How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway

I have a new book out today. It’s called The New American Dream: A Blueprint for a New Path to Success. You will notice that the link goes to Hyperink. They are an independent publisher.

I sold this same book, two years ago, to a mainstream publisher.

I have been reporting on research about on how to be happy for almost a decade. It’s important to me that everyone learn what I learned, which is if you want to have a good life, you shouldn’t focus on happiness, but rather, on making your life interesting. That’s what makes us feel fulfilled. Searching for happiness is making us crazy. And creating an interesting life is actually intuitive to most of us, it’s just that we feel like somehow we are doing something wrong. This book explains why you are probably on the right track, and all that stuff you hear about the pursuit of happiness is from another time. A time of ignorance, when we knew a lot less about what makes us human.

So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher.  But you will not at the end of this post.

To be clear, I wrote my book, and they paid me my advance, in full. Three months before the publication date, the PR department called me up to “coordinate our efforts.” But really, their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They had no idea. Seriously. They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups.”

I assumed I was misunderstanding. I said, “You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Those newsgroups? USENET?”


“Who is part of newsgroups anymore?”

“We actually have really good lists because we have been working with them for so long.”

“People in newsgroups buy books? You are marketing my book through newsgroups?”

I’m not going to go through the whole conversation, okay? Because the person was taken off my book before the next phone call.

At the next phone call, I asked again about how they were going to publicize my book. I told them that I’m happy to do it on my blog, but I already know I can sell tons of books by writing about my book on my blog. So they need to tell me how they are going to sell tons of books.


“What? Where are you selling books on LinkedIn?”

“One of the things we do is build buzz on our fan page.”

I went ballistic. There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.

“You know what your problem is?” I said, “Marketing online requires that you have a brand name and a following, and the book industry doesn’t build it’s own brand. But I have my own brand. So I’m better at marketing books than you are. I have a voice online and you don’t.”

I scheduled a phone call with my editor’s boss’s boss to tell him that. I told him his business is online marketing and his team has no idea how to do it, and he should hire me.

He told me, “With all due respect [which, I find, is always a euphemism for I hate your guts] we have been profitable every year that I’ve run this division and I don’t think we have a problem.”

Then he told me he really needs me to work well together with the marketing and publicity team, so they flew me to their office to have a meeting. There were five people in the meeting.

Here’s what I learned at the marketing meeting, where I sat through an interminable set of PowerPoint slides on the book industry.

Print publishers have no idea who is buying their books.

More than 85% of books sales are online, mostly at Amazon. It used to be that a print publisher could look at the data about which stores are selling the book and which are not, and then they’d have a good handle on who is buying the book. Suburban people or city people. Northern people or Southern people. Business book stores or gay and lesbian bookstores. It was decent demographic data. But Amazon tells the publishers nothing. So the publishers have no idea who is buying their books. Amazon, meanwhile, is getting great at understanding who is buying which book. The person who has the relationship with the customer is the one who owns the business.

When I pointed this out to my publisher, they told me that for my book, they expected to sell more than 50% of the books in independent bookstores. And then they showed me slides on how they market to people offline. They did not realize that I ran an independent bookstore while I was growing up. It was the family business. I ran numbers for them to show them that if they sold 50% of the sales they estimated for my book, they would single-handedly change the metrics of independent booksellers. That’s how preposterous their estimates were.

Print publishers have no idea how to market online. 

The old ways that publishers promote books, like TV spots and back-of-book blurbs are over. They don’t sell books in an online world. Those offline marketing tactics have no accountability, whereas online marketing is a metrics game. If you tell people to buy something, you have very good data on what caused them to buy. You know the marketing message that drove them. You know the community you were talking to, you know how many sales happened. Print publishers have been too arrogant to learn how to run a grassroots, metrics-based publicity campaign online. They cannot tell which of their online efforts works and which doesn’t because they can’t track sales. They don’t know how many people they reach.

The profit margins in mainstream publishing are so low they are almost nonexistent.

It takes a print publisher about a year to publish a book, after it is written. It’s unclear what the  publishers are doing during this time. For example, in the age of the Internet, where most books are selling online, the cover needs to be very simple so that it works as a small image on Amazon. It’s hard to imagine going through months of design iterations for a cover that is going to be seen by most potential buyers as a photo on Amazon. Book aficionados might argue that there are essential things being done with books over the course of that year. What I will tell you is that newspaper people said the same thing. Right before they all got laid off. The most breathtaking example, I think, of how terrible margins are, is that if I sell my own book with a link to my publisher, I make a little less than $1 per book. If I sell Guy Kawasaki’s book  on Amazon, I get a little more than $1 per book in their affiliate program. So it’s more profitable to me to use my blog to sell someone else’s book than to sell the book I published with a mainstream publisher.

In the middle of the meeting, the high-up guy who had come in to make peace got so fed up he said, “If you don’t stop berating our publicity department we are not going to publish your book.”

I said, “Great. Because I think you are incompetent. And also, you have already paid me. It’s a great deal for me.”

That’s how the meeting ended.

Then I did six months of research to learn about the future of the publishing industry.

Here are the new rules for book publishing:

1. Self-published books are the new business card. It’s a way to remember someone and also know what’s interesting about them.

2. Nonfiction writers write books to get something else—speaking gigs, consulting gigs, a steady flow of job offers. Books are good for a lot of things, but direct sales from a book are rarely a way to support a life.

3. Book sales are about community. If you have a community of people who listen to you via blog posts, then you have a community of people who will be interested to know how you put a bigger idea together in a book.

4. Book sales are about search engine marketing. The only markets that exist on the Internet are search terms. If no one searches for xyz, no one will land on a page that sells xyz. You can only sell what people are looking for.

5. The only reason to have a print book is to be in Barnes & Noble. You can achieve just about every goal you might have for book publishing by publishing it electronically. An electronic book serves a lot of purposes: you can talk about bigger ideas than a blog post allows for. You give people an easy way to know you for your ideas. You can create a secondary revenue stream for yourself. A print book is mostly about vanity. It’s about being able to go into Barnes & Noble, when you are there for the magazines and the free Wi-Fi, and stroke your ego by holding your own book.

I also did a lot of research about self-publishing. I had lots of offers. Freelance editors, book designers, turnkey solutions, almost-turnkey solutions. What I realized is that I want to be a person known for ideas. I love love love my blog. And the result of loving my blog is that I develop ideas that are bigger than a blog. Those are good for books. And I need a book editor to help me put them into a book.

After six months of research, I decided to use Hyperink. Their focus is helping people take blog content and turn it into books. They have an incredible editorial team that helps bloggers move from single, blog-post ideas, to larger, big-picture ideas. My editor was Theresa Noll, and I have to give her a shoutout because every experience I’ve had in the book industry was awful. But I loved working with her. I was blown away with how competent Hyperink is. They knew exactly how to make a book cover that looks good as a thumbnail and in a blog post photo. They understood that the idea mattered way more to me than the proofreading. They are great at SEO and they know more about marketing books online than I do.

Finally. I figured out how to do book publishing in a way that works for me.



209 replies
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  1. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    The information is so great here. I love that the people you talked to were going to publicize your book via that Linkedin contraption. That was the line that made me spit out my coffee. And the ppts in corporate America that reinforce silly positions. So typical. I have to put this post in my “save because it is a really good reference” list that I am starting today. Thanks Penelope. Consider this post a PSA.

  2. Jim F. Kukral
    Jim F. Kukral says:

    You pretty much had the same experience I did with my first book published by a big publisher. Which is why I now have 8 more books self-published.

    Like you, I think that Hyperink is a good idea. If you really think about it, their model is exactly what the traditional publishers should have shifted to, but refused to do. You know, where the author actually gets the fair share of the revenue.

    My wife will be releasing her first book with Hyperink next month, and I will exploring it with another book for myself as well. So far, I think they have it right.

    Congrats on the book and I’d love to interview you for my Author Marketing Club member site.

  3. Lesley
    Lesley says:

    I’m published, through a small niche publisher, and I’m a former book editor. I was quite happy with my experience with my publisher–and two years after my book came out, they are still sending me fresh marketing ideas and materials and discovering new angles to tackle marketing on the web. It’s rare to work with a company that promotes the back list.

    As a book editor, I can tell you from my experience that most of our books took about a year from manuscript receipt to distribution: prelimary review, going back to the author for possible revisions, going to the art department (our books were very art heavy), back for review to make sure the art and text line up, back to the art department to make the revisions, possibly out to a technical editor/fact checker for review, back to me for review, out to the art department for any necessary changes, out to the copy editor for review, out to the author for final review, back to me to make changes, out to the proofreader for final edits, on to the Art department for prepress, on to the production department for pre press, on to the printer, then checking page proofs, print run, waiting for delivering, and shipping out.
    Then add on to this that we coordinate with marketing and accounting as a sideline to this process…and multiply it by 15 to account for the minimum number of other books I’m ushering through the process, add about 10 to account for the authors that I’m guiding through the manuscript creation process, and then you get the year it takes!

    But I can tell you that I worked for a company that really cared about quality, and cared about making sure our authors and customers were satisfied with the finished product. (Also, it’s only really been with the advent of tablets over the last few years that we could venture in to e-books. With illustration-heavy books the quality just wouldn’t be there with earlier technologies.) So big publishers might be a complete different experience.

    Sigh. I miss publishing. Maybe I should become a freelance book editor.

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    I was just thinking the day before this post went up about the whole American Dream thing.

    I am having a kid and right now all my personal goals and ambitions have taken a back seat. Right now my ambition is that I’ll make enough money to help support our family while I am at home with my baby. It’s scary. I can’t believe that’s me. But it is.

    Also, I went through a really tough depression episode in the end of last year/beginning of this year. It changed my perspective on things. I was working myself to the ground and not getting the results I wanted so I figured I had to work harder. But everything I did went against what made me happy. And it was making me a drone so forget about having an interesting life!

    I think I now remember that all I wanted from the beginning, from when I was a kid, is to be with friends and family. Everything I do career wise is to help finance that. Instead, I lost focus and began sacrificing friends and family at the altar of my career/work. And it drove me to a dark pit.

    Sometimes I feel I am doing something wrong because, you know, I am not chasing riches or the so called American Dream that my parents brought us to this country for. But the truth is, my biggest dream, Mexican or American, is to have a fulfilling life. And I don’t find it in a big glamorous and super demanding job/career. At least not right now.

    So maybe later.

  5. James Smith
    James Smith says:

    This is an excellent blog post that I can relate to. I received interest from a UK-based publisher for my non-fiction memoir ‘In At The Geek End’ a year ago and ever since it has been an uphill struggle to get any information in terms of the publisher’s marketing strategy, schedule, and so on. It’s quite ironic since my book touches on the appalling communication skills prevalent in the computer industry – something the publishing industry seems to have problems with as well. Anyway, I have self published on Amazon and Smashwords and am enjoying the experience.

  6. Danny
    Danny says:

    Purchase! The first paragraphs are epic! I’m stoked. Can’t wait to plough through it, already beginning to re examine my life…damn! Keep being interesting.

  7. Connie Brentford
    Connie Brentford says:

    It’s so nice to read a post that confirms everything I’ve learned about publishing over the last two years. Thank you!

    I’ve already checked out Hyperink and I love the look of what they do. I’ll be recommending them to my writers.

    Good luck with book sales!

  8. Seeley James
    Seeley James says:

    I posted a blog minutes before reading yours that lined out what the Big 6 had to do to stay afloat. They need to find a new path-to-market. I outlined how they could accomplish this and how it would hurt the bottom line short term.

    From your experience, it sounds like they are too far gone to understand they even need to change… oh boy.

  9. Michael Larsen
    Michael Larsen says:

    Excellent post! But it’s complicated. Nobody has a monopoly on truth or virtue. Two of the challenges are modeling your books and career on the books and authors you admire, and being clear about your literary and publishing goals, and then doing whatever it takes to achieve them.
    The only way get the best editor, publisher, and deal for a book is to maximize the value of it before you sell or publish it by doing three things simultaneously: test-marketing the book in as many ways as possible, including self-publishing; building your platform, your continuing visibility, online and off, on the kind of book you’re writing with potential buyers; and

  10. Annabel Candy, Successful Blogging
    Annabel Candy, Successful Blogging says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Such great news, I have been wishing you’d write a book and bingo, here it is.

    I’ve bought it and it was amazingly fast and easy. I have it on my iPad already.

    Maybe you could talk pricing points sometime? I’d like to know how you picked that… I would have paid more!

    But I know you have a good reason.

    Right, back to my own writing now but looking forward to reading your book and wishing I’d been there when you went ballsitic. Good on ya;)

  11. J. S.
    J. S. says:


    One thing that I find quite amazing is how so many people think they have a “right” to be published. Or, as an agent friend of mine says, “No one gets up one morning and says ‘Today, I’ll play the violin like a virtuoso’ despite having no skills or training. But every day, people get up and say that they are going to write a book — and it’s going to be a huge seller!”

    And if a publisher isn’t interested? It must mean that the publisher is useless or greedy. And if the book doesn’t sell? It must mean the publisher didn’t make the effort. Yes, because publishers intentionally jeopardize their own livelihood by agreeing to publish books they have no intention of actually trying to sell.

    Here’s an ugly truth: most writing out there today is terrible, and so are the premises behind most books, but I have yet to meet a single author who actually stops to consider that maybe their work isn’t that good.

    Here’s another truth — I don’t know this author, but everything about this post suggests that working with her would not be a pleasant experience. Publishers do this all the time when an author proves to be difficult. Perhaps more of you should think about why a publishing house would cut an author loose and let her keep the advance — that’s not a compliment, that’s a publisher’s way of saying that they’re sick and tired of you and don’t want to be bothered.

    But publishers are evil and authors are good, so it must be the publisher’s fault, correct?

    This is the problem with an empowered citizenry in an age of cups for participation, everybody thinks they’re a bloody genius and if their book isn’t getting picked up or sold, well, it can’t be them.

    This blog post is an example (just this post, however, I like her other stuff in general): We live in an age where short bursts of research with a lopsided bias suddenly makes one an authority and permits them to make blanket statements and broad generalizations about an industry they don’t know. At one time, something like this post would not have been published in any journal because of its lack of foundational research or serious scholarship. But now, that doesn’t matter, and 101 others suddenly think this must be the absolute truth.

    Think for yourselves and be realistic with yourselves. Please.

    • Gayle
      Gayle says:

      Yes. Thank you. Well said.

      Also, I think it’s funny how people simultaneously believe:
      (1) Publishers aren’t making any money and are practically bankrupt.
      (2) Publishers are ripping off authors and keeping all the profits for themselves.

      Those two contradict themselves, people.

      (Now, you CAN believe that publishers are barely making money AND have costs that are so high that the authors aren’t making any money either. But then that gets away from the whole big bad publisher theme that so many people like to have.)

    • Brad
      Brad says:

      Of course Penelope is difficult. Anyone who reads enough of her blog would discern that – the publisher failed to perform due diligence. Personally I wouldn’t advance her a buck to walk across the street. But in the end, she won. The lesson I get from this post is that some bridges are worth burning.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        It depends on your definition of winning: win=walking away with the advance without being sued, loose= being cut off by a publisher who will never again work with her and actually having gained the advance by blackmailing (a.k.a. threatening with a blog post).

  12. Tracey H
    Tracey H says:

    You rock woman! Can’t wait to read the book, and love reading your posts, especially that I don’t always agree, and am often left with my mouth hanging open. You keep it interesting, which keeps me happy. Cheers!

  13. James W. Lewis
    James W. Lewis says:

    This is excellent insight from an author who’s taken in dip in both publishing streams–traditional and self-publishing. Thank you for this post! I’ve been indie-publishing with The Pantheon Collective for two years and truly feel I made the right decision (even after having a contract with a literary agent). I love the freedom of doing it myself. As a result, we’ve won several awards and have accumulated sales numbers that I never dreamed of. It’s been great!

  14. Jill
    Jill says:

    Way to go, girl! I’ve learned a few hard lessons on my way to being comfortable vocalizing my concerns to people I view in positions of “authority”. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in those meetings.

    Great resource- keep inspiring!

  15. Will Entrekin
    Will Entrekin says:

    Thanks for sharing your frustrations and the challenges you faced. One quibble: “More than 85% of books sales are online, mostly at Amazon.” Yes, this, however, your buy link at the bottom took me to Hyperink’s site, where I have to add your book to a cart, then do a sign in or . . . several clicks involved. Which meant I had to manually search for your book on Amazon, where it’s two dollars more expensive.

    Right beneath this comment box there’s a link to Brazen Careerist. Which sounded good, as well, but that’s ten dollars?

    Still, thanks again for discussing the process.

  16. Well Pump Service
    Well Pump Service says:

    $1 per book? That is insulting that you do 99% of the work, writing the book, and then a publisher puts their name behind it so they get the profit because they helped distribute it. Unfair.

    Shameless self promotion is a popular trend right now. Comedian Louie CK just did a comedy special that he distributed himself just to prove a point. It was his most successful show to date. People want to support the artist, not the publishing company. Good job.

    • Gayle
      Gayle says:

      Remember that publishers aren’t doing particularly well right now. So to view it as “publishers taking all the profit” isn’t really true.

      In most cases, publishers barely make back their investment in the book, and they often lose money. Publishers pay an advance (let’s say around $10k), and then hire a designer for the cover, they do editing, they consult with you prior to the book being published to give you feedback, they do publicity (or at least, they certainly did in my book), etc. There is a lot of stuff that goes into it. Books are expensive to publish. While authors aren’t making a lot of money right now, neither are publishers.

      Now, if you want to view it as an outdated business model and say that publishers need to lower their costs — fine. But you should recognize that publishers are not ripping off their authors. They just can’t afford to give their authors much.

  17. Evil Wylie
    Evil Wylie says:

    “The only reason to have a print book is to be in Barnes & Noble”? What about the 80% of readers who don’t read ebooks? What about libraries?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Pew Research just published a study that showed that libraries are carrying ebooks at increasingly widespread levels.


      • CarrieVS
        CarrieVS says:

        That takes care of the libraries (kinda. They still have mainly books and even people who are aware that they have ebooks as well might prefer or find it easier to browse the bookshelves than search the list of ebooks, not to mention that since the price isn’t a factor when borrowing, one of the big reasons to choose digital disappears) but the 80%? And the percentage of books (‘fraid I don’t have a figure, but it’s surely a reasonable chunk) given as gifts?

  18. HoneDawg
    HoneDawg says:

    Having worked in publishing, a few comments: A) every author, especially authors of books like this, understand that self-publicity is the part of the game now. B) where was your agent. C) Publishing is like any other business: if you act unpleasantly (and it certainly seems like you did), people aren’t going to want to work with you and will expend less energy on your project; and D) so did you keep the advance money?

  19. Marguerita McManus
    Marguerita McManus says:

    I, also, had a very similar experience. My international publishing house copied, word for word, the marketing materials that I created for a trade show. Copied *and* distributed to their new authors, with the instructions “replace her info with your name, the name of your book, your book details and email back to us”. When I commented on this the reply I received was “we received more complements on your handouts than we have ever had.” I guess that justified plagiarism to them.

    At that point I realized that I knew more about marketing than 99.9% of traditional publishing houses. I’ve been happily self-publishing ever since.

  20. Katelyn
    Katelyn says:

    I love your ideas. I’m only on page 17 (of the new book) and have already had major life goal epiphany #1. Thank you.

  21. Holli Castilo
    Holli Castilo says:

    I realize Penelope had many issues with her publisher, but getting paid up front and then NOT having to turn in the product, well I’d say she wins the prize for being one of the savviest businesswoman in the writing world. Great work if you can get it I guess.

    My publisher is one of the smaller houses that doesn’t give advances– so I’ll never get paid for NOT completing a novel–but I’ve also never had any of the problems Penelope mentions. I know many writers who have had issues with agents, publishers, big publishing houses and smaller houses, and I know many writers who were not satisfied with self-publishing, whether it was because the book really wasn’t ready for publication or the writer wasn’t aware of exactly how much marketing and self-promotion is necessary when the writer decides to go it alone.

    I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky so far to be published by a small house that gets me. I don’t think my way is better, I just think it was better for me. My publisher does the things a big publisher would do, but doesn’t pull my book if I hit a slump or dump me if my latest manuscript is a little behind schedule. She does make sure my work is edited, I have a professional cover, and I, along with the other writers, work hand-in-hand with her marketing department to try to build a platform and sell a book or two.

    I may never make the NYT bestseller’s list, but I have books I am proud of, that sell, and people enjoy reading. In the end, that’s what really matters. To me, anyway.

  22. Sup Yo
    Sup Yo says:

    “With all due respect [which, I find, is always a euphemism for I hate your guts]”

    That’s right. The speaker believes there is no respect due the listener. all = 0.

  23. Buchanan Moncure
    Buchanan Moncure says:

    I loved this post! I loaned out my copy of Making Scenes and it wasn’t returned, I went to Amazon and saw that the prices are now insane, and I know you won’t make a penny off of those sales. I vote that you republish that book next!

  24. mylindaelliott
    mylindaelliott says:

    So let me get this straight:

    A publisher gave her money to write a book.

    She wrote the book.

    She asked questions.

    They blew smoke up her butt, many times.

    She called them on it, many times.

    They got mad, many times.

    They said we quit.

    She said FINE.

    Some of ya’ll are upset she is keeping the money?…


    You go girl. You know more about marketing than they do. They obviously never read your stuff!

  25. CarrieVS
    CarrieVS says:

    I think this is a great post except for your comment that print books are just for vanity.
    They are also for selling copies to all the people who don’t want ebooks.
    A few months ago, I found the intriguing statistic that 75% of readers had *never* bought an ebook. That’s not taking any account of the people who have bought one or two ebooks but usually read actual books, or of the fact a lot of books are bought as gifts and who would give an ebook as a present, except maybe as an ‘I remembered you birthday’ present to an acquaintance?
    I for one am only now considering getting an ereader and I doubt I will use it very much; I can tell you that if I came across a book that sounded as interesting as the next book but, unlike the next book, was only available electronically, I would buy the next book instead. I can’t believe I’m the only one.
    Ebooks are growing, of course, and print will correspondingly shrink, and perhaps at some point in the future it will be virtually gone. But right now it’s not even close, and with print on demand technology these days you can produce a print book without gambling on selling the whole of a large offset print run or having to store the wretched things, so it’s viable even if you sell comparatively few.

  26. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Regarding your statement:

    “The only reason to have a print book is to be in Barnes & Noble. A print book is mostly about vanity. It’s about being able to go into Barnes & Noble, when you are there for the magazines and the free Wi-Fi, and stroke your ego by holding your own book.”

    This is just insulting beyond belief. You may have no respect for paper books, for art work, for the aesthetic and reading qualities of a paper book, but to say it is mostly about vanity is laughable. Quite the opposite is true, electronic ‘books’ which are almost all drivel, self-published by people who are on an ego trip.

  27. Keryn Clark
    Keryn Clark says:

    Thanks for this information. It settles something I have been tussling with in my mind about my own book. I agree that the vanity of holding your own book in your hands at Barnes and Noble is the seduction of the traditional publishing route, (which incidentally, I am not free of so can’t criticise) but it is good to know there are other options out there. We need to take the power.

  28. Bethany
    Bethany says:

    Love the book so far. Just a note of clarity, “pursuit of happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution. I think this makes sense too- one lays out how we broke free and the reasons for independence, the other sets forth the new structure once independence was gained. Happiness was not part of the second concept but was inherent in the first.

  29. William Dean A. Garner
    William Dean A. Garner says:

    Dear Penelope,


    Good for you for taking the ultimate approach here: whatever it takes.

    I loved reading this post . . . four times in the past 30 minutes.

    You are dead-on about New York trade publishing, and your words are a distant echo of why I left them in the dust as you did.

    Wishing you all the best!



  30. Muss
    Muss says:

    Penelope – I feel uniquely qualified to comment. Until recently I handled digital sales for a very big, very mainstream publisher. Much of what you talk about here filled my day to day. So I hear what you say. Your piece on the jacket shot made me chuckle – it’s an issue that obsessed my old job from around 2004 onwards (I can confirm at least my publisher realised this issue early and, with certain titles, designed specifically for an online sales channel).

    But – before I go on – any publisher 85% reliant on online for their sales is dead meat. That’s not a number I realise from my 20 years in the industry. If your publisher is in that environment and giving you that number… with respect maybe you or your agent should have shopped harder to find a less constrained outlet for your work.

    Anyway… Self publishing is a cracking route for a few. But anyone thinking it’s the end of publishing or some sort of dramatic revenge on a lazy industry hitting the fiddle while the flames get closer is dreaming. It’s disingeous (albeit tempting) to hit this big publishing – bad, self publishing – great, riff. You are talking about entities with turnovers in the billions. Does ANYONE on this post really think a cash amount like that would be frittered away through ineptitude? Who exactly within the companies is going to allow/enable that? The crass commercial argument alone fractures that thinking – and I can guarantee you all big publishing companies work 24/7 to hold that turnover.

    The fact remains, you are competing in a VERY established commercial market/model (anyone who thinks Amazon/Apple etc offer a “new” way of business has entirely missed both of their strategies and their opinion in this comment space needs careful qualification) and if you really think a publisher worth their salt isn’t more aware of that than you, you’re struggling to hold an arguable position. If your publisher really was as bad as you give above, then they are a joke, and deserve to fail. You should name them if you feel as strongly as your post suggests. Bravery in such situations tends to validate one’s postition. If true, you have my endless sympathies, and deserve a break after an experience such as you outline. It sounds like a terrible failure of leadership in the face of the digital challenge – my sympathies for such a publisher or company are limited. But, but, but…

    Please, let’s avoid this pointless Us v Them crap. It does nothing for the real discussion (how a content creating author can best maximise the commercial gain in their work), and to be frank, does not much more than play into the hands of the big tech companies – which, as above, anyone with deep thinking about our world and content creation knows is a true longshot for creative empowerment (with apologies to your current indy publishers who I am sure are extremely supportive and long term focussed).

    Anyway – genuine good luck. The more informative/entertaining content in the world, available to the biggest audience, the better our planet will be.

    • Charity Kountz
      Charity Kountz says:

      You make some interesting comments Muss. However, I think part of the shift we’re seeing in publishing is more toward an entrepreneurial publishing paradigm where authors are taking back control of their own intellectual and creative property. Authors are realizing there’s more benefits to taking on the risk yourself than expecting a huge company to do it for you and then pay you what you deserve.

  31. E.M. Wynter
    E.M. Wynter says:

    Excellent post and really appreciate your sharing this detail! The more I follow the industry, the more amazed I am that publishers remain unaware of how to market books at all. And, you’re right, they are in exactly the same boat as the newspaper biz – but they still don’t know it yet.

    In other news, you may already know, but recently there was a huge debate regarding how many book bloggers won’t cover self-published authors for myriad reasons. A bit frightening for those of us interested in the self-published route. Would love to know what you think :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really interesting about the book bloggers not covering self-published authors.

      I see the problem. I get about fifteen emails a day from self-published authors who want me to write about their book on my blog. There has to be a way to sort through those books. It’s too many for anyone to read an evaluate. When the bar for a published book was high, the sorting process for reviewers was different.

      So I think that at this point, a self-published author needs their own platform to differentiate themselves enough to make them stand out among all the others pitching their books. At least for me, that’s how I decide if I should take the time to look at the book.

      Differentiation is actually a much more important topic than how you should publish. If you are differentiated in your market any type of publishing will work. And if you are not differentiated then no type of publishing will work.


  32. Macaroni
    Macaroni says:

    Academics on the tenure track, can’t use online books in many, if not most, fields. Tenure review committees, deans, and provosts want to see, touch, and feel a book. Articles have increasingly gained acceotance, but this is not the case for books as far as I know. This is also the case for individuals seeking promotion from one rank to another i.e. associate to full professor.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      This depends entirely on the field. My entire promotion and tenure packages were one big huge pdf file. This is normal in the natural sciences and engineering, the whole thing is then sent out on a CD (10 years ago) or a memory stick to reviewers. I am pretty sure that they would be happy if I gave them my book in pdf format, even PhD thesis are now accepted entirely in electronic form. However, I am pretty sure a book which is self-published and in electronic form would be an issue, but mostly because self-publishing circumvents an additional layer of review and critical reading.

    • Michael Martin
      Michael Martin says:

      > Wait a second. The publisher didn’t demand that you give
      > the money they spent on your book back? Mine did.

      Anyone would, for what this woman did is a violation of contract, which is the first reason (of several) this story is made up. There was no offer from a real publisher. Legally, the way she describes it, there can’t be, or it’s a case of fraud and she’s liable.

  33. Charity Kountz
    Charity Kountz says:

    Great great post! I loved reading about your experience, especially as I’m working toward publishing my first children’s book through self-publishing this fall. The biggest driver for me toward self-publishing is impatience. I do not want, after a year and a half of working on this project, to have to wait another year (or five) to see my work published. I’ve created a professional and polished manuscript, it’s been edited and is going through a second phase of edits prior to publication. Why do I need some big-wig’s permission to publish when all I want to do is get my book into the hands of an audience who can enjoy it?

    One question I have is did the publisher end up suing you for the advance back since they didn’t publish the book?

    Thanks again for the great insights into your experience – just one more example to give me the confidence that I’m doing the right thing.

  34. Snowy
    Snowy says:

    I can believe she had this experience, but I also believe she was completely unrealistic in her expectations. One in a thousand authors might–MIGHT–get properly pushed by a publisher. The rest have to do it themselves. She is not a special snowflake who is going to get the Stephen King treatment because she wrote a book on how she thinks people can be happy.

    I do agree that the publishers need to learn how to market in this day and age, though. Once upon a time it cost a great deal of time, money, and effort to publicize. It still costs all of those, but with the internet, not as much as it once did, plus they have other, low- or no-cost venues (social networks) to capitalize on.

    If she took the advance and pulled out, and her contract lets her do it, then she just got paid to go to school. If her contract does not let her do it, I hope they sue and win.

  35. Jacques
    Jacques says:

    Hon, you need to look up the meaning of the word “advance.” You just can’t keep it if you don’t fulfill your side of the bargain in return.

  36. Peter Hobday (@phobday)
    Peter Hobday (@phobday) says:

    I read your article – which is highly useful – and the posts, most of which agree with you. The ones that don’t appear to have problems that even you would not be able to solve.. Congratulation on a wonderful insight into the old-hat workings of the book publishing industry. As most of them are wondering what the hell to do, your post should be a blueprint for the way out of their dilema. Unfortunately, most appear not to be open to your solutions. That could be because most book publishers do not really like or understand marketing.

  37. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    This is what makes small, independent publishers so great! We can’t offer the big advances of big-name publishers in New York, but we get our books in every possible sales outlet (try getting an Amazon self-pubbed book in Barnes & Noble), create publicity plans for all of our authors, send many of them on book tours, submit books for awards and national reviews (try getting a self-published book reviewed by Library Journal or Publishers Weekly–which gets books into the bookstores and libraries to begin with), build relationships with top-notch independent booksellers, create online buzz about the book through social media and advertising–all without costing our authors a dime. It’s a win-win!

    Good luck with your new book.

    • Brooke
      Brooke says:

      Oh, and one more thing–we do ask our authors to uphold their end of the bargain too: to go on tour, do interviews–even on 5 a.m. news shows, create a blog or website, start using social media, and pitch op-eds and articles to national news sources and bloggers. You hit the nail on the head–readers don’t care who the publisher is; they want to know the author. So the author–as well as the publisher–must be proactive in publicity to keep selling books!

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