Your Book: 40 Bits of Reality the Publishing Industry Doesn’t Tell You
1. First, know this: If not one more book was ever published the world would be perfectly fine and still incomprehensibly rich with information and entertainment. Look at your shelves. Look at all the books you brought into your home with good intentions of reading, but with all modern distractions and average human life span, you will never get to. Think about how few books each year really break new ground and feel like essential publications. Know what you’re up against and the ring you’re seeking to throw your book into.
2. There is only one word you must remember throughout this whole process, and that is “hustle.” There is so little money to be made from most books that nothing will happen unless you hustle to complete your manuscript or project on the side of whatever you do to pay your bills, hustle to promote your work en route to hustling to find an agent or publisher, hustle to successfully raise money if you crowdsource en route to self-publish (and hustle to get stores to stock your book and pay you, if you do), hustle to get the word out broadly once your book is available for purchase, hustle to get people to come to your events, and hustle to make people spend their precious money on what you put so much time into.
3. Ask yourself over and over if you would pay for what you are creating. Now ask five smart, discerning people whose opinion you value. No one pays to use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, Reddit, and so many other social media (SM) and publishing platforms and all that free content satiates the vast majority of people and makes the vast majority of them reluctant to open their wallets for the vast majority of things published today.
4. However, unlike any of those experiences, a book guarantees a beginning and an end. That is why books will never die in our world of endless free-to-cheap clicks and scrolls. That and the self-determined pace, effects on the reading brain and intelligence, and rewarding feeling of having accomplished something are too strong a combination in humans for books to ever be abandoned. But damn, those outlets along with Netflix and Hulu and anyone else who lets you stream for pennies an hour really satisfy the masses don’t they?!
5. Look again at those companies listed. How close is the book you’re wanting a publisher to pay to produce and the public to pay to consume the same experience that can be had for free-to-cheap with any of them? Chances are, not that different, so figure out how your book experience will be unique.
6. Many, many more books should be self-published today rather than put before a publisher. Most people who think they have a book in them do not. If you think you do, get an agent, it’s their job to know the difference.
7. If you’re a writer, before you seek an agent, figure out for yourself if what you have is best served as an SM post where online interaction can occur, a magazine article where a handful of pages adequately covers your topic, or if you truly have enough engaging content to justify book-length treatment.
8. If you’re a photographer, before you show a publisher, figure out for yourself if what you have is best served sharing on Instagram; trying to get included in a group show online, or one step up, a physical gallery; or if you truly have enough engaging content to justify monograph-length treatment.
9. On the other hand, if you’re passionate send your manuscript to any and every publisher you’d be happy to see publish your book. Chances are nearly 100% nothing will come of it, but at least your work will be out there, rather than sitting at home or in your computer where, for sure, nothing will happen. There are stories of manuscripts escaping the slush pile to become successes. Do you believe in luck?
10. Know that if you go with this option there is nothing wrong with a publisher not responding to you. Most blind submissions are garbage.
11. If you want returned whatever you blindly send to a publisher, make sure you include a self-addressed stamped envelope or packaging. Do not for a second expect anyone to pay to send anything back to you.
12. Do your homework and don’t look stupid. See what else a publisher has made for several years back and determine if your book would fit in its list.
13. Don’t say to a publisher, “People tell me every day I should turn this into a book.” It’s never true and will just make them laugh at you behind your back.
14. Even if you can afford it, the primary reason you don’t self-publish is because you don’t want to handle sales and distribution yourself. That’s why self-publishing print runs are usually tiny. Calling on accounts, fulfilling, and collecting are pains in the ass. Otherwise, if you don’t mind those parts, and are a hustler (again), and have built a sizable fanbase on SM then why share any of the money with a publisher?
15. There is nothing wrong with a publisher of any size asking for a subsidy from the author (via the author’s own deep pockets, family connections, or crowd-funding) or a brand for the publication of a book today. These things are really hard to move in sizable-enough quantities to make the numbers work. If you’re so offended, there are plenty of other publishers to float your project by.
16. You will likely say your publisher didn’t do enough to promote your book, they didn’t schedule enough signings, they didn’t advertise or market it correctly, and you rarely saw it in bookstores. I’ve heard many successful authors say this, so imagine what the unsuccessful ones think.
17. Publishers don’t care where their sales come from, just so their books are bought. Many people find Amazon evil, but not one publisher would turn away their money for goods sold.
18. Publishers ultimately don’t care if a book is read or even opened, just so their books are bought. That goes double with illustrated book publishers who eternally cross their fingers, that because of the cover, their books will be used for decoration.
19. That being said, find someone with good taste to design your cover regardless of its genre. This is the age of Instagram and strong visuals make all the difference in the microsecond someone might stop to look closer at your book in their feed. Plus, think about it, no bookstores display books open, but always and only closed (and if lucky face-out), so a strong cover is essential. And don’t forget the spine. Go to a bookstore and scan the shelves and see what catches your eye. You can’t do THAT on Amazon.
20. Most publishers price their books too high today for what the content deserves because fewer are being sold and they know that most of the sales will be on Amazon, where it will routinely be discounted at 20–45% off the suggested retail price.
21. Don’t get hung up on who publishes your book (if you’re fortunate to land a publisher), there are so few high-quality publishers with continually impressive lists in any genre today, that with how SM and Amazon have flattened publicity and sales, it rarely matters who does what. Do you like the editor you’ll be working with? That’s really most important.
22. And publishing house or imprint is irrelevant to 99% of book buyers, too. Ask anyone who buys a book in an airport who the publisher is of what they just bought. Books in airports are the industry’s top sellers, so that’s a lot of people buying the same few books, and they won’t know. You’re a writer, you love books. Try yourself with the Times bestseller list. See?
23. The truth about airport stores? Unless yours is a Times bestselling book, your publisher must pay a lot of money for placement. And then deal with very high return rates. They understandably only want to stock what will move. So think about this if yours is a business book and you don’t have a huge SM following or haven’t garnered a ton of press but you’re positive all those business people flying all over the world would love your book.
24. While speaking of payment for placement, it’s called co-op, and if you go into a chain bookstore and see your book displayed on the table when you first walk in, your publisher paid to have it put face-out there.
25. Your book is only new once. Most magazines, newspapers, TV and radio shows, and podcasts only want to feature new books.
26. Every Tuesday of every week of every year new books come out. That means if there isn’t constant awareness of your book it quickly gets pushed further and further into the muck, until a year later (often sooner) it gets listed on Amazon to live out its existence (why do you think there are so many $.01 books available there?). If it can’t even net a penny then to the shredder it goes.
27. Timing, timing, timing for real estate (some say “location,” but it’s really timing). Awareness, awareness, awareness for publishing. Preferably on a mass scale.
28. 75% of your book’s success post-publication is on you. Even more if the size of your followers netted you a decent advance. Nearly 100% if the size netted you a big advance. A lot of those followers of yours, which was a very significant barometer for the size of your advance, better come through with purchases!
29. You just spent months to years on your book and you landed a publisher, congratulations. This is all worth saying again: Now you must also become the lead publicist, shouting from the rooftops as loud as possible, as often as possible, on as many platforms as possible. Again, especially if you have large followings on SM.
30. SM has the ability to make everyone a “brand” today, from one person to a small company to a global corporation, all fighting for followers and clicks on the same platforms. So think about the weight of posts by you the single author with your single book versus your publisher’s where you are one book amongst a few to dozens they have to promote at the same time. It takes a village to sell a book today and you must take charge as the village leader.
31. Do your own publicity research on the major SM platforms, which means scouring and figuring out who the cool and/or influential writers, editors, producers, and podcasters are today and getting in contact with them by whatever means necessary. Established publicists know (or should) the primary writers and editors at the dwindling number of noteworthy traditional outlets, but they, and the industry databases, can’t keep up with all the freelancers, newcomers, and others with sizable and influential SM followings. There is nothing more important for the success of your book than publicity. Did you know that?
32. Every single post is of value and you should be thankful for anything any single person shares. They didn’t have to, there were many other more exciting things beckoning them one click away.
33. It can become overkill, but don’t forget you get one shot with your book, so over-repost mentions, rather than under. People need to be hit on the head again and again with the availability of your book amongst the deluge of competing information raining upon them at all times.
34. If you’re a physically attractive author you have a better chance of getting on national TV regardless of the quality of your work. Sorry, but it’s true. Not attractive? Then you better be really funny and/or have a huge following on SM or have published something amazing, which always means commercially successful, and on rare occasions, critically acclaimed.
35. Your book has a chance when a publication, especially the New York Times and New York magazine, but even still today one from Condé Nast or Hearst, pays a writer to do an interview with, or better, a researched feature on you. And doubly so when that writer or editor isn’t merely responding to the press release but reached out to you or your publicist 4–6 months before your book is on sale.
36. Your book has a chance when people you don’t know and/or didn’t ask are voluntarily posting photos of it with genuine and excited comments and/or a bunch of emojis and exclamation points on SM. You’ve heard of things going viral. This is how it starts and every publisher wants it because it relieves them of much effort.
37. Pray that Donald Trump gets wind of your book and trashes it on Twitter. Ideally multiple times, but once will do—his followers retweeting and commenting should do the rest. There is no greater boon for sales today.
38. Also pray that your book is seen in the hands of some scandalous celebrity on TMZ, that it was found in the room of a serial killer, the subject dies soon after publication, or it gets made into a popular movie. All scenarios that no marketing proposal would ever include, but all fantasies any publisher and author would entertain when dreaming of success. Point is, unplanned extraordinary occurrences can result in extraordinary sales.
39. No one in this business knows what will sell. No one. Plenty have good hunches, strong feelings, gut reactions, and years of experience, but on publication day and beyond all bets are off. If we were right more often than we are wrong the field would be even more crowded than it currently is.
40. Chances are high that not much will come of your book: small, if any, royalty checks; few reviews; not many comments nor much sharing online; and it will vanish quite quickly, as if it never even existed. But the opposite of each is possible for every single book published, and it is those possibilities which have always constituted the lifeblood of the industry.
Wes Del Val is Associate Publisher of powerHouse Books in Brooklyn, NY. He has over fifteen years of experience in trade book publishing, has guest lectured at the School of Visual Arts, and has conducted hundreds of portfolio reviews.