The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked
What really happens when you "get a book deal," publish your first book, and go on tour to promote it? It may not be what you've always imagined!
At least once a month, there’s a big discussion online about something or other that has happened in publishing. It might be about where novelists find inspiration, or how authors use sources in nonfiction, or the research practices of journalists versus academics, or the intent of a memoirist, or how much power and influence your average author has. Regardless of the topic, one thing I’ve noticed, which tends to run through all these discussions, is a series of common misunderstandings and misconceptions about how modern trade publishing actually works.
It makes sense, in a way. Why should your average non-author know what an author actually does in the process of writing, publishing, and promoting a book? Most representations of authors and the publishing industry in popular culture, from television and film to characters in books themselves, do not reflect reality. It’s a fantasy, and people project onto that fantasy. They see Carrie Bradshaw enjoying a book party that costs more than most people’s weddings, and assume that a toned-down version of this must await most authors at the end of the publishing rainbow.
Yes, every now and then a first-time author who is not already famous will get a big seven-figure advance. But these are usually hot young novelists, and are quite literally one in a million. They were the exact right person in the exact right place at the exact right time. For the rest of us—the remaining nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine—the reality is very different.
So what is it really like to “get a book deal,” publish your first book, go on tour, and do press to promote it?
I'm a traditionally-published nonfiction author, so I'm talking about trade nonfiction here. That means nonfiction books that are published by the Big Five international publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon&Schuster, HarperCollins, and Macmillan) and the independents, as opposed to academic presses, texbooks, self-publishing, and other options.
So without further ado, here are nine basic trade publishing myths.
Getting a "book deal" means getting a bunch of money that the author then "lives on" for years.
No. Not even in the slightest. Especially not for a first book. Almost never.
A realistic first advance for a trade nonfiction book is between $1,000 and $10,000. After your agent takes 15%, you get 25%-50% of what's left. The first check usually arrives a few months after signing, and then nothing else until the book is done.
A common first advance for a trade nonfiction book is $5,000. You sign your contract, and in a few months you get a check for $2,125 to write between 70K and 100K words.
Sometimes you might get lucky and sell your book to a bigger publisher who is willing to pay more—maybe your first advance is more like $30K! In that case, you'll get $12,750 to "live on" for the year or years it takes you to write those 70K to 100K words.
Of course, you can't really "live on" even a first book advance like this. If you have a well-paying full-time job, and you're somehow writing in your spare time, then this money is more meaningful. However, if you're a freelancer, you've just signed up to write an enormous amount for far, far, far less than you would be receiving for the same hours and word count at a newspaper or magazine.
I’m not meaning to complain here. Most books are passion projects, and authors are generally thrilled to publish at all. But getting "a book deal" in trade publishing does not mean $. In most instances, the promotion that an academic might receive due to publishing a book without an advance will result in greater earnings in both the short and long term.
Once you've written a trade book, the money keeps rolling in.
No. Most books do not “earn out” their advance, meaning that the author never sees another penny from the publisher for that book again.
This is true even for books that you have heard of. Even books that you read a review of in The New York Times, or hear the author speak on NPR. Of course some books earn out—mine did, thanks to small advances—but most do not. Once your book earns out the advance, then you will start getting a check from your agent once or twice a year with your royalties. Most sales happen in the first year, so these are usually small.
(I'm pretty sure that a single California bookstore is responsible for me still getting enough royalties to take myself out to dinner twice a year because they keep my first book on their shelves. Or did. It stopped during Covid lockdown.)
In our current era, books tend to have “a moment” when they come out, and then there are very few opportunities for readers to find them after that.
And about that moment, on to…
When your book is published, your publisher throws you a big expensive party! A book party! Like Carrie Bradshaw would have!
No! Most of the time, a “book launch” party is 100% the financial responsibility of the author.
If you're lucky, someone at your publisher will help you secure a bookstore to have your launch or first reading. But this can be hard to do! There is a lot of competition. Sometimes your publisher will not help you, and you will have to use connections or call in favors.
Once you're lucky enough to have a venue, the rest is up to you: drinks, snacks, anything else, all comes out of the pocket of the author. Sometimes bookstore owners or employees will pick up a few bottles of wine, and those people are saints. Otherwise, it’s on you. Authors are just glad when you, the reader and potential book buyer or borrower, show up!
And speaking of readings…
Authors are paid for readings at bookstores.
No. I doubt even Stephen King would take a speaker fee from a bookstore, and 99.9999% of the time no fee is offered. The bookstore is doing the author a favor to host them.
If a bookstore is willing to host an author for a reading, it's great for the author because it means the store will stock their book. It may be on the front table! They'll have signed copies! This is how books get sold.
Your publisher will pay to send you on a book tour!
No. Most of the time, there will not be a budget that pays for you to fly places and stay in hotels. All of these costs will fall to you.
When my first book came out, my publisher did schedule me to read at bookstores in different parts of the country, and then informed me of those dates. It was then up to me to see if I could afford the airfare and hotel to actually go and do it.
If a publisher has invested more money in your book, then this equation starts to change and you may be sent on a book tour. But most authors will not be given any financial support in this capacity and are expected to pay for all expenses. The cost of a “tour” alone can easily be more than the entire advance.
Funding your own book tour or series of readings is simply a fact of the business for the majority of trade published nonfiction authors. Again, whenever you can, it is always worth it, and a privilege, to be invited to read at a bookstore, so most do so whenever possible.
Also, if your publisher does not help you secure readings in bookstores—good luck getting them! Even if you have published before and drawn large crowds to your readings, if it’s just you cold calling a bookstore to try to get a reading, you may not be able to get a slot!
Surely authors must be in control of the cover, title, and subtitle of their books! They get to choose. It's all them.
No. These choices are made collaboratively, and authors must pick their battles if they don’t agree with a publisher’s choices.
I've talked to a lot of authors who go through this, and it can end up being an agonizing experience. For the cover, you're usually given a few choices, and have to pick one. It can behoove you to go with the one your editor likes best. If you hate them all, it’s a whole thing.
Publishers have professionals whose whole job is to know what will sell the most books. These are obviously different skills from writing the books. Most of the time, authors are encouraged to trust these pros, and often the publisher is right.
Nonfiction books are usually sold to a publisher on proposal with a title attached, and agents can have a lot of say in this too, because they are also extremely good at knowing what sells most of the time. But sometimes the title can change even after signing. Subtitles are trickier and can be actual hell to work out!
A subtitle has two major tasks in a trade nonfiction book:
1. It can explain what the book is actually about.
2. It can tell you what kind of book this is and how it will feel reading it; the genre, tone, popular accessibility, etc.
Trade books are edited and fact-checked like articles in magazines or newspapers.
No. In 99% of instances, an author must pay for their own fact-checking, which costs thousands of dollars. Some authors will also have to pay for their book’s indexing, image licensing, and other usage permissions. Many trade nonfiction books are very lightly edited, or not edited at all. I am not talking about copy editing here, which (thank god) remains extensive in most cases. Your book will usually be rigorously copy edited, but many trade nonfiction books are not given extensive structural edits anymore.
Of course this isn’t always true, and I'm not even sure it's a new norm. Many editors take great pride in shaping their books with authors. However I do hear more and more about authors who are surprised when their editor just says "thank you" and they're sent direct to copy edits. Personally, I have had both experiences, with a very hands-off editor who made not even one change, and an editor who made brilliant suggestions that dramatically changed the structure of the book. Both worked out fine!
An author makes between 50%-100% of the sticker price on a book.
No. Obviously this one is not true, and you probably knew that. For every book sold, the author makes about $1.00 or $1.50, which goes towards earning out their advance, or gets paid out in royalties once the advance earns out.
If you read an excerpt of an author's book in a newspaper or magazine, it's because the author personally submitted that excerpt and took part in the editing process.
No. Not at all. Excerpts are placed by the publisher, not the author. Usually the author has no say.
Getting an excerpt of your book placed in a big magazine or newspaper is fantastic! Huge. Sometimes a publication will take a whole chapter, or part of a chapter, without changing anything. Other times, though, changes are big.
I have had both experiences. A few times I've had whole chapters reprinted (thank you very much!!). Other times the editor has more or less made a collage from my book material to fit the tone and style of their publication (also thank you!!). The author is not consulted first.
Once, and only once, I was asked to work with the editor in question to adapt an excerpt from one of my books to fit their publication, for Granta, and that was a great experience. The article went viral and was one of their most widely read that year. But this is not the norm. In general, authors are often not told that an excerpt is going to run at all before it runs. I don't know why that is, maybe something to do with it being a standby item. Regardless, it's common for an author to be told "hey you're in X pub today!" in an email, with a link to the already-published excerpt, fait accompli. This will be the first that the author has heard about it. Sometimes they know a publication is considering an excerpt, sometimes not.
Authors are however encouraged to pitch related essays and other materials that will come out around the same time their book is launching. Sometimes your agent or publisher will help you get these assigned, other times (most of the time) the pitching is all on you.
But do not panic, its not all bad!
I could go on, but I think I’ll stop here, at least for today. I know that many people will find this list somewhat depressing, and my intention is not to depress you. Rather, my hope is that people can gain a greater understanding of what is actually asked of authors in our current moment, and of what it means to be one. When it comes to publishing books, we are part of a collaborative ecosystem of agents, editors, publicists, designers, booksellers, journalists, and reviewers. If you’re an aspiring author hoping to get traditionally published for the first time, it’s important to go into it all with your eyes open and your expectations realistic. Otherwise, people often feel that they have failed when they have not.
Every single first-time author, probably without exception, secretly thinks or at least hopes, tucked far away in some small corner of their heart, that their book is going to be that one-in-a-million exception. That they will get the million dollar advance, or even the six-figure advance, and go on to be a New York Times bestseller that gets made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman. If you didn’t secretly think or hope for this, you wouldn’t be normal. You need to be in love with your book in order to write it, and this is the kind of thinking that love brings.
In the meantime, please buy books, and do so from brick and mortar bookstores whenever possible. That is the only way to fix any of this. If you appreciated this post, you can even buy my books if you haven’t already (The Oyster War and High Heel, if they are of interest—my third book is not out yet).
And if you can’t afford to buy any books, then just reading books can help. I mean it. Get them from the library. Borrow them from your friends. Search for the books on your shelves that you have not already read, or re-read your old favorites. So many of us have fallen out of the practice of deep reading. A return to reading is, I think, where the healing for all of this can begin.
This article has been adapted from an overlong Twitter thread, god help me, which you can find here.
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Signed maybe 30 contracts in 25 years here in Oslo and my experience is about the same as you describe. This is a tiny market, so 3000 sold copies is a success. 15,000 a lifetime achievement. What I would add to is the translation deal. We make cookbooks... so the production is costly. That is reflected in the contract. When we had one of those lifetime achievements our publisher came home from the Chelsea Book Fair with the astonishing news that the world liked our book and wanted it translated into a few different languages. The dream of a little place by the sea evaporated when we found out these translation contracts paid only pennies per book. Still, it's a kick to see the cover in English or French, etc.
Summer, you had me laughing crying altogether. All true! First book (big advance) did not earn out. Second book (small advance) did. Third and fourth mixed. Fifth just a steady trickle. Royalty checks that make my tax accountant squint at me over her bifocals at tax time, and say, "This career of yours is perilously close to a hobby." To which I inevitably reply, "Not if I can help it!"