Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
As one of the editors of the The Hot Sheet, produced in collaboration with journalist Porter Anderson, I regularly read and report on publishing industry developments that affect writers. Here are the stories and trends that stand out so far in 2018.
Traditional Publishers Doing Well—Despite Decline in Ebook Sales
Globally, for the Big Five publishers, print and ebook sales currently stand at 80-20 in favor of print when averaged out across all categories. (Fiction has the highest percentage of ebook sales, with a 50-50 split between print and digital.)
The Big Five CEOs at BookExpo this year publicly commented on how pleased they are with the fairly stable business model that has developed despite pressures of the digital age and online retail. For example, the number of units sold in physical outlets, as a percentage of their overall business, has remained solid. But the CEOs admitted that it will take work to keep it that way in the face of a competitor like Amazon. John Sargent of Macmillan said, “There are some serious issues we will face in the coming years over changing consumer buying behaviors … and the issue of discoverability. … What we need to protect is lots and lots of shelf space in America for people to browse books.”
The strongest category this year for traditional publishers: political books
According to reports from NPD BookScan—which tracks traditional publishing sales—the number of political books (in print format) sold following the 2016 election is nearly double the volume following the 2012 election. It’s not that more books are being published; each title is just selling better. Political books are also showing digital growth and are up 22 percent compared to a decline of 5 percent for all ebooks tracked by NPD. The biggest selling title of the year thus far—in any category—is Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff.
The political landscape is also boosting other categories, such as dystopian fiction (where sales have doubled—led by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and prescriptive nonfiction. Personal growth and motivational/inspirational titles (such as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F— by Mark Manson and You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero) have seen double-digit print sales growth, and the latest era of self-improvement titles has been driven by younger consumers—millennials in particular—in what NPD called “adulting with attitude.”
The weak spot for traditional publishers: fiction and ebooks
Broadly, traditional print book sales continue to grow at about 2 to 3 percent per year, but growth is driven by nonfiction, backlist titles, and children’s/YA. Fiction sales have been flat for several years now, with frontlist fiction down 5 percent due to a lack of big titles. Five years ago, ebooks were at 28 percent market share for traditionally published books; today they are at 20 percent. NPD’s explanation for the drop: people are shifting from e-readers to tablets and phones that offer more distractions, and ebook pricing has gone up, which they call “the biggest barrier to entry.”
Whatever you would like to believe about traditional publishing’s performance, it’s quite easy to find the statistics to support your story. “Print is back!” is the story favored by mainstream media and the publishers themselves, especially when looking at the strength (or “return”) of independent bookstores. However, a frequent talking point is now the frontlist-backlist divide in fiction sales, or how new fiction titles are not selling as strongly as in past years. Simon & Schuster finished 2017 with record profits but admitted to declining sales of “important” authors. CEO Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster commented, to Publishers Marketplace, “We’re talking about these real powerhouses that have fueled the industry for a lot of years. It’s still a challenge to help an established, bestselling author maintain and grow his or her audience.”
The Challenges of Fiction Frontlist May Put Additional Marketing Expectations on New Authors
Once upon a time, it was relatively safe to say that, prior to a book deal, novelists weren’t expected to know much about the marketing process—or to have a platform in place. Novelists would be expected to market and promote their work once a publication date was set, but manuscripts would be sold primarily on their storytelling merits and appeal in the marketplace; the marketing discussions would come later. But that may be changing.
Carly Watters, VP & senior literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency, tweeted in April that because the industry is changing, so are her fiction submission requests. Aside from a synopsis, any author asked for a full manuscript will have to provide a list of five comparable titles from the past five years, a short marketing plan, a description of the next work in progress, and a list of alternate titles for the work being submitted. She added, “This reflects the seriousness authors need to take when launching their career & it starts with you.” If there was any good news for the debut novelist, it was that this request applies only to writers being asked for a full manuscript, not to writers sending initial queries.
This tweet landed right during London Book Fair, where nonfiction deals were riding high and fiction deals weren’t. As discussed above, fiction performance is weak globally, and backlist is driving sales. When NPD BookScan released their first quarterly summary for 2018, adult fiction was down 3 percent.
When I reached out to Watters about her Twitter thread, she illuminated more of the thinking behind her request. First, she said this is more of a “test” of mindset and understanding than anything. “I care about how the author responds to my request, that they engage with it, and that they have some idea about how their book fits in the marketplace.” The marketing plan is the most test-oriented part of the equation; Watters wants to see that writers have given the marketing of their work some thought, even if their points are off the mark or things the publisher would do. “I just want to learn what they know at this stage,” she said. “What I don’t want to see is a short list of things that they ‘will do in the future once they get a deal.’” She’s most interested in what they’re doing now to grow their platform and brand.
Watters says one thing that’s working for her lately is pitching a book with blurbs already in the pitch package. Therefore, she’s interested in knowing if the writer has author-friends who could lend a blurb to help her create the best possible package. She says, “With debut [novelists] I don’t send a marketing plan, but I often try to get them blurbs before submission—even if it’s just my pubbed clients helping each other out.”
I asked other agents active in the industry to see if they or their agencies are looking for more marketing information from querying novelists. Donald Maass, president of Donald Maass Literary Agency, said, “I know that publishers are these days thinking ahead to marketing of fiction, so it’s natural for ideas of comp titles, next work, and so on to pass up the line.” He said his agency works with writers to come up with the information, then added that this process applies mainly to debut fiction, and that after the first book, acquisitions decisions turn more on prior sales than anything. He cautioned, “Marketing bullet points reassure bookstore accounts but have little influence on book consumers. For fiction consumers, the most influential factors are in-store display, word of mouth, and page one.”
Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary said, “Platform, for both novelists and memoirists, seems more and more important. It’s not the deciding factor for taking on a novel—that’s still the premise and voice—but it’s definitely a major consideration to know that an author actually has a plan to get the novel to consumers.” He said that plan could involve things as varied as email newsletters, radio, or TV shows, but it might also be as simple as being a good literary citizen—being engaged and interacting with other writers and the writing community. Like Maass, he was quick to add that writers should not focus primarily on platform: “It’s still all in the writing: the book itself has to deliver a great read.”
Watters emphasized that, like any good agent, she collaborates with her clients to assemble a convincing package for editors. She doesn’t write off anyone who has a fantastic manuscript but no platform or marketing expertise. But she does have to do a lot more work on such books, so it becomes a time-management issue.
If the market for fiction becomes more competitive and risk-averse due to continued dwindling sales, it’s natural for agents and publishers to shift their preference to authors who appear better positioned to sell—or at least to authors who demonstrate they have a vision for their career and the marketing work involved in that career.
Barnes & Noble’s Struggles Continue
At the end of 2017, the biggest chain bookseller in the US reported a worse holiday season than anticipated. Their sales fell 6.4 percent compared to the prior year. And the news hasn’t improved since then.
Just before Valentine’s Day, Barnes & Noble announced a “new labor model” that eliminated certain store positions to save $40 million annually. Even though the store claimed to be “pivoting” back to books in November 2017—emphasizing discoverability and bookselling interactions with customers—the layoffs appeared to target long-standing and full-time staff who would likely be essential to that goal. Their earnings report last month reflected a 6 percent sales decline during the most recent fiscal year, but B&N continues to grow its membership program and focus on the benefits of its new national book club launched in May.
So, are Barnes & Noble’s struggles preventable or inevitable—and who’s to blame? This is where you’ll find considerable debate. There’s a reliable contingent that argues Amazon is to blame or points a finger at bad government policy (see the Department of Justice case against Apple and the Big Five). Others see the resurgence in independent bookstores and believe B&N has failed to innovate or at least capitalize on its strengths. In a presentation at BookExpo on the future of retail, Kristen McLean of NPD said that the retailers who are losing right now are those swimming in debt, those who can’t innovate or don’t have the leadership to innovate, and those who don’t have the right footprint (they’re locked into particular real estate contracts, for example). She said physical retail is not dead, but retailers have to give consumers a reason to visit stores—there has to be an “experience”—and that highly local businesses will compete.
In a podcast from Knowledge@Wharton, a few marketing professors discussed what the future holds for the beleaguered retailer. Wharton’s Peter Fader said, “They’ve tried lots of different things from devices to experiences to broadening the merchandise. Nothing’s working. At this point, they haven’t found that hook to save the business; nor have they found the vision or leadership to give people any confidence in it.” Wharton’s Barbara Kahn said that while the retailer probably does a good job overall, “The problem is they’re not the best at anything.”
Digital Subscription Services Help Publishers with Discoverability and Backlist Profits
In the US ebook subscription landscape, two services compete against one another for market share: Kindle Unlimited and Scribd. KU offers more than a million titles for $9.99/month; many titles are from Amazon Publishing and self-publishing authors, with limited participation from the Big Five publishers (only Harpercollins as of this writing). Scribd, meanwhile, has deals in place with the Big Five.
Back in 2015 and 2016, Scribd’s model appeared wobbly: the unlimited model was showing strain. Scribd announced cutbacks to its romance selection and then limited subscribers to one audiobook per month and three ebooks per month. However, in 2017, Scribd announced it had become profitable and now has about 700,000 subscribers.
Earlier this year, Scribd returned to a (mostly) unlimited model for $8.99/month. The heaviest users of the service will continue to be limited in what they can consume. CEO Trip Adler says fewer than 10 percent of subscribers will experience such limitations, but those subscribers will receive recommendations for alternative reads if an “expensive” title is unavailable.
During a BookExpo panel this year, two publishers described how and why they sell ebooks through digital subscription services such as Scribd. The panel was moderated by Andrew Weinstein, a vice president at Scribd, and included Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer of HarperCollins, and Nathan Henrion, vice president of sales for Baker Publishing Group, a Christian book publisher.
Both publishers agreed that digital subscription services increase reader reach and revenue. Restivo-Alessi said the “sales opportunity is endless” and it allows HarperCollins to be in as many places as possible with their content. “We see the subscription world as one additional way we can encourage competition and encourage discoverability and revenue generation for authors,” she said. “It is important to really realize how little actual visibility ebooks currently have in the retail environment. It is more and more focused on very limited slots and highly manipulated slots. Alternative channels are really important to allow the midlist and breadth of our work to be as accessible to as many consumers as possible. It’s our obligation to create that visibility to our consumers and to our authors. Not every author is a super high-caliber brand, and we need to build those authors over time. … We can only do that if we create visibility for their work.” Henrion agreed and emphasized that because they’re a midlist publisher with modest resources, subscription services like Scribd allow them to get their books in front of readers with the least amount of risk to the reader.
Weinstein shared Scribd statistics that indicate that 75 percent of reading activity on the site is from backlist titles. Both publishers said that 95 percent of their catalog has been read at least once on Scribd. Restivo-Alessi said of the consumption, “It can create a nice flywheel. Backlist discovery leads to consuming frontlist titles from the same author. … For midlist authors, it’s a way of helping discovery [for those] who might not have as much visibility at retail. … The reading is not really focused on just the top percentile. Seventy percent of the revenue is below the 50 top titles. It is very widespread in terms of reading and behavior, which is really good.”
In their closing comments, both publishers mentioned the positive experience they’ve had, and that subscriptions haven’t cannibalized their sales, with Restivo-Alessi saying bluntly that “just being opposed to subscriptions per se is really shortsighted, in that you’re really missing out on an additional [sales] channel. How you use that channel and what kind of content you put in and how much of that content—that’s obviously an individual publisher’s decision. However, not being in it at all seems strange.”
As far as whether digital subscriptions are sustainable as a business model, Henrion said all the kinks have been worked out. “It’s a win-win for the reader, the publisher—it’s gotten to that point.” Weinstein explained how services like Scribd pay traditional publishers: in the overwhelming majority of agreements, there’s a free preview (about 10 percent) that all users can access; then there’s an additional percentage—about 5 to 10 percent more—that only subscribers can access. Reading beyond the preview triggers a payout to the publisher that is equivalent to an ebook sale. In other words: authors are paid just as they would be for an actual sale through a retailer, although (of course) authors’ contracts may vary in the particulars.
For any indie author familiar with the continued frustrations of Kindle Unlimited, the conversation was striking for what wasn’t present: any angst or concern about fraud or problematic payout systems. It’s concerning how authors have ended up in two separate-but-not-equal classes in Kindle Unlimited. Traditionally published authors whose books are in KU participate under a payment model similar to that of Scribd, assuming the author’s contract with the publisher treats those transactions as a standard ebook sales. But indie authors must accept a per-page-read earnings system that tallies payment after the fact, based on a variable pool of money.
Which brings us to Amazon …
Amazon Pulls Back on Indie-Favored Publishing Programs in 2018
Kindle Scout, the crowd-voting publishing program, closed down in the spring, right at the same time that Kindle Press stopped accepting manuscript submissions. (It told its authors to “consider Kindle Direct Publishing as one of your publication options.”)
Never heard of Kindle Press? You’re probably not alone, as it is not particularly publicized or promoted by Amazon—nor is it listed as an Amazon Publishing imprint. It was more “program” than publisher, primarily attached to Kindle Scout, which issued ebooks and audiobooks from successful authors coming out of that program.
Why the change? An Amazon spokesperson said, “So we can focus attention on our growing list of Amazon Publishing imprints.”
Related: Amazon Studios also closed to submissions, right on the heels of the Kindle Scout closure. (Amazon Studios was essentially an open call for script and concept submissions.) And Amazon’s CreateSpace stopped offering editorial services for self-publishing authors, although the core distribution service remains.
Then, Amazon the announced that Kindle Worlds would shut down by September 2018. While some authors had noticed a decrease in support and marketing activity surrounding the program, the notice was largely seen as abrupt.
While Kindle Worlds has never been a widely known or talked-about program, for those in the industry, it was an interesting experiment, pointing toward a workable path for monetizing fan fiction. Here’s how Kindle Worlds worked, in a nutshell: Amazon reached out to specific, established authors or their estates (and other IP owners in the entertainment industry) to see if they were willing to make their “worlds” available on the Kindle Worlds platform, where other writers could publish and make money on ebooks based in those worlds. If the IP owners agreed, they had to create a world “bible” to indicate what restrictions, if any, applied to officially licensed works. (For example, the world creator might stipulate that certain characters could not be killed off.) The creators split the sales proceeds with the writers, with each receiving 35 percent; Amazon received its usual 30 percent. Prices were consistently $1.99 and $3.99.
In about five years, Kindle Worlds launched nearly 100 licensed worlds, some well known. Some of the authors and brands you’ve likely heard of: Hugh Howey, Kurt Vonnegut, G.I. Joe, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars. That said, the majority of worlds were drawn from indie genre fiction.
Again, why the change? No explanation has been forthcoming, but there are a few things in common among all these programs: they were populated by a cohort of indie authors, they required Amazon staff to be involved in some kind of reviewing/curation (but not as acquiring editors or hands-on editors), and they were driven primarily by low-priced genre fiction ebooks. Amazon Publishing titles, on the other hand, are acquired and edited following traditional publishing standards and sold at a higher price point (usually between $4.99 and $5.99). Without any other evidence, one assumes a low profit margin has driven these decisions.
What trends have you noticed in the publishing landscape this year? Share your insights in the comments.
“Doubtless many a young poet gnaws his heart reflecting that publishers conspire not to print his songs, or that the public conspires not to read them. His book is not printed or it is not read. He is therefore the victim of a bitterwrong. … It is a cruelly unjust world, thinks the poet, because the editor and the publisher will not own his merit.”
—George William Curtis, 1883
“Of all the learned professions, literature is the most poorly paid.”
—Dr. Edward Eggleston, 1890
Reliably, every year or so, you’ll see headlines about new research that claims author incomes are on the decline. The most recent is from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), a British nonprofit run by writers for writers. (Download the report here).
Before I continue with this epic-length post, here’s the short version: I don’t trust these surveys’ results and I question their usefulness in improving the fortunes of writers. Too often it feels like promotion of a self-interested narrative from writers’ organizations, with the outcome boring and predictable. There is media coverage that claims writers’ incomes are plummeting, a few big-name authors come out and try to shame publishers or even society for not valuing writers properly, debate ensues, then everyone gets back to work—until a new study emerges.
This latest gnashing of teeth has motivated me to finally write a comprehensive post about why these reports are so frustrating, in the hopes more people will ask critical questions and notice their flaws. In the long run, I hope organizations will either reassess how these studies get done, or focus on more useful support of professional authors. However, a brief side note for industry insiders: For the purposes of this article, I’m setting aside the fact this research may be done mainly to support arguments and legislation for strengthening and protecting of authors’ copyright and thus (presumably) their earnings potential. Frankly, I don’t think weak copyright law is the problem, and I believe such efforts have little effect on the average author. My thinking on copyright aligns with what you might hear from Cory Doctorow—but that’s a post for another day.
When considering author-income research, my concerns fall into these areas.
How reliable is the research?
What other data points do we have?
If the data is directionally correct, then why are incomes declining?
Does the research tell us something meaningful or useful about how writers earn a living?
How reliable is the research?
One challenge with these surveys is they reach out to all types of writers, not just professional authors or commercial authors. Any writer can generally take part, and it’s anyone’s guess as to the consistency in who is responding to the survey call. For example, ALCS has conducted these surveys:
In the latest one (2018), ALCS commissioned CREATe at the University of Glasgow to conduct the survey. It reached 5,523 writers which includes “everyone from full-time professionals to occasional contributors.”
In 2014, research was conducted at the University of London and included 2,500 writers. The report says, “The majority of respondents were professional authors who spent most of their working lives writing. Overall the respondents represented a varied group, writing in different contexts and for diverse markets.”
In 2005, research was conducted by Bournemouth University and included 25,000 British and German writers. Surveys were sent to members of ALCS and two professional bodies in Germany. Here’s that report.
The 2005 study is probably the best and offers the most thorough detail; it separates out main-income writers (50%+ income from writing) from professional writers (50%+ time spent on writing), and also indicates the percentage of those who are academics/teachers. You won’t find this breakdown in later studies, at least in no public version I could find.
The conclusion of the 2018 study is that the median annual income of professional writers in the UK is down by 15 percent since 2013. If the group is expanded to all writers, then the decline is 33 percent since 2013. But the main-income category isn’t cited in recent research; I don’t know why.
So, what is a professional writer for the purposes of this study? Aside from being defined as someone who dedicates over half their working hours to writing, ALCS says that respondents (at least in 2014) included teachers, journalists, author-illustrators, poets, translators, scriptwriters, academics, playwrights, and comedians. (!) These obviously represent very different fields with varying levels of commercial potential. By mixing them together, it makes it difficult to draw valid conclusions about earnings trends for, let’s say, the average novelist. And let’s be honest: When these studies are reported in the media, the image most people pull up in their minds is their favorite commercial author.
I’m not trying to pick on the ALCS or its researchers’ methodology. Other such research has the same or similar flaws—usually a too-diverse pool of writers being surveyed not to mention the self-selecting nature of the survey. When the US-based Authors Guild conducted a survey in 2015, it asked its own membership to respond. That’s going to slant the results and tell you something more about the type of person who belongs to Authors Guild than the fortunes of writers more generally.
It’s also problematic to rely on authors’ guesses or memory of their income. I recently participated in an authors’ income survey, and it asked me to come up with earnings figures from the most recent year, a year before that, and five years ago. Fortunately, I have that info at my fingertips because I keep good records immediately accessible to me, but how many writers do? How many bother to check and how many just guess?
And: what if the authors surveyed are producing less than in prior years? This is another factor not taken into account—and it’s an important one. What if responding authors (often more likely to belong to an authors’ organization) have been coasting on older books that have declining rates of sale? What if they are producing work they can’t sell because their work is no longer as commercially viable as it once was? For example, only 19 percent of respondents in the 2018 ALCS report are age 44 and younger; 33 percent are 65 and older. This isn’t about ageism (or at least I hope not); it’s about writers reaching retirement and the end of their careers.
If these studies are going to be more reliable and trustworthy—while still surveying the authors themselves—they should try to:
Revisit the same writers year after year and ask about earnings; if possible, validate the responses through documentation
Categorize writers’ earnings based on their primary genre, category or medium
Focus on full-time professional writers if we really want to study full-time author earnings and not, say, professors who also write
Ask about the volume of work being produced and if it’s consistent from year to year
Some people write on the side because they have the luxury or leisure time to do so; I question why they should be included and discussed in the same studies as professional or full-time writers’ earnings, as it ends up creating misleading narratives and muddies the waters. This raises the issue, however, of how prevalent it is for writers to pursue or hold other jobs because writing doesn’t pay a living wage. I’ll comment on this in the last section below—regarding the meaningfulness or usefulness of these studies.
What other data points do we have?
Unfortunately, not many. Earlier this year, Nicola Solomon of the UK’s Society of Authors put out a call for publishers to reveal what they pay authors. The Society argues—based on UK publishing industry figures—that the percentage of publisher revenue going to authors is somewhere around 3 to 5 percent. However, Profile Books, an independent UK publisher, reported that 22 percent of its revenue goes to authors.
Why the gap? When a London literary agent, Andrew Lownie, weighed in on the issue at Publishing Perspectives, he said fewer than 15 percent of book sales made in the UK will result in the best royalty rates for writers. Discounts and special sales to large retailers and wholesalers reduce the basis on which royalties are calculated. Once again, we’re confronted with how different authors publishing different types of work can expect to earn different amounts—further undercutting the meaning of any all-in-one study.
As a side note, it may be that US authors have it better than UK authors. In June 2017, Michael Cader of PublishersMarketplace wrote an article (subscription required) guessing at what US authors earn; part of his motivation was to synthesize data from both traditional publishing and self-publishing—using Author Earnings data to help fill in the gaps. His key points:
In the US, traditional publishing authors mostly “earn” from advances, not book sales; at large publishers, 75 percent of their advances are not earned out—but that is by design. (Successful authors receive a much higher effective royalty rate as a result.)
Cader estimates self-publishing authors make up about 20 percent of all author earnings in the US. (Note these are authors not normally reached by the usual surveys.)
Cader writes, “HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray has said in public they invest ‘over $200 million a year in new works.’ That suggests they pay at least 12 percent of annual revenues in advances every year. And Penguin Random House consistently carries … close to 800 million Euros for future projects under contract. … That obligation is equal to about 25 percent of the company’s annual sales.”
Cader adds, “The biggest publishers will say informally within the community that they pay around 40 percent of their sales to authors annually between advances and royalties. That’s not a published or verifiable number, but it’s not out of step with what’s findable.”
One question I’m unable to answer: whether those percentages Cader cites have been consistent over time. Traditional publisher earnings and profits have been doing quite well in the digital age—and are trackable and verifiable. The chart below from Nielsen gives us an indication of the stability in the US market over the 2000s, and the UK market is similar in its stability (if not size). So one would expect authors’ earnings from traditionally published work to be fairly consistent or modestly growing alongside publishers’ earnings. That brings us to the next question.
If the survey results are directionally correct, why might author earnings be declining?
When these reports hit the major media, the blame almost always falls squarely on book publishers. In the Guardian, the headline is “Publishers are paying writers a pittance, say bestselling authors.”
However, the survey data doesn’t prove that publishers are the cause of the decline. Rather, that’s the spin applied to the data—at least by The Guardian and the bestselling authors they interviewed. As you might imagine, it’s not hard to find an author willing to complain they’re not paid enough by publishers. In addition to publishers, Solomon blames Amazon for not sharing in its profits—another common refrain, especially in the US market.
Let’s assume that this survey is surfacing a real decline in earnings among the professional writer class while, at the same time, publishers’ revenues are increasing. What might be going on? A quick list off the top of my head:
As Lownie points out, a greater share of sales may be in discount/bulk sale categories where authors are paid a lower royalty rate.
Publishers may be more fiscally conservative in their advances and no longer pay that effective higher royalty rate as described by Cader.
The authors being surveyed may be writing in categories that have suffered declines in readership and sales over the years. See charts below; they are somewhat dated now, but recent industry reports show that frontlist fiction is flat to declining. YA/juvenile categories see growth whereas adult fiction does not, at least in the US.
Even though traditional publishing revenues are up, it may be driven by increased pricing or by products that don’t require authors or royalties. For example, coloring books were a huge contributor to print growth a couple years ago.
Self-publishing authors may be taking away market share and earnings from traditionally published authors, especially in fiction categories.
It would, of course, be fabulous if publishers offered some transparency, as Solomon requests, on the percentage of their revenues or profits that ends up going to writers. That seems unlikely, but some independent publishers may have the freedom to be so open. Literary agencies, too, might be able to offer trends they’ve seen from year to year, without divulging sensitive figures about specific clients.
Do these studies tell us anything meaningful or useful?
The most recent ALCS study says, “Full-time writers are still very much the exception rather than the norm and we are still seeing that writers need to develop ‘portfolio’ careers in order to make ends meet. The number of authors earning their income solely from writing appears to have stabilised and is fairly consistent with the 2013 figures, but is still depressingly low at 13.7% and is still only a third of the number of full-time professional authors recorded in 2005. The research showed that, on average, income from publishing makes up the largest proportion of the professional writers’ income, but that this is supplemented by other areas such as lecturing, self-publishing and teaching…”
So why isn’t the headline of these research studies something like, “Authors who earn their income solely from writing is stable” or “Authors employ varied business models to earn a full-time living”? Even “Authors don’t make a living primarily from book sales” would be a great alternative.
Something I keep saying (and have explained, at length, in my book The Business of Being a Writer), is that the writer who makes a living from book sales alone is the exception and not the rule in traditional publishing. Were things that different in past decades? That’s the idea you might take away when reading The Guardian’s reports on ALCS research, where they inevitably quote an author saying, “You used to be able to make a full-time living from writing.” But what does that really mean?
That you could once expect a generous advance for every book that equated to a full-time living every year?
That you could once survive on royalty checks indefinitely?
That you could write one book a year and live comfortably regardless of the commercial potential?
That you could live by book sales alone without engaging in any other activities at all?
I suspect the meaning varies by author, but here’s the bottom line. These studies show significant percentage declines, but only because the base of earnings is quite small to begin with. In 2005, professional authors’ earnings solely from writing was 12,330 British pounds. In 2017: 10,437 British pounds. Given the age of writers being surveyed, the guesswork involved in estimating one’s income from years prior, and whatever changes have occurred in the market (as discussed above), this starts to look like a rounding error and not a crisis.
What most frustrates me, year after year, is why we believe or assume that authors have ever earned a reasonable full-time living from publisher advances or book sales. If these studies help make young writers (especially those paying for MFA degrees) more aware of the reality, then I’m glad of the wake-up call.
Was there some golden age—perhaps as publishers consolidated and chain retail emerged—that offered authors a more lucrative living or the potential to earn a full-time living more easily than ever before? I doubt it, but if so, that was a singular era. The history of authors’ earnings is one that’s beleaguered and fraught with anxiety. Back in 1991, during a time that some consider that “golden age,” full-time writer George Packer wrote in the New York Times, “The notion of literature as a steady livelihood now seems pretty absurd.” (He was comparing 1991 to the Grub Street era.)
If we go back to the beginnings of modern authorship, in the decades after the printing press emerged, we can learn from The Coming of the Book that “Authors who could command large sums from their publishers were very few. In fact, except for a few isolated cases, the money an author received was still meagre. To subsist it was necessary to have recourse to other means and to continue to sell prefaces and dedications.” In other words, authors needed patrons once upon a time—and still do.
The people responsible for conducting this research will argue that if publishers don’t change their ways and pay the author more, it will mean the decline of literature and overall diversity in the field. There is zero evidence this has ever happened or will happen. At the very least, since 2010, self-publishing and digital publishing has shown how much great work is overlooked by publishers everyday, and only makes it to market because of authors’ own innovation, motivation, and sources of support. And thus it always has been. Most writers, regardless of how they publish, are motivated not by money, but for some other reason. Prestige. Infamy. Status. Visibility. A million other things.
However, it’s not that art or literature can’t pay; it’s that most writers aren’t willing to make the compromises required to make a living from it. When the 2014 ALCS report was issued, The Guardian ran it with Will Self as the poster child of collapsing author incomes. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who noticed the feature of Self just a couple years prior, also in The Guardian, where he proclaimed he doesn’t write for readers—and he considers that the characteristic of a serious writer.
All well and good, but that’s someone who needs government support for the arts if he wishes to be unconcerned with the commercial return of his work. Publishers can’t take that attitude and expect to survive; writers who intend to earn a full-time living should expect to put together an earnings model that’s diverse and multi-faceted (with patrons, grants, speaking, etc), or become attuned to the commercial market and produce work accordingly.
I leave you with this quote from Authors & Publishers by G.H. Putnam, published in 1897, when animosity between the author and publisher populations reached a fevered pitch. (Notably, it was during this era that the figure of the literary agent emerged, as well as what we would recognize today as a standard royalty contract.)
“If there is any truth in the picture which represents the publisher as a sort of ogre, whose den is strewn with the bones of authors, and who quaffs his wine out of their skulls, this assumption is certainly natural enough, as between the eater and the eaten there can be little love lost. It must be admitted that the reminiscences of authors do contain not a few instances which serve to justify this vulgar impression as to the piratical and profit-absorbing tendencies of publishers. … The author who has experience in literature and knowledge of business is … ready to recognize that, while in certain undertakings the results may be unsatisfactory or may bring ‘inequities’ for one party or the other, the series of transactions between authors and publishers must, as an entirety, be regulated by the same inexorable laws of supply and demand, and under the same pressure of competition, which control all buying and selling. The interests of authors and publishers are, like those of all producers and distributers, practically identical.”
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon, the day before Faye’s eighth birthday. I was twelve and should’ve known better. A few days earlier at the grocery store Mom had bought yellow cake mix, chocolate frosting, candles, and icing. She’d asked me to please bake the cake when I got home from school, as I’d done a few months earlier for my own birthday. Birthdays weren’t a big deal in our new three-person family—money was tight and Mom worked a lot of nights tending bar at Roughboys back then—but there was always a little something: if not quite a celebration, then at least an acknowledgment. A cake. A simple gift or two after a macaroni and cheese dinner, or hot dogs, or take-out. But for some reason I hadn’t connected those dots, that it didn’t make sense for him to take us on this unannounced trip while those cake ingredients sat untouched on Mom’s kitchen counter.
He was sitting in his ’67 El Camino outside our school in Emeryville, smoking a Kool, one booted foot up on the glossy dashboard heavily greased with Armor-All, “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell crackling from one working speaker. It still seems like yesterday. A second cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the one with the ragged earlobe. A couple years earlier, at a backyard barbeque, he’d been toying with his new fishing rod, showing one of his friends how to cast properly. My mother had told him not to do that with so many people around, and, the way I remember it, about two seconds later, on his backswing, he’d hooked his own ear, tearing the lobe clean away.
The junior high was across the street from the elementary school Faye attended. My job after school was to meet her so we could walk home together. I hadn’t minded this the year or two before, but by junior high I’d started to feel self-conscious: my friends getting rides from their older siblings in high school, while I moped down the sidewalk alongside my little sister with her pink boots and pink hair ribbons and pink Shaun Cassidy lunchbox.
Sometimes a little editing is all we need. Let me walk you through my revision of this good opening, which begins:
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon, the day before Faye’s eighth birthday.
Not a bad opener, but not as good as it could be. In killing two birds with one stone it does, or tries to do, too much. Better one bird, one stone:
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon.
Our father kidnapped us the day before Faye’s eighth birthday.
The problem with the second version—and it’s a problem in the given draft as well—is that, since we don’t know who Faye is, instead of raising the pertinent question, “Why did this man’s father kidnap him?” we are left asking, “Who is Faye?” That bit of false suspense spoils the opening, diffuses its energy. We have to read on until the end of the final paragraph to learn that Faye is the narrator’s little sister.
The event pointed to by the tantalizing opening sentence has barely been engaged—in fact it hasn’t been engaged at all—when the third sentence (“A few days earlier at the grocery store…”) yanks us out of it and into a flashback.
Rule No. 1 for flashbacks: until and unless you’ve invested us in a scene, don’t flash back (or away) from it! The point of a flashback is to illuminate the scene from which it digresses, to add dimension and tension to it. The depth of our investment in the primary scene, the amount of suspense generated by it, determines how long a flashback it can support. In this case, since the primary scene hasn’t yet left the station, it can hold a flashback of exactly zero words.
After the narrator and his sister have gotten into the car with their mysterious father—that’s where the flashback belongs, and where, having shortened it, I relocated it. In my revision, the “had” in the flashback’s first sentence (“A few days earlier at the grocery store, Mom had bought yellow cake mix, chocolate frosting…”) has been deleted. It’s not necessary, since “After a few days” makes it clear that the scene takes place in the past before the past that we’re in, or the past perfect. My rule about “had”: use it when necessary. For instance, the next use of the past perfect had (“She’d asked me to please bake the cake”) is warranted, since it takes us to a moment before the narrator went to the grocery store with her mother: a past (cake request) before the past (grocery store) before the past (father/car scene). Other “hads” have been cut.
Much of the rest of that long first paragraph (“Birthdays weren’t a big deal in our new three-person family…”) is implied or anyway not crucial enough to warrant weighing down this dramatic opening with less-than-crucial material. The respective ages of the narrator and his sister are—or will soon be—made clear by the fact that he’s in junior high while she’s in elementary school. Whatever else isn’t crucial can be discovered later. We need to get to the “kidnapping” promised by the first sentence, to the father waiting in his car, to that event.
Once we get to it, we want to be kept in the moment(s), with digressions (in the form of flashbacks and exposition) occurring at points of high, or at least sufficient, tension, and cunningly distributed between actions (“ ‘Get in,’ said my father” / “My sister and I got in my father’s car”), such that, though our engagement in the main scene is interrupted, the brief interruptions add dramatic tension. They enhance more than they annoy.
The cunning distribution of exposition and action throughout a scene is called pacing.
Revised opening page
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon.
He was sitting in his ’67 El Camino outside our school in Emeryville, smoking a Kool, one booted foot up on the glossy dashboard heavily greased with Armor-All, “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell crackling from one working speaker. A second cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the one with the ragged earlobe.
“Get in,” said my father.
Farley Junior High was across the street from the elementary school my sister Faye attended. Normally after school I would meet her and we’d walk home together. While my friends got rides from older siblings, I moped down the sidewalk alongside Faye with her matching pink boots, hair ribbons, and Shaun Cassidy lunchbox.
My sister and I got in my father’s car. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Vacation,” he said.
I should have known better. It was the day before Faye’s eighth birthday. Days earlier Mom asked me to bake a cake, as I’d done a few months earlier for my own birthday. It didn’t make any sense for our father to take us on a “vacation” while the ingredients for Faye’s birthday cake sat untouched on the kitchen counter.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
This post was originally published in 2016 and has been recently expanded to keep pace with changes in the industry.
In my annual chart, The Key Book Publishing Paths, there is one column that is most vexing and problematic for writers to navigate: small publishers.
Into this category falls some of the most prestigious publishers you can imagine, that can boast of New York Times bestsellers, and that writers dream of working with. But it also includes publishers that started up last year out of someone’s home office, run by people who may not know anything more about the publishing industry than you do.
Small publishers often have little or nothing in common with each other; each has unique contracts, distribution power, and quality, not to mention title count and revenue. That said, small presses can be alike in that they take pride in their status (and often rightly so) and call themselves “independent publishers,” to emphasize their creativity or more personal approach, and to differentiate themselves from corporately owned behemoths.
The problem for the writer is that some small presses take a sizable chunk of royalties and rights, yet offer little value in return. The intent may not be malicious; it’s rather that their ignorance of standard (or ethical) business practice in publishing may lead them to offer contracts and deals that mimic what they see far more established players using.
First, let’s examine the basics of how books make it to market and how they get sold—and the role that traditional publishers play, regardless of size, in that process. With a clear view of the business, you can learn how to identify whether a small press offers an advantage to you over self-publishing. Incidentally, understanding this can also help you evaluate what value, if any, a hybrid publisher offers.
To greatly simplify matters, a traditional publisher has four overarching duties:
Producing the best-quality book possible, regardless of format. I include all aspects of product optimization in this bucket, such as editorial, design, packaging, production, pricing, book descriptions, metadata and so on.
Proactively selling the book into accounts, such as bookstores, other retailers, and libraries—or any place books are sold or available.
Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade—namely, booksellers, librarians, and professional book reviewers.
Marketing and publicizing the book to readers, whether that’s through direct marketing (its own email list and social media, for example) or through traditional media and publicity (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and so on).
Producing the best-quality book possible
If the publisher isn’t fully invested in producing the best-quality book, that causes trouble immediately for what comes afterward. Without sufficient effort to get the product (book) right, neither author nor publisher has much hope of selling and marketing it successfully.
Some small presses put a lot of burden on the author to get the book right, and offer limited editing in-house. They may lean on authors to come up with the best title and write the marketing copy for their own work. While experienced authors might be able to do such work or at least source it, a new author typically needs some guidance on best practices.
Some authors I talk with are excited about the prospect of a hands-off publisher—because then the book can come out exactly as you intend without “interference.” But this undercuts from the start the whole reason for working with a publisher in the first place. If you’re going to fork over a healthy share of your profit (or even pay upfront, in the case of a hybrid), you should prefer to work with a publisher that is engaged and can challenge you to produce a better product. The publisher is supposed to bring greater experience and knowledge to bear on how to package a book so that it will be more appealing to buyers in the trade (e.g., bookstores) and to readers. If they’re not helping you do that, then the lack of investment and interest should raise a warning flag. The quality of books released by the publisher shouldn’t vary depending on the experience or investment of the author; that will quickly lead to a less-than-stellar reputation for the publisher—which then affects their success at the next stage of the process.
Important side note: If the small press makes you pay upfront for their in-house editing, design, or production—or makes you pay for copies of your book—they’re not a traditional publisher, but a hybrid publisher or a publishing service. Traditional publishers, regardless of size, pay the author. The only expenses the author should incur as part of the traditional publishing process relate to indexing, permissions costs, or possibly making editorial changes beyond the timeframe allowed by the publisher. That said, some small presses, in addition to offering traditional book deals that work on a traditional model, also have a separate plan where authors have to pay. So, if you get rejected, you may be offered a “pay to play” deal. Unfortunately, this likely means their overall business model relies on charging writers for services rather than selling books to readers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this if they’re transparent about their operations—and not trying to deceive you about the type of deal you’re getting—realize that such publishers may have less motivation to acquire books that have a good sales outlook; they may accept nearly any book where the author is willing to subsidize its publication. So, are you OK with an assisted self-publishing or hybrid publishing arrangement? Or do you prefer a publisher that is very selective because it must focus on projects that have a good chance at survival in the marketplace? Read more on hybrid publishing here.
Questions to ask
What is the editing process like? Is there a developmental or content edit, copyedit, and/or proofread? Will you be working with people who are in-house or freelancers—or no one? What level of responsibility do you have to get things right?
Evaluate the publishers’ cover designs and interior designs (using Amazon’s Look Inside feature). Are the designs professional and comparable to other titles in the genre? Do they inspire confidence in the book?
Read the book descriptions, both on Amazon and on the print back cover (using Look Inside). Are they well done, at least to your eye?
Selling the book into accounts
Part of the value a traditional publisher provides is the ability to sell your work into bricks-and-mortar bookstores and other retailers. They have a sales force, either in-house or through a distribution partner, that goes on sales calls. Your book gets pitched, even if it’s just for seven seconds, to people in charge of placing orders for books, prior to the book’s release. Most traditional publishers still work according to seasons, meaning they have a fall list and a spring list, which means there are fall sales meetings and spring sales meetings to determine what books will get placement. The outcome of these conversations helps determine the print run.
The smaller the press, the less likely they have an in-house sales team. Instead, they may work with a partner (called a distributor) who sells their books on their behalf. This is where terminology gets tricky, because just having a distributor, or having your books distributed, does not mean your books are being sold into stores during sales calls. For instance, my book Publishing 101 is distributed through Ingram, but that doesn’t mean anyone at Ingram went on sales calls to pitch my book. But Ingram does have publisher-clients for whom they take on this responsibility.
It is not easy for a small press to get a distributor onboard who is actually pitching their books. (Some examples of distributors who do this work include Perseus, which is now owned by Ingram; Small Press Distribution; Independent Publishers Group; and Itasca.) Small presses typically have to show a minimum level of sales or titles per year in order to be taken on as a client.
If a small press doesn’t have a distributor that sells its books into accounts, then they’re likely focused on pushing sales through Amazon, and they may forgo a print run and rely on print-on-demand distribution. Any small press can get adequate distribution for their books (get into major retailers) by simply working with two print-on-demand services: Ingram (either Lightning Source or IngramSpark) and CreateSpace. Critically, authors have access to the same type of distribution, at little or no cost to them. This is why any small press touting their wide distribution through Ingram is not really doing anything special for you or the book.
Book distribution is not difficult; the door is wide open to everyone. What’s difficult is actually selling the book to anyone. If the small press is not selling your book into major (or minor) accounts, that doesn’t mean you should avoid it, but understand that you’re unlikely to see your book shelved nationwide in bookstores. Maybe locally and regionally it will happen, or if you secure significant influencer or media attention that helps spur demand and thus orders. However, a small, digital-only or digital-first press will likely see it as a waste of time and money to market to the trade (bookstores, libraries, professional reviewers) or target traditional bookstores for sales. If you have your heart set on that kind of promotion and visibility, then obviously you don’t want to work with a small press that is primed for and focused on Amazon sales.
Side note on print runs: Investing in a print run means the publisher anticipates sales and has confidence that the book will be actively stocked in bricks-and-mortar stores. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with small presses relying on print-on-demand. It’s a way to reduce risk and economize—but it means the press’s value to you might not lie in a sales effort. So look for that other value. Is it in producing the best possible book? Or in marketing direct to readers? Think it through.
Questions to ask
Does the publisher have a distributor that pitches books to accounts? You can ask directly or visit their website and pretend you are a bookseller (or other retailer) who wants to order and stock the publisher’s books. Look for a page with bookseller info or trade accounts info. If you can’t find anything, check their FAQ, about page, or contact page. You should be able to find out who their distributor is, or who handles orders from retailer accounts. You should find phone numbers or another way to place an order. If all the sales information simply directs people to Amazon, then the small press probably doesn’t have a distributor.
Does the publisher produce a seasonal catalog?
Does the publisher invest in a print run?
If the publisher uses print-on-demand, who is the provider? If they use CreateSpace only (not Ingram), that can pose a problem for authors eager to arrange events or promotion with independent bookstores, who do not like ordering from their competitor (Amazon).
Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade
“Trade” is defined as publishing industry insiders, or: booksellers, librarians and reviewers (as well as traditional media) who are typically first in line to make your book known and visible to readers.
To reach these gatekeepers, small presses need to produce advance review copies of your book about three to six months prior to the book’s release, and send them out to whomever they think will most likely offer placement, reviews, or coverage. This type of activity is typically done to help ensure orders are placed by booksellers or librarians prior to the release date, and may help determine the print run or other marketing efforts, if early indicators are positive.
If a book is released only in ebook form, that more or less means there will be no marketing and publicity effort toward the trade. Often the same is true for print-on-demand titles, or those with no print run. Most ebook sales in the US happen direct to reader through Amazon, and some bookstores and libraries aren’t eager to take on print-on-demand titles because the terms aren’t always what they need. Bookstores expect books to be returnable, usually at a minimum 40 percent discount. While it’s possible for a small press to make those terms work when using print-on-demand, some presses would rather mitigate their risk and refuse to accept returns. Be sure you understand your small press’s policy and terms, especially if you intend to be basing your marketing campaign around independent bookstores.
Questions to ask
Does the publisher send out ARCs or review copies? Some small presses are operated only by one or two people and don’t have full-time marketers or publicists. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but they will be limited in what they can do to support your work. Get clarity on what support you’ll receive.
Does the publisher submit the book to media outlets for coverage? Does it follow up?
Study recent titles from the publisher Amazon—what’s the review activity like? Are there editorial (professional) reviews listed? Follow the publicity breadcrumb trail for recent titles.
Marketing and publicizing the book to readers
Even the biggest and best traditional publishers fall down on this one—and it’s the area of authors’ greatest disappointment by far. Some publishers can do a tremendous job of producing a quality book, selling a book into accounts, and getting books on shelves throughout the country … but then no one shows up to buy those books. Within six months, those books get returned and authors have the sudden realization that the game is over before it really had a chance to begin.
This is an area where some small presses can shine, and where they can compete favorably with even the biggest publishers. But will they?
One factor that works in your favor is if the small press is well-branded and specializes in producing books for a very specific type of reader or community. That means that they don’t necessarily have to create a unique and distinctive marketing plan for each and every book. Instead, they can tap into existing assets that reach the readers they already know will love the next book coming out. The publishers’ assets might include email newsletters, social media, blogs/websites with book-related content, podcasts, advertising campaigns, and so on.
While it can be nice if the small press sells direct to readers through its own website, it’s extremely unlikely that’s where most sales will occur. Therefore, don’t use that as a sign of reaching readers unless the website is more of a content marketing hub. An example would be Early Bird Books, run by Open Road Media.
Speaking of the publisher’s website: if it appears poorly designed, out of date, or amateurish, that’s not a great sign—although, to be fair, book publishers are somewhat notorious for having bad websites. If you’re willing to forgive bad website design, consider who the website seems to speak to or focus on. Is it trying to lure in authors, or is it trying to showcase its books? The more it’s catering to authors, the less likely it’s a publisher you want to work with.
Questions to ask
What is the publisher’s baseline effort for each title when it comes to reaching readers directly?
Does the publisher have a publicist on staff? Will you be working with a publicist or will you have to hire you own, assuming you want one?
Does the publisher have direct-to-reader marketing assets, such as an email newsletter list, social media accounts, or other places where it discusses new releases?
Does the publisher assist the author with any efforts or materials that might be used to market to readers, such as book events/signings, bookmarks and postcards, and so on?
You’ll encounter two types of contracts: so-called “life of copyright” contracts (which are most common in traditional publishing) and fixed-term contracts. Neither is best; they’re just different. I recommend hiring a literary lawyer to help you negotiate the contract, but here are a few warning flags.
If you’re not receiving an advance, you should receive higher royalties than an average publishing contract. Royalties on an average contract might be anywhere from 4 to 25 percent depending on the book format and volume of sales. Royalties on a no-advance or digital-only/digital-first contract should look better than that, usually 20-50% of sales for print. Ebook sales should be a minimum of 25% net to the author (that’s the standard for Big Five contracts), but for small, digital-only and digital-first presses, 50% is common and should be what you’re shooting for.
The smaller the press and the less value they offer—and especially if there’s no advance—the fewer subsidiary rights they should have. Hold onto your audiobook rights, for instance, as well as film/TV. Or: hold onto as many rights as possible if the small press has little or no experience exploiting those rights in the first place.
Small presses that offer little value, especially digital-only or digital-first presses, are more likely to offer you a fixed-term contract (three years or less is preferable); try to avoid a life-of-copyright contract when there’s no advance and limited value.
If you sign a life-of-copyright contract, be sure to negotiate a termination clause that allows you to part ways when sales dip below a specific threshold.
Avoid signing a non-compete clause (especially an overly broad one) or giving a first option (right to see your next work) to a small press of any kind, but especially to a digital-only or a hybrid. Frankly, it’s best to avoid this with any book contract, but the more reputable the press, the more likely they’ll try to insist some level of commitment. This is where an agent or literary lawyer can be very useful.
Traditional publishers, even small ones, will often negotiate every single author contract, and each book has different terms. However, this creates a lot of administrative effort and long-term accounting responsibility, which “mom and pop” presses are ill-equipped to handle. Thus, small or new presses may tell you upfront what your specific advance and royalties will be, which probably means they offer you a take-it-or-leave-it publishing contract. While it may seem great that the financial terms are transparent and standard across all books, this isn’t done for your benefit. It’s for theirs.
I’ve helped authors evaluate small press contracts, suggesting changes to be made, and often, that small press will come back to the author and refuse to negotiate on terms. That’s not a good sign, as every publishing contract ought to be negotiable. However, their goal may be to keep administrative headaches at bay. Or maybe their lawyers told them never to change the contract to keep things simple. And it may be possible the deal is not sufficiently profitable to them unless you stick to the boilerplate.
What about hybrids?
Because there is no consistent business model or standard of operation for hybrid publishing, it makes it difficult to say what is a hybrid and what is not. Most define themselves as being somehow innovative, but usually the innovation is more about a marketing gimmick—a new way to convince authors to pay for a highly priced publishing service.
Rather than seek out a hybrid intentionally, which can lead to a poor result, seek out the best publishing partner or service for your project, using the guidelines above. Regardless of whether you pay upfront or not, a publisher still has to perform the same functions for you to be worth the cost or the profit sharing. Quality hybrids have a quality control process in place and present a curated list; have the ability to sell your book in some form (even if they can’t promise anything); and offer some level of marketing and promotion support, whether that’s directed at the trade or the reader.
Factors that may not mean anything
I have not discussed the following qualities of small presses because they can be a poor means of assessment.
Number of titles published per year: A press can do a terrific or poor job regardless of how many titles they handle. However, a higher number of titles brings with it more marketing, promotion, and administration. Be wary of small presses that put out dozens or hundreds of titles each year with a very small staff; that’s a give away they’re not investing much in each title, or that they’re primarily working as an assisted or hybrid publishing service rather than as a traditional publisher.
A statement of author friendliness: Don’t be lured in by flowery language about developing personal relationships with authors or helping fulfill your dreams. It may appeal to you, but it has little bearing on how good the company may be at the business of publishing. The more the publisher talks in cozy language about you and your work, the less professional they likely are. (Sorry, but good publishers tend to leave you feeling a little cold; that’s why there’s a continuing love-hate relationship between authors and publishers.)
How to research small presses
To find out what other authors have experienced, Google the name of the publisher and add the word “scam” at the end. You’ll find conversations and warnings if there have been poor or questionable experiences with the press.
For someone without industry experience, it can be hard to tell the difference between a quality operation and one that’s hardly better (or no better) than self-publishing. I hope that this post has given you the knowledge to evaluate the merits of a small publisher on your own.
Years ago, when I worked for Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market, it was safe to say, “Stick to the publishers you find in Writer’s Market”—since it would only include publishers that offer traditional contracts (the kind that pay writers).
However, as the publishing industry has changed in the digital age, small press activity has proliferated, especially small presses with a variety of publishing models. That means you’re more likely to find listings in Writer’s Market with hybrid approaches—meaning they charge writers for their services. So this again raises the problem of how writers can smartly evaluate their choices.
While I still favor small presses that do not charge writers, and that take seriously all four duties outlined above, everything depends on the right fit for you and your book. You might find a hybrid or a digital-only press that could be a good partner for you and your work and be a steppingstone to greater things. It helps if you first determine what you value (and need) and then ensure the publisher offers you that value for a price or profit share that is appropriate. Always remember that a bad publisher will put you in a much worse position than no publisher.
As an author, writing coach, and lifelong student and teacher of spiritual psychology, I think a lot about how to liberate writers from self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, some of which crescendo when the publishing process gets underway. As writers, when we argue for our own limitations, we’re bound to be right! Authors both crave and lament publishing. Even if we’re lucky enough to land a sweet deal, we often resist or bristle against marketing and promoting our work. Many writers identify as introverts. Most would prefer to stay home and write. This was my position for years. But I’ve learned that the best way to approach publishing is as an explorer, with a sense of lighthearted adventure, curiosity, and joy.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the Chinese Yin Yang symbol and its relevance for authors. The symbol suggests that opposite forces complement one another and that a little of each resides within the other. While writing takes Yin energy, which is feminine, introspective, spiritual, and inward-focused, being a published author requires a healthy dose of Yang. Yang energy is masculine, forceful, and outward-focused. The days of reclusive authors hiding away in creative solitude while others peddle their books are gone. Publishing requires us to engage with the outside world via social and traditional media, speaking engagements, workshops, networking, book fairs, and much more.
While some authors find these ancillary activities thrilling and fun, many find them excruciating and would rather do just about anything else. The telling of stories—that inner work—is Yin-based, and this is what many writers spend their lives developing. This energy requires incredible discipline and protection to sustain—especially when life gets busy. You have to be able to turn off your phone, ignore your to-do list, turn inward, get quiet, and listen. Writers excel at this. But how do we keep a balance when we move into the phase of publishing that requires us to be in that very different Yang energy?
Partly because of my dance and film school background, I’ve been able to embrace the Yang side of being an author. But what has also helped is an understanding that when I show up to speak about my book, it’s never about me, but rather about my message. It’s about sharing stories. It’s about human connection and trying to make the world a wiser, saner place.
Authors need not appear a particular way; we just need the courage to show up as we are, authentically, and with the intention to be of service. From there we get to share what we love and have conversations with readers. We may even learn something or become inspired!
You don’t have to be an extrovert to enjoy this. Look for joy. Ferret it out. Pay attention to details. Tune in to connections that lighten your heart. Remember that you are enough and your book event or publicity campaign doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Focus on the good things that happen—the perks and surprises, the simple delights—and let go of your expectations. If you do, there will be fewer disappointments. Know that you are fine the way you are, no matter what happens with your book. Yin practices help maintain grounding in what’s real. Resist the temptation to take an emotional roller coaster ride when people respond to your work. Don’t let negative responses crush you and don’t allow praise go to your head. Neither matter much in the grand scheme of things.
Embrace your inner Yang as a challenge and an opportunity. It’s in there somewhere. Don’t worry if it feels uncomfortable. In the words of Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” Lean into discomfort. Give yourself permission to shine. Shy? No problem. You can still shine. Do it your own way, whatever that looks like. Make it up. Live your publishing experience with the same creativity you summon to write. See what’s on the other side of your uneasiness. Remember that none of us has to do it all. To some degree, we get to pick and choose our publishing and publicity tasks. Sometimes I forget this and freak out because I think I have to do it all. Not long ago, after I’d worked myself into a tizzy over some publishing issue, my husband and I took a walk to help me calm down. We came across a dog chasing its own tail. The sight mesmerized us for a minute and then we looked at each other and laughed out loud.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, isn’t it?”
I remembered that in order for me not to run around in circles like a confused—and possibly mad—dog, I had to slow down and recommit to my Yin practices, such as meditation, yoga, and journal writing. Lately, I’ve added breath work to my routine. I inhale and exhale through my mouth in a continuous breathing pattern, taking in lots of oxygen. Whether it’s long walks, gardening, or meditating—finding these small ways to ground yourself can go a long way towards enjoying the publishing process rather than simply enduring it.
There’s nothing wrong with hard work if it comes from a place of purpose and joy, but once hard work becomes a proving ground of self-worth a battlefield is born. Don’t work so hard that you neglect to take the time you need to turn within—especially when you’re putting yourself out there with your book.
Yang without Yin is fruitless—and impossible—and so is Yin without Yang. The key is to keep these energies in balance, especially during launch cycles and book tours. When you find yourself complaining about or dreading publication, ask, Where’s the joy? How can I see (and savor) what’s good here? Visualize success. Feel it. Then let go and enjoy the ride.
Philip Roth died on May 22, and I am looking at Irving Penn’s famous portrait of him that appeared in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine. The photo, shot in 1983, depicts Roth at age 50, a time when many say a writer’s gifts are fully ripened. Penn’s photos of other writers—Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers—are icons.
The Roth image is a character study of an author known for the characters he’d created—the sexually absorbed Alexander Portnoy, the tortured writer Nathan Zuckerman (who leads us through nine books), and Seymour “Swede” Levov, among them, the protagonist of Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning American Pastoral.
In many ways, a portrait photographer encounters the same great issue as fiction writers, chiefly, creating and revealing character. So how does does Irving Penn go about telling us the story of Philip Roth, limited by a fraction of time, an image in two dimensions, one background, and whatever hues he can create?
Penn lights Roth in black-and-white, not color, leaving nothing to distract from the author’s unhandsome hard-wrought good looks. He has Roth’s face tilted slightly upward and away into the distance, so that we don’t see him head on but posed in triumph, indomitable, his balding pate, black with curls from temple to temple. The hair looks like—and is meant to look like—nothing less than the laurels bestowed upon a conquerer. In lesser men, before a lesser lens than Penn’s, those same curls might frame the face of Bozo the Clown. Writer beware!
Almost always, Penn tells his stories through tight shots of the face. Roth is rarely pictured by any photographer when smiling. Instead, Penn recognizes Roth’s thin lips, so that they appear sealed, withholding some pent up message. What—rage? intellect? how it all ends? The large, nearly bulbous nose looks almost architectural, structured and bent to shape; it becomes a prow, a bowsprit. And then we notice, just barely, at the bottom edge of the photo, that Roth’s wearing a shirt, probably white; only the collar is visible, so that it could be a towel worn around the neck of a prize fighter fresh from the ring. Wouldn’t Norman Mailer be jealous? In Penn’s treatment of Mailer, Roth’s contemporary, the author’s hands are folded against the face and probably flipping us the bird, and if that isn’t the story of Norman Mailer, the portraitist got it wrong.
In part, character is in the eyes, and, most of all, how the eyes are used. Take the screen goddess of the forties and fifties, Lauren Bacall. In virtually every shot, she’s looking askance, the eyes peering off to one side, on the make, or checking over her shoulder. She’s chic and dangerous. In Penn’s image of Roth, the eyes look far off into the distance, trained on the next higher shelf.
For writers, eye color is an obsessive, almost compulsive, element in character description. I plead guilty. For certain I’ve read about every description possible of green “alluring” eyes. But Penn’s portraits ignore color. An image of the poet Patti Smith by Penn, shows her looking louche, bare shoulder, her eyes stoned and lost and not giving a damn.
It’s worth a note that it’s not just the shape of the eye that matters, or the pupillary distance, or the lashes. The better story emerges though the view taken by the subject. He or she is looking at something, and what the subject sees, or finds important, tells a story all by itself, maybe the whole story. Often, maybe too often, writers describe eyes narrowing, sparkling, or suddenly getting larger. Rarely do we see eyes described by their fixation. What the hell is the character so interested in seeing? How important to story is it to know what the character wants? Most often, someone wants what they’re looking at. Skip the the 50 shades of blue “sparkle.” Better to show the reader the character’s focus; what is it that most attracts their attention and reveals an element of their being?
It might be asked here what the great young portrait photographers of our era are doing. The answer is pretty much the same thing as portraitists like Penn, but more often with color. The great Annie Leibowitz of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue fame, says that, in school, “I wasn’t taught anything about lighting, and I was only taught about black and white.” She learned color on her own. Yet, when she takes her portrait of the poet and song writer Patti Smith (as does Penn), color is incidental, barely there. Maybe she’s created a moody blue ambience instead of cold purity of black and white. Still, it’s Smith’s cold dead stare and the dark props surrounding her that says “horsemen pass by.”
Today, the portrait is still chiefly about the face, but even with the introduction of color, backgrounds often remain almost incidental. The talented photographer Sue Bryce demonstrates that background is less about information than capturing a “look.” Peter Hurley calls himself a “headshot photographer” and sometimes completely dispenses with backgrounds. Face predominates and serves as its own setting, which is why setting may get in the way of a headshot portrait. And has the depiction of character, the description of face and figure, changed over the decades? Hardly at all. It still must reveal the beating heart of the living breathing person, which is also the writer’s single greatest challenge.
Convincing book shoppers to buy your book is an art form, and not a task.
It’s one thing to know how to setup something technical like an advertisement, an email system, or your book’s sales page on Amazon. However, crafting them so a potential reader will take action is something else.
This was something I honestly struggled with when I first started selling books or working on my websites. I would follow steps presented in tutorials, but would never see the kind of results that others would see.
I was failing at the art of influencing my potential market.
However, a while ago, a friend gave me a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. H4E discusses the different principles to the art of Influence and how we, as marketers, can create conditions in order to compel readers to take action.
So, with Robert’s principles in mind, we’ll dive into three that have made the biggest impact, and look at how we can apply these principles to book marketing with specific tactics.
The Law of Reciprocity
Multiple studies have shown that people are geared to want to return a favor. It’s in our nature to feel obligated to take action due to someone else’s request because we don’t want to feel indebted to others.
Therefore, by creating a condition where our target audience feels somewhat like they owe us a simple gesture, we have a higher chance that they will take action upon a clear request. This isn’t about holding something over someone’s head. Instead it’s about making them feel like they want to return the favor. Below are a couple of common tactics to illustrate this.
Offer genuine value to readers on social media
When you understand how you can best serve your readership through your social channels, your engagement will start happening naturally, without the need for desperate pleas. There’s no better example of this Brian Meeks and his Mastering AMS Ads group. He spends hours every day helping authors and answering their questions. So, it’s no surprise that when his AMS book came out on Amazon, he had an insane amount of buyers and reviews.
Give a priced book for free
Most authors will entice readers to signup for their email list by giving them a book or short story for free. However, if that free book is actually listed with a price of $2.99 or greater on another market, an author has not only increased the perceived value of the book, but also proven to the reader that they are giving them value of $2.99+. Readers may not know how much it really costs to produce that book, but the simple $2.99 price tag is all you need to incur the law of reciprocity.
My Favorite Reciprocity Book Tactic
One specific example where an author used the law of reciprocity to an epic level was in Andy Weir’s latest book launch for Artemis. A couple of weeks before the book release, I saw a Facebook ad that said if I pre-ordered a copy of Artemis, and emailed them a copy of the receipt, they’d send me an autographed name plate.
After emailing them my receipt, they now have my email address, and after the book launch, they sent me an email asking if I would leave a review. Just like the law states, I felt obliged to leave a review because of the awesome name plate he shipped to me for free. The best part about this is that his actions were fully compliant with Amazon’s review policy, as you can see explained here.
So, as you craft your Facebook ads, or offer content at your site, think of the law of reciprocity and ways to leverage this to increase your chances of an action being taken by your readers.
Social Proof & Book Validation
We’re always consciously and subconsciously looking for clues of how to behave like others. Seeing that others enjoy something, or have bought something, gives us strength to follow as well. Therefore, if readers see positive indications that other readers like your book, or visit your website, or trust your writing, they are more likely to behave in the same way. Other than reviews, here are other ways you can ethically apply social proof as an author:
Gain best seller status
When you become a bestseller in a category on Amazon, your book gets the best seller tag on it. This is a form of social proof that drives people to trust your book more. You can also put it on your website or email signature, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Feature reviews in your editorial review section
If you setup an Amazon Author Central account, you can add reviews that others have made, as well as any authorities you know that can vouch for you. This is powerful if done right, like Jane did on her book The Business of Being a Writer.
Mention awards or recognition
There are many ways authors can find recognition for their books. An example of this is TopSciFiBooks.com which has lists of top perceived books in different subgenres. Imagine the power of claiming that your book is listed as one of best post-apocalyptic books. Then the next step is to leverage this either in your book description or an editorial review as discussed above.
Liking: If We Like, We Follow and We Buy
This may sound simple, but it’s deceptively powerful. The feeling of “liking” someone can override our logic and other judgmental factors. Have you ever felt a strong sense of liking to someone or something, and felt very loyal as a result?
But here is where authors get this wrong. Just because someone likes our book doesn’t mean they like us, the author. There are many books that I absolutely love, but I can’t remember the author’s name. Therefore, authors need to engage further and find ways to connect in memorable ways. We have a couple of ways to do this.
Craft an author bio that really connects
Your author bio is the one thing that helps you define yourself to your readers. Do not make the mistake of many and treat it like a resume. It’s your one chance to connect with readers and get them to follow you. This can be put on your book, and even on your Amazon Author Page.
Humanize before the review
A tactic that I personally love is that right before I ask for a review at the end of my book, I humanize myself. Sounds silly, but I remind readers that I am an artist who loves writing and I care about what readers say. This helps remind readers of how important that review means to me, and that I am a human with emotions. You’ll find you’ll not only get more reviews this way, you’ll also get better ones as well.
Put pieces of yourself in your writing
Over 150,000+ people read Kindlepreneur every month. However, to most, I am just a nameless writer. That’s why I find it important to put pictures of myself when they are pertinent and allow some of my personality and background to shine through. Just recently, I wrote an article reviewing Grammarly. In it, I had a personal story about how I used it to check my thesis, and showed a picture of a happy Navy LT holding his master’s degree. This wasn’t about playing the readers or being cheesy. It was just taking an opportunity to remind my readers that there IS a human behind these words. Another place for this is your About Me page on your website. Like your bio, don’t treat it like a resume. Give it a little personality.
Taking Influential Actions
When I was in the Navy, my captain used to tell me that mastery only comes when you combine knowledge with experience. Through this, we create intuition—the ability to see and feel the right decision. So, start looking for opportunities in your own book marketing plan so as to gain experience with the art of influence. Combine that with your knowledge and you’ll start seeing the right path.
It was a lonely sound. A sad lament in the early morning. It was the quivering, somber sound of a wind organ. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. A man with a blue voice was singing and the quiet drumming followed. Plodding lethargically, and vacant… and a slow jangly guitar. The day was cloudy and grey, and there I was, in a bright sliver of sun, peeking through the clouds. I had no idea where I was, but I wasn’t scared. All around me were odd flowers. Startling rich nonagons, bright with color. Searing red, blazing yellow and lavish blue. I wanted to ask, “Why so sad?” but I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to speak and nothing came out. The man with the blue voice sang these words, “nothing is real.” How can that be? Nearby, a herd of horses escaped from a carousel, and headed towards a convertible train. I hopped on, and the sadness went away. The music of a backwards calliope accompanied the ride while hurtling through rolling hills, on loops and curls, like a roller coaster. The train blew its whistle to alert the horses. But the whistle was more like a siren not intended to warn, but to delight. The wind was blowing through my hair and I was smiling so big, my face hurt. It wasn’t a dream. I had been invited to this place through a song playing on the radio. I was really there, I went to Strawberry Fields.
I opened my eyes and I was in my bedroom lying in my bed. The radio next to my bed was playing, softly. My mother gave me the radio, because she knew it would help me sleep, and I was permitted to have it on through the night as long as it wasn’t too loud.
Two of the most common admonitions delivered to fiction writers are:
Never begin a story with a character getting out of bed.
Never write, “And then she/he woke up” (or the equivalent).
As with all rules, not only can these two be broken, leave it to a genius to break them brilliantly: “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant beetle.” With that first sentence of The Metamorphosis, Kafka strikes a definitive blow not only against both rules, but against realism, establishing a parallel universe in which such things happen. No explanations; take it or leave it.
Similarly, in what has been credited as the world’s shortest story, Augusto Monterroso signs the death notices of rules #1 and #2. Here are all seven words of “El Dinosaurio,” or “The Dinosaur”:
Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)
As with “El Dinosaurio,” this first page gives us a protagonist waking up from a dream, but instead of a dinosaur, what’s still there are the haunting strains of John Lennon’s most famous song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” playing “softly” on the radio next to the narrator’s bed. In her music-inspired dream, the narrator is transported to a place where “nothing is real,” a realm of “odd flowers” in blazing, searing color, of horses “escaped from a carousel” hurtling toward a train “to the music of a backwards calliope.”
Dreams have their own logic, one that doesn’t play by the rules and is therefore hard to argue with. The same can be said of the best fiction: it makes its own rules by spinning (in John Gardner’s words) a “vivid and continuous dream.” And since a work of fiction is already its own dream, reading about a fictional dream puts us at a two-step remove from our own lives. It’s like kissing through two screen doors.
That said, dreams have played crucial roles in literature. Without Scrooge’s nightmare Dickens couldn’t have written A Christmas Carol. Before he murders the pawnbroker, in a dream symbolizing the soul’s dual nature, torn between bloodlust and compassion, Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov revisits a time when as a boy he watched a group of peasants beat an old horse to death. And what is Alice’s looking glass but a doorway to her dreams?
Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life.
The problem with dreams is that, translated into lucid, rational prose, they often sound artificial. Whatever “stuff” dreams are made of, words aren’t it. As Francine Prose goes on to say in the same essay: “What’s [hard] to recreate on the page is anything remotely resembling the experience of actually dreaming, with all the structural and narrative complexities involved, the leaps, contradictions, and improbable elements.” This may be why poets write the best dreams: they’re better at making those improbable leaps.
But a bigger problem with fictional dreams is that they ask us to invest emotionally in an experience only to have that investment rendered null and void when the experience turns out not to have been—by waking standards, anyway—“real.” Just as in life I tend to grow restless when someone buttonholes me with their dream, whenever I come upon a dream in a novel or story I read it with my emotions in check. Heck, it’s just a dream.
On the other hand, if the dream presents itself as real (as this one does) and I invest in it accordingly only to learn that it never really happened, like any bait-and-switch victim I feel cheated. Depending on how much I invested, I may just want to strangle the author.
Here the dream itself is quite well rendered, replete with the sorts of sensuous, specific details that make for a vivid fictional experience (the “quivering” wind organ; the man who sings in a “blue” voice,” those escaped carousel horses hurtling over hills). Though vivid, it’s also rife with the jump-cuts and non-sequiturs that characterize real dreams. And so I can’t help feeling disappointed when I learn that, as the song says, “nothing is real.” There are no carousel horses; there is no “convertible train” (whatever that is). It was all just a dream prompted by a song playing on a radio.
Maybe the dream has symbolic import; maybe it will resonate and/or recur throughout the rest of the story, thus earning back my initial investment. I hope so. I hope, too, that whatever story follows, this dream is the best place to enter it. Perhaps the point of the dream, and the radio that (softly) plays the song that inspires it, is to underscore the protagonist’s fear of the dark and—again, possibly—of the dreams she’d been having, not good dreams like this one, but nightmares that scared her so much she was afraid to sleep. How else explain a mother letting her child play the radio all night long? Raising the possibly pertinent question: What happened to this kid?
But if the dream is just this author’s carnival barker way of luring us into her fictional world, I don’t know about you, but I’ll want my emotional deposit back.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
If you write a book, it’s natural to want to promote it, right?
As an introverted writer—who for many years misdiagnosed herself as an extrovert because she was outgoing—I can say, without a doubt: no, it’s not natural.
While it might be natural for the extroverted writer, it is anything but natural for the introverted writer when promotion means constant extension of that writer’s self into the world.
Of course, this is a serious problem. No promotion, no discovery. No discovery, no sales. No sales, no impact.
And impact is often what first drives us to write. We want to share a story or a secret that will change people’s lives, entertain them, or give them vision and hope. What a conundrum!
Hope for the introverted writer
There’s a very important distinction tucked into what I’ve said so far, and that is found in the word “when,” as in “when promotion means constant extension…”
This distinction is especially critical for the writer who wants to launch not just one book but multiple books over time. Successive launches make the long haul feel very long indeed. And they make the haul feel like just that: a constant carrying, a burden you simply can’t put down if you want your work to make its way.
Now, unless you are Harper Lee, you are probably going to launch more than one book during your career. In that case, for you, the introvert, I’m sharing six ways to keep your head above water not just for your first book, but also for the long haul.
Here’s the key: each of these ways represents mindsets and methods that mean less constant extension of the self, with an emphasis on things that feel small-scale and limited-time. And remember, just because something feels small-scale and limited-time, doesn’t mean its impact is tiny and timebound.
1. Keep the focus on others
As a new author (ten titles ago), I followed the crowd and focused primarily on my own book and my personal platform. I started a blog that took endless hours to maintain, I entered the social media scene, I spoke at large venues (some upwards of 1,300 people). I knocked myself out, and eventually felt exactly that: knocked out.
In the past few years I’ve come to recognize that my approach was anti-introvert and often anti-me. Some of that work can now be considered important dues paying, but much of it has actually become grist to consider a gentler way for introverts to launch their books.
The first launch principle is to keep the focus on others. For me, that means:
No launch team. Launch teams are often charged with what feels like thinly veiled “look at me!” messages from the author. This can be okay if the author is good with it and the message is creative, but I’ve personally opted out on this, because it goes against my introvert grain. So, if you’re an introvert, consider skipping the launch team.
No professional publicist. About five books ago, I hired a publicist. She came highly recommended, but ultimately I had to “sell” my work to her in ways that I now realize were not compatible with my introverted self. While she did her job in a professional and timely manner, the process was not enjoyable, and the outcomes were minimal. Bottom line: if you decide to hire a professional publicist, consider how hard you’ll have to sell your work to them and whether the two of you are really a fit.
Hire a publicity assistant. If you have connections, and really, if you’re publishing a book, you should have already taken the time to develop some solid connections, then you might be able to hire a publicity assistant instead of a professional publicist. After all, one of the big things a publicist should offer is connections, and if you’ve got them, why pay $5,000+ for someone else’s. I’m doing this for my latest title, The Golden Dress, and I’ve chosen an assistant who loves my work and was one of the first to purchase the title—no “selling” to do here; she gets me, she gets my writing. We plan to have fun together, as she’ll be the bold one to make constant contact, and I’ll enjoy giving her a paid means to exercise her personality and skills. If the idea of making constant contact with multitudes for even a few months makes you shiver, too, go smaller and work with an assistant whose personality and camaraderie you’ll enjoy.
Content marketing (even at someone else’s place). Writing evergreen book-related material is a great way to connect people with your title while giving them something else in the bargain. The content lives on long after you provide it, connecting more and more people with your book over time. For example, to connect people to The Golden Dress, I wrote 10 Terrific Little Red Riding Hood Tales (at Tweetspeak) and A Magical Summer Reading List (at Edutopia). While content marketing is generally understood as something you do at your own place, for the introvert it can be more satisfying to put the focus on others by writing for their sites instead. As an added benefit, you reach audiences that go beyond your own space.
Promote someone besides yourself. This may be easier with titles where you have a partner. For instance, I have a lot more energy when it comes to promoting my collaborators like Gail Nadeau, Donna Z. Falcone, and LW Lindquist—all illustrators whose work either makes me smile or takes my breath away. Still, with a little creativity, you can find ways to promote those who inspired you to the work or who can benefit from the work. It’s not that all this promotion will result in sales, but you’ll feel happier overall, which will give you important staying power.
2. Make art (and encourage art making)
When you first wrote your book, it probably felt like you were making art (at least that’s how book-making feels to me).
If you have a little design flair, or a friend who can lend a hand, I highly recommend continuing in the spirit of art-making by creating a few fun products at a provider like Zazzle.
These products will mostly sell to your die-hard fans, but you’ll receive a small amount of extra cash while launching your book with accompaniments that will outlast the launch date. Also, you can affordably acquire some swag for yourself in a way that creates seamless conversation pieces at work or on-the-go. (I carry my A Is for Azure tote everywhere. It’s beautiful and functional, and it makes me happy.)
Additionally, do you know anyone artistic who might enjoy extending or interpreting the themes in your book? Art is energy. And art is joy. Personally, I encourage all types of artistic responses, especially ones that I don’t have the skills or vision to create myself, like these videos from my daughters (and yes, daughter-the-second will do videos for hire, if you are in need of a trailer for your book).
The Golden Dress - Book Trailer - YouTube
3. Think beyond sales
As I noted in the opening of this article, “No sales, no impact.” And, while it makes a good general point, it’s not altogether accurate. There is impact to be made by taking the approaches above: focusing on others and art-making. There is also impact to be made by simply giving your books away—and not only to achieve sales.
While a sustainable career will eventually need to rely partly on sales (unless you are professionally set due to lifestyle or other forms of support), sustainability is also about the soul, which, for many of us, means feeling a sense of purpose and impact. Giving your books away will ensure they get into the hands of at least some fans, across a base you might not otherwise reach.
The extra advantage of Goodreads is that you’re reaching a reading community, as opposed to a more general audience that may or may not spend their precious dollars on books.
4. Use automated services
One of the current prime directives for authors is to offer a newsletter and use it to market their books to readers. Besides adding carrying costs, this model requires a constancy that spells “overwhelm” for the introverted author. If you’re like me, this will mean you won’t do the required newsletter marketing, because, again, it feels too “me-me-me.” Eventually, you’ll end up paying dearly to carry a big list, with little return in book sales.
What’s your alternative? Try using automated services that allow you to design once, then them let roll. My services of choice, through MailChimp, are Google ads and the creation of education series. The most effective Google ads lead potential readers to your education series. Your education series will communicate multiple times with the reader, in a way that leaves you out of the constancy picture and gives them something that invites and intrigues. While this doesn’t always lead to book sales (though it certainly sells more books than non-existent newsletter marketing), it definitely creates impact, as people engage in their own creative acts in conversation with your work.
I like to think of a book launch as something that actually happens again and again—kind of like batting a balloon into the air then keeping it airborne with small taps over time. In fact, the author who treats the book launch like one big helium balloon marked “Buy my book now!” is almost sure to find that balloon deflated in the next canyon over, sometimes within mere months.
The problem for the introvert, yet again, is that a million taps over time leaves us feeling tapped. This is especially hard when the taps are happening via live gigs that require us to interact with crowds.
For me, that means I now forego making live appearances (though I might be really tempted to attend a golden dress ball, and wear this dreamy number, minus the prom date, should anyone wish to plan the event).
As an alternative to live appearances—with the benefit that I can immediately retreat and recover in solitude afterwards—I make time for select live audio and print interviews, like these at Joy on Paper and Shelf Awareness.
Whatever it is that tires your introverted self out, I suggest you avoid it for the most part, but do choose to stretch yourself a bit at intervals—as a way to keep the book balloon in the air. The freshness of these intermittent experiences will create a bit of power, and that power contains a vitality that can be appealing to potential readers.
6. Decompress daily
The Internet is a constant place, filled with hype and, sometimes, hopelessness. This is damaging for many people, and it’s quite likely even more problematic for introverts.
Still, the current call to authors is to engage via social media, constantly.
Since I take the long view of my writing career—and that means I’ve got to keep whole and sane—I’ve lately chosen to refrain. I’m not doing Facebook groups. I’m rarely on Twitter. And Instagram has yet to convince me of its allure (despite that I do understand how if you put yourself out there night and day, you can become a celebrity writer of sorts).
For a long time, I did play the Internet constancy game. But it wasn’t sustainable for my introverted heart and soul. I now decompress daily, removing myself from technology, by sitting outside with a cup of tea and gazing off into the green. I take the kinds of approaches presented in this post. If you’re an introverted author, you might give yourself permission to do the same.
Note from Jane: On Tuesday, June 19, I’m teaching a 90-minute live class on the key book publishing paths today, the pros and cons of each, and which path is right for you. Learn more at Writer’s Digest.
Since 2013, I have been annually updating this informational chart about the key book publishing paths. It is available as a PDF download—ideal for photocopying and distributing for workshops and classrooms—plus the full text is also below.
One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today: Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?
This is an increasingly complicated question to answer because:
There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing, with evolving models and diverse contracts.
You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to traditionally publish or self-publish.
It’s not an either/or proposition; you can do both. Many successful authors, including myself, decide which path is best based on our goals and career level.
Thus, there is no one path or service that’s right for everyone all the time; you should take time to understand the landscape and make a decision based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work. Your choice should also be guided by your own personality (are you an entrepreneurial sort?) and experience as an author (do you have the slightest idea what you’re doing?).
My chart divides the field into traditional publishing, self-publishing/assisted publishing, and social publishing.
Traditional publishing: I define this primarily as not paying to publish. Authors must exercise the most caution when signing with small presses; some mom-and-pop operations offer little advantage over self-publishing, especially when it comes to distribution and sales muscle. Also think carefully before signing a no-advance deal or digital-only deal. Such arrangements reduce the publisher’s risk, and this needs to be acknowledged if you’re choosing such deal—because you aren’t likely to get the same support and investment from the publisher on marketing and distribution.
Self-publishing and assisted self-publishing: I define this as publishing on your own (with or without assistance) or paying to publish. I’ve divided up the self-publishing paths into entrepreneurial or do-it-yourself (DIY) approaches, where you essentially start your own publishing company, and directly hire and manage all help needed, and assisted models, where you enter into an agreement or contract with a publishing service or a hybrid publisher. With the latter approach, there’s a risk of paying too much money for basic services, and also for purchasing services you don’t need. If you can afford to pay a publisher or service to help you, then use the very detailed reviews at Independent Publishing Magazine by Mick Rooney to make sure you choose the best option for you.
Social publishing: In the 2017 version of this chart, I removed social publishing because it seemed marginal and of little interest to the average writer. However, I think that was a mistake. Social efforts will always be an important and meaningful way that writers build a readership and gain attention, and it’s not necessary to publish and distribute a book to say that you’re an active and published writer. Plus, these social forms of publishing increasingly have monetization built in, such as Patreon. In 2017, two of the top ten selling titles of the year were by Rupi Kaur, an Instapoet who began her career by posting her work on Instagram.
Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan (each has dozens of imprints).
Who they work with
Authors who write works with mainstream appeal, deserving of nationwide print retail distribution in bookstores and other outlets.
Celebrity-status or brand-name authors.
Writers of commercial fiction or genre fiction, such as romance, mystery/crime, thriller/suspense, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, children’s.
Nonfiction authors with a significant platform (visibility to a readership).
Value for author
Publisher shoulders financial risk.
Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured, in addition to other physical retail opportunities (big-box, specialty).
Publisher will pursue all possible subsidiary rights and licensing deals worldwide.
Best chance of mainstream media coverage and reviews.
How to approach
Almost always requires an agent. Novelists should have a finished manuscript. Nonfiction authors should have a book proposal.
What to watch for
You receive an advance against royalties, but most advances do not earn out.
Publisher holds onto all publishing rights for all formats for at least 5-10 years.
Many decisions are out of your control, such as cover design and title.
You may be unhappy with marketing support, and find that your title “disappears” from store shelves within 3-6 months. However, the same is true for most publishers.
Mid-Size & Large (Traditional Publishing)
Who they are
Not part of the Big Five, but significant in size, usually with the same capabilities. Examples: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, Sourcebooks, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Kensington, Chronicle, Tyndale, many university presses (Cambridge, Oxford).
Who they work with
Authors who write mainstream works, as well as those that have a more niche or special-interest appeal.
Celebrity-status or brand-name authors.
Writers of commercial fiction or genre fiction, such as romance, mystery/crime, thriller/suspense, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, children’s.
Nonfiction authors of all types.
Value for author
Identical to Big Five advantages.
How to approach
Doesn’t always require an agent; see submission guidelines for each publisher. Novelists should have a finished manuscript. Nonfiction authors should have a book proposal.
What to watch for
Same as Big Five, but advances and royalties from mid-size publishers may be lower than Big Five, especially the more specialized or enthusiast publishing houses.
Some mid-size publishers may be more open to innovative or flexible agreements that feel more like a collaboration or partnership (with more author input or control).
University or scholarly presses typically pay low advances and have small print runs, typically with a focus on libraries, classrooms, and academic markets.
Small Presses (Traditional Publishing)
Who they are
This category is the hardest to summarize because “small press” is a catch-all term for very well-known traditional publishers (e.g., Graywolf) as well as mom-and-pop operations that may not have any formal experience in publishing.
Given how easy it is in the digital age for anyone to start a press, you must carefully evaluate a small press’s abilities before signing with one. Legitimate small presses do not ask you to pay for publication.
Who they work with
Emerging, first-time authors, as well as established ones.
Often more friendly to experimental, literary, and less commercial types of work.
Value for author
Possibly a more personalized and collaborative relationship with the publisher.
With well-established small presses: editorial, design, and marketing support that equals that of a larger house.
How to approach
Rarely requires an agent. See the submission guidelines of each press.
What to watch for
You may not receive an advance or you’ll receive a nominal one. Your royalty rate may be higher to make up for it. Diversity of players and changing landscape means contracts vary widely.
There may be no physical bookstore distribution and/or the press may rely on print-on-demand to fulfill orders. Potential for media or review coverage declines when there is no print run.
Be very protective of your rights if you’re shouldering most of the risk and effort.
Self-Publishing: Entrepreneurial or DIY
You manage the publishing process and hire the right people/services to edit, design, publish, and distribute.
You decide which distributors/retailers to deal with. You are in complete control of all artistic and business decisions.
You keep all profits and rights.
What to watch for
You may not invest enough money or time to produce a quality book or market it.
You may not have the knowledge or experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book.
It is difficult to get mainstream reviews, media attention or sales through conventional channels (bookstores, libraries)
Key retailers and services to use
Primary ebook retailers that offer direct access to authors: Amazon KDP, Nook Press, Apple iBookstore, Kobo. Primary ebook distributors: Smashwords, Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, StreetLib.
Print-on-demand (POD) makes it affordable to sell and distribute print books via online retail. Most often used: CreateSpace, IngramSpark. With printer-ready PDF files, it costs little or nothing to start.
The above retailers and distributors operate primarily on a nonexclusive basis and take a cut of sales; you can leave at will. There is no contract, just terms of service.
If you’re confident about sales, you may hire a printer, invest in a print run, manage inventory, fulfillment, shipping, etc.
When to prefer DIY over assisted
You intend to publish many books and make money via sales over a long period.
You are invested in marketing, promotion, platform building, and developing an audience for your books over many years.
Self-Publishing: Assisted and Hybrid
You fund book publication in exchange for assistance; cost varies.
Hybrid publishers pay royalties; other services may pay royalties or 100 percent of net sales. You’ll receive a better cut than a traditional publishing contract, but usually make less than DIY.
Regardless of promises made, books will rarely be stocked in physical retail outlets.
Each service has its own distinctive costs and business model; always secure a clear contract with all fees explained. Such services typically stay in business because of author-paid fees, not book sales.
Value for author
Get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help. Ideal if you have more money than time, but rarely a sustainable business model if you are frequently publishing.
Some companies are run by former traditional publishing professionals and offer high-quality results (with the potential for bookstore placement, but this is rare).
What to watch for
Some services have started calling themselves “hybrid publishers” because it sounds more fashionable and savvy, yet offer low-quality results and service.
Most marketing and publicity service packages, while well-meaning, are not worth your investment.
Avoid companies that take advantage of author inexperience and use high-pressure sales tactics, such as AuthorSolutions imprints (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, WestBow, Archway, and others).
You write, publish, and distribute your work in a public or semi-public forum, directly for readers.
Publication is self-directed and continues on an at-will and almost always nonexclusive basis.
Emphasis is on feedback and growth; sales or income can be rare.
Value for author
Allows you to develop an audience for your work early on, even while you’re learning how to write.
Popular writers at community sites may go on to traditional book deals.
Most distinctive categories
Serialization: Readers consume content in chunks or installments; you receive feedback that may help you to revise. Establishes a fan base, or a direct connection to readers. Serialization may be used as a marketing tool for completed works. Examples: Wattpad, Tapas, LeanPub.
Fan fiction: Similar to serialization, only the work is based on other authors’ books and characters. For this reason, it can be difficult to monetize fan fiction since it may constitute copyright infringement. Examples: Fanfiction.net, Archive Of Our Own, Wattpad.
Social media and blogs: Both new and
established authors alike use their blog and/or social media accounts to share their work and establish a readership. Examples: Instagram (Instapoets), Tumblr, Facebook (groups especially), YouTube.
Patreon/patronage: Similar to a serialization model, except your patrons pay a recurring amount to have access to your content.
Some agents have created publishing arms, either as part of their agency or as a separate business. The most significant example is Diversion Books from agent Scott Waxman. Usually these efforts are limited to print-on-demand or ebook only distribution.
With more than a dozen imprints, Amazon has a sizable publishing operation that is mainly approachable only by agents. Amazon titles are sold primarily on Amazon, since most bookstores are unwilling to carry their titles.
Digital-only or digital-first
All publishers, regardless of size, sometimes operate digital-only or digital-first imprints that offer no advance and little or no print retail distribution. Sometimes such efforts are indistinguishable from self-publishing.
Note from Jane: On Tuesday, June 19, I’m teaching a 90-minute live class on the key book publishing paths today, the pros and cons of each, and which path is right for you. Learn more at Writer’s Digest.