By Guest Blogger, Summer Whitford, Author
One of the most important lessons my agent has taught me is that in the book business; nothing is what it seems. And being on the inside of the industry doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to figure out how and why publishers do things either. The truth gets even murkier thanks to the way movies and television portray the process.
As a result, the public has gotten the wrong impression about everything from what agents do, to the writing process, the role of the publisher, book tours, and the financial rewards. I know nothing about self-publishing but Jennifer Wilkov does and I highly recommend you read what she has to say about that kind of publishing. She has been a very successful, self-published author and she has her own tips and advice to offer. But, for my explanation of a few of the common myths about traditional book publishing, read on.
Myth #1: All you need to get published is a manuscript.
If only it were that easy. Since my agent sold Join Us At The Embassy in 2007, I have developed a mantra that all first-time authors should make their own:
“Getting a book published is like winning the lottery.”
Why? Just like the lottery, the odds of getting published are stacked against you. For starters, all authors need to put together a book proposal, whether the book is fiction or non-fiction.
That’s because a proposal is essential when the agent is shopping the book to publishers. Surprisingly, many people can’t even complete this process in a reasonable amount of time, if at all, or the proposal just isn’t well organized or well written. I know, because I have worked on many proposals as a ghost writer or book doctor. Proposals, either for fiction or non-fiction do two things, they show an agent and publishers that you can do research, organize materials, put together a well thought out organized overview of your book concept, meet deadlines, and develop a marketing strategy that will result in book sales. But more importantly—they show whether or not you can write!
Because non-fiction books aren’t sold as manuscripts, without a proposal an agent has nothing to show a publisher. Because agents, editors, and publishers are very busy in this fast-paced, information age we live in, most fiction submission to publishers often must include a proposal and a finished or nearly finished manuscript. A proposal for fiction books gives the agent and the publisher a synopsis of the book to determine the quality of the writing and the story without having to read the entire manuscript.
One way to think about it is: if you can’t write a good proposal, no agent or publisher will ever trust you to do a good job on the book.
Think of the proposal as your book’s business plan and the publisher as your potential investor. What do you think your chances of getting funding would be if you went to a bank or investor with only an idea and your promise to do a good job? it’s the same thing in the publishing world.
Without a well done proposal, no agent worth anything is going to stick their neck out or risk their reputation and the loss of publishing contacts by submitting a poorly done proposal. It doesn’t matter if you have written a novel or want to do a cookbook, the proposal is key to showing a publisher that you can follow the project through to its completion on time and in a good amount of time. If your marketing plan isn’t top notch either then chances are sales will be too and the publisher will run in the opposite direction.
Myth #2: You don’t need an agent to get published.
Wrong again. Hollywood is culpable here for its inaccurate portrayal of the book submission process. They love the drama of scenes that show an author mailing out their manuscript to a slew of publishers while nervously waiting to see if they get THE letter that will change their life forever. Nowadays, there are few if any publishers who take unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals. That’s why an agent is an indispensable professional whose experience and contacts in the publishing industry can mean the difference between getting published or not.
We have movies and TV to thank for the reputation agents have earned as “bottom feeders”. You should never believe everything you hear and avoid blanket generalizations about an entire profession. If you are lucky like me, your agent is also an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts; a relationship that can save you money and protect your interests in ways you never would have imagined.
Myth #3: If you are a content expert or have been published before you will have an edge over other first-time authors.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In our celebrity driven society, being an expert at something or previously being published doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Publishers want to know what your “platform” is before they will even consider looking at a proposal or manuscript. In reality, “platform” is a euphemism for celebrity and your visibility on TV or in movies. You may not have any writing talent but if you can sell books, that is sometimes all that matters. Besides, as far as the publisher is concerned, you can always get a ghost writer to do the actual work for you. Media coverage, and lots of it, are magic for book sales in today’s media and celebrity obsessed society. All the more reason to make sure your book is as well written and well presented as possible so that you stand out from the crowd.
Myth #4: Your publisher will send you on a whirlwind book tour to promote the book around the country.
If they ever existed, those days are long gone and publishers don’t like to spend their money on getting authors out into the marketplace. They rely more on the author already having a public persona or in developing one—at the author’s expense. It doesn’t make sense to me since they have paid staff who are in charge of publicity, but that’s another article. Nowadays, even celebrities don’t get their travel or expenses paid for and they have to do their own publicity, media booking, etc. This is usually handled by a PR firm or publicist hired by the author at a hefty price. In fact, just getting a publisher to send out press releases can be difficult.
If you have the money and know of a firm whose efforts resulted in good book sales, go for it. The reality is that most of us don’t have that kind of money and instead have to be resourceful, work harder and longer, and be persistent, which is why you have to be creative when planning your marketing strategy.
Myth #5: Once your book is published it shouldn’t be too hard to sell as long as it’s on Amazon.com and you do plenty of book signings in bookstores, etc.
Don’t we wish things were this simple. Ask any author about the book tour and selling process and if they’re honest they’ll tell you their woes. I always say that, “If you think getting the book published and written are hard, wait until you have to actually sell it.” For a partial explanation of this, see Myth #3. It doesn’t matter whether you market the book online with book sellers like Amazon.com or try to get real bricks and mortar stores to do book signings, you really have to have a strong network of contacts and media outlets to get the kinds of numbers that make publishers happy.
With so many independent book store closings and chain stores down-sizing, even getting book stores to carry a book is hard if you aren’t a celebrity. That’s why you need to think of every kind of gimmick, hook, trick, or “in” that you have in your professional and private life to help boost sales. Just like any other product in the market place a book is a consumer product, so market it that way. Do whatever you can to get people to buy it, write about, tell others to buy it, review it, etc. You need to create a demand for your book. It helps if you make lists of every organization that you, your friends and family, etc. belong to that might have people who would be interested in your book. Get anyone and everyone to host a book signing, sell the book, and promote it.
Myth #6: You will get rich from being published.
Not true. If you believe this, you are in for a big surprise. That’s not to say that books can’t pay well, you just shouldn’t quit your day job. Most authors, unless they are John Grisham or J.K. Rowling, don’t make a living as full time authors, and if they do it’s after they have published many books that have sold well. The upside of books though is that they can lead to other books, writing gigs, and opportunities to do other things in your profession. What’s important is that you don’t stop writing, work at your craft, and try to get other kinds of writing jobs. Writing really is like a muscle that you need to constantly use or it loses dexterity and flexibility. Like Jennifer Wilkov says, “Your book is your hook” and it can be a powerful professional credential as well as a useful tool to market your business.
Now that you have an idea of how things work, I want to share with you some of the marketing techniques that I am using to sell Join Us At The Embassy. Being a published author with a book about food, drinks, culture, and travel has really given my credentials as professional chef and lifestyle expert a big boost.
Few things say more about your expertise, level of success, or acumen than having a book published. Once people read Join Us At The Embassy, they have a new level of respect for the amount of research and knowledge it takes to do a book about food, travel, culture, and traditions for ten countries, all with their own languages, etc.
My profile and credibility have risen since Join Us At The Embassy was released. After all, the number of people who have ever been published is still a small portion of the population which does set you apart from your colleagues and competitors in the marketplace. Use this to your advantage. Think of as many connections as you can that your book has in common with potential readers, book signing venues, book event hosts, etc. For example, my book is about food, drinks, culture, travel, and the people and traditions of 10 countries and their embassies here in Washington, DC.
Before I began my marketing plan, I made a list of every topic, group, subject, demographic, etc. that has some connection to the subjects covered in my book. Once I made these lists and looked at what they had in common, I found that there were more potentials ways to sell my books than I had realized. The same people and organizations interested in food, drinks, culture, travel, international politics, history, geography, religion, and anthropology were my readers.
With ten culturally and geographically diverse countries as the subject, a whole spectrum of potential readers, retail outlets, and book event hosts opened up. Embassies and related embassy events, especially those featured in my book were one resource. Others include:
• Expat groups
• Cooking and wine clubs
• Cultural organizations
• Historical organizations
• Ethnic organizations
• Food and wine retailers
• Import gift shops
• Cooking schools
Two of the countries in my book (Afghanistan and Kenya) are also hot political topics that are in the news often, so peace organizations, international affairs, diplomatic organizations, political science groups and classes, think tanks, etc. have a connection to my book.
You have to think of every angle or connection to the subject of your book or demographic and really tap into your network of contacts to see if there isn’t a link. Making cold calls is never easy, so start with your friends, family, co-workers, people you worship with, etc. Don’t get discouraged or take the rejection personally, not everyone is going to want to buy your book or host an event. But, you never know who might refer you to a friend or organization that would be interested.
I have gotten quite a few referrals that have resulted in an event being held. Remember, you sell books one at a time and no one is better suited to sell your book to the public than you are. Nothing beats face-to-face contact in sales, which is essentially what book signings are all about so get caught up in the public speaking part of the process. Many inexperienced authors make the mistake of treating a book event as a public speaking event and drone on about the subject of their book. Don’t give away the whole story—you want people to buy the book so they can read what’s in it. If you tell them everything in a speech then they might not buy the book.
Do as much as you can to be out in the public eye and engage everyone you meet wherever you go and sell, sell, sell.