Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why publish?

I worked for a book publisher for nearly ten years early in my career. During the time, a lot of my romantic preconceptions about book publishing were smashed.

  1. Photo thanks to svenwerk on FlickrI found out that acquisitions editors were often given lists of books that they needed to find authors for. Rather than reading anything that was sent in, they developed "hit lists" of people who were already famous... so that marketing costs could be brought down. An unknown author without some kind of existing fame getting published is a million-to-one shot.

  2. I found out that book publishers work on razor-thin financial margins and are constantly scrabbling for something -- anything -- that will make money with minimal investment. This will, on occasion, lead to questionable ethical decisions on the part of the publisher.

  3. I found out that publishers only aggressively market the books predetermined to sell big. The other books are left to do the best they can on their own merits (reviewers or the unpaid marketing efforts of the author).

  4. I found out the there is a complex economy of relationships (financial and personal) between book publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores -- particularly the monster chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders. This was in the old days before Amazon existed but I assume the relationship model still exists. These relationships had nothing to do with the quality of books. The publishers need the books that aren't New York Times bestsellers put on shelves that don't require people 20 minutes of searching to find. The big bookstores (many of which are also working on pretty tight margins) just wanted to sell as many books as possible and didn't much care what they were. The bestsellers got each and every visible spot. The books that aren't big bestsellers get stuck wherever was left.

  5. I found out that anyone who isn't a part of this economy of relationships (small publishers or individuals) have no hope of ever seeing their books in a big bookstore chain. Small, independent bookstores are an exception to that, but they are few and far between these days.

  6. I found out that authors -- if they are very, very lucky -- get seven or eight percent of what each book sells for. For an average $20 book, the hardworking author gets a royalty of about $1.50. If the author had an agent to get the manuscript read and published, the agent's payment comes out of that $1.50.

  7. I found out that for $1.50/book, an author will likely sign away all copyrights to the book... "in all media, current and future, in perpetuity". Even if a publisher prints 100 copies of the book and then glues the books together to use as furniture in their office, the author can't take that book to another publisher or do something with it herself without another contract negotiation. The contract negotiation would likely involve the author paying for any publisher investment (editing, book cover design, etc.).

I look through this list and, as an author, this looks like a bad deal to me. Why should I sell my manuscript to a publisher if I'm going to have to do all of the marketing myself anyway? I am pretty much set up from the beginning to have no hope of making enough money to do more than buy a new laptop unless I'm the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.

I've self-published two books. I haven't made a dime on either one, but I still own the copyrights. They will never see the light of day from a Borders bookshelf, but they are on Amazon. When technology changes and unexpected opportunities pop up, I'm much more agile than a thin-profit-margin publisher.

I have a third manuscript that I've shopped around unenthusiastically, but why should I self-publish that as well? As an author who hasn't had a book "published" before and who hasn't done something so crazy or horrible that I got a few moments of widespread fame, I just don't see the advantage of a traditional publisher.

Can anyone set me straight on this?

I read some interesting predictions on the book publishing business by Richard Nash here. I don't know if his predictions will come true, but they seem pretty logical.


  1. The author of "Invisible Life", David Sedaris, and Tyler Perry all sold their wares out of the trunk of their car until the garnered a following. The blog "Cake Wrecks" got a following and a national book deal followed. I fight with my brother (VP and Gen Counsel of Amazon.com" all the time about digital publishing. Since there are no production costs, why not just have anarch and have authors publish their own downloadable kindle books direct, no publisher, agent or whatever. Sell enough downloads and you can get a publisher for your next one. (Just reacting out loud.)

  2. Wow. Fight the good fight with your brother. I, for one, am there in spirit egging you on.

    Yes. That makes total sense. I could name a half dozen other bloggers who got book offers *after* they got huge followings on their blogs. When I put my acquisitions editor hat back on, those bloggers have a built-in audience likely to buy the books, as well as a platform for selling the book so it won't cost the publisher much to publicize it.

    For the publisher, it's a match made in heaven. I wonder, however, if the bloggers are getting enough out of the deal.

    Actually, as I think about it, this probably works out. In return for the likely sales of a lot of books with minor marketing costs, the big publishers get to flex their PR and bricks-and-mortar bookstore muscles via a book tour. The blogger gets introduced to a broader audience, probably garnering more readers for the blog.