The 4 Great Myths of Book Publishing

08/07/2017 06:54 pm ET

Signing a contract with even a brand-name traditional book publisher initially feels like a ticket to Nirvana. You may expect, for example, your new publisher to set you up with a big fat advance, a multi-city promotional tour, your very own personal PR rep and multiple copies of your book on every bookshelf in the nation (and Canada) for as long as you and your book shall live.

But to understand how book publishers really work, study this list of what I call the four great “myths” of traditional book publishing. Then, by all means, proceed to seek out a publisher if that’s your goal but do so with your eyes wide open. Your relationship with your publisher will run much smoother if you recognize its pitfalls as well as its glories.

Myth #1: My book publisher will aggressively promote my book to the widest possible readership

In an ideal world, publishers would like to provide this but in today’s real world they really can’t. The scarcity of their own resources typically prevents it because whatever advertising and PR budget such a publisher has available is likely to be directed toward those books the publisher considers most likely to succeed, such as a book by a celebrity author, a book on a subject that is currently red-hot in the news, or a book by an author whose previous books have sold very, very, very well. Thus your publisher will likely have few resources left over to help with your book’s promotion needs.

Remedy: Plot out an aggressive “promotion action plan” of your own and include it in your book proposal. Such a plan often wins over more publishers than even the book’s core concept!

Myth #2: A publisher will ensure my book gets on the shelves of all the nation’s bookstores

With a half-million books coming out each year, the best a commercial publisher can do is try to get your book on a bookstore’s shelves. Truth be told, even the most powerful publishing houses with the largest sales forces can only persuade an independent bookstore or even a Barnes & Noble superstore to shelve a fraction of their new books. This leaves precious little space for yours.

Remedy: Promote the heck out your book so that people start coming into their local bookstores and asking for it. Supply and demand is the surest way to get a book stocked and restocked on bookstore shelves.

Myth #3: My publisher will print my book’s text in exactly the way I conceive and arrange it

Well, maybe or maybe not. If a publisher chooses to invest in you, it will also want a say in how your book will look physically (title, cover design, interior format, size, number of pages, hardcover vs. softcover, price etc.) as well as what’s actually said between its covers. Though most publishers do see you the author as the expert, and so they will afford you great leeway as regards arranging your ideas and overall message, they may also assign an editor to you who wants to “partner” with you in such a deep way that decisions about content may end up a joint endeavor. So your final product could look very different from the way you originally conceived it back when you signed the contract.

Remedy: Be flexible and be open to constructive criticism as you work with your assigned editor. Frequently your publisher’s editor will indeed have suggestions based on many, many years experience, so keep your ego in check as you hear what she has to contribute to your masterpiece.

Myth #4: My publisher will provide me with a sizable monetary advance, allowing me to take time off from my regular work so that I can focus exclusively on my book

We’ve all read about mega-million advances to celebrities and politicians and of course that makes us salivate! But after all that largesse is doled out to the famous guys, not much is left over for the 99 percent of us lesser-mortal authors. Besides, as a first-time author, your beloved publisher knows you’ll accept little or no advance in return for the opportunity to merely be published.

Remedy: Be grateful if you get offered any advance at all, since many publishers offer zero. Try to get your new publisher instead to elevate your royalty fees, increase your author discount, or agree to 20 to 50 extra complimentary copies (the typical amount is onlyl 10!)

One obvious remedy of course to all of these myths is to self-publish your book, which has in the past 20 years or so become a painless, even more satisfying process, especially in that the cost of self-publishing has plummeted dramatically. (thanks chiefly to print-on-demand technology). Also, self-publishing allows you to be fully in control so that no frustrating publishing “partner” can sway you from your original plans, including text, cover design and title. It’s all up to you!

But, if winning over a publisher has always been your dream, do not let my four great myths stop you. I only want you grab at this prize with a realistic understanding of what’s likely to happen (and what's not). By doing so, you will succeed in a manner that’s a win-win-win for all involved: you the author, your publisher ... and your readers!

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