The Top 3 Reasons Publishers Don’t Want Your Book

By the Publishing Industry’s own admission they (as a group) reject 19 out of 20 books and book ideas that are presented to them.  I’m a big fan and enthusiastic customer of the traditional publishing industry, so this is not meant as a compliant, just the description of a problem.

The top three reasons traditional publishers will send you a rejection slip when you’ve submitted your brilliant manuscript are:

3.   It isn’t any good.

This is the reason most publishers will cite most of the time when trying to explain why such a limited number of new books are published each year, from the large number submitted in the hopes of publication.

And it has some merit.  Not all of us write well, but many of us who don’t write well don’t recognize our need for more writing training or at least a good editor.   A good example is The Great American Parade, reviewed by the Washington Post a few years back:

Also available here.

But this argument that the Publishing Industry is somehow saving the world from having to read badly written books is only one reason, and not the primary reason, for a given book’s rejection slip.

2.   The Publisher has already published one of those.

Most publishers are, quite rightly, concerned about making a profit on the books they print.    So if they have published an Economics 101 textbook, why would they publish a second one on the same subject?

It would just compete with the first title and now they have to handle and promote two books for the same amount of sales revenue.   This problem is so bad that there are only approximately six Economics 101 textbooks available in the US English speaking market today.   The reason for this is that there are about six major US textbook publishers and they each have their Economics 101 textbook.

Yet there have to be 100,000 Economics professors and others in the US alone who are qualified to write a better Economics 101 textbook.   The odds are that at least a few of those potential authors have to be able to write a better textbook than the six titles currently available.

So if your book is a better version of a commonly available book, such as another Legal Thriller (John Grisham et al) or another book on how to get the most out of your Apple iPhone, good luck getting a traditional publisher to return your phone call.

1.  The market for your book is too small.

All publishers need to make money from the books they publish.    So the first thing they do when they receive a new book or book proposal is to calculate how big the market is for the book they are looking at.  If the publisher concludes that the book is only going to sell a few thousand copies per year, they won’t even bother to read it.   Some junior editor fresh out of State U with their English degree will hit the “rejection letter” button.

This need for volume that traditional publishers have is a big problem for aspiring authors and for the marketplace for books, because it effectively shuts the door on both new authors who need the opportunity to hone their craft, and it shuts the door on all the specialty books which may be of huge value to some, admittedly small, community.

In books this problem is important, because books convey human knowledge.   To maintain our complex western democracies requires that we educate the next generation better than the current one.   Rejecting books simply because they won’t sell more than some arbitrary number is harmful to this important goal.    As the “Long Tail” theory explains, the potential readership of millions of specialty books can be greater than all the readership of just the few thousand titles the traditional publishing industry is willing to publish each year.

The good news is that in the age of the Internet there is no reason to reject books simply because they might not sell thousands of copies.    Authors can become their own publishers.   Or they can partner with any number of new “NextGen”, or Next Generation, publishers who have sprung up to serve the needs of these authors  

There are now thousands of authors who make good money writing and selling books that only sell a few hundred copies a year, because these books are of very high value to those few hundred customers.

Tools of Change talk.

Title: No such thing as a book, or rethinking publishing in the age of the Internet.

TOC talk. Today, Feb 15, 2012,  http://www.toccon.com/toc2012

Had the great pleasure to be invited to talk to the Tools of Change conference in New York City today.   It is an O’Reilly & Associates conference studying the changing publishing industry.  

I’m not much at writing speeches,  you will note the lack of connection between the talk title I was supposed to speak to and what I spoke about,  but here’s a rough idea of what I tried to communicate today:

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Back in the good old days only us C students started businesses.   We were too dumb, or at least too poorly educated to get a “real” job at a bank, law firm, or large corporation.   So we started businesses because it was the best job we could get.

Now every university on the planet is trying to turn their students into entrepreneurs.  There are even textbooks  on “Entrepreneurialism”.  The problem is that us C students still can’t get a job with a major corporation and now we also have to compete with all the A students starting businesses.  It’s just not fair.

So don’t start an Internet publishing business, please.   While we are at it: don’t start a business at all.   I’m tired of all the additional competition. 

Even worse there are all the damned VC’s wooing all those runny-nosed new start-ups.   So just when you think you have your business all figured out your customers are being stolen by a whole new set of well-financed competitors.  

In the good old days every parent would lecture their wayward offspring to keep their heads down, study hard, get As.  Because they could then get a good job, work 60 hours a week for “the man”, and, after a forty year career they too could retire in comfort, buy a Winnepago, and drive it to Florida .

The reason these were “the good old days” is because in the 40 years between graduating and Florida those scared A students were hard-working loyal employees that us C student entrepreneurs could build our businesses around.

Today, even if you can get those smart kids working for you, you know they are skipping off early to work on their own start-up in their parents basement.  Now their parents are insisting that they should not waste their talents working for some slave wage when all the money is in capital appreciation of founders shares.

Look at Lulu.com.   We started it on a shoe-string eight years ago or so.   We invested tens of millions of dollars to build the world’s best print-on-demand global network of printers.  

Lulu’s remarkable technology enables you to set up an account and publish your book –for free-.   When your mother comes to buy your book (we all have at least one customer for our book) you make money and Lulu makes money on a single copy.  We do this through a network of print partners around the world in seven languages and five currencies, not counting Paypal.

We attract and serve millions of happy online customers, and what thanks do we get?

We get a dozen new competitors every day.  From start-ups who enable book discovery to start-ups who make it possible for every proud parent to record every waking gurgle of their precious and precocious little darlings.

And I’m not even going to waste time on the trouble Jeff-the-Darth-Vader-of-publishing has been causing us…

Oh, that’s right  -  I was supposed to be giving you an upbeat positive message around how everything is possible in this exciting new age of the Internet.

Ok. So here are the magic secrets as to how this is all going to work out for the best for Lulu.com and you, despite the stupidly fast rate of change we all have to suffer through and the myriad of new competitors.

The two rules are:

1.  Enjoy the ride.

When the history of this Internet revolution is finally written it will read like the old swashbuckling novels of the Spanish main.   We all grew up wishing we had been born in a more exciting era when we could have commanded our own frigate and had a jolly time raiding the bad guys and rescuing damsels and collecting a boat load of gold doubloons for our efforts.

This sounds remarkably like what the Facebook guys, the Google guys, and you and me are  trying to do.   Plunder big established industries, rescue damsels*, and make money.  Is this a great country or what?

2.  Follow your customers

Customers know what they want not what they need.  Given their lack of expertise about the options available to them they can articulate what they think they need - ie they have “wants” but they don’t really know what they “need”, beyond the timeless two, namely:  a. make money,  b. reduce cost.

So your job is to figure out what your customers need, not just respond to what they say they want.   This is in fact one of the most difficult tasks in business.

Here’s an example: In Lulu’s case our business was doing just fine, we had grown rapidly and were making good money.   But we weren’t doing anything larger competitors, such as Darth Vader,  could not do as well as we could and all the noise from all the new little start-ups was hurting margins for everyone.

So we started to think about our customers.  We went out and asked them what they wanted.   Like all customers they wanted better products at lower cost.  The more technically advanced of our customers kept pointing at some start-up or other and suggesting we should be more like plucky start-up X or clever start-up Y.  While we were making good money we were having problems coming up with our next act or breakthrough.

And then the penny dropped.   We were defining our customers incorrectly.   Worse we we were allowing ourselves to become Darth Vaders to them.   But we are the good guys!  

We recognized we needed to treat all these new plucky start-ups as customers instead of competitors.

And that’s what we decided to do.   Lulu is just coming off a nearly two-year re-write of our core application.  It has been a good thing Lulu had achieved the profitability  necessary to be able to afford this investment – VC’s don’t invest in 8 year old companies doing tens of millions of dollars of profitable business – just too boring. 

The principal benefit of this multi-million dollar investment is Lulu is now a series of highly modular APIs.   So as the plucky start-up you too can have a global print network, without the millions of dollars in investment that we had to put into creating one.

[As an aside to all those plucky start up executives listening: Who knows - by using infrastructure built by Lulu and others, you may be able to get to millions of dollars of high margin revenue without having to take the VC’s money.   More founders share for your parents!]

To summarize:

Have fun.   This is one of the great eras in human history to be alive, and it is the most exciting period in human history to be building businesses.

It is all about your customers.  Just make sure you pick the right customers.

Quit worrying about your competitors.   Most of the world wants to see you succeed.  Define your competitors as narrowly as possible and treat the rest of the world as your allies, or better yet - your potential customers.

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* I’m a guy.   I can only speak to what motivates us guys.  I’ll rely on my female cohorts to write the female version of  "Plunder the establishment, rescue damsels, and make money."