On Friday I participated as a panelist on a panel entitled “Paths to Publishing” at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. From the questions that writers asked, and from the subsequent session I attended with Jack Shoemaker, editor-in-chief at Counterpoint Press (which published my book), I realized that most of the writers present knew very little about the publishing industry. Some of them clearly imagined that they will make a lot of money from publishing their book. I literally heard people gasp at certain points in my presentation because they were shocked to hear the statistics I provided. So for today’s blog, I’m going to share some of the information I offered to them, plus some. It’s an eye-opener.
Editors, agents, and publishers are overwhelmed by manuscripts. Shoemaker receives about 1,000 manuscripts a year at Counterpoint (that's about 83 a month). Whoa! Who can read all that? That’s a big reason why writers are so frequently rejected. I have a rejection letter from everyone who is anyone in the publishing business. But Alex Haley received over 200 rejection letters before his epic book Roots was published. And there’s a famous story about Jerzy Kosinski taking one of his bestselling novels, slapping a pseudonym and a different title on it, and shopping it around to see what would happen. It was roundly rejected by 13 agents and 14 publishers, including Random House, which had already published it. LOL!
My advice to the writers at the conference after I shared my brief thoughts on rejection letters was that if they couldn’t land an agent or a publisher, they should think about self-publishing. Depending upon choices a self-publisher makes about how to publish, self-publishing can be an honorable choice and a viable path to publication. It can be the mechanism through which a writer reaches their audience, and that’s what writing is all about. Self-publishing is an old and well-established tradition. Books that were originally self-published include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, The Wizard of Oz, and Joy of Cooking. That piece of junk, the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy, erotic romance books that have monopolized the bestseller lists for weeks, was originally a self-published e-book. I couldn’t get past page three in it, but obviously it has something that people like because they’re reading it like there’s no tomorrow. Jack said in his session at the conference that the fastest growing market in books right now is genre fiction, particularly romance (the leader).
The most challenging task in publishing is getting the word out to people about a book. These days even authors of books produced by mainstream publishers have to do a lot (if not all) of their own marketing and publicity. Blockbuster authors regularly “give back” a substantial portion of their royalties to their publishers to contribute to the marketing budget for their books. Some, like Stephen King, return more than 50% of royalties to the publisher for marketing. Getting the word out about a book is expensive and time-consuming, and people will only buy a book if they know about it.
Over one million books are published in the U.S. every year. Over two-thirds of the books published in the U.S. are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and/or print-on-demand books. Less than 2% of all books published sell more than 1,000 total copies in their lifetime (astonishing but true); less than 20% sell more than 100 total copies. (For the record, The Call to Shakabaz has sold almost 2000.) These days almost all books that are published are sold primarily to the author’s and the publisher’s extended communities combined. Not many books are able to break out and sell significantly to a larger audience. There is an old saying in the publishing biz: “If you want to be a millionaire publisher, start out with $2 million.” It’s astonishing how many books a publisher has to sell just to break even on production and marketing expenses.
This was my parting advice to my fellow writers at the conference: no matter which path to publishing you take, walk that path for love, not profit; and make it a point to enjoy the journey, wherever it takes you.