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Surprising things I've learned about publishing

One of the things I've heard about becoming an author is that writing the book is the easy part. I've already learned this to be true. Considering that only about two percent of those who set out to write a book actually do it, it's easy to see why any budding wordsmith might give up. Once you have a manuscript, or a well-thought out book idea with a few chapters completed to propose to literary agents, the real work begins.

Since contracting with my publisher in November, I've spent a ton of time working on cover and interior design with my publisher, finalizing copy edits, researching marketing strategies, and putting together what's known as a "splash page" for the book– (What do you think???)

But even before I got my contract in November, I had spent roughly two years trying to figure out how to get published. Through this loooooooong process, I've learned some surprising and interesting things about becoming an author. If you know someone who is considering writing a book, I hope you'll share this blog. And if you have tips to add, please leave them in the comments!

  • If you self-publish, odds are you will lose money. Sure, you get the perk of having all proceeds go to you from book sales (after paying for printing, shipping, and Amazon's cut). But you also carry the expense of finding and paying for editing, type-setting, cover and interior design, artwork, an ISBN number, a copyright, fronting the costs of printing and shipping ... self-publishing costs $6-15K, and that doesn't include your time. Not to mention that the average self-published book sells one-to-two hundred copies. Do the math. Self-publishing is a wonderful way to produce a book that is a passion project, or that will be used to augment other income sources or promote other parts of your business. But it is rare for a self-published author to "make it big" simply by writing a book.

  • If you are one of the lucky ones to secure a book contract with a traditional publisher, chances are you won't make any money beyond your advance. Publishers are looking for great writing, an even better "hook," and a platform (a solid following that is eager to purchase the author's content). Industry standard is to send proposals to one literary agent at a time, and each one takes 8-12 weeks to get back to you. It can take quite a while to wait on a lot of "nos." If you find an agent, then that agent has to find you a publisher, which also takes time. Once you get a contract, according to author Mary Adkins, the median publishing advance is about $25,000, paid out in three installments. While you get to keep that no matter what, chances are, you'll never get another penny for the book. That's because the average published book sells about 2,000 copies, and before you make any royalties from sales, you must make the amount of your advance back in royalties before you begin to earn them. When considering your time is money, and it takes time to write a book and market it, it's tough to calculate a true break-even point. When you do sell enough copies that you've paid off your advance in royalties back to the publisher, you make roughly 10-20% of the sales price because your literary agent, publisher, distributor, and bookseller all take a cut. So for a $20 book, you would make $2-4 per copy sold. Cha-ching.

  • Hybrid publishing models land you somewhere in-between a traditional and self-publishing model. With a hybrid publisher, you might get out of paying for an agent, an editor, a designer, artwork, or a proofreader, but you will generally shoulder some or all of the costs to print books and ship them, and again, your sole retail sales outlet is generally Amazon (though a few do manage to distribute through bookstores). Each hybrid publisher does things differently, so it's important to do your research.

  • No matter how you publish, you will be responsible for marketing your book. Across the board, from dozens of authors, I have heard this mantra. The statistic I've found is that only 6% of traditionally published authors get a marketing budget. Think Oprah, presidents, and seasoned veterans. Thus, once you have a physical book in your hands (which is where I am), you have to figure out how you're going to get people to buy it. There are dozens of ways to spend thousands of dollars easily on marketing your book. There are also hundreds of ways to do guerrilla marketing. Researching them all is exhausting and endless. Knowing which ones will work for your book is difficult to determine.

  • The best marketer for your book is your book. If people like your book, they will talk about it. Books are sold by word of mouth. There's something to be said for great writing, timely stories, and sharing your passion with others. At the end of the day, I wrote The Beautiful List from the heart. It is part me as a child, part me as a parent, and part my imagination. It's like Sharon Draper said to me in an email response to my (very bold) request for her to read an advance reader copy for an endorsement. After giving me advice on getting blurbs and comments about the book, she wrote: "Then we just send our creations out on wings of hope." That's exactly what this feels like; sending a piece of me out into the world, not knowing if it will be lauded or laughed at, but believing that those for whom it is meant will somehow find their way to it.

It takes courage, audacity, perseverance, and faith to publish a book today. Gone are the days when great writing and good ideas were all it took to get a publishing contract. About a million books are published each year in the U.S. alone. Competition for market share is fierce, and marketing efforts must continue after launch. So if you're considering writing a book, or have begun the writing journey, I applaud you for the leap you've already taken, and encourage you to keep at it. You're at the precipice of a long and arduous but very worthwhile path.


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