I can’t believe my publisher doesn’t . . .

It doesn’t matter if you have a six-figure advance or only got $3,000. It doesn’t matter if you have a big-five publisher or a small indie press or a hybrid publisher. If you’re a first-time author, you’ll soon be whining, “I can’t believe my publisher doesn’t . . . “, followed by some task that obviously every publisher ought to do, or you thought they would do, or they used to do.

I’m not here to attack the publishing industry, which has been slimmed down to the point of absurdity. I’m here to help you get past your astonishment and learn how you, the author, can do most of those things yourself.

So here’s a list. Regrettably, it isn’t complete. It can’t be, because every week I hear a different astonished protest that I’ve never heard before.

Repeat after me: “I can’t believe my publisher doesn’t . . . “

. . . edit my book.

An editor at a major publishing house told me this: “We expect authors to turn in a publishable manuscript. That’s their responsibility.” And if your manuscript doesn’t make the grade, it’s up to you to fix it.

Some hybrid publishers provide developmental editing and coaching as a service (including IdeaPress and Lifetree), but even if you hire a hybrid publisher, you’d better check what they think editing means.

Unless you’re famous (like, say, in the Royal Family of England), what you’re going to get is just copy editing. Hire a developmental editor.

. . . check my facts.

The publisher might notice you got a fact wrong, but it’s not their job to check, it’s yours. (Here’s how.)

Get this right. At worst you’ll get sued; at best you’ll look stupid.

. . . do my graphics.

This one surprises so many authors.

They imagine that they can give the publisher some rough sketches in PowerPoint or drawn on napkins and the publisher will turn them into finished art to go in the book.

Not a chance.

You have to turn in final graphics. Unless you’re artistically talented, hire a graphic artist who works in Adobe Illustrator. Make sure you get the right specs (like grey scale levels and width and height limitations) for the artwork. Don’t hand in color art for a black-and-white book.

And be prepared to change the graphics again, after they’re “done,” to match the fonts in the final interior design for the book.

A lot of graphics means a lot of hassle. That might be worth it, but keep it in mind as you think about graphics to potentially include.

. . . create a terrific book cover.

Unlike the interior graphics, the cover actually is your publisher’s responsibility. Often, they do a fine job. Some of my own book covers have been awesome.

But sometimes, they just can’t give you what you want, and you have to hire your own designer. Be prepared in case you get in that situation.

. . . send me a bunch of author copies.

You’ll get a box of books. Maybe 20. Check your publishing contract; it’s in there.

If you need more, you’ll have to pay your publisher for them (including shipping). And they won’t budge on the price, which is also in the contract, typically about 40% to 50% off the cover price, close to what you’ll pay on Amazon.

I’ve had some luck in charming copies out of publishers if I can make a case for why I need them. But books for speaking events are your responsibility. Make the event organizer buy them in bulk.

Hybrid publishers are an exception. You already paid to print the books, you can typically get as many as you want. (You’ll still pay shipping.)

. . . throw me a book launch party.

Publishers only do this in rom-coms or if you’re Stephen King. In real life you have to do it yourself.

. . . line up my speaking tour.

They won’t pack your suitcase for you or make airline reservations, either.

Do it yourself. That includes bookstore appearances, if you think they’re worth it. (Warning — they have about a four-month lead-time.)

. . . get me blurbs.

Those quotes on the back of the book? They’re your responsibility. Crank up your network.

. . . do my publicity.

Publishers have a template. They’ll mail your book to all the usual outlets with a note about how great it is. (Actually, even if they offer, you should write this yourself.) Their efforts might get you excerpts or reviews in a few outlets, if you’re lucky.

If you want more placements, you should hire a publicist.

You should do outreach to blogs and podcasts yourself (the publicist can help).

You should create content that goes along with the book (blog posts, LinkedIn or Medium posts, infographics, YouTube videos) and develop a schedule to roll it out in the channels you control.

If you expect the publisher to do this, you’re going to be disappointed. I see it all the time.

. . . get me into bookstores.

Actually, publishers do do bookstore marketing. It’s just very hard. I don’t blame the publisher for this; if you tried to do it yourself, you couldn’t do any better.

Want to get into Barnes & Noble? Ramp up the publicity. B&N carries relatively few business books by new authors these days.

Want to get into airport bookstores? Guess what — that’s a paid placement. And unless you’re Michelle Obama, the publisher won’t pay, because it’s not economically viable to do so. You can pay yourself, of course.

. . . get me on the bestseller list.

Sure. You and everyone else. There aren’t very many slots on that list. What exactly is the publisher supposed to do to get you on it?

There are unethical ways to game the lists. They are expensive. They don’t always work. And your publisher is certainly not going to do them for you.

. . . sell foreign translation rights.

This is typically your publisher’s responsibility, assuming it’s in your publishing contract.

So why hasn’t your book been translated into Polish or French?

Because these days, foreign publishers are increasingly reticent to license and publish books until they’re certain that those books are selling in English. It’s not your U.S. publisher’s fault; they would certainly like to sell these rights if they could.

One exception: any good publisher should be able to sell the Chinese rights. Every book I ever wrote was published in Chinese. Even, astoundingly, Writing Without Bullshit.

. . . tell me how many books have sold.

Walmart knows exactly how many plastic swimming pools and boxes of Pringles were sold yesterday at thousands of locations all across the country.

Your publisher doesn’t know and won’t tell how many copies of your books have sold. Not right away, at least. Every new author finds this annoying, but there you go.

If you’re eager to see how the launch is going, there are four things you can check.

  1. Your Amazon sales rank. Three digits is great. Four digits is ok. Five or more digits means sales are slow. I’d like to be more precise but there’s no simple calculation to turn this number into a sales number.
  2. Your Nielsen Bookscan numbers on Amazon author central. Go ahead, register as an author on Amazon. It’s worth it. The Amazon author central numbers show your actual sales across many channels, with a one-to-two week delay. They also miss sales in some outlets. But they’re better than nothing.
  3. “Sell-in” numbers from your publisher. The publisher knows how many books have sold to which outlets; they may share that with you (especially if they’re a hybrid publisher). That’s “sell in” to the channel. It doesn’t tell you how many books have actually sold to consumers, which is known as “sell-through.” Don’t get excited by these numbers, since many of these books will come back as returns if they don’t sell.
  4. Your royalty statement. This number is the most accurate. It also includes ebook sales. But before you get too excited, remember that you’ll be seeing your sales numbers through June in a statement published in October or November. That’s a long time to wait. And it’s still sell-in, not sell-through, corrected for returns.

Do it yourself

Whining about publishers has a long and storied history. Go ahead. Just don’t stop at whining.

Hire the help you need and do a great job.

Your publisher will certainly take the credit if you succeed. But you’ll know how much work you put in to make it happen. It’s still better to be successful — and that means being realistic about what your publisher just doesn’t do.

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  1. Ten years ago, this list would have astounded me. Now that I’m experienced (or jaded), I knew all of these. It amazes me, though, how first-time authors just assume that a publisher will do all of these things.

    Great post, Josh.