Publishing is a Business

by Ginger on April 19, 2011

in Inside Book Publishing, The 9-5

So one of the things that I think is missing from many of the discussions about publishing is one simple, stark fact:

Publishing is a business.

I know there’s a idealistic notion of publishing—I had it before I got into it—that many people fall into. You know, how magical it is to work with books all the time, and how awesome it is to sit around and discuss books and writing and authors. And the contribution you’re making to literary history! And yes, there is some of that. But the reality, at the end of the day, is that it’s a business, one filled with spreadsheets, profit & loss statements, data entry and minutia mixed in with the cool stuff–just like most jobs. And then you publish a book by Snooki because every report you run says that thing will sell, and you realize it’s not all Faulkner and Dr. Seuss around here. It’s about the bottom line.

I especially think that writers have a way of romanticizing the publishing process, of what it means to be a published author. The reality is that publishing a book is hard work, and it’s getting harder for authors every day. Gone are the days of just writing your book, sending it off to the publisher and then reaping the rewards. Oh, no, authors now have to be marketers, and publicists, and sales people on top of all the writing.

This sounds all “woe, woe, turn back all ye who enter here” I know. But I don’t mean for it to be that. Instead I think that if you can keep in mind that publishing is a business, first and foremost, you’ll be better able to understand (some of) the decisions that publishers make, from publishing Snooki’s book to not chasing every amazing blogger down for a book deal.

The reality of publishing is that almost every book project has to go through the process of proving its worthiness—not of its literary, intellectual or interesting merit, but of its saleability. Of the chances of it getting publicity coverage. Of the likelihood that the publisher is not going to take a loss on the capital investment they’ve laid out to purchase, print, and publicize the book.

Now, there are some significant ways that publishing is bass-ackwards in the business model they employ, but it is what it is. If you plan (or hope) in any way to be included in the publishing cog, you need to understand that this is the model you’re working with. Imperfect though it may be.

It’s not just about WHAT your book is about. It’s not just about how relevant or timely or poetic or touching. Those things matter, being a good writer matters, having a voice and a story–that matters. But what matters more to a publisher is: are we going to lose money on this?

This is where bloggers do have an advantage–that built in audience. But think, really really think about your audience. How many of them would ACTUALLY go to the bookstore and buy your book? 10%? 50%? All of them is really doubtful, so when you say you have 4000 blog followers, a publisher isn’t going to think “ok, well, that’s 4000 sales!” No, realistically, most publishers are going to low-ball that number (we can be a cynical bunch, and often don’t believe that people will do what they think they will). So let’s say the publisher thinks you’ll sell 25% of your audience, a number that I frankly think is a high guess, but for ease of math, we’ll go with it. Now you’re talking about 1000 books sold. Well, most publishers aren’t going to publish a book for 1000 sales.

So then you have to figure out, ok, well where do we get more sales? Is there an audience OUTSIDE of blogland for your book? If so, who are they? How do you find them? Do they number in the hundreds? Or the thousands? How do you reach them?

And by the way, what is the competition for this book? Who will you be competing with for sales? Are there a million stories/cookbooks/humor books/etc. out there like yours? Will you be competing against a heavy-weight in the category?

These are the things to remember as you venture into publishing. Whatever it is, your book (and, to an extent, you) is not the only thing on a publishers mind. At the end of the day, publishing is really a sales business. One that peddles words and stories, yes, but peddles them nonetheless. So what makes YOUR book more salable than the rest? How does your book work for a publisher’s bottom line? Once you start seeing the business like that—like a business—it might change your expectations. Or it might not, but at least you’ll be going into it with your eyes open.

If you’re inter­ested in book pub­lish­ing, don’t for­get to check out my other pub­lish­ing posts. And if you have specific questions you’d like me to address, send me an email at ginger (at)


Lisa April 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I can get to your site now! I’m wondering if it actually had something to do with the short link listed on Twitter.

We discussed this on Twitter already, but I figured I would comment anyway. Personally, I don’t care to read a book by a blogger. The books that I have read, I never read the blog. I tend to think that the existing blog audience would be a harder sell than anyone else because we are used to getting the content for free. And chances are, we enjoy it in a blog format, but might not enjoy reading an entire book. Let’s face it, some people can write short stories, and some people can write novels, but not all writers can do both well.

Lisa April 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Ooh! Question!

So I know everyone likes to protest that the blogosphere isn’t clique-ish, but seriously, the blogosphere can be more clique-ish than a middle school cafeteria. So maybe the bloggers own audience is lukewarm about the book, but they have a Promotion Army in their following, people can’t wait to talk up their blog friend. How does that play into things?

Ginger April 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Well, it really depends. Because there are two scenarios at play here: promotion and sales. It’s awesome to have a book plastered all over the internet, having all your friends and readers promoting it and reading it and talking about it. And there is very much a lot of value in that (hey, that’s part of my job! I love to see that happen!)

BUT what you have to remember is that many, if not most, of those books are being given away, not purchased. How much cross-over is there from promotion INTO sales? That’s the million dollar question. I think some of that will depend on how much overlap between audiences there is, some of it depends on the kind of book, how widely distributed it is, etc.

So from the point of view of sales, I’m still not sure that it makes that much of a difference, even to have a whole army of readers/friends who want to talk you up. But promotion, oh yes, you can score on that front.

drhoctor2 April 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I’ve thought of the rude awakening *some* bloggers are in for, upon completion (which is unlikely considering the blogger I’m thinking of) of a manuscript. The editing, the proposals, the follow thru..all on your own now, which may be a good thing in general but is sure to bite more than one of them. a lot of wispy.. I shoulds… from this group but not a whole lot of …I did..!! after a month or so…
I think the bloggers who *I* think ought to have a book published due to the high quality of their writing …are published/ing i.e. Mrs. Kennedy and Finslippy, Mimismartypants or The Blogess.
I love these publishing posts.

Perpetual Breadcrumbs April 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

*deep sigh*

You’re totally right. What’s funny is that I think part of what attracts me is the tangibility of it. Writing can be so…out there. So impossible to know if it’s good, so hard to know when it’s done (except if you’re Snooki: her book is obviously perfect 🙂

What I loved about working in university admin. last year was that when the payroll sheets were signed, that was that. It was off the list. So I guess I’ve always thought of publishing as this magical place where you can combine the “fun” intellectual stuff with the “ooh! I hate spreadsheets but they’re done for the month!” feeling.

I can romanticize the hell out of anything, though. 🙂

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