5 Facts About Publishing That Could Change Your Writing Career

According to a survey conducted by The New York Times, 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them. But most haven’t written it. So what’s stopping them?

Typewriter man photo
Photo credit: starmanseries (Creative Commons)

I hear people tell me all the time they want to write a book. But wanting and doing aren’t the same, are they? It’s time to shed the myths about book publishing and start facing the facts. If you’re one of those eight in 10 people dreaming of writing a book, this might change everything for you.

What if everything you’ve heard was wrong?

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales and urban legends about what it takes to get a book contract or hit the best sellers list. We’ve been subjected to silly little formulas and hype about how to go from “writer” status to author.

And we’ve all been duped.

I’m not here to tell you everything you know about publishing is wrong. But I can tell you for five years I believed a lot off lies that kept my writing career from taking off. Here’s what I believed:

  • “I can do this on my own.”
  • “All it takes is a good message.”
  • “Once I land the contract, the publisher will do all the work.”
  • “Media attention = best seller.”
  • “Once I’m published, I’m all set.”

Turns out, none of those were true. And for the longest time, I resisted acknowledging this, because I was scared of doing the work. But when I finally succumbed to the truth, it set me free.

Maybe it will for you, too.

Fact #1: You need an agent

If you want to publish a book through a traditional publisher, you’re going to need a literary agent.

Sure, you can start pitching your proposal or manuscript on your own, but the fact is authors with agents tend to be taken more seriously and get higher advances.

It’s in your best interest to hire an agent. You don’t pay this person until you actually get signed (much like how a real estate agent works), so it’s to your advantage to get one.

It’s always a win-win. He or she doesn’t make any money until you do.

Fact #2: Everyone needs a platform (yes, even fiction writers)

In the case of nonfiction work, your platform is often a blog or some kind of content delivery platform, like a radio show or podcast. It can even be your speaking schedule.

For potential novelists and the like, it’s your body of work. Which could mean a blog, but more often it’s something you’ve already published. Like a short story in a literary journal or magazine. Or a previously self-published book. It could even be your newsletter list.

A platform is a way of proving you have what it takes to sell books. In either case (nonfiction or fiction), the point is you can’t succeed without people knowing who you are — and a platform accomplishes this.

(Side note: Can you get a book contract without a platform? Absolutely. Is it a lot harder than someone who has one? Definitely.)

Fact #3: The publisher won’t do all the work

A friend who’s been in publishing for decades told me this when I got my first book deal:

Assume that the publisher won’t do any of the work to promote your book, that it will all be up to you. And if for some reason, they do something to help you, then it’s an added bonus. But never expect it.

Publishing is venture capitalism.

This means that the publisher puts up all the money, taking the financial risks. And you are the investment. You need to come up with all the bright ideas and clever ways to get your idea or story to spread. They’re just the bank.

From what I’ve seen, publishers love it when authors think like this. It takes the pressure off of them to think like an ad agency and instead do what they do best: create great products.

But make no mistake: the only one who determines your book’s success is you.

Fact #4: Publicity doesn’t sell books

Getting on The Today Show won’t sell a million copies of your book. Neither will a ton of ads.

Think about it: When was the last time you bought something just because someone on TV talked about it? If you’re like me, the answer is never.

Granted, those things can help spread the word, but ultimately what sells books is word-of-mouth. Friends telling friends. That’s it. Nothing special or mystical about it.

So whatever cute ideas you have about getting your writing in front of a lot of people, try not to veer too far away from this basic strategy:

  1. Ask permission.
  2. Build trust.
  3. Be generous.

If you are a first-time author (or about to be), the best thing you can do for your book is get a lot of people to talk about it. Even if it means giving it away for free. This is how Paulo Coelho became an international best-selling author. It can work.

Fact #5: Publishing one book won’t make you rich

There’s a popular misconception that once you publish a book, you are now a full-time author and a pretty big deal.

This belief hails back to the early days of Stephen King and Michael Crichton when publishing was a different animal. Those guys wrote their first manuscripts and got six-figure advances… for their first book!

It doesn’t work like that anymore. There’s too much supply, too much competition. These days, you have to write a few books before you can even call your writing a “career.”

Even then it can be difficult, because most royalty rates aren’t that great (8–20%). That’s why it usually takes years to make any kind of meager salary through writing books.

The alternative, of course, is to not try making money off your books. Instead, consider them a business card — an introduction to a premium product or service you offer.

This could be a course or seminar, even be something like a membership website or a video series. For a lot of authors, it’s their speaking platforms. The book spreads the idea and builds an audience; it’s up to you to make money off it.

What other facts about publishing would you add to this list? Share in the comments.

40 thoughts on “5 Facts About Publishing That Could Change Your Writing Career

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for being my writing mentor (without you knowing it, lol)! Great post as always. I always look forward to your next post. 🙂

    My first book was self-published but I am thinking of getting a publisher for my succeeding books. I particularly liked Fact #4.

    Ask permission.
    Build trust.
    Be generous.Keep writing! 🙂


    Sha Nacino

    1. Jim, good question. I actually didn’t have an agent but had been talking with one (a friend). When Moody approached me, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start working with an agent.

      Even if you can get a book contract without an agent, having one is really important. There are a lot of legal issues involving book contracts, and it’s good to have someone representing you (much like you can represent yourself in court, but it’s usually better to hire a lawyer).

        1. Also, it’s worth noting that agented authors usually get higher advances than those without. Rachelle Gardner wrote a post about that here: https://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/how-do-authors-benefit-from-agents/

  2. Jeff, having had a short story collection published by a small press in May, well do I know that the author shoulders the bulk of the marketing. And, as you allude, the same probably goes even if you have a larger publisher. 

    But I’m off to a writer’s conference in 5 days to pitch agents on a new novel, because there are still some things bigger publishers do better than little. (And my first self-pubbed novel went nowhere.) Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Tom. For what it’s worth, I have a a friend who represents an author who is published with one of the “Big Six” in publishing. In a meeting about a new book, his publisher asked him, “How are you going to promote this?” Their best marketing strategy was the author.

  3. It’s the hard truth about publishing that can be overwhelming and discouraging. One other truth is that you are unlikely to get an agent by blindly submitting proposals or novels. By attending a writer’s conference and requesting a short meeting with two agents, I received a business card from an agent. That card allowed me to put “Requested Manuscript” on the envelope which is like having a golden ticket. 

  4. What are your thoughts about self-publishing?  Do authors need to still need to strive for traditional publishing and thus seek out an agent?  I keep hearing of how rapid self-publishing is growing and how much more difficult traditional publishing is becoming, especially for unproven authors.


  5. Too much supply – Bingo! – says it all. You need to buy a bullhorn and get the word out, and out, and out. And lozenges for your sore throat. Thanks, Jeff. 

  6. Another great post with concrete ideas. However, there is an attractiveness of the current self-publishing business model. I was under contract with a “traditional” publisher, but ended our relationship after looking more and more at self-publishing.  I know that my nonfiction book (traditional offset printing with 3000 quantity) will not be on any national bestseller list, so why settle for a 10 % royalty and all the necessary required marketing. Your ideas for tribe-building are extremely helpful and I understand what you’re saying, but I have to wonder if a self-publishing model might be a better alternative.

  7. Thanks so much for these points.

    I had a boss who wrote over a dozen books. He was a speaker first and had a lot of content as a base before he even began writing.

    In my early 20’s he told me this:

    “If you prepare to speak to 5 like you’re speaking to 5,000, one day you’ll speak to 5,000.”

    As bloggers, book authors, copywriters and more, I think this translates to us as we’re all communicators and must refine our craft to build a platform base to begin with.

  8. Good article, and mostly true, I think. I’ve written a novel and am getting my ducks in a row to start querying agents, and the published authors I’ve met personally certainly don’t have it made. Even the ones who do support themselves with their writing are hardly rich (with a few exceptions, of course). But I’m a bit puzzled by this advice:

    “The alternative, of course, is to not try making money off your
    books. Instead, consider them a business card — an introduction to a
    premium product or service you offer.”

    I’m not sure what premium product or service I could offer that’s related to the book I just wrote (a fantasy novel). Like many fiction writers, my day job (in my case teaching biology at a community college) has nothing to do with my novel.

    1. The easiest connection is speaking gigs. But these days the possibilities are limitless. If you can create a tribe of fans, you might be surprised what they’d be willing to pay for: a monthly membership to a club/website, an exclusive newsletter, back story on your novel, etc.

  9. I think the biggest myth I’ve had to overcome is that writing a great book sometimes isn’t enough. After almost 30 agents saying they loved the idea, loved the pitch, they all passed not because of the writing but marketability – where does this fit in a bookstore, not a big enough platform, etc. The writing can ALWAYS be improved, but sometimes talent isn’t enough.

    1. Well said, Lisa. Thanks for sharing. I like your attitude here — the writing can always get better. But it takes more than good writing to publish a book. There are a lot of good writers out there, but publishing a book is also about spreading an idea/story.

    1. I’ll have to add, since I was a senior coordinator for one of the country’s biggest writers conferences (we hosted Frank McCourt, Tom Wolff, Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Tan, and E.L. Doctorow), that this is only valuable if you have content that is READY-TO-GO; otherwise, you miss losing an opportunity. Trying to call up writers/editors/agents and remind them of who you are years later isn’t exactly easy-going. 

  10. Though times and tactics have changed in the field of publishing, many aspiring authors are not aware of it yet. It’s when the author (and his tribe) and the publisher (and his team) work together, we see good books becoming great books. Planned partnerships and generous giveaways accelerate its momentum. 

    Great post, Jeff!

  11. I feel a little silly saying this, but the fact is that getting published is a lot harder than many of us eight out of tens think. I’ve been an editor and writer in magazines and advertising for 30 years. When I began ghostwriting a book, I had no idea what I was in for and up against. I learned by going through the process and by hooking into people who have been there–Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Rachelle Gardner, Alexis Grant, Lynn Behler…to name just a few excellent examples.

  12. Very interesting and thought provoking points. I’m a fiction writer and I blog writing fiction tips and I find it rewarding and enticing. When I publish my novel I plan on doing what you suggested about posting short stories and other fiction work to give readers a sample.

    Thanks for posting, Jeff.

  13. The fact that a literary agent doesn’t make money until they get you signed has me scratching my head… how did I not know this?
    Jeff, this is a great list and very encouraging for a writer that is willing to put the work in.

  14. I found this blog and I’m already inspired by the first post I read! This is really interesting, and it really opened my eyes to the publishing world… I’m not very well informed apparently!  I agree with everything you’ve said, and it seems like you captured everything in a few steps! I especially agree with the last step, it’s hard to make money off of just one book.

    Your post inspired me to write a follow up on my blog… thanks for the great ideas! 🙂

  15. This is a very interesting post! I didn’t know a lot of this, but I’m glad I do now. I definitely agree with needing a platform, I did exactly that in the hopes that if I do publish, people will know my book. It’s discouraging to learn about all the downsides of writing and how hard it is to make money, but it will hopefully be worth it!

    Thanks for this post, it inspired me to write my own based off of yours! 🙂

  16. Hello! This gives me hope, since I just got referred to an agent, I have a minor in Speech (love to speak in public), I have plans for a blog, and have 2.5 mss complete! Praise God and to Him all the Glory.

  17. Hi Jeff,

    I’m stepping into the fray by writing my first eBook. I hope it will help many couples save their marriages and many others thrive.

    Let’s say I get it up on Amazon in Kindle form and list it for $2.99.
    How much of that would Amazon keep, and what would be my take?

    Any resources on the matter, as well as pricing strategy, would be much appreciated.


  18. Thank you for the wealth of information that I can add to my resources. My favorite is that you remind us to write for the idea and not the audience. What if your ideas pretty out there….

  19. I really enjoyed this post. I’m starting my first book in forever. I’ve been writing scripts for, god, 18 or so years. I’ve been missing the format and its pretty nice to write whatever you want without worrying how to make it happen on camera. But as in all things I do I always research as much as possible. I’m grateful when I stumble onto stuff like this. Thank you

Comments are closed.