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The Ugly Truth About Getting Your Book Published

At Cooke Media Group, we have so many clients who are brilliant speakers and thinkers, and many of them are writers as well.  I found this fascinating (if not humbling) list from publisher Steven Piersanti, and thought you’d find it interesting.  If you’re considering a book project, here’s the “10 Awful Truths” you need to know:

Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers     Updated June 15, 2009

1.    The number of new books being published in the U.S. has exploded.  Bowker reports that 560,626 new books were published in the U.S. in 2008, which is more than double the number of new books published five years earlier (2003) in the U.S.  These figures include print-on-demand and short-run books, which is where most of the growth has occurred.  In addition, 120,947 new books were published in the U.K. in 2008 per Nielson Book.  And add tens of thousands more in other English-speaking countries.

2.    Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of new books.  Book sales in the U.S. grew by 3.5% from 2003 to 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers, but that is actually a 13.5% decline when adjusted for the 17% inflation rate over the same period.  Bookstore sales peaked in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and have fallen since then.  And sales in 2009 are much worse.

3.    Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.  Combine the explosion of new books with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title.  “Here’s the reality of the book industry: 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” (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006).  And average sales have since fallen much more.  According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books, only 299 million books were sold in 2008 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined.  The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

4.    A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.  For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space.  For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores).  Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

5.   It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.  Many book categories – including business, current affairs, and self-help – have become oversaturated.  It is increasingly hard to make any book stand out.  New titles are not just competing with 560,000 other new books, they are competing with more than seven million previously published books available for sale.  And other media are claiming more and more of people’s time.  Result: the same amount of marketing investment and effort today as a few years ago will yield a fraction of the sales previously experienced.

6.  Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.  Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any.  Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read.  There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

7.  Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.  Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales.  In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from agents and experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’s platform and what the author will do to market the book.  Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

8.  No other industry has so many new product introductions.  Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold.  And the average new book generates only $100,000 to $200,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense.  This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

9.  The digital revolution is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales.  We are in the early stages of an explosion in digital versions of books and digital sales channels for books and portions of books.  However, early indications are that the digital revenues are replacing traditional book revenues rather than adding to overall book revenues.  The total book publishing pie is not growing, but it is now being divided among even more products and markets, thus further crowding and saturating the marketplace.  And while some digital costs are lower, other costs are higher and price points are lower, making digital profits even slimmer than print publishing profits.

10.  The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.  The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition in a small industry, rapid growth of new technologies, and expanding competition from other media lead to constant turmoil in book publishing.  Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.


1.  The game is now pass-along sales.

2.  Events/ immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3.  Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4.  In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5.  Master new sales and marketing channels.

6.  Build books around a big new idea.

7.  Front-load the main ideas in books.


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  1. Following on from my earlier comment, the second hardest thing about being an author is having to represent your book in soundbites.


    If it took you 100,000 words to say what you wanted to say in the first place, saying it again in 50 will inevitably lose a lot.  A plot synopsis tends to make the book look naff; as somebody once concluded, there are really ‘only seven stories’.  A brief description of the subject matter, in the case of my book, can make it seem off-puttingly ‘techy’ and brainy, or ‘icky’ and disgusting, or both.  Something vague, like ‘this is the sort of book that women of all ages want to share with their mothers and daughters’, whilst an accurate representation of feedback, will not give enough information to be trusted when the book being referred to is not well known (although it will set people nodding sagely with agreement with regard to a well known book).


    But whatever you say about your book, you are doomed to be one step behind if you try to learn from feedback which aspects of it are most appealing.  If you tell the next person what the last person found intriguing about it, you will find that aspect leaves the next person cold; and you will then have a damage limitation exercise on your hands:  “My book’s not really about that; it’s about this…”


    If you are lucky enough to get any journalists interested in your work, they will have their own narrative which they will squeeze you and your book to fit.  If you are a British author responsible for promoting your own book, this will often be ‘the cult of the amateur’, eg ‘local mum writes book’.  And the response thus engineered from readers of the piece is not “I must read Ariadne Tampion’s book” but “I must write my own book”.


    Journalists are correspondingly ruthless in suppressing angles that do not fit their narrative.  A British daily newspaper ran an article about the work which inspired the greater part of my book.  I posted a comment on their on-line version detailing my own previous involvement and mentioning my book.  It was ‘removed by the moderator’ despite the fact that I used no intemperate language and the person who was the focus of the article was happy for me to do what I did:  he acknowledges that as popular fiction, my book has the potential to bring our ideas to a much wider audience, thereby generating greater interest in his more serious work.


    If my book ever does achieve the bestseller status its fans believe it deserves, then let my comments on this blog bear witness to the fact that this ‘simple mum’ did not enjoy ‘overnight success’!


  2. Excellent article, Phil. As a published author of 8 self-help books, I know that it is more difficult getting a traditional publisher to take on new authors. Platform is definitely the key. I like packaging the book with a film project, like the C.B. DeMille biopic.

  3. Excellent article.  You clearly summarized how the industry is changing.  To me, this is not a “doom and gloom” report.  Rather, it’s exciting to see more people who have something to say getting published!  At the same time, it’s important that publishers shoot straight with their authors.  I’ve been in the publishing biz for over 30 years.  Things change – and that’s OK, but you have to adjust to the realities of a changing marketplace.  Trouble is, most publishers are not adapting to those changes adequately and consequently, from my view, most authors are disapointed, and perhaps even disillusioned with their publisher.

    But there is a silver lining…

    The technology and changing markets have made it easier than ever for someone to get their message published.  But you have to be wise about the publisher you partner with.  At our company, Higherlife Development Services, we work hard to educate our authors on the various publishing options available to them including self-publishing, non-traditional publishing (such as on-demand and co-publishing) and traditional publishing.  If you tailor the author with the right publishing plan, they can be successful and have a great experience.

    David Welday – HigherLife Publishing


  4. This does sound discouraging, but I refuse to give up. I’ve been writing since I was about 8 years old and always planned to write books. I’m finishing a biography about a woman who survived five kinds of cancer and lived to be 78. I’m shopping for an agent now. Meanwhile, I’m ghostwriting a second book with my Nazarene Church pastor about the Holy Spirit.

    Take a look at the two most popular non-fiction categories: biography/memoir and spiritual books. Even though I have a killer plot in mind, I won’t write a mystery until I have a few non-fiction titles under my belt.

  5. Although it seems discouraging, the reality is that the publishing industry, like the music industry before it, must accept that change has come to their market and shift how they do business.  Hopefully the major players will figure it out or new competitors who “get it” will leverage the opportunity that exists.  In the meantime consumers are faced with a massive market of questionable material due to the explosion of self publishing.  While many reputable authors are producing high quality material and releasing it via POD (since they are expected to market it themselves anyway), the fact that it’s possible to release totally unedited, poorly written content makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

  6. Excellent article. I wrote a book, had it published. In one year went on a book tour, signed a ton of books. Had the largest lecture turnout, largest book signing at a major conference, ended up reviewed in a leading magazine with good reviews. I could not get distribution if I gave the book away for free. Many of the people who read the book loved it and want me to write a volume two. But at the moment, that won’t happen. Writing, promoting isn’t a problem, it’s getting a distributor to pick it up and get in the store. It all seemed like a waste of time and money. I’ll stop whining now…

  7. Thanks for this article, Phil.  It helps us go into authorship with our eyes wide open.  As you know, I just published my second book. And what I’ve learned so far is that the author really does need to utilize their community.  For my first book, I thought people would come once they found out.  But for my new book, I know that a large part of my success rests in my being able to connect with people – not just to make sales, but to make an impact in their lives.  So, it pays to connect with individuals and then grow into other communities through 6 degrees of seperation.

    I understand the frustration that comes from not being able to secure a distribution deal, however, I can’t let a distribution deal (or lack of one) define me. That’s too depressing – and then I’ll never get anything done. So, I’ve shifted my focus to affecting life-change through my writing and interactions with others.  I figure that once positive change becomes noticeable, distribution (in some form) will eventually come.

    Allen Paul Weaver III Author, Speedsuit Powers

  8. I think there is hope for the publishing industry but it needs to reinvent itself.

    Personally, I refuse to become a victim of the dreadful publishing situation. I have tools to reach my audience that I couldn’t have ever imagined so I’m very excited about taking advantage of the new possibilities that the digital world offer.

    I’m currently working on a book with the collaboration of my blog readers. My readers will be able to purchase a limited customized and hand signed paper version of the book but also I’m giving away the eBook version for free. I’m also sharing the process of ‘making of’ the book at my blog. So far I don’t know how profitable this experience is going to be but I’m sure that my readers are becoming very loyall and they help me a lot to understand better how can I make them happy with my books.

  9. For me, the hardest thing about being an author is meeting my fans in the street and them asking excitedly:  “What are you writing now?”  And I have to tell them that it is innumerable covering letters to people I hope might review, stock, or otherwise help promote my existing book.

    My ‘mistake’ was perhaps writing a trans-generic work of fiction, for three distinct but diverse communities with which I am involved.  It appears to have been rejected by all of them, perhaps because they all see it as relevant to one or both of the other communities, not to them.  But the ordinary women to whom I have given copies, to say thank you for the various roles they play in my life, have loved it and lent it to many friends.

    I have sustained correspondences with retail book buyers and magazine books editors long after I knew my cause was hopeless, as it became a personal challenge to get it through these people’s skulls that such a thing as a science fiction novel with appeal to a mainstream female readership can and does exist.

    What keeps me going is the conviction that genuine novelty wins out in the end and can become a phenomenon, especially when it taps into a zeitgeist.  My book has been described as ‘different’, ‘unusual’, ‘unique’ and ‘there’s nothing like it’.

    My best wishes to all the other frustrated authors commenting on this blog post for their well-earned future successes!

  10. good info on books.however i also think the answer of the publishing challenge is in the article.personally i decided not to buy anymore books since i’ve run out shelf space. but i do think that e books are the tend of future,as well as on demand download. thx& peace 2 u all

  11. Wife (Marla Taviano) is an author of four books. As her husband, and a web deisgner / marketing guy, it’s really amazed me that publishers even have marketing departments in the last few years.

    I’ve seen a huge hole left open by publishers, where designers like myself, need to work with authors to help them sell their own book. Obviously the important factors are having a professional site and a solid community on Facebook / Twitter / email lists.

    This article hit the nail on the head quite a few times! Those that bash authors for too much self-promotion may now pull their foot out of their mouth. If they don’t speak up for themselves, nobody will. Thanks for the post! You made many of the thoughts I’ve had over the past few years not seem so insane.

  12. “Pass along sales” are essentially book sales from referrals or sales from secondary promotions, groups, etc.  People who recommend your book through various means – on the web, blogs, personal recommendations, reviews, etc.  In other words, sales outside of normal bookstore marketing.

  13. I’m an author and story consultant…the publishing world has never been an easy one. The term…stuggling writer…is coined for a reason. It is about understanding your genre, your audience, the needs of the publisher and networking. Research every stage including marketing.
    Media is a world built on relationships. There are lots of writers out there. Phil is right…find that story or concept that is truly unique.

    Asking your husband, wife, relative or friend (of any kind) what they think of your manuscript is like asking them if an outfit makes you look fat. They may love you too much to be straight with you. Go find someone with either experience or at least emotional distance. : ) Find out what you have before you head out there.

  14. This article is so true!

    Our ministry ( published my first book (Sexual Healing) in 1995 and sold 12,000 copies in 10 years just by me traveling and speaking and getting myself on TV & radio talk shows. The book sales literally kept our fledgling ministry in existence.

    Then in 1995, a publisher persuaded me to update and revise the book and let them publish it. I thought – “Great, now I’ll have national distribution in bookstores, marketing, ads, and a whole new audience!” – none of which happened.

    I couldn’t figure it out. Why would they spend all that money to edit and print my book if they weren’t going to tell anyone that it existed? I still can’t figure it out. They could have at least told me they weren’t going to promote it, so I’d know to keep doing that myself. All I got was a reduction in profits from 100% to 10%. So I bought all the remaining copies from them so that I could get my copyright back and will never make that mistake again.

  15. Dear Phil:

    Love your stuff, the situation is even worse here in the UK, but I do think that the stats are skewed by the Pastors, Preachers, Evangelists who are “published Authors” and have never put pen to paper except to sign the contract, then they get there ministry to buy thousands of books to give away on TV for an offering or to carry around the world as they preach.

    A recent Seattle Pastor had his left over books shredded, so the sales looked good and the ministry had paid for the books, the ghost writer, and on occasion the publishing, so they never take a lost and continue to churn out rubbish theology or story’s about themselves and there families.

    It’s time to revisit the whole Christian publishing thing and bring change.

    Again, love your stuff.




  16. It would be wise if you would welcome extra-challenge in getting your book to the market. Global crisis has been worst, but there are authors who were successful in terms of income in the publishing industry. So i think that amidst all of the challenges, there is still a big potential for success.

  17. My co-author sent me this article to cheer me up. Our book is apparently doing OK if you put against the average ones you talk bout here. What a great article.

    And item 7- yes that has been our experience- gone are the days where publishers have publicity budgets for new authors. You have got to be publicity savvy yourself as an author or you’ll get nowhere. I reckon we sold 90% of our books on the back of our own promotional activities.

  18. As we all know that the A&F Company was established in 19th century, and it was originally an outdoor

    items store.

  19. Jesse – without sounding too self-promotional, I’d recommend my book, “One Big Thing.” Sounds like your challenge is pinpointing the one big thing you were really born to accomplish with your life.

  20. Thanks for sharing this article! Not only is getting your book read by people a feat-but getting someone to publish it in the first place is near impossible. That’s where I am right now. Oh well, to all aspiring writers out there, myself included-we can beat the odds!

    1. There are certainly nightmare stories of people trying to get their books published. That’s why I think self-publishing is such a good option for first timers. After all, traditional publishers do very little these days to actually promote your book, so doing it yourself and keeping the profits is a very attractive option!

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