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.



Like This!


Don't click if you don't like me

Browse Our Archives