What Book Publishers Want Most, But Can’t Have

What Book Publishers Want Most, But Can’t Have July 7, 2010

A continuation of the conversation I started with yesterday’s My New Book Has Taken Over My Head.

Here are a few random thoughts floating through my head as I take a break this morning from working on my new book:

What kind of stupid business am I in, anyway? Giving your book to an agent, so that she can sell it to a publishing house, so that eighteen months later they can deliver hard copies of it to bookstores, is so old school I might as well be carving my book onto huge stone tablets I prop up in the village square.

Still, what are my choices? The whole e-book, print-on-demand model is hardly enticing. I’ve got no real website to sell from; and alone I certainly don’t have the marketing prowess that my agent and a real house can deliver. Big, old-school book publishers are still the gatekeepers, literature-wise. So … so lucky me, basically. It’s a gift to have been invited to the dance at all.

The question is, why is it a gift? It’s not because with my next book I can make some money. I’ll be lucky to make a dime off my new book (if–because there’s always that giant if–my agent can sell it at all). After the agent’s fifteen percent, and the forty-five that goes to taxes, what remains of royalties is nothing. An author has to sell a lot of books to make even lousy money. For years now publishers won’t even look at an author who can’t sell 35,000 copies of their own book–and that’s a bare minimum. (The number I most often see is 50,000 copies.) Thirty-five to fifty thousand copies! Besides huge, already-famous authors, the only kinds of people who can sell that many units have popular TV or radio shows, are famous for some other reason, or give lots of massively attended seminars on a regular basis. (Or pastor a mega-church.)

They have a platform, is what it’s called. That the magic phrase in book publishing: “What’s the author’s platform?” That’s what publishers care most about; to guarantee sales, they need “authors” who show up with their own audience. There’s simply nothing more important to book publishers, who are loath to spend a dime on marketing that’s not guaranteed to pay off.

Anyway, I don’t mean to go on about the book business. It’s just so, well, true, that what is still, at its root, grounded in the magic of art, is all about business. I think sometimes people–especially maybe people who dream of one day being a writer–don’t quite understand that. They are often surprised to learn, for instance, that editors don’t decide what books a publisher will or won’t publish: sales people do. The head of the editorial department of a huge book publisher can be crazy about a book, but if the marketing and sales department don’t believe it will sell large, it’s dead. You know my book Penguins? The president of one of the largest publishing houses was mad about it; he wrote me to tell me how much he loved it. He said he personally was going to do everything in his power to make sure his house published it. But the head of marketing at his house said she had no idea how to sell it. That was that. No go.

Anyway, I fear this is sounding too negative. I don’t mean it that way; this is just the nature of the business. And it still is about the magic of writing–about truly creative thought, about bold new ways of expressing and communicating. It’s still about connecting through words. The suits (not that phrase feels old school) can do what they do–they can plug all the numbers into the book publishing program they all use now to calculate exactly how much money they can expect to make from any book they decide to publish. And still they’ll never be able to quantify the only factor that actually makes the difference between a truly good book, and the crap we all know is ninety-five percent of the books out there: quality of thought, and artfulness of expression. Now matter how hard they try, they’ll never fit those onto a spreadsheet.



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  • Diana

    1) It's all the arts that have this problem, not just writing. Sad.

    2) "But the head of marketing at his house said she had no idea how to sell it." She should have been fired. Think about it.

    Cop to superior officer: "But sir, I have no idea how to arrest that criminal."

    Fire fighter to fire captain: "But sir, I have no idea how to fight that fire."

    I'm telling you, she should have been fired. It may not be exactly the same thing, but one is paid to do a job, not to make excuses about how it can't be done.

  • Thanks, Diana, for your sentiment. But actually, the marketing person had a real point. "Penguins" IS impossible to market. We heard the same thing from all the publishers: "We love this; we have no idea how to market it." Is it humor? Religion? "Penguins" is actually the only book I've ever heard of about which you can't really even say if it's fiction or non-fiction. That, right there, puts it in a whole other universe.

    You know those little words you see on the bottom of spines of books, and/or on their back page, in with their bar code? Those are Official Categories of Books; they correspond to the shelves/sections of bookstores. If any given book isn't immediately identifiable as belonging to one of those categories, it's toast.

  • Ace

    I've seen people be *moderately* successful with the self-publish/print-on-demand route. An interesting gothic Orthodox Christian blogger by the name of "Logospilgrim" to name one off the top of my head, but I don't think she's exactly raking it in either. I guess it just depends on whether you are trying to do this as a means of *making a living* or if it's more about expressing an idea important to you, to whatever audience you can gather.

    At any rate, you've got a platform: your blog. I'm sure plenty of readers here would be happy to read your books as well. 🙂

  • deannadares

    I've worked in publishing, and I can tell you two things a) they're not going to market your book as hard as you think they are, because there are always 10 other authors to work on that month, so you really need to do it yourself, which leads b) you absolutely have the skills to market your own work (as you do on your blog all the time) so you should probably try, as you'll get to keep the majority of your money!

  • I DO do this for a living. It's about doing that AND expressing ideas important to me. It's about doing both at the same time.

  • Ace

    Well… I guess that makes things a trifle more complicated. Best of luck to you, at any rate. 🙂

  • Thanks, Deanna, very much. I think I must not have been clear, though. I totally understand … book marketing; I've published, with big houses, six books, and worked on a couple of other huge sellers. And it's not about having the "skills" (which I put in quotes because, you know, how hard is it?) to market my own book; it's about having the time. I'll have time to market the new book once it's in the hands of the publisher; then that's all I'll do for a long while.

    It's this whole kind of … cycle thing, you know. Publishers want authors who have an audience; you can't get an audience without exhaustive marketing; you can't do marketing if you're trying to write. So really the only way to have an audience big enough to attract a publisher is to be too busy to write a decent book.

    Anyway, exploring all this sort of thing is what I'm looking forward to doing here over the upcoming weeks.

  • Robert Meek

    Which should make it a challenge. I agree with Diana, that's their ineptness. Their deficiency.

  • Robert Meek

    "They have a platform, is what it’s called. That the magic phrase in book publishing: 'What’s the author’s platform?' That’s what publishers care most about; to guarantee sales, they need 'authors' who show up with their own audience. There’s simply nothing more important to book publishers, who are loath to spend a dime on marketing that’s not guaranteed to pay off."

    This so smacks of excuses and ineptitude. My last/ex-employer (as I am disabled) was (is) a (struggling) hospital. They made such monumental decisions as "Everyone will now be called 'colleague' from now on." So, instead of saying to a patient, "I don't know. Let me go ask the charge nurse," the CNA or LPN was supposed to say "I don't know. Let me go ask my colleague." Every memo that went out, from thence on started "Dear Colleagues: …." Mind you, this was, is, a 124-bed RURAL hospital in the SOUTH in one of the THREE MOST POOR counties in the state of South Carolina, with one of the THREE MOST ELEVATED numbers in unemployment, uninsured, uneducated/semi-illiterate. I told them, "You know, so we have a new building, and that's nice." (it was new, then) "But we're still a rural country hospital in the south, and there's nothing wrong with being that. You go talking like that to these people, and half of them are going to think you're cussing them out!"

    Of course, they didn't listen to me.

    Then came the "Heart Program," (don't ask – has nothing to do with cardiovascular.

    And on this went, year after year, decade onward.

    Now, they're running at less than 50% capacity, and struggling big time to stay afloat, cutting staff hours, etc.

    Point of all this?

    This "platform" thing with authors having their "own audiences so book publishers do not have to spend a dime, do their job, and take the risk that is inherent to their business, comes across as the same idiotic things, to me, that my ex-employer was, is, doing.

    God, now THERE is a book to write but they'd probably recognize themselves, and sue me. SIGH.

  • Gina Powers

    Good lawd, I am officially depressed. And slightly dumsquizzled (hey, I got up an hour ago, so dumbsquizzled-ness is to be expected). At any rate, I wish you the best of luck, John! And reality truly DOES bite (skulking off to go pout in the corner, now).

  • John, Have you read "The Gift" by Lewis Hyde?

  • No.

  • Diana

    "'We love this; we have no idea how to market it.' Is it humor? Religion?"

    See, this is what I'm talking about–the whole notion that everybody has to fit neatly into a category is killing the arts in all forms. What's implied is that a person can't be religious and have a sense of humor at the same time–which is ridiculous.

    I haven't had the pleasure of reading "Penguins…" as of yet. But I found "I'm Okay, You're Not…" in the religious section of my local Borders. As far as I'm concerned that was the perfect placement for that particular book. If it were me, I'd market you as a Christian Humorist, in the tradition of Will Rogers (not necessarily the style, but the same general principle.) One could even use "Who says Christians can't be funny?" as a slogan.

    Maybe you should get in touch with Andrew Greeley's publishers. The unofficial slogan of his books is "Who says priests can't write about sex?"

  • John, this is probably really rude of me to ask, but how do you make a living writing? I know it's what you spend your time doing– thank God—but who pays you? You blog for Huffington, right? I know, it's not polite to ask people about their money. So if I'm being too obnoxious, just ignore me.

  • No, no: it's not rude of you at all. You know there's not a lot I hide–and especially not about anything as pedestrian as how I make a living. Plus, it HELPS me when people ask questions; it gives me stuff to write about, insofar I figure if one person asks, others must wonder. Maybe I should actually do a blog post about that. But the short answer is that …yes, I make a living writing. I have for … gosh, 13 years now. The last five of those have been in books.

  • sorry, didn't link to the thread above. RE: The Gift

  • amelia

    Gotham Writers' Workshop has been very helpful, insightful and practical. Art is intimacy between its creator and whomever it touches, therefore I am not into "mass marketing strategies" that seem to cheapen the experience, no matter how profitable to the bottom line.

  • "We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write, and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business" ~ Elizabeth Gilbert from her latest book Committed (p. xv).

  • amelia

    Because I love to write for its own sake. I enjoy telling a story just to tell it and usually, when I start, if it's that good; my tiny, wrapt audience, will bring their friends to the gathering and the experience grows. "Mass marketing" was probably not the best term to use. It just seems like commercialism can not nurture art for its own sake, thus the words/work aren't as powerful, meaningful. If you think of all the great storytellers, fiction/non-fiction writers that have stuck with you, stretched your heart-strings, moved you to distraction (possibly) and question their motives, I believe you'll find artists who insisted on their own personal integrity without so much as a whiff of concern for profit. And then their agents stepped in… 🙂

  • "artists who insisted on their own personal integrity without so much as a whiff of concern for profit.."

    This might be okay in a world where you don't need to make a living from your writing – which is kind of what you imply about your own writing, Amelia. But when you spend several months putting a book together, months in which you aren't paid, you have to expect that you're going to make some money out of it, otherwise the thing is fruitless. Writers who hold down a day job and write in the evening after the kids have gone to bed have an enormous difficulty in disciplining themselves enough to actually achieve anything.

    The romanticism of being an artist who doesn't need to make a living out of their art is a bit of a non-starter with me, I'm afraid. In the end they learn to market themselves or go and do something else altogether.

    On the other hand, publishers have changed their view of what writing is about too (for them it seems it's only about making LOTS of money with little effort) and this doesn't help. On the other hand (if I've got any hands left) 275,000 new titles were published in the US in 2008. That's still a reasonable number of books.

  • Elizabeth

    @Diana: It's true that all arts encounter the business/marketing problem to a degree. I think writers, however, might suffer the worst of it, only because of the archaic nature of book distribution. For most arts, there is a central location to which patrons flock, instead of the other way around. For visual artists, it's galleries, museums, or bare walls in the dead of night. For performing artists, it's stages, festivals, and street corners, in a pinch.

    All of them can take advantage of TV and the internet a lot more easily than a writer, too. Only writing depends in large part on shipping tons of dead trees to individuals.

  • amelia

    I agree with you. And I'm reminded to never mess with a man's work. In fact, I knew eventually someone would call me out on my girlish, naive, romanticized notions on literature as an art form. Thanks for yanking my barefeet back to the harsh realities of the business end of it all. I need that every once in a while…

  • Elizabeth

    @Beth Luwandi: LOL. I wanted to know the answer to that question when I first started following John's blog. Having spent my childhood in a small town in the midwest, though, I would have sooner given a cop the bird than ASK. Of course, since I live in New York now, perfect strangers have no problem asking what I pay in rent. But those early lessons die hard.

  • Oops. That last comment went to my old contact info. I've corrected it here. Thx!

  • Diana

    Good points, Elizabeth!

  • Elizabeth

    @Gina: Maybe this is naïve, but I just don't believe in letting this get us depressed. John is a genius writer, a shameless self-promoter (meant with all due respect), and an experienced player of the blogging and publishing games. He's got the mack-daddy agent. He's got the hunger and the skill to write this book and blow us all out of the water.

    But we have a job, too. We support him. We stay energized. We stay, as he put it in his June 24 Facebook status update, looking "smart and engaged! And sort of rich!" Those of us with a talent for prayer, pray. Those of us with social media connections, work them. Brian Shields, tell your Hit Squad to be on stand-by. Personally, I am not afraid to use entrapment and/or blackmail; if it's good enough for Esther, it's good enough for me.

    One reason a blog makes John more attractive is because it implies a large audience for his books when they're published. That's what we usually think of when we think of a fan base: the business/marketing aspect. But maybe this can also be used in a more old-school fashion. A fan base means you've got people, an army to pressure the distant powers that be to do your will. Democracy in action. Power to the people!

    Granted, what John's got is not so much an army as a big herd of cats. But smart cats, passionate cats. If an opportunity comes up to be pro-active on John's behalf — which is also our own behalf, because we want to read this book, right? — I say we jump on it. Just my two cents.

  • Elizabeth– just because New Yorkers are rude doesn't mean you should be… hee hee. I figured I might be abel to possibly get away with asking since I know John's in CALIFORNIA. Which we all know is the land of "anything goes." Least that's what my Minnesota Nice mama tells me.

  • This is really about mass marketing and response to the Gilbert quote. It's not nesting.

    First @ this: "the only reason to create art is to have it reach as many people as possible."

    Love that you said this. WIthout an audience, writing is just masturbation and we all know what that leads to…. like stunted growth and hair in strange places.

    For example, if Emily Dickinson had not wanted an audience, she would have destroyed her work or arranged for its demise during her sickness. Like her, some of us don't know if we can take the critics, I think. But we want an audience. THat is, unless we're content with useless self-love. Like you've said before, John, we all just want to be loved.

    As for the Gilbert quote. She can afford to be esoteric and ethereal in her expressions since she's made a killing in the mass market.

  • amelia

    John, this just dawned on me and it may not even be legal, but, remember how, years ago, they would distribute pamphlets? You could hook up with the guys from ‘Starving Jesus’ after running off a few thousand copies @ Kinkos (not sure how much that would cost), and hand out a condensed version, or teaser exerpt, with ordering information included. Christian concerts/music festivals may be productive venues to visit as well. Talk about old school, but what a way to spread the message to the masses…perhaps.

  • It was recommended by an artist friend when I made public my own plan/desire to write a book. I believe at it’s core is the dichotomy of art vs. commodity and what capitalist culture has done to literature and other art forms.

    Margaret Atwood calls it “The Best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. A masterpiece.”

    A blurb from Bill Viola : “A source of inspiration and affirmation in my practice for over twenty years. It is the best book I have read on what it means to be an artist in today’s economic world.”

    “A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it.” ~ Zadie Smith

    Lewis Hyde is a creative writing professor at Kenyon College and a Fellow at Harvard University.

  • Amen, Diana.!!!!….that girl should have been fired, or else forced into writing her own book, then sent on her way to pedal it to publishers … nothing cures us quicker than a taste of our own medicine.

    By the way…that's a timely article, John!

  • Well… “mass marketing” just means reaching more people. And the only reason to create art is to have it reach as many people as possible. If you wrote a book, and Random House said it was going to do everything it could to get as many people as possible to read that book, would you object to the “mass marketing” they wanted to do for your book? I’m going to guess not; I’m going to guess you’d be thrilled. And you should be; it’d be exciting, and a real honor for you. And why would you have written that book in the first place, if you didn’t want anyone to read it?

  • I'm pretty sure Shakespeare was all about making a living…. yes, doing what he loved, and quickly, but he intended to eat and support his family (though long-distance) too. It just seems to me art is also, and ought to also be about communicating. Maybe I'd go as far as to say it is primarily about communicating.

    I don't mean compromising the voice or one's integrity, just knowing the work is going out there to an audience on purpose. After that, (because I'm such a student of Reader Response Theory) doubtless people will bring their own wonder and experience and that interaction is where the thing gets bigger than me just doing my thing because "I have to do it."

    I don't know, maybe I'm not expressing this well. I've just come to think that my life is really not all about me and neither is my art.

  • I think when writers/authors focus on the industry, we are always going to be frustrated and disappointed. But there has truly never been a better time to be a writer when we look at what we can do to produce ourselves today. Empowering writers is what I do. Focusing on publishing and how powerless we are over it is not where our power lies. I ask writers to consider the sources of their prosperity, power and creativity. I really think that’s where it’s at for us. And when we do these things we are in our power and good things happen as a result. Thanks for letting me weigh in. 🙂

  • DR

    This is going to be both naive and idealistic. Let's throw in a dash of ignorant to make it a perfect stupid comment salad.

    I know nothing about publishing but do believe that people love the power of the Story of which you have in spades. Good stories are surprising, no one knows how they'll end. The format is familiar, but the twists and turns are forgiven. Exciting even. Sedaris is a great example, he pens a loose collection of oddities, nothing really strung together but he seemed to carve such a unique niche.

    I think you're carving out something new in this category. Your story is a little different – well no, not different from a lot us but it's paired with your gifts, brought to life in a very powerful way. Niche carvers have a hard path ahead but hopefully you'll have an agent and a marketing team that's willing to bet on something a little more provocative. Jesus exists outside of the red letters, he doesn't require a gold cross stamp to be heard. People are wanting to know him within a dialogue that's not bounded. That's you. I'm excited for the doors that will open.

  • DR

    Now that the more airy part of our presentation is over with, I'll get practical and tell you things you already know – how fun for you! I think you need to get your stuff into iTunes and Audible.com, Kindle format, etc. the iBookstore as well. People who are reading blogs are reading books online. That was the first place I searched for your books and I couldn't find them with exception of your punctuation book (which I skimmed – obviously).

    The days of the paper books are history.

  • Diana

    Oh Elizabeth, this is worth so much more than two cents!

  • Well, it's not QUITE that simple, but of course there's much truth to "The days of the paper book are history." Believe me, there's nothing I'd like more than to do what you've said here. ("I'm OK" is actually a Kindle book.) And next time I have a month with nothing to do but work through the knots of actually getting that array of stuff done, I'll charge into that maze. But that stuff is THICK. Amazon is .. well, a jungle. All that formatting, mounting, and arranging sales stuff is full-time job.

  • DR

    It's not. The moment I pressed "submit", I realized I left all electronic devices behind on vacation because I just wanted to read a book. We're far from paper being history. And what a weird thing for a writer and a publisher, having to navigate the world of the paper and the digital at the same time. What a world!

  • Diana

    "Jesus exists outside of the red letters, he doesn’t require a gold cross stamp to be heard." I just used this quote on my Facebook page. I did give you credit.

  • Gina Powers

    LOL and with ya all the way, Elizabeth! Speaking as one of the cat herd….;).

  • Gina Powers

    The "John Shore four-part harmony, massacree movement"…kinda has a nice ring to it! 😉

  • Elizabeth

    @Gina and @Diana: That’s it. Even if it’s only us, I refuse to believe that three intelligent, strong, and motivated women cannot move this cause forward just a tiny bit. Maybe more. To misquote Arlo Guthrie, three of us is an organization. More is a movement.

  • John, I think it’s that way for all of us in our various callings in life…in fact ,isn’t that what they call ‘multi-tasking’?

  • I will help market John's book in a few weeks, after I've had a chance to read it. (silly me deciding to go back to school at this young age) I have finals coming up…yes I took summer classes..AAAGH!

    We all can play independent marketer. Many of us have blogs that are read by at least one or two people. If we write about the book, what we think about it and even add links so that a reader can buy their own copy, then maybe that will help. Plus us writers who hope to actually make money at this thing can learn a bit along the way.

  • We all want to be wanted. We want to contribute and believe we add value to our world. Whether that's our big W world or our small w world. As I said a few days ago when John posted a statement about greatness only being achieved when it is no longer important to us ……I think what we really want (as humans and as writers) is to matter and be relevant. Yet in our culture we think that relevance is synonymous with greatness (popularity, monetary success). It's like writers who only consider themselves a "real" writer if they're on the NYT best seller list. Sure, I want that. I'm sure John wants that. Just about every writer wants that. But those who write that never make it there are still writers, and whatever audience, no matter how big or small that is moved by their work and motivated because of it…..that is still worthwhile.

    We often forget that Mother Theresa talked about how some of the greatest change happens one person at a time….small drops that create large ripples……

    John has already created ripples, before he got the mega agent. He gets to make bigger ripples now, and we who enjoy his work are genuinely excited for him.

    I think it's natural to want the larger audience….it's also natural to beat ourselves up for only having a small audience. I think we still need to encourage those who are truly talented but who may never be recognized on a grand scale. Talent exists outside of recognition.

    If that makes me esoteric and ethereal than so be it.

  • Richard Lubbers

    The head of marketing should have gone to creative to get their input. Figuring out how to market Penguins is the kind of challenge creative minds need to stay sharp.

    Penguins is a great book; I’m so glad I found it, I mean you . . .you know what I mean.

    Keep writing, John. The world needs you.

  • Well… I guess that makes things a trifle more complicated. Best of luck to you, at any rate.