the first questions of publishing pursuits

I get a lot of email and questions about the publishing scene. Here are a few hard facts and beautiful possibilities of realizing your dream in the printed book world.

In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” In terms of the book industry, I’ve agented books, I’ve designed books, I’ve helped a dozen authors self-publish their own books … and I’ve advised hundreds of others not to self publish. I’ve worked on publicity campaigns with major publishing houses, I’ve done grassroots and highbrow marketing. I’ve had my own book go to auction to earn a six figure book advance, get published and make it on to the Amazon bestseller list. I’m currently in the glorious, grueling process of writing my next book: The Fire Starter Sessions.

So, naturally, I’m jaded. Really jaded.

And yet! I remain ever devoted to the art of the book and the game of publishing. I’m a romantic. Just like Johnny.

Creating a book is an intimate experience. You give shape to your innermost feelings, you share them with critics and other lovers of ideas and story. And then you shop that baby until the cows come home. How you do it is a very personal decision.

To Self-Publish or to Sign with a Publishing House?

It depends how you define success. It depends what your motivation is … profit or creative gratification? It depends on how talented you are and how timely your material is. It depends if you’re really crazy, or just a little bit crazy.

The Pro’s and Cons and the In’s and Outs of Self Publishing and Publishing Houses:


Let’s start with the most important aspect of making a book. Forget content and design, forget marketing and PR…for a moment. Getting your product into the hands of booksellers and book buyers should be your A#1, paramount big daddy priority.

Self pub: If you choose to self publish, distribution will be your greatest hurdle. In the eyes of major book chain buyers, you’re a nobody. The head buyer at CostCo or Borders has established relationships with sales reps from publishing houses. They have buy-meets at book shows and scheduled times where they order dozens of titles at a time for the upcoming season. They won’t even take your call. You will have to hire an independent sales rep to pitch your title.

Or…you can go to local bookstores and pitch it yourself. It’s hell – a hell possibly worth walking through, but put your armor on, wear your lip-gloss and best smile, and be prepared to schlep books in your car trunk for weeks, months even.

Pub house: distribution is done for you. That simple. This is the single most important reason to try to get your self a book deal. Publishing houses have tentacles that reach far into book shows and bookstores across the world.


Self-pub: guess what? You’re now a book designer, content and copy editor, color expert, typography and paper specialist … and you thought you were just a guy with something important to say. Even if you hire out your book to a graphic designer (and you probably should, for anywhere from $500 to $20,000 in design fees depending on the type of book you’re producing,) the aesthetics of the book rely on your approval. Do you know what cover will appeal to consumers next season? Do you have access to the recycled paper printer you want who can print in bulk? For better or for worse, you will have total creative control. Could be a beautiful thing.

Pub house: I know more than a few authors who didn’t know what their book cover was going to look like until they saw it for the first time on Amazon — tragic but true. You may have zero say in how your baby is dressed. Could be a disaster. Could be a beautiful thing.


Self-Pub: The turn around time with a self-published book can be as fast as you can drive the process. Once it’s written and edited, you can have a book in your hands in as little as two months. Zoom.

Pub house: Prepare to go gray before you see your book in stores. Unless you’re writing about a time-sensitive topic of major cultural relevance (like, a meteor drops to Earth and you happen to be working on a book about How To Survive A Meteor Crash,) then you’re likely looking at eight months to two years from the time you sign your publishing contract to the day your book is in the Barnes & Noble window. It’s a long time.

Traditional publishing is a lot like the fashion industry. There are a lot of players involved and they each need lead time to do their job: the editing department, the foreign rights department, the designer, the offshore printer, the marketing team who is selling to stores a two seasons in advance, the publicity team pitching to magazines three to six months in advance, and the warehouse who needs time to ship to stores.


Self pub: If you do it right, you can be earning as much as $10 bucks a book, perhaps more. Yipee! Hopefully that’ll be enough to re-coup the capital you put in to fund the book … graphic design, perhaps an indexer, various registration costs, marketing, a hefty Fed-Ex bill… It could all add up to thousands of dollars — easy.

Pub house:
A book advance is an incredibly civilized concept. You get paid in advance to write your book. Wow. You typically get a third of the advance money when you sign your contract, a third when you deliver your final manuscript, and a third when the book is off the printing press.

Most authors never see a dime after their book advance … simply because they need to sell enough copies to “earn out” their advance. After you’ve sold the amount of your advance in books (essentially paying the publisher back for their investment) then you start to realize a royalty on books sold after that … which is usually in the low range of a whopping $2 per book.


Self-pub: Got contacts? You better have. Facebook friends may not get you on the bestseller list. You need editors’ emails and TV ops. It’s timing consuming and critical. Not your thing? You’re looking at a minimum of $5000 to hire a publicist to run a decent campaign for you.

Pub house: They’ve got contacts … oodles of them. Media editors and producers are used to being pitched by publishing house staffers. But don’t think for a minute that your publisher will take your book to the mount and flog it. It’s a rare exception that any book is nurtured beyond a very concentrated, one-time push to the media that lasts about three weeks if you’re lucky.

Whether you self publish or land a book deal … publicity and marketing will ultimately be fueled by your stamina.

It takes a village to raise a book. But it takes your creative genius to make it, guide it, and carry it to the world … whether that’s with a prime-time media interview or small book signings where only two people show up … and one of them is your mom.

Johnny Cash lasted so long in the music business not just because he was a pure talent, but because he was a remarkable combination of tough-as-nails and romantic. Either direction you take — self publishing or landing a book deal — you will need to be steely, you will need to embody passion, you will need to take your show on the road…everywhere, man.

May applause follow wherever you go.

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