28 (Better) Things No One Tells You About Publishing

The recent Buzzfeed post by  called 24 Things No One Tells You about Publishing was fun to read. I’ve written 6 popular books with two publishers and I agreed with much of what she said. But in hearing every question and myth about my trade over the years, here’s my own list of what I wish more people knew.

  1. Selling books is harder than writing them. There are 300k books published in the U.S. every year. And 30% of Americans read only 1 to 5 books in 2014. Writing a book is purely up to you. But getting other people to buy and read your book is another matter.
  2. Everyone obsesses about titles and covers but it’s hard to prove their impact beyond above a basic level of quality. It’s easy to find popular books with lousy titles and covers, and unpopular books with great titles and covers. There are too many variables for magic answers. Publishers exert more control over titles and covers than you’d expect: often authors have little say.
  3. Some books, like The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick, don’t become popular until decades after publication. It’s a strange world. Books have lives of their own, typically quiet ones. We judge success by sales, but many factors that have nothing to do with the book itself impact sales. Bestseller lists are not a meritocracy. Sometimes a book is on the bestseller list for a week and never heard of again. Other times a book has steady sales for years but never makes any lists or wins any awards.
  4. Your reasons for writing must transcend fame and wealth as neither are likely from writing alone. Most books you read are written by writers who pay their rent through other means. If you want fame and wealth from writing be committed to the long term. This takes the pressure off each book, and you’ll be open to learning instead of foolishly trying to hit a grand slam on your first try.
  5. Fame will likely ruin your writing or your life. And that’s assuming you’re lucky enough to get it. Study the history of famous writers and artists if you doubt me. Fast fame in particular is a curse, or a trap, as everyone wants you to repeat exactly what you did before.
  6. The publishing industry is slow to realize authors need them less than ever. Unlike 20 years ago, you can do much of what a publisher does yourself, perhaps not as well, but that depends on how entrepreneurial and self aware you are. Learn about self-publishing simply to be informed about your business end to end. Some publishers do great work, but many are stuck in an antiquated notion of their value.
  7. Many authors are lazy. They’re arrogant too. They don’t want to do PR, they don’t want to do their homework and they are in denial of how many other authors there are. They, like some publishers, believe in romantic notions of how publishing works.
  8. Some publishers/editors/agents are amazing. Some are bad and incompetent. YMMV. Don’t judge them all by the one you worked with. My agent, David Fugate, is awesome. Great advice on how to find an agent here, but remember the better the agent the more work you’ll have to do to get in touch with them.
  9. A great editor at a mediocre publisher can be a better situation than a mediocre editor at a great publisher. Editors represent you for dozens of decisions the publisher makes for your book that you can’t participate in.
  10. Many editors don’t “edit”. They’re more like strategists or strategic project managers. There are three roles editors play, often played by different people. Acquisitions editors sign authors. Development editors help you draft your book. Production editors are the ones who spend the most time with your words, and even they depend on copyeditors and proofreaders. Many people will touch your book.
  11. Don’t believe everything depends on finding agents or publishers. They both want you to already have a fan base, which is a paradox. There are many paradoxes to face in trying to break into any field that many people want to be in (e.g. being a movie star). To find an agent requires hard work and this is on purpose. There is a far greater supply of people writing books than demand from publishers.
  12. Always remember you can upload a PDF of your book to Amazon and have it on sale on Kindle in minutes. Don’t get lost falsely depending on others. No one can stop you from writing a book and selling it except yourself. Promoting a book well is another matter (see #1), but publishers struggle with that too.
  13. No one will come to your book reading/signing unless you are already famous. The packed author readings on the news are only packed because the author is already very well known. It’s another paradox related to #1. Read The First 1000 copies by Tim Grahl, or APE by Guy Kawaksai for a good start on how to market books. Book readings at bookstores are among the worst uses of time for a new author.
  14. Publishers only invest in big PR for famous authors. For new authors there’s little reason to believe the investment will pay off. Would you spend 50% of your annual marketing budget on an unknown? Neither would a publisher. Publishers do love authors who invest their own time and money in marketing, and will help with and add to your investment.
  15. Most people think they want to write, but really they just like to think about writing. If you have a 6th grade education you know how to write. The question is are you willing to put in the hours?
  16. You can spot these people because they spend more time complaining about how hard it is to write than doing it. Or they endlessly stroke their idea as if it can someday magically transform itself into 300 pages. Don’t complain. No one is making you torture yourself but you.
  17. Distractions say more about your lack of commitment than anything else. Learn to concentrate. Concentration is a skill anyone can develop and if you are serious about writing you should see this as central to your ambitions. If you were starving to death and writing a book would get you food, you’d write. We are all capable of writing if suitably motivated.
  18. Which means that anyone with sufficient commitment can write a book. It might not be a good book, but most books by published authors aren’t that good either. What makes for a good book is highly subjective anyway.
  19. A publisher is a venture capitalist. They are giving you money before your work is done. Before you complain about the size of the investment they are willing to make (or not make) in your book, are you are willing to make the same financial investment? Few authors are. It’s a business. They owe you nothing beyond what they agree to.
  20. Your friends, family and colleagues are you best assets for finding an audience for your writing. Everyone has friends and family. Ask for their help. Make it easy for them to help you. Reward every new fan as if they were your only fan (because at first they will be).
  21. Learn to take feedback well. By this I mean you want to be a better writer on the next book than this one, yes? That only happens if you listen for ways to improve. Arrogant writers, and they are legion, rarely improve.
  22. Learn to take rejection well. It will be everywhere. If you think rejections from agents and publishers are tough, wait till you get rejected by reviewers and readers (e.g. The Great Gatsby has 235 1 star reviews). Look for a nugget of merit in every mean-spirited critique you hear as the mean people might have more honest insight into your work than the nicer people. Be grateful anyone read your book at all.
  23. Stop looking for secrets and tricks. You’re a sucker if you think there’s a trick as every great writer in history never found one that let them skip the work. Tips only help if you are writing every day and can put tips to use.
  24. You build a following, or in publishing jargon, a platform, by publishing regularly. There is no magic place where people will come to you just for showing up once. It doesn’t matter where you publish, but put something into the world regularly. Be willing to learn as you go and experiment. There are many ways to build an audience but they all require effort.
  25. Publish once a week on a blog. You want to build an audience before your book is finished, not after. Write briefly about topics that relate to your book. Share excerpts and ideas you’re working on. Read other bloggers who write about subjects like yours and get to know them. Invite people you know to be interested to follow along. It will feel weird at first but work to get comfortable with being visible and making connections, as you’ll need those skills when your book is out in the world.
  26. Don’t be precious. No one is going to steal your ideas. Ideas are easy, it’s the work of delivering on an idea in 300 pages that’s hard.
  27. Get feedback on your ideas and drafts early. Find people who are honest with you – they are hard to find. Grand praise of your drafts does not make them better. Separate useful critiquing (“this section didn’t work”, “you should read Rushdie”) from the moral support your friends give over beers (“you can do it”, “keep going”). Get the tough feedback early enough that you can still do something about it.
  28. Only your name is on the book. Your publisher will publish dozens of books every month. You will publish one book every few years, or maybe just once in your life. They will never care as much as you do about your book. You have the right to veto and argue, politely, with anyone who works on your book. Stand up for yourself, but earn that right by taking writing and publishing seriously. Do your homework. If you don’t take shortcuts, no one will try to take shortcuts on you.

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34 Responses to “28 (Better) Things No One Tells You About Publishing”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Typo at point 21, arrogant writers, and

    Splendid post.
    My, you’ve sure written a lot of posts on writing down the years. I’ve been reading them since before you had your first book out. Which means that, for work and promotion, you sure set an example.

    Reply
      1. Greg Kemp

        Thanks Scott. Sound advice. I was one of the “distracted” people you spoke of, that is, until last year, when I finished my first book. It’s written, and now I’m trying to figure out the rest of the journey. I’ll pick up those 2 books you recommend, and go to my library to network (authors are guest speakers once a quarter), but I’ll look into blogging. We blog for our small ad agency, but I resisted doing it for myself. I thank you again – I get the sense you are honestly trying to help

        Reply
  2. Phil Simon

    Scott… every would-be or first-time author ought to read this post. I learned some of these lessons the hard way.

    #10 is particularly true. I’d also add that all editing isn’t created equal, as, you know. Many folks mistakenly equate a proofread with a copyedit or a developmental edit. These seem the same on the outside looking in.

    Reply
  3. Peter Clark

    Typo on #2 – Titles, not tiles.
    Otherwise, great post. #17 is my own personal pitfall…

    Reply
  4. Christopher Dillon

    As Seth Godin is fond of pointing out, you have to ship product. And you have to write a crappy first book before you can write a better second (and third and fourth) one.

    Reply
  5. Carmen Webster Buxton

    Some really good points, but I would NEVER recommend uploading a PDF to Kindle Direct Publishing. An MS Word file with consistent styles applied to body text, chapter titles, etc., will convert better than a PDF. Converting from PDFs can result in ugly errors (like excess hyphen-ation).

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Carmen: I agree. But it makes the point of how much control we all have land stronger to refer to a format people already know, so I stayed with using PDF as the example.

      Reply
  6. Samantha

    Great post, though I’d advise not to upload a PDF. Upload an epub or mobi or even doc file instead.

    Reply
  7. Rob Siders

    I’m echoing the others’ warnings on number 12. One of the top reasons prospective clients come to my ebook production shop is because they uploaded a PDF to Kindle Direct Publishing and are disappointed with the results. PDF-to-Kindle through an automated conversion is, at best, unpredictable.

    Reply
  8. Dana Stabenow

    May I add a fourth category of editor to #10? A caretaker editor. That’s the one who inherits you when your acquisitions editor, your friend at court, your champion in the field, is fired, retires, or moves to another house. And then there you are, stuck with someone who might be competent but who is totally unenthusiastic about you, your work, and promoting either. And that’s the end of your career as you know it.

    At least as far as legacy publishing is concerned.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Dana: excellent point. This has happened to me and some folks on twitter have mentioned it too. That is one reason you can’t bet too much on any one editor and why the house you go with still matters too (who else is on their roster of editors? Will the executive editor step in? etc.)

      Reply
  9. Proofread

    Typo #1: read you book
    * your

    Good points, especially in 6, 13, 17, 21.

    Reply
  10. Kate Wilson

    Well, I thought this was a pretty nifty post! I’m a publisher (children’s books, ebooks and apps). I entirely agree that, given that the barriers to publishing have disappeared, unless a publisher can make it clear what they are offering to an author, they don’t have any reason to interpose themselves between an author and the author’s reader. Here’s my take on what a publisher is for: http://nosycrow.com/blog/what-s-a-publisher-for

    Reply
  11. John

    Thanks for posting this, Scott. I’ve been struggling with some questions about how to make #25 happen. Absent even a working book title, is it advisable to blog under my own name? (I can see how that would establish authority.) Need I make it clear (in the About Me section?) that I post about a topic because I am writing a book about it? Is it OK if I market other aspects of my work — other topics for other outlets — on the same site? I need to find examples of how other writers of in-process books are doing this.

    Reply
    1. John

      In case anyone has any advice to share regarding the questions I pose above, it might be helpful to note that I am working on a memoir, one that likely will include some journalism about the topic.

      Reply
  12. Yol Swan

    I’m glad I found this post. Aside from the pdf thing, it is SO right on! Thanks for taking the time to put these points together! In particular, #17 and #23 is what I try to help my clients understand. There are no magical pills or tricks to get where you want, just focused, committed, continuous work. Of course, if it’s something you love, this work is very rewarding in and of itself. :-)

    Reply
  13. William L. Seavey

    Thanks Scott, very astute remarks. I’ve been publishing/self-publishing for 40 years and have done it every way except via e-books (still a print guy). Had I specialized in one genre/topic area I might have been more successful, but I’m a Renaissance type. At least 10 books to my name, most recent Crisis Investing and Entrepreneuring,
    it sold nearly 1000 (self-pub), mostly from a Library Journal review that led to a distributor. I know I’ll never be famous, or rich from books. I never lack for good ideas and that keeps me going–the B.A. in journalism (ahem!) is quite a bit better than a 6th grade education! One tip might be that every book should be marketed differently depending on the topic, so be cautious about that–if the audience is close to zero, why write it? I understand most self-pubs sell less than 100 copies, my best was about 10,000 (and I got lucky).

    Reply
  14. D.G. Kaye

    So glad to have found your site. I have reblogged this article and I love your post on memoir writing. Naturally, I would love to reblog that one as well. Of course I’ve subscribed! :)

    Reply
  15. Janet K Brown

    Boy, is that right on the money. It was an eye opener to me when I first published in 2012.

    Reply
  16. Aanchal Vashisht

    Thanks for this helpful piece of advice! After reading this article I have come to know that there are many things I need to improve and many others I need to get rid of. So glad I found this article!

    Reply
  17. Sherrie Miranda

    Excellent advice! I must admit that reading all the sage advice about the publishing biz makes me very happy I self-published.
    Of course, there are issues with that too. Unfortunately, too many people publish their book before it’s ready and that hurts all of us. I almost made the same mistake myself. I was going through the ms for the final edit before my formatter uploaded it on the sites (Amazon, etc.). When I didn’t hear back from her, I sent her a list of 10 more corrections. Boy, was she pissed! She had already uploaded the ms. Of course, I had to pay extra for her to take it back down and make the corrections, but there was no way I would let the book out with those errors.
    Moral of the story: When you think you have done the final edit, DO ONE MORE!
    Thanks again for this very succinct list.
    Sherrie
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

    Reply
  18. LA

    Orphans have no family, and many ppl have neither family nor friends. Get real (not just talk down to others about how they should do it)

    Reply
  19. PM Browne

    Great, great, compelling post! I especially want to comment on #20. Authors need to see and leverage family, friends and colleagues to sell their books but, alarmingly, they don’t! Readcomend is designed to help authors in their book publicity campaign using their friends and family. I hope authors realize the vast potential in this free book promotion strategy and begin to utilize it. Thanks for the post

    Reply
  20. Moji Coker

    Hello Scott,

    My name is Moji Coker, an Editorial Assistant at Quramo Publishing. I was going through your blog and read some very interesting and insightful articles, and I would really love to republish some of them, this one especially. I am hereby seeking your permission to do so, and I will make sure to credit you as the original writer and your website as the source. Thank you as I do anticipate your response.

    Warm regards

    Moji Coker

    Reply
  21. Fox

    Great advice Scott and an informative read overall.
    I love stumbling on posts like these.

    Reply
  22. Marsha

    I am about to start writing a book and been doing a lot of reading online to help myself on where to even begin. Then I came across this. I can’t begin to tell you just how helpful you have been on helping those like myself in the right direction. People like you who write the things you do and explain greatly as you do to help all of us who need it are much needed. I am now willing to read everything on this site to get the help I believe I need to start writing my first book. I wish there were more people just like you who explain in great detail all the ups and downs and the true reality of the real world of book writing. This being my second Language it helps so much reading all the material you offered on this site. I thank you so very much for taking your time to help so many of us on a right path to succeed if we truly work hard enough. You’re a true blessing to those like me. Thank you…

    Reply

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