Sad Truths About Book Publishing
Joe Carter calls publishing a book “one of the most wonderfully disappointing experiences you’ll ever have.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuine rewards to having a book published. You get to say that you’re an “author” rather than, say, a “blogger.” Also, you get the validation that at least one person (who gets paid to read for a living) thought that you wrote something that was worth reading and deserved a wider audience.
But if you decide you really want to write a book and are fortunate enough to find a publisher, there are some realities of book publishing about which you should be aware:
The post is worth reading in full but, basically, most books don’t sell, don’t wind up on the front table at Borders — or in a bookstore, period — and don’t make much, if any, money. The last is true even of many “bestsellers.” And you’ll spend a lot of time promoting the book.
There’s a lot of variation, depending on genre and publishing house. Some types of books sell much better than others and it doesn’t necessarily depend on quality. A political screed, especially one written by a celebrity, will outsell finely crafted political analysis. Well-established publishers are more likely to get your book picked up by the chains and reviewed in the right places.
And, of course, some authors make a very handsome living at their craft. Frequent OTB commenter Michael Reynolds, author of the Sideways Mencken blog and 150-odd teen lit books under various names, notably Michael Grant, is among them. He wrote this in the comments of a discussion on writing for money some months back:
When I talk to aspiring young writers I point at that it is either a hobby or a business. If it’s a business — if you intend to get paid — then you need to understand that part of it. People may or may not like the business aspect of it but if you want to get paid there’s not much point in railing against it. You don’t get paid for railing, you get paid for winning the game.
In many ways I’m no different than anyone else who produces a product for market.
I write online as a hobby. I blog or don’t as the mood strikes me.
Writing fiction however is my business so I treat it with a lot more seriousness. It has almost nothing to do with my mood. Moods are for hobbyists.
The problem with writing on-line is a lack of gatekeepers. You have, let’s say, a million people writing online. We as consumers skim around, looking here and there in a sort of chaotic way, to find what we like. 99% of blogs or online books are wastes of time, 1% are worth reading, but we don’t have a convenient guide to help us find the 1%.
A publisher is that guide. The fact that HarperCollins publishes me, immediately lifts me out of that vast field and makes me one of a 1000 rather than 1 of a million. Basically, it’s a lot easier for a reader to find me because I have the big red and blue HC logo stamped on my forehead. The reader can’t know whether I’m any good, but they can know that someone who should know (an editor) thinks I am.
I, on the other hand, had to succeed where tens of thousands of others had failed — in getting published and in getting Rupert Murdoch to write me a fat check. There are a lot more people in this country making a good living as doctors or lawyers than as fiction writers. Mine is a very competitive business. Everybody and his horse wants to do it.
To make a nice living in fiction you need talent, self-discipline, a capacity for work, a tolerance for risk, and a thick skin. It’s also nice if you have an instinct for the market and intellectual flexibility. How many on-line writers have all those things? Very few. If they did, let’s face it, they’d be published writers.
And, as Joe notes, even most of the people who make it past those not insignificant hurdles still don’t make a living at it.
What’s amazing to me is how large a percentage of books who make it through the above process are crap. Then again, I read mostly non-fiction and perhaps the barriers to entry there are simply lower. (Presumably, a novel or kids book should stand the test of time whereas most popular nonfiction books are quickly OBE.)