Writers, beware: 10 caveats before you publish your book

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Logo of french publisher Léon Vanier
English: Logo of french publisher Léon Vanier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a wise/sorrowful reflection on publishing, by former lecturer in French at Cambridge, blogger Victoria Best:

Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out…And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?

It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near…Many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomena – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.

Here’s the inside dope from NYC career editor, Daniel Menaker, in the blog Vulture, an excerpt from his new book:

Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting….

To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-­seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.

The entire blog post is a must-read for anyone who really wants to hear what goes in inside publishers’ hallowed halls. Not for the naive or foolish. It’s funny, sad, bitter — and true!

And, from The Nation:

the work of writers is traded in three currencies: money, meaning book sales and author advances; status, meaning reviews, awards, fellowships and general cachet, which are not strictly quantifiable but pay dividends nonetheless; and a third, which I can only describe as the actual life of a book, which is its movement through the world after it is published. Sales do contribute to this third currency, but only so much, because it is intangible, uncountable and ultimately unknowable, and yet still entirely, wonderfully real.

What do authors hope for with publication of their work?


Defined how? Ten people beyond your immediate family? A cover story in People magazine?


Most writers receive an advance, from a commercial publisher, of $5,000 to $50,000 for their first book — maybe even their seventh or twelfth. The advance is typically paid out in thirds, at best, more often in quarterly payments: upon signing of the contract; upon delivery of the first few chapters or full manuscript; upon publication, (typically at least a year after signing), and — yes, really! — a year after publication.

Which somewhat re-defines the word “advance.”

Every payment is sent through your agent who claims their 15 percent fee for representing you before they forward the rest to you. Most mid-list authors, (i.e. not best-sellers), will never “earn out”, i.e. repay the publisher their advance and thereby receive any additional payment for their work. This is because we receive a tiny fraction of the cover price and because publishers make sure to claim their profits before we see ours.

Foreign sales

Pleasant, but rarely lucrative. Citic Press bought the rights to publish my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” in China, paying $3,000. It simply went to pay down my advance. They re-named the book for their market, (“The Greatest Saleswoman in the World” — hardly!) and gave it a crisp new cover, with a photo wholly different from the American version.  I’ve received no reply from them to my repeated emails asking for information about how it’s doing there.

Thousands of passionate readers

Many books find fewer than 1,000 buyers, in any format. Ever. A book selling 10,000 or more copies has done well. (My second book, “Malled”, did. Whew!)

A movie deal

I know someone whose book — published in 2001 — is now in production as a major motion picture. Many books are optioned, (which usually means you get a nice five-figure check), but few make it through the process to become a finished film. Here’s an interview with Orson Scott Card in the current issue of Wired magazine, author of the award-winning 1985 book Ender’s Game — now in theaters after more than a dozen scripts were rejected over the decades.

A television series (with residuals!)

Sweet! My book Malled was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and I was swooning with excitement. I was paid $5,000 — but lost $1,000 to the two agents who repped it. Many emails went back and forth between me and the script-writer, a Hollywood veteran. But CBS’ top executive said no to the final version and CBS now owns the script.

A job offer

Maybe. Certainly not a sure thing.

For posterity

Everyone’s dream.

Rave reviews

OK, these days, any reviews! While many online sites review books, and you can read dozens on amazon.com, it’s difficult to win an inch of serious reviewers’ space. The competition is ferocious.


Oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments! We’d all like that “XYZ-award-winner” on the cover of our book, but only a tiny fraction of us will ever get it. I was really honored when Malled was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given to “those who pursue deep storytelling and investigative reporting in the service of the common good.” (A professor won it.)

So…why the desperate compulsion to publish a book?

For some people, it’s the pure satisfaction of having done it, knowing they can.

For others, it’s a strategic move, to build or bolster their brand or authority.

For academics, it’s a must, without which they can’t win tenure.

And yet, despite all of the above, I’m glad I’ve done my two books, and am now working on a proposal for another, fully aware of the pitfalls (and pleasures) if someone does make an offer on it.

I enjoy writing non-fiction books because journalism today offers few places in which to deeply explore serious ideas at length. A book gives you 80,000-100,000 words to plumb the depths of a complicated story. For me, that’s the draw.

Will anyone review it or buy it after a year or more of consistent effort to produce it? No idea!

Here’s a brilliant bit of writing advice, (there’s more if you follow the link, from Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction Paul Harding, in the one publication every ambitious writer must read, Publisher’s Weekly:

Get your art written any way you can. It’s tempting as a teacher to present your own method as normative. It’s maybe even more tempting as a student to look for a method that sounds good and austere and disciplined, with a dash of charming self-deprecation thrown in, and conform to it in the hopes that it will work for you, because writing is hard, after all, and it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it.

But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page. The musician Tom Petty tells a great anecdote about working with the producer Jeff Lynne. Petty was in the studio making an album and being very doctrinaire about some recording method or another, much to Lynne’s exasperation, and so Lynne finally said to him, “Tom, no one gives a shit about how you make your records. They only care if the record sounds good.”

Outside of writing workshops and seminars, no one cares if you sit facing the blank page for six hours every day beginning at sunrise, or if you loaf around frittering away most days like a bum, or if you write your book one line at a time on the sly in between typing your boss’s business letters at the office. What’s important is that your reader holds a thrilling, amazing work of art in her hands.

How about you?

What would it mean to you to finally publish your book?

Those who have self-published, is it what you hoped for or expected?



40 thoughts on “Writers, beware: 10 caveats before you publish your book

  1. I’ve already self-published two books, and it looks like a third one by next spring or summer. I’m not doing as well as I’d hoped (especially on the latest one), let alone gotten awards or fame or a ton of money. I’ve gotten some good reviews so far, but not very many. Hopefully as time goes on I’ll develop a fanbase though…or maybe some people who will buy my books just to support me.

  2. It would mean more than a medium-sized handful might read what I write and, if I luck out, they may enjoy the page turning. The current fantasy is that someone (or better) might have an experience that is worthwhile. That is the story will impact mind, spirit and heart in ways that add to his/her collective insights; encourage hopefulness; and support compassionate responsiveness. But I suspect (and you have given evidence) that it has little to do with the writing itself, which is the thing I love: tale telling. The alchemy is in the writing, after all (and maybe sharing aloud at a reading). That others may choose to read what I create is the spicy-sweet dessert after story has been whipped up, baked and set steaming upon the table for visitors to enjoy as desired. Thank goodness for it all, being published or not. Great post.

      1. Sheer bloody-mindedness?

        I had a long chat yesterday with a friend who works for a major publisher — who read a proposal she thought totally useless and said no to. It sold to someone else for seven figures.

        SHRIEK. This is the “logic” of publishing.

  3. The book in my head…I wonder if it will be written. I don’t feel I can do the vision justice. But if it was written I would hope it would be on every young readers shelf. That it would lead them to the study of history and lead them to an awareness that every moment in history is not simply what it seems. And that we cannot judge those who experienced that moment and responded in ways that we find unforgivable. Yet that is the crux…to put teens face to face with the dilemma of “what would I do in this situation?” We’ll see. I hope some day I get it down on paper/screen.

  4. I write…mostly because I have too many thoughts in my head to keep them all there and stay sane.

    I’m currently the self-published author and illustrator of a children’s book series – it hasn’t done a whole lot as far as sales, but I still feel a rush of happiness and excitement whenever I get an order! Of course, I would love to have it become “officially” successful, but for now, I’m pretty happy with just having accomplished it.

    I’m also in the process of writing a full-length mystery novel, and I have ideas for 2 other novels in that series, as well as 2 other separate books…oh, and a couple of TV pitches and screenplay concepts…Much like my other books, it’s possible that none of these will lead anywhere, but it still feels good to follow my passion…gotta nurture your soul somehow!

    1. “gotta nurture your soul somehow!”

      I think this is the issue. In an earlier era, people played musical instruments or sang in choirs or knitted or crocheted or made stuff in their workshops — for their own private, amateur fun and with no expectations beyond their own amusement. Now, the apparent ease of publishing on one’s own has created a flood of people being creative (yes, necessary) with a a flood of their work entering a marketplace for which there may not be sufficient interest.

      1. So true – I think with the lack of access to fulfilling jobs, there’s an increasing need in our society to feel useful and be appreciated and acknowledged for what we offer the world (in previous times, even children had important tasks that contributed to the success of the family). But oftentimes these days that need gets translated into a need to be “on top,” or “the center of attention,” which leads to people seeking out more and more ways to feel special and unique. If they feel they have a talent, well then – it MUST be shared with the world, because without that validation, it doesn’t count! But realistically there just isn’t that big of a population interested in the musings of one person – for the most part! That’s why fame is something so desired, yet so elusive.

  5. Thank you! It would mean a lot to get my message out, and a published book can have a greater reach. That being said, I’m exploring other avenues to get my story told. Self-publishing is definitely an option, but I wanted to try the traditional way first. It’s a lot of work but I’m learning along the way. Thanks for the great post.

  6. There’s a subtle shift in some publisher contracts. Up until a few years ago they gave authors 7.5 or 10 percent of the retail cover price. Now it’s a percentage of the NET RETURN to the publisher. Many contracts also withhold a percentage of the sum due to the author, after (if) the advance is paid, as a hedge against sale-or-return. This is eventually paid – up to 1 year after the money was received by the publisher, during which time they get use of the money and the author doesn’t.

    It’s thirty years this month since I wrote my first book for any sort of publication. But it was only 16-17 years ago that I started to get any kind of momentum or continuity. What do I look for? Fame – never. Fortune? I wish. Foreign sales? Maybe. I get a surprising number given the availability of my stuff outside NZ is, theoretically, zero. I had a title repped in Germany and the UK last year which, alas, got nowhere. But we’ll see.

  7. Roy

    It seems hard to compare writing a book with the hobbies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Actually, I play a musical instrument for my own amusement–trust me–and I wouldn’t even of do that if I wasn’t sure in the knowledge that I am stunningly average at it, because that is why I can relax and enjoy it. I know woodworking and furniture making used to be much more prevalent pastimes than they are today (the “Arts and Crafts” movement) and to maintain a blog, write some short stories, might be comparable, but a novel and the attendant headaches and long hours (and the expectations) sound more like folly. It would be as if I was no longer content to play my guitar in my study but felt compelled to produce a CD. Well, actually, youtube is full of such ambitious undertakings, and truly most of these people are no Tom Petty, to coin a phrase.

    1. Perhaps I was unclear…

      My point is that I understand we all want to be and feel creative. It’s a lovely, primal impulse. But the Internet (hell, here I am, for heaven’s sake) and other technologies now aid and abet a compulsion to publish — quality be damned! The only “self publishing” (so far) I’ve subjected readers to is this blog…and that’s after 30 years of writing professionally.

      To me, there’s a much larger issue no one seems to address — why now? why is publishing a book considered the apotheosis of one’s talents? If no one reads it…? Do people (serious question) feel so ignored, overlooked or devalued in other areas of their personal or professional lives they now feel compelled to rush to the internet (or, perhaps, a bookstore) in an attempt to gather strangers’ acclaim?

      There is a desperation to it that Victoria addresses so well in her blog post I quoted.

      1. Roy

        I think maybe the question still is, why did anybody ever want to write, even with ink and turkey quills? It’s puzzling to me.

        Maybe this is just a matter of large scale. Are we, (arguably a bunch of readers and people raised to respect and admire literature,) just excited about the brand new prospects of joining that elite group of “writers,” “authors” and the ease with which we can do it? Has the Internet just opened up this particular game to the billions of online people, as it has to just about everything else it envelops?

      2. Well, writers write — or want to (or say they want to) — for many reasons, whether fiction, poetry, sci-fi,whatever.

        This is the crux — how “elite” is anything you can accomplish by banging out a bunch of words, hitting “publish” and saying “I’m an author!”?

        What’s the measure of success….getting published (hardly a challenge if you do it yourself)…or knowing people are actually reading what you’ve produced? If I never sold a thing or found readers for my work, I’d stop it pretty quickly. Maybe that’s just me.

      3. Roy

        This is the crux — how “elite” is anything you can accomplish by banging out a bunch of words, hitting “publish” and saying “I’m an author!”?
        Not elite at all. But within the Internet the vetting process is in the hands of the readers, not any editors. And hope springs eternal–also inexplicable since for every two or three billion girls with video cameras in their living rooms there is only one Lady GaGa.
        I thought of something driving home this morning regarding how we place ourselves in the group of our choice, holding the membership alone as the end unto itself, sort of. My son went through a skate-board phase (ouch) and got into that culture a little bit. I saw a t-shirt in a skate board store that said: “I suck, but I’m better than you.” I think that nailed it exactly. It is what people mean, I think, when they say, “No, I’ve never gotten anything published, but I’m a writer!”

  8. I think if you have connections in the media, getting a book published is no big deal unless you’re really thinking about making money out of it. I’m talking specifically about the demographics and markets of my country. I’ve seen people publishing their own books from not-so-famous publication houses. We host a month-long book fair called Omor Ekushey Book Fair throughout the month of February every year (in memorial of the International Mother Language Day of 21s February), and many newbies as well as seasoned authors take that opportunity.

    The premises of the book fair is filled with over hundreds of stalls and pavilions from different publication houses. Although there’s hardly any crowd in front of the little known publication houses, if you’ve got a good cover, a good marketing strategy and a well-placed stall (that’s up to the publication, though), you have a good chance of having a good number of copies sold.

    But I doubt that even if the readers of those new books like them, they don’t care to remember who wrote the story or look for new stories from them. I’ve been a reader and I haven’t really seen any new figure becoming a ‘star’ or, if I might say it, an author everyone knew in general, in the past few years. I guess that’s because everybody is writing. And a lot of people with either connection or money can get their books out. The rest of the year doesn’t really matter, because publication houses (as well as authors) make the run for their new books on the fair, where readers gather “hoping” to see, peek and buy new books, which they normally don’t other times of the year.

    I think it comes down to why someone wants to publish a book. If it’s for fame and money, I very much agree with it. But if it’s for the sole satisfaction of it, I think they are in luck. A lot of publications, at least in this part of the world, would be happy to publish a semi-well-written book for little to no compensation. Especially thanks to the online media, there are now stories floating all over the web. It’s hard to get people to buy books when they can read on the web for free.

    Unless of course it’s someone already a star. Steven King or Dan Brown. Or our own Humayun Ahmed.

    It’s sad that this reality kills a lot of people’s motivation to be a writer.

    1. Thanks for such an interesting comment — could not be more different here in the U.S., esp. if you need to get an advance and hope to get published by a major house.

      Some writers are willing or able to work without almost any (advance) income from their books, which certainly makes getting published easier in that respect!

  9. I publish my poetry gratis on my blog because the number of people that regularly buy poetry is practically in the minus figures. Very occasionally I submit poems to competitions or magazines and sometimes editors will accept and print them. There is no money in this. On the rare occasions when friends of mine have actually won a poetry competition with a financial reward, it is so infrequent the prize barely covers the cost of postage and entry fees for competitions during the previous year. My face and my poems are known by a number of people on the London performance poetry circuit. They are friendly and encouraging, and pleased to see someone that knows how to work an audience, so I can make a little money with sporadic performance fees when people pay me to perform my own work at events. Publication, however, would appear a distant (and none too lucrative) dream. The first novel remains one of two longer works-in-progress and while I certainly intend to finish both of them, what I will then do with the manuscript, I have as yet no firm idea.

  10. To finally publish a book would mean that I’d accomplished a dream I’ve had since I was in the third grade. While yes, I very much would like to get the fandom that we see George R.R. Martin or Rick Riordan having, I know that isn’t a very realistic expectation. I’m still going to reach for it. The reward isn’t fully in the end result. The effort is rewarding in and of itself.

    1. I know…:-)

      I veer between wanting to cheer people on (in general) but not to beckon them down some false garden path — as so many $$$$-making bloggers will do to grow their audiences. I would rather would-be authors REALLY have a smart idea what is involved, and make an informed decision from that perspective.

  11. Pingback: Caveats for Book Writers | Go Take it Offline

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