Saturday, October 14, 2006

Publishing Myths

Let's get provocative.

Some many newbie writers come into the publishing biz with preconceptions of how it works.

Strangely, these myths persist even with seasoned writers.

Keep in mind that there is no right and wrong/black and white in publishing. No one knows for sure what works, how to become successful, or the magic formula to hit the bestseller list. There's a lot of bravado, a lot of big ideas, and a lot of finger pointing. What works for one writer or book may not work for another.

That said, I've noticed that a lot of writers repeat the same mantras over and over again (this writer included) so let's look at some of them.

Myth #1: My Publisher Does Nothing for My Book. Authors lament their lack of advertising or reviews or tours. They're quick to blame their publishers for the lack of publicity-and ultimately sales.

Chances are your publisher does a lot of things that you aren't even aware of. That's because publishers don't keep authors in the loop. Why? Consider that people in the publishing biz treat it like any nine to five job. They don't have the same emotionally vested interest in your book as you do. Plus, publishers have dealt with many writers in the past, and can easily classify writers as "needy, clueless, and egomaniacal" which a lot of writers are. The stereotype fits.

So you may not know about the ARCS printed and sent to bookstores and reviewers. You may not know about all the trade shows your publisher attends, pimping their catalog (with your book in it.) You may not know anything about coop deals, or the sales meetings, or the marketing meetings, or the brainstorming sessions that were devoted entirely to you.

No publisher wants to lose money on a book. Just because you believe your publisher is doing nothing, doesn't mean they are. Hell, if they got you on the shelf at a few bookstores, that alone takes a monumental effort.

Myth #2: All I Have to Do is Write a Great Book. Don't get me wrong--you DO have to write a great book. But a great book doesn't mean the world will embrace it, or even be able to find it among the 200,000 released every year.

Writers believe that they have very little control over their sales. They do, however, have control over writing the book. So it's an easy defense mechanism (to protect one's own sanity) to believe that focusing on the writing and not the business stuff can lead to success.

It can. And has, many times. But there are more good books that aren't successful than vice versa.

Publishers truly believe that ALL the books they publish are great. And every book ever traditionally published is someone's favorite book. Greatness is subjective. You can have the greatest book in the world, but that doesn't mean people are going to buy it, or even realize it exists.

Once you're a writer, you become the CEO of your own business. The more you understand how the business works, the more you can and should do to succeed.

Does that mean you should be doing promotion at the expense of writing time? No. Writing should always come first. But (unfortunately) your book's best spokesperson is you. Ignore that at your own peril.

Myth #3: It's My Publisher's Job to Sell My Book. I really dislike the 'us against them' mentality that many authors have. I understand that many of them have reached this conclusion legitimately. Publishers can screw authors. They can kill books, and even careers. But to think that the publisher is some evil empire bent on exploiting your hard work and then counting their money and laughing while you fail--well, that's silly.

Publishers want to make money. They believe they have somewhat of an idea who to do that. Sometimes they're correct. Often they aren't. But in no case is your book more important to your publisher than it is to you.

It's your name on the spine. And here is an IRREFUTABLE FACT: The more you self-promote, the more books you'll sell.

A certain number will sell without you doing anything. Sometimes that number is large enough to make the book successful. The writer will take credit for writing a good book, the publisher will take credit for the brilliant promotional campaign they created, and perhaps both (or neither) is correct.

But you will sell more books if you're out there, promoting.

Myth #4: Self-Promotion Will Make Me Successful. There is no evidence to say that investing a great deal of time in promotional will lead to success (any more than writing a good book will lead to success.) I know several writers who are tireless in their promotional efforts. Some of them are bestsellers. Some of them aren't, and there's no guarantee their efforts will ever pay off.

Many self-promotional efforts are pointless, because the writer doesn't know what they're doing. And even the successful efforts rarely yield a response large enough to justify the time and money used.

It's true that the more you self promote, the more books you'll sell. But it may not be enough to attain stardom (or even stay afloat.)

Myth #5: Hard Work Leads to Success. Successful people all mention "struggle" and "overcoming odds" and "80 hour work weeks" and "living for the job" when explaining to others their journey to the top.

I don't deny that they worked hard. But I know that many people who work very hard don't ever succeed.

It's a basic fact of human nature that we seek cause and effect. Wisdom is simply learning from experience--doing things and judging their results. But wisdom isn't foolproof, and it is always subjective.

Luck plays a huge part in all of our lives. But not many people attribute success to luck, because luck is something beyond their control. To believe that how talented you are, or how hard you work, has nothing to do with how well you will do in life, can make you feel powerless and paranoid.

So we cling to the things we have control over, and then attribute our successes to those things.

Myth #6: My Agent, Editor, Publisher, Peers Know What They're Doing. Actually, nobody knows what they're doing. Everyone in this biz has ideas that seem to be working, strategies that they follow, but deep down all of the people you go to for advice are just as insecure and clueless as you are.

Question everything, including yourself. Learn as much as you can. Your opinions should be based on your experience, not anyone else's experience.

Observe. Listen. Experiment. Be flexible, and always open to new ideas. And keep chugging away.

Myth #7: I'll Be Happy When... When I finish my book. When I sell my first short story. When I sell my tenth article. When I land an agent. When I sell a novel. When I sign a three book deal. When I make 100k a book. When I have ten books in print. When I hit the NYT bestseller list. When I hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list. When I stay #1 for ten weeks on the NYT bestseller list. When I sell the movie rights. When the movie is made. When the movie wins best picture. When I win the Pulitzer. And so on.

I don't know if you'll ever be successful. I don't know if I'll ever be successful. I'm not even sure what the definition of 'success' is, because it's changed a dozen times for me in the past few years.

Another trait of humans is to never be satisfied. Once satisfaction happens, there are no more goals to achieve, which really cuts into productivity.

I've been happy many times in my career, but the happiness never lasts. Once goals are met, they're replaced by others. I don't think it's possible to reach a point where you can be at peace with this business. All you can do is try your best, celebrate successes no matter how small, learn from failures, roll with the punches, and save your money for the day when you no longer have a career.

Myth #8: This Business Sucks. Publishing, as a business model, is wasteful and ineffective. It's hard to break into. It's harder to stay in than break in. It's hardest of all to be successful. There is so much out of your control, and no guarantees. The odds are against you, and everyone working in the biz will tell you how difficult it is, and they're right.

It's also the greatest career in the world.


  1. Excellent post, Joe. And so, so true.

    I found after The Devil's Pitchfork came out that my publisher was paying co-op money to Borders to get the book onto the front tables--I was shocked. And elated. But I had NO CLUE this was going to happen. None. Just like the French language sale. I found out about it right around the time it happened. Should I have known? Well, that's a different issue, but it just goes to show that there are things going on that you're not aware of as an author.

    I've heard it said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie, and I think that's probably true of publishers, too. No publisher is intentionally publishing "bad" books, although there may be people in the particular house that don't like specific books for a variety of reasons. (Rumor is that a number of people in Doubleday back in the 1970s didn't think much of Stephen King, even though he was their biggest author at the time. Of course, King moved on after 4 or 5 books and that attitude is supposed to have been at least part of the reason for his switch. Wouldn't it be for you?)

    And here you said: I've been happy many times in my career, but the happiness never lasts.

    Reminds me of a Dennis Leary routine, something along the lines of: "I hate hearing someone whine, 'I'm not happy.' Happiness is short. It's a good lay, a cigarette--so get fucked, have a smoke and shut up!"

    Mark Terry

  2. Anonymous3:14 PM

    The more I read your blog, Joe, the more often I wonder if you're in the right business. Or at least, the right side of it. You're always spot on with your observations and advice, so why not write a book about the book business? Or move into publishing?

  3. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Ross Alexander, this is the dark side of the Force speaking. Yes, my first and middle names are also Ross Alexander.

    This Ross Alexander thinks Joe is in very much the right business. He has a previous background in marketing/business, before he became a successful, acclaimed author and that of course colors his world view. I know Joe is acclaimed. Heck, I saw him at the Lee Child party at Bouchercon as well as the sparkle in the champagne on one of the two best panels I attended at BCon (and I attended a LOT of panels...) Acclaimed for what is another question.
    Seriously, I'd like to call Joe out too. Hey Joe, MJ Rose has her Buzz program which is awesome, and from which I (and my lovely and talented wife)personally benefitted. Any way you might consider something similar? Maybe in conjunction with the ITW, or Killer Year, or some such? NOBODY does more for newbies than you already, so perhaps it's not fair to ask. But somebody should PAY YOU for it. You're that good. If that sounds right...
    Ross Alexander, Joe has said, if I understand coprrectly, that he literally writes a book in a month (or 2 with edits...) and promotes the rest of the time. As his publisher invests more in Joe by virtue of his incresing level of commercial success, I wonder if that means Joe can invest more time in writing. Like 3 months. IMHO JAK has world-class talent, which would be acknowledged if he spent as much time writing a novel (not marketing -oriented short stories etc.) as most mortals. What do you think Joe, is the balance beginning to shift at all?
    Ross Alexander in Maine

  4. Anonymous8:11 PM

    (Thanks Ross.)

    Joe I have to disagree. Publisher do not in any way beleive that every book they publish is great or even good. They do not care about all books equally and there are many books they really don't care about at all.

    Often they buy books and loose interest becuase the final manuscript doesn't meet expecations.

    Or because an idea that struck them as timely turnes out to be hackneyed by pub date.

    Somtimes the aquiring editor is gone and the editor who inherits the book doesn't like it and lets it merely be printed.

    Other times its simply a matter of dollars and cents. There is only a limited amount of money to market a certain number of books.

    The truth is pubilshing is a business. Each house is a machine. It needs x number of books to go through the machine a year in order to keep all employees employed.

    Every publisher expect a certain number of books to fail. It's not a myth.


    And none of this is conjecture on my part.

    Everything I've written here has been told to me, face to face, by publishers and editors in interviews.

  5. Anonymous10:25 PM

    sorry for the typo's in the above. I didn't proof.

  6. Excellent, excellent post, Joe!

  7. Anonymous10:34 AM

    "I've been happy many times in my career, but the happiness never lasts."

    This is an important point, and it relates to something you’ve said here many times before—don’t use other writers to measure your own success. I believe that is where much of the dissatisfaction comes in.

    I’ve had a few stories published, which has made me happy—for a while anyway. Then I start looking at other authors and their five-book deals and my little short story doesn’t do it for me anymore.

    In some respects, this mentality pushes a writer to work harder, but it can also eat at your guts. Celebrating your successes no matter how small is great advice. If we can’t find at least a little happiness in writing, then what’s the point?

    Thanks for the words Joe.

  8. Great points, MJ.

    But even though publishers can expect books to fail, do you think they know which books will be the failures for any particular quarter? Do they intentially (willfully, maliciously) position books for failure?

    I would think that there is an optimism, however veiled, about every book a house publishes.

    At some point, somewhere in the publishing process, someone at a house was excited about that particular author.

    And while it makes sense that a publisher knows certain books of theirs are doomed prior to publication (for the reasons you mentioned) do they believe that about the majority of the books they publish (because only 1 out of 5 makes a profit we've all heard.) Do they really disregard that many books? Or is it a case of apathy rather than targeted destruction?

  9. Anonymous3:45 PM

    Love your #6--Nobody knows what they're doing. It's so easy to believe someone else has the secret and you don't. You're right about listening to everything, but questioning what you hear.

    It's great to be inspired by someone else's methods and success, but so easy to keep thinking of all the ways you don't measure up.

  10. Anonymous4:11 PM

    #7 is so beautiful, a tear threatened at the corner of my eye. That is just it. The whole "When I Become Somebody I'll Be A Happy Somebody" song is played out in each industry from film, to writing, to pharmaceuticals. :)

    Be happy now. Chocolate Chip cookies make me happy the moment I eat them. It's a grand delusion to think that Life Will Be Better When.

    I also appreciate waht you wrote above, "and a lot of finger pointing." Manohman I have witnessed this phenomenon! It's unbelievable how folks don't take responsibility for their writing, their genre classification, their truths, their decisions, but instead finger point by blaming the publishing industry for making them making foolish choices, or they blame the reader audience for fickle taste, lack of readership, or just plain not intelligent enough to buy The Book.

    I'm not speaking to one particular event in finger pointing, but to a handful of instances I've witnessed personally or via the media this past year.

    Thank you for such down-to-earth posts about the business. Being practical about this biz allows me to not take stuff personal and finger point too.

  11. Anonymous8:29 PM

    >Do they intentially (willfully, maliciously) position books for failure?

    I wouldn't say it the way you did, but in essense yes. Althought not maliciously. They have a marketing meetings and work with their budgets and their catalogs and they deciede and in essense - let some books go.

    Are they optimitic about every book. At some point yes - when they buy it - but in the next twelve to eighteen months many things can happen and we do ourselves an equal diservice not to realize it and look for the signs and be prepared.

    You talk about all the things they are doing behing the scenes we don't know about - our job is to make sure our agents find out what is going on behind those scenes.

    Are we getting coop or not? Are we getting arcs? Is there a marketing budget?

    Truly, a good agent works for you not just selling the book but sticking with it and finding out if the book is going to be published right or just printed.

    And if we find out its just going to be printed we can get even more proactive and do more for our books.

    I know many authors who found out the books were just going to be shipped who got into the marketing of the book and re-engerized the publisher and changed the destiny of the title.

  12. Anonymous9:32 PM

    Problem is: As long as you're writing midlist crapola—by which I mean halfhearted junk that's interchangeable with other ill-made garbage widely available to your publisher and basically filling a slot on the list fillable by any of a thousand other indistinguishable and undistinguished writers—you're doomed to playing this losers' game.

  13. Anonymous9:48 PM

    WHAT? Who purposefully writes half-heartedly? And who sets out to write a novel that's midlist? What are you talking about Anonymous?

  14. Joe, -- and MJ, too -- through your blogs you've both taken me from clueless to, well, less than clueless. I have a long way to go before I'm able to grasp how this business works.

    But I thank you both for always being informative. Even when you disagree.

  15. Anon:

    1. Get a spine

    2. Get a clue about the publishing business

    3. You're an idiot

    Joe: One point I might disagree about here is the subject of satisfaction. You seem to use it as synonymous with complacency, and I just don't think that's the case most of the time. You can be satisfied with the good work you've done, and still try to do better. Satisfaction and productivity aren't mutually exclusive, IMO.

    I think we should allow ourselves some time to sit back and say, "I did that, and it was damn good."

    And then move on.

  16. Anonymous8:30 AM

    "WHAT? Who purposefully writes half-heartedly? And who sets out to write a novel that's midlist? What are you talking about Anonymous?"

    True, nobody sets out to write a halfhearted novel—but it's the best that some people can manage. And as long as that person is writing series thrillers or series detective stories or series whatever, without a huge creative spark or wonderfully memorable characters or knock-'em-out-of-the-park style, that person's work is fated at best to tread water in the midlist. Where this struggle takes place.

  17. Anon:

    1. Get a spine

    2. Get a clue about the publishing business

    3. Finish that sophomore year before hurling any more insults

    4. You're still an idiot

    I'll take the midlist over the Nolist (where I'm sure you'll be lingering from now on) any day.

  18. Anon, if some people are writing the best they can manage, how does that qualify as half-hearted?

    Obviously, they're putting their heart and soul into it. And what you think of as not good enough may very well be great to someone else. Tastes vary.

  19. It always amazes me when authors trash publishers. They took your MS and turned in into a book and either did, or tried, to get it on bookshelves. Seems to me that deserves a nod of appreciation rather than a "you coulda done more."

  20. By the way, by "you" I didn't mean you, Joe Konrath, but the generic "you" of authors who trash their publishers.

  21. Anonymous3:07 AM

    Lots of Myths. Looking forward to experiencing them first hand.

  22. this is a fabulous post!

  23. Interesting and thought provoking, good debate

    Keep writing folks


  24. Another one for the ever-increasing file I've labelled: Things I've learned from J.A Konrath. (I keep it right next to the file labelled "Things I learned from MJ.)

    Though my book won't be out till February so I can't yet speak from experience, this feels very true and wise to me. I may be naive, but it feels as if my publisher is 100% behind me and doing everything they can to get the word out.

    And p.s. #6 also feels true. We're all learning from each other as we go.

  25. "Myth #3:

    But you will sell more books if you're out there, promoting.

    Myth #4: Self-Promotion Will Make Me Successful.

    And even the successful efforts rarely yield a response large enough to justify the time and money used.

    It's true that the more you self promote, the more books you'll sell."

    Does not compute, does not compute... TILT

  26. Anonymous8:53 PM

    >And even the successful efforts rarely yield a response large enough to justify the time and money used.<

    Not true. There are a lot of ways to do it and not spend an obscene amount of money or time. Just ask the authors who have done or who work with Carol Fitzgerald of

    (Sorry for the BSP - but I'm proud that I offer an affordable solution for authors who don't want to spend alot of time or money.)

    And thanks everyone for the kind words - they mean so much to me.

  27. Anonymous10:30 AM

    “It always amazes me when authors trash publishers. They took your MS and turned in into a book and either did, or tried, to get it on bookshelves. Seems to me that deserves a nod of appreciation rather than a "you coulda done more."”

    I’m going to respond to this anonymously because, well, publishers do read blogs, and trashing publishers in a public forum isn’t a wise career move....The sentiment of what you wrote is kind of infuriating, Jim....that we, as authors, should prostrate ourselves before publishers and just thank the gods they saw fit to publish our work. Maybe that should be your attitude (not you, personally, Jim, generic you) if you believe your work is shit, but most authors I know are damn proud of the books they slave away to write, the characters they create, etc...and just as we’re lucky to be published, publishers are perhaps more lucky to discover good writing. I hate the “we should just be thankful we’re published” mantra. Publishers are not God. We create the product they need, and they couldn’t do business without us. I understand all books are not equal and I know what the bottom line is, but fuck groveling and appreciation where it isn’t due. And quit thinking of them as doing you a favor. You got published because you busted your ass and wrote a good book. They should be thanking you. 4 out of 5 books don’t fail. 4 out of 5 times publishers fail to get the word out.

  28. Anonymous:

    I'm not implying that authors should grovel or that publishers are Gods. What I am saying, however, is that a lot of work goes into taking a MS and making it mysteriously land in a book form on the shelves of B&N or Borders or my favorite indie, Once Upon a Crime in MN. The work includes P&L analysis, editying, copy editing, cover design, obtaining book reviews and blurbs, printing, distribution, payment to the author and agent, contracts, copywrights, returns, remainders, to name the biggies--all of which are layered with costs and financial risk. Authors need those functions performed as much as publishers need authors to write the MS. It's a two way street and each side should appreciate what the other is doing.

  29. Anonymous, I've had nothing but good fortune with my publisher, a great experience so far, so maybe I'm not one to address this issue.

    But it seems to me that, yes, we do work hard and we are proud of our work. But without a publisher willing to take a risk and actually PAY us for what we do, then we'd all pretty much be up shit creek.

    Are publishers perfect? No. But neither are writers.

    I APPRECIATE that my publisher chose to publish my book, just as I know my publisher appreciates the work itself. It's a mutual appreciation society -- as it should be. We benefit each other.

    But in the end, the decision is theirs, the money is theirs, and I think that those of us who have been lucky enough to break in don't mind showing some appreciation.

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Thanks for the comment! Joe will get back to you eventually. :)