Trust Me, You Don't Want a Traditional Book Deal

Jun 02, 2020

I’ve written about this a lot lately…and that’s because it’s true. Last week, I focused on how publishing broke about a decade ago.

This isn’t sour grapes stemming from the fact that my last book “advance” didn’t net me enough to cover the cost of the coffee I consumed while writing it.

This is because traditional publishing is a countdown to heartbreak. The call from your agent saying that your book sold is the good part.

It’s all downhill from there.

If You Don’t Believe Me, Consider This

You spend months and months and months crafting this book hoping to get validation from your editor.

If your editor is like most editors in the book business (overworked and underpaid), he or she will probably switch to another publishing house during this time.

If that doesn’t happen, you’ll be working with someone who is, well, overworked and underpaid and that will show in the person’s dealings with you.

It may not show in expected ways.

Here’s how it showed up for me: I do not believe that the man who is credited with having edited my second, third and fourth books ever read them.

“They look great,” was all he ever said to me.

For books two and three, I assumed this was because I was that good.

“My editor didn’t even have any notes!” I remember explaining to a writer friend, who seemed suitably impressed.

Then I briefly dated another writer who shared my editor and I saw the notes he gave and edits he did on that guy’s book.

That guy was a name writer — the one who became the publishing house’s focus whenever he released a book — and, well, in the writer’s words, the editor “pissed all over it.”

This didn’t mean the editor tore it apart; he just made notes on every page, scratching out certain word choices and replacing them with other words — not to make the book better but just to make it different.

He wanted his stamp on a book he knew would hit.

He didn’t care about any others.

When my editor was eventually fired, I heard that they found stacks of unread books in his desk — not unsolicited submissions but books he’d “edited.”

But here’s the thing: the real problem with traditional publishing isn’t that you get slapped with an overworked and underpaid editor who probably won’t care about your book.

The Real Problem is That the Expectations are so High

You have, after all, been at this project for at least two years if you factor in the amount of time you spent writing the proposal.

That means that for two years, people have been talking to you about your book.

You’ve had two years of anticipation.

You’ve had two years of saying, “Yes, it’s being published by Harper’s” or “Simon & Schuster” or insert-name-of-other-publishing-house-you-are-proud-to-be-associated with.

You would never go through this if you didn’t believe, at least somewhere inside, that your book would be a massive hit.

Sure, you’ve doubted yourself through the process but at the same time you’ve been able to picture “New York Times bestselling author” next to your name.

You’ve secretly envisioned rave reviews, pictured yourself discussing your book with Rachel Maddow or Terry Gross or, if things really go your way, Jimmy Fallon.

And then…that doesn’t happen.

I remember the writer Joel Stein once tweeting during one of his book releases something along the lines of, “Having a book come out is just like having a movie come out…except no one cares.”

I would add to that: it’s like having a movie come out — one that you starred in, produced, wrote and directed — with the full expectation that the production company or studio that acquired it would help.

Or if not help, exactly, at least be there.

But you don’t hear from them. 

Or from Rachel Maddow, Terry Gross or Jimmy Fallon.

Instead, you hear from—well, everyone asking you how your book is “doing.” You either tell them the truth—you have no idea—or you lie and say, “Great!” I actually recommend lying because if you tell them that you have no idea—that your editor, on the occasions when he does get back to you, says that he doesn’t know because book sales aren’t actually accurately logged—these people will ask you why the hell you’ve gotten involved in such a ridiculous profession and you may not know what to say.

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