You’d Be Surprised…

The publishing world is full of things you, the typical reader, probably don’t know. Some of these things may surprise you.

Many famous authors are terrible writers with very good editors or ghostwriters. I’m friends with a lot of editors, and I’ve worked at a publisher for nearly 20 years. You’d be surprised how many notable bestsellers aren’t written by the big name on the front cover. Some of them can barely type out a coherent email. Fame has its perks.

On the other hand, you might be surprised to know that, yes indeed, many famous authors are in fact excellent writers.

The publishing process is excruciatingly slow. Aside from the time it takes a writer to write the book, the manuscript goes through multiple rounds of editing and revisions before being handed off to the designers and marketers. Publicity drags out the time as well, since media outlets (even online ones like bloggers) need months in advance to review the books and plan their publication content. Shipping the printed books from Asia can take up to three months. All told, 18 to 24 months is a common span of time for a book to go from contract to hitting the shelves. Authors have to be some of the most patient people on the planet. The waiting is tough.

There are times, however, when the publishing process can be surprisingly fast. I was recently involved in a project for a 354-page book, complete with full-color illustrations, that was conceived in November, shipped to the printer in May, and ready for bookstores in early September. Ten months is remarkably fast.

Most books make a surprisingly small amount of money. Paper is expensive, heavy to mail, and costly to inventory. Even e-books carry most of the same production costs as print books. Marketing is ridiculously pricey, so unless a publisher is very confident in a book’s likely sales, they won’t spend much to promote it. It’s often up to an author to promote her own book. The profit margins are thin, and the odds for success are small. Publishers typically make a little, and authors make even less. (I know there are a fair number of exceptions. I’m talking about the average books and authors.)

Rare runaway successes can be difficult for publishers to manage, as well. Surprise bestsellers force publishers to hire extra staff to meet the demands. But often they have to cut those staff later when the excitement dies down (and it almost always does).

But here’s the most surprising thing of all. Anyone can publish a book. Anyone. And anyone has a chance of being successful with it. Anyone. There’s not one right way to be successful, either. Stand for something. Build an audience. Have a unique voice. Tell a great story. If it brings you fulfillment, it’s worth doing. Surprise yourself.

(Image: Pietro Bellini)

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