Traditional publishing

The harsh realities of traditional book publishing

From Rick:

Most of what the people believe about having your book published and the success of published authors is false.

(1) A published author makes a lot of money.

(2) A publisher will give you a substantial advance on your book.

(3) Your published book will be in bookstores.

(4) An agent will always work in the best interests of the author and will help with marketing after the book is published.

(5) Signing a publishing contract, guarantees that your book will be published.

(6) The publisher handles most or all of the marketing.

(7) Most published books do well.

Let’s begin with some numbers released back in 2004 by Nielsen Bookscan on approximately 2 million books then in print. The numbers came from tracked book sales via their ISBN numbers. At that time, only TEN books sold over a million copies. The average book sold 100 copies, and 80% of all books sold 500 copies or fewer. That was in 2004 before book publishing and self-published books exploded a few years later.

If you don’t believe that my seven statements above are false, read the article below:


Twenty to thirty years ago, there were many major publishers one could approach. Since then, mergers have taken place and only five major trade publishers remain, severely reducing your chances of finding a publisher. Worse, their advances to authors have dropped dramatically to where new authors get only a 4-figure advance, these publishers are dropping many of their established authors, and they are looking only for surefire bestsellers and are rejecting new authors more than ever.

So, why am I laying all this doom and gloom on you? Simple. I see so many new writers out there living under the false illusion that all they have to do is write a novel, find an agent, and they will become successful published authors with their books in bookstores and they won’t have to bother with promotion or marketing because the publisher will take care of it. Worse, many still believe that the way to get a book published is the same as it was 20 years ago: find an agent, get a publisher, land a contract, get a big advance…

Even twenty to thirty years ago, it was a long, often unsuccessful, route for most authors. And there were no guarantees if you were published. Many successful books from new authors happened by accident. Unfortunately, today there are SO MANY new books coming out daily. As of 2013, over 300,000 new books (all kinds, not just novels) were being published each year just from the Trade Publishers (not including self-published). That alone should tell you what the chances are of seeing your published book in bookstores that have only enough shelf space to accommodate a fraction of that (in addition to their stock of older books).

Why should you even bother being a writer if there’s no money in it and your chances of success nearly nonexistent?

Where would J. K. Rowling be if she had given up in the face of such overwhelming statistics? Even in the 1990s, when she was trying to find a publisher, the odds of doing so were not great. Yet she persisted because she believed in what she had written. So should you.

You should write because you want to, because you enjoy writing, and you hope that people will like what you write. There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. Many successful books succeeded because they found an audience, often by accident, not because some publisher pushed them on readers. Some of those books became successful after the author’s death.

While your book will almost certainly not be in bookstores, bear in mind that 70% of all book sales today take place online anyway. Your book will not be a significant part of the 30% that are sold in stores. And remember that bookstores do not sell e-books.

As for finding a publisher, my advice is don’t bother trying, not for your first book. The major publishers are only interested in high-profile, blockbuster novels, sure things in their eyes. They are dropping their authors right and left, keeping only those few who have been perennial big-time sellers, but even those authors are seeing reduced sales and smaller advances on new books. Some of those are beginning to self-publish and finding they make more money than ever before that way.

Plus, a publishing contract from a major publisher basically gives them total control of your book for the term of the copyright (the rest of your life, plus 70 years beyond that)—and it will not be negotiable. Reputable smaller publishers will often limit the term of the contract to a few years (5-7 is typical).

But no matter which type of publisher handles your book (except for Vanity Presses who won’t do a thing marketing-wise), you will still be responsible for the bulk of the promotion, and that being the case, why should you give the bulk of your profits to a publisher when you are doing most of the work?

Some of you will ignore the things I said above because you still think a publisher will make your book famous and you will say “I don’t have time to do marketing and promotion myself.” Some of my writer friends have already learned how false this is.

The best advice: Work hard on your first book, make sure it’s properly edited, then SELF-PUBLISH it! Here’s the reasoning. If the book does well, you will stand a better chance of attracting a publisher for your next book. If the book does poorly, it would likely not have done any better in the hands of a publisher, assuming it was good enough for a publisher to want in the first place. And just because a publisher does take your book, there are still no guarantees because publishers really do not have a clue about what will make for a bestseller. If they did, all of their books would do well and their authors would all be rich. We know that’s not the case.

If you decide to search for a publisher, I wish you the best and hope that your book will be the exception to the doom and gloom above.

After you have weighed my advice, one of four things will likely happen:

(1) You will find a small publisher and realize you could have self-published with the same results and have all the profits in your pocket instead of sharing with your publisher.

(2) You will land a major publisher and down the road, when your book does not fare as well as you had hoped, you will realize that you screwed yourself because your publisher will keep the rights to the book and you will have little hope of getting it back to try a different approach.

(3) You will self-publish, and whether the book makes money or not, you will be proud of your accomplishment and realize that you have complete control over your book and its fate, that you can change the price, change the cover if necessary, even revise it in the hope it will do better.

(4) You will give up writing (I hope not, because (3) is always a low-cost or no-cost option).

Many of the successful writers wrote not to become famous or rich but to share their thoughts and ideas with others. That’s all J. K. Rowling really wanted in the first place. Do likewise. Don’t make fame and wealth your goals, but if they do happen to come your way, consider yourself fortunate and be thankful for it.

I’ll leave you more link to good advice if you decide to seek an agent. Please read everything carefully and check out the further links to dishonest and bad agents. This up-to-date website is highly regarded (from the Science Fiction Writers of America) and contains accurate information. It doesn’t tell you not to try to land an agent, only what to watch out for during your search for one.