13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing

August 31, 2010

Publish and Flourish

The trouble with the publishing business is that too many people who have half a mind to write a book do so.

–Editor William Targ

Publishing faces its share of challenges, but I hope these wonderful truths about the business will reassure you:

1.  You have more options for getting your books published than ever.

2. The phrase unpublished author is becoming obsolete. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper than ever to self-publish your book: ebooks, print-on-demand, podcasting, blogs, serialization, and  websites cost little or nothing. If a book costs nothing to write and publish, and only sells one copy, it’s making money.

3. There are thousands of editors and publishers in America and abroad whose existence depends on them finding books to publish, and they love to discover new writers.

4. Publishers accept more new ideas, writers, and books than the gatekeepers in other fields.

5. Technology is making the industry more effective than ever. Publishers

  • Edit and sell books and subsidiary rights more efficiently.
  • Promote to the public and the trade—booksellers of all kinds, subsidiary-rights buyers, and publishing media, online and offline. Big houses have techies who specialize in online promotion.
  • Are converting their lists into ebooks.
  • Receive daily sales figures from Nielsen BookScan that account for 75 percent of their sales. This enables them to

      * print, reprint, and distribute books faster.

      * Know how their books and competing books are selling.

      * Schedule reprints based on sales, which lessens returns and ensures stores have a steady supply of books.

      * Acquire the kinds of title that consumers are buying.

6. If publishers believe in a book passionately because they love it, they think it will sell, or because of its literary or social value, it must be published, they’ll publish it.

7. A book that serves its readers’ needs for information, inspiration, beauty, and entertainment well enough is unstoppable. Publishers spend millions of dollars every year buying and marketing books that fail, while self-published books and books from small and university presses become bestsellers.

8. Television and word of mouth and mouse enable books to succeed faster than ever. One of our authors, Chérie Carter-Scott, appeared on Oprah, and that afternoon her book, If Life  is a Game, These are the Rules, rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Its momentum carried it to the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

9. Books have more subsidiary-rights potential than ever. People in more countries are buying books in English, and more countries are acquiring translation rights than ever..

10. Anything is possible.

  • Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock has sold 50,000,000 copies.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has sold more than 80,000,000 books.
  • The more than one hundred Chicken Soup books have sold more than 115,000,000 copies.
  • The Harry Potter series has sold more than 300,000,000 copies.
  • Barbara Cartland’s romances have sold one billion copies.
  • The Agatha Christie mysteries have sold two billion copies.
  • The Bible has sold more than six billion copies. 

11. Thousands of new authors succeed every year. First-time fiction bestsellers include

  • The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Christmas Box, originally self-published by Richard Paul Evans
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Shack by William P. Young
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 Recent first-time nonfiction bestsellers include

  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson 
  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

 12. Books are more accessible than ever:

  • They’re available in more forms, media, and countries.
  • It’s faster and easier to buy books and find discounts for them.

 13. The more people know, the more they want to know. If book buyers like one book on a subject or in a series enough, they will want to read others, so books continue to sell as more new readers discover them, and publishers continue to market all the books in a series.

A Paperless Future?

Futurist Ross Dawson has predicted that by 2022:

  • Newspapers will be gone. We’ll access crowdsourced news on smartphones and news readers that will be “foldable, or rollable, gesture-controlled and fully interactive.”
  • iPads will be free.
  • We’ll have a “media economy, dominated by content and social connection.”

But books are an essential part of our culture. No matter how they are written, published,  promoted, purchased, and read, books that people need and want to read will continue to provide what only books can.  And the authors who write them will continue to flourish.

Overcoming Publishing’s Problems

August 26, 2010

A Sipress cartoon in The New Yorker shows a medieval prison cell in which a terrified prisoner is on a rack with his hands and feet bound. His hooded tormentor is saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.”

If you’re a writer, mental suffering comes with the calling. The anguish of finding the right word, completing and revising a manuscript, hearing what’s wrong with it, finding an agent or publisher, promoting the book. All of these challenges involve effort, uncertainty, and mistakes. Getting them all right the first time only happens in heaven.

One goal of this blog is to help ease your burdens. But thanks to Steve Piersanti, publisher of Berrett-Koehler, the list that follows won’t make you any happier about your profession. But the more you know, the farther you can go. Steve recently updated

The 10 Awful Truths About Publishing.

Awful they are, but if you know them, you can overcome them. Thousands of authors do it every year, and they’re using technology to create new ways to help them. After the list, Steve offers seven ways to help you do it. Previous posts have also discussed what it takes to succeed in the brave new whirl of publishing.

To see Steve’s list, visit www.bkpub.com, click on Resources, then on publishing documents. (You can also subscribe to BK’s outstanding newsletter.) Here are the list’s highlights:

* Publishing produces more new products per year than any other industry.

* More than a million books were published last year, but bookstore sales are declining.

* More than 7 million books are available.

* The average nonfiction book sells 250 copies per year, 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

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

* It’s increasingly difficult to make any book stand out, in part because other media are claiming more of people’s time.

* People are reading only books that their communities make important or mandatory.

* Authors do more marketing than publishers.

* Technology is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales, and e-profits are slimmer than print profits.

* Technology, small profit margins, the complexities of the business, competition from other media and publishers guarantee change and turmoil.

Steve’s 7 Strategies for Responding to These Truths

1. The game is now pass-along sales, people buying books for other people.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5. Master new sales and marketing channels.

6. Build books around a big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

As earlier posts suggested, reading, models, goals, craft, a series of related books, platform, promotion, commitment, and communities to help you are the keys to your career. Armed with them and your share of luck, nothing can stop you.

Next up: 13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing.

A Dying Read: An Obit for E-Readers

August 24, 2010

Predictions are hard, especially about the future.

–Yogi Berra

In the last century, it was said that there are pipes companies and content companies, companies that produce information and entertainment and those that transmit them. As we become a wireless world, the pipes are being replaced by air.

Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy predicts that ebook sales, now 8 percent of S&S’s business, may be as high as 40 percent in three to five years. It’s been predicted that in ten years, ebooks will be 75 percent of the business. These predictions may be right, but they may not come true with e-readers.

On a Media Post blog, Aaron Shapiro predicts that in five years, e-readers will be the Rubik’s Cube of 2010. A partner in a technology company called Huge, Shapiro thinks that e-readers will go the way of previous one-use devices such as calculators, Palm Pilots, dedicated word processors, and fax machines. Other: ”likely doomed technologies: digital cameras, digital video recorders, digital audio recorders, handheld gaming devices, automotive GPS systems, televisions, portable DVD players, and even the iPod. All you’ll need is a screen for your hand, a screen for your lap, and a screen for your wall.”  

In the age of all media all the time, the consolidation of information, entertainment, and communication into one device, or as Shapiro suggests, three synced screens, is inevitable–four, if you count your car. Some people are already abandoning laptops as well as land lines for smartphones. For Shapiro, the introduction of the iPad marks the beginning of the end for e-readers. Like the smartphone, the iPad will be a miniature desktop.

It’s been said that the only way to predict the future is to create it. As a writer, you can help shape the future with your writing. From free to fee, from tweets to books, people will continue to want information and entertainment. Consumers will decide how they want to receive them. Whatever devices emerge–and implants are coming–it’s up to you to provide content that will keep your readers coming back for more. If you succeed, predicting your future will be easy.

Winning the Showdown on Page One

August 19, 2010

In an old New Yorker cartoon, an angry writer sits at his desk before a battered typewriter pounding out a note to a publisher. The caption goes like this: “I find your rejection slip mealy-mouthed, turgid, and totally lacking in style, and regret that I must reject your rejection slip.”

Rejection slips will never be models of style, and they never bring good news. Read on to learn one way to help avoid them. Our assistant Claire Cavanaugh, an outstanding editor, and Robin Perini–both are romance writers–did a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference. To prepare, they asked a group of agents, including Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean at our agency, seven questions about fiction and nonfiction books.

In response to one question, agents replied that 90 percent of time, they can tell from page one if a manuscript was not salable. This was the follow-up question:

4. What are the most common reasons that you can tell a manuscript will NOT work on page one?

  • Poor writing, incomplete sentences, lots of adjectives each sentence.
  • No hook. Not enough dramatic tension. Too much like so many other plots.
  • Misspellings & poor grammar.
  • Lengthy narrative (usually “setting the scene” with too many details); dull opening with no change (change can be subtle but something must be happening); writing style that doesn’t engage; writer is telling and not showing the story
  • Bad writing, cliché opening, trite character names, poor grammar.
  • Bad prose, wrong word choices, bad grammar and punctuation. Boring, flat, no voice
  • You can’t tell on the first page unless the topic is impossible

The survey has a lot of helpful information. Do yourself a favor and check it out at Robin’s blog: http://robinperini.wordpress.com. Read the post called “Hooks and Opening – Inside Scoop,” click on the helpful handout which has sample openings, and on the last link for the “Inside Scoop Complete Survey Report.”

Agents and editors have a hair-trigger response to bad prose. If you’re telling a story, you can win the showdown on page one by showing up with a killer first page. Let your best words win. It beats having to reject rejections.

Lighting the Night So Your Readers Can See

August 17, 2010

Once you’ve seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it’s hard to take yourself seriously.

–Paul Newman

You have to take your work, your career, and your life seriously. Everything you think, say, and do is either making you a better, more productive writer and person or it isn’t.

And yet, you also need to balance the importance of your efforts with a sense of perspective about your place in the universe. Elizabeth and I saw a few sprinkles of the Perseid meteor shower last Saturday. Shooting stars are an apt metaphor for our existence, a fleeting burst of light with a long tail. The tail is our trail, what our light leaves behind us when it burns out.

As a writer, you have the chance to leave behind a trail of work that can continue to illuminate life and the world for your readers. What a gift and privilege it is to be able to transcend the confines of our own life and communicate with present and future readers around the planet.

Mel Brooks once said: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” So are drama, information, and inspirational writing. Stories and ideas that help us come to terms with the world and ourselves will have lasting value. Your work–long and short, online and offline–is your legacy, your gift to future readers.

So be gentle with yourself, but devote yourself to fulfilling your readers’ expectations. Light up the night for your readers and you will have fans for life.

5 Ways to Get Rave Reviews

August 10, 2010

What do writers and doctors have in common? They both need patience.

The Galley Cat blog (a must read–galleycat@mediabistro.com) picked up on a tweet by One-Minute Book Reviews editor Janice Harayda listing the most overused put-downs in book reviews, three about character, two about plot:

  • Cardboard characters
  • Thin plot
  • Cookie-cutter characters
  • The book falls apart at the end.
  • I just didn’t care about the characters.

As a reader, you spot these failings immediately. How can you avoid them as a writer? Follow the steps I’ve mentioned in previous posts:

Know the territory: read as many books as you can that can serve as models for yours in terms of style, plot, tone, theme, length, structure, characters, and setting.

Be authentic: absorb what you can from the books that you love, but don’t be the next anyone; be the first you. My resistance to books that smack of commerce, that were written to cater to a market instead of telling a story that the author must tell, is growing. Write the books only you can write. Editors love to find promising books and authors, but they love finding something promising and new even more.  As agent Jessica Faust suggests, don’t explode the boundaries, but push them.

Write and rewrite: professional writers expect crappy first drafts. They rewrite until every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter are the best they’re capable of producing.

Share your work: even if you get feedback as you write, you will be too close to your manuscript to judge its literary or commercial value. You also need eyes for your revisions. Only capable, objective readers can tell you when it’s time to find a publisher to help you give birth to your baby.

Honor the process: Like reviewers, readers can spot lack of effort immediately; writers who accept nothing less than their best are praised accordingly.  Assume it will take more time that you would like to

  • Write your book.
  • Get it published.
  • Build your platform.
  • Promote your book.
  • Build your career.

The more patient you are, the more likely your efforts will be justified by the rewards and recognition they receive.

Nothing can stop an idea, a book, and a writer whose time has come. Persevere and your time will come!

Saving Your Self for Yourself

August 5, 2010

Did you hear about the proposed merger of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? The new company is going to be called You Twit Face!

In an insightful article in the New York Times Sunday magazine (8/1), Peggy Orenstein, author of the fall book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, wrote about Twitter. At her publisher’s urging, she is trying to raise an army of tweeple to help promote her book. She feels that tweeting about one’s personal life to please others makes us actors in a reality TV show.

She enjoys Twitter’s “infinite potential for connection” and the “opportunity for self-expression.” But she writes: “The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create and alienates us from our own humanity.”

When the world shares our personal and professional lives, what becomes of privacy and intimacy? This conflict will be the basis for thousands of fiction and nonfiction books. But it brings up the challenge of separating “person and persona, the public and private self.” You can appreciate this tension as a source for writing, but how do you forge and maintain two lives—one online that’s personal and professional, and one that’s private, that’s yours and you share only with those closest to you?

Creating a Living and a Life

A song from  A Chorus Line, which is about actors auditioning for a show,  begins: “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” There are more ways to live, write, and get published than ever. (There’s a book to be done about the vast range of lifestyles we have to choose from.) Who you are determines the choices you make, and they become part of your identity.

As a writer, you need to be able to adapt faster than ever in response to changes in culture, technology, the economy, and the growing number of options you have as a writer as your craft, promotability, and career grow.

Out of this large evolving melange of possibilities, you have to continue to figure out who you are clearly enough to create a living and a life. And you don’t have a moment to waste. Devote your time to developing your talents, skills, knowledge, and relationships. You will need them.

Life, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere. Good thing writers always have a pen handy. May fate elevate you from the literary chorus line to a starring role, yet enable you to disappear as soon as you leave the theater. Become a bestselling author, if that’s your goal. But if you do, you’ll need a private life even more.

(My thanks to our brilliant colleague, Laurie McLean–www.agentsavant.com–for passing on the humor at the beginning of this post.)

Writing for a Time Capsule

August 3, 2010

“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

That was the response of a producer to an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! Audiences, however, were delighted. The program noted that the show went on to become Broadway’s longest running show for thirteen years.

Oklahoma! was the first modern musical because the songs and dances didn’t just entertain, they served the story. The show was based on a straight play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which wasn’t a hit and to which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration added music and lyrics.

Elizabeth and I just saw a summer stock version of the show at the Sacramento Music Circus. More than ever, I appreciated the show as a time-capsule musical, the inspiring, quintessential play about the hope and promise of America. A century from now, if people want to watch plays that capture the American dream, Oklahoma! will be one of them.

Dreaming Big

The show also suggested a wonderful literary goal: writing books that will be read in a hundred years. Are there stories–long or short, true or fictional, American or foreign, successful or obscure–that you can re-imagine for today’s and tomorrow’s readers? Whatever narratives you choose to write, remember a simple criterion for every word: serve the story.

The Web gives you to tools to create in any medium and link your work to your e-book as well as link to anything else on the Web. This makes enhanced e-books that enable you to build a community of readers first modern books. They vastly extend your creative potential as well as your ability to reach readers. Old ideas, new techniques—the arts evolve, but the needs and desires of people and artists don’t. Seize the chance to tell the stories that only you can in the way only you can tell them.

Expect out-of-town rejections. In his outstanding keynote at the San Francisco Writers Conference, Steve Berry said that before he hit the bestseller list, he received 85 rejections on five novels before selling one. (His talk is available at www.sfwriters.org.)

Only time will tell if you’re right, and if you dedicate yourself to your craft and your career, you will be.