Book publishing in 2013: easy, worthless, or worth it?

Book publishing in 2013: easy, worthless, or worth it?

Book publishing in 2013:
easy, worthless, or worth it?

Recently I responded to a question on LinkedIn about the state of book publishing right now and my own predictions for the future – I thought you might find my response helpful…

Everywhere you look there are book coaches and publishing mentors and writing experts screaming at people to write a book, because it’s so easy to do that these days and to be seen as a “published author” gives you kudos and credibility etc. etc.

Of course the very fact that it’s so easy to self-publish these days means that your having published a book, far from giving you brownie points in your customers’ and prospects’ eyes, currently means three-fifths of diddly squat.

And because the conventional trade publishers are now crapping themselves over new technology and clustering their corporate selves together like iron filings to a magnet, you need to be Pippa Middleton or someone having sold millions of badly-written erotic eNovels before they’ll take you on.

So where next?

I think we may be looking at two clichés here:

1) The 80-20 rule applies

2) What goes up must come down

1) This 80-20 prediction refers to the content of published books now and in the near future rather than the means of delivery to the reader, on which I comment below

As with many other things, the Great Reading Public will decide. Authors who choose to throw their (self- or trade-) published books to the ravening wolves will soon find out if readers are interested in them. Chances are 20 percent of new books (if that) will attract attention, and 80 percent (or more) will sink out of sight.

In the 20 percent bracket we assume that the authors know how to market their books, whether they have self-published or been trade-published. Conventional trade publishers tell all authors that they will market their books; unless the author is a household name, they don’t. If you’re an also-ran author you’re lucky if you get a mention on the publisher’s website, a spot on their backlist a bit later, and a wrongly-spelled ePressRelease sent to a list of the wrong journalists.

In the 80 percent (or more) of the nonfiction books bracket we’re looking at titles that – essentially – were solutions looking for problems. That’s the most basic and most destructive reason why a nonfiction book doesn’t sell; it doesn’t make potential readers instantly snap it up in order to assuage their long-standing psychological, business, personal or other problems.

Good, inviting and compelling titles/sub-titles help, but of course everyone who writes a self-help, business or other similar book puts endless magic into their titles and blurbs.

Where I feel is the only way to rise above this obvious advertising trap is to show your book manuscript before publication to a number of people (not just your friends) and ask them to write a short, sincere appraisal. Then use that to endorse your book. It’s not much, but it does help. Nowadays, Peer Review really does matter and make a substantial difference.

2) What goes up must come down: once the initial adrenalin rush of current publishing calms down, I think we will be left with the same media we use now in one of three forms – a) eBooks, b) print books and c) audio books

Print books may eventually die out but it will take longer than the eReader manufacturers hope, especially for fiction; many people, even young people, like the feel of paper and the look of the printed word, especially when reading in bright sun on a beach or huddled into a chair or their bed. You can’t hurry long-established traditions out the door.

Audio books have been around for ages now – since the days of the compact cassette – and got sidelined briefly by all the flurry over eBooks. Now though they’re coming back because no matter what technology can throw up, audio is the only medium you can enjoy while you’re doing something else. Given people’s increasing desire to multi-task the audio book is going strong, and is likely to grow further, albeit in more tidy technological formats.

Overall, I believe that the media used to distinguish, develop, distribute and disseminate truly good books will settle down to a comfortable number of options which will appeal to users’ needs without swamping them with a load of superfluous options they hadn’t even heard of.

How do mainstream publishers and established literary agents feel about taking on a book that has been self-published either on or offline?

Book publishing in 2013: easy, worthless, or worth it?I can’t speak from personal experience here but I have heard quite a lot on this issue from reliable sources. Not only do mainstream publishers take on previously self-published books (I believe the glorious “50 Shades of Grey” is an example…) but I’m told they now actively scout self-published books, monitor their success and pro-actively go in and make offers to the authors. Actually it’s quite a sensible way to test market a book, and all the better for the publisher as the author has to pay for it, albeit that not requiring huge amounts of money. Previously the only test marketing that was done by mainstream publishers was to show concepts and cover designs to their sales forces.

That’s still done today, and is still laughably unreliable.

I wonder if the mainstream publishers will save their corporate butts this way? From their point of view it’s not a bad business model. And from the author’s point of view mainstream publishers can still offer a payback in terms of supplying heavyweight worldwide distribution, translation negotiations, PR, bankrolling print runs, etc., all of which can be done by an author, but is hard work and an uphill struggle if you haven’t got a name like HarperCollins, Penguin, etc.

What, if any, role is left in contemporary publishing for literary agents?

Their role in life has been to sell book concepts and manuscripts on behalf of authors and then negotiate the best possible publishing deal for the author, for which they would charge anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of author royalties. Seems to me that role is now getting squeezed fairly hard with more and more authors working directly with publishers. The only area in which agents still hold authors by the short hairs is in fiction, which nearly all serious publishers will not even look at unless it is presented by an agent. However that may be changing too, with agents only being brought in later to negotiate contracts, rather than upfront selling.

What are your experiences of book publishing in recent times – both as a reader, and/or as a writer?

Now: let’s get your  book written and published!

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published

photo credit: p!o via photopin cc




  1. This really useful Suze, and timely, as although I’ve written a few e-books, this is the year I’d like to have a “proper” book published, preferably by an establshed publishing house. Asking a sample of the target audience to give testimonials sounds a great idea!

  2. I think this is an extremely valuable post, Suze, and I appreciate your summary of the current state of publishing. Once upon a time, I had a mainstream book published (on rose gardening for beginners), and although it took a couple of years to get an agent and then a publisher, it was still possible (in the late 1990s) for an unknown to get a book deal. I’m glad I did it, although it certainly wasn’t a money-maker.

    But today it seems the publishers are unwilling to take a chance on anyone who does not already have a major “platform.”

    I will probably publish again, but until I become rich and famous (ha!), I’ll take the e-book route.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Mary. Congratulations on your rose gardening book! I hear what you say about publishers not wanting to take a chance on anyone who doesn’t have a platform – because their margins have been squeezed until their eyes water, conventional publishers have even less money (and still do not have the know-how) to conduct reasonable marketing for books. In fact the whole conventional publishing business model is crumbling because it’s still based on values and circumstances that just no longer apply.

      The great thing about eBooks, apart from the fact that they are very cheap to produce and distribute, is that they can be used to gauge the potential market for a print version and as we know, can act as a very effective shop window for major publishers “shopping” for new authors.

      You go with those eBooks!

  3. “Fifty Shades” wasn’t self-published. It was published by a small, independent publishing house, The Writer’s Coffee Shop. That’s who I’m published with and it was interesting to see how the company has grown and changed as a result of its success.

    • Thanks for updating us on that, Lissa. I’m sure the Writer’s Coffee Shop will continue to grow on the strength of 50 Shades – hopefully some of that success will be transmitted to your books, too!


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