Thursday, September 10, 2015

Want to Understand the Publishing Industry? A Few Comparisons

Warning: I’m feeling subversive today, so this post might raise some eyebrows. But I’m willing to risk it. Why? Because I’m a writer and it’s my job to explore controversial topics. At least this is what I tell myself.

We talk a lot about how writing is a craft, while publishing is a business. And this is true. So true. Neither side is right or wrong. They are just different, with different goals around the same core product. Writers NEED to write. Publishers NEED to sell.

Alright, what about the juicy and subversive parts?

Okay, here we go.

SUBVERSIVE COMPARISON #1. Writing is a drug, and publishing is the cartel.

That’s right. I’m comparing books to street drugs.

Let me explain. For the writer, words on the page are a buzz, a personal high (“YES, I made that word count today! Yay me!”). For the publisher, words on the page mean the bills get paid.

For the writer, connecting with readers about their stories is like smoking out together with friends at the same party (“Dude, I freaking LOVE your protagonist. I could totally live in that world forever and ever and ever. I'm serious, man. If you stop writing this series, I'll literally die. I can’t put it down.”)

But for the publisher, writers who connect frequently with readers on social media will sell more books. This is a crucial difference that I think many writers fail to understand. Which leads me to…

SUBVERSIVE COMPARISON #2. Writers who want to become successful in today’s market must understand both user and dealer, without succumbing to the trappings of either role. So yes...forgive me, but I’m just going to say it…today’s top published authors are like veteran drug lords.

It’s a rough comparison that doesn’t make either side look good, which is exactly my point. Throughout history we’ve glamorized the publishing industry, as if selling books is somehow less prone to the politics found in other types of industries. Here’s the truth: If you want to become a semi-successful published author, you will encounter an industry that’s more Breaking Bad than Jane Austen.

Now wait. In my last post, “How to Sell Your Book Without Selling Your Soul,” I made a big point about using “idea-based marketing” techniques to get your book in front of readers, so that you’re not always having to pimp yourself out to everyone you see. Now I’m saying that you need to be like the hardened leader of an illegal drug cartel. Which is it?

I guess I can understand your confusion. Illegal drug cartels might be a stretch. What about legal ones?

SUBVERSIVE COMPARISON #3. Writing is the cure for cancer, and publishing is the pharmaceutical company that wants to fund the research and secure the patent.

Better now? It’s certainly a more noble comparison. But the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of problems, too. I mean, not everyone out there is trying to cure cancer, right?

Here’s my point: There’s stuff behind the scenes in every industry that most people don’t see. When you take a tablet of Advil, for example, you have no idea what happened to bring that Advil to your home. When a kid parties one night, she probably doesn’t think about how many people were beheaded in Mexico to make it happen.

Business is business.

People who become successful in any industry—be it publishing, the illegal drug trade, or pharmaceutical cancer research—learn the rules of that industry and work to master them.

Violent beheadings aside, I think it’s still fair to say that writing is like a drug. The written word is powerful and dangerous. Always has been, always will be.

And you know what?

I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Certainly not anything involving a Mexican drug cartel. (Though one of my characters might…)


  1. I love subversiveness and such pithy comparisons. I might have made the same observation at some point. Very acute and astute.

    I struggle with this as do most semi-successful authors. You begin writing as a hobby, for fun, then realize you really enjoy it. Then you think you'll write more, and this grows organically into a book or books, and before you know it, you've launched a second, very time-consuming career.

    Then you realize your checks don't have very many zeroes in them. And it took a lot of work to earn those missing zeroes.

    So you do some math, and realize the only way to really move that decimal point to the right is by understanding the marketing aspect of your craft. How do you get your goods on the street, in front of your clients, and how do you keep them hooked and coming back?

    It's a bit sinister to think of it that way, but as a small business owner already, I've put lots of thought into this. I have found that my soul wears and apron and stands behind the counter of the local grocer's store. If you don't have the money today, I'll wave it off and you can pay me next week. I'll figure it out. I'll never get big, but I'll never sell a piece of myself I marked unsaleable. If I ever get big, I want to be that guy like Steven Tyler I saw on the morning show today -- a genuine, authentic, be-yourself human who happens to love things other people really love, too.

    I see my brother, on the other hand, who also has his own business. He is doing very well. Big house. Cute wife who is incomplete without shopping bags and shoes that cost about what I was hoping to earn this week. He is brutal in his pricing. If you cannot pay, he cannot service. If you call, he may or may not answer. If you miss a payment, he cuts you off. In other words, he's the scumbag landlord who throws out the tenants on the street where I have my little grocery.

    Brutal, but that's a fair comparison between our business tactics, and is why we could never do business together (we tried -- it ended with him trying to extort money out of ~me~).

    The point is that your point is very true, but it does not mean you need to turn brutal. I tell people this: I want to make money ~with~ you, not ~off~ you. In this way, I find myself a bit on the progressive side, such that I don't like to leave anyone unsatisfied after a good comfy exchanging of wages.

    Anyway, consider that as you move forward, too. I love your analogy and will plagiarize it often with no credit to the source. ;)

    (jk -- I will give you credit)

    - Eric

    1. I love this part "I want to make money ~with~ you, not ~off~ you." It's a fantastic way of putting it. I've been a writer my whole life (mostly nonfiction, until I took up fiction a few years ago). Sent hundreds of queries. Built a website, etc. But it wasn't until I started working for a small publisher that I really began to understand the business side of things. Besides the Big Five, publishers everywhere are going out of business because the publishing industry is in an extended phase of transition and the old models don't apply anymore. So it's really a matter of survival. But I'm not a fan of "brutal." I think it's important to produce a quality product that gives people their money's worth, and cut the price every now and then when the budget allows. And btw, your brother sounds like a character!

      Fantastic comment. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I think the most intimidating thing right now is trying to keep up withwith the expectation that an author will have a new release every three months. That's just brutal, especially when you're not earning enough to justify quitting the day job so you have the time to write the stuff to feed the machine.
    It's tough.

  3. Yes. That's subversive. In the IT biz we've always liked to call our clients 'users'. Fitting.