On Getting Published

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.

From Daniel Decker:

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.

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  • Jennifer

    So, here is what I dont understand…

    If most marketing is done by authord, not publishers. And, if most books are never going to be in bookstores anyway. Why would the average author, who is going to sell 250 books, use a publishing house since they will only pay her $1 or $2 per book….when the same book could be self-publihsed, and the profit could be $10 per book? The publisher isnt going to do any marketing for them anyway…and with most people buying from Amazon (which stocks books from publihsers and self-publishers) it just doesnt make any sense to me. Unless you are a superstar and your publisher is going to do a lot for you…why would you let them take all your money?

  • Some may find this new book by Stanley Porter entitled “Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing” to be a good resource as well.


  • #1,

    I imagine that this has particular implications for the academic community (whether we’re talking about popular or academic audience), because being “self-published” is seen rather poorly in terms of whether a book is a reliable indication of that professor’s qualifications.

  • Dan Brennan

    Scot, these are some realistic observations about publishing. All of them I found to be true when I was researching the possibility of publishing through a self-created publisher. Again and again I came across articles from authors who observed that unless you are a known name, marketing has to be be done by the author.
    One’s community definitely plays a role in discerning whether to publish. While the gatekeepers are in place for mainstream publishers, the birth of on-demand printing with very minimal upfront costs has made self-publishing a viable alternative and thus opening the door for even more books.

  • Thanks for this Scot. Its all so true. My first book should be coming out in the fall and I can say that I have learned a ton about the whole process and the ‘politics’ of the industry. In fact, the publisher who agreed to do this book even has a great little document on their site spelling out many of the same realities, which can be very discouraging. It seems that if one is going to get a book published through a reputable publisher these days then a lot of self-promotion and networking is required even before approaching any publishers. Not to mention that writing sure isn’t the way to make a living, even for many of the best writers out there.

  • @Jennifer, very astute questions! I’d gone to a writers conference about publishing several years ago, and my main takeaway was that for most authors, marketing is essentially done by the author and not the publisher. And that being the case for a majority of authors, I went the self-publishing print-on-demand route to get a couple books published.

    Advantages: more profit per book sale, and using lulu.com, it provides fulfillment, online store, and royalties are automatically mailed. Disadvantages: traditional publishing houses still have “credibility” in some circles. Publishers typically do provide additional services like editing, cover design, access to being listed in particular catalogs.

  • Phillip


    The reason some don’t self publish, at least among academics (even ones writing on a popular level) is because such books do not normally “count” toward promotion and tenure. It may not be a good reason, but I think it is one.

  • Rick

    djchuang- “I’d gone to a writers conference about publishing several years ago, and my main takeaway was that for most authors, marketing is essentially done by the author and not the publisher. And that being the case for a majority of authors, I went the self-publishing print-on-demand route to get a couple books published.”

    I heard Seth Godin say somthing similar recently. Although he still uses a publisher, he has already built up a following (his blog, speaking at conferences, etc…) and therefore is able to self-publish some of his work.

  • As a recently published author using a traditional publisher (in this case Moody Books), the value that the publisher brought to the table that went beyond what I could have done well on my own included:

    1. Cover design
    2. Internal copy design
    3. Copy editing
    4. Editorial support and advice
    5. Publicity with media outlets
    6. Sales and distribution with Christian bookstores and online retailers
    7. Marketing to particular people or conferences of influence to help the word spread

    There might have been more ways they provided value, but those were the initial thoughts that came to mind. For me, an unknown first-time author, these elements were pretty critical. Now if I were Seth Godin and had his audience and platform, I could understand why not to use a traditional publisher. But having gone through this process myself, I know better how the publisher’s efforts justify at least some of the costs involved in producing a book.

    That having been said, the point about the author needing to do much more marketing and promotion is absolutely true. It feels relentless and overwhelming, but it is now an accepted part of the book publishing process. Most publishers will only have budgeted marketing dollars for a few months after the release. Even with those dollars (often spent on more traditional avenues such as advertising), the author has to do much of the social media marketing him or herself.

    The bottom line is that a writer doesn’t write to make money, per se (at least this is true for most of us!), but to get a message out and to start building that platform for future ideas. Publishers can definitely help with that process if you are aiming for a broader audience. But if you have a niche message for a niche audience–such as DJ’s comment above–then self-publishing may very well be the way to go.

  • Jennifer

    Phillip – I can understand that. But for the vast majority of authors, it just doesnt seem like it would matter.

    djchuang – Yes…some self-published books just look terrible. No one has any idea if the content is decent or not becuase the art work or editing is so bad. But it doesnt have to be that way. Look at Dan Brennan’s book…its self-published but still looks professional. And its selling at the same clip as it would have been if it had been published traditioanlly. Of course, he’s got kind of a hot topic, so that helps…

  • gingoro

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

    Very true! I probably consume 2 non fiction books a month. Almost all of them come from reviews I read here or at CT plus a few from BioLogos. I have totally given up on the big box book stores for two reasons:
    1. Here in Canada they add 40 to 100% to the US price whereas Amazon does not
    2. They removed the seating where one could browse before spending 35 to 60$.

    Our local Christian Bookstore sells mostly trinkets and bumper stickers… If I happen to be at the music store next door I go in and take a quick look but mostly find nothing worth reading.
    Dave W

  • rjs

    Coming up with good ideas is hard work. Writing them down in intelligible form is hard work. Marketing is hard work. Building a community and maintaining a platform is a constant job.

    Why would anyone want to publish a book?

  • smcknight

    #12! Only a scientist would say that.

  • rjs

    only a realist would say that …

    seriously though there has to be a driving force, a calling of sorts.

  • rjs

    By the way – in the post you ask parenthetically (Did you see #2 below yet?)

    I can’t quite figure out what you mean by #2. From Decker’s original list? The second one you clip? The first one you clip (Decker’s #3)? …

  • Joshua Wooden

    @ #12- Flippin’ Biologists…. 🙂

    Only joking! RJS, have you been published before?

  • rjs


    I’m better classified as a chemist or physicist, we only touch on biology in our research.

    I’ve been published in the scientific literature … but not a book, and certainly nothing (other than the blog) that could be classified as for a general audience. There are almost always equations (horrors!) in my papers… involving calculus, or diff eq, or worse.

  • Scot McKnight

    rjs, wow, sorry. I meant #3.

    Joshua, I’ve seen RJS’s CV and she’s being too humble here. She’s amazingly published. About a page of article listings per year.

  • DD

    See if you can write a column for a paper, although those opportunities are diminishing, too. Thinking about writing a book is too overwhelming, although writing a regular column is very tough, too. But that’s what I do. I have written about 530 columns and developed a real following. Lots of people like it. A few despise it. I write about 850 words. There’s a real immediacy to it, which there isn’t in books. You have it to your editor on Wednesday and your readers see it on Friday, and so do you! They mention it to you when they see you in the store or on Sunday. I like that. So what if they take Friday’s paper and put it on the bottom of their bird cage on Saturday? I gave away 500, mostly Christian books, to the local library for their sale recently. They sold most of the books for $.01. Sorry wonderful Christian author, many whose name you would know. And that’s why I am such a fan of blogs, like this one, if you’re disciplined enough to post regularly and build your audience.

  • #9–Thanks, Helen, for saying this. It is discouraging to an aspiring writer to look at the odds, but a reminder about the whys of writing are helpful.

  • Scot McKnight


    From writing on this blog for six years I’ve simply grown in appreciation for columinsts and editorialists. Just don’t know how they do it.


  • MikeK

    An academic friend decided that on Book #2 to throw some serious bucks down to get professional consultations on the galleys, marketing assistance, feedback from focus groups, and do the book tour: so far, so good. The friend senses it was a very hard piece of work to assemble, and some of the feedback/criticism was sharper (double entendre) than the editors: it made for a better book, better sales, and increased currency in the academic discipline of my friend. This may result in a faster and more energetic promotion to tenure, as the department likes this profile that is developing: including the monies that follow for further research…

  • Scot, thank you for linking to my post. Appreciate it. Really wish you had threaded commenting on this blog as I’d love to respond to some of the comments above specifically. Perhaps I’ll circle back and do a post Q&A style addressing some of these.

  • Getting published traditionally can be very difficult — it is a moving target — and it can often be more effective to self-publish. The state of technology has made that immensely easier. Getting into brick and mortar stores is even more difficult, even with a traditional publisher. But the b&m stores are struggling, and we will be seeing them change to address current challenges.

    The technology that makes it easier to self-publish includes POD (print-on-demand) and ebooks (mainly Kindle and epub format, but also PDF). Traditional publishers are using POD to keep their backlist available. Many self-publishers are using it to make their books available on Amazon (US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Japan), BN.com and many other online booksellers in the states and around the world.

    In addition, book machines are popping up in retail outlets. They are POD operations that can print out a book and full color cover from a large database, allowing for immediate access to a virtually endless inventory ~ without the huge overhead of big box stores.

    Ebook sales continue to rise, along with sales of the Kindle reader, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and other epub readers. Last month my ebook sales were about 3-4 times that of my paperback sales. This month, my Kindle sales are running neck and neck with my pbook sales, and I am still waiting for the numbers on my epub sales.

    Marketing is easier for all ~ “permission-based” marketing instead of “interruption-based” marketing. Social media is useful for developing a “platform” or a “tribe.” Traditionally published authors are going to have to do more of their own marketing anyway, as publishers’ discretionary budgets have decreased.

    All the services provided by traditional publishers — all kinds of editing, cover design, interior design — can be outsourced, as can conversion to ebook.

    The publishing model is changing, as is the book model.

    DISCLOSURE: In addition to be a self-published author, I am also a cover and book designer.