On the Business of Writing Books

by F.

It does seem like everyone is writing a book these days. It’s just not that hard anymore. There are so many how-to manuals and seminars and tools that the barriers are lower than ever before.

As with many other areas of the economy, books are becoming commodities as the cost of production goes down—especially the cost of production for the author. I would also speculate that the mean quality of drafts has gone up, just like there are a lot of pretty good electronica bands. I think electronica is the ultimate commodity music. Which is not to say it isn’t good. I love it. But it’s still a commodity.

Since dilettantes are better than ever before, it feels to me that there’s a glut of art and artists—film, fiction, music. This may mean that luck plays a bigger role than ever, though it’s always been a huge factor in anyone’s success. It also means, I think, that elements other than artistic quality will most likely determine “success” or “failure”—other elements such as having a platform from which to hock your artwork. Dr. Phil can write risible shit and sell it. My friend the psychiatrist can write insightful stuff and no one cares. Oh well. No one said the world was fair. Accordingly, the best use time for any writer may be to build a platform.

But that’s easier said than done. I read an article in Scr(i)pt about “Platforming Your Way to Success,” the thesis of which was that the “rise of alternative distribution outlets and the convergence of media markets is happening at breakneck speed, and that means greater opportunities for screenwriters to create and promote their work.” Keyword: Promote. Key-word-left-out: sell.

The author of this piece in Scr(i)pt, of course, is trying desperately to do just this. And, it seems, failing, even though, as he repeatedly points out, he went to Harvard Law School, which I suppose is meant to demonstrate—what? That he’s a creative genius? Given the quality of his writing as shown by his blog and his tastes in comedy—he appears to think Woody Allen is still funny—-I think his odds of success are pretty low. Andy Warhol said that we’d all be famous for 15 minutes. Now, with the ease with which anyone can get a “platform” (e.g., a blog), everyone will be famous to 15 people, as David Weinberger says. But that’s not enough to earn your daily sandwich.

Seth Godin, apropos of this trend, has some Tips for Writers that are both deflating for anyone who has fantasies of success and also reassuring, in that they have the ring of truth:

1. Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don’t expect much.

2. The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.

3. Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read. I found someone I like working with at the EFA. One of the things traditional publishers used to do is provide really insightful, even brilliant editors (people like Fred Hills and Megan Casey), but alas, that doesn’t happen very often. And hiring your own editor means you’ll value the process more.

4. Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.

5. Don’t try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: ” 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.” Then, consider the fact that among people even willing to buy a book, yours is just a tiny little needle in a very big haystack. Far better to obsess about a little subset of the market–that subset that you have permission to talk with, that subset where you have credibility, and most important, that subset where people just can’t live without your book.

6. Resist with all your might the temptation to hire a publicist to get you on Oprah. First, you won’t get on Oprah (if you do, drop me a note and I’ll mention you as the exception). Second, it’s expensive. You’re way better off spending the time and money to do #5 instead, going after the little micromarkets. There are some very talented publicists out there (thanks, Allison), but in general, see #1.

7. Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart’s couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using POD or a small run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.

8. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.

9. If you have a ‘real’ publisher (#7), it’s worth investing in a few things to help them do a better job for you. Like pre-editing the book before you submit it. Like putting the right to work on the cover with them in the contract. And most of all, getting the ability to buy hundreds of books at cost that you can use as samples and promotional pieces.

10. In case you skipped it, please check #2 again. That’s the most important one, by far.

11. Blurbs are overrated, imho.

12. Blog mentions, on the other hand, matter a lot.

13. If you’ve got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.

14. Consider the free PDF alternative. Some have gotten millions of downloads. No hassles, no time wasted, no trying to make a living on it. All the joy, in other words, without debating whether you should quit your day job (you shouldn’t!)

15. If you want to reach people who don’t normally buy books, show up in places where people who don’t usually buy books are. Media places, virtual places and real places too.

16. Most books that sell by the truckload sell by the caseload. In other words, sell to organizations that buy on behalf of their members/employees.

17. Publishing a book is not the same as printing a book. Publishing is about marketing and sales and distribution and risk. If you don’t want to be in that business, don’t! Printing a book is trivially easy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. You’ll find plenty of printers who can match the look and feel of the bestselling book of your choice for just a few dollars a copy. That’s not the hard part.

18. Bookstores, in general, are run by absolutely terrific people. Bookstores, in general, are really lousy businesses. They are often where books go to die. While some readers will discover your book in a store, it’s way more likely they will discover the book before they get to the store, and the store is just there hoping to have the right book for the right person at the time she wants it. If the match isn’t made, no sale.

19. Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.