The Publishing Gamble: Realities and Roulette
May 20, 1998
Terri Boekhoff, head of Rudi Publishing, a successful nonfiction small press, told us that "there are no evil players in publishing." People who want to reach the reading public with high-quality material face real obstacles, but the opportunities are just as real.
She began by exploding her ten favorite publishing myths - among them, you have to have an agent; if you publish a book, you'll make a lot of money; technology has replaced editors; content means nothing (all that matters is the cover and the marketing); success equals a best-seller; the book and bookstores are dead.
Whether you need an agent depends on what you really want. If you have a book you want to publish, you can approach small and medium-sized publishers without an agent, or you can self-publish. If you are planning a long career, an agent is a good idea. A self-publisher needs to be entrepreneurial and has to love marketing and have the time and resources to do it. Regardless of how you get a book published, you are unlikely to make a lot of money. If you sell out a run of 5,000 books at $14.95 each, the author will clear about $1,900 and the publisher about $17,000, which is barely enough to cover the overhead.
Used well, technology can make publishing more efficient, but it is only a tool and cannot make the decisions about content that a good editor or designer can. Content is what matters: reviewers rarely see the cover, and readers are hungry for good content.
As for best-sellers, The Chicago Manual of Style has never been on the list, yet it is a successful book. Yes, it's difficult to get attention for your book, but you no longer have to reach your audience only through the trade. To be successful, you must plan to use direct marketing for a percentage of sales.
Delivery channels are narrowing; because of the big chains, there are fewer wholesale buyers, and there are now thousands of publishers vying for attention instead of a few hundred. Publisher loyalty is due for a comeback: readers too are looking for a way through the noise. Figure out who wants your book and find a way to reach them. Because of the sheer number of new titles competing for space, your book will have a limited time on the shelf, and that means doing marketing planning very early in the process.
You can ignore the trade market and sell to associations. You can concentrate on making money with translation rights, audio rights, foreign rights, etc. You can produce managed books - come up with an idea and find the writer and the other members of the team needed to carry it out.
Today, because of changes in communications, small publishers have the same access to the customer base as the big ones. Quality is more important now, not less, because in a risky business, increasing the quality of your product reduces risk. As an editor, you can train the publisher to see what you can add to the bottom line - editors as content consultants. As small publishers "grow up," they need to become more sophisticated about quality; editors can help by defining and articulating standards.
Some authors find an advantage in bringing a manuscript closer to par before trying to sell it. During the discussion period, Elianne Obadia of the Marin Editor's Group told us that she has made a specialty of this for many years. She relies mostly on word of mouth for referrals and often does a small sample edit to show what she can do. Terri suggested writing articles in magazines for writers as another way to publicize your services. Other people suggested contacting Web sites that seem to need help. Another member told us how she got started: to find a mentor, take a course and stay in contact with the instructor; this is someone who has seen your work and can vouch for you.