Written by: Scott Berkun
The recent Buzzfeed post by Curtis Sittenfeld called 24 Things No One Tells You about Publishing was fun to read. I’ve written 6 popular books with two publishers and I agreed with much of what she said. But having been an author for a decade and hearing every question and myth, here’s my own list of things I wish more people knew about writing and publishing.
- Selling books is harder than writing them. There are 300k books published in the U.S. every year. And 30% of Americans read only 1 to 5 books in 2014. Writing a book is purely up to you. But getting other people to buy and read your book is another matter.
- Everyone obsesses about titles and covers but it’s hard to prove their impact beyond above a basic level of quality. It’s easy to find popular books with lousy titles and covers, and unpopular books with great titles and covers. There are too many variables for magic answers. Publishers exert more control over titles and covers than you’d expect: often authors have little say.
- Some books, like The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick, don’t become popular until decades after publication. It’s a strange world. Books have lives of their own, typically quiet ones. We judge success by sales, but many factors that have nothing to do with the book itself impact sales. Bestseller lists are not a meritocracy. Sometimes a book is on the bestseller list for a week and never heard of again. Other times a book has steady sales for years but never makes any lists or wins any awards.
- Your reasons for writing must transcend fame and wealth as neither are likely from writing alone. Most books you read are written by writers who pay their rent through other means. If you want fame and wealth from writing be committed to the long term. This takes the pressure off each book, and you’ll be open to learning instead of foolishly trying to hit a grand slam on your first try.
- Fame will likely ruin your writing or your life. Study the history of famous writers if you doubt me. Fast fame is a curse, or a trap, as everyone wants you to repeat exactly what you did before.
- The publishing industry is slow to realize authors need them less than ever. Unlike 20 years ago, you can do much of what a publisher does yourself, perhaps not as well, but that depends on how entrepreneurial and self aware you are. Learn about self-publishing simply to be informed about your business end to end. Some publishers do great work, but many are stuck in an antiquated notion of their value.
- Many authors are lazy. They’re arrogant too. They don’t want to do PR, they don’t want to do their homework and they are in denial of how many other authors there are. They, like some publishers, believe in romantic notions of how publishing works.
- Some publishers/editors/agents are amazing. Some are bad and incompetent. YMMV. Don’t judge them all by the one you worked with. My agent, David Fugate, is awesome.
- A great editor at a mediocre publisher can be a better situation than a mediocre editor at a great publisher. Editors represent you for dozens of decisions the publisher makes for your book that you can’t participate in.
- Many editors don’t “edit”. They’re more like strategists or strategic project managers. There are three roles editors play, often played by different people. Acquisitions editors sign authors. Development editors help you draft your book. Production editors are the ones who spend the most time with your words, and even they depend on copyeditors and proofreaders. Many people will touch your book.
- Don’t believe everything depends on finding agents or publishers. They both want you to already have a fan base, which is a paradox. There are many paradoxes to face in trying to break into any field that many people want to be in (e.g. being a movie star). To find an agent requires hard work and this is on purpose. There is a far greater supply of people writing books than demand from publishers.
- Always remember you can upload a PDF of your book to Amazon and have it on sale on Kindle in minutes. Don’t get lost falsely depending on others. No one can stop you from writing a book and selling it except yourself. Promoting a book well is another matter (see #1), but publishers struggle with that too.
- No one will come to your book reading/signing unless you are already famous. The packed author readings on the news are only packed because the author is already very well known. It’s another paradox related to #1. Read The First 1000 copies by Tim Grahl, or APE by Guy Kawaksai for a good start on how to market books. Book readings at bookstores are among the worst uses of time for a new author.
- Publishers only invest in big PR for famous authors. For new authors there’s little reason to believe the investment will pay off. Would you spend 50% of your annual marketing budget on an unknown? Neither would a publisher. Publishers do love authors who invest their own time and money in marketing, and will help with and add to your investment.
- Most people think they want to write, but really they just like to think about writing. If you have a 6th grade education you know how to write. The question is are you willing to put in the hours?
- You can spot these people because they spend more time complaining about how hard it is to write than doing it. Or they endlessly stroke their idea as if it can someday magically transform itself into 300 pages. Don’t complain. No one is making you torture yourself but you.
- Distractions say more about your lack of commitment than anything else. Learn to concentrate. Concentration is a skill anyone can develop and if you are serious about writing you should see this as central to your ambitions. If you were starving to death and writing a book would get you food, you’d write. We are all capable of writing if suitably motivated.
- Which means that anyone with sufficient commitment can write a book. It might not be a good book, but most books by published authors aren’t that good either. What makes for a good book is highly subjective anyway.
- A publisher is a venture capitalist. They are giving you money before your work is done. Before you complain about the size of the investment they are willing to make (or not make) in your book, are you are willing to make the same financial investment? Few authors are. It’s a business. They owe you nothing beyond what they agree to.
- Your friends, family and colleagues are you best assets for finding an audience for your writing. Everyone has friends and family. Ask for their help. Make it easy for them to help you. Reward every new fan as if they were your only fan (because at first they will be).
- Learn to take feedback well. By this I mean you want to be a better writer on the next book than this one, yes? That only happens if you listen for ways to improve. Arrogant writers, and they are legion, rarely improve.
- Learn to take rejection well. It will be everywhere. If you think rejections from agents and publishers are tough, wait till you get rejected by reviewers and readers (e.g. The Great Gatsby has 235 1 star reviews). Look for a nugget of merit in every mean-spirited critique you hear as the mean people might have more honest insight into your work than the nicer people. Be grateful anyone read your book at all.
- Stop looking for secrets and tricks. You’re a sucker if you think there’s a trick as every great writer in history never found one that let them skip the work. Tips only help if you are writing every day and can put tips to use.
- You build a following, or in publishing jargon, a platform, by publishing regularly. There is no magic place where people will come to you just for showing up once. It doesn’t matter where you publish, but put something into the world regularly. Be willing to learn as you go and experiment. There are many ways to build an audience but they all require effort.
- Publish once a week on a blog. You want to build an audience before your book is finished, not after. Write briefly about topics that relate to your book. Share excerpts and ideas you’re working on. Read other bloggers who write about subjects like yours and get to know them. Invite people you know to be interested to follow along. It will feel weird at first but work to get comfortable with being visible and making connections, as you’ll need those skills when your book is out in the world.
- Don’t be precious. No one is going to steal your ideas. Ideas are easy, it’s the work of delivering on an idea in 300 pages that’s hard.
- Get feedback on your ideas and drafts early. Find people who are honest with you – they are hard to find. Grand praise of your drafts does not make them better. Separate useful critiquing (“this section didn’t work”, “you should read Rushdie”) from the moral support your friends give over beers (“you can do it”, “keep going”). Get the tough feedback early enough that you can still do something about it.
- Only your name is on the book. Your publisher will publish dozens of books every month. You will publish one book every few years, or maybe just once in your life. They will never care as much as you do about your book. You have the right to veto and argue, politely, with anyone who works on your book. Stand up for yourself, but earn that right by taking writing and publishing seriously. Do your homework. If you don’t take shortcuts, no one will try to take shortcuts on you.
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