the tao of publishing

by Toni McGee Causey

A few weeks back, I wrote an article about publishing — and in light of things like Anderson Distributors parking trucks (which affects mostly magazines, but has also affected thousands of copies of mass market distributions) and HarperCollins' bad news, and other generally frustrating publishing news, I thought this might be relevant here.

Everything you really need to know about the publishing business can be learned from a garage sale.

I know. Crazy. But trust me, it's true. (I am beginning to suspect that there is a whole tao of garage sales just begging to be written.)

A couple of weeks ago, my house was the site of a garage sale, hosted by my son and daughter-in-law. It ended up going exceptionally well, surprisingly. And as they were collecting junk and pricing it and displaying it and handling the crowd, I suddenly realized I finally had a parallel to explain the whole publishing business to non-writing family members and/or friends who were in the first stages of writing, pre-publication.  And so I offer you: the tao of publishing.

1) It's not personal.

When you're selecting items for a garage sale, you have look past the personal value of an item, the sentimental value, and use an objective eye to decide if that item will sell. Something with a deeply personal meaning–a diary page, one ballerina shoe, that swizzle stick (bent) left over from that time you and your best friend had that thing happen in that bar in that other state that you've never told anyone about… those things aren't going to make sense out of context and to a marketplace. They may be vastly important to you; doesn't mean they're going to sell.

Sure, you've written the novel, and you want people to have a personal response to it, because then you'll know you've hooked them. But a personal response does not replace market reality. An agent, an editor, a publisher… these people are not rejecting a manuscript out of some nefarious plot to drive writers crazy. Publishing professionals want to make a sale. The agent wants to sell to the editor, who has to sell it to the marketing department and the publisher, who has to believe that there are enough people out there in book-land who will plunk down money for this property. They've got to weigh how many people will resonate with this project and they've got to be objective about its value as they're making that decision because their goal is not "to make you feel good about being a writer" and not to "support art" but is almost always to "make a profit." Which leads to:

2) Big ticket items draw people in.

When we advertised for this garage sale, we named the big items we knew would draw people in: electronics, furniture, exercise equipment, collectibles, a canoe. We didn't bother to mention the used books (which all sold), the glassware (all sold), the dolls (ditto), the purses (ditto), the shoes (surprised the hell out of me, but ditto). 

We charged a little more for the name brand items than we did similar stuff–even though the quality of the latter was the same as the former. People will pay more for the brand name stuff… but, while they were there, they inevitably picked up some other item and bought it, too. Almost all of the browsers ended up taking something home, and I suspect that the majority of time, it wasn't the item they'd originally shown up to see. 

Bestselling authors are that draw in the bookstores: they get the people in the door. They get paid more because the publisher knows people will likely pick up their book, but they also get paid more because the publisher knows that if they're on a shelf, the customer will stop and probably browse that shelf and, very possibly, pick up something else. When you start out, your book is possibly that "something else." 

3) Group similar things on the same table.

This seems pretty simple: put like things together. Someone looking for the Minnie Mouse collectibles may buy more than one, so put them all in on
e place so they can find them. One guy came early and bought every Cabbage Patch doll we had (ten) and then started buying boy-type-toys. Someone else snapped up all of the hot-wheels. Things which were similar to these items were put on the same table, or near enough by, so that they caught the customer's attention.

Publishers want to know what your book is so they'll know where they can put it in the bookstore. This is why you don't list six genres in your query letter: it's sort of a space fantasy with a love story and comedic elements as the characters solve a mystery is going to get you an instant rejection. They won't know where to put it, and if they don't know, they won't know how to market it, and if they don't know how to market it, they don't know how to let customers know where to find it, or that it exists at all. You've just made their job ten times harder, and frankly, there are a lot more books out there that will make their lives easier. What would you do when presented with two books of equal writing skill, but one was easily marketable and the other one wasn't? You'd buy the one you knew how to sell. If you didn't, and you didn't frequently enough, you would be one of the publishers who are now going under.

But…but... I can hear you arguing, odd, cross-genre stuff sells.

Yes, it does. Generally, though, there's some way of marketing that book–or at least, the publisher believes there is when they take on the project. I am the first to admit: weird shit sells. We sold a porthole table for $200. I know, you're scratching your head, aren't you? I have been scratching my head for 15 years. A long time ago, my husband dragged home a porthole–the kind you see on actual ships–that he had "rescued" from the scrap yard. No, I don't know why. Yes, I asked. The only real answer I got was, "because it was cool," and I suspect that it was because it was a challenge. He then (because he is crazy) made a round table and embedded the porthole so that it functioned (again, he's crazy) and fixed it so that it could be opened (which meant you couldn't really put anything on the table–I mean, seriously, why would you want to do that?–unless you put the item on the tiny perimeter. You had to be careful if you did that, though, because as soon as you opened the porthole, the swinging motion generally knocked off whatever you'd put there). You could put a display inside the porthole (because, and I don't know why, it had a glass backside and yes, I thought that made no sense). He then epoxied the table top in black, but the legs were a very light oak. Ugliest table ever. I was so relieved when he agreed to sell it. Until he put a $200 price on it.

Now I ask you, what is the likelihood that someone is going to saunter over to a $200 table made out of a porthole and think, "gee, that's what I need to spend this week's paycheck on?" I knew I was going to be stuck with that damned table 'til I died. And then my neighbor (who is, not surprisingly, crazy) came over to see what all we had for sale, and he fell in love with the porthole. I would've carried it to his house for free, but when he tried to haggle my husband down, my husband refused. (Again, cornering the market on crazy here, this is the man who dragged home one of those styling salon hair dryers because it was "Only $10!" and "Wasn't it cool?" and couldn't understand why I didn't want it in the kitchen. But he got the last laugh when he turned it into a "time machine" and showed it at a big local art show and it was the hit of the show.) 

As for the porthole table? Apparently, there's plenty of crazy to spare, because the neighbor bought it anyway.  

So the rule is, weird shit sells, but you cannot count on it. You cannot hope that there is always going to be a porthole-buying-nut who lives close enough to your porthole table, who for some reason, doesn't have enough portholes in his life and feels like he cannot go home until he owns yours. So, even if you do have a porthole table to sell, you need to be able to do what my husband did–find its unique selling feature: it was antique. And an antique porthole table becomes, apparently, an entirely different thing. (Hell if I know.) Point is, if your book is not easily categorizable, figure out what is it that makes its uniqueness marketable.

4) Pricing is determined by what the market will bear

Now, that may seem self-evident, but it's tricky and can make you want to plant your head in your desk when you see things sell too fast (could've gotten more!) or too slow (oops, priced it too high, better lower it). Years and years (and years) ago, I had one garage sale–an estate sale of my great-great aunt's property. I had about a dozen hand-made quilts we were going sell. I'd kept the prettiest ones for family heirlooms, but the rest… shrug. Didn't expect to get $20 apiece for them. I was hanging them on the makeshift clothesline ab
out an hour before the announced time of the sale, and a man pulled up in my drive, made a beeline for the quilts and asked me how much I wanted for them. I eyed him and thought, "He's here at six a.m., asking me for these things, didn't even look at anything else. He's a collector." Then I said, "$125 each." He said, "I'll give you $100 each." Sold. I was pretty proud of myself. He took ten of the twelve, and later that afternoon, a lady asked me how much for the quilts. I'd forgotten them in the flurry of the day, and I think I must've looked at her blankly. She offered $200 each. She lamented that I didn't have more–she would've bought the entire batch at that price per quilt. 

That was (I am not even going to tell you how many) years ago. Today, even factoring in inflation, I could not have gotten $50 each. 

While we were pricing things for this garage sale, we had to take into account several factors: it was after Christmas (therefore, we'd missed the "must find a gift item that looks expensive but didn't cost much" rush), it's a bad economy (everyone's saving their money to spend on necessities, none of which we really had at the garage sale), and it was likely to rain the second day, which meant even die-hard garage salers wouldn't come back the second day to scoop up the "must get rid of it" last minute pricing you can normally do at the end of a sale. By keeping these things in mind, we priced everything to move.

The publishing corollary is that everything has its time. Advances are going to be lower while the market adjusts to the steep drop off in sales and everyone panics. Something that a year ago might've fetched a $100K advance might not get a $25K advance now or the writer breaks through huge with a big sale and lots of marketing dollars thrown behind it because there is something so marketable about the concept, a publisher thinks, "This, at least, I can explain in a phrase and sell it." It's a crapshoot. 

Publishers are looking for ways to make a book work for this market–which might mean that you don't get the hardcover format because it's so expensive and they're not selling very well. It's not about prestige, it's about survival, and it's smart to look at what works for the consumer. I suspect there's going to be a bigger push over this next year for downloads–publicity and marketing–because there's next to no delivery costs–there's no warehousing, no shipping, no returns. In addition, trends will determine price–something that shows up when a trend is just heating up is probably going to get a bit higher advance than something that shows up after the trend seems to have peaked or the market is glutted. It's not personal, it's not about what you, as a person, are worth. It's what the market will bear. It's probably the most difficult thing to remember.

5) Reputation helps.

We managed to pull a lot of people into our sale very early in the day because our neighborhood is considered a hot spot. (We didn't really know that, but there have been a lot of successful garage sales out here… part of it is there are lots of families here, so the sales usually have a big variety of items). We got 'em in through a reputation we hadn't quite earned yet. We kept 'em (and made a bunch of sales) because we delivered: we had a lot of merchandise cheaply priced and people kept complimenting us on what a great, organized sale we had. Lots of people said we should have another. (Over my dead body.) But at least it worked for them.

Blurbs are the same thing–the publishing business is hoping that blurbs (or reviews) up your reputation from that of "who?" to "oh, we should give them a try." It won't work, though, if you don't deliver.

6) Some things are beyond your control.

The first day, we had a ton of people and huge sales. The second day, it rained. Stormed. I think we had two people show up, and one sale for the whole day. We had, luckily, made enough money the day before to have made it worthwhile, but it almost hadn't gone that way–we had almost opted to only have the sale for Sunday, not both days. Luckily, my daughter-in-law is a lot smarter than I am and she insisted we have it both days "in case of bad weather." 

You can't help a bad economy. You can't help if a sales rep doesn't "get" your book. You can't help if a hurricane shows up the day your book is supposed to be delivered or the Anderson people park their trucks. You can't help a snowstorm, or a national tragedy. You really cannot help the decisions made in-house–these are beyond your control. You made the thing and handed them the thing–they have to sell it. Now, you might be able to nudge a few people, but the parallel would've been me putting out a few fliers in the neighborhood. Sure, I can self-promote and that may help to a certain degree, but if the publisher doesn't promote my book on a national level and my book's not available on a national level, no amount of me flogging it locally is going to increase my numbers high enough, fast enough, to make a big dent in "sell-through." If the sale were going on over a long period of time (years), word-of-mouth might spread and bigger and bigger crowds would show up–like some of those big "annual" garage sales held by entire towns, or held near (Camden?) Texas every second Saturday… but for the short-term, I can't do it all by myself. I can't control everything. 

Sometimes, the wisest thing is to sell what you can, look at the rest, realize it is what it is (maybe it's a practice novel, maybe it's your third practice novel), and move on. 

7) There's always stuff left over.

It will surprise you what doesn't sell. You'll be convinced certain items are going to fly off the tables–maybe because it was a popular item when you bought it new, or it's in great condition now (and at such a cheap price), or it's just so cool, of course people are going to want it. You're going to have stuff that fills a niche and you know for a fact people are looking for that type of niche item, and yet, when the day is done, there will be stuff left on your table, picked over, and you'll wonder why. Did you price it too high? Did you not put it in a prominent enough place? Did you put it next to something that overshadowed it?

Who the hell knows?

In publishing, it's a "best guess" business. People are trying to gauge what everyone's going to want in the future based off what they wanted in the past. Except as humans, we don't want to have the same exact experience day in and day out for the rest of our lives–we want something new. Different. Maybe not too different. Predicting that is not an exact science. And if you happen to send in a space-alien-time-travel-love-story right after the editor just had to remainder a rather large order of her previous space-alien-time-travel-love-stories, she's probably not going to be able to convince a publisher to take a chance on yours. If she just had a significant other who was rather space-alien-like dump her for a younger, hotter similarly-looking-space-alien-tart, then she may be turned off space alien love stories for months, and no matter how good yours was, it didn't stand a chance. Someone else, somewhere else, may snap it up. The things that did not sell at my garage sale? We donated to the Battered Women's Shelter, and you know what they're going to do? Sell those items in their stores. They figure someone, eventually, will buy the stuff. Who knows, they could be right.

Which circles back around to rule number one: it's not personal. 

Okay, those are the big parallels… are there others I've missed? 

19 thoughts on “the tao of publishing

  1. Louiseure

    Great comparison, Toni. And #6 sounds a lot like The Serenity Prayer, as well. So I’m working on the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to recognize the things I can’t.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Alex & RJ. I’m glad it made sense. (Even weird sense.) (grin)

    Louise, yep. We can stress ourselves completely out of writing (or writing well) by focusing on absolutely all of the variables in the business. Learning to let go is perhaps the most important thing I learned this year.

    Dusty, great parallel! And so true–you just have no way of knowing a buyer’s agenda. You can only put out what you’ve produced and hope it matches up.

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Allison. 😉

    Dusty, that cracked me up. I sold a *porthole* table. I think “batshit insane” can sometimes be applicable. Although I have to admit, my first thought at the time was, “hmmm, I wonder if we could find some more portholes to sell.”

  4. Stacey Cochran

    I would love to have some quantifiable data to support this, but I would bet the majority of people who frequent bookstores are aspiring writers.

    Like 70-80% of them.

    I have built my platform on this premise (as has J.A. Konrath, and to some degree J.T. for administering this blog) and am now making pretty good money off of it, while building a wide readership (literally global in its reach).

    What was it Obama said in his inauguration: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”

    The same could be said in publishing.

    That is if you look at the data, the only area in publishing that has seen tremendous growth in the past ten years is self publishing.

    In this respect, I wouldn’t liken publishing to a garage sell… as much as I’d liken it to YouTube. That is, the ground in publishing has shifted from being author-centered to being aspiring-author centered.

    The folks who have realized that this fundamental shift has occurred and have acted on it are doing very well for themselves. Those who have not, are not.

    I would encourage all published author to find some way to dedicate themselves to their communities, to aspiring writers, to helping those who have not reached a publishing contract, those who simply want to write.

    That is where the future lies… in giving back to those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Wonderful blog, and I think I’m going to have ‘It’s nothing personal’ tattooed somewhere … where I can read it easily!

    I do tend to take things to heart. Unless it’s praise, of course. And then I disbelieve it utterly ;-]

  6. Tom

    Good, good topic today. It’s important to remember how batshit insanity isn’t ever personal unless we choose to become equally batshit-guano-loco (which can look appallingly attractive some days).

  7. pari

    Toni,This makes sense, strange and utterly odd sense.

    I wonder how flexibility enters into it. We seem to think that publishing is incredible inflexible, slow to change — but maybe we’re not looking at it accurately. I don’t know — if you’ve got many items to sell it’s difficult to see the whole picture — just as it is at a yard sale — until all is said and done.


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