The Book Business: A guest post by Charles Wohlforth

I remember thinking if I just got one book published I would be on my way as a writer. After 17 years on my own as a freelancer, I now know that every contract is like the first.

Selling books is not a retail transaction for published authors (except for those who publish their own books and sell them from a card table). Getting into print and to the public requires going through a series of gatekeepers, many of whom are unseen.

First you need an agent who can get your work read by editors. Then you need an editor who will decide not only that your book is good enough to publish, but that it is the best book to publish that he or she has received of late. The editor takes your proposal or manuscript through the house for second reads. They’re likely not to like it as well as your editor; office politics surely play a role, too. Only with a positive verdict do you move to the next square.

Once you’ve got a contract and a manuscript, your editor has to sell the book to the sales staff and marketing department. This may begin before the book is even finished, and certainly before it is between covers.

Now you’re in the market for blurbs for the cover. Important people who can comment on a book are busy and hard to reach—and you are asking them a big favor. Your best chance is through contacts you’ve got through friends of friends of friends. Usually, each person who is a link in the chain to the famous person will also need to read and like the book before agreeing to recommend it. Any who set it aside and forget about it will break the chain and mean you won’t reach that coveted potential blurber.

The blurbs are a critical element in the sales launch meeting, when your editor presents your book amid the competition with all the other books the publisher is bringing out that season. Sales staff have only so much time, and they want to concentrate on the books that promise the most success. Marketing people will allocate their resources as well based on your title, a one-sentence synopsis, the cover, and blurbs.

Now comes the real test. The sales staff takes the book to a few buyers for the massive chains, especially Barnes and Noble, that control the national book market. How long does the meeting last and how many other titles does the salesperson have to pitch? If your book is an afterthought, the pitch is short and half-hearted, the order is small, the print run is small, and you’re finished.

With few books in stores, publicity is ineffective. All your retail work comes to nothing. The book sells few copies. You can try again with another idea, but this time when editors look at your new proposal or manuscript, they’ll know how many copies your last book sold. If it sold poorly, you may be worse off than if you have never published a book before.

This is a crazy way to make a living. But what matters more is that it’s a rotten way to make a culture. Some anonymous book buyer from Barnes and Noble is deciding the shape of our future literary cannon. That brief sales discussion between publisher and buyer makes or breaks books, writers, and the literature.

No wonder books are getting shorter, lighter, and easier to summarize in a sentence.

3 thoughts on “The Book Business: A guest post by Charles Wohlforth”

  1. Izzy Ballard, Alaska Virgin Air

    It's true. Getting publishing is like winning the lottery or getting mad cow. You have very little control and the odds are low.

    What can we do to subvert the system? That's my question.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Ever the optimist (albeit anxious, hand-wringing optimist), I will add one more step to the difficult process you described so well, Charles: word of mouth. Even after several months of lackluster sales (nearly every book published has lackluster sales; the entire industry rests on profits from a very few titles) there is always the chance that word of mouth will ignite. Many a book has faltered in early sales or even through the hardcover stage, only to find new life (sometimes in paperback) as people begin to recommend the book to friends. Book clubs and especially women book buyers (strange but true) play a big part in this. And the hope of reaching those mavens/connectors (see Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point) is why some of us wear ourselves out building websites, doing talks, and shaking hands. (But yes, the odds are slim.)

    Sometimes a book will be DOA when a single critic or essayist decides to write something that champions it. One of my favorite "almost forgotten" novels is Revolutionary Road (1961), which was saved from obscurity by a single essay, and then kept afloat by the writings of other authors (like Richard Ford) who were influenced by RR author Richard Yates. Things got quiet again, when actress Kate Winslet decided to champion the book and get it made into a movie directed by her then-husband. Each time, the book faced obscurity, to be rescued again by fierce, individual readers — rather than bookstore chains.

    My point? We can hope that if a book has value, it will be discovered — and rediscovered, or rescued — more than once over the years, not by large groups of people who liked the book a little, but a few enthusiasts who loved it DEEPLY, and then influenced others to give it a chance. In the meanwhile, though, much is out of the author's control, and we must resign ourselves to a few minutes of "fame" before moving on to the next work.

    You can tell this is a subject that gets me thinking/worrying/hoping, Charles. Thanks again!

  3. As usual, I like what you wrote, Charles, except for that somewhat dismissive comment at the beginning: "Selling books is not a retail transaction for published authors (except for those who publish their own books and sell them from a card table)."

    Sell them from a card table? C'mon now, that's a little unfair to the hundreds of thousands of good people who publish their own books and sell them through unlimited ordinary and extraordinary channels every day. Every time I think I've heard it all when it comes to marketing I'll learn of some creative author who's found a new way to get their books to their readers.

    We've been publishing our own books (and those of many other authors) since the 1980s, and yes, we do still set up card tables now and then and pile our books atop them. But it's only one avenue of sales, and hardly the most proficient or profitable.

    Andrea makes an excellent point in her comment: word of mouth can be the most powerful sales tool available to a publisher, and when folks are actively seeking your book it doesn't matter one whit whether it was printed by some uber-impressive big-name publishing house or by CreateSpace – except that you'll pocket a far more hefty chunk of change by going the latter route.

    We figured out many years ago that becoming publishers was the most sure-fire way to ensure that we could afford to spend our time being authors. It's also afforded us the time and the resources to dip our toes into videography, and now in addition to authors and publishers, we're successful documentary filmmakers!

    Carpe opportunity!

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