Sunday, March 15, 2009

5 Problems With Conventional Book Publishing by Dr. Gary S. Goodman

I am the best-selling author of 12 books, all of them issued by major publishers. Collectively, they have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

I like to start this way, not to boast, but to give you some confidence in my observations. They have been accumulated over 20 plus years of writing, so I've seen various markets for authors.

Right now, there are some major problems with conventional book publishing, of which you should be aware, if your goal is to get this community to acquire and then to issue your work:

(1) Distribution through bookstores has never been tougher. Most publishers sell to stores on consignment. If books don't fly off shelves into the hands of buyers, they're returned to publishers, very quickly. Your title doesn't get very long exposure or time to establish itself.

(2) Books used to be kept "in print" and available for longer periods of time, in many cases, for years. Now, they're put to death quickly, if initial sales are anything other than brisk.

(3) We live in an era of the celebrity book. If Oprah wants to write a diet book, it will be a monster hit; you know that. But the most exciting, up and coming, highly credentialed nutritionist may not have a chance of breaking into print.

(4) Publishers expect authors to make them profitable through personal promotional efforts. "What are you going to do to sell this book?" is the major question they ask, and agents will tell you, without a personal commitment to sell your own copies, stated in your book proposal, you won't get a publisher to bite.

(5) Publishers are clueless, themselves, about what to put out there. Reluctant to lead, and reluctant to follow the success of others, they are like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

It used to be the case that if you wanted information on a subject you either went to your library or to your local bookstore. Not anymore.

By going to the Internet, you can assemble the equivalent of a book, fast and more or less, for free. Publishers haven't figured out how to sell content at a premium, in an environment in which so much of it is available, instantly, for nothing.

There are alternatives to conventional book publishing, including self-publishing and using media alternatives such as audios and videos. I'll explore them in future articles.

But for now, give that dream of seeing your book on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, a second thought.

It may not be worth the effort.

Dr. Gary S. Goodman, President of, is a popular keynote speaker, management consultant, and seminar leader and the best-selling author of 12 books, including Reach Out & Sell Someone® and Monitoring, Measuring & Managing Customer Service. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, worldwide. A Ph.D. from USC's Annenberg School, Gary offers programs through UCLA Extension and numerous universities, trade associations, and other organizations in the United States and abroad.


Edward G. Talbot said...

Excellent post and good points all. I suppose I'd quibble with #5 a bit. Publishers are not clueless, so much as they are overly cautious. And that is certainly understandable. It happens to most mature industries/businesses.

Or put it another way - they aren't any MORE clueless than authors and agents. It's just that it is tempting to think of them as the professionals who know most about what's going on. I think that they provide far more objectivity than most authors, but many of their successes seem to be due to the dartboard approach - throw a bunch of stuff and see what sticks. It may be the best model out of a bunch of questionable ones when it comes to the "industry."

But I do agree that self-publishing and other formats such as audio make a lot more sense now than they used to. I released my first novel as an audio podcast last year. I did this to try to gauge the potential audience for the work. And it was a heck of a lot of fun.

I'm not quite ready for all the work that goes into actually putting the book out in print myself. I do not want to do it unless I can do it as well as the professionals, and I'm not prepared to pay the four figures it would take to do that. Between book covers, editing, layout, I have rarely seen a self-published work with a professional appearance unless it is done by someone who already has expertise in these skills. And editing your own work simply cannot be done to professional standards no matter how good an editor you are - which is not to say that plenty of books by major publishers don't have poor editing, just that those are not what I'm trying to emulate.

In any case, there is a lot to think about. For me the bottom line is that however I produce the work, I will be promoting it myself. Even with a traditional publisher, I can't expect much help. I keep that in mind as I weigh the various options for publishing.

Bookgal said...

Gary, what a fantastic perspective. You are 100% true, the power is now in the hands of the small press/self-pub'd author. And an author who can navigate the Internet successfully is going to do much much better in their promotion vs. the author waiting for a bookstore to open their doors to them. We've spent the last 7 years turning our once traditional pr and marketing firm into an aggressive Internet marketing company. It's paid off. The Internet is where the success is. Publishers (the NY guys) are scrambling to catch up. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see your book in print but be realistic about what your future holds, it takes time and persistence and right blend of marketing - most of it now being online.

Misguided_67 said...

Hi Gary,

Great post! I'm new to reading this blog but have enjoyed it immensely over the past two months.

Re: number 4 on your list, do most publishers expect the author to set up their own web site and/or other online tools? In 2009, what role does the publisher play in commissioning the artwork for the cover?

I've never heard that an author must answer the question "What are you going to do to sell this book?" in the book proposal. Can you talk a little more about this?

I'll be finishing my novel early next year and am constantly thinking about how I will market the book when it's done.

I actually work for an advertising/PR firm so I have access to some resources, but am curious about how much of the marketing the publisher takes on vs. the author doing a lot of self-promotion. Any thoughts?

Elizabeth K. Burton said...

My biggest issue with your points is that they are based on a false assumption, which is that publication by the majors is the goal to which all authors aspire. Or should aspire. Given there are six of them, and something like 80,000 independent presses in the US, why is it that all discussions of publishing are always focused on the minority?

The choice isn't between being accepted by the Inner Circle or doing it yourself. Nor are people doomed to deal with vanity printers. What they are required to do is what anyone with a product to sell does first--find out who's likely to be interested. Which from my point of observation no one does.

As for authors having to bear the brunt of their own marketing, if you take a good look at bestselling authors (including yourself, I suspect, if you analyze it) it wasn't the book tour or the advertising in the major trade publications or the reviews in same that sold the books. It was the author making contact with potential readers as a person, one way or another.

Yes, a book tour is one way to do that, but with the prohibitive cost of travel small wonder those are growing fewer every year. After all, why spend $10,000 or more so an author can meet a few hundred people when for a fraction of that you can arrange for them to meet thousands online?

The mistaken idea people have about author self-promotion is that it's about them selling their own books. It's not. It's about them selling themselves, and as more and more people become comfortable with the virtual media it's become equally simple for that to happen.

If an author's goal is to be perched on a pedestal with a laurel wreath on his/her brow, I suspect he or she is doomed to disappointment. That's not how our society is evolving, and we all know what happens to species who refuse to adapt.

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