A Half Dozen Lessons About Writing and Getting a Book Published

“To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.” Charles Caleb Colton (1780 – 1832) 

  1. Write a book proposal first.

I have now written and found a publisher for seven books. Most of them are listed on my Amazon author page. I have learned a fair amount during that process, which I will try to convey efficiently here.

When I wrote my first book I did not know how the publishing industry worked. I naively wrote the book, sent it to a few publishers and one of them published it. That is not the optimal way to write a book and find a publisher or the typical experience of a first time author. It makes much more sense to write a “book proposal” than a complete book. However, a first time author may have no other option than to write a complete book before landing a publisher, but that is a big upfront investment by the aspiring author that may never bear any fruit. I was lucky. My luck continued to hold six more times.

A book proposal has a standard format which varies only slightly between publishers. Many publishers will read a proposal even if it is not precisely in their format as long as it fits the general industry practice. There are lots of book proposal templates that can be found on the internet and I will provide links to a few in the notes. The types of information required in the book proposal are as follows:









Sylvia Plath said once that “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” The book proposal cuts down on the potential or that stench, but to get a publisher, especially your first publisher, you will need to hustle. They will consider not just whether you can write a book, but whether you can sell it in significant quantities to make their business model work.

I should emphasize that this is not a blog post about self-publishing. It is about “getting a book published.” There are many people who are enthusiastic about a self-publishing option. Since I have a demanding day job and have a wide range of other things I like to do, I have never had the necessary time to self-publish. There are many things that the self-published author must do like finding editors, locating a book designer, lining up printers if you want a paper version, dealing with publicity and securing book sellers. I expect that all this can be done profitably by some people who have the necessary time and enjoy that sort of thing, but I have never done it myself.

2. You are not Michael Lewis or John Grisham.

Producing great writing is hard. Few people do it really well, but everyone can work at becoming a better writer and experience some progress. At an event held at the University of Virginia in 1957 William Faulkner said:

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

Given what Faulkner said, what should you do? I like David Carr’s advice: “Keep typing until it turns in to writing.” There is no substitute for hard work. Of course, there is also no substitute for having something interesting or useful to say. Y Combinator’s “motto is to make something that people want. Nothing else you do is going to matter if people don’t like your product.” I may not be a great writer, but I try to be an interesting writer. Someone once said that my writing has high information density. Making your writing genuine is highly underrated.  The singer and song writer Bill Withers puts it this way: “Your job is to make somebody interested enough in you that they’ll pay you for the privilege. The odds are against you, so if you’re not enjoying yourself there’s no point. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re doing it for the sake of doing it — that’s what it’s about.”

3. You are more or less on your own in marketing the book.

Your publisher will have a sales team that gets your book in physical stores. They will do the work to get you on Amazon and other on-line retailers. Your publisher will also do things like attending industry events to promote your book, sending out press releases and finding people who many want to do an interview. Unless you have secured a big advance or are famous they will seldom run advertising or finance a book tour. To sell books you will need to engage with your communities of interest and try to create some word of mouth sales. Madi Preda who wrote How to Promote and Market Your Book has said: “Writing a book without promoting it is like waving to someone in a dark room. You know what have you done but nobody else does.” It is important to remember that when your book arrives in stores there will not be a line of people waiting to buy it. Amazon’s servers will not be crushed by the number of people trying to buy it on line.

There is some solid marketing advice on the Internet and most much of it is free. In terms of getting free publicity, I like the recent example of Anthony Bourdain who made the smart more to get his imprint’s book banned on Twitter.

Bourdain knows surely familiar with the phrase ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is often attributed to Phineas T. Barnum. An earlier version appeared in The Atlanta Constitution, January, 1915: “All publicity is good if it is intelligent.” Oscar Wilde said before that: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

4. Be emotionally ready to be attacked for your efforts.

When you write a book you are creating and putting your work in the public and therefore it is available for anyone to attack. This means you can put yourself in a very vulnerable position emotionally. That fact unfortunately comes with the book writing territory. Dale Carnegie said: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.” If you can’t handle criticism, you need to learn to do so, not write a book or prepare to be unhappy. The internet enables people to attack your work like never before. Increasingly partisan and nasty posts on social media make the phenomenon worse. If you have a fragile ego, do not publish a book. Aristotle put it this way: “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” If you do write a book the best approaches to handling criticism will depend on the person.

5Books should be written by missionaries not mercenaries.

In return for writing a book an author will receive royalties. Alan Jacobson describes the structure of these payments:

Typically, an author can expect to receive the following royalties: Hardback edition: 10% of the retail price on the first 5,000 copies; 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, then 15% for all further copies sold. Paperback: 8% of retail price on the first 150,000 copies sold, then 10% thereafter. Exceptions to the above include sales to warehouse clubs (like Costco or Sam’s Club), book clubs, and special orders; the royalty percentages for these can be half the figures listed above. Update: eBook royalties through traditional New York publishers are 25%. They should be higher because the publisher does not have the typical costs of printing, binding, warehousing, shipping, etc. that they have with a bound book. Some digital publishers offer royalties at or near 50%.

Other publishing contract issues including topics like reserves for returns are not something I will cover in this blog post.

What is the financial opportunity?

In the US book business, instead of an 80/20 rule, we find a 97/20 rule, that is, 97% of sales are made by 20% of authors. US literary nonfiction sales are still more imbalanced; with 0.25% of books representing 50% of sales. In Canada, a 0.8% of books generated 60% of bookshop revenues. The form of the distribution can also change with time. In Italy, Pareto’s homeland, the value of the exponent of the Pareto distribution for book sales in the mid-90s varied between 0.9 and 1.5, depending on the time of the year. The lowest values were found around Christmas. Mind that as the value of the exponent decreases, fewer books take a higher proportion of the sales, which means that, when buying Christmas presents, best-sellers are still more popular than during the rest of the year.

The distribution of success looks like this:

Given that financial returns for book authors reflects a power law as is the case on most creative endeavors, your motivation for writing a book should not be monetary. Michael Lewis recalls:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write. My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book….

6. Don’t expect to earn more than the minimum wage and be thrilled if you earn more.

Michael Lewis describes the financial aspects of writer’s life bluntly: “It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.” Here is some advice from a literary agent I know named Michael Snell:

We have seen a rather mediocre nag turn into a racehorse and sell hundreds of thousands of copies, while the son of Secretariat breaks its leg before it leaves the chute and just lies there and groans. So much depends on how well you brand and promote yourself and your book. Rule of thumb: Do not quit your day job. If you want to publish a book just to make money, you probably won’t put much in the bank; but if you write it to help people, to solve their problems and maybe even to enrich or save their lives, you just might strike it rich.

I do not write my blog or the books for the money. There are no ads on my blog and I even bought back one book from Harper so I could make it available free. All profit I make on my next book A Dozen Lessons for Entrepreneurs which will be available this November will go to a charity I support called No Kid Hungry.

Even if an author is successful, pressure to repeat continues. Michael Lewis talks about the pressure a professional writer feels here:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

Many people write a book as a way to promoting their other business. It serves as a form of marketing for what the really do for a living like sell consulting, wealth management or seminars. Books can be an excellent form of content marketing if done right.

Let’s frame the financial challenge of writing a book and expecting to profit from the book itself by looking at demand and market size. Steven Piersanti in an article entitled:The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” writes:

The number of books being published every year has exploded.
According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely over saturated.

Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.
Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 256 million print copies were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.

A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

Another particularly useful site if you are an aspiring writer and want to understand the book business is Author’s Earnings:

More than 50% of all traditionally published book sales of any format in the US now happen on Amazon.com. That’s just the traditionally published books, though. In addition, roughly 85% of all non-traditionally published book sales of any format in the US also happen on Amazon.com. In other words, a comprehensive cross-sectional snapshot of Amazon.com’s sales, like the one we are describing here in our report, is a definitive look at more than half of all daily US author earnings, period.

The Size of Publishing’s Midlist: Traditionally Published vs Indie

“When we look at the leftmost set of bars, it’s encouraging to see a sizeable, healthy midlist represented there — more than 4,600 authors earning $25,000 or above from their sales on Amazon.com. 40% of these are indie authors deriving at least half of their income from self-published titles, while 35% are Big Five authors deriving the majority of their income from Big Five-published titles, and 22% are authors who derive most of their income from titles published by small- or medium-sized traditional publishers. But this includes traditional publishing’s longest-tenured and most recognizable names, including thousands of authors who have been actively publishing for the last several decades. When we consider only those authors who debuted sometime in the past ten years — who appear in the secondset of bars in each graph — a sharp dichotomy starts to become apparent. The vast majority of traditional publishing’s midlist-or-better earners started their careers more than a decade ago. Their more-recently debuted peers are not doing anywhere near as well. Fewer than 700 Big Five authors and fewer than 500 small-or-medium publisher authors who debuted in the last 10 years are now earning $25,000 a year or more on Amazon — from all of their hardcover, paperback, audio and ebook editions combined. By contrast, over 1,600 indie authors are currently earning that much or more.”

Maybe you will get an advance from a big four publisher, but that is rarer most people you think. My literary agent friend Michael Snell says the advance can range from: “Zero to a million dollars. Who knows?”

I have published books with big publishers (Harper Collins) and smaller publishers. One advantage you get with a smaller more specialized publishers is more attention. As in most of life there are trade-offs. One view on big vs small publishers is:

If you think a small press might be a good fit for your work, what should you know about vetting your options? Whether the books are made available as print, digital or both (formats and contract terms vary widely, which may give you room to negotiate), authors earn their money primarily through royalties—roughly 10 percent on print sales and up to 25 percent per digital purchase. On average, advances tend to be small—$1,000–2,000 is a common range—or even nonexistent. (At a larger publisher, you’d likely receive a bigger check upon signing—but remember that all advances are paid against royalties, meaning you aren’t paid royalties until you “earn out” your advance. At a small press, you’d likely receive less payment up front, but earn royalties sooner.)

Big publishers like big blockbuster books from already famous people. This creates an opportunity: ‘Major presses are inadvertently helping foster an environment where American indie presses can thrive by doing the very thing they’re best at: being small and, by extension, focusing on creativity and originality over sales.” 

In the end you want the best publisher that will have you, just in romantic relationships. The author Robert Gottlieb put it this way: “What makes a publishing house great? The easy answer is the consistency with which it produces books of value over a lengthy period of time.”

p.s., my books are:


Why We Write https://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Write-Acclaimed-Authors/dp/0452298156/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1505406185&sr=8-1&keywords=why+we+write







Book proposal templates: