Interview with Mitch Joel

book_trans.gifMitch Joel is a social media rock star who runs an extremely successful digital marketing business in Beautiful Montreal. I’ve been listening to his Six Pixels of Separation podcast since he started it. Since he’s just come out with a book by the same name, everyone is interviewing him about his social media insights.

I, on the other hand, wanted to talk to Mitch about publishing. He’s said too many interesting things on Media Hacks recently. (Two of the other contributors to Media Hacks, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, have just published a best-selling book together, and another one, Hugh McGuire, runs a book start-up.)

In this interview, Mitch talks about:

  • His previous experience with the publishing industry
  • The importance of having a platform
  • The difference between writing a book and writing a collection of blog posts
  • The powerful mystique that publishing a book retains even (or especially) in the age of social media
  • The value of a good editor
  • Why his publisher made his book more blog-like
  • Distribution and business models in publishing
  • What makes a book a book

Mitch is an incredibly articulate one-take podcaster. I’m not. I’ve edited this interview slightly for fluency. In particular, I’ve rearranged the beginning, because Mitch and I started our conversation before his introduction.

A big thanks to Mitch for such a fabulous interview.

Since they can’t keep Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone in the stores, I’d recommend you all buy it on Amazon (and give me a few cents in commission while you’re at it).

The Fiction Question

What’s the thing most consultants and professionals ask me when they first hear that my business is turning people like them into authors? Not the one you might expect. The first question is usually “How do you do that?” Almost inevitably, though, when I explain that I’m a ghostwriter and editor, they ask “Do you do fiction?”

No matter that their real need is probably marketing copy for their websites or a translation of their highly technical white papers into something that consumers can understand. Everyone on the planet seems to aspire to writing a novel. I’m one of them: I wrote several of them in my undergraduate and graduate student days. I just never published any of them, though I was shopping one 300,000-word monster around to agents when outside circumstances intervened to force me to focus my efforts very closely on my career, which had nothing to do with swords-and-sorcery adventure novels.

The answer to this inevitable question is that I can help people to write and edit fiction, but I rarely do. That’s only partly because I want fiction I write to have my name on it. I’d be happy to help someone improve the structure, style, grammar, etc. of a novel, if only for my own sake as a reader. The real reason that most of what I get hired to write (or rewrite) is nonfiction is economics.

Nonfiction book authors can sell books based on proposals and get an advance to cover the cost of completing the manuscript. (Funny how we still call them manuscripts when no agent or editor would even attempt to read an author’s handwriting on anything longer than a thank-you note.) Novelists don’t have that luxury: unless they’re well-established and have a good track record for selling earlier books, they have to hand over a finished product in order to get a publisher to sign on the dotted line.

Advances for first-time novels are pitiably small—as little as $3,000. Profit margins are almost nonexistent, so often enough the book doesn’t earn out that advance. There are two chances of $3,000 covering my services to revise a first draft (never mind create a novel from scratch): Fat and Slim.

Like most freelancers, I do work for hire. That means that my client owns all rights to the finished product, and I get paid for my work regardless of whether a publisher accepts the book. I do know one ghostwriter who charges half the author’s advance—but that’s after the author has gotten the advance, and the advance in question has to be in the vicinity of six figures.

To a businessperson who wants a book as a marketing tool, the $20,000+ it costs to have someone else write, or substantially rewrite, that book is an investment. Even if actual sales of the book don’t amount to much (and they often don’t), a consultant with a book can expect to make money indirectly by publishing. Authors are perceived as experts, making them more attractive to prospects and media alike than non-authors. One really good consulting gig can pay for the cost of producing the book.

In contrast, novelists only have the books themselves with which to make money. It’s possible, of course, that the book will be a hit and Hollywood will buy the movie rights for a nice chunk of change, and suddenly there’ll be a massive attack of merchandising, with toys based on the book’s characters appearing in McDonald’s Happy Meals. It does happen.

Unfortunately, you have better odds of winning the lottery than of striking it rich writing fiction. Success as a novelist depends on too many variables beyond the control of author or publisher. A well-written, entertaining book is only the minimum requirement.

Most people who advertise for fiction ghostwriters offer a percentage of royalties. That’s a sucker’s bet. Chances are there will be no royalties to take a cut of, and even if there are, the ghostwriter’s share ends up even more meager than the pittance the author gets.

No one who wants to stay in business is going to take on such a project in preference to one that pays up front. You can find someone on Elance to write you a book for $5,000, but you’ll still have to pay before you can get the finished product. A would-be novelist has to be very dedicated or independently wealthy to hire someone like me.

Hence the answer to the question “Do you do fiction?” is “Not very often.”

The High Cost of a Six-Figure Book Advance

The six-figure book advance, like the New York Times bestseller, is the object of many a writer’s fantasy. Whether it’s also a realistic goal is something else again.

Can you really get a six-figure book advance?

When Susan Page wrote The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book in 1997, she included the following list of the qualities that you and your book have to have if you’re going to get a six-figure advance.

  1. Your book is on a topic of wide general interest that could excite a large number of readers.
  2. Your book has a distinctive angle and makes an original contribution to its field.
  3. You have substantial credentials to write on this topic OR you have a co-author who does, OR you can get an extremely famous, well-credentialed person to write a foreword for you.
  4. You have prepared an extraordinary proposal and are working with a competent editor already.
  5. You have a show-stopping title.
  6. You secure the services of a well-known, experienced agent who believes the book can earn such an advance.
  7. You are both willing and able to promote your book on radio and TV and in print.

This is not a mix-and-match list. You have to have all of those things to get the big advance, unless you are an international celebrity or a best-selling author.

Page’s aim was to deflate unrealistic expectations. Her book aims to get you into print, not necessarily to get you rich. Most authors do not get rich from their books. Most publishers don’t get rich either. Book publishing is an industry in which there is very little profit. If authors get rich, it’s usually because having a book lets them sell expensive services and book high-paying speaking gigs.

You can get a six-figure advance, but it will cost you.

And I don’t mean the $197 price tag on Susan Harrow’s new e-book, Get a Six-Figure Book Advance. A $200 investment is nothing if it gets you a $200,000 return. Using the proposal template/software included with her $197 e-book, you’ll be able to produce the kind of proposal that will have publishers in hot pursuit—but getting the advance requires a whole lot more than just buying the book or even having all the right elements in your proposal.

If you want a six-figure book advance, you’re going to have to work for it.

Susan Harrow, jokingly known as a “de-motivational coach,” doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. In her August 4th teleclass, co-hosted by ghostwriter Mahesh Grossman of the Authors Team, she made it clear just how much work goes into getting a six-figure advance, and how long and hard you have to keep working after you get the money.

How advances work

In order to persuade publishers to pay you $100,000 or more before your book is published, you have to convince them that your book will sell at least 100,000 copies. (Your royalty will be about $1/book for a trade paperback, possibly as much as $3/book for a hardcover, so you do the math.) And since books don’t sell themselves, what you’re really saying to the publisher is that you can sell those 100,000 copies.

Yes, a publisher that invests that much money in you will also invest more in the production and marketing of your book than in someone who gets a smaller advance, but when you get right down to it, no one really buys a book because of its publisher. And your book won’t sell just because it’s a good book. People rarely buy non-fiction books for the quality of the writing. They buy for the quality of the information—and in the mind of the public, that depends on the expertise and reputation of the author. It all comes back to you.

How do you get readers to think of you as an expert?

First, they have to know you exist. If you’re not already a celebrity, you’re going to have to become one, or at least put up a convincing show. If you don’t have legions of fans, you should at least have thousands of subscribers to your e-zine or blog, or a syndicated column in a newspaper. If you haven’t been on Oprah or The Today Show yet, radio interviews and local TV news programs are a good start.

Getting into the public eye

To get visible enough fast enough, you probably need a publicist, which means shelling out several thousand dollars. In order for media attention to do you any good, you have to look good and sound good every time you appear. That means getting professional media coaching before you start lining up interviews to make up for not being a celebrity. You need to arm yourself with a repertoire of sound bites for all occasions and rehearse until you can spout them in your sleep.

That doesn’t just take money, it takes time. It takes work. And no one can do it for you, either, because you, as the author, have to be the one in the limelight.

Editing is essential for a killer proposal.

Media coaches and publicists aren’t the only team members you’ll have to enlist if you want a six-figure advance and a book that justifies it. The services of a professional editor are essential for both your proposal and your finished book. In fact, you might just want to hire a ghostwriter and get it over with, because you’re probably going to be too busy marketing to write.

That’s more money spent in advance of getting your advance.

Post-publication publicity

You’re not through yet, either. Now that you’ve gotten enough media attention for yourself to impress a publisher, you have to do it over again for your book. You’re going to have to shell out a good-sized chunk of that advance on your own publicity efforts. More and more publishing houses assume that your advance is the marketing budget for the book, so they expect you to spend your own money on getting the book sold. (Tip: when mentioning this in your proposal, always make the offer contingent on the publisher matching the amount.) This expectation actually holds true regardless of the size of your advance, but the more money you want to get, the more money you have to spend.

Six-figure advances are not for the faint of heart

Writing a good book is the least of the challenges facing you when you set out to get a six-figure advance. Moreover, if you don’t earn out your advance by actually selling 100,000+ books, your chance of getting such a large advance again are nil. To succeed when the stakes are this high, you need to become an Olympic athlete of a book marketer. That can be hard to do if you have either a day job or a family, never mind both. And it’s almost impossible if you don’t have a substantial chunk of starting capital.

Do you really need a six-figure book advance?

For many authors, five figures is plenty, especially for a first book. Even if it loses money, that book will create the leverage the author needs to succeed in other aspects of her business. (That’s one reason self-publishing can be such a good option for business book authors.) Getting a smaller advance still takes work and costs money, but it’s a much more manageable goal for a first time author without fifty grand to invest in getting into the bookstores.

Note—this post is only slightly edited from Susan’s original e-mail advertisement. I’ve signed up, and would encourage anyone who’s planning on writing a book to do so as well.

Join Susan Harrow, author of the new e-book Get a Six Figure Book Advance, and ghostwriter Mahesh Grossman on Thursday, 4 August for a free teleclass.

You’ll learn how to:

* Develop an irresistible platform.
* Create a publicity plan that will wow! editors.
* Entice agents to pursue you.
* Avoid the pet peeves of editors at the major New York publishing houses.
* Use strategies to create an auction so your book sells to the highest bidder.

When: Thursday, August 4
4:30pm PT, 5:30pm MT, 6:30pm CT 7:30pm ET, and 12:30pm UK No cost
1 hour

To register send a blank email to:
[email protected]

IMPORTANT: You will get a response with all the information you need to join the class when you register by using the above email address. As this response comes from an autoresponder you must allow an email from: [email protected]. Please whitelist or add this email address to your address book ASAP or you will NOT receive this information.