Potential authors often write to me and ask about writing. They ask all the right questions, and I often feel bad for them because I know they’ve got a good idea and maybe a good book and sometimes I answer questions they haven’t asked but will if they go down the writing path very far. I don’t have all the answers but I have learned a few things about writing for a more popular (vs. academic) audience … and I’d like to mention a few and then pass it on to Daniel Decker’s recent post that is getting some internet play.
It’s hard to get published today; it’s harder now than it was when I began in the late 80s. I was a professor at TEDS, Baker thought I had a decent enough platform (they didn’t use that term), and Jim Weaver and the good folks at Baker gave me a chance. My own experience tells me that the word “platform” has become a, if not the, controlling factor. Namely, publishers want to know who knows you (which means “how many know you”) and how many books will sell — for sure. (Did you see #3 below yet?)
Some people get published because they are at the right school; or because they know someone who knows someone; or because they are famous or connected to someone famous. That might get you a foot in the door, but that second contract won’t come if you can’t write. There’s a big difference between a good idea and good book …
In the points below, weigh the ideas carefully. I find these points I’ve clipped to be accurate.
3. 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 Nielsen BookScan – which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) – only 282 million books were sold in 2009 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 11, 2010). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.4. A book has 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 approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.
6. 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.
7. 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 agents and experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’s marketing platform and what the author will do to market the book. 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.