Taking it to The People: Do You Need a Mainstream Publisher? by Josh Lanyon

This is Josh Lanyon’s first column as our Author Contributor in his new writing series called The Size of it. I will only do an introduction this one time since Josh’s new by-line will be a regular monthly feature. So, without further ado (as they say in the best  circles) here’s the first of what I hope will be many articles by Josh about the world of writing.


It’s a brand new year and I’m guessing that you’ve got a number of plans for your writing career. One of those plans might very well be to land a mainstream publisher.

A while back KA Mitchell and I were comparing royalty statements and the conversation turned to publishing and the fact that so many of our writer friends keep urging us to move into mainstream fiction even though we out-earn a lot of our mainstream writing friends.

Of course it’s not just about money. If you’re in this biz strictly for the loot, let me tell you now that there are much easier ways — up to and including rape and pillage — to earn pocket change. Mainstream publishing brings other things. It brings wider readership and it brings respect. Even if your mainstream book is trashed by everyone, and her cat, you still managed to get published in mainstream (no small feat) and yes, that gets — and deserves — respect.

You may be beloved in indie and small publishing, but the sorrowful truth is you won’t get respect or even much acknowledgement from the publishing establishment (including all your traditionally published pals).  Not if you’re going to write explicitly about sex. Which brings me back to the rape and pillage.

But this isn’t a post to justify writing sexy sex or philosophizing about what real success means. A couple of days ago I received an email notice from All Romance Ebooks stating that they were lifting their minimum title requirement for sellers. I remembered my conversation with KA and I couldn’t help thinking…never mind do we need a mainstream publisher, the real question is do we need a publisher at all?

 (Quick answer? Yes, you probably do, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The last decade has been a frightening time for the mainstream publishing establishment, and it’s about to get a lot more frightening. It’s also getting a little scary for indie and small presses because technology combined with Smashwords, Lulu, Amazon, Goodreads, and a host of other sites and services make self-publishing viable in a way it’s never been before.

And I say that as a publishing traditionalist.

* * * * *

Because of Man Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Ca$h, I regularly receive a lot of email from my fellow writers. I have to say I find some of their questions harder and harder to answer. The industry has changed so much that how I originally got published is barely relevant these days. It doesn’t work like that anymore. Self-publishing, ebooks, and the internet have changed how we do business — how we all do business.

Social media has replaced much of traditional book promotion and ebooks are the single fastest growing (exponentially) segment of publishing. But what does that really mean to you, the writer of m/m fiction?

Well, first of all, if your plan is to write m/m or gay romance for a mainstream press, unless you’re writing spec fiction or mystery or historical, forget it. And even if you are writing mystery or historical, you’re probably going to wind up at an indie press or the specialized imprint of a larger house — which means you’ll still have smaller print runs and you’ll be locked into the restrictions of a mainstream publishing contract. Oh! And you’ll have very likely paid an agent for the privilege.

Even now there’s a very good chance that your mainstream publisher will not recognize the vital importance of having your titles available in electronic format, which is unfortunate because judging by sales figures, the current readership for m/m and gay romance increasingly prefer to read ebooks.

Should you focus your energy on getting a mainstream publisher? Let’s consider the pros and cons.

On the pro side:

1 – You’ll likely get an advance. I love advances.

(I also love the monthly royalty checks that the majority of my ebook publishers issue)

2 – You’ll get an actual print run as opposed to the POD option, which means you’ve got a better shot of winding up on bricks and mortar bookshelves

(Except you’re writing m/m romance so yes and no. You’ll get on some bookshelves for sure, but most of the B&N fleet is still not going to carry you.)

3 – No promotional budget from a major publisher is still more promotion than you get from most indies or ebook publishers — plus there’s the prestige factor of being published in mainstream. There’s no question that being published by HarperCollins carries more clout than being published at Boy Toy Press.

(Social media and tireless energy is a great marketing equalizer especially if you’re not — and generally you’re not — getting a big chunk of promo dollars.)

4 – Your work will be both professionally edited for content and copy.

(Yep. Absolutely. And working with top-notch editors — content editors, in particular — is worth its weight in gold. There are great content editors here but there are many, many more in mainstream just given the logistics of size.)

5 – You’ll have access to mainstream reviews and print media

(Yes — keeping in mind that traditional review venues are falling like autumn leaves and you’ll be fighting tooth and nail with everyone else in mainstream.)

6 – There is more prestige being published in mainstream.

(We covered that above, but yes. There is no arguing with this one. For what it’s worth, there is greater prestige in being published by a mainstream publisher.)

7 – You’ll have a better chance of hitting the national bestseller lists.

(If enough bookstores will carry you, yes.)

8 – You’ll have a better chance of winning prestigious literary awards.


9 – You’ll have a better chance of moving up the publishing food chain.

(You could be dropped — the midlist migration of genre authors to ebooks is due to wholesale slaughter at a number of big houses — or, you might get another shot under another pen name OR you might thrive and succeed.)

10 – You’ll earn more money.

(Remember, we’re not talking about selling The Cowboy’s Secret Baby here. We’re talking about your m/m romance as marketed and packaged by a mainstream publisher — which could be akin to watching the Incredible Hulk attempt needlepoint.)

On the con side:

1 – You’ll need an agent to make a sale

(But that’s not a bad thing — especially if you’re willing to write the kind of stories that sell well in mainstream)

2 – You’re not happy about the inequities and restrictions of mainstream contracts

(Yeah, no kidding. But not every indie publisher is run by Sir Galahad. Some attempt to usurp the same rights as the big guys — without being able to offer the same advantages. If this is your deal breaker are you ready to consider the logical third option?)

3 – Isn’t it better to be a big fish in a little pond than a guppy swimming with sharks?

(Doesn’t that depend on other variables in the ecosystem?)

4 – No creative freedom

(There’s a lot of variety in New York publishing — even in mainstream genre fiction — and as ebook and indie publishers get more eccentric and restrictive about everything from cover art to house style guides, you may find you prefer a more even-handed approach.)

5. Your stuff doesn’t fit mainstream

(Ah. It’s true that an author who really knows his specific niche market could generate greater sales and make more money through indie publishing — or even by self-publishing — rather than risk having the work mishandled by a mainstream press.) 

6 – You’re not ready for prime time

(Shrewd! It’s true that you can hone your craft in relative privacy while earning supplementary income in a specialized market and when you feel you’re finally ready, take your show on the road. With the sales figures to back you.)

7 – It will take so long for your book to ever get published.

(Actually, indie and ebook lead times are stretching too. Yes, the absolute shortest mainstream turn around I’ve seen is about nine months from submission to publication, but more and more ebook and indie publishers are requiring a minimum of three months — and six months is increasingly typical.)

8 – Mainstream publishers keep the lion’s share of profits.

(Yep. In theory that’s okay because you can sell more units through a mainstream publisher rather than an indie or on your own.)

9 – Mainstream presses are impersonal corporate giants for whom you’re just a number.

(And indie and ebook presses have more than their fair share of nut jobs. Companies are made up of people and people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are helpful and knowledgeable and professional and some are not. You can’t just dismiss the hundreds and thousands of people in an industry because they happen to be part of a conglomerate!)

10 –   Please, Mother. I’d rather do it myself!

(There are more and more tools to make self-publishing viable — especially in a niche market — but, well, one is the loneliest number.)

There are probably more pros and cons to indie versus mainstream publishing than I’ve been able to think of, so please feel free to offer them up for discussion. Like sharing royalty info, the more we talk and exchange information, the better for all of us.

* * * * *

For myself, I like to mix and match, so if it sounds like I’m discouraging you from trying for a mainstream publisher, no. I’m not. I’m only suggesting a mainstream publisher may not be the answer to your prayers.

Did you ever hear of the Long Tail theory?  Essentially, when applied to books and publishing, the Long Tail theory means there’s good money to be had in concentrating your efforts in a niche market. Good money for everyone but, in particular, the author.

The current mainstream publishing paradigm consists of an advance against carefully calculated print runs based slightly under an author’s previous sales performance and a shelf life span of about one to three months. Royalties are held (for years in some cases) against book store returns.

It was always a flawed system and it’s become more and more obsolete as online sales increased. Now with the sudden explosion of ebooks and electronic formats, all bets are off.

For those of us in specialized, or niche, publishing, we do particularly well because we’re selling a hard-to-find item to a dedicated audience. It’s a comparatively small audience, but it’s sufficient to our needs. Remember those old math problems with the pie slices back in grade school? Picture romance publishing as a bunch of big, juicy pies. The bestselling pies are straight romance lemon chiffon, and romance publishers sell a lot more slices of lemon chiffon than they do gay or m/m romance. Their big money makers are those lemon chiffon pies. But from the standpoint of the bakers –er , the authors, there’s a lot of splitting and then more splitting and then more splitting the profits of selling lemon chiffon. Whereas for those of us in, um, the blueberry pie business, we’re not splitting so many pieces or so much profit. Maybe we’re selling fewer pies overall, but our share is bigger.

Anyway, enough with the Simple Simon analogy. If you’re a popular mainstream author you’re doing great. But if you’re a popular author in a small, specialized market, you could also be doing great.

What I’m getting at is that while it’s natural to think moving up to a big mainstream publisher is the only way to go and the single best possible career move a writer can make, if you love what you’re writing, it’s perfectly conceivable that you can do better working with niche publishers in a niche market than you can working with a mainstream publisher who really doesn’t know or understand the market.

The only really important thing is that you love what you’re writing and that the work brings you satisfaction.


L.C. Chase

Excellent first post for your Contributor column, Josh. Your last sentence is absolutely the most important, IMO.

I’ve never really given the mainstream guys much thought because they don’t carry – at least with any high visibility – the books I like to read. So yeah, I much prefer blueberry pie anyway. 😉

Wren Boudreau
Hi Josh! I do like your insights about the publishing industry. We are on the cusp of a new era, that is for sure. “For those of us in specialized, or niche, publishing, we do particularly well because we’re selling a hard-to-find item to a dedicated audience. It’s a comparatively small audience, but it’s sufficient to our needs.” I’m curious as to your thoughts regarding what seems to be an explosive number of new releases in this niche. Given the size of the audience, will there soon be more pie than tasters? Maybe this is a different post topic, in… Read more »
Eric Arvin

Great piece, Josh! Love the pie analogy…and now I’m hungry.

How do you make everything so interesting to read? Just some random thoughts from a reader’s point of view. It’s quite funny that in publishing world, mainstream still holds prestige. In many other media area, music or film – mainstream sometimes represent compromise and selling out… *g*. The game is different though, i guess. Mainstream media might sometimes pick up an indie music label or an indie film to rave it up, but I haven’t seen it happened for book publishing. Imagine Oprah endorsing a m/m romance? Even gay publications’ book reviews tend to confine to “bigger” gay press only.… Read more »
Andy Slayde

Excellent post as always.

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