by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
After a particularly miserable recent experience with a publisher that I’ll call “Evil Publishing Company,” I started to question my path as an author. I’ve had eight books published. I’m not rich. I’m not famous. I haven’t been on Oprah.
Well, now of course I didn’t really expect any of those things. So why had I written all these books and what did I have to show for my labors? More importantly, had other writers had terrible experiences with publishers that made them ask whether publishing was worth it? I asked many of them. I found a few surprises, some gems of enlightenment, and many encouraging words for others who might be considering trying to get a book published. The authors I talked to had all published in the careers and job-search sector, but their experiences are likely representative of any type of nonfiction author.
Though the publishing game is increasingly competitive, most authors I talked to had little difficulty getting published. No one was self-supporting from publishing books, let alone getting rich, but virtually all the authors had seen ancillary business benefits as an outgrowth of publishing. Almost all authors pointed to minimal marketing and promotional support from their publishers, and some were surprised by these paltry marketing efforts. Most had positive experiences with their publishers. Most urged other would-be authors to take the plunge. A few had decided, for diverse reasons, to self-publish.
I’ve covered the experiences and advice of the authors I talked to in the article components that follow:
- What Inspires Authors to Publish?
- How Difficult Is It to Get Published?
- What Is It Like to Work with Publishers?
- What About Self-Publishing?
- Can You Make a Living Publishing?
- Does Publishing Offer Rewards Beyond Money?
- Advice to Prospective Authors
What Inspires Authors to Publish?
None of the authors I talked to had chosen the publishing route to become rich and famous; most chose to write books because they had something unique to say that they felt would help job-seekers. Billie Sucher was typical of the authors I spoke to: “I know this might sound nuts,” she said, “but some people think it’s a big deal to get a book published. I didn’t for a second look at it that way; I just wanted to help take away some of the pain of job loss #8230; no more, no less, so that’s what prompted me to write a book in the first place. It never occurred to me to not write a book.” Sucher said her first career-related book, Between Jobs: Recover, Rethink, Rebuild (Sta-Kris, 1997), “was written with one purpose in mind: To provide an easy-to-read format in a skinny little book where persons #8216;between jobs’ could learn much in a small amount of time. I wanted to give readers hope, optimism, direction, and confidence, and to let them know they’re not alone in the journey to the next job, whatever that might be
Some authors noticed a deficiency in books on the market on their topic. Jack Chapman, author of the well-known salary-negotiation book, Negotiating Your Salary, How to Make $1000 a Minute (Ten Speed Press, 2008), said, “I noticed in 1984 that there was not another book like it on the market, and I had the outline done, so I wrote the book.” Although not my only motivation, I similarly wrote my first cover-letter book at a time when only one other cover-letter publication populated the market.
Jason Alba took advantage of a different type of marketing opportunity. He had always wanted to write a book and had already started I’m on LinkedIn, Now What??? (Happy About, 2nd edition, 2009) to help the clients of his service understand how to use LinkedIn. “But what really got me moving on the book,” Alba said, “was when Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth, said to get word-of-mouth marketing, you could tie your stuff into a product or company that was already getting word of mouth, I kicked myself for not having done this book on LinkedIn sooner!
Some authors noticed not a deficiency of material but incomplete or misleading information. Wendy Gelberg, author of The Successful Introvert: How to Enhance Your Job Search and Advance Your Career (HappyAbout, 2008), immersed herself in the topic of interview preparation so she could offer interview advice as an add-on service for her clients. “However, I was dismayed to discover that the standard ‘toot your own horn’ advice didn’t work for my more understated personality,” she said, “and I couldn’t find any other advice that spoke to me or people like me.”
Kate Lister who co-authoredUndress For Success, The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) with Tom Harnish, said the co-authors “were sick of the many stuck-in-the-Leave-It-To-Beaver-era books that tout treasures in antiques, cash from crafts, and pink Cadillacs as the pinnacle of work-at-home achievement. Telework and legitimate work-at-home income opportunities deserve better than the tawdry reputation they’ve earned from the 95 percent of Web sites that are scams, links to scams, or other dead ends.”
The desire to build credibility and boost a business inspired some authors. “I wanted the credibility and visibility that comes along with getting a book published,” said Ford Myers, author of Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Susan Kennedy, who is co-author, with Karen Baker, of The Job Coach for Young Professionals (Intern Bridge, 2009), had created a job-coaching business specializing in college graduates and young professionals that she hoped to grow into a household name like Kaplan or Sylvan Learning Center. To do so, Kennedy said, “I realized I needed a quantifiable process in place so that whomever I hired could provide the same service as I could. For a two-year period, we revised the book after every client we worked with until we were satisfied that the book could be used by anyone from virtually any background.”
Some authors realized they already had material that could become a book. That was my impetus. I had long been good at writing cover letters. A co-worker asked me for some information about how to write one. I compiled a large stack of materials for her, and then I realized I could turn the materials into a book; hence the birth of Dynamic Cover Letters (Ten Speed Press, 3rd edition, 2001).
Jan Melnik had a similar experience. She had compiled a 30-page word-processed booklet on how to start a home-based business. While being interviewed for a local newspaper in her home office on another topic, Melnik mentioned the booklet. She learned from a phone call a few days later that the reporter’s husband was an editor at Globe Pequot Press, which was just launching an entrepreneurial series and was interested in having Melnik develop her booklet into a book, which became How to Start a Home-Based Resume Business (Globe Pequot Press, 1997).
Melnik’s success, in turn, inspired her close friend, Louise Kursmark, to begin publishing. “She had just published her first book on running a home-based business,” recalled Kursmark, who has now published some 20 books, including Sales & Marketing Resumes for $100,000 Jobs (JIST Publishing, 3rd edition, July 2009) and 30-Minute Resume Makeover (JIST Works, 2008), “and I was so pleased for her, impressed with what she had produced, and the tiniest bit jealous! When her publisher was looking for an author for another book in the series, Jan immediately referred me because she knew it was in my area of expertise, desktop publishing.”
Still others became published authors at the urging of supporters. Special-education teacher Danny Kofke wrote How To Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) On A Teacher’s Salary (Tate Publishing, 2007) because many colleagues told him and his wife, a former teacher, that they should write a book “because we were good at handling our finances.” Rita Ashley, author of Job Search Debugged, said clients repeatedly asked her to write a book.
How Difficult Is It to Get Published?
While prospective authors may be deterred by the perceived difficulty of selling their book or concept to a publisher, most authors I talked to found it relatively easy to get themselves into print. My own first experience with getting published was any aspiring author’s dream. I sent my completed manuscript to my first-choice publisher and had it accepted less than a week later. “We’d be fools not to publish this,” the acquisitions editor said.
Several authors got their work published as a result of networking. Alba made a publishing deal over dinner. (Gelberg spun off Alba’s success; when she heard HappyAbout had published Alba, she sent her manuscript to the company, her third, and ultimately fruitful, attempt to submit to a publisher). A networking connection brought Susan Guarneri and her co-author Laura DeCarlo to their publisher when they pitched the idea for their book, Job Search Bloopers (Career Press, 2008).
For Melnik, high visibility in her industries and her subject-matter expertise made it “very easy” to get published.
Chapman, whose publisher, Ten Speed Press, was the same as my first publisher, was rejected initially but managed to talk Ten Speed’s president into accepting his book. Ten Speed, which has been acquired by Random House, likely is pleased with the reversal, as Chapman’s book has been a strong seller in the sector, chalking up 250,000 copies sold over 20 years.
Myers was the only author I talked to who had a hard time getting published, and his difficulty may reflect today’s more competitive arena. First-time authors would find it more difficult to get published today, for example, than when many of the authors I talked to first sold their books to publishers, especially if they tried to get published without a literary agent. “Fifteen years ago when we wrote our first two books,” Lister said, “we went directly to the publisher. These days, a good agent is essential.” See more about Myers’ painstaking process here and Lister’s tips for finding an agent and pitching a book here.
What Is It Like to Work with Publishers?
Returning to my original impetus for researching and writing this article, I wondered if other authors had had negative experiences with publishers the way I did with Evil Publishing Company. If they did, they didn’t admit to more than minor wrinkles. Gelberg appreciated the creative freedom her publisher gave her, but sometimes wished she got more input. Alba was discouraged by the size of his royalties, the small percentage of revenue an author gets from each book sold, and the lag time waiting for royalty funds. “It could take months and months and months to get the royalty for each book sold,” Alba said. Myers agreed: “The high percentage of sales revenue and control that go to the publisher seem excessive.” Melnik isn’t crazy about the fact that subsequent editions of your books are at the publisher’s discretion. You can’t just update your book and expect the publisher will put out the new edition. Kursmark cited a very large publisher that was quite hands-on in the editing process, an approach that required “several tedious phone calls to discuss tiny details.”
The only unanimously cited negative, or perhaps “surprise” is a better word, was the lack of marketing and promotional support publishers gave the authors’ books. “New writers think that the publisher is all about marketing,” Lister said. “They’re not. Sure, they want to sell books too, but their big emphasis is on getting the books to online and traditional booksellers.”
Myers reflects exactly the new-writer expectation Lister cites. “Working with a major publishing company was not at all what I had expected,” he said. “Publishers offer distribution and credibility. These are the only advantages I have found to going with a publisher as opposed to self-publishing. Unless you are already a highly successful author, publishers offer next-to-nothing when it comes to marketing and publicity.” Indeed, in a reality-check document he updates periodically, Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, states, “Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.” Myers notes that the amount of marketing support he got from his publisher was “virtually none.” The company made flyers at Myers’ request and assigned a public-relations staffer to craft a press release and schedule some media interviews. “I have taken full responsibility for promoting and marketing my book, which is a full-time job. I also engaged a major book publicity agency in New York, which represents a significant investment.” Gelberg, too, hired a publicist. “I don’t know that I can say that I recovered my cost in terms of book sales or even business generated, but it’s not always possible to track and measure the results,” she said. “I got significant media exposure, numerous radio and print interviews, including some significant national exposure.”
Sucher did not use a publicist and recalls that “the promotional and marketing work was unbelievably time-consuming, and imagine trying to promote a book without the advantage of the Internet.”
So, if weak marketing support was the worst publisher issue these authors faced, did that mean I was a diva, a prima donna, to be so incensed by Evil Publishing Company? I was not alone in my annoyance; one of the most prolific and highly respected authors in the careers sector told me that during the publishing process for the sole book she authored for Evil Publishing Company, she felt she was treated “like the janitor.” (In fairness, though, one of the other authors quoted in this article had a wonderful experience publishing with Evil Publishing Company.) So what got me so riled? Here are just three of Evil’s offenses. Though the company stressed that sample documents would be the main selling point of the first book I wrote for the firm and asked me to produce 100 pages of samples, my editor later required me to cut 70 of those pages. I also waited a year between submitting my proposal and completing the editing process (called “author’s review”) to get the second half of my advance check. Withholding part of the advance until after author’s review is standard industry practice, but it doesn’t usually take nearly so long. Finally, when I was stupid enough to write a second book for Evil, I was inexplicably required to submit my manuscript as hard-copy even though I had submitted it electronically. I had not sent a hard-copy manuscript to a publisher since the early 1990s, including the previous manuscript I wrote for Evil.
What About Self-Publishing?
Some authors I talked to had sidestepped the problems of going with mainstream publishers by self-publishing. Sucher self-published a book outside the career sector because the book was very personal, so she didn’t want it to be edited or changed. “I cared deeply about preserving it as it was written and intended,” she said. Kathy Condon, author of It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: It’s all about Communication, wanted to publish her book faster than the process would take with a mainstream publisher. She also knew she could promote the book on her own since, “frankly, I am good at networking.”
Depending on how an author self-publishes, he or she can pocket a much higher percentage of book profits than would be possible through a publisher. If you create your own PDF downloadable e-book, for example, your costs are minimal, so you keep close to 100 percent of the revenues. Kursmark and her business partner Wendy Enelow experienced an encouraging return with their sole venture, so far, into the self-publishing arena. “We have self-published one product, the Enelow-Kursmark Executive Resume Toolkit, which includes not only the book itself but also audio files, worksheets, helpful website links, and additional elements to create a comprehensive resource for executives wishing to develop their own resumes,” Kursmark said. “We have had enough success with this book that I am thinking of doing another.” Kursmark agrees that the advantage to self-publishing is that “the author makes much more from each sale; the downside is that without the traditional publishing infrastructure and bookstore distribution, unit sales typically are significantly lower.” Since Kursmark and Enelow have earned more from their e-book than a few of their other titles, they consider this route “very promising.”
Sharon Jones, author of The Parent’s Crash Course in Career Planning: Helping Your College Student Succeed (Lulu.com, 2007), and her co-author went the self-publishing route for the second edition of their book, using popular self-publishing platform LuLu.com, but were less than thrilled with their decision. “The instructions for Lulu were often difficult to follow,” Jones said, “although the firm had good help-desk agents.” The co-authors also found that “LuLu.com didn’t sound professional, so we started referring to the book as an update of the original book by VGM Career Horizons,” Jones said.
While the costs of creating a downloadable ebook (as opposed to a hard-copy publication) can be low, other types of self-publishing aren’t cheap. To publish 200 copies of her book, Condon spent $4,000, including hiring an editor and a virtual assistant (to set and format pages for publication and handle communication with the printer), as well as purchasing an ISBN and barcode number. Condon saved by having her sister design the book and accepting a friend’s donation of drawings. Condon recouped her costs in six months.
While authors shoulder the marketing burden whether they self-publish or go through a publisher, the task is perhaps greater for the self-published. With her downloadable ebook, Job Search Debugged, Ashley had minimal production costs, but notes that “promotion of the book is where the costs live.” Ashley knew her book would be “a tool to promote my business,” but discovered that “book promotion is a full-time job, and my real job is as a coach.” She cautioned that “building a Web presence and all the other required marketing are as expensive as your bankroll will allow. There is always something more to spend money on. Those speaking engagements and book signings cost you money.” Ashley also points to the incalculable time costs of five years and many interviews with executives and investors, along with real-world examples and field-tested advice.
Some interesting resources for self-publishing include You and Your Future in Digital Publishing by Gordon Burgett, Self-Publish Your Book: Guide To The Best Self-Publishing Services, and Author 2.0: Using Web 2.0 Tools to write, publish, sell, and promote your book (downloadable).
Can You Make a Living Publishing?
In a word, no. Not unless you write blockbusters or are extremely prolific. In the prolific category, well, yes, you could make a modest living publishing in the career sector if you publish enough books. But even Kursmark, who has authored 20 books, said that book sales represent about 10 percent of her income. “It is a nice supplement,” Kursmark said, “but, even after 20 books, does not come close to the money I can make from writing resumes and delivering training programs.”
“My publisher brought me down to earth by saying that a career book is considered to be doing well if it sells 1,000 copies,” Gelberg noted. Myers pointed out that the percentage of authors who earn a decent living from writing books is very low, less than 5 percent.
“When you make $1-$3 a book with a traditional publisher, it’s tough to make a living,” Kate Lister pointed out. Steven Piersanti’s handout, “The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing” points out (quoting Publisher’s Weekly) that “in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies.” Noted Lister, “Those blockbusters are a minute anomaly; only 10 books sold more than a million copies last year, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000.”
Does Publishing Offer Rewards Beyond Money?
While you probably won’t get rich writing books, you will likely enjoy many other ancillary rewards, the authors I interviewed said. Kursmark summarizes how publishing has been successful for her:
- “It establishes credibility (an author = an expert) and positions me as an expert in my field with the general public, media, and my peers.
- “It drives clients to me. People buy a book to learn to write a resume or conduct a job search, only to realize that it is a challenging task, and they want to call in an expert!
- “It opens the door to the speaking and training opportunities that have become a significant part of my work, and work I really enjoy.
- “It attracts media inquiries.
- “It gives me a platform to share what I consider to be best practices in my industry.
- “It’s fun to do!”
Most other authors I talked to concur with these benefits. “[Publishing] has been a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful gift that I had no idea the by-products I’d get to enjoy by virtue of this simple little book called Between Jobs,” Sucher said
Kofke noted that getting published has opened doors to other possible careers. “I have been hired to give financial speeches because of my book,” he said. Jones also saw doors open up to her after publishing. “I have been an Answer Zone expert on careers and graduate schools for U.S. News & World Report Online,” she reported. “I have written articles for a national journal and recently for a magazine that the association distributes free to more than 700,000 students at more than 2,000 colleges worldwide.”
Melnik, too, has seen opportunities that she would not have without publishing. “Being a published author opens many, many doors to speaking opportunities,” she said. “I receive $500-$750 per talk and present at universities and libraries, as well as at industry conferences, the latter of which are compensated only through waived conference fees. In addition, being published has garnered me a number of TV and radio appearances, as well as newspaper and magazine interviews; none of these pays, but I benefit through numerous referrals (clients), the source of my primary business.”
Kennedy observed that publishing had been successful for her because “it lends credibility to my coaching practice.” Guarneri, too, cited the instant credibility as a careers-industry thought leader that she gained from publishing. “I noticed more traffic to my website and more sign-ups for my Career Goddess Blog. Like Kursmark and Melnik, Guarneri loves public speaking and “started getting invitations to speak in person and via teleseminars and webinars, to be interviewed by national publications like Consumer Reports, and to be a guest-expert writer for blogs. These writing and speaking engagements have begun to produce a revenue stream for my business,” she said. Alba described publishing as a monumental success in terms of building his business. “This is the single most significant marketing thing I’ve done to date for my business,” he said.
For Condon, her book itself yielded rewards, but winning an award for it, “Best Book Finalist USA Book News,” multiplied those rewards. “There is no question receiving the award has made a huge difference,” she said. “One convention where I was going to be speaking knew I had a book. Once I won the award, they decided to buy 200 books for participants.”
Gelberg’s description of the respect she has earned from authoring a book aligned with my own most significant source of satisfaction. “I can see the change in facial expression and body language when people learn I’ve written a book,” she said. Gelberg also pointed to branding benefits. “[Publishing] has clearly helped me define and promote my own brand and has attracted prospective clients to me who need the kind of help that I am well qualified to provide,” she said. “Having written a book has definitely given me a platform to build relationships with people I would not otherwise have connected with and it has allowed me to share some advice that I believe was sorely needed.”
Still, some have yet to see major benefits. For Myers, it’s too soon since his book was released about a month before I talked to him, though he said he has seen an indirect boost in other areas of his work, such as consulting and speaking. Ashley has not yet gained clients as a result of her book. “Not one book buyer has converted to coaching, but all coaching clients purchase the book,” she said.
Advice to Prospective Authors
The authors I talked to were brimming with advice for others considering seeking publication. Here’s what they said:
- I highly recommend the strategy [of publishing a book]. Depending on the content of the book, it’s also a useful handout to clients; I give many of them copies of either my Executive’s Pocket Guide to ROI Resumes and Job Search (co-authored with Kursmark, JIST Works, 2006) or One-Hour College Application Essay (JIST Works, 2007). In both instances, these freebies propel additional referrals from clients already working with me. They tell family members, colleagues, neighbors, etc. A book is worth its weight in gold. And the more titles you have out there producing royalties, well, it’s somewhat like an annuity!, Jan Melnik
- Write the first word. Then turn the first word into a line, a thought, and don’t worry about it being “right.” Refuse to buy in to the notion that you have writer’s block. Write from your heart and from your gut and from whatever place you have within you that needs to express words, thoughts on a piece of paper. Don’t try to write for others or wonder if others will like it, approve of it, or appreciate it. Write for yourself bec