Think Like a Publisher (Plus a Few Insider Tips on Industry Bad Habits)

For an industry that’s in the business of creativity, most publishing houses are actually extremely uncreative. (Caveat: I’m speaking mostly of bigger houses and mostly of nonfiction.)

If you want to get your nonfiction work published on a mainstream press, here’s a few insights into how to think like a publisher:

•Recognize that there is no such thing as a new idea. Editors have seen everything, and any attempt by you to say that you’re doing something that’s never before been attempted or done is only going to make you sound like an amateur. In that vein, do your competitive title research and do it well. The deeper the analysis and the more books you add to your list of comps, the more you’re helping your own cause.

•Understand that what you think is important about your book might not be what a publisher thinks is important about your book. Most editors get into publishing because they love to read, and/or maybe love to write. And most of us probably think we know a good book when we see one—that’s our job, after all. But good writing is not enough. I’ve turned down plenty of memoirs for being too literary, actually. And why is that? Because the longer we’re in the industry the more we’re trained to think like marketing people. I have fallen in love with books that are great reads, but in today’s publishing climate what’s far more important than your talent is proving to the marketing department that there’s an audience for your book. Spend time thinking about marketing. Do not assume that the most important thing about your book is the writing and/or the originality of the manuscript.

•Know that publishers are actually not very good at reaching readers. I know, this might seem like an insane thing to say, but it’s true. Publishers have relationships with media, and every good publicist’s job is to get the word out. Then it’s the media that attracts the readers to the book. Understand that it’s your job to create relationships—through your blog, Twitter, getting out and speaking, organizing events, workshops, etc. Whatever you have to do. The more you can think about your readers early on and identify who they are, the more you’re going to be able to make a case for publication, and then actually sell books once your book is published.

Industry Bad Habits

While it’s helpful to think like a publisher, I also think knowing some of publishing’s bad habits helps authors be in relationship with publishers. After all, any one of us in relationship with someone knows that you have to take the good with the bad. So on that note, here are a few things you should know so you’re not surprised if and when it comes up later:

•Publishers ghettoize books. Whether it’s for the Library of Congress or to help local bookstores know where to shelf books, publishers need to categorize—and some categories actually do a disservice to the book by limiting their visibility and appeal. Knowing your category is important because books do get lost because of category. I’ve seen it happen. Bad categories for books include: gay/lesbian; essays; Latino studies; African-American studies; women’s studies. Notice a trend? Yes, publishing (and I would argue that this isn’t necessarily intentional and has more to do with an unwillingness to think creatively) works against women and minorities.

•Publishers copy each other. Every once in a while I feel envious of my colleagues who work for New York houses, if only because I can feel out of the loop out here in Berkeley. That said, most often I feel grateful. Why? Because Manhattan is the ultimate creative bottleneck. If you can get on the inside publishing track in New York, you can have a great writing career simply by merit of who you know. But for the rest of you, all you have to do is follow publishers marketplace for a couple days before you start noticing trends. We’re all buying the same books over and over and over again.

•Publishers don’t make good business decisions. Publishers are notoriously risk-averse, and yet they throw huge money (sometimes) at books for incomprehensible (at times) reasons. Sometimes books go to auction because of the hype (refer back to the insularity of Manhattan publishing and how agents and editors talk to each other about the next sure bet). Unless the author is a celebrity, however, throwing $100,000+ advances honestly doesn’t make sense. A book has to sell through 100,000 copies to break even on a $100,000 advance, and I could come up with a pretty short list of books that have managed to do that. Huge advances are not as common as they used to be, but my personal opinion is that it screws the midlist author with a good book who has the potential to earn out a midlevel ($15,000-$30,000) advance. How? Because ALL the resources are going to the author who got paid $100,000. And if you are that big advance author and your book doesn’t work, watch out. I’ve heard of more than a few authors whose publishers stopped taking their calls.

•Publishers will base your potential sales on sales tracks of other books that may have nothing to do with your book. That’s right! This is why it’s important to think outside of the box when you’re compiling your comparative titles. Anyone who’s worked on a proposal with me knows how much I harp on the importance of comparative (synonymous with competitive) titles. What, those aren’t really synonyms? Exactly! But they’re one in the same where publishing is concerned, so start to think about books that are like yours for ANY reason: voice, scope, category, theme—it’s all fair game.

On a Happier Note

I know some of you have come to rely on my optimism, so here are a few parting thoughts:

1. There are legitimate and good reasons to look within yourself for a greater reason to finish your book than just getting published on a mainstream press. Shopping your book, especially before it’s finished, can be a creative buzzkill. If you’re in the flow and you believe in your work, keep writing!

2. There are lots of signs pointing toward a Brave New World of book publishing. No, we’re not there yet, but many authors are choosing not to get discouraged and just publish their work themselves. If you’ve been reading my newsletters for any amount of time, you know I’m a fan of self-publishing—as long as you have an online presence and a way to reach your readers. This July 19 keynote by Seth Godin speaks to mistakes publishers make (some of which I’ve covered here) and why he thinks authors with audience and platform shouldn’t even bother with traditional publishers. Take the time to listen. It’s a great conversation-starter.

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