Why You Want a Big Book Publisher to Reject Your Book

Mind if I rave a little about the book business? No? Great!

Yesterday I was in a coffee shop. A woman sitting near me was reading a book about how to write a book proposal. In the course of a chat we’d started about something else, I said, “Say, I know all about book proposals. Want any help?”

But it turned out this would-be author had no more interest in learning about book proposals than I have in learning about how to prepare tongue. She was only perusing the book because a friend had given it to her.

She was, she told me, put on this earth to write the book she was, and God/the cosmos would take care of getting her masterpiece published. The idea of actually caring about selling the book was, to her mind, entirely too crass for consideration.

And, actually, I hear from a fair number of would-be authors who feel about their aborning books something in the neighborhood of what this woman feels about hers: that God/the cosmos has put the writing of their book on their heart, and that once it is finished, the stars will properly align, and their book will become the bestseller it was always destined to be.

Yeah. So about my rave:

If you’re an aspiring book author, you should know that nobody in book publishing—no agent, no editor, no publisher–gives one quick puckered kiss how you feel about your book. Thinking that they should “care” about your book at all is like expecting a car salesman to be emotionally attached to the cars on his lot. He’s not. What he cares about is selling the cars on his lot. That’s all he cares about them. That’s his job. That’s how he eats.

Drive away with the four-door sedan. Put a down on a sporty coupe. Make an offer on a minivan. Do something that involves that car salesman making sure money, and you’ll be the object of his care and concern. Don’t, and he’ll leave you so alone you’ll feel like a leper in a game of tag.

It’s the same with agents (the first in a long line of people who’ll have to be impressed by you and/or your book before it’ll ever see light of day). Look to them like someone who can bring them some money, or keep looking.

This is not to say that agents, et al, don’t care about whether or not a book is intrinsically good. Of course they do. They love good books. Who doesn’t love a good book? But you know what sort of book people in the book business really love, what kind makes them whip out a three-book contract faster than a car salesman can whip out his business card? A book written by an author with a platform, that’s what.

Ah, the platform. Have a good one, and you’ll be like Sarah Palin selling kisses at a Tea Party rally. Don’t, and you’ll be like Nancy Pelosi in the same booth.

Are you wondering if you have a good platform? Well, do you have a nationally syndicated TV or radio show? Do you have a wildly popular blog? Do you travel all year giving massively attended seminars? Are you the pastor of a mega-mega church? Are you famous, in other words? If so: nice platform! If not: nice platform shoes don’t cost that much money, they’re fun to wear and go away.

Agents and publishers want authors with a platform—period. Why? Because authors with a platform can sell their books directly to their audience. In other words, they can guarantee sales.

Check the stupid on this. Publishers only want authors who are so famous they can sell 40,000 copies of their own book directly to their own audience. But anyone who is so famous that they can sell 40,000 copies of their own book directly to their own audience needs a publisher like Willy Wonka needs a Whitman’s sampler. If I could sell my own book to my own audience, why would I give any publisher full rights, forever, to that book, ninety percent of whatever I made selling that book—and then give an agent fifteen percent of whatever was left over for me? Why? Why would I do that? Why would anyone?

And still all anyone in the book industry cares about is platform, platform, platform. That’s what they want; that’s what they’re concerned about; that’s what matters to them. It’s like a drowning man calling, “More boulders! Throw me more huge boulders!”

Which is why the book industry is sinking so fast half the people in it have already bailed into lifeboats and are frantically rowing for shore.

Oh: and e-book sales for 2011 will hit one billion dollars.

If you want to publish a book, publish it yourself. Unless you’re famous, you’ll have to anyway—and if you are famous, you’d be fourteen kinds of dense not to.

Okay, I’m done. (Well, for now. I could go on for days about the inanity of the book business.)

Thanks for listening!


I also wrote How To Make a Living Writing.


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  • rodneycwilson

    Definitely agree. Publishing houses as we knew them are a relic. I’d rather publish my own work in my own way any day. (Not that I have much work to publish!)

  • Got any tips on how to reach an audience (to sell them your e-book on your own, for example) without the help of a publisher… if you don’t already have a platform, in which case you need neither? Or are you saying that without a platform independent of the sheer writing you are sunk anyway and needn’t even bother?

  • Ace

    I own a few books self-published by a particular author, actually. I don’t think she’s gotten rich selling them, but it’s not her main source of income at least. Anyway, the book industry is kind of going the way of the music industry, but neither dinosaur want to admit that we’re swiftly crossing the K-T boundary here. Ah well.

  • Anonymous

    Having a platform means being famous. The more fame; the bigger/better your platform; the more books you can sell. You can’t sell books to people who wouldn’t know you from … anyone else they’ve never met or heard of.

  • That means that only people who are already famous can sell books?

  • Anonymous

    Well, “famous” is a relative term. But you can only sell as many books as you have people in your audience. Do you love the music of Scmorgan Galapinikiski? No? Why? Because you’ve never heard of him.

  • rodneycwilson

    No. But, sadly, fame imbues a person with importance — whether or not it is deserved. The best advice ever is to write the best darn book you can write and go from there. First comes the writing, then the polishing, then the publishing, then the publicity and subsequent selling. Good luck.

  • Mimicross22

    John, I love it when you rant! Keep up the good work.

  • Actionman2go

    Okay – how do I self-publish? And how can I work my video clips and original music into the publication while getting it all copywrited so I have all rights reserved for eternity?

  • I think this explains the ghost writing. It’s a shame that “platforms” are wasted on the illiterate.

  • Anonymous

    The ghost-writing I’ve done/am doing, you mean? I’m almost done with those … special circumstances deals.

  • Anonymous

    Um … that’s a whole other … field of concern. Google-time for you.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Mimi!

  • Yeah, that’s what I was talking about. It pays the bills, but I’m sure it sucks rotten eggs to have your best words out there masquerading as being the gems of wit of someone else. And I’m glad that you’re done with it…if you are.

  • Jennie

    Hi John — well, I agree with it all. But I do have a problem with the quality of so many self-published books. It’s sad to see someone invest five to ten thousand dollars (or less if they just do a few copies) for books that are going to sit in their garage, because, of course, as you said, they don’t have a platform — but also because the book never went through the editorial scrutiny of a publishing house. Now, if they would hire an editor or someone who will be ruthlessly honest, and rework and polish, then they might have chance if it’s a good book. Thanks for your insight — much to think about.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I mean, all of that is a whole other realm of consideration. With POD publishing, there’s no reason anyone without a solid platform should be dropping 5 to 10K on a gross of their own book. And editing concerns are huge (as are design considerations). But even if they end up with an excellent book, then what? Once you’ve sold copies to all your family and friends, how do you reach anyone else to sell to?

  • Actionman2go,

    You own the copyright as soon as you throw down the words. If you are really interested in self-publishing, the first thing you must do is create a publishing company with a name and logo that doesn’t scream “Hey look! I’m self-published!” The idea is to lend legitimacy to your brand.

    That’s just the beginning.

    Like John said, you’ll need to Google aspects like ISBN purchases, print options (I’d recommend print-on-demand), and the like. I have a friend who is now producing book trailers that could help you out. Her name is Meg Pokrass (www.megpokrass.com), tell her Andrew Bowen sent you.

    Hope this doesn’t scare you too much. Peace,


  • Anonymous

    Great rant. “…frantically rowing for SHORE.” Ha! Love it!

  • Jennie

    You’re right — I’ve seen it happen. Good books going nowhere. And of course it happens even if you do go through a publisher — they don’t always market your book for you (one ofd the biggest complaints I hear from writers). And yeah, there isn’t as much a need for the big money.. but even still, the time and effort and whatever cost is run up …what’s a writer to do?

    But you are so right about someone with a platform — I’ve worked on a few projects where I got some outside editing just to make sure, we did spend 10 K to have it designed and to print 10,000 copies — but the author has a platform and we made ALL the money back in less than a month and everyone thing from there on out was profit that the author got to keep! (In this case he put it back into his ministry, but at least it was 100% of the profit).

  • Brenda Antos

    Very good info. Thank you.

  • Stephanie

    Love your perspective… from an individual hoping for a Kindle this Christmas! 😀

  • Shadsie

    Hey, a post for me!

    I’ve known some of this for a while, the whole thing about the best way to get a book published is to already *be* published and/or famous, and how the box of rejection letters I own is nothing personal – agents and publishers don’t give a rat’s ass about peoples “babies,” they want something that will sell. A friend of mine tells me not to feel bad at all about not getting any nibbles from literary agents for my offerings becuase he feels like “in this economy, I don’t think any true art will be published” – he thinks this market is ripe for only schlock.

    Now, I write fiction – fantasy genre. My signficant other writes science fiction – he’s actually been turning scripts for comics he had into novel-form. I would describe the character of both our work as “quirky.” In other words, we aren’t writing about boy-wizards or sparkly vampires (ugh. Had a conversation with him about that and he told me he heard that certain people got published because their parents were in the business… ARRGH).

    In the end, I’d rather put out the best work I can. I’d rather be a *good* writer than a famous or even a published writer. (Hell, someone might discover my work after I die, after all). My guy has some of his work out at some company that’s a print-on-demand and waiting to hear back their verdict. I currently have a couple of novels “in stasis” and a third one that my SO is red-penning for me (I already want to edit the poo out of the thing).

    Once I get things as I like them, I am thinking of going Kindle. I’ve heard that you can essentially self-publish with them. I definitely need something where you don’t have to pay a lot (or anything, if possible) to get work out there, ’cause we’re poor/sufferers of the bad economy/etc. How many options like this are out there?

    I also figure, if I just *completely* give up, (or get bad medical news or something), I’ll create a page or a blog of some sort and just post all my work in chapters as serials, or just “chunk” out there, free to the public. Might do this anyway, even in the best of health (you know, if i give up or get bored enough).

    I actually do have the entire rough draft of my current work online, at my Deviant Art account – becuase I was looking for suggestions/people to rip the hell out of it for me.

  • Shadsie

    To clarify about the “schlock” – just the opinion of my friend, and it was regarding fiction pieces. We were talking about fiction, fantasy-genre specifically. My friend also compared me to Madeline L’Engle.

    Which is funny because a fan of my derivative works (fan fiction) compared me to Stephen King…

  • JauntyJohn

    Brills, John. As a refugee from the retail side of the book business and blogger-with-a-cliche-publishing-dream-myself I watch with great sadness the stupidity of the big old publishing companies. I guess they kind of missed what happened in the music industry in the last few years? What’s the use of a good cautionary tale if no one is cautioned!

    (Brills: Short for brilliant. A term that is clearly one part obnoxious and one part catchy. No, no, don’t thank me.)

  • jes

    Not necessarily, but sometimes it takes luck. You should add ursulav to your livejournal reading list, she’s not only brilliant and hilarious, she recently posted the story of how she got an agent by amazing luck, and how happy she is that her agent takes care of her.

  • Silvermoonsc

    Oh, Lord, yes…preach it, brutha…

    Seriously — the best thing you can bring to any publisher is professionalism.

    These days, there are all kinds of ways to self-publish, e-publish and so forth. It’s a brave new world to navigate, however. J.A. Konrath has written about this extensively. He, however, was an established author with a big publishing house behind him when he started e-pubbing his work.

    We were discussing this on a group blog recently and the biggest complaint from readers is that self-pubbed/e-pubbed books are a hot mess for the most part. Once a reader has had a few bad experiences purchasing self-pubbed material, he or she tends to avoid them like the plague.

    The publishing industry is still sorting all of this out, however. Hopefully we’ll see more e-publishing involving big publishing houses and professional editors.

  • Stephabbottsays

    Self-publish an e-book, John. Your fans will buy it.

  • I cann’t believe I am the first to comment on how hilarious the “leper in a game of tag” comment was!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! It took my about twenty solid minutes to think of that. “Leave you standing there like …” and then I just couldn’t think of anything. I was dead tired, but … still. I know SOMETHING had to work there. Anyway. Thanks for noticing.

  • FredA

    The problem with self-published books is promotion. With few exceptions, the mainstream media will not review or write articles about a self-published book. That means the author has to spend money on advertising, which means that, even if the book sells, it probably will not sell enough to turn a profit.

  • ms.glove

    Great piece, John. I apologize in advance for what I think might be a very long (but flattering!) comment.

    I don’t think ghostwriting is all bad for everyone who does it. It depends who the person is, and what they want to accomplish. I have been ghostwriting for a few years now, and I love it! For me, writing is a necessity, but notoriety is not. I am perfectly okay with the background, and I have made enough money doing so to be able to work from home, and THAT was my original goal when starting this whole writing thing way back when.

    I did my stint in corporate America, making good money and clocking over 60 hours on an average week. I was even told I was “going places”. I never did find out exactly where I was supposedly going, other than to an early grave if I had stayed on there much longer. No corporate success could compensate for missing out on my twins “firsts”. So, I waved good bye and set up shop at home. It. Sucked. Big. Time. I suddenly realized that out of everyone who had ever commented that I should write, none of them…Zero, Zilch, Nada…knew ANYTHING about actually making money at it.

    Eventually, everything worked out and I now get to write my little heart out and be around for my kids. Now that my daughters are teens, my goals have expanded and changed a bit, but I still don’t mind doing the behind the scenes work. Why? Because, as John said, I have NO PLATFORM. My audience is about as big as my Aunt..ahem…uh…well, let’s not go there. I will never be a Pastor with good hair and hundreds of thousands of people who think every word that comes out of my mouth is prophetic. I am no Oprah, and I certainly am not Sarah Palin. I would have to pay the Tea Party to kiss ME! Make no mistakes about it, I have lots of talents and I like who I am. I am just realistic enough to know that “God/the cosmos” probably doesn’t have a best seller in my future. Now, John Shore is a very different story!

    John HAS the personality, the skills, the following, the…well, EVERYTHING needed to be in the forefront! He can’t stay in the background, nor should he. It would be “14 kinds of dense” for him NOT to get himself out there in every way possible, because he has an A-M-A-Z-I-N-G platform and a message that needs to be spread! Anything we, his followers, can do to help get his name in big, bright lights should be done! Hell, the next time an overzealous Christian who wants to save my soul chases me down, I might just give him a business card with nothing but JohnShore.com written on it in big bold letters! Now that I think about it, there are all sorts of stupid people in need of a dose of truth that I could hand that card out to. (Note to John: This could totally be an effective marketing campaign!) Jehovah’s Witnesses..watch out!

    Anyways, my point is that the world NEEDS to hear what John Shore has to say! Me? Not so much. So, while John is out spreading the REAL good news, someone needs to be doing the the other writing jobs, and I’ll gladly be the ghost.

  • Shadsie

    Ghostwriting sounds a bit like graphic design, then. I’ve worked in that industry – low-paid, for little newspapers, not for anything fancy, but the whole industry is kind of like that.

    Do you know the name of the person who laid up the design on the box containing your favorite breakfast cereal? How about the names of the people who designed that billboard you just drove past? If you picked up an old newspaper in a small town in Arizona, or in a hoity-toity suburb of a small town in Pennsylvania and saw a really nice add for real estate or an Italian resturant, it could have been me behind it. A friend of my guy’s once asked me what graphic design was and I told her “It’s the art all around you that you don’t notice as art.” — And the people who make it generally do not get credit for it, since the designs are property of the client/company.

    I miss doing it. Sometimes, credit and glory don’t matter if you just actually enjoy the work itself.

  • Anonymous

    I’m ALL about the graphic design. Whenever I work at a magazine, the first thing I do is hire the best graphic designers possible, and then give them every last bit of creative freedom I can. And that’s how (well, plus my amazing editorial abilities) is how you make excellent magazines.

  • Anonymous

    WOW! I’m so going to use this as a basis for my next blog post. Thank you for these very kind words.

  • Doing any hiring now?

    If location is an issue – Internet. If education is an issue – I only have an associates, not a bachelors, but I’ve always considered degrees just to be “slips of paper that you bought,” anyway – not an accurate indication of talent or skill… I’m trained primarily for print media, though. (I do have some website experience, but all raw-coding in html, mostly my own sites that I couldn’t afford to keep up on their domain).

    Right now, I’m a part- time stablehand / janitor for horses, but am all too happy to take on freelance creative work.

    Damn, I sound like a salesperson.

  • ms.glove

    You’re welcome, John. Thanks.

  • ms.glove

    I have friends who work in graphic design and they are amazing! My father was a professor of photography and graphic arts, so I grew up around all of that stuff. I was even on the Nestle’s Quik jar when I was a little kid, though I don’t even remember doing it. I have total respect for that element, and they take our words and make them actually look good!

    Ghostwriting can pay well. I make very good money at it now. In the beginning, not so much. Like most jobs, you have to work your way up the ladder. You are exactly right. The credit, for me, means squat. I just love to write. Good luck on your freelance ventures:)!

  • Tom Bibey


    Want to buy my book? I’m world famous in Harvey County, and it’s selling great on Amazon.

    Dr. B, author, “The Mandolin Case”

  • Anonymous

    Tell us more about it?

  • John, “The Mandolin Case” is a medical legal mystery resolved by bluegrass musicians.

    Dr. B