(Mis)Adventures in Publishing

Confessions and Random Observations

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Five Things That Used to Help Sell Books But No Longer Do

The bookselling space is in constant flux but I don’t see enough authors (nor even some publishers) making an effort to switch from these antiquated modes of bookselling. 

Specifically, these five methods — which did work once but now don’t as much — come to mind:

1. Book Reviews in Print: It used to be that getting a positive review in a major newspaper would launch a book on to bestseller lists and let it sit there for many weeks at least. No more. Publishers Weekly conducted research on the books featured in the New York Times Book Review sections in May 2012 and how sales were impacted following publication of the reviews. Of course, book sales were positively impacted somewhat (this is the New York Times after all), but on the whole there were only a few hundred more copies sold the week of the review than usual. And after the week was up, the number dipped back down radically. And that’s if it is featured in the New York Times.

2. Appearing on Radio Shows. It used to be that radio shows could help launch books, but not so much any more. Blame it on the infinite number of podcasts and internet radio stations and shows as well as other mediums, but the average radio show now barely budges book sales. The only exception is radio shows with a devoted following, and these shows  are not the ones you would think would make a book successful. Fresh Air on NPR is popular but its fan base is not devoted, so getting a book featured on there is not quite the hit-making tactic it used to be. On the other hand, Coast to Coast (on AM radio) comes on at weird hours and they talk about alien abductions and ghosts, but their followers are rabid and featured authors consistently rack up big sales.

3. Bookstore Tours: Unless you are a hugely popular author, a national bookstore tour doesn’t do much at all. Depending on the bookstores, they may not even do much publicity to announce your appearance (it doesn’t help that bookstore events coordinators are notoriously poorly paid), and because these appearances are usually timed to take place during work hours or just after work, people aren’t going to attend unless they’re huge fans. Your expenses in traveling around to do these events can often outweigh the sales income from such tours.

4. Paid Promotions in Stores: By now you know that every book in any chain or airport book store that is placed on a special table, “favorites” bookshelf by the front, by the cash register or even just face-out occupies that space because the publisher paid for that placement. Such placement costs thousands of dollars and there is no guarantee that all the bookstores in a chain will even follow through. Given how few sales come through actual bookstores (versus online) and how much it costs, paid store promotions have little impact and can often lose money.

5. Jumping on Trends: When The Secret came out, suddenly everyone was an expert on the laws of attraction. When 50 Shades… came out, everyone jumped on the hausfrau erotica trail. Jumping on the bandwagon worked somewhat when there were only a certain number of publishers in the marketplace, but not any more. Now, with online and self-publishing models cropping up everywhere, there are a thousand imitators to any successful book where there were previously perhaps only fifty. When everyone jumps on the same trend, it ceases to be a trend.

Filed under authors publishing books book selling

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Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing

 All credit for this to Steve Piersanti, publisher and general badass.

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. 

According to the latest Bowker Report (October 9, 2013), over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, which is an amazing increase of 422 percent since 2007.  The number of non-self-published books issued annually has also climbed over the same period to approximately 300,000 in 2012.  The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007, to approximately 700,000 annually.  And since 2007, nearly 10 million previously published books have been reissued by companies that reprint public domain works.  Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated. 

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.

Adult nonfiction print unit book sales peaked in 2007 and have declined each year since then, according to BookScan (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014, and previous reports).  Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen each year since then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2014, and previous reports).

3.  Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.

After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013.  Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012.  According to BookStats data reported by the Association of American Publishers (May 15, 2013), revenues in the entire U.S. book publishing marketplace fell again in 2012, to $27.1 billion.  The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak was hit in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of digital and print books.

4.  Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.

Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title.  According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014).  The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.  And very few titles are big sellers.  Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

5.  A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space.  For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores).  Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

6.  It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic.  It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out.  Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time.  Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.

7.  Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any.  Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read.  There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

8.  Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales.  In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books.  Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

9.  No other industry has so many new product introductions.

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold.  Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense.  This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

10.  The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the bankruptcy of Borders and many other stores).  Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

Filed under publishing books authors book sales

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Why I Hate Bucket Lists

Barely a week goes by without a book proposal coming in that is some version of the whole “bucket list” phenomenon. The bucket list, for those of you who don’t know, is that list people maintain (usually in their minds) of all the things they want to do before they die — like skydiving or a threesome or whatever.

Our culture encourages bucket lists because our culture encourages the culture of ME. You see it in books all the time — especially in the personal growth genre — the idea that you are special and important and a child of the universe (possibly true, but the universe is a philandering bastard who has many children with billions of mothers and doesn’t even know your name). Whether it’s the whole “Eat, Pray, Love” thing or something else, we are raised to serve ourselves and our needs, and the bucket list is the ultimate symbol of unwarranted and unearned self-importance.

Here’s a better idea: help someone else do something they have always wanted to do but is far more modest than most things on your bucket list. Whereas you may have always wanted to swim with the dolphins in some exotic locale, there is someone else who has always just wanted to enjoy a real pedicure and manicure, a nice meal in a nice restaurant, or just have one pair of shoes that didn’t come from the thrift store or Payless. These desires may seem incredibly unsophisticated or lacking in aspiration to you, but they are very real to others — as real as any of yours.

Realize that many of the things you take for granted are the items in some other people’s bucket list. You are their bucket list. I can guarantee you that the satisfaction you’ll receive from helping others will far exceed your giddy dolphin endorphin rush.

Filed under bucket lists book proposals rant

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Don’t Give Readers the Entire Truth

I doubt you’ve heard of Olav Hauge, the Norwegian poet. Not many people know him, but he was a master of minimalism. He wrote one poem titled “Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth” which I have quoted (literally) hundreds of times to convey to authors how really powerful writing doesn’t “force feed” the reader but supplies just the basics. A skilled writer makes the reader think for him or herself, and if that writer does a good enough job of conveying the core idea, the reader can infer the rest without having to be told it.

You don’t need to explain an idea and then spell out how that idea can be used in one’s personal life, one’s professional life, one’s spiritual beliefs, etc. If you do a good enough job of explaining the core premise, the reader can figure out for him or herself how to apply it wherever else.

Too often authors write these awful hefty tomes where they feel they have to account for and explain everything — and the more justification and explication I see, the less I believe that the idea is strong enough to stand on its own. The result is a force-fed bland gruel of mediocrity and tedium. Supply just the essence, and let the readers’ palates interpret, experience, and savor it. Don’t give them the entire truth, let them discover it.

Here’s the poem:

Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth

Don’t come to me with the entire truth.
Don’t bring me the ocean if I feel thirsty,
nor heaven if I ask for light;
but bring a hint, some dew, a particle,
as birds carry only drops away from water,
and the wind a grain of salt.

—Olav Hauge

Filed under Publishing authors writing books

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"But Did You Read What I Sent You?"

This is one of the most common responses from authors when I tell them that their project proposal is a no-go. Their argument can be summed up (sarcastically) as follows: “My work is brilliant. If you read the whole 350-page manuscript I sent you, you would know of my brilliance. But you didn’t, and I know you didn’t because you clearly don’t see my brilliance.”

They’re right. I didn’t read what they sent me, because I don’t have the time to read manuscripts when I have to review over 800 of them a year. Also, by now I can tell you within the first two-three pages if the work is any good. The majority aren’t. Sorry, it’s just the truth.

But more importantly, I shouldn’t have to read the entire manuscript to determine quality. You see, people are not going to buy books that they think may be good but aren’t sure but will spend their hard-earned money just to see if it is. If I have to read a manuscript or book to find out if it is any good, then you have not done your job. (Also, you can’t be standing by in bookstores just so you can accost potential readers and ask them to please buy your book and give it a chance.)

Simply put: don’t think readers will come to you. You have to go to the readers. You have to make your proposal packet exciting, your work appealing, your pitch compelling, and your premise intriguing. You’ve got to make me want to read your manuscript, not demand that I need to read it.

Filed under books publishing authors readers

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People Unclear on the Concept of How Outreach to Publishers Should Be Done

My assistant receives so many of these every day:


What? You want us to call you to speak with you about your book even though you sent this same ridiculous form email to a thousand publishers without even knowing if they publish music or doing any research on how to reach out to publishers in the first place? Such gall and audacity is to be admired! I usually tell them to respond like this:


I’m sure some of them do call the number expecting to reach a conference room full of eager editors…

Yes, it’s cruel. I don’t care.

Filed under authors publishing books

350 notes

The Difference Between a Foreword and an Introduction (and What the Hell is a Preface?)

Even seasoned authors can’t always tell the difference between introductions, prefaces, and forewords — especially since they all belong in the front matter of a book, so here’s an easy cheat sheet. Suppose I’m writing a book about the mating habits of wombats (always a thrilling topic, that), here’s how:

1. A foreword would read: "I’ve known the author for ages and consider him to be a superior researcher of wombats and so love this work blah blah blah."

Because: A foreword introduces the author and the topic and is usually written by someone else other than the author — usually someone with a higher profile. Having a foreword from a big name carries credibility and weight well beyond a simple cover endorsement.

2. A preface would read: "In this work, I will outline how wombats are in fact highly effective social strategists by outlining their group dynamics blah blah blah."

Because: The author writes the preface to explain what the book will be about and how he plans to tackle the subject. People often confuse prefaces with introductions (and vice-versa).

3. An introduction would read: “Wombats have fascinated people for ages and not just because of their silly appearances, but because of their wacky mating habits blah blah blah.”

Because: The introduction represents the first step into the subject matter. Think of it as the first chapter. But because a book should stumble right into the core principles but slowly introduce the topic, it is called an introduction.

And there are also these other things called prologues, epilogues, and afterwords, but that’s for another time. Class dismissed.

Filed under books writing publishing authors

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The Difference Between “With” and “And”

No doubt you’ve seen plenty of book covers where coauthors are listed and separated by either and (as in “By Dude A and Dude B”) or with (as in “By Dude A with Dude B”)

Usually, with suggests that the coauthor didn’t do much writing — he or she may have just given some advice or (as in some cases) the author just wanted to give a “shout out” to the person.

However, whenever a celebrity has a book out, you’ll notice that there’s never an and but always a with following the celebrity’s name in the byline. In such cases, you can safely assume the opposite of what I stated above about with’s contribution to the book. This is because in celebrity books, with does all of the writing while by just ran his or her mouth randomly while downing shots at the bar at the Chateau Marmont. In most cases, the celebrity author won’t even know what is in the book (do you really think Snooki Polizzi is even literate?)

But don’t feel bad for the with’s. They make more money with a single with than most authors make with a lifetime of by’s.

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