Getting published – in the real world

Every now and then I see people go through the bafflement of trying to find a deep pockets, high profile publisher for their book.

Huge amounts of time and energy are wasted and much frustration ensues.


Because few would-be authors have even the vaguest clue of what they’re doing.

They hear the one-in-a-million success story where an unpublished author gets their first book published and becomes famous overnight and think that that (or something like it) is going to happen to them.

Let me tell you right now: It’s not.

Here are some of the myths and misconceptions that go along with this fantasy:

Myth #1. Publishing companies are always on the lookout for great book ideas – and they don’t care where they come from
Myth #2. Publishing companies will acquire a book just on the strength of a great idea
Myth #3. Publishing companies pay big advances
Myth #4. Publishing companies will knock themselves out promoting your book after they decide to publish it
Myth #5. Publishing companies are the only way to get your book in print and to get your message to an audience

Let’s demolish Myth #1 first

The reality is that publishing companies are bureaucracies with very rigid pecking orders.

Within this pecking order, you, as an unpublished author, have about the same level of clout as a beggar sitting on the sidewalk asking for spare change. And you and your ideas can expect to be treated with the same level of interest and courtesy.

Who does have clout in the publishing world?

Successful authors, successful acquisitions editors and successful agents.

What might change this equation?

If you’re a beggar who can flawlessly play Beethoven’s Concerto for violin…then, if you’re lucky, they might throw a few coins in your cup as they walk past you.

“What?” you exclaim. “You mean my talent as a writer and my amazing knowledge and experience won’t be recognized?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.

Acquisition editors listen to one group of people: successful book agents. That’s who they buy from. They don’t buy books from people off the street.

Has it ever happened that an author without an agent has scored a publishing contract?


And occasionally movie stars do get discovered waiting tables. Meanwhile, there are a million unemployed actors hoping their next audition will better than the last 50 they went to.

If you base your life plans on winning long shots, you’re probably not going to have much success.

If you want to get your book published by a publisher then it’s up to you to figure out how, by hook or by crook, to get the enthusiastic support of an experienced and well regarded book agent.

Who gets agents?

Three types of people get book agents:

1. Professional writers who have laid down a track record writing outstanding articles for top tier publications in the field they propose to write a book about

2. Celebrities who are so prominent that the news media pays attention to them, interviews them, writes profiles on them, and covers their work in depth

3. People who are lucky (or crafty) as hell

You’re probably getting the idea that there is a “crafty” way to get an agent and there is a “by hook or crook” method too.

There is. And that will be the subject of another article.

Myth #2: You can get a book contract with just a great idea and a smile

Yes, this has happened, but the odds of it happening are so extreme you are begging for failure if you’re counting on it.

Books are sold on the basis of book proposals.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find an agent with juice who will represent you, you’re going to need a book proposal that sings.

A multi-published book author with a lackluster or foggy proposal will find his proposal rejected. It happens all the time.

The book proposal is not a mere formality. It’s the pivot point on which everything else depends.

A book proposal is as important as an investment prospectus in the investment world.

As an author who wants a publisher to back your book idea, you’re like a company that is seeking venture capital funding. The publisher (the bank) wants to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that:

1. You know what you’re talking about
2. You can write and can deliver a first class manuscript on time
3. There is an obvious market for the book you’re proposing

I’ll assume point 1, that you have the qualifications to write on the subject you want to write a book about. That’s the easy part.

But what about points 2 and 3?

Have you ever written for publication before? If so, has your writing appeared in name publications (not just websites or obscure newsletters)?

Publishing is a lot like the recording industry.

In the music business, contracts are given to people who are in bands, who perform, who tour. In short, to people who are in the industry. They’re not given to people who believe they have a good idea for an album.

Contrary to mass delusion, writing is a craft to be learned. It’s not something that you wake up one day and declare you can do because you wrote a few essays in school.

You prove you are publishable by writing and getting published, ideally in better and better outlets. You work your way up the chain, the same way a musician does by playing to larger and larger audiences and eventually establishing him or herself as a bankable commodity.

Now, for Item 3. Is there a clear market for your book?

This is where many would be published authors fall apart.

They assume their book idea is so wonderful that of course it will have an audience.


It doesn’t work that way.

A publisher can only publish a finite number of books per season.

If they say “yes” to you, they are saying “no” to others.

In order for them to say “yes” to you, they have to believe that there is a healthy market – and clear path to that market – for your book.

It’s up to you to show them this is true.

It’s not up to the publisher to figure it out, nor will they make the slightest effort or show the slightest ability to do so.

Publishers are not book marketers. They acquire books, edit them and then turn them over to their marketing department (also known as the “people who do next to nothing” as we’ll see shortly.)

If you’re not super-specific about who your customers are going to be and, every bit as important, exactly how you – yes you the author – are going to reach them, you’ve got nada in this department.

Talking vaguely about “demographics” isn’t going to cut it.

Two myths down and three more to go

Myth #3 is that your publisher is going to give you a healthy advance that is going to buy you the time you need to write the thing and maybe even hire some help (researcher(s), proofreader(s), fact checker(s), manuscript preparer(s) etc. etc.)

You, yes you, are responsible to turn in a manuscript that has been fact checked, proofread, copy edited and put into standard manuscript form. You’re either going to pay for help with this not-insignificant grunt work out of your advance or you’re going to do it yourself.

Here’s the reality: You advance will be pathetic. It is likely to work out to be less than minimum wage and it is highly unlikely that it will contain any “fat” that will allow you to hire help.

So why do people write books anyway?

It’s certainly not to make money from publishers.

Writers write books because they have something they just have to say and the magazine format is too short to cover it.

From a career point of view, a writer might also take on a book length project to raise his profile in the world and set himself up for paid speaking gigs, more and better paid magazine articles, academic appointments, consulting gigs, think tank jobs, and – maybe, just maybe some day – a real advance.

The profit in book writing usually comes from the “other stuff” that the writer must hustle him or herself because it’s rarely in the advance and almost never in the royalties.

Myth #4. Publishing companies will knock themselves out promoting your book after they decide to publish it

Getting a publisher and writing a book is such an ordeal, but at least you’ll have the full weight and power of a big publishing company behind your book, right?

Dream on.

Here’s the reality…

Your book will appear in the company’s catalog among many other books that season and the reps will mention it to book store and chain buyers.

If the buyers want it, they’ll buy it. If not, they won’t.

Most of the prime space in the store is going to go to known commodities which you, by definition, are not.

If people flock to the store asking for your book by name and buy out what’s on the shelves, the store manager may decide to buy some more – or not.

Meanwhile, your publisher will arrange a “media tour” which might involve you being interviewed by telephone on a few lower powered radio stations in parts of the country where the “marketing department” thinks your book might generate some interest.

I put “marketing department” in quotes because what publishers really have are people who check off boxes on the scatter shot promotion of the season’s catalog and then declare themselves successful.

– Short description of the book for the catalog – check
– Book cover sent to catalog people – check
– Review copies sent to the usual suspects – check
– A handful of “relevant media appearances” arranged – check

OK marketing done.

Next book…

This is what the “marketing departments” of book publishers do: the absolute bare and unimaginative minimum. If you doubt me, ask anyone who’s ever had a book published.

Successul authors (celebrities and/or people who have sold a lot of books in the past) get much different treatment. You won’t…unless your agent and proposal were so amazing that the publisher gave you a huge advance.

Advance size and marketing budget are related. See Myth #4 for a realistic appraisal of you getting a big advance.

So, in reality, who is going to market your book?

You are.

Which brings us to Myth #5

Myth #5. Publishing companies are the means to get your book in print and to get your message to an audience

If publishing companies make you jump through ridiculous hoops to get their attention…and the advances they pay are pathetic…and their marketing is even more pathetic…then what do you need one for?

To get your book into stores? Yes, they certainly can do that – once – when your book first comes out.

To market your book far and wide?


We’ve already established that that is never going to happen. It will be entirely up to you with your own time, money and energy to market the book.

To produce the actual physical book? Yes, they can do that. So can a book printer and so can many print-on-demand services. So you don’t need publishers for that.

The ability to print a book might have been a big deal in the 19th century, but it isn’t any more.

Publishers are finance companies.

You do all the work – you write and market the book – and in return for them fronting the cost of the first print run, they will own a share of all yours rights and collect all the revenue from which they will pay you a true pittance in royalties (assuming you ever get any.)

Does this sound like a good deal?

Of course not, but why do so many people try to squeeze themselves into this near impossible and mostly unrewarding hole?

1. Habit. It’s the conventional thing to do.

2. The mistaken idea that the publishing industry will make the process easier for you and do a better job with your book than you can yourself.

3. Status seeking. It seems more prestigious to have your book come from a publisher.

If you can get a mainstream publishing deal and you understand that you and you alone will be 100% responsible for the promotion of your book, then go for it.

But if publishing companies are throwing up obstacle after obstacle in your way, follow in the footsteps of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen Crane, Thomas Paine, e.e. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Beatrix Potter, and hundreds of other “name” authors over the years.


You need a proofreader, an editor, someone to prepare your manuscript for a printer or an demand print service, an eBook prepper, and a cover artist. It’s not instant, but nothing about the process is rocket science.

If you have a great book don’t let anything stop you from getting it to the world. And if you succeed (thanks to your own promotional efforts), you’ll retain 100% of the profits.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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