If You Build It, They Will Come

I loved “Field of Dreams.” Loved it. Still do, if I’m honest. But that one line has done a lot of bad things.

A blogger I follow posted an excerpt of an interesting fake interview an author did about a big publishing deal he just signed. And I found it interesting enough to go read the original fake interview. And in that, I came upon the following quote:

But there is a whole lot more that goes into producing a book than just showing up with a manuscript and then telling people about it.

I was a book publisher for awhile, and I came up against the “well, I’ll just self-publish” logic often. And it’s all good— if you’d like to self-publish, by all means, don’t let me stop you. I’ve got nothing against the medium. But I found myself explaining again and again why most authors make 10 percent (on the high side) of the sales of books they wrote. And I thought you might find it interesting why, even as a writer myself, I think that’s not the bad deal it sounds like.

Before I make this argument, and draw the ire of people who would like the world to be different, let me disclaim for a moment. I am all for the democratizing force of self-publishing. I admit that the mainstream model of book publishing is punishing and limiting in ways that self-publishing is not. But here’s what I saw while I made my bread and butter among the mustache-twirling villains.

Yes, you, the author, may have had the idea, and yes, you may have slaved over every word, but I’m with Scalzi that there’s a lot more that goes into producing a book. For example

  • Even if you speak and write impeccable English, errors in a work of any length are almost inevitable. Trained eyes reading behind you makes a real difference in how you present yourself.
  • We all think we’re 100 percent clear, and with flawless taste, but someone who understands your market and lives outside your head can function as a test reader, and ask you questions that will honestly make your book much better. And let’s not kid ourselves— you wrote the book, but I generally read every word closely at least six times, and went through the books that I published more than a dozen times before I sent them out into the world. I’m also paid to be exceptionally well read in the field, so I’m not publishing books that are nearly indistinguishable from what’s already available. And my name is on very few of the books I published. Because I wasn’t as emotionally-connected to the work, I could see it more clearly, and I could make it better for that. They might be your words, but plenty of my blood, sweat and tears are on them too.
  • Involving someone who has built the expertise to help you avoid legal trouble (there are many ways to incur legal trouble— by accidentally infringing on trademarks and copyrights, by saying things that people will find offensive, by using images to which you don’t have rights, by misquoting someone or quoting them in ways they don’t find flattering…) is a thing worth doing. As is setting your book up to enjoy protections of the same sort. So fact-checkers and copyright managers, people who know how to price things for the market and how to get the little bar-code-thingy for the back of the book…
  • It helps to work with a professional who knows how to put your book together in a way your audience will find attractive— cover design, etc.— someone who can take the time to understand how to communicate through images font and color and book design the things that help your book stand out in a good way.
  • It helps to work with someone who can manage print production and make corrections you and the editors may find along the way.
  • If it’s nonfiction, you might need an indexer, and will certainly need a proofreader beyond the main editor, for whom the words get so familiar, they can hardly see them anymore.
  • It’s absolutely essential to work with someone who knows how to navigate the complex nuances of book marketing and distribution to your specific audience… and it turns out all of these people needed training, do this for a living (which makes them good and fast in a way that a hobbyist cannot be) and expect to be paid. And this is before your book is actually a physical or digital thing. And then there’s marketing, which is a lot about identifying opportunities to build your audience and establish your expertise in front of them so that, of all the things they could do with their time and money, buying and reading your book (among all the books they could buy) seems like a reasonable choice.The publisher also fronts the money to print or produce your book, and most books don’t break even, so financially, they assume the risk in a way that protects the author. It’s like insurance. You pay for insurance. But in book publishing, you pay on a revenue share model, which lets you publish books even if you can’t financially assume this risk for yourself. I was a trade publisher, so we didn’t give advances, but if you got an advance, this is an even better-for-the-author, worse-for-the-publisher model, wherein they pay you money as a bet that they’ll earn the money back, even though they most often do not. Even though sometimes, the author never actually writes a book you can publish and/or sell.

    … and don’t get me started on how complicated and expensive it is to work with a book distributor or Amazon, whether you’re self-published or mainstream-published. Most (usually half or more) of the money goes toward paying for this and shipping and handling (which are notoriously hard on books, so you incur all of the expense to produce, and then lose an alarming number of copies to “crunched in transit.”)

Because the truth is that on a spiritual quest, maybe, “if you build it, they will come,” but in book publishing, there’s no guarantee that “if you publish it, it will sell.” And most of the time, it does not. And the few times that it does help pay for all the times that it does not.

Much as writing a book could be a spiritual quest, publishing and selling a book? It’s a business. And having people involved in the process who know the business and can help you navigate it without having to build that expertise yourself? There is a specific value to that. Models are changing, and I tend to think they’re changing for the better (they’re also why I’m not still a book publisher— mainstream publishing is not a great and growing profession these days), but in my experience, there were many fewer instances of mustache-twirling than I read about. Also, in my experience, that lack of expertise shows, in self-published books, either in the actual product or in the sales.

You can pretend that paying experts for their expertise is a racket, but unless you want to put the time into developing the expertise for yourself (and even then— if I publish, I’m not going to try to be the only editor of my book, or work without a professional designer, because I’ll value the final project enough to give it the best chance to succeed, whether I self-publish or seek a mainstream publisher), working with a partner with some skin in the game is usually a smart decision.

5 thoughts on “If You Build It, They Will Come

  1. This is a great article shedding light on a view of mainstream publishers that few people get to hear. Do you mind if I feature the entire article as a guest post on my blog? I would of course give credit, attribution, and a link back to your blog. I wanted to ask you first.


  2. Great article and such timing! I am currently weighing Friesen against Authorhouse against Lulu etc.. etc. and, while the final decision has yet to be made, I am leaning towards going with a publisher.

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