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Advice for authors, part one and part two

January 9, 2012
by seth godin

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If you’re an author or an aspiring author (and I trust that you are) it’s time to end the fruitless struggle with a dying business model and think hard about how the world has changed. I’ve written two posts on this (the first and the second).

Here, unchanged, are both of them…

From six years ago:

Advice for authors

Always beware free advice. It is worth what it costs!

That said, I get a fair number of notes from well respected, intelligent people who are embarking on their first non-fiction book project. They tend to ask very similar questions, so I thought I’d go ahead and put down my five big ideas in one place to make it easier for everyone.

I guarantee you that you won’t agree with all of them, but, as they say, your mileage may vary.

1. Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be disappointed.

On the other hand, a book gives you leverage to spread an idea and a brand far and wide. There’s a worldview that’s quite common that says that people who write books know what they are talking about and that a book confers some sort of authority.

2. The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
When the world moved more slowly, waiting more than a year for a book to come out was not great, but tolerable. Today, even though all other media has accelerated rapidly, books still take a year or more. You need to consider what the shelf life of your idea is.

3. There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.
This isn’t true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.

This gap is either unfilled, in which case the book fails, or it is filled by the author. Here’s the thing: publishing a book is really nothing but a socially acceptable opportunity to promote yourself and your ideas far and wide and often.

If you don’t promote it, no one will. If you don’t have a better strategy than, “Let’s get on Oprah” you should stop now. If you don’t have an asset already–a permission base of thousands or tens of thousands of people, a popular blog, thousands of employees, a personal relationship with Willard Scott… then it’s too late to start building that asset once you start working on a book.

By the way, blurbs don’t sell books. Not really. You can get all the blurbs in the world for your book and it won’t help if you haven’t done everything else (quick aside: the guy who invented the word “blurb” also wrote the poem Purple Cow).

4. Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
Obvious, sure, but real problems. Real problems because the cost of a book introduces friction to your idea. It makes the idea spread much much more slowly than an online meme because in order for it to spread, someone has to buy it. Add to that the growing (and sad) fact that people hate to read. Too often, people have told me, with pride, that they read three chapters of my book. Just three.

5. Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.
Printing your own book is very very easy and not particularly expensive. You can hire professional copyeditors and designers and end up with a book that looks just like one from Random House. That’s easy stuff.

What Random House and others do is invest. They invest cash in an advance. They invest time in creating the book itself and selling it in and they invest more cash in printing books. Like all VCs, they want a big return.

If you need the advance to live on, then publishers serve an essential function. If, on the other hand, you’re like most non-fiction authors and spreading the idea is worth more than the advance, you may not.

So, what’s my best advice?

Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant or or or…

Then, put your idea into a format where it will spread fast. That could be an ebook (a free one) or a pamphlet (a cheap one–the Joy of Jello sold millions and millions of copies at a dollar or less).

Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book. The thing people keep on their shelf or lend out or get from the library. Books are wonderful (I own too many!) but they’re not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea.

And the punchline, of course, is that if you do all these things, you won’t need a publisher. And that’s exactly when a publisher will want you! That’s the sort of author publishers do the best with.

And from five years ago:

Advice for authors

It happened again. There I was, meeting with someone who I thought had nothing to do with books or publishing, and it turns out his new book just came out.

With more than 75,000 books published every year (not counting ebooks or blogs), the odds are actually pretty good that you’ve either written a book, are writing a book or want to write one.

Hence this short list:

  1. Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don’t expect much.
  2. The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.
  3. Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read. I found someone I like working with at the EFA. One of the things traditional publishers used to do is provide really insightful, even brilliant editors (people like Fred Hills and Megan Casey), but alas, that doesn’t happen very often. And hiring your own editor means you’ll value the process more.
  4. Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn’t hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.
  5. Don’t try to sell your book to everyone. First, consider this: ” 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.” Then, consider the fact that among people even willing to buy a book, yours is just a tiny little needle in a very big haystack. Far better to obsess about a little subset of the market–that subset that you have permission to talk with, that subset where you have credibility, and most important, that subset where people just can’t live without your book.
  6. Resist with all your might the temptation to hire a publicist to get you on Oprah. First, you won’t get on Oprah (if you do, drop me a note and I’ll mention you as the exception). Second, it’s expensive. You’re way better off spending the time and money to do #5 instead, going after the little micromarkets. There are some very talented publicists out there (thanks, Allison), but in general, see #1.
  7. Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted. Of course, a contract from Knopf and a seat on Jon Stewart’s couch are great things, but so is being the Queen of England. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. Far more likely is that you discover how to efficiently publish (either electronically or using POD or a small run press) a brilliant book that spreads like wildfire among a select group of people.
  8. Your cover matters. Way more than you think. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need a book… you could just email people the text.
  9. If you have a ‘real’ publisher (#7), it’s worth investing in a few things to help them do a better job for you. Like pre-editing the book before you submit it. Like putting the right to work on the cover with them in the contract. And most of all, getting the ability to buy hundreds of books at cost that you can use as samples and promotional pieces.
  10. In case you skipped it, please check #2 again. That’s the most important one, by far.
  11. Blurbs are overrated, imho.
  12. Blog mentions, on the other hand, matter a lot.
  13. If you’ve got the patience, bookstore signings and talking to book clubs by phone are the two lowest-paid but most guaranteed to work methods you have for promoting a really really good book. If you do it 200 times a year, it will pay.
  14. Consider the free PDF alternative. Some have gotten millions of downloads. No hassles, no time wasted, no trying to make a living on it. All the joy, in other words, without debating whether you should quit your day job (you shouldn’t!)
  15. If you want to reach people who don’t normally buy books, show up in places where people who don’t usually buy books are. Media places, virtual places and real places too.
  16. Most books that sell by the truckload sell by the caseload. In other words, sell to organizations that buy on behalf of their members/employees.
  17. Publishing a book is not the same as printing a book. Publishing is about marketing and sales and distribution and risk. If you don’t want to be in that business, don’t! Printing a book is trivially easy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. You’ll find plenty of printers who can match the look and feel of the bestselling book of your choice for just a few dollars a copy. That’s not the hard part.
  18. Bookstores, in general, are run by absolutely terrific people. Bookstores, in general, are really lousy businesses. They are often where books go to die. While some readers will discover your book in a store, it’s way more likely they will discover the book before they get to the store, and the store is just there hoping to have the right book for the right person at the time she wants it. If the match isn’t made, no sale.
  19. Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.

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