Looking Back On Fifteen Failed Years; Or, the Importance of Doing the Math

What follows is less sour grapes than it is public admission of my staggering stupidity. Truly. For the past few months, I’ve been flattened, flabbergasted, and dismayed by my own stupidity, gullibility, and ego. Hand me the trophy for the Stupidest Human In the History of the Human Race.

Let me also say that, sure, there are exceptions to every generalization, including the ones I make below. Some authors make huge bucks from their books. Some authors have the backbone to make demands of their publishers (and typically those authors have an agent who backs their demands.) Some agents are helpful and interested in your career. And, yeah, some publicists care about the books they’re assigned to promote.

My office would have been more tidy. Hell, I wouldn't have needed an office!

My office would have been more tidy. Hell, I wouldn't have needed an office!

But in the main, and for most people, the following generalizations about the experience of publishing a book are true.

1. All the cliches are true. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Publishing is an exercise in irrationality. A total crap shoot. Some authors make out like corporate CEOs on the take. Most don’t earn a dime. No one at your publishing house will give a fuck about you or your work.

2. Just prior to publication, you’ll get an earful from your editor, the sales people, or the publicist about their plans for your book. 

Ignore all of it. Yes, if you’re one of the few, they’ll do everything they say and more. If. however, you’re one of the many, then their words don’t mean a thing. 
But here’s the main point, the crucial point: All those people — the editor, the sales director, the publicist — work for the publishing house, not for you. The ONLY people they care about are the ones who write the performance reviews and sign the checks. And that ain’t you.

3. The publicist assigned to your book has zero interest in you or your book. After all, you can’t promote the publicist. You can’t give the publicist a raise. The success or failure of your book has zero impact on the publicist’s job. Whatever happens to your book ain’t no skin off the publicist’s nose.

The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

Yes, of course the publicist will wave a list of media contacts in your face. Yes, the publicist will send a press release or a copy of the book to the contacts on that list.

That’s where his/her job will end. There won’t be any followup, and without followup, that press release or advance copy will end up in huge piles of hundreds of other press releases and advance copies. (No followup in part because: as soon as the press release and advance copies of your book go out the door, the publicist has to get busy stuffing envelopes for the next book out the door.)

And yes, the publicist can and will stick to his/her story that they’re “promoting” your book. And they are: They’re stuffing envelopes with book copies and clicking “send” on press releases. But ain’t none-a that stuff gonna do you and your book any good. 

4. “No problem!,” you say. “I’ll use the last of my advance to hire an outside publicist.” 
Don’t. I did it twice, and only now do I realize what an amazingly stupid thing that was. And I was that stupid not once but twice! I’m too stupid to live. Here’s why:  

A good publicist costs approximately $16,000 for about two months. To make that investment worth it, you’d need to sell approximately 30,000 books, calculating a royalty rate that pays you about two dollars a book. 

News flash: It’s unlikely that you’ll sell that many books. And if by chance you sell 30,000 books, all you’ve done is earn back your $16,000. Plus, now you gotta pay taxes on it. 
Put simply, the odds of getting a return on a hired publicist are slim to none. You might as well play a slot machine.  Better yet, bank the $16,000.

And yes, I was a fool. Not once but twice. Again: Shame on me. Some people are too sexy for their shoes. Me, I’m too stupid to live. 

5. If you luck out and score interviews or reviews, great! Enjoy your fifteen minutes. But know this: those reviews and interviews probably ain’t gonna earn you any money. I had good reviews and marvelous interviews for my last three books. None of it had any impact on SALES. And sales are what matter, right?

The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

So, yeah, it’s great to sit in a studio talking into a microphone about your work. But don’t assume that doing so will translate into sales and therefore into income. It won’t.

6. Your agent has no interest in you or your career. Sad but true. I’ve had two agents and neither was willing to step to the plate for me when it mattered. They’re nice people and all, but . . . I was really just a notch on a belt.  

And it was always also clear that when my agents had to choose, they would side with the editor, because no agent wants to piss off an editor. Authors come, authors go. And authors don’t make money. But editors are the people who can make or break a deal for an agent. Editors, not authors.


If I had it to do over again; if I could reboot that past fifteen years, here's what I would have done.

1. I would have started by running the numbers. Seriously. I should have calculated the size of my advance versus how much time I thought my books would take to write. 

In the case of the meat book, for example, I calculated that I would need five years to research and write the book. I got an advance of $135,000. The agent took 15 percent; taxes took another 35%.

So I sold that book for about $75,000 or, assuming five years to write, about $15,000 a year. Not bad. But . . . obviously not the best rate of return. Assuming a forty-hour workweek, that’s almost $8 an hour. 

The Random Photo Series 2014

The Random Photo Series 2014

Except . . .  I typically worked more than 40 hours a week. And it took seven years to write, not five. So I earned more like $4.50 an hour.

Stripped to its essence, I sold the book for $75,00.00 Period. End of story. I’ll never earn another dime from it. In retrospect that may not have been a great decision. On the other hand, well, okay, money is money. But . . . . 

2. Once I’d made those calculations, I should have asked myself a simple, but crucial question: Is my time and labor worth the price the publisher is offering? Oh, how I wish I'd asked myself that one question. But I didn’t. BIG mistake.

3. I should have put a publishing contract in the same category as a grant rather than an advance. After all, I don’t have to pay the money back. A grant rather than an advance on "future earnings." Because there won't be any "future earnings."

4. Had I been smart enough to look at the contract as a grant, I wouldn’t have bothered with agents. In my opinion, the work they did wasn’t enough to justify their share of the money.

Again, this is less sour grapes, rage, anger, whatever, than it is dismay that I was so stupid.  
Do I have any excuse? Not really. When I left academia back in 1999, I jumped straight into my new “career” writing popular history, but I never took the time to map out a strategy based on numbers. Instead, I [vaguely] gambled that a) I would be the exception and OF COURSE my books would sell; and b) eventually I would replace the income I left behind when I resigned my job as a professor.

Big mistake. BIG BIG mistake. 

Because I'd rather do this than sell my labor to a publisher for cheap.

Because I'd rather do this than sell my labor to a publisher for cheap.


These days, of course, it’s truly a fool’s game to publish a book the old-fashioned way. Nowadays, anyone can write anything and put it up for sale at various digital outlets. 

But that wasn’t true back in 1999. Back then, e-books were an element of science fiction and self-publishing was for fools. Even as recently as 2006, when I signed the contract to write the meat book, the idea of self-publishing was, well, for losers. 

And now, in 2014, it’s astoundingly easy to eliminate the publishing house, eliminate the agent, and go for the gold, fool’s or otherwise, on your own. Now it’s possible to imagine a different route to publishing.

But wait!, some of you might say (and I was once one of them): Publishers distribute books. Publishers offer editorial expertise and publicity and marketing.

Yes. But these days, individuals can do the same things. Anyone can now distribute a book and anyone can hire an editor and anyone can do their own PR and marketing and probably do it better than a “professional” at a publishing house. Can an individual get a book on to the shelves of Barnes and Noble? Probably not. But an individual can for sure publish an e-book that people can read on their Nook. 

Now here's an experience that I wouldn't have had had I not written a book!

Now here's an experience that I wouldn't have had had I not written a book!

So my advice to any one who is thinking about writing a book and hoping for a traditional publishing contract: Do the math first. Set your ego aside and do the math.

I've learned my lesson. Yes, I earned money from writing a couple of books. Not much but some. But nowadays, when someone asks me to write something or to contribute to a project, the first thing I do is calculate the possible return on my investment. A few months ago, for example, a friend asked if I was interested in contributing research to a non-fiction book he was trying to sell. I declined because I knew he couldn’t pay me enough to make it worth my while. Yes, of course, practically speaking my time is worth zero if no one wants to it. Except to me. In MY mind, my time has value.

The experience of publishing books in the traditional manner wasn’t a complete waste. I learned a master’s degree worth of skills from the person who edited both the beer and the meat books. Two agents agreed to take on a nobody from nowhere. A publicist for the house that published the beer book, and who came on board after publication, was kind and pleasant and supportive and enthusiastic. I’m glad I met him and had the opportunity work with him (it didn’t last long; he left to take a job at another publishing company).

And yes, thanks to the meat and beer books, I met some truly amazing, delightful human beings, many of whom have become friends. 

But . . . if I could re-wind the past fifteen years, I would.

Finally: back in the day, I used to urge people to buy books new because only then did authors make any money. Authors earn zero dollars on used books.

Now? Makes no difference to me if you buy my books because I don't earn any money on them. That's the point that's most painful: I'll never earn another dime on any of my books. When I sold them for an advance, well, I was selling them. Period. 

So, hey, if you want to buy books, buy them used. At least the dealer will make some money from the sale.