In the category of Good Advice from Smart People,
I give you this blog posting from Seth Godin,
marketing guru. I've put some of my own comments
and experiences as "a non-fiction author of 5 books
and working on my 6th" in red.
Advice for authors
By Seth Godin
Always beware free advice. It is worth what it costs!
That said, I get a fair number of notes from well respected, intelligent people who are embarking on their first non-fiction book project. They tend to ask very similar questions, so I thought I'd go ahead and put down my five big ideas in one place to make it easier for everyone.
I guarantee you that you won't agree with all of them, but, as they say, your mileage my vary.
1. Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you're doing it for the money, you're going to be disappointed.
I totally agree with this statement and of my 3 books with major publishers, none have made me any money. On the flip side, however, if you can build up a good reputation and demonstrate your worthiness as an author of a book on a particular subject, you can get an advance for your book, usually paid 50% upon signing the contract and 50% upon completion or acceptance of the manuscript. My advances went from $12,000 to $21,000 to $35,000 while I still had a modicum of cache (as opposed to being a Forgotten Web Celebrity), and this money, although technically not payment, did come in handy.
On the other hand, a book gives you leverage to spread an idea and a brand far and wide. There's a worldview that's quite common that says that people who write books know what they are talking about and that a book confers some sort of authority.
Yes, a book can give you credibility but "far and wide" is predicated on so many variables, namely, how will your book be distributed to farflung places and how will you find the time and money to market your book when your publisher suddenly disappears from the mix and forgets your name which happens within a few weeks of release of your book as they have to move on to the next author. To leverage your book, you have to be the tireless and innovative marketer if you have any hopes of your book actually reaching its audience. Otherwise, having published a book does help increase the fees you can command as a public speaker.
2. The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
When the world moved more slowly, waiting more than a year for a book to come out was not great, but tolerable. Today, even though all other media has accelerated rapidly, books still take a year or more. You need to consider what the shelf life of your idea is.
The snail pace of the book publishing industry is legendary, however, you may have to turn the book around once your proposal is accepted in three to four months tops. Yes, the book still won't come out for another 10-12 months, however, your writing time will most likely be compressed. Since non-fiction writers usually write their books AFTER proposal acceptance, this can mean a lot of all-nighters. Fiction writers, on the other hand, usually must turn in completed manuscripts with a cover letter and synopsis, especially if they are unknown.
3. There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.
This isn't true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.
Sad, but true. Every public relations department at every major publisher and many smaller publishers have a monthly lineup of too many authors to properly service. They have an antiquated PR formula for most books that includes mailing review copies or galleys to a barely targeted list, making a few followup calls or emails, then moving on to the next author, especially if there is no immediate interest.
This gap is either unfilled, in which case the book fails, or it is filled by the author. Here's the thing: publishing a book is really nothing but a socially acceptable opportunity to promote yourself and your ideas far and wide and often.
If you don't promote it, no one will. If you don't have a better strategy than, "Let's get on Oprah" you should stop now. If you don't have an asset already--a permission base of thousands or tens of thousands of people, a popular blog, thousands of employees, a personal relationship with Willard Scott... then it's too late to start building that asset once you start working on a book.
See my article called: Promoting Your Own Book Because No One Else Will.
By the way, blurbs don't sell books. Not really. You can get all the blurbs in the world for your book and it won't help if you haven't done everything else (quick aside: the guy who invented the word "blurb" also wrote the poem Purple Cow).
I don't think that blurbs are ineffective, though, when it comes to book promotions. Some book reviewers are sucked in by the famous names in blurbs. Case in point, the review of my book PowerTools for Women in Business in Publishers Weekly. The review sucks (she said the book was great for high school students when it is all about women creating balance between work and life missions and goals and includes anecdotes about divorce, illness, children, discrimination and other fun topics that teen girls are thinking about...) however my point is that even the reviewer mentions the "glowing reviews" which were nothing more than the blurbs from high profile women I had obtained. I think most people think that blurbs are legitimate reviews and endorsements when actually they are often favors from other authors who know that every little bit of exposure for their name and their book title name, even on someone else's book, helps.
4. Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
Obvious, sure, but real problems. Real problems because the cost of a book introduces friction to your idea. It makes the idea spread much much more slowly than an online meme because in order for it to spread, someone has to buy it. Add to that the growing (and sad) fact that people hate to read. Too often, people have told me, with pride, that they read three chapters of my book. Just three.
The cost of books and the time it takes to read books are two undeniable barriers to getting your book out there. I just joined a business book club, thinking that the motivation would be there to read at least one book a month. I'm still on page 15 of "Good to Great" and the next meeting is Tuesday evening. This is why I wanted to do an audio version of my "PowerTools" book - but that is a whole other ball of wax.
5. Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.
Printing your own book is very very easy and not particularly expensive. You can hire professional copyeditors and designers and end up with a book that looks just like one from Random House. That's easy stuff.
Try Lulu.com. I'm looking at them as a way to self-publish one of my book proposals that is in perpetual rejection from book publishers but that I still get emails every month from people asking me when it is coming out.
What Random House and others do is invest. They invest cash in an advance. They invest time in creating the book itself and selling it in and they invest more cash in printing books. Like all VCs, they want a big return.
If you need the advance to live on, then publishers serve an essential function. If, on the other hand, you're like most non-fiction authors and spreading the idea is worth more than the advance, you may not.
Hmmm... unless you're Seth Godin who sold a company to Yahoo, most of us need the advance. I left Cybergrrl once I realized that my business partner was not amenable to selling our company to iVillage or Oxygen. If you've got money in the bank, spreading the idea does sound like fun. But back to the reality check - most of us need the money and the advance can be a lifesaver, even if in the low 5 figures.
So, what's my best advice?
Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant or or or...
Then, put your idea into a format where it will spread fast. That could be an ebook (a free one) or a pamphlet (a cheap one--the Joy of Jello sold millions and millions of copies at a dollar or less).
Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book. The thing people keep on their shelf or lend out or get from the library. Books are wonderful (I own too many!) but they're not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea.
And the punchline, of course, is that if you do all these things, you won't need a publisher. And that's exactly when a publisher will want you! That's the sort of author publishers do the best with.