The Best of 2600, by Emmanuel Goldstein
Northwest Airlines Latest Scam

An Author Shares His Secrets

Books No amount of advice from publishers like me can come close to the value of real world information that's available from experienced authors.  Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, is no exception to the rule.  Most lessons learned probably never get documented.  Fortunately for us, Mark took the time to write this very throrough post about his experience as a book author.  Here are my thoughts on some of the points Mark makes:

He starts off noting that you should "drop any illusions about spending time with book lovers; this is business."  While it's true that we are trying to run a business here, I have to say that your typical publishing house still has a fair number of book lovers involved in the process, and not just on the editorial side!

Mark goes on to say that "it's best to come in with a clearly defined, market-tested book idea."  Amen, but I also realize how difficult this can be.  There are very few guaranteed best-sellers in this business, so the more information you (the author) can bring to the table to explain why the book will take off the greater your chances are of getting an editor/publisher excited about your project.  Btw, in this business "market testing" is often defined as "publishing the book and seeing if it sells."  Every project still involves some level of risk and we're always interested in hearing about research data that relates to the topic at hand.

Two of the best points about financial advice that Mark offers are "don't write the book for the money" and "don't expect your royalty check right away."  Far too many authors still enter this business with a get-rich-quick attitude.  Many soon realize the hourly rate they're earning by writing a book is a fraction of what they'd get as a consultant, speaker, etc.  Your mileage will vary, of course, but it's important to set expectations accordingly from the start.  The payment delays are more a function of publisher royalty accounting system schedules (e.g., quarterly statements/payments, semi-annually, etc.) than anything else.  And although Mark makes it sound like we publishers are getting rich by floating all these author payments, it's critical to realize that publishers don't get paid the moment the books show up on the retailer's loading dock -- there are payment delays all along the bookselling pipeline, similar to the ones you see in most other businesses.

I particularly like the fact that he mentions "you have to sell your own books" and that a publisher "probably won't sign you as an author, anyway, unless they know that you have a way of selling the book yourself."  That once again leads me back to author platform, one of the most important ingredients in successful bookselling today.

Mark oversimplifies things when he makes this statement about book buyers: "I'd guess that over 90% of the books on the shelves in all the bookstores in the US are chosen by a half-dozen people."  He makes it sound like B&N only has one buyer.  That's not true.  Each major chain has several buyers and they typically specialize in one or more topic areas.  Don't be misled into thinking that B&N only has one buyer for all areas of the store, for example.

Regarding this point, "read every word of the publisher's contract, and get your lawyer to do the same", it's common sense but often overlooked.  More importantly, if you do decide to get a lawyer involved, do everyone a huge favor and make sure your lawyer has experience with book publishing agreements.  I can't tell you how many times I've been involved with author lawyers who had never worked on a book deal before and were completely unaware of the standard industry practices, channels realities, etc.  I'm sure the time I spent on the phone educating these lawyer was billed back to the authors in the end.  Why should you have to pick up the tab for your attorney's education?!

Also on the contracts front, Mark notes that "anything you ask out of the ordinary, any change from their best-terms-for-publisher template, will be a major pain for them."  Not really.  Clauses are either negotiable or they're not.  The ones that are negotiable can be tweaked a number of different ways.  It's the non-negotiable items you want to identify as early as possible, particularly if you feel one or more are show-stoppers.

Mark closes his post by talking about the pros and cons of working with a traditional publisher vs. self-publishing.  This is a very important consideration every author needs to mull over.  Part of the decision has to do with risk vs. reward.  Some authors are simply better off self-publishing, period.  It's a personal decision based on many factors and it's far too complicated for a simple rule of thumb.  This decision will probably only become clear once an author has spent time trying to get their book placed with a traditional publisher; if all the signs seem to point you to self-publishing instead, don't fight it!


Paul Mikos

Good post, Joe. While Mark's comments are jaded and some of his facts are off, his points are valid. I try to encourage authors to research publishers before they submit proposals, let alone sign contracts. I've recently started a blog to stay in communication with our authors at Cumberland House and interact over the realities of publishing. This will give us a lot to chew on. Thanks for pointing us to it.

Living Waters Publishing Company

This was a great article, very informative! I like the fact that it is pointed out that writing and publishing a book is not a get-rich-quick road. It takes hard work, diligence, patience, and the willingness to hear hard things. Even when selling books, authors will only get about 1 yes for every 4-5 nos. That's being generous.

Anyway, enjoyed the read.

Mark Hurst

Hi Joe,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my column. Appreciate you referring other readers (and aspiring authors) to it.

I agree that the "buyer" section was worded poorly - I should have said that for *any given book*, or book *category*, there's a single buyer nationally that makes the decision for the chain - not that that buyer is responsible for every single book in the chain (that would be a busy job, wouldn't it). I've changed my column to make that more clear.

As for the "book lovers" comment... I stand by it. It's not that publishers don't love to read books - heck, lots of professions have their fair share of book lovers - rather, I said that publishers aren't IN IT for the love of books.

Authors need to know this going in - "isn't my book wonderful and transformative" gets you nowhere unless you can show it will SELL; and conversely, if the blank-book-with-coffee-stain will SELL, it really doesn't matter to most publishers that there's nothing substantial about it.

Hope this helps clarify, and again, thanks very much for posting your reactions to the column.

-Mark Hurst

Francis Hamit

I haven't looked at the underlying document, but your post accords with my own experience with "The Shenandoah Spy". I had a publisher's offer and turned it down because the contract was massively unfair. From my last book I knew that I would end up doing and paying for all of the promotion, and I am doing that now (check our website for updates.) Mostly we are doing book signings and low-level but effective media like bookmarks, postcards, and t-shirts. The big problem is getting it read and reviewed. The book sells itself. It gets five star reviews. We've gotten it into the entire distribution system with the help of our distributor, Pathway Book Service. None of this is rocket science, but no one said it would be easy. Lots of people self publish and hide it. I consider it a plus and don't hide the fact because we took great care with the elements that most authors leave to publishers. I mean the cover, the interior design of the pages, and the pricing. It works as a product as well as literature. I'm proud of it and will be selling into aggressively well into next year. Translation, mass market and film rights are available.

Anne Wayman

Thanks for your post and Mark's, Joe - together they make quite a balanced view imo.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)