Supermaud linked this morning to “The Education of Stacy Sullivan,” Gal Beckerman’s story in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review about a journalist who wrote a book about Kosovo, then was astonished that it didn’t become an overnight best seller.
Actually, that’s just my jaundiced take. Here’s Maud’s, which is a lot more fair:
Beckerman chronicles the many obstacles faced by journalist and debut author Stacy Sullivan in publishing and promoting Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America, her nonfiction book. Sullivan’s story is familiar to me, mirroring those I’ve heard even from seasoned and extremely well-regarded novelists. The upshot: unless your book is seen as bestseller material, you’re on your own.
Editors no longer edit. The art department doesn’t care whether the exploding grenades on the proposed cover undermine the themes of your book. And your publicist is not going to lift even a pinky to help you, especially not if he or she is also responsible for promoting books written by star authors like, say, David Sedaris (or even, as in Sullivan’s case, Newt Gingrich).
All true, at least for the most part–but is it news? Not to me, or to anyone who’s published a book in the past quarter-century or so. Poor Stacy Sullivan, on the other hand, seems to have been shocked beyond words by the facts of publishing life. Says Beckerman:
By the end of last year, the book was out of [Sullivan’s] hands and in print, at an initial run of 5,000 copies. By this point, she had long abandoned the illusion that her publisher cared about her book’s fate. “It’s your book,” Sullivan now tells herself. “It’s not your agent’s, your editor’s, or your publisher’s. It’s your baby and you have to nurture it.”
Allow a cynical old author with several books under his belt to offer a more realistic perspective on the way things work:
• Publishing is a business. It always was. It always will be. No reasonable publisher will buy your book save with the reasonable expectation of selling enough copies to earn back your advance, plus enough profit to keep the wheels turning. Hence the chief function of an agent is to get your editor to give you an advance large enough to make the bean counters feel they have a stake in the book’s success. The larger the advance, the more seriously your book will be taken by everyone involved in its publication. If you don’t get a good advance, it means the publisher doesn’t expect the book to sell well, and won’t act accordingly–and there’s nothing you can do about it. (Stacy Sullivan got $35,000, a dead giveaway that St. Martin’s had only modest expectations for her book.)
• In my experience, Maxwell Perkins-style editing is a thing of the past. That’s fine with me. If you aren’t capable of writing a book that’s publishable in the version you submit to the publisher, you’re not a professional. I’m not talking about copyediting, the painstaking clean-up job in which a line editor makes sure your whiches and thats are all in the right places. That kind of editing is very much alive and well. All my books have been copyedited scrupulously, and they’re the better for it. But don’t assume that some magic-fingered editor is going to make your book a bestseller by rewriting it. Clean up your own mess. If you don’t trust yourself, ask a trusted colleague for advice. Then do your own editing, based on that advice. Write the book you want to see in print.
• The art departments of major publishing houses are busy with lots of books besides yours. Left to their own devices, they may or may not produce a relevant, attention-getting dust jacket. So roll up your sleeves and involve yourself in the process of designing your book. Get to know the designer. Don’t be a nuisance, but be clear and straightforward about what you think might be appropriate in the way of possible cover images. And don’t wait until the last minute: make sure you’re in the loop from start to finish. In my experience, you’ll be listened to, so long as you appear to know what you’re talking about. Arbitrary, whimsical advice will be ignored. Intelligent, informed suggestions will be heard and heeded, not just about the cover but about every aspect of the book’s design, right down to the choice of typeface. I’m neither rich nor famous, but all my books look exactly the way I wanted them to–or better.
• According to Gal Beckerman, publishers like “presentable” authors. That’s true–but you don’t have to have great hair in order to impress them. You do, however, have to be able to talk concisely and intelligently about your book under pressure (i.e., on a live radio broadcast). You also have to know how to give effective speeches and readings.
For road-tested advice on how not to sound like an idiot when talking about your book, go here.
• In-house book publicists are a mixed bag. I’ve had great ones and lousy ones. But no matter how smart or committed they are, they can’t work miracles. If you’re an unknown first-time author, they won’t be able to do much for you, no matter how hard they try. If you got a five-thousand-dollar advance, they won’t try very hard.
You can, of course, hire an outside publicist, and sometimes that helps–but be realistic about your prospects. Stacy Sullivan’s book is called Be Not Afraid for You Have Sons in America: How a Brooklyn Roofer Helped Lure the U.S. into the Kosovo War. Do you really think a publicist could have gotten her on TV?
• Print advertisements don’t sell books. (Neither do fancy book parties.) They make nervous authors feel better. Unless you’re famous, your publisher won’t spring for an ad until after your book is selling. Live with it.
• The effects of book reviews on sales are unknown. They don’t hurt (assuming the reviews are good), but there are lots of other ways to sell a book. If you’re reading these words, for instance, you already know that the blogosphere has started to become a significant factor in the marketing of midlist books. Take advantage of it. Well before the publication date, register www.yourname.com, get a blog up and running, and use it to publicize your book.
• Don’t worry about the New York Times Book Review. It’s nice to be reviewed there and nicer still to get a good review, but far from necessary. I’ve never gotten a favorable full-length review from the Times Book Review for any of my books–and I’ve been writing for them for years! Be that as it may, I continue to crank out books, and publishers continue to publish them, so I must be doing something right.
I close with the Prime Directive of Writing a Book. Print it out, frame it, and place it in a prominent spot on your desk:
• Anyone who writes a serious book with the expectation of making a lot of money and/or becoming famous is a fool. If you can’t afford to write a book in your spare time for its own sake, you’re in the wrong business.