I remember thinking if I just got one book published I would be on my way as a writer. After 17 years on my own as a freelancer, I now know that every contract is like the first.
Selling books is not a retail transaction for published authors (except for those who publish their own books and sell them from a card table). Getting into print and to the public requires going through a series of gatekeepers, many of whom are unseen.
First you need an agent who can get your work read by editors. Then you need an editor who will decide not only that your book is good enough to publish, but that it is the best book to publish that he or she has received of late. The editor takes your proposal or manuscript through the house for second reads. They’re likely not to like it as well as your editor; office politics surely play a role, too. Only with a positive verdict do you move to the next square.
Once you’ve got a contract and a manuscript, your editor has to sell the book to the sales staff and marketing department. This may begin before the book is even finished, and certainly before it is between covers.
Now you’re in the market for blurbs for the cover. Important people who can comment on a book are busy and hard to reach—and you are asking them a big favor. Your best chance is through contacts you’ve got through friends of friends of friends. Usually, each person who is a link in the chain to the famous person will also need to read and like the book before agreeing to recommend it. Any who set it aside and forget about it will break the chain and mean you won’t reach that coveted potential blurber.
The blurbs are a critical element in the sales launch meeting, when your editor presents your book amid the competition with all the other books the publisher is bringing out that season. Sales staff have only so much time, and they want to concentrate on the books that promise the most success. Marketing people will allocate their resources as well based on your title, a one-sentence synopsis, the cover, and blurbs.
Now comes the real test. The sales staff takes the book to a few buyers for the massive chains, especially Barnes and Noble, that control the national book market. How long does the meeting last and how many other titles does the salesperson have to pitch? If your book is an afterthought, the pitch is short and half-hearted, the order is small, the print run is small, and you’re finished.
With few books in stores, publicity is ineffective. All your retail work comes to nothing. The book sells few copies. You can try again with another idea, but this time when editors look at your new proposal or manuscript, they’ll know how many copies your last book sold. If it sold poorly, you may be worse off than if you have never published a book before.
This is a crazy way to make a living. But what matters more is that it’s a rotten way to make a culture. Some anonymous book buyer from Barnes and Noble is deciding the shape of our future literary cannon. That brief sales discussion between publisher and buyer makes or breaks books, writers, and the literature.
No wonder books are getting shorter, lighter, and easier to summarize in a sentence.