhile for those few, but all the other authors who get a contract will find their celebrations short-lived. I'm truly baffled by the 90% of aspiring authors who stay in the hunt for a prize they've only got a 5% chance of getting in the first place, which more often than not turns out to hurt the author more than help him or her. What up with that?!