Some Words for Would-be Book Writers
By Don Keith
(NOTE: After many requests, I have made a more complete, greatly expanded, and updated version of this article available for download as a Kindle e-book or for other e-readers. To learn more, click HERE. Please tell others you know who want practical, real-world advice on getting a book published to take a look.)
One of the inevitabilities of being a published author is that there will be a number of people who want to know how to do the same. Become a published author, that is. I don’t mind getting these questions at all. I appreciate those who answered my questions and gave me encouragement way back in the early ‘90s when I was so desperate to get published that I could easily have taken some of those wrong steps that others do. So, here are my thoughts and suggestions, but remember: they are worth exactly what you are paying for them. And they are based on my own experiences and observations. You may find it entirely different. Plus things change in the publishing business. That you can count on. They have probably changed since I started typing this missive!
First, let me emphasize that if you want to become a published author, you must have grit, determination, and a burning desire to do so. Not to make a fortune by writing a bestseller. The odds of that are so stacked that you are almost certainly destined to be disappointed. If you get your feelings hurt when someone turns you down or even refuses to read your wonderful prose, then you should probably forget getting published. Also, if you are the type that I encounter at writers’ conferences who have been polishing and tweaking that same novel since Reagan was president, then I probably don’t have much for you here.
This advice pertains to fiction and non-fiction but not so much to poetry, memoir (unless you are famous) or short-story collections. They are even harder to sell. Children’s books are tough, too, and the most competitive of all, but some of this may apply to that area.
Okay, you still interested? Then here we go.
In today’s world, very few publishing houses will accept material from anyone other than a legitimate literary agent. Yes, you hear stories of some editor accidentally running across a manuscript and calling up the author and making a six-figure offer. That’s why you hear about it. It is so rare that it is big news. (By the way, so are those six- and seven-figure deals…rare, that is.) Publishers receive an unbelievable number of manuscripts from people who want to get their books published.
I was in my editor’s office in New York one day and there was a stack of manuscripts almost five feet high in front of his desk.
“Those must be the slush pile,” I told him. The “slush pile” is their term for un-agented manuscripts, which should give you some idea of what publishers think of such things.
“Oh, no,” he replied. “Those are from agents that I work with. And so are those.” He pointed to another stack, even higher and several rows across, claiming most of that corner of the office. “Our slush pile is in a warehouse over in Jersey.”
So suggestion number one: if you are serious about getting published and you really, truly feel you have a marketable manuscript (or idea for non-fiction…more on that later), you will need a literary agent. Caveat: there are small, regional presses, university presses, and specialty houses that may be interested in seeing your work. Grab a copy of the Writers’ Digest guide of book publishers and look for those houses that do books like yours.
In some ways, legitimate agents are even more difficult to find than publishers. Most would-be writers have no idea how an agent works. First, you should be aware that he or she is most definitely looking for books to sell to publishers. That’s how they feed their families. But no agent is going to have working contacts with all possible editors and publishing houses. That means you may have the next “The Help,” “The Firm,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the agents will keep turning you down.
That’s because when the agent sees the cover letter or, in the rare cases in which they actually want to see sample chapters from the get-go, the first thing he is thinking is, “Who might be interested in this?” Even if you have tomorrow’s “Harry Potter” series, if the agent does not have editor contacts who might be interested, he will not be enthusiastic about representing the book.
See, that is how agents get to be successful. They don’t pitch everything they like to everybody in the book publishing business. Editors know that if Joe Agent comes around with a manuscript, then they should at least take a look because it has been pre-screened and Joe knows the editor’s typical needs. But if Joe Agent bugs that editor with everything that comes down the pike, Joe will soon be unable to get in touch with that editor anymore, no matter how hard he tries.
So let me make that clear: if an agent declines to represent your book, it does not mean he or she doesn’t like it, has a vendetta against you personally, or that the cover letter was weak. It also does not mean the book is bad or you are terrible writer. Both may be true, but it may not be the case either. The agent simply does not know—at that moment—anyone at a publishing house who might be interested. That makes it a numbers game and a test of your perseverance. Peruse the Writers’ Digest book that lists literary agents and look for ones who represent books similar to yours. Here’s a tip. Often authors will thank their agents by name in the acknowledgement or dedication of their books. That’s gold. But keep sending out queries. You will never run out of potential agents.
Nowadays most agents have web sites with clear details on what kinds of books and authors they represent as well as what you should submit to them. It's much easier now rather than having to do everything by mail, with lots of printing and postage and long passing of time. Oh, it can still take a while. Some reply immediately. I'd worry just a bit about those since they don't appear to be busy. Others may take weeks. No matter. Be sending to others. Don't worry about multiple submissions, and especially if they take weeks and weeks to reply to your query. You will never find an agent if you don't send stuff out.
Save everybody’s time. If you have a romance novel and the agent doesn’t specifically mention an interest in romance novels, don’t send him a query. Most want a cover letter/email and a synopsis of the book. If they are interested, they will request sample chapters or the full manuscript. That means you have to sell your idea in a few words. But it also means those few words should accurately represent the book and explain why it will be of interest to publishers. You should also sell yourself in a few sentences. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book? Are you serious about a writing career? What experience do you have writing or in the field about which you write?
In the case of non-fiction, you may only have an idea for a book but decide not to write it until you get a publishing deal. I would urge you to have several chapters done, though, to show that you can actually write. And your cover letter/email and synopsis need to be very strong to demonstrate why this book is unique and worth some publisher making the investment in time and money to print up a bunch of copies and try to sell them. Your background or qualifications are especially important for non-fiction. So are your contacts. The more solid your ability to help market a non-fiction work, the more likely it is to be accepted.
You will almost certainly get rejected if you say, “This book will definitely be a bestseller,” or, “Everybody tells me that my novel will make a blockbuster movie.”
Agents are pretty good—they have to be or they have to do a career change—at discerning whether or not you have a book they can sell to their limited universe of editors, and doing so from a cover letter and synopsis. If you are rejected, don’t get mad or go away sulking. Neither your book nor you as a writer have been called ugly. That editor simply does not know of anyone looking for a book like yours at that time and he has other authors and books that do fit his realm of publishers. It is no reflection on your book or your writing ability. At least, not necessarily so. It may be a great book. He just does not know of anyone looking for what you have right now.
BIG NO-NO: Do NOT approach authors and ask for them to put you in touch with their agents. All the agents I know ask their authors not to do that. If the author knows of a talented writer with a good manuscript, he might tell the agent about it on his own, but most of us prefer not to do so. You will need to make the contact yourself through the agent’s preferred means.
Okay, here comes a warning: there are many crooks, scoundrels, and scum of the earth out there masquerading as literary agents who prey on those of us who dream of having our books published. Be leery of anyone who quickly accepts your book for representation without even having time to have read the proposal, much less the full manuscript. Be especially leery if they won’t even give you an idea of how many editors they plan on submitting to. Be very, very leery if they tell you, “This will be a bestseller,” or, “This will make a great movie!” And run like the wind if the agent says, “This book is fantastic, and with just a little work from my friend the ‘book doctor,’ I think we can get a huge publishing contract.”
Agents who send out vast numbers of copies of your manuscript are no more likely to get a sale than you would be on your own. They go into the slush pile, too. Of course, they probably have a clause in their contracts that allows them to charge you for copying and postage, whether they can prove they actually copied and shipped anything to anybody. Yes, they actually make a living charging eager writers for copying and postage, not by selling books. Oh, they may occasionally get a sale, by accident, and they’ll tout those forever on their web pages. But any good agent will be happy to keep you updated on where they have your book and what the progress is. Don’t bug them about it, but do know what they are doing on your behalf.
The “book doctor” scam is as old as publishing, too. I would not be surprised if somebody approached Shakespeare and said, “You know, Will, I could do some work on these little plays of yours for a few pounds and people might want to put them on.” Yes, there are legitimate people who can help writers polish their works. I doubt many of them are recommended by agents, though. A legitimate publisher's recommendation of such a person would carry far more weight for me. Do plenty of detective work and make sure the book doctor is on the up-and-up. What published works has he worked on? Check his references before you commit money.
I highly recommend the “Predators and Editors” web site in order to ferret (pun intended) out unscrupulous literary agents. It is located at: http://pred-ed.com/peala.htm
That brings us to the subject of self-publishing. Here’s an aspect of the publishing biz that has really changed in the last few years. With digital publishing and the advent of e-books, it is cheaper than ever for us to realize our dreams of having a book “published.”
That being said, I believe the same parameters apply. If you simply want to see your book printed up and available for friends and family, you can find scores of web sites that will do that for you at a reasonable price. They can usually get the book listed for sale on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble’s web site, and may even be able to get some copies stocked in the warehouses of some of the major distributors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor.
But that is about all. Ignore any promises to help you “market” your book. Most people who self-publish end up with a garage full of books. Sorry. That is just the way it is. Having your book on the big web sites or sitting in boxes at Ingram does nothing to help you sell them if nobody knows they are there. And how would they?
However, if you are a public speaker, a celebrity, a known expert often called upon to present to groups, a self-improvement or business consultant or similar, then self-publishing makes infinite good sense. If you pay $3 or $4 per copy for your book from a vanity press and sell them at your event for $15, you will be far more likely to make money than you ever would through a traditional publishing house. Then, if you get famous, publishers will come calling and you can do one of those lucrative publishing deals.
There are a few other self-publishing options. You can publish your book on sites such as Amazon.com as an e-book, and do so at no charge. Then anybody with a Kindle can buy it and you make a nice portion of the sales price. But again, how is a potential reader going to know your book even exists? You will have to do your own advertising or have lots and lots of friends if you are to ever sell enough copies to make any money.
So those are your choices: approach publishers yourself and almost certainly end up in the slush pile, go through the agony of finding an agent who will legitimately represent your work and try to sell it to traditional publishing houses (and it still not a given, by the way, even if you have a great agent), or self-publish.
If you are fortunate enough to actually get an offer from a traditional publishing house, what can you really expect in the way of a contract? Well, most will offer an advance against royalties in exchange for the rights to your book. (Those rights could include not only publishing books in varied formats but also other stuff, like film, TV, overseas, large-print, electronic, audio and more.)
Advances are usually quite low—at least low in relation to some expectations—unless you are a known quantity. Some, and especially smaller houses, may not offer any advance at all. But here is how it works. Say they really like you and your book and offer to pay you a $1,000 advance. Cool! That means when you sign the contract and send it back in, you may get a $250 check. $212.50 if you have an agent and are paying him 15%.
Then, when the editor and his bosses are satisfied with the edited manuscript—swallow your pride and get ready for a little or a lot of editing, by the way—upon “acceptance,” you will get another check, probably for another $212.50. Then, months and months later when the book is finally published, you get the rest of the advance, maybe $424. So far from all those drops of blood and tears, for the years of writing, and for all those query letters and manuscripts you sent out and the resulting disappointment, you have finally made a whopping $850! But you are having a book published by a real, live publishing house, with a cover and pages and everything. You are a professional, published writer! Nobody can ever take that away from you.
And that $850 is yours to keep. Well, almost. You still have to pay taxes on it, so say goodbye to over $200 if you are in the 30% tax bracket. I won’t even get into the likelihood of you being able to deduct writer’s expenses and a home office. Until you start making serious money, the IRS considers this writing thing a “hobby” and you deduct nothing.
The rest of your fine contract with that nice publishing house says they will pay you royalties on all copies of your book sold, as well as a portion of any revenue from an audio version, book club sales, film rights and other sales of what they call “sub-rights.” Incidentally, you could have negotiated that you would keep all those rights and you could try to sell them yourself, but it is a fact that in most cases, the publisher is far more likely to be able to find a buyer than you are. That is, unless your brother-in-law runs a major Hollywood studio or something.
That royalty agreed to in the publishing contract was once almost always a percentage of the cover price of the book, but more and more today it is based on the publisher’s net revenue on each book it sells. That has been driven by the fact that few books are sold at stores at their cover price any more (thank you, big-box bookstores and Amazon.com), and also accounts for things like e-books, where the profit could actually be higher than on a nice, fat hardbound book. In my experience so far, it all works itself out and the royalties earned are about the same either way.
Okay, let’s say your contract requires the publisher to pay you a royalty of 10% of the publisher’s net revenue (profit) on the book. And to make it simple, let’s say the publisher makes $5 profit on each copy. That means you get fifty cents for every copy of your wonderful novel that is bought. Wow! If you get a million-seller, you will make a cool half million clams!
Calm down. Do you know how many books really sell a million copies? Most first-time novels will only have a couple of thousand copies printed for a first press run. Say Big Publishing is really excited about your book and prints up 4000 copies. That’s not even enough to get a copy in all Barnes & Nobles and Books-a-Million stores, so they may only sell it regionally. Amazon will have it, of course, but may or may not stock it in their warehouses. They may just drop ship it from a distributor if they happen to sell a copy.
Even with Big Publishing doing your book, don’t count on a lot of marketing support help. They will probably send a press release to newspapers—usually the ones you suggest—and may send review copies to papers and magazines in your region or in the areas where you--yes, you--set up signing events. They will also send out copies to reviewers you suggest, such as professional journals, your college alumni association, and the like. That’s about it. No, they probably won’t pay travel expenses for you to fly around the country doing signings. Nor will they book you on Jay Leno or any big-time TV interview shows. Sorry, it just will not happen.
Now, somehow a thousand people actually stumble upon your precious novel in a bookstore, spine out, lost amid all the other books in there, and though they never heard of it or you, the cover (which, by the way, you had very little input on) and the blurb on the back (which, by the way, you may or may not have had a chance to read) convinces them they might like it. They put the cost of your book on their Visa card and take it home with them.
Woo hoo! Not only are you now a published author, but you are about to become a “read” author. Your words will be read by a total stranger, who may even like the book enough to tell a friend or post an on-line review. Or will hate it and trash you on Amazon and other sites. It is what it is.
But back to the money. You sold a thousand copies! A thousand people paid good money to read something you wrote. And from that, you have earned $500 in royalties. But you don’t get a check. No, you get an accounting statement (usually twice a year and reflecting the previous six months of activity, though it can be four or five months after the accounting period before you get it, so the data is almost a year old by then) that says the $500 is applied against your advance. You will have to sell another thousand books before you earn back that advance.
The book does better than most first books, let’s say, and you actually sell 3000 copies. The first 2000 got you flush with the publisher. Now, they owe you $500 in an actual royalty check. Less the agent’s 15%. And you will have to pay taxes on the rest, of course. But wait. You get the statement but there is no check in the envelope. If you can decipher the arcane royalty statement most publishers continue to use, you see that they are withholding, as per the contract you so happily signed way back when, royalties against “returns.”
Yes, the book biz is a consignment deal. Those books at the B&N, at Ingram, at Amazon’s big warehouse in Nevada? They are most likely there on consignment. At any time, they can box them up and return them for credit. Few bookstores hang onto books that are not selling. They send them back and order newer ones that still have a chance. Their shelf space is limited and they don't really care about your dreams. So your publisher is not going to pay you for books that may come back in the form of “returns.” Instead, they will hang onto some of your royalties to cover such a sad thing. After a period of time, they will pay you for books that did not come back, but the numbers can be small.
I hope this has not discouraged you. If you have a book, and if you are compelled to write, you will not be dejected. You will do whatever you can to get your book out there and in front of readers. The publishing biz is full of stories of books that were passed over, rejected by everybody in the country, and went on to become mega-blockbusters. That’s what keeps many of us going.
That and the never-ending desire to tell a story, portray a set of characters, enlighten readers about a real-life event or person. The first time you get mail from a happy reader or walk into a bookstore and see somebody buying your book, you will feel that thrill and decide then that all the heartache and worry were worth it.
The money? It’s nice. Don’t count on it, though. Just make sure you do what it takes to get your story told…and read. The odds are long, the disappointment inevitable, but if you are meant to write, you have as good a chance as anyone else, if you do it the right way.
(As with all other content on this web site, this article is copyright 2014 by Don Keith. However, feel free to copy/paste, reproduce, and distribute this article so long as it is credited to Don Keith and the web site www.donkeith.com is referenced.)