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The reading of books offers a variety of pleasures; the publishing of books, not so much. A friend of mine recently landed a book contract and asked me what he could expect. I was excited for him—and excited to read his book—so I didn’t tell him the whole truth: It’s one of the most wonderfully disappointing experiences you’ll ever have.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuine rewards to having a book published. You get to say that you’re an “author” rather than, say, a “blogger.” Also, you get the validation that at least one person (who gets paid to read for a living) thought that you wrote something that was worth reading and deserved a wider audience.

But if you decide you really want to write a book and are fortunate enough to find a publisher, there are some realities of book publishing about which you should be aware:

1. Nobody is going to read your book — Okay, that isn’t quite accurate. More precisely, almost nobody will read it. (My own wife hasn’t read my book.) According to publisher Steve Piersanti :

Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast. Combine the explosion of new books with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006). And average sales have since fallen much more. According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books, only 299 million books were sold in 2008 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

Alternative: Start a blog. You’re likely to reach more readers in a year you will with your book.

2. Don’t expect to see your book on the front tables at Borders – In fact, you might not even find your book at a bookstore. As Piersanti notes:

A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore. For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to approximately 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are 250,000-plus business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

Alternative: If bookstores don’t carry your book, you could always try ” shopdropping .”

3. You’ll become a marketer — Writing a book is the easy part. Selling your book is the real challenge. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers:

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from agents and experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the author’ platform and what the author will do to market the book. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

Alternative: Consider writing a book on how to market a book. You’ll likely find an audience of authors in need of such advice.

4. You won’t make much money — Advances paid on royalties (the amount of money you can expect to get upfront) for new authors generally ranges from $2,000-$10,000. That will likely be the last money you’ll ever see (see #1). But what if you’re different? What if you write a book that lands on the New York Times bestseller list? Lynn Viehl had a book make the top twenty mass market bestseller list :

So how much money have I made from my Times bestseller? Depending on the type of sale, I gross 6-8% of the cover price of $7.99. After paying taxes, commission to my agent and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30-40% of my advance.

[ . . . ]

My income per book always reminds me of how tough it is to make at living at this gig, especially for writers who only produce one book per year. If I did the same, and my one book performed as well as TF, and my family of four were solely dependent on my income, my net would be only around $2500.00 over the income level considered to be the U.S. poverty threshhold (based on 2008 figures.) Yep, we’d almost qualify for foodstamps.

Depressing, isn’t it, that a successful full-time author makes as much money as a librarian’s assistant ?

Alternative: Become a librarian’s assistant.

Note: Piersanti link via

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