Let’s Bust Some Bookselling and Publishing Myths

Last week, Salon ran an article by Hugh Howey (author of Wool) about how self-publishing is the future and the way new writers should turn.

I don’t entirely agree with that, as most of you who’ve been playing along at home might know. Chuck Wendig’s thoughts on the matter pretty closely match my own: do a little bit of both self-pub and commercial publishing! If you want! In whatever order works best for you!

That’s not the part of this business I want to focus on here. I’m going to pick at a few of the points in his piece where Howey repeats misinformation about trade publishing and bookselling that gets parrotted a lot by some of the bigger names in self-pub. I’m tired of hearing it, so fuck it. Let’s set some records straight.

Ready? Here we go.

The old route for literary success looks stodgy and outdated by comparison. You write in a vacuum or for a professor who frowns on genre; you workshop with other writers;

I’m not entirely sure how this first bit is different between writers who are published commercially and writers who self-pub. Unless you’re livestreaming yourself typing away at the keyboard and taking suggestions from readers as you go, most writers write in a vacuum, at least for their initial drafts. We pull ourselves away from the world and do that thing where we put words on the page, no matter how we plan on publishing it when it’s done.

Regarding writing for a “professor who frowns on genre,” I’m eyeing this line askance. Not because I’m arguing that some professors think genre is a waste of time — some do, and that’s bullshit — but because I occasionally see a sneery kind of dismissal of writers who do take courses on their craft. It wasn’t my path (last writing course I took was an elective in high school, and my teacher there loved genre), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everyone. I dunno. It skirts close to the edge of calling other writers snobby, or dismissing their choices, and I’m not keen with that.

On workshopping with other writers: what, erm, is wrong with that? Whether it’s attending a physical workshop — shameless plug for Viable Paradise! applications open through June 15th! — or simply being a beta reader for your peers, I can’t see how this is stodgy or outdated. Going with Howey’s analogy about someone learning to play guitar, isn’t getting feedback on how to improve from other musicians a good thing? Isn’t working with other members of your band going to make you a stronger player?

you craft a query letter;

Yep, you do. I’ve seen people refer to the querying process as “demoralizing” or “demeaning,” and have a hard time wrapping my head around that.

When you apply to colleges, many of them ask you to write a personal statement — an essay that tells a little bit about who you are, what you’ve done, what you want to do.

When you apply for a job, you need to write a cover letter telling your prospective employer why they ought to hire you.

In both cases you need to be engaging, interesting, and yet (especially with a cover letter) succinct.

Querying isn’t much different from that. Some agents don’t respond if they’re not interested. The same with some HR departments. You ought to research the agents you’re querying first and know a little about their tastes; you should do the same with a company you’d like to work for.

Beyond that, query letters and book descriptions really aren’t that far off from one another. I imagine that most writers who self-publish have to fill out, for Amazon or Goodreads or for their own website, a short description of their book to hook the reader. If you can write good back cover copy, you can write a good query letter.

you appeal to the tastes of an intern at a literary agency;

Really depends on the agency there. Out of 40-something query letters Hill and I sent out, I believe two had replies that didn’t come from the agent themselves. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that none of the other 38 weren’t from interns authorized to send rejections from their bosses’ accounts, but I’d guess the majority were from the agents.

Even still, let’s say the intern is charged with sorting through the slush. They’re at that job because they’re interested in books and publishing. For the most part, their job is to weed out queries that don’t follow guidelines, or for books in a genre the agent doesn’t represent, so the agent’s time isn’t wasted. But all right, you’ve followed the guidelines, you’re querying an agent who likes military SF with your military SF novel, and now the intern reads your 250-word summary. The interns know what the agents they’re working for are looking for. Chances are, if they’re on the fence about whether a query works or not, they’ll pass it along to the agent just in case.

you claw your way out of the slush pile;

Did you write a good book? Did your query make it sound interesting? Did you refrain from saying things like “This is better than the crap that’s on bookshelves these days”?

Read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s “Slushkiller” post, especially point 3 about the context of rejection.

you hope to win over an editor at a major publishing house;

You read “Slushkiller,” right?

your book comes out a year later

Yep, a year, maybe two! During which time the following things happen:

  • You and your editor make the book stronger, taking a few passes until you’re both satisfied.
  • Six to nine months before your pub date, your book is collected in the publisher’s seasonal catalog, and the publisher’s sales reps sell it to bookstores, or booksellers placing their orders through Edelweiss see it in electronic form. I can’t stress this part enough, because the claims of “My book got no marketing!” so often overlook this point. This is marketing, too.
  • A lot of books have either physical advanced reading copies or digital galleys available ahead of time, giving booksellers, reviewers, and bloggers time to read the books and get buzz going.

and sits spine-out on a bookshelf

Sometimes. Or maybe it gets put into a staff picks section. Or on a wall of new SF. Or faced-out because the bookstore ordered several copies. This idea that bookstores just toss books on the shelves and make no effort to sell them is boggling to me.

Does every bookseller read every book that comes into their receiving area? Hell no, not with tens of thousands of titles. But neither do they shelve ’em and forget ’em.

for six months; it gets returned to the publisher

Booksellers do not have an egg timer set to ding six months after they receive a book into their inventory. If it sells, they’re likely to reorder a copy and keep it in stock as long as it keeps doing so. If it doesn’t, however, yes, after a time they will pull it from the shelves and return it to the publisher to make room for other people’s books. It’s the Circle of Life, bookstore style.

Damn it, now I want to rewrite those lyrics and apply them to writerly things.

Would that we could keep every book in stock, forever and ever until each and every copy found a home. But that would require an ever-expanding store footprint, and retail space is expensive. And, with people going to Amazon rather than their friendly local indie, well, how should bookstores determine how they’re going to pay for that retail space?

By selling books, and curating (yes, curating! I said it!) their stock to be as profitable as possible.

So they can stay in business.

And sell more books.

To readers.

and goes out of print;

Bzzt, not necessarily, and certainly not after only six months.

When a book is released in hardcover, then six months, nine months, a year after pub, it will very likely come out in paperback. Maybe trade paperback, maybe mass market. Booksellers will send the hardcover back and pick up the trade because readers will often go for the cheaper edition if they have the option. Much like, as Howey mentions, they’ll prefer to pay the lower price on the ebook.

That hardcover edition will eventually be placed out of print. Or remaindered. But the paperback edition lives on!

And will still live on not only months from its paperback pub date, but very likely for years, as long as there is stock in the publisher’s warehouse, and as long as there is demand for them to reprint it.

Go into your local bookstore. Browse their paperback fiction section (not the new releases!) and pick a small, random sampling of books. Open up to the cover page and find the copyright date. They are not all going to say 2012 or 2013. They’re not. So enough with this “you get six months and that’s it” thing.

When a book goes out of print, the rights revert to the author. Some books are declared out of print before the publisher runs out of stock, because they’ve dipped below a certain sales thresshold. That’s something you or your agent hashes out with your publisher. Rights reverting isn’t the end of your book’s life! If you’re going for the long tail and you have your rights back, you can bring that out-of-print book back into print on your own and catch those fans who didn’t find you the first time around.

you start over.

Please tell me you’ve been writing another book or two in the year and a half since you sold that first one. Especially since a lot of publishers will do multi-book deals.

The general reader is a mile away from you in this process. You never had a chance to be heard by the only people who truly matter.

Way to disappear the booksellers there.

Also, if the book was on the shelf for those six months, how is that “never had a chance to be heard”? If, as Howey points out later on, writers have to do some of their own promo, isn’t that prime time for them to reach out to readers and say Hey, my book is out in stores now?

If a reader goes into a bookstore and asks for the book, the store can special order it for them if it’s not in stock. Sometimes, booksellers will bring in a copy for that reader and an extra for the store. We also live in the days of pre-orders. If the self-promoting author lets fans know their book is forthcoming, those fans can show their support by ordering it in advance. It lets the booksellers know there’s concrete interest.

Moving along:

These days, manuscripts need to be perfect before they’re submitted to agents or before you self-publish, so don’t fool yourself into thinking a rough draft can become a great novel with the help of an agent or editor.

This is pretty sound advice. Why would you want to show your work to readers if it’s not the best you can make it? This is why the earlier point about writers honing their craft through self-publishing — unleashing your would-never-get-out-of-the-slush-pile book while you’re still learning — confuses me.

Back to the guitar analogy: I’m learning to play. I’m not very good. No way in hell would I put my hat out on the street and busk at this skill level. If I’m fumbling my way through Counting Crows covers and fucking up my bar chords, the record companies aren’t being mean or snobby for not offering to sign me. It’s because I’m not good enough yet.

“Not good enough” is a subjective thing, to be sure. Some gems will get overlooked. Some have already been missed, or passed over, and have done so smashingly well in their self-published form that trade publishers have come back around making offers.

(Here’s an anecdote I have yet to hear but would be curious to know about: have any of the big self-pub success stories been offered a contract from an editor, or been wooed by an agent, who had previously rejected them for that specific book?)

I do, however, quibble with this next bit:

…[your book] won’t be amazing just because some agent or editor seems to think so.

Well, no, of course not. But a good editor can make a book that’s pretty solid on its own even better — not by simply thinking it and having it happen through magic, but by actually working with the author to shore up plot points and strengthen characters/dialogue/setting.

Skipping down to the end:

Even if you land with a major publishing house, the success of your work will depend on you knowing this business and embracing all the challenges that a self-published author faces.

As I said above, there are aspects to trade publishing that are nearly invisible to anyone outside the business. Inclusion in seasonal catalogs is just one of them.

Even if you don’t get a $500,000 marketing campaign, or even a $5,000 one, you still have access to your publisher’s publicity and marketing departments. They might not send you on a twenty-city tour, but they know your local booksellers and can help get you in touch.

Knowing the business is simply a smart move no matter how you get published. Whether your royalties are coming from a publisher’s finance department or from Amazon, this is your career, your money. Being incurious about how it all works or thinking “Welp, now that I’m with one of the Big Six-Five-Four-Eleventy, I don’t have to think about it anymore” is only going to hurt you in the long run.

Be curious. Be savvy. Be professional. No matter which way you go.

There are only a handful of authors in the world who can make a living writing and passing along those words to someone else and not doing a single other thing.

I guess some bestselling authors can just type “the end” and move on to the next book, but most of the ones I’ve seen — Stephen King, say, or George R.R. Martin — still do interviews and publicity and signings.

Most people who attempt this method teach creative writing for a living, and not because they want to.

That’s… ouch. It looks like Howey’s taking a shot at both trade-published writers and creative writing teachers here, and I really don’t understand why. I hope I’m wrong!

I’m also unclear on the meaning of this — the “method” referred to is, I think, from the previous sentence: passing along work to someone and not doing anything else. But those writers are, again from the previous sentence, making a living from their writing. Soooo why do they also need to teach creative writing for a living? I’m confused.

Promotion will be up to you.

There’s certainly an amount of author-involvement required in promotion, and it’s not always spread out equally among writers on a season’s list. Not every book gets a full-page ad in the New York Times, or a fifteen second spot on TV. Not every writer gets a big huge book tour, or an interview on NPR or Good Morning America.

Some writers get a lot less. They still have access to resources from their publisher that a self-published writer either doesn’t start out with or has to cultivate on his or her own over a period of time.

Your publisher will want to see your social media presence before they offer you a book deal.

No. Nononononono. I don’t know where this one started, or why it keeps getting repeated. But every time this comes up — whether on writers’ forums or on twitter or during panels at conferences — editors and agents say, “We’d rather you write a good book than spend your time getting thousands of followers.”

So why do people keep trotting this out?

Sure, if you have ten hojillion twitter followers, that’s probably going to help with sales. Or if you run a popular blog about puppies and wrote a mystery about a puppy detective, that’s helpful.

But if you wrote a really good fucking book, an editor’s not going to shy away from making an offer because you don’t tweet ten times a day. So can we just dispense with that one now?


Whatever way you get your words out there — whether you’re going all trade, all self-pub, or a little bit of both, it’s wise to learn a lot about the bookselling industry. That’s going to mean learning to think critically about the claims that are made in one direction or the other.

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One Response to Let’s Bust Some Bookselling and Publishing Myths

  1. Chris Bauer says:

    Thanks for the insight and comments. There are enough misconceptions and legends in the publishing business without creating new ones or lending false credence to such mythology.

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