Something Clickbaity About the Secret of Publishing Success

Publishing is a weird, weird game. You can’t swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting no less that 4,572,901 articles on How To Get Published, How To Get An Agent, How To Get a Book Deal and How To Attract Perverts By Swinging Dead Cats. The thing is, those articles are universally bullshit (except for the attracting perverts one. Those are pretty accurate). Because the only secret is there is no secret. There is skill, and there is luck, and there is timing, and all are involved in some measure that isn’t the same from one book to the next.

weirdBut, man, do people rail about how their way is the best way- and with good reason, if not good information. If you are an author, likely you want your book out there. And just as likely, you have a fair amount of skill and at least a working knowledge of language, but you probably aren’t an expert of publishing. So you start googling, which leads you down the rabbit hole mentioned in the previous paragraph.

It used to be fairly straightforward- You found and queried an agent, in turn to the big publishing houses, and then you got a book deal or you didn’t. The waters, to say the least, are muddied now. There are sill the big houses and their myriad imprints, there is self-publishing, and seemingly endless small presses in the middle.

And it’s that middle group that needs to be addressed. Before I go on, a small disclaimer- I am not stating anything dogmatically in this post. I self-published. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t go the traditional route, or even that I won’t at some point. Self-publishing is not for everyone- hell, a lot of days, it isn’t for me. Nor am I condemning anyone- anyone who doesn’t deserve it, anyway. But more on that in a second. My point is, none of this is meant as an attack on what you do. It is to bring attention to a problem- a big one- in publishing, which doesn’t get talked about very much.

That problem is ‘small presses’ which are either a) Vanity Presses or B) Completely useless. Thanks to Amazon and the like, publishing is easier than ever. Literally a few clicks, and your book is available to the world. This means anyone can do it, an that carries with it the painfully obvious fact that anyone can do it.

This also means that anyone can be a publishing company. Email me a word document, and I can ‘publish’ it for you. I’ll give you 50%. If the book sells for $3.99 on Amazon, I make a tidy 20% (Eighty cents, baby!) for doing very nearly nothing.

Because of that accessibility- either through design or ignorance- people start ‘publishing companies’, and boy do they make promises. Peruse a few small press websites, and you’ll find so many buzzwords, you’ll think you showed up at an SEO conference. But really read what they have to say, and you’ll find there are a lot of words that don’t actually say anything.

Not a great look for a book publisher.

Even worse, they do, you know, buy books. Which, on the surface, should be good. But when authors regularly receive little-to-no support in the areas of editing, design, distribution or reviews- you know, the things you give up a percentage to GET- what’s the point? If an author has to do everything themselves, why shouldn’t they just do it themselves?

What these individuals thought process is, I have no idea. But when this is a story I have heard from multiple people- people who are very good authors- that they signed a contract, signed over rights, and received nothing in return? Just… why?

Maybe it’s well-intentioned ignorance on the part of publishers. How hard can it be to sell ebooks? Frank can design covers, Susie can edit, and we’ll tweet about it and it will sell. This is also the mentality of 75% of self-publishers. So they make grand promises, and have no clue what is actually involved. And so the author loses rights, sales and time.

Maybe it’s malicious, in which case it’s worse and less understandable. I don’t know why one would spend several thousand dollars to purchase rights and do worse than nothing with them, but the internet is full of examples of hate which I don’t understand, so, whatever.

In any case, if you’re an author, with a book to sell, seeking a book deal, let me tell you a secret word to use:

minion no

Say it with me


It’s a very powerful word. Because, plain and simple, you have the product. Without books to sell, a publishing company is Starbucks without coffee. There’s a lot of fancy marketing and pretty colors, but the product is what they need. And they need it.

So you can tell them no. Even if you really, really want to say yes, because no one else offered you a contract. Because this is your dream. Well- and I hate to sound like a motivational poster- your dream deserves better than sitting on someone else’s shelf.

And if you are inclined to say yes, get everything- everything– in writing. Because all that crap they promised you over the phone or over email? Doesn’t matter if it’s not in the contract. Make them put it in, and if they won’t, walk away. It might not feel this way, but they need you more than you need them.


Means vs Ends

One of my favorite people who I have met in my time annoying others on Twitter is one Matt White. He’s one of the smarter dudes around and super nice, and puts up with my belligerence to boot. He has lately been talking about starting up an iOS app or three (Matt, correct me if I’m missing anything) and tweeted this (re: Chuck’s post from the other day):

He actually said quite a bit more in conversation, but I jumped in with the general thought that separating those can be very difficult. It’s hard to watch your creative-baby leave home under any circumstances, much less sell it, expose it to criticism, failure, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account the process. Starting the damn thing is a task in and of itself. It’s a lot to do:

  • Come up with the idea
  • Design it
  • Make (code, write, whatever) it
  • Sell it

There are literally entire companies dedicated to each of those steps and somehow you have to shoehorn that around a day job, husband/wife/kids/etc. Yeah- It’s a lot.

Years and years ago, I was volunteering at the Museum of Flight (where I spent the majority of my childhood) at their educators open house, and Mac Bledsoe, who to this day is one of the coolest people I have ever met. His son, for the football fans out there, is Drew, QB for the Patriots before another QB of no small renown took over. He said a lot that has stuck with me, but one thing really speaks to this. He said (more or less):

Take a small piece of notebook paper. On it, list, in order, your top ten goals, no matter what they are. Carry that paper with you everywhere. Read it first thing in the morning and last thing at night and throughout the day. Every time you make a decision, think how it affects those goals. And you will achieve them.

Drew carried around a piece of paper that had one goal on it- “I will be a Super Bowl winning quarterback”. Mac said “I’m not proud of this, but for a while my #1 goal was “I will own a Harley”.

This is a fantastic way to compartmentalize everything if you’re undertaking a project- separate it into smaller projects, and make lists of goals. Make all your goals line up. Let’s take Matt’s example, and say he wants to make an app that sells one million copies- There is goal #1, the overriding goal that every other goal has to tie back to. Write that down, put it up in the office, in your wallet, everywhere. Or maybe it works the other way- He wants to make an app that makes life easier. Or entertains. Or whatever. Figure out those goals, write them down and work towards them.

The great thing is, you can set your goals for down the road- say, marketing and selling it- and put them on the back burner until you’re at that point.

Speaking from experience, I have filled notebooks over the last year with goals for 3024AD. In fact, the first one I wrote down before I started writing the books. In a shade over three weeks, I will have achieved that goal. I have a new one already, gracing my whiteboard next to my computer (no, I’m not telling what it is). I have hit nearly every one so far and have every confidence in reaching this one (with several smaller ones in between).

My point is this: It’s a tricky thing, Frodo, going out your front door, but know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. (that’s how it went, right?)

Get Rich or Die Tryin’

So the other day an article appeared in which Patrick Wensink (author of ‘Broken Piano for President‘) states that it made him nothing, or almost nothing, depending on if he wrote the headline, too.

Apparently he and I have very different definitions of ‘nothing’. He does balance it with the obligatory “I’m glad to make anything off writing”, which… yeah, duh. Aren’t we all? But let’s speak to the point at hand:

It isn’t clear if the $12k is from February-July (which he apparently just got paid for) or the last year (February-February). If it’s the former, that’s $2,400 a month- not shabby at all. If it’s the latter, $1,000 per month- which isn’t too horrible either. Not enough to live off of, certainly, but a solid step in that direction- and certainly nothing to sneeze at as far as supplementary income. There are, however, some nuggets that authors need to understand buried in (what I feel is) a misleading article; namely:

One Book Does Not a Fortune Make: With rare exception, one book- even one that sells very well- will not set you for life. Books are a product, and their sales will stagnate at some point or another. The good news is that people will keep buying books. The better news is books will keep being written. This is also bad news if you’re a writer, because your book has to stand out and sell. So don’t count on one book- or even a couple- to set you for life.

Viral Success Does Not Equal Financial Success: It might sell a bunch of books really fast. Or maybe people like the story around the book rather than the book itself, such as the cease-and-desist around Wensink’s. What sells books is momentum, and viral attention can help that, but it does not guarantee it. Viral fame is fickle- for every 50 Shades that is spread around like the literary venereal disease it is, how many appear in a few places, are purchased by a few and just as quickly forgotten?

Allow me to speak to the heart of the matter: the money. After all, writing is a business no matter if you are self-published, published via a small press or a big, traditional company. Let’s assume the $12,000 is made over the course of a year, selling 4,000 copies in that 12-month period. As mentioned, not the worse result. What are the results of the three other books he has out? If each of those makes $12,000 in a year, that’s $48,000- suddenly, this looks pretty good for his apparently dual-income household. Why are two of those only available in paperback and not on the much more lucrative Kindle? For that matter, why is it only available on Amazon and not the other E-retailers? If you’ve made a solid profit off one medium (albeit the largest), how much more would you make if more people had access to it?

And maybe, just maybe, if one of the things you’ve written about is The Secret to Book Publicity, make sure what notoriety you have achieved hasn’t come from having legal action taken against you and certainly don’t complain about how little you’ve made from book sales.

Writing as a Business

Without beating a dead horse (or beating a horse I beat a lot anyway) (why are we beating horses?), it’s a pretty exciting time to be involved in publishing. It’s moving from a model that has worked OK  for quite a while, into a new, fast-paced digital realm where creators have more control than ever before. In fact, you- yes, you– can whip up your manuscript, have your graphic designer friend put together a cover, hit F7 and upload a file and bam, you’re a published author. Sit back at watch the money roll in.

Except, not. The notion of an overnight success is a lie, and you aren’t the exception to the rule and neither am I. I see author after author approach it like it’s just gonna work, like somehow their art is going to carry them and they’ll blow up or whatever. I honestly don’t know what they want, because it is dreadfully apparent that they have no concrete goals and no business model whatsoever.

What you and I, as authors, need to realize, is that writing is an art. Telling stories is an art. Selling books is a business. This is why ‘traditional publishing’ works. You write a book; they handle the business. So if you want to be an indie author and eschew traditional publishing, the truth is that you have to become a traditional publisher.

Allow me to illustrate: Let’s say you want to open a cupcake shop. There are some definite steps you have to take in order to be successful.

Yes, I do

Yes, I do

You have to spend money to make money: If you’re selling cupcakes from a cart, the mall, or a cute shop, it costs money. Likewise, you can’t expect to have zero outlay before your book is successful. Quality editing, artwork and formatting cost money. So does advertising. There are ways to save money on all these things, but don’t expect it to be free.

Someone else thought of it already: Everyone likes cupcakes. They’re one of the greatest things on earth. People like books, too, and there’s a pretty darn good chance someone out there has something similar. You have to compete with them- especially in the crowded indie field, since you’re playing from behind the traditional crowd as it is- so make damn sure you stand out.  If all you do is put your book up on KDP and tweet/facebook about it, it will quickly blend in with the background noise of all the people doing the same damn thing.

You might have to adjust your recipe: This could take a variety of forms. Maybe your marketing isn’t working, or one aspect of it is and others aren’t. Adjust accordingly. This, of course, opens up the whole ‘selling out’ debate, which I don’t care about in the least. Again: it’s a business. If your book doesn’t sell, what needs to change to make it more appealing? Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations so it would be more appealing. You might have to do the same.

Some people don’t like cupcakes: Those people are idiots. Some people might not like your book, and they might not be idiots. But it doesn’t mean your book is horrible. Follow the golden rule of the internet: Don’t read the comments. Don’t let a few bad reviews trouble you. If there are good points in them, learn from them. But some people just aren’t going to like your book. Screw ’em. Move on.

Have definite, attainable goals: And do your homework in setting them. Sales numbers, review copies distributed, reach of ads, the release of your next book, the list goes on. Write those goals down. Look at them every day. Check them off and set new ones. Evaluate why you didn’t reach goals and revise your plan accordingly.

Go forth and sell cupcakes. I mean write.