So you want to get your book published, but your chances of securing a contract with a big publisher continue to diminish and they bleed financially. Amazon undercuts the publishers’ price; making it increasingly difficult to recover production costs. Borders files for bankruptcy this week while the small and independent bookstores of Main Street continue to close up shop.

J.E. Fishman of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, recently wrote a brilliant blog: 10 Mistakes Big Publishers Make. Knowing their common mistakes can help an author jump publishers’ hurdles. If you can get inside the thinking (even if it is mistaken) of publishers, you will be able to approach them with your proposal more persuasively.

10 Mistakes Big Publishers Make

1. Knowing their suppliers (authors) better than their customers (readers).

“Books are not razors, of course, though both stand between us and barbarism. Yet most people responsible for deciding what books to publish (and how to publish them) tend to know more about authors than they know about who exactly reads those authors. Forgive me, but this is tantamount to Gillette knowing more about stainless steel than about what bearded people require” (J.E. Fishman)

Authors need to know their readers. A key element in any proposal includes a thorough description and analysis of the customer base for the book. And you need to know your readers and how to reach them; much better than the publisher.

2. Failing to do market research.

Authors need to do a lot of market research if they want a publishing contract because acquisition editors don’t do market research. Know the precise size and demographics, values and behavioral consumer patterns of your readers. Investigate other related books that are comparable and the market competition to your book project. Research the market need and demand for this publication. Assume publishers have not done their homework on your subject; you will need to present them with the evidence that this is a project on which they can bank.

3. Thinking big advances produce “heat.”

The big ol’ houses just keep up this misbegotten tradition of offering a small handful of big advances to make the writing talent into stars. It’s the illusion of being in the big leagues; but it doesn’t make better books and it is breaking the banks of publishing houses. They lose all economy of scale in this new environment. Don’t ask or expect an advance these days.

4.  Assuming readers think like them.

Fishman asks: “Is it possible that publishers too often publish to the tastes of their editors rather than to the taste of the marketplace? You bet it is.”

Acquisition editors at big publishing houses get imprints with their personal names on them. It’s a powerful position to decide which books are published (and which are not). Authors need to get to know the acquisition editors at publishing houses where they intend to submit their proposal. Ah, yes, dear writer, more research. You need to find a publisher with an editor who thinks like your readers. That’s a fine art of matchmaking.

5. Worrying more about stealing than about selling.

“Theft is a manageable problem. Lack of sales kills an enterprise” (Fishman)

As an author, you need not make the same kind of mistake. Don’t worry about copyright infringement of your idea. Focus on selling your writing; in venues other than a full book. Demonstrate you have built a platform of readers who will buy your book by establishing a great blog. If a publisher sees in your proposal that you have a project with a built-in audience, your chances improve significantly.

6. Trying to cut their way to profitability.

“An existing company can cut its way to profitability in the short term, but in the long term the only way to make money is to grow” (Fishman).

The big publishing houses have cut down to the bone. They’ve passed much of the expense on to the authors. And the costs of being an author have gone up in the new social media environment where an author needs a website, blog, twitter, Facebook and other inbound marketing tools in their writing kit. So authors need to invest in themselves in order to eventually earn money from writing talent. Don’t take any cheap shortcuts in preparing a customized proposal for a publisher.

7. Failing to teach business principles to English majors.

“For whatever reason, most people who love books so much that they seeks jobs in publishing don’t tend to have business backgrounds” (Fishman).

Most aspiring authors don’t tend to bring their business background to play enough in their proposals.

Think of a book proposal as a business proposal. You are asking them for an investment in your idea and they want you to convince them they should bankroll the project.

8. Publishing too few books.

Big publishers make this mistake more seriously ever year. The number of titles goes down even if the print run numbers go up. Publishers only want to print big runs for mass audiences. Instead of decreasing their risks, this strategy has the opposite effect. They have fewer eggs to put in one basket.

Authors can best hedge their bets by sending their proposals to other kinds of publishers who may be better at delivering your book to your audience.

9. Refusing to collude.

“In many ways, the book business is suffering. One big problem publishers have is the common policy of selling returnables, which can kill the bottom line (not to mention killing a whole bunch of trees). No one house, of course, can solve this problem on its own. If I refuse to sell returnable to bookstores, my competitor would be happy to make up the difference. That’s why we need a little collusion in book publishing.

“…I know, I know, collusion is illegal. While booksellers are returning all those old books they’ll also be suing and publishers will have to defend themselves. But those lawsuits will take years. Meanwhile, the business will be healthier overall. By the time things settle, no one — not even the booksellers — will want to go back to the old way” (Fishman).

Fishman points to the biggest of several problems in the sales, distribution, terms and conditions of wholesalers and jobbers and how they finance the flow of books published. Publishers will have to give up some of the arcane ways of doing business if they are to remain open for business.

Likewise for authors; the romantic illusions of the leisurely life of a writer will bury your book project. It’s time to explore new business models. Authors will need to ‘collude’ with their audiences and their publishers if they want their book to succeed. Authors and publishers will forge new kinds of joint ventures with a diverse array of financing arrangements if the book business is to flourish.

10. Forgetting what business they’re in.

“If they’re going to survive well into this century, publishers need to let go of the idea that they’re in the book business and embrace the realization that they’re in the story business and/or the information business” (Fishman).

For authors this means that content matters most. The format – hardcover, softcover, print-on-demand, e-book, digital download, Kindle, Nook – doesn’t change the work of the author. Getting your book published requires a well written book if you expect anyone to buy it, read it, and recommend it to others.

It’s about the craft of writing. Let your story sell itself.

3 thoughts on “How Authors Can Overcome the 10 Mistakes Big Publishers Make

  1. This was excellent. Actually one of the best descriptions of the pitfalls when working with a publisher I have read. I especially agree with the notion that we are in the story and information business vs the book business. I actually had this happen to me when I self published a book. The distributors were judging the book by its cover and how well it would stack up on a shelf and how many pages there were per price as if it were a Charles Dicken’s novel and I was paid per word. They did not bother to read the book , which was well received by the actual readership.

  2. Very true in many ways (and also issues that we have tried to our best to remedy in our practices). Number five is especially true — for something to be stolen, it has to be worth stealing, and while it is certainly understandable to be concerned over potential misappropriation of the latest Harry Potter novel, most authors do not have to worry about this. Also, my opinion is that the revenue lost to theft is (in most non-Harry Potter situations) minimal since there are so few of them and these were people that would have most likely not bought the book anyway.

    It sounds awfully callous of me to say this, but I have found that an author’s concern over the potential theft of their book or ideas is often inversely proportional to the value of the contents of the book.

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