Category Archives: Truth about Publishing


Lesson 16: It’s just been printed and you can’t bear to look at it

Rare authors fall in love with their book once it’s published, but more common are feelings of self-consciousness, embarrassment or even mortification. The tiniest flaws now appear gigantic, while the typos, errors and inconsistencies that no one noticed despite all the editing and proofreading are numerous and glaringly obvious.
Don’t expect adulation. The public has a curious attitude to authors – those who know how small most book sales are will display a pitying admiration for you, because you’re doing what you love even though you can’t make any money at it. Others confuse ‘published author’ with ‘famous author’ and assume you’re stinking rich. Either way, take what pleasure you can – after all, you are doing what you love and thousands of people are aching to get there themselves.
Don’t expect your brand new book to be stocked by every bookshop, much less displayed prominently. If it’s in the shop at all, there’s a good chance it’ll be shelved spine-out and practically invisible. Neither expect bookshop staff to recognise your name when you drop in to say hi, even if you have a few books out. Hundreds of books come in every month and they probably won’t remember yours, or your name, or know what to say to you. They may not want you to sign copies of your book either, in case they don’t sell and they have to send them back for a refund. They can’t return them if the book has been signed.
Their attitude will change if your books have sold well; they’ll be glad to see you because their customers will be asking after your next book, and signed copies will sell more quickly . Take a leaflet showing your book cover anyway, as a reminder. It helps to break the ice.
If you have a book launch or a signing, don’t expect a lot of people to come unless you round up all your friends and relatives. The average number of people attending a book signing in the US is four, and it’s much the same here (though you’ll generally do better in towns than in big cities). That doesn’t mean book signings aren’t worthwhile; your books get good display space and promotion, and the shop will sell quite a few of them over the next few weeks (especially if you sign them).

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Lesson 15: Is that all you’re printing?

Your favourite author gets a 200,000 copy print run, but don’t even dream about doing the same. She’s spent 20 years building her name and sales. Besides, she got in first, and lots of other authors in your chosen genre have prospered since, and there’s relentless competition from hundreds of thousands of people self-publishing their own ebooks. There’s not much room in the market for newcomers these days.

Print runs are surprisingly low in Australia and other English speaking countries – in fact everywhere. The initial paperback print run for a popular fiction title by a new author in Australia would typically be 3,000 – 8,000 copies. For literary fiction, it might only be 1,000 – 2,000 copies. In the UK, initial paperback print runs for popular fiction by new authors are typically 10,000 or less, and in the US, 25,000 or less. Again, for literary novels, print runs can be considerably lower. If you sell translations, print runs for European countries, except the largest, are likely to be in the range 1-4,000 copies.

In Australia, only major bestsellers are published in hardcover because consumers are reluctant to pay for them. It’s much the same in the UK. A lot of authors are published in hardcover in the US, where it’s a sign that your publisher is enthusiastic about your book. Even there, typical hardcover print runs are 10,000 or less.

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Lesson 14: Putting your money where your manuscript is

Despite what the hucksters say, it’s better for a publisher to publish your novel than for you to do it yourself. Why? Because publishers have a vast knowledge of the market and what it takes to succeed in it. You don’t, and this knowledge of book editing, cover design, placement and marketing for any particular niche of the fiction market isn’t easily or cheaply acquired. Yes, you can buy these services, but how do you know you’re getting something worthwhile. More critically, how do you know it’s going to be right for your particular book?
Several new authors have achieved fame and fortune in recent years by publishing their own novels and promoting them relentlessly. Now it’s widely believed that this is the best option for all authors – a 70% royalty on Amazon and iBookstore is far better than the 10% royalty on a printed book, or 25% on a publisher’s eBook, isn’t it?
That depends on how many books you can sell by your own efforts. The authors who have succeeded spend a lot more time promoting their books than they do writing them – they’re professional promoters who write books rather than professional authors who are good at promoting. If you’re a professional promoter, maybe you can succeed too. But if you just want to write great books, and looking on promoting as a painful chore, you’re better off with a publisher.
One exception – if you’re a published writer with a backlist and a strong writer’s platform (e.g. popular blog, website, Facebook page, identity as an expert or public speaker, etc). If you can no longer get your books published with a traditional publisher, publish them yourself and you might do well. But it’s getting harder.
Explosion of EBooks
The barriers to self-publishing both print books and eBooks have fallen dramatically over the past decade. Has this made it easier to succeed? Not on your life. It’s made it much, much more difficult. Why?
Because the size of the book market (the number of books sold a year) hasn’t changed significantly, but the number of new titles published has exploded – in the US from 215,000 in 2002 to 2.7 million in 2010.
Average Sales Falling Every Year
Most of those titles are self-published eBooks, and probably only sell a handful of copies, but since there’s millions of them, they’re taking a sizeable slice of the pie. Every year it becomes harder to make your book stand out.
And it gets worse. Books used to go out of print when they stopped selling, but many eBooks stay in print forever. Every year it gets harder for you to sell the number of books you sold last year, and since the price of books isn’t going up, but your cost of living is, if you can’t sell more you’re going to be worse off.

Of course, most of those titles aren’t fiction. Matt Wilkens estimates that there were about 100,000 unique, novel-length fiction titles published worldwide in English in 2007. With the ease of self-publishing eBooks that number has probably risen greatly in the past few years, though currently no one seems to know what the true number of fiction titles is.
If you can’t get a traditional publisher, and you’re really sure you’ve written a good book, you can publish it yourself.
Print Self-Publishing
This isn’t easy, and it definitely isn’t cheap, but if you’ve got months to spare and $10,000 lying around with nothing to spend it on, you could consider self-publishing a printed book. Several of Australia’s best selling novelists began that way, and many other writers have in other countries. There are many options, Lulu being one of the biggest.
But the vast majority of self-publishers do their dough, so if you are going to do it, do it right, and get the right advice. Otherwise, you might as well tear your money up and flush it down the toilet. You must employ a professional editor, a professional cover designer and have the book typeset. This will cost you several thousand dollars, or more if your book is long and requires a lot of editing. Printing will cost you several thousand more dollars, or even more if it’s long or you have a lot of copies printed. For instance, 500 copies of a 400 page paperback at Lulu will cost $US 4,375, i.e. $8.75 each. Shipping will be extra. But paperbacks sell on Amazon for less than that price, so you’re already uncompetitive.
Don’t print more than 500. The biggest problem of all is distribution, which is why publishers have invested millions in it. It takes the most monumental effort for an individual to sell more than 300 – 400 copies, even if you get some good publicity and a few bookshops stock your books. Print too many and they’ll still be rotting in your garage in a decade.

Print On Demand
Margaret has pointed out, in the comments, that it may be cheaper to use a print on demand publisher. Here are some recent articles:,

EBook Self-Publishing
Publishing an eBook solves both the printing and distribution problems, but you still have to spend the money on editing and cover design. The following article tells you how to do it, and what you get.
And you still have to promote it, but that’s another article – or ten. To get you started, you can download this free marketing eBook from Smashwords: You’ll also find lots of useful advice and guides here:
Being a published writer is a great and perilous adventure. Good luck!
Next, in PART 2 of this series, I’ll be talking about Surviving Publication.
Disagree with what I’ve said? Or would like more information? Please post a comment.

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Lesson 13: You’re not published until you’re in print (and sometimes not even then)

Deals fall over for all sorts of reasons, so don’t count your chickens until they’re roosting in a thousand bookshops. Here are some of the most common deal breakers, all of which have happened to writers I know or have heard about:
  • There was a ‘misunderstanding’ when the publisher made your agent an offer for your book. You don’t get a publishing contract after all, or you get a contract but a worse deal than originally offered.
  • The publisher goes bankrupt before your book is published. If they’ve paid the advance, you keep it. If they haven’t, you’re back in the queue.
  • Your editor leaves or is fired and her replacement hates your book and decides not to publish it. You keep the advance though.
  • The publisher is having a tough time and decides that they would lose money publishing your book, so cans it. You keep the advance and, if you’re lucky, they might pay you a small sum in lieu.
  • The editor loves your book and offers a terrific hardcover deal and great promotion, but the sales department or the major book buyers don’t agree that it has big sales potential. You get downgraded to paperback, with little or no promotion, and your potential income and sales are massively reduced.
  • Your book is found to be libellous and the publisher doesn’t want to get sued, so they cancel publication, or if it’s been printed, they withdraw the book and pulp it. You’ve violated your contract and have to pay back the advance, and they could even sue you for their losses.
  • Your non-fiction book is proven to be fraudulent, ditto.

Keep your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed. With sky-high expectations, you’ll be disappointed even if the book does well.

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Lesson 12: The book production line

A lot goes on behind the scenes that you don’t know about. Therefore publishers like to have the manuscript ready for editing 9-12 months before the publication date. Your publisher won’t schedule the publication date of your book until she has the manuscript in hand. Believe it or not, not all authors deliver when they say they’re going to!!

Late changes to the publishing schedule are inconvenient, embarrassing and expensive for the publisher. They can also cost you valuable marketing opportunities, and sales! And money. If your book is scheduled for October, to take advantage of the pre-Christmas sales period when most books are sold, and you deliver a month late, publication is likely to be delayed for months. Your advance on publication will also be delayed by the same amount of time – tough luck if you’re relying on it to pay your bills.

The publisher’s schedule is set at least six months in advance and there may not be an available slot for you in November, December or January, while February is the slowest sales month of the year. Furthermore, promotional opportunities such as space in booksellers’ catalogues may already be booked up. If you miss your chance you may not get another.

About 20 milestones have to be met in the production of your book. Decisions to approve these milestones are normally made in meetings by people from editorial, sales and marketing, and production. Milestones include:
  • book design (including cover design, layout and typography)
  • editing (several stages)
  • typesetting and proofreading (3 stages)
  • cover brief and preparation of cover art (3 or more stages). Sometimes a number of cover roughs will be produced. It’s not uncommon for a cover to be rejected during this process and a new cover concept formulated, or even for a new artist to be commissioned. Even after the final artwork is in, the cover design, layout and text are likely to be tweaked a number of times, and all these changes have to be approved by several people. This often, though not always, includes the author.
  • program meetings to keep key people up to date
  • cover copy
  • marketing plan
  • sales brief
  • cover proof and printing
  • text printing and binding
  • delivery to warehouse (usually a month before publication date) – though for the major book chains, sometimes orders are shipped directly from the printer.
  • delivery of initial orders to the bookshops in time for publication date.

In an emergency, e.g. for a topical book or a blockbuster author who delivers late, all this can be done in two months or less, though this is stressful for everyone and not recommended.

For other authors, where a book is to be published in, say, October, the above process would begin no later than January or February, after the manuscript has been accepted and editing is underway. It be completed in late August when finished books are delivered to the warehouse. In the US, publishers like to have the manuscript in a year in advance, because proof copies (galleys, also known as advanced reading copies or ARCs) are circulated to key buyers 6 months in advance of publication.

Australian and British publishers will often consult you about the covers, though they won’t necessarily adopt your suggestions, which is fine. They ought to know what constitutes a good cover in their marketplace.

American publishers may not consult you at all, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. American covers are so different to Australian and British ones that you may not have anything useful to contribute. e.g., American fantasy covers without people on them rarely succeed, whereas to the Australian and British eye such covers often look cute or twee. Australian or British publishers may ask you to provide copy for the blurb. American publishers will generally write their own and may change the title to suit their own sensibilities or markets.