Publishing Myths I Wish I’d Known | 10 Misconceptions About Writing and Selling Books

Which publishing myths cloud your vision? By “publishing myths” I mean misconceptions about the world of publishing today. To succeed as a writer, you must write a great book. To succeed as an author (meaning you intend to have a career writing more books) you must educate yourself about the marketplace of books.

Publishing is an industry. The industry produces books. Of course, authors write the books, but once they’re written, the books have to compete in a marketplace. Picture one of those big European market halls where vendors hawk vegetables, sausage, and cheese. That’s where your book will compete.

publishing myths, vegetables, market hall, palma

Image from Pixabay via Medienservice

Many writers have only a partial understanding of this marketplace. Writers my age grew up with the notion that books were sold in bookstores or checked out of the library. Such writers want to finish their books, find an agent, and let the agent and publisher take it from there.

Younger writers jump onto Wattpad. Wattpad’s online community lets writers publish serially, meaning put up one scene at a time and see how readers react to it. Writers and readers form a connection even before a book “comes out.” Popular Wattpad writers have a ready-made audience for their books. This trend is one way the marketplace has changed.

Of course, the existence of Wattpad is only one example of the way the marketplace is vastly altered. Amazon now sells seventy percent of all books. E-readers and cellphone apps mean readers may be reading our books in fits and starts. (I was astonished when one reader told me she’d read Montpelier Tomorrow while standing in line at the post office and waiting for buy groceries.)

What is the difference between the publishing world “as it is” and “the way you would like it to be?” The gap can be huge. If you can adjust your expectations to the “world that is,” you have a far greater chance of building a career. Don’t let these ten publishing myths stand in your way.

Myth #1: My book would make a great movie.

Yes, possibly it would, but first you have to write the book. And the book has to be good enough that a New York publisher will pick it up. Authors who get movie deals have spent years learning how to write. It’s the publisher who will then go to the movie people and make a deal. In this mix you will need an agent to protect your interests. Only the Big 5 publishers can potentially get you a movie deal. One of the most insidious publishing myths is that writing is a way to make a lot of money.

Don’t write a book to get a movie deal. It won’t happen.

Myth #2: Agents are just waiting for a book like mine.

Agents are not waiting for any of our books. They’re inundated with manuscripts. Many agents won’t read query letters unless the letter comes from a writer they’ve met at a conference. Agents are also not looking through Amazon and hoping to discover new authors.

If you have self-published a book and hope to have an agent resell the book to a New York publisher, you are setting yourself up for disappoint. Agents have access to Nielsen Bookscan. They can see how many books you’ve sold. If you’ve sold 5,000 to 10,000 copies of your self-published book, then, yes, they might be interested in talking to you. Otherwise, not. Write another book.

One other fact about agents should serve as a reality check. Agents typically have a number of editors to whom they’ve successfully sold books. If the agent sees that your book matches the taste of “their” editors, the agent might agree to represent you. At the moment agents are not all that interested in memoirs or in literary fiction. Western fiction is dead. Zombies are a non-starter. Fantasy and romance are hot, especially of the author is one who can crank our four to six books a year. Agents are not interested in one-book authors unless that person is already famous in some other capacity. (Sports stars and former girlfriends of Presidents step to the head of the line.) If you intend to write one book, please realize that you will be self-publishing or working with an independent publisher.

Agents are not waiting for your book. They’re looking for any reason not to like it.

Myth #3: An editor will fix my book’s grammar problems.

Ha! Gone are the days of Maxwell Perkins (William Faulkner’s editor). Gone are the days of manuscripts boxed up and mailed to the publishing house. Yes, you will receive feedback from an editor, but that feedback will come in Word’s “Track Changes” feature as well as in an editorial letter asking you to address specific problems regarding plot or characterization. The editor will expect you to behave professionally from start to finish. They will expect you to know how to use Track Changes. If your query letter or your manuscript contains misspelled words and grammar problems, the editor will put you down as an amateur. You can have the best story in they world, and they won’t care.

Editors are too busy to waste their time fixing sloppy work.

Myth #4: If a New York publisher won’t take my book, I’ll publish with a small press.

Small presses can be even more selective than large publishers. They, too, are inundated with submissions. With their small editorial staffs, they can barely get through the backlog of manuscripts “coming in over the transom.” Typically, small presses publish books by authors who are well known teachers in Creative Writing Master’s degree (MFA) programs or graduates of same. These are literary writers whose books sell 100 to 500 copies and who might get 10 to 30 Amazon reviews. Examples of respected small presses include the highly selective Graywolf and Sarabande. Just so you know, few university presses publish fiction.

Standards are very high in the small press world, so don’t count on easy path to publication.

Myth #5: I would never stoop so low as to self-publish.

Self-published books have the reputation of being poorly written and poorly edited. Indeed, some are. However, in the past year I have read half a dozen excellent, self-published books. These authors could go mano a mano with authors from Big 5 publishers. Indeed, their books are better. One of the publishing myths that’s only partly true is that self-published books are shoddy.

Whatever ideas you have about self-published books being a lesser form of life, get rid of them.

Myth #6: Everyone says I should write a book about my life.

That’s great, but which part will you write about? New authors often think that because their lives have been interesting, the story of said life belongs between the pages of a book. Certainly, that life will be of interest to the immediate family, and you should “get it down.” However, you may hope to touch the hearts of a larger readership.

If you hope to write a memoir, figure out which part of your life would make the most compelling story. Think “slice of pie,” rather than “whole pie.” And, even if you’re been a lifelong reader, actually writing a book is far more time-consuming and laborious than you might imagine. You wouldn’t suddenly think, Okay, I’ve always had a pent up desire to become a surgeon. I’ve always been good at putting Ace bandages on my kids’ injured knees. My family says I should start doing knee replacements.

No. You couldn’t launch this second career without knowing the fundamentals.

Learn to write by taking classes, reading books about the craft of writing, or studying the work of writers you admire.

Myth #7: Social media is just a time sink.

Older writers who did not grow up using social media do not see the point. However, if you’re not on social media at all, how will anyone know about your book? According to Bowker, the company that issues ISBN numbers, there are between 700,000 and 1 million new books published every year. Making effective use of social media to find readers beyond your immediate circle of family and friends might require you to step out of your comfort zone.

Three short years ago I didn’t have a clue about social media. I had to educate myself and build a platform that would represent me as an author and writing coach.

Nonfiction authors can certainly benefit from having a platform. Even fiction authors would do well to think about building one.

If you’re averse to learning how to navigate the online world, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Myth #8: My book’s almost ready to be published.

Many folks believe they can write a book and turn the manuscript over to a developmental editor to fix. Such an editor charges in the thousands. You will never recoup this money in book sales, particularly if you are not already active in the online world. If you’re young and have a background in marketing, then possibly you can overcome the handicap of being an unknown author. Also, if you’re writing in the hugely popular romance genre, you stand a chance.

Having done developmental editing for a number of writers, I can tell you it’s exhausting and frustrating work. An editor can only work with what’s on the page. It’s frequently the case that the writing is not very good and the characters are cliched or shallow. How wonderful it would be if writers could take some classes or study the work of other writers.

A developmental edit can make a book readable, but it cannot make it good.

Myth #9: I want my local bookstore to carry my book.

Bookstores hate Amazon. If you’re a self-published author and want your book in a bookstore, then by all means, make sure you produce it through IngramSpark as well as through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Ingram is the book distributor used by bookstores. A store can order it through their usual channels, but you, the writer, must create demand. If you can create a local buzz by getting onto the feature page of your local newspaper, then you can prove to the store that readers will be coming in and asking for your book. The store is not going to stock your book just because you’re a local. (In the Phoenix area, there are hundreds of self-published authors and authors published by independent presses, but there is only one independent bookstore, Changing Hands. What are the odds?)

Bookstore and publishing myths

Image from Free Images

Many bookstores say they do not have space to stock books by self-published authors.

Myth #10: I can hire a publicist to create buzz.

Only the Big 5 publishers (and maybe a couple of others) have the ability to launch a book in such a way that readers believe this is a book “everyone is talking about.” Before you hire a publicist, make sure that person has succeeded in getting press coverage for books like yours. It might be worth your while to contact the authors directly and find out whether press coverage has resulted in a spike in sales. If the author can’t verify the correlation between publicity and sales, then maybe you’d be better off running a sale through KDP Select and advertising the sale on Facebook.

To sell books you will need to learn how to market them.

Publishing Myths vs. Reality

If your book is “up on Amazon” and hasn’t found a readership, then you know that writing a book is just the beginning. Figuring out how to market the book is the next step. The frustrating thing is that even if you make that effort, your book still may not sell as many copies as you’d hoped it might. Horrifying, isn’t it? Writing the book was hard enough. Now, you’ve got to turn yourself into a salesperson?

One of our most pervasive publishing myths is that you can live the life of a writer, holed up in your writing den. Today’s writers need to come out of seclusion. They must seek out readers who will love their books. If you haven’t yet ventured into this strange new world, here’s a post to help you make a start.



6 Responses to “Publishing Myths I Wish I’d Known | 10 Misconceptions About Writing and Selling Books”

  1. Akuchi says:

    Interestingly scary!

    • I didn’t mean to scare you, but perhaps it is wiser to be informed, rather than blinded by unrealistic expectations. Good luck with your publishing.

  2. Janice J. Richardson says:

    A helpful and informative article, even for those of us who have been ‘out there’ for a while. Thank you Marylee!

  3. This is a very valuable reminder of a lot of things I half-knew and some I preferred to forget. Many many thanks.

    • Ironically, we all have things we’d prefer to forget or wish we didn’t know. For me the hardest lessons have to do with learning how to use social media and finding ways to make it meaningful.