What Good Is a Traditional Publisher?

A colleague recently put this question in the bluntest of terms: “If publishers won’t promote your book and they take a huge percentage, what exactly do they do for the author?”

I wouldn’t say that publishing houses won’t promote your book, but first-time authors get a very small piece of the marketing pie—and publishers have smaller marketing budgets than they used to. They have smaller everything budgets than they used to, which means less personal attention, and that’s one reason someone could legitimately ask “Well, what good are they, then?”

Another reason is the increasing availability of print-on-demand technology and self-publishing resources. No longer does a would-be self publisher have to start a publishing business and spend thousands of dollars to get into print. Authors have more options than they did 20 years ago.

For many non-fiction authors (and even some novelists), self-publishing and POD are valid options. There’s no question that authors who use these methods of publishing get to keep more of the book’s cover price. And there are still a number of small, independent presses out there who provide more support to their authors because they take on only a few books each year. But there are still some advantages to getting your book published by one of the giants.

They Know What Sells

Before you can get your book published, you have to submit a proposal with an outline of your book and a marketing plan. Acquisitions editors at the big houses know what’s selling and what isn’t. If you get repeated rejections that all cite the same problems, it’s a sign that you need to retool your idea before you go to all the trouble of writing the book. And if they accept your proposal, it’s because they believe there’s a large enough market for your book to justify their investment in producing it.

They Pay in Advance

Admittedly, the advance you get for your first book isn’t likely to allow you to quit your day job, since it’s likely to be in the low five figures. And it doesn’t arrive the minute you sign the contract, either. But that money can cover many of the costs associated with writing and marketing the book, such as travel for research, a local direct mail campaign, or the services of a ghostwriter.

They Have More Resources

When you self-publish or use a POD house, you have to locate, and pay for, all kinds of professionals, or spend extra time doing the many jobs of publishing yourself. You may be the top expert in your field and a good writer on top of it, but creating a book also requires copyediting, book design, typesetting (though no actual type is involved anymore), proof reading, and cover art, among other things. Large publishers already have all these people either on staff or working for them as contractors, and they’ve had decades to learn things like which fonts are most readable and how much white space you need on a page.

Many POD houses offer editing, book layout, and cover design services, but they charge you for them. If you’re truly self-publishing, you have to find and pay all these people yourself, in addition to your actual printing and shipping costs. (And much as I admire self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, I don’t hold with his theory that you can use clip art for your book cover and still look professional.)

They Get You into Bookstores

Very few self-published authors can get their books onto the shelves of large chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders. These companies have strict policies about which distributors they deal with and require return policies which no sane person would stand for.

And, of course, if a chain won’t carry your book, it’s not likely you’ll be able to hold an author event there. What’s more, the publisher takes care of shipping extra copies of your book to the store when you do the signing, so you don’t have to drag books around with you. (You do have to notify them that you’re doing the event and ask them to send the books.)

Publishers also have booths at major publishing conventions like Book Expo America. Your book might not get star billing, but they’ll be pushing all their new titles.

So yes, traditional publishers do still provide their authors with valuable services. And the “huge percentage” they take rarely amounts to a huge profit: it goes to covering their very considerable costs in preparing, printing, and distributing your book (not to mention offering those killer return policies to the bookstores). Despite the increasing ease and respectability of self-publishing, pitching your book to Random House or HarperCollins may still be your best option.

Are Book Signings Worthwhile?

Most people who talk about book signings talk about how to attract attention from the venue’s patrons and how to get more people to show up. Authors give consistent recommendations for what to do before, during, and after signings in order to make them more successful. And pretty much everyone agrees that just sitting at a table at the back of a room with a table full of books is unproductive in the extreme, and usually uncomfortable as well.

In a recent invitation to a teleseminar about Virtual Book Tours, Mark Victor Hansen went so far as to say “Book signings STINK.”

If you’re like most authors, you’ll travel the country, doing countless appearances for a couple dozen people at a time. If you have “great” night, you’ll sell a hundred books…but most likely the tally will much smaller.

And I can’t argue with that one. I wouldn’t advise an author to invest a lot of money in going on tour just to sign books in stores. Go on a paid speaking tour instead and sell your books at the back of the room. That way your expenses are covered and your book sales represent actual profits.

But despite the ease and inexpensiveness of doing a Virtual Book Tour (via teleseminar or webinar), live book signings do still have a place. Certainly if you’re going to be visiting a city anyway, whether on business or to see friends and family, there’s no reason not to arrange a book signing.

And as Raleigh Pinskey pointed out in her October 24th, 2006 “How to Promote Your Book by Promoting Yourself” teleseminar with Arielle Ford, it doesn’t actually matter whether anyone comes. A book signing where no one shows up is just fine with her.

Why? Because to Raleigh, the point of having a book signing isn’t the hour or two that you’re in the store. The point is to get the bookstores to help promote your book. If you arrange for a signing, the store will be sure to have your book in stock and display it prominently. If the store produces a newsletter or an online calendar, you get free advertising by doing the event. That means you start selling books before you show up, and for a month or so after the event is over. (And you get a chance to put special “signed by the author” stickers on them to draw the shopper’s eye.)

What’s more, having a signing provides an excuse to contact the local media and get interviewed. (Or, at least, a better excuse than just publishing a book gives you.) And having media clips lets you build a newsroom on your website.

Of course, it could get a trifle embarrassing if one of those local media outlets sent a reporter over to attend the book signing and you were just sitting like a lump at a table. And a bookstore might not invite you back or give your books preferential treatment in the future if you treat the event too casually. So try to schedule the signing for a time when the store is busy, and create some kind of presentation, preferably one involving audience participation.

Even if no one else shows up, it will keep the store’s employees entertained and favorably disposed toward your book. And the action is a lot more likely to attract casual browsers than sitting at a table in a corner will, as well as giving reporters and bloggers something to write about.

Besides, even if you can sell more books with a teleseminar, virtual tours don’t let you see your readers’ faces or shake their hands. Even if you choose to do most of your promoting via the Internet, it’s good to get out there and make live connections.

© 2007 Sallie Goetsch

The Keys to a Barnes & Noble Book Signing

Dan Poynter wrote in Successful Nonfiction that authors should never host autograph parties. Instead of merely signing their books, the thing to do was offer “mini-seminars.” In an August 27th, 2006 interview with Tee Morris for The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy, Annie Hololob, Community Relations Manager for the Harrisonburg, VA Barnes & Noble, confirms the value of making your book signing into an event. (Tee himself apparently has a habit of staging sword fights during his book signings, which definitely livens things up.)If you want to have an event at a Barnes & Noble, the Community Relations Manager is the person to talk to. This is the person who knows whether the store’s customers are the right market for your book, or whether you’d do better at a store in a different city. (My local Barnes & Noble, for instance, doesn’t even have author events, just a children’s story time.) This is the person whose good side you want to get on.

There are two important things you need before you start assembling your press kit and cultivating the CRM at your local Barnes & Noble, however. Without them, there’s no way the store can carry your books. Large chain bookstores have to operate by certain rules in order to stay in business, and those rules may exclude you and your book for reasons that have nothing to do with your merits as a writer.


In order for BN to order, stock, and sell your books, they have to be available through a wholesaler or distributor such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor—one BN already has a relationship with. That means BN can buy the book at a wholesale price, usually 40-60% off the cover price, without going to extra trouble to special-order it. If your book is traditionally published, there should be no problem with this. One of the reasons for choosing to go with a major publisher or established small press is that they are already BN Vendors of Record. The traditionally self-published, those like Dan Poynter who start their own publishing companies, can become Vendors of Record by filling out the BN Publisher Information Form.

The authors who run into real trouble in the distribution department are those with POD books. These books may be good-looking and high quality. They may even be available through Baker & Taylor or Ingram. But unless ordered in very high quantities, they are offered only for the retail price. BN’s standard order when dealing with a new publisher is two copies of every title. Even an order of 30-50 books for a signing isn’t going to provide enough of a profit margin to make it worth the bookstore’s while. And because Print on Demand books are literally printed only when ordered, each copy is much more expensive to produce than a comparable mass-produced book.


The other thing that keeps POD books—and their authors—out of chain stores like Barnes & Noble is the lack of a returns policy. Bookstores expect to be able to return all unsold books to a publisher, and not to pay the publisher for any of the books until after they sell. Unsold books aren’t even returned intact: the covers get ripped off and they’re sent away to be pulped. (I kid you not. I was horrified to learn this, even after reading all those warnings about not buying books without covers.)

POD houses don’t warehouse books and can’t provide that kind of returns policy, and very few self-published authors are going to want to. But no matter how barbaric a practice pulping is, it’s a fact of life at all major book outlets, and Barnes & Noble didn’t invent it. Nor does a Community Relations Manager have the power to bend the rules about this, however flexible s/he may be about the form your signing takes if you can meet the store’s requirements.


If you’re a self-published or POD author and touring the major chain bookstores is something you can’t live without, you can try to interest a traditional publisher in your book, though you need to make sure that you really own the book in its current form before you do this. (Most POD houses lay claim to the final, formatted version of your book, though the content remains yours.)

Or you can skip Barnes & Noble altogether and hold your book events elsewhere. Independent bookstores are often in a better position than large chains to take a chance on an author, though they, too, need to be able to buy the books at a low enough price to make a profit. Public libraries are almost always willing to accept the donation of a book or two and host a reading.

And, of course, if you make your living as a speaker, back-of-room sales may be your best bet and an opportunity to take advantage of the plus side of self-publishing and POD: getting to keep a far greater percentage of the book’s retail price.

Book Signing Resources

Cold Calling Bookstores (SGWF #3) MP3

Interview with Annie Hololob (SGWF #21) MP3

FabJob’s How to Have a Successful Book Signing

Larry James’ Book Signing Tips

Market Your Book with a Movie Trailer

As multimedia comes to dominate the World Wide Web, a simple text blurb may not be enough to grab a prospective reader’s attention. And while actually placing an ad in a movie theater is very expensive, even a low-budget “movie trailer” on your website can increase your sales dramatically.

Animated Trailers

My first encounter with movie trailers for print books—rather than films made from books—was the VidLit for John Warner’s Fondling Your Muse. VidLit produces short (generally under 3 minutes) Flash animations which it showcases on its own website and allows you to e-mail to others. A VidLit may be an excerpt from a book, or a synopsis. In general, they are clever, funny, and put me in mind of more sophisticated animated greeting cards. The VidLit team does a nice job of making nonfiction books seem entertaining as well as edifying. A typical VidLit takes about 200 hours to produce and costs around $10,000, but the one-minute special costs only $3500.

Novelist Jeff Rivera didn’t want to spend that much, so he did some research into what his target market watched, listened to, and talked about, then wrote a half-page script and put an ad on Craigslist for a Flash animator and another ad on Latino message boards to find an appropriate soundtrack. You can see the resulting trailer, which increased his book sales 30%, at www.JeffRivera.com. (For more details, see Jeff’s article in John Kremer’s Book Marketing Tip of the Week newsletter.)

Upping the Ante

The Book Standard enlisted Bantam Dell to fund its 2006 Book Video Awards contest for film students. The winning entries feature live actors and could be mistaken for trailers for Hollywood movies. Each cost the publisher about 30% of the book’s marketing budget to produce. The videos are available on Billboard.com, Bebo.com, and YouTube as well as the Bantam Dell and Book Standard websites. There are even versions available for mobile phones.

Expanded Books makes its trailers available in both audio and video format through iTunes, MySpace, Google Video, YouTube, iFilm, and its own website. Their suggestions for the use of book videos include in-store loops and presale DVDs as well as viral video and old-fashioned TV commercials. Their prices start at a comparatively modest $3,000. Their titles range from nonfiction like 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men and Asthma for Dummies to novels like M.J. Rose’s The Venus Fix.

Beware the Lowest Bidder

If you have a webcam, you can create unlimited 3-minute do-it-yourself web videos for $2.95 a month with Camdeo, a Berkeley-based video service. But although talking-head infomercials can help you sell products, they don’t have the emotional power of something with a soundtrack, interesting visuals, and a tight script. Camdeo sounds like a good option for beginning video podcasters or people who want to communicate with their relatives, but not really a good method for producing something that could properly be described as a “trailer.”

Doing It Yourself

If the likes of VidLit and Expanded Books are out of your range, you’d be better advised to invest a few hundred dollars (or less: Apple’s iLife is only $79 and the Producer plug-in to create Windows Media Video is free for licensed owners of PowerPoint) in software to allow you to convert PowerPoint or Keynote into video and add a soundtrack. You can insert photos of your book cover, graphs and tables from your book, and evocative royalty-free photos and artwork, alternating with short, punchy copy a la Jeff Rivera. The rise of podcasting means there are thousands of “pod-safe” songs to choose from for a soundtrack. Close with appropriate credits and ordering information.

Market Globally, Shop Locally

Finally, if the do-it-yourself route sounds like too much work and you were hoping to keep your outlay in the hundreds, not thousands, see what kind of talent is available in your home town. Does your local community college teach courses on Flash animation or videography? Are you in a position to offer non-cash prizes that film students would value, and hold a contest of your own? While top-quality work doesn’t come cheap anywhere, you may still be able to get a bargain if you can provide something the video producer values—like exposure to a new market.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that specialists like VidLit and Expanded Books have the experience that less-expensive competitors may lack. Anyone with the appropriate technical skills can create a dramatic trailer for a dramatic book. Authors whose subject matter is considered dry or difficult to understand should go to the experts if they want results that appeal to the mass market.

© 2006 Sallie Goetsch

Get Them Hooked On Your Book

A hook is a one-line zinger that describes your book in a way that would let anyone’s grandmother in Topeka understand not just what the book is about but why she should buy it.

Without one, it’s very difficult to sell a book to a publisher. That’s because the editor your agent approaches at the publishing house has to sell the manuscript to her colleagues, and the publishing house has to sell it to the reader.

The author who has just cranked out a 75,000-word manuscript may have a hard time distilling the essence of that book into 25 words. (“Hard time” may be an understatement: if you could say it in 25 words, would you have written 75,000?) But without a hook, your book could languish unpublished on your hard drive.

So how do you create a hook? Enlist some help.

Method I

First, find five or six people who are familiar with the genre you’re writing in. Give them copies of your manuscript and ask them to complete the sentence “This book is in the tradition of…” with the names of the best-selling books or authors they think are most like yours.

You can also work on this exercise yourself. Is your book a cross between two bestsellers, or even two best-selling genres? Tee Morris describes his novel Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword as “The Lord of the Rings if Mickey Spillane had written it.”

Method II

Next, find some grandmothers in Topeka and ask them to read your manuscript. (Unless, of course, the grandmothers of Topeka are the experts in the area you’re writing in; the point is to find people who know next to nothing about your subject area.)

The feedback of the totally ignorant is helpful for many reasons. For one thing, if they don’t understand the book at all, it’s a sign that your book isn’t suited to a general audience. Some books (say an advanced physics text) aren’t aimed at the general public or meant for mass-market distribution—but those books don’t usually need a hook in the same way commercial books do. Unless you’re only selling to specialists, make your writing clear enough so anyone can understand it.

Don’t provide your test readers with any background about your book; the point is to get them to tell you what the book is about. Invite them to compare it with movies, TV shows, or other works of popular culture—the more popular, the better. Another good question to ask, particularly for nonfiction, is “What can people who read this book do that they couldn’t do before they read it?”

The Results

Your test readers may not describe your book in anything like the terms you would have used yourself. It’s also possible that no two of them will agree on which other books are most like yours.

If every single reader gets your book “wrong,” then you may want to take another look at the manuscript. (This is also true if every agent or editor who rejects it mentions the same problem.) If one or two people completely misunderstand what you meant but the rest seem to “get it,” don’t worry about the discrepancies.


It’s possible that among your test readers you had a brilliant guinea pig who came up with an absolutely perfect hook. If so—congratulations: you’re ready to go. But even if you don’t think any of the descriptions or comparisons you got back is exactly right, you have something to work with. You can look at what you’ve gotten and say “No, it’s not like Lord of the Rings, it’s more like Narnia” (to extend Tee’s metaphor a bit further). Or even, “It’s not like Lord of the Rings; it’s like The Da Vinci Code.”

When you have a hook you think will work, try it out on a few people and see how they react. If the response isn’t “Wow, that’s interesting, tell me more!” (or better yet “I need that book!”), brainstorm about how you can refine it.

When you come up with a line with the impact of a left hook to the jaw and the effect of a grappling hook pulling potential readers in, you’re ready to go fishing for publishers.

What has your book done for your business? RainToday.com wants to know.

RainToday.com is looking for business book authors to participate in a study on “The Effects of Publishing Business Books on Professional Services Practices.”

If you’ve already published a business book, head on over to the RainToday.com survey and share your experience. Participants are automatically entered to win a copy of RainToday.com’s $445 special report How Clients Buy: The Benchmark Report On Professional Services Marketing And Selling From The Client Perspective.

If you’re still considering publishing a book, you might want to wait for the final report, which promises to answer questions about how much authors invest in their books, whether the sales of your book affect its usefulness to your practice, large vs. small publishing houses, and how much difference PR and book marketing firms make.

Or you might just want to conduct some research of your own by asking the business book authors you already know.

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.

Free Book Publishing and Marketing Teleclasses

Authors and authors-to-be take note: the Conversations with Experts series, hosted by Denise Wakeman and Patsi Krakoff, has several weeks of free teleclasses with book publishing and marketing experts lined up. Topics include:

  • Marketing Your Book the Easy Way
  • Ever Wanted to Write a Book? There Has Never Been A Better Time to Realize that Dream than Now!
  • Book Design and Development: The Secrets of Award-Winning Books
  • Using Direct Marketing Techniques to Sell Thousands of Copies of Your Book

Register at http://www.customizednewsletters.com/CE/cesched.htm

Patsi and Denise also teach the Blog to Book course. Blog software can do many things, including help you get a book out of your head and onto a computer. The course has no set start or end date, so it’s never too late to enroll.