How To Get A Book Published
As The Author Incubator I help people craft the right publishing strategy for their desired reader outcomes – and the outcome they want for themselves with their book. So today I wanted to preview a chapter of my upcoming book “Make ‘Em Beg To Publish Your Book”, which releases on August 18th!
Chapter 3: “You Don’t Pay To Publish!”
Back in the 1990s, I worked on a book called Aboard Air Force One, by former Clinton White House staffer, Ken Chitester. Ken had a full-time job post-presidency as a publicist and professional Communications guy. He wasn’t going to quit his job and make a living as a writer with this book, but he did love to write and his stories from his days flying around with Bill Clinton were pretty damn entertaining.
Ken wrote some query letters to agents, put a proposal together, but the project wasn’t going anywhere. He hired me as his editor and we polished up the manuscript quite a bit, but still, no bites.
A year went by and Ken called from Little Rock with news. “I’ve found a publisher!”, he told me, as his golden retriever Camelot barked at a squirrel in the background.
“Who is it?”, I asked.
“They are called Fithian Press. It’s a vanity house but…”
His voice trailed off.
Or maybe it didn’t trail off… but what I know for sure is that I didn’t hear ANYTHING after the words “vanity house.”
My heart sunk. “Vanity house!”, I fumed in my head! “Meaning the assholes who take out ads at the back of Rolling Stone magazine to sucker dumb people into giving them money? That’s who you are publishing with???”
I didn’t say it. But I knew it. He had given up and been sucked into a losing scheme. He had been suckered. And my editing work – all those hours of perfecting the book – they would be locked inside boxes in a garage in Little Rock, Arkansas for 10 years until he cleaned out his garage and threw them out.
I was shattered.
Ken was my first author to go to a vanity press. I was used to Macmillan or Random House or Wiley or Penguin taking my books. Fithian Press felt like a smack in the face. I’d bury it on my resume lest anyone find out I worked on books that went through vanity press “publication” – if you can even call it that.
Back then, I was the Queen of the “You Never Pay to Publish” movement.
It was “Big 6 or Bust” as far as I was concerned (Big 5 now that Penguin and Random House got married).
I was right about Ken’s book. It didn’t sell. It didn’t make a difference. And it was a DAMN good book!!!
In my head, the only way to make a difference was with a traditional book deal.
But that was back when I thought the purpose of writing and publishing books was to sell books. Ha! I know! That seems like it should be the goal, but let’s talk about who wins with that kind of thinking.
With a traditional deal, most publishers will pay authors an advance of the author’s own money. The publisher will say, “Hey Ken! We think we can sell 10,000 copies of your book and we are willing to pay you $1 a book so we’ll just give you that $10K now in exchange for the opportunity to exploit your intellectual property.”
Ken is supposed to feel #blessed for the opportunity and not pay attention to the fact that any publisher who believes YOU will make $10,000 enough to pay it to you in advance also believes they will make $90,000 from your book. (A 9:1 split is pretty standard. 8:1 is amazing and 1:1 is the best you can hope for and never with one of the big 5)
Have you ever heard the term “The house never loses”? It usually references Las Vegas casinos – but the same is true in publishing. They might not win with every book, but a 9:1 odd means that, overall, publishers will make money and most authors will lose.
93% of traditionally published books make less than $1,000. And, still, the house usually wins at the end of the day! What does that tell you about the other 7%? (XXX source) Chances of an author winning with a traditional deal are very low – about 7% – chances of the house winning are almost guaranteed. Boo!
As self-publishing has become easier and easier, the term “vanity press” has faded into a new term: “author-funded publishing”. The shame and stigma of paying to publish has dissipated, and yet there are still those that wave the “You never pay to publish” flag I once so proudly carried.
As author-funded publishing has evolved through the democratization of publishing, so has another trend – the indies. Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki have lead the charge of the indies. Rather than pay to publish – these authors would do it themselves – they would BECOME publishers.
Rather than paying companies like Fithian Press to publish their books, the indies would learn the mechanics of design, managing an editorial team, search engine optimization, Amazon search algorithms, pricing analysis, rights and translations work, and marketing strategy, in addition to continuing to hone their skills as writers.
“If guys like Fithian Press can figure it out”, thought these bold “indies”, “So can I!”
And the self-publishing revolution began in earnest. “Screw the vanity presses even with their fancy new names” was their rallying cry. The titans of author-funded publishing, Author Solutions, became enemy number one.
About a year ago, audiobook and business scalability expert James Tonn invited me into a community of these indie types I’d been reading about from my ivory tower. These were fiction authors called “Smarter Artists”, a group run by self-publishing geniuses and all-around smart dudes, Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt. Smarter Artist are mostly science fiction and romance novelists who raise high the ‘You never pay to publish” rallying cry.
I played “fly on the wall” for over 12 months before I formulated an opinion on the indie ethos because, the truth is, while we never charge people to publish at The Author Incubator, I do have several business partners and colleagues who DO charge to publish and I have sent several of our #incubatedauthors to those colleagues.
The thinking from the Smarter Artist camp is that as a full-time author, it’s your job to either figure out how to write a compelling book proposal and get a traditional publisher OR to learn how to self-publish (often Smarter Artists do both).
I understood the cry because it was one I’d felt a couple decades before when Ken told me he was paying a vanity publisher, but my perspective had changed in the couple of years that passed.
While the “Smarter Artists” I was meeting were consumed with the goal of making a full-time 6-figure income as writers, the authors I had come to focus on working with had the goal of generating their income through coaching, consulting, and speaking.
I work with life coaches and other experts who often (though not always) enjoy writing, but not as much as they enjoy making a difference and changing people’s lives. My authors exist to solve painful problems that keep people from living a life they love and writing is one way for them to connect with the people they are meant to serve on this planet.
They often write 2 or 3 books – one of our authors, Cassie Parks, even wrote 7 books in about 2 years (between December 2014 and January 2017). But, their main goal isn’t to make a living as an author, it is to make a living from making a difference.
Books are amazing tools but, no matter how slowly you read, when you finish reading a book on weight loss, you haven’t lost 100 lbs. When you finish reading a book about money mindset, you haven’t attracted $10,000. When you finish reading a book on how to write a book, your book is not written.
I believe, and my authors believe, that truly making a difference means working directly and intensely with the readers who most connect with your message until they get the ultimate result or dream come true with the help of the author.
As a side note, you should know we never charge people to publish at The Author Incubator and when you do see us publish books, not only did we do that for free for our year long clients as a bonus, but we also give them 100% of their royalties. Years ago, I used to do a 50/50 revenue split on royalties and there are a handful of books with that deal, but what I came to realize is there is a conflict of interest when you split royalties so I always give authors all of their money. If we collect a penny on their behalf, it goes straight to the author – more on that in Chapter 5.
For now, I want to talk about the idea that “You Never Pay to Publish!”.
When it comes to “real writers” – people who want to make a full-time income from the sale of books – there is no doubt in my mind that “You don’t pay to publish”.
Well, because these days, the job of being a full-time writer includes about 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time publishing. Alternatively, you can spend 80% of your time writing and give up 90% of your revenue to a traditional publisher. In other words – if you decide NOT to learn how to become a publisher yourself, then you are agreeing to paying 80-90% of anything your ideas earn to someone else.
Now, this presumes you COULD get a publishing deal – and look – you COULD. It can be a lot of work and take a long time, but if you want a publishing deal more than you want to learn how to be a great publisher yourself, you CAN do it. Other people who are less good writers than you, who have less good ideas than you, who are less smart than you, have done it. And you can, too.
But the question is, which would you rather do? Work your ass off to get a publishing deal where you give most of your money to someone else? Or work your ass off to get great at publishing and have full control and keep all the money you earn? Because those are the main options if we are going to agree that “Real Writers Don’t Pay to Publish”.
And I’m in. After a year of careful listening, I am willing to concede this point – but I also must say that the cost of either choice is high, so choose wisely.
If you want to make money primarily from the sale of books in $1 or $10 increments, then take the time to make the right choice here. And I really recommend becoming a part of the Smarter Artist community.
By the way, as I hinted earlier, lots of folks in that community advocate for a blend of learning how to self-publish and then leveraging your self-publishing success to get traditional deals and going back and forth between the 2 options. This is clearly the place of most freedom and leverage for people who make a full-time income from the sale of books.
However, this is not the situation that most authors I work with find themselves in.
Most of the authors I work with have spent years, often decades, learning a skill other than writing. Maybe it’s how to grow and manage large teams, or how to bio-hack hormones to achieve optimal health, or how to practice mindfulness to create magical relationships.
Not only are they not focused primarily on the craft of writing like the Smarter Artist crew, they don’t WANT to be. The craft of writing – of BEING a writer – is a beautiful thing, but so is being a functional medicine doctor, or a relationship coach, or a business alignment expert. Few people have a zone of genius that includes both.
There is a very real toll on human lives if these powerful experts who are so good at what they do were to instead focus on something they aren’t good at. Let’s say one of my authors chose to learn the skills of self-publishing that the Smarter Artists so often advocate investing in. If they were to make even a 90-day investment in building up these skills, most of my authors would be putting at least $50,000 in revenue from at least 20 clients at risk. The clients in turn would not get the help they needed and this could mean they could end up divorced, or unemployed, or without that baby for months or maybe years.
My author would, after 90 days, have basic competency in a new skill that is probably not in their zone of genius. And their ideal reader will be further from hope, healing and transformation.
I can’t, in good conscience, advocate for that.
My mission on the planet is to help others bring their books into reality so that they might serve as beacons to attract the people these authors are most aligned to heal permanently.
My mission is most definitely not to encourage people how to get good at doing something they weren’t born to do!
So, let me say this again – at The Author Incubator, we don’t charge people to publish. Ever. There is no line-item in my revenue forecast that says “revenue from publishing” or revenue from royalties” (well, except the royalties from the books I write). But I do recommend to our authors to pay to publish sometimes and I’m not ashamed of that.
Here are the cases where I think it’s a HUGE mistake to pay to publish:
- If you want to make a living as a full-time writer focused on the craft of writing and having full-autonomy and creative rights over your intellectual property and you don’t want to sell anything other than your books (these are the true “Smarter Artists”).
- If you’re retired or unemployed and/or have very little money. If you don’t want to be a full-time writer and you don’t have a book or platform that would sell to a traditional publisher. If you don’t want to sell coaching and consulting, but you can write a book that is pure catharsis and publish it yourself without spending money like Ken had to back in the day.
- If you have a huge platform to exploit (500,000 fans or more) and it’s not a good use of your time or energy to learn how to publish because of the opportunity cost. Sometimes it makes sense to give up 90% of your royalties to traditional publishers because your audience is so hungry for content (this applies most often to our authors who are YouTube and reality TV show stars).
But here are the cases where I think it’s a HUGE mistake NOT to pay to publish:
- If you are a life coach or other expert whose zone of genius is not writing and publishing, but is instead helping people and you want to use a professional looking book to attract clients.
- You have a full-time job or large savings. You don’t want to be a full-time writer but you don’t have a book or platform that would sell to a traditional publisher.
- You are a sales and marketing-oriented person with a big following. You know you could get a fat advance from a traditional publisher because of your platform, but you also know that by doing it yourself you get to keep an additional 80-90% of the revenue. The opportunity cost doesn’t justify giving up that percentage of revenue from your book in exchange for the design, editing, and distribution a publisher provides, so you will just pay an author-funded publisher to do those tasks for you while you keep 100% of the marketing and sales responsibility for yourself and your team.
The truth, in my experience, is that sometimes it’s a terrific investment to pay to publish and, sometimes, it’s not. There are good reasons to pay to publish and there are good reasons NOT to pay to publish.
So, let’s get real… was it a mistake for Ken to pay to publish all those years ago?
I reached out to him on Facebook recently and asked. “Truth is”, he said, “I’m not real proud that I didn’t find a publisher. I did have an agent. And, after I had an agreement with the agent, I had an offer from a traditional publisher, which I felt honor bound to forgo. It would have been a hotter property had I included juicy gossip. Which I could’ve done; I just chose not to do so. Truthfully, today there are options – e.g. print on demand – not available then. 20 years later? Who knows? I’d have done some things differently, sure. But I never would have passed on Fithian’s offer to publish a story I thought would be worthwhile – albeit as a niche tale – to historians. At that point, the only alternative was letting it rot in a desk drawer or on a floppy disk and that just felt wrong. It was an investment, sure, but I’m still glad I did it.”
So, to the “You don’t pay to publish” crowd… I hear you. I get the message and I believe it – for you. But for some people, some of the time, paying to publish is just about the smartest thing you can do.
I’ve got no horse in this race, except to honor all the empowered choices hundreds of authors I have worked with over the years have made.
I’ve had authors self-publish with success.
I’ve had authors pay-to-publish with success.
I’ve had authors give up 90% of their revenue to a traditional publisher with success.
I support them all if their decision is made for the right reasons.
But then I’ve had authors stick their manuscript in a drawer never to see the light of day again. And with those authors, I think about the lives they could have changed, the difference they could have made, and the sense of completion and accomplishment they could have had. And I think, “Wow, what a bummer! You could have made a difference and you chose not to because the path to publishing is hard or confusing or maybe because you were afraid of your own greatness.”
That’s just not a choice I can support.
So – pay, don’t pay, give away your revenue to a traditional publisher – whatever! In my book, as long as you are putting it out there to make a difference and help people and are not hiding your light, it’s a win.