Tutorial: nonfiction book publishing 2014 – the skinny


What has changed in nonfiction book publishing since this article was published early in 2013?

Here we take a look at what, if any, changes there have been in the last 18 months since I published an article called “Book publishing in 2013: easy, worthless, or worth it?” This originated from a my response to a question on LinkedIn about the state of book publishing at the time, and my own predictions for the future. Let’s now see what has changed and if any of my predictions have come true…

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 cr*pping 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.

UPDATE: All essentially still true, although the number not just of self-published books – but of successful  self-published books – steadily increases. As such nonfiction authors’ already dwindling dependence on traditional trade publishers is dwindling even faster, much to the latters’ concern.

Increasingly the big trade publishers are looking to entice authors with newly-learned marketing-speak and promises of digital perfection and other trendy whizzybangs. However at a book launch in the Spring of 2014 I heard one of the co-authors mention that although the print version of his book was there, all set and ready, his publishers (one of the largest in the world) “hadn’t managed to figure out how to upload the digital version to Kindle yet.” Zzzzzzz….

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.

UPDATE: Still true. But one thing that is very encouraging is that most nonfiction authors – especially those writing business books – already know they will need to market the potooties out of their books and start working on that often before they’ve even written anything. This marketing, or pre-marketing, is no longer the domain purely of publishing gurus but is now cascading down to any potential author who hasn’t had their professional head up their *ss in recent months.

Further, there are more and more sensibly priced book promoters running very useful microbusinesses that help the new nonfiction (or fiction for that matter) author to promote their book effectively. More often than not these promoters have learned their trade the hard way (they’re usually successful published authors themselves) and have very helpful, up-to-date experience to share with their clients.

Unlike the all-enveloping book coaches and developers like my good friend The Book Midwife a.k.a. Mindy Gibbins-Klein – who take you by the hand and lead you through the entire process from concept through to your Amazon #1 slot, and a brilliant service this is too, if you need it – these micro book promoters mainly just handle the marketing of your book. If that’s all you need, it’s well worth considering.

And there’s a lot of free information out there to help new authors, too. Just now I Googled “book promotion” and there were 487 million results. No shortage of data or offers of help, then.

HTWB TutorialIn 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.

UPDATE: No change here. Just remember that when you ask your friends and colleagues for an honest appraisal of your book, don’t ignore those who offer constructive criticism. Make sure you send out pre-review copies in plenty of time so that if some people come back with such criticism (and you agree with it), you have time before launch date to rework the parts concerned.

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.

UPDATE: True. Haven’t noticed any significant change here and actually have heard much bitching and moaning about eye fatigue when people try to read books off tablets and laptops, never mind phones. Kindle and other similar readers are still increasing in popularity but interestingly many people tell me they love to read nonfiction / business / self-help / how-to books on their Kindles, but prefer to read novels in print.

Could it be that it’s easier to deal with a damp print book than a wet Kindle when you’re reading a steamy novel in the bath?

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.

UPDATE: Still OK. According to the Wall Street Journal less than a year ago, audio books are enjoying a renaissance. The next thing we know audio books will be available (if they aren’t already) for Google Glass … you may as well enjoy a good read while you’re following directions to the nearest McDonalds and video recording your neighbors’ domestic fights.

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.

UPDATE: Sure hope so.

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.

UPDATE: Hmmmm. Now we’re waiting for the movie of 50 Shades and I can hear you all breathing heavily at the thought of it. Not. This type of sensationalist commercialism is understandable in our superficial entertainment world, no matter how much it may make us feel nauseous.

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.

UPDATE: Sadly it seems that this hasn’t changed much, although particularly in the nonfiction arena many agents are having to find a new day job. Much as I appreciate the good job some of them do – or rather did – in the past when traditional trade and literary publishers held the entire fiction world by the spherical objects, they lost the nonfiction world a good few years ago. And all I can say to that is “tough sh*t – you should have revised your business models 30 years ago.”

What are your experiences of book publishing in recent times – both as a reader, and/or as a writer? And particularly in the last 18 months since we talked about this before? Would love to know, so please join the discussion…





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