My father, who worked in the newspaper business, was especially fond of quoting the New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, who remarked that “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” Book publishing may not suffer from quite the same issues (not least because most publishing companies are now owned not by individuals, but conglomerates) but it’s a still a business in which it does not hurt to arrive equipped with your own funding.
As we all know, in the present market, publishing houses are looking for authors with well-established, and ideally national, platforms. For non-fiction writers especially, this translates into having the resources to spearhead their own publicity and promotion. Such resources may not necessarily be monetary—authors may possess celebrity, the backing of a large and well-known organization, media connections, or all of the above. These, mind you, are in addition to credentials and the ability to write well (or hire someone who can). Being an expert in your field is rarely enough. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can drive sales. Sometimes you need the wherewithal to actually deliver sales. Nothing sweetens a deal like a letter of commitment for the purchase of 10,000 books.
The business of building platforms, including putting together websites, blogging, networking, doing p.r. (on your own or with the help of a freelancer) is costly, whether in terms of cash or time. It’s true that on-line media may mean that publishing, unlike politics, is not solely a rich man’s game, for it offers to the intrepid and web-savvy a relatively cost-effective means of building a following. But it’s also real and time-consuming work, work that comes in addition to your professional and personal obligations, not to mention the actual writing. I can understand why many writers find the demands of the publishing industry onerous, a bit like the to-do list Cinderella’s stepmother commands her to complete before heading to the ball. In addition to being talented and credentialed, writers must be marketing whizzes, masters of social media, twitter adepts with legions of followers. If it sounds a little crazy, it is. The demands are many and the rewards few. For many published authors, writing is less a revenue stream than a long term investment. And sometimes it’s solely a labor of love.
Publishing a book is perhaps the worst get-rich-quick-scheme imaginable, but it seems that few of us—writers, booksellers, agents, editors, designers, sales reps, etc.—are in it for the money. Although there are always a few exceptions who prove the rule (and it’s true that publishers must make enough money to publish another day, and satisfy the media conglomerate of which they are a part) the book business still tends to draw people who are passionate about books, those for whom writing, or working with writers, is something of a calling. What keeps you in the publishing orbit? For me, it’s the constant opportunity to learn. Plus the ability to lose myself in a terrific novel and call it “work.”