September 26, 2017
People thinking of writing a book are often surprised when they learn how difficult it is to get the attention of a major publishing house. The assumption is that if you have a great story and write a great book, publishers will beat a path to your door, ready to sign you to a big-dollar contract and distribute your book to bookstores all over the world. Alas, the assumption is magnificently naive.
In the old days, this paradigm might have been true, even though it was always a bit more difficult than most people realized. First of all, you needed a literary agent to represent you to publishers and finding one of those was never automatic. It took a lot of work and a lot of querying different agents. And it took a polished book with a marketable idea or story. But it could be done.
Today, however, the world is a vastly different place. The reason? One word: Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Amazon has changed the publishing world completely and forever. For a quick history lesson, let me quote from a speech given by author Douglas Preston, recently reprinted in my Summer 2017 Author’s Guild Bulletin: “When Amazon launched itself as a bookseller, it wasn’t to sell books; its plan was to acquire customers in target demographics to sell them other stuff. So it sold – and continues to sell – books at a loss. Year in and year out. A customer acquisition strategy.”
Things got even worse with ebooks which sell at a fourth or less of what a traditional hardcover sells for. You don’t need to be an economics professor to imagine where this strategy leads. Bookstores couldn’t compete and close to half the independent bookstores in the U.S. went out of business. Borders closed, too. Books-a-Million downsized. Nobody goes to Barnes and Noble except for the coffee and free Wi-Fi. This is what happens when profit gets drained from an industry. Publishers, naturally, were similarly hurt. Many folded and some merged. Today, publishers won’t take a risk on a book unless they feel it’s guaranteed to be a bestseller. Only in this way – by volume – can they expect to make any money.
How do they calculate whether a book will be a bestseller? There are two main characteristics they look for. The first is an already-successful author. Stephen King is a proven commodity and it’s a good bet that his next book will be a successful one just like his prior books. The second is a new author with a huge following. Somebody who’s famous, in other words. A celebrity or a business mogul. Or maybe somebody whose story has made the news and whose name is already a household word.
I can’t see this state of affairs changing. As consumers, we’ve all become spoiled by the Amazon way. We want our books to be cheap. We expect them to be cheap. We can’t complain then when, as producers, we discover that there’s no profit to be made on what we produce.
If you’re thinking of writing a book, let me tell you what I tell all of my prospective ghostwriting clients: if you’re writing it because you have something to say, something deep inside that needs to come out, something that you’ll regret not saying years from now if you don’t write a book, then by all means write it! If you’re writing because you think you can make a lot of money from the sale of the next great bestseller, there are much better ways to invest your time and money.
If you’re in that first group, write your book and forget about Simon and Schuster. Self-publish it! Market it yourself. You might not sell a million copies, but people will buy your book. Who knows? You might make a difference in the life of a stranger somewhere. And best of all, you won’t have any regrets about not writing that book of yours.