28 (Better) Things No One Tells You About Publishing
The recent Buzzfeed post by Curtis Sittenfeld 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Kawasaki for a good start on how to market books. Book readings at bookstores are among the worst uses of time for a new author.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Three Writing Mindsets (Raw, Run, Review)
- Time-lapsed video of writing 1000 words (5 mins, w/commentary)
- My Process for Blogging (and my daily “process”)
- Everything You Wanted To Know About Book Sales
- My Writing Process
- How To Get From an Idea to a Book
- How To Revise a First Draft
- How to Write a Second Draft
- What Copyeditors do
- Why You Fail At Writing
- How To Stay Motivated
- Is Your Book Idea Good?
- See all of my posts on writing
Typo at point 21, arrogant writers, and
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.
Thank you Sean (for many things). Fixed now.
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
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.
Typo on #2 – Titles, not tiles.
Otherwise, great post. #17 is my own personal pitfall…
Fixed. Thanks for mentioning it.
Way to go, Scott! A lot of wisdom here. My favs: #4, #13, and #22.
Thanks Karen. Congratulations on your new book.
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.
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).
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.
Great post, though I’d advise not to upload a PDF. Upload an epub or mobi or even doc file instead.
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.
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.
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.)
Excellent article, thank you.
Typo #1: read you book
Good points, especially in 6, 13, 17, 21.
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
Wow! As a new author, Great information. THANKS
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.
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.
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. :-)
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).
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! :)
Boy, is that right on the money. It was an eye opener to me when I first published in 2012.
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!
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 Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
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)
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
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.
Great advice Scott and an informative read overall.
I love stumbling on posts like these.
You are welcome. Thanks for the note.
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…
GREAT post. All true, with perhaps the exception of accepting carte blanche every critic has a valid point. You’re right in saying a writer must look for validity in critiques though. But this is all good stuff – thanks for thinking it through and posting.
You are so right. Great post.
It’s mentally healthy to know what a crapshoot the whole business and results are too, even if you do everything right. I ghostwrote a book for a business leader and it was a bestseller–all while struggling to sell “my own writing”! But I’m glad I did it because it bought time for me to do my own stuff. Once I quickly wrote a nonfiction book and more or less slapped it together to fulfill a lowish-paying two-book contract. It sold well. Why, I have no idea. Now I solely write fiction and take my time. While I will keep publishing, the writing path is made smoother by having neither sky-high hopes nor deep despair.
I’m #17 Distractions say more about your lack of commitment than anything else. Part of it is this blasted ADHD, but the rest is put off editing then do it in a burst, get burnt out again. This is done over and over again except when something comes along like a knock on the door, phone call, my little one needs something (attention/food/help with home work/bedtime) and poof it’s 8pm and I’ve only edited a few paragraphs. Argg. ;-; Then I just want to go to bed and try again the next day.
I need to find away to make my self sit down and work on it more. Because, really If I don’t try, write lots of books and hope they sell then I’ll still be stuck here in HUD housing on food stamps with a fixed income that would make a mouse sneeze. !@#$ I still need a kick in the pants some days. You think that wold be enough? xP
I agree with what someone said. Many people have no or little family and friends and not everyone operates on Facebook and twitter to ”share” your product forward, nor do I find it right.
With your comment it seems that the writing and publishing profession will stay elitist and in denial – most people that are truly talented will never be able to publish anything, due to their lack of modern social skills. Sad world we live in.
Other than that, some points are very valid.
Just because it’s unfair does not make it wrong.
This article is very accurate. And yes, you are in trouble if you have no social skills. This has always been the case tho it is worse in today’s world.
Many people had someone who pushed their books for them. If they were lucky, the person was both wealthy & well connected in the publishing world. But in the end, we usually have to speak about our work.
JD Salinger wouldn’t & he never wrote anything else because he hated the public.
Cormac McCarthy finally went on Oprah after YEARS of refusing to speak in public. That saved his career! Now if only Oprah would call me!
Peace & best of luck to all,
Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” will be out en Español very soon! It is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
P.S. My current coach strongly believes in knowing what your story is about before writing. I can see how you can save hundreds of hours by planning out your story beforehand.
This post has so much wisdom about publishing! Definitely gonna check out the books you recommend though, thanks! I write romance (heat level: sizzling), where it’s not necessarily appropriate to ask friends/relatives to read my books; this could also be true of gruesome crime novels or anything else that goes against a writer’s family’s values, so I guess it depends on the genre as to how much friends/family could help!
10b: Don’t fall in love with the first draft of your book. Developmental editing is like having plastic surgery without anesthetic.
A very helpful post. I felt energized towards making positive adjustments after reading it .Overall useful read anyway. Keep it up Scott.
This post is so accurate and enlightening
I know nothing about writing a book but I intend to write and sell technical ebooks in the future. Your post gave me an idea of what I should expect from people’s reaction and thefore sales. It seems that it won’t be easy (unless I insist in making the best I can).
Thanks Scott for sharing your experience and giving me a realistic view.
WOW, I AM IN COMPLETE SHOCK OVER YOUR RESPONSES PEOPLE!!! SHE HAD QUITE A NEGATIVE NANCY ATTITUDE THAT I CAUGHT RIGHT ONTO! THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT WAYS YOU COULD HAVE STATED EACH OF “YOUR OPINIONS.” Such as, say your rude comment, but don’t make us feel like there’s no hope. Well, I found none of your statements followed by a, “BUT ON THE OTHER HAND YOU COULD DO X, Y OR Z TO MAKE IT HAPPEN.” ALL you’ve done here is scared people and YES, I DO HAVE 2 DEGREES IN WRITING. Just how you would provide constructive criticism, you follow it up with how the person could try a new approach, etc. Your article sucked, in my hard head of set values and morals. KC
Buzzfeed??? INSTANT back-click. NEXT!
#1. Selling books is harder than writing them.
So, my hope is that my little book will go on having a life of its own as described here in
#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.
This article let me know I’m not alone.