Category Archives: Publishing

When Is It Time to Approach An Agent?

Okay all you first time novelists, sit down before you read this post.

A couple of weeks ago, the Author’s Academy (hosted by the independent publisher Wheatmark) had literary agent Ann Rittenberg on to talk about literary agents and how to land an agent. Ms. Rittenberg represents some big names in fiction, including Dennis Lehane, C.J. Box, and Laura Whitcomb.

The best part of these calls is that they provide an opportunity for existing and aspiring authors to hear from experts about what it takes to be successful. And Rittenberg’s comments were candid if not sobering.

Rittenberg’s agency receives about 150 manuscripts a week. She picks up…maybe…one or two clients a year. She is excited enough about three to four submissions to read the entire manuscript…in any given year. So, do the math. It’s a competitive world.

So, how do you get your manuscript to stand out? Obviously, it has to be really, really, really good. And different. Perhaps even unique. And commercialy viable.

But, here’s the money piece of Rittenberg’s advice: Don’t even bother sending your manuscript to an agent until it is outstanding. As a rule of thumb, Rittenberg thinks writers need to be writing for about 10 years before they get good enough and polished enough to produce a manuscript that even has a shot at a major publisher. Agents can usually tell based on the first page or two whether it’s any good or not.

I actually don’t think her advice is too far off. Rittenberg referenced the book Outliers, where author Malcolm Gladwell notes that the greatest artists, minds, inventors and businessmen & women typically toil for at least 10,000 hours at their business or craft before they excell. (I also talked about this in one of my first posts on this blog, “The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success.”)

The point is not to discourage new authors. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that writing is both skill and art, and the more practice you have the better you get at the craft. (Personally, I can see this maturity in my own work, comparing literary style of A Warrior’s Soul with the earlier The Pirate of Panther Bay, and both of these published books to my third yet unfinished novel Renegade.)

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Reading Rejection

Like most authors, I’ve had more than my share of rejections from agents and publishers. The most frustrating part of the process was trying to figure out if I could glean anything positive from the process. Most of the time, all you get is a post card saying: “Thank you for your submission. We don’t think your manuscript is right for our list at this time. We are confident you will be able to place your book with a suitable publisher.” Yeah, right.

But, the truth is, this little postcard says a lot about the approach many agents and publishers take to accepting or rejecting manuscripts. It’s not a complete blow off. As the publishing market becomes more competitive, agents and publishers can only accept manuscripts they are excited to represent and publish. The margins simply aren’t there to carry a manuscript that they can’t be excited about.

More telling, and helpful, in my view are rejections where the agent or publisher has taken some time to give you feedback. One of my more disappointing rejections from an agent (for A Warrior’s Soul) said: “Alas I am already representing an author whose work is too similar to yours so I am going to pass on reading more.  Best of luck with your body of work.” Of course, I don’t know who that other author is. (There are only two other teen martial arts series I’m aware of and neither one takes the contemporary reality-based approach I do.)

The letter that left me scratching my head was a New York publisher’s rejection of The Pirate of Panther Bay where an editor wrote a very complimentary letter back saying: “The writing and the storyline is tight and well developed…and you have done a wonderful job of weaving historical elements into the story line while keeping them relevant and interesting.”

Okay, great, so why didn’t you publish it?

In truth, the sobering reason is pretty straightforward: As good as the book was, it just wasn’t right for that publisher at that time.

Such is the world in which authors, particularly new and the not-so-famous ones, operate.

What we (authors) should not assume is that our book isn’t any good because it was rejected.
A Warrior’s Soul is “highly recommended” by Midwest Book Review and the reviewer from Readerviewskids.com said he was “inspired.” Former teachers and librarians have recommended it for the classroom. The Pirate of Panther Bay has recieved reviews calling it a “swashbuckling tale of piracy, action and romance,” “A grand high seas adventure any teen would love; many adults as well,” and “masterfully captures a sword fight, building tension it seems hard to believe possible short of seeing it on a huge movie screen.”

So, I’m confident my books are solid contributions to literature and my genre. (I guess I’m just a little ahead of my time.)

Now, on to editing the completed draft of that third novel….

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Literary Agent Fishing: How Many Books Do You Need to Sell to Hook an Agent?

I’ve written before on how the conventional publishing market is changing, and how literary agents are increasingly focused on the authors capable of selling lots of books right out the door. I suggested in an earlier post that 5,000 books a year is probably a minimum. Then, someone very knowledgeable about the process suggested the threshold was closer to 10,000 or more.

I recently ran across an admission from a major literary agent (she represents a few best selling authors) that she usually doesn’t consider picking up an existing author unless he or she is selling 1,000 books a month, consistently, over a period of time. So, that translates into 12,000 a year. (Btw, that could mean annual author royalties of between $12,000 and $50,000 depending on your publishing agreement.)

This number might be misleading and on the low-end. The agent was answering a question about an independently published author hoping to snag a conventional publisher. In other words, the agent thought that an independent author capable of selling 12,000 copies of her book on her own likely has a marketing platform that a conventional publisher could leverage into much sales volumes through their established distribution channels.

Very few books make it into this category.

But remember, you can make money on selling as few at 500 books through an independent publisher; that’s just not a level high enough to interest the biggest fish in the ocean (or in New York).

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Why Self-Publishing Has Such a Bad Reputation

One of the biggest hurdles authors of “small market” books have to overcome is the dismal reputation of vanity presses and self-publishing. The literary standards are quite low. In fact, in some cases, they are non-existent-shell out the money and, voila, your book is in print!

The problem now, however, is that mainstream and trade presses won’t even look at books without the potential to sell significantly more than 10,000 copies (see here, here, and here) even though they can be financially viable projects with press runs of less than 1,000 copies and, under the right circumstances, even 500 copies. (In fact, it’s quite common for academic presses to profitably publsh books with press runs of 250 or less, but the price is really high.)

But, the truth is that lots of books coming out of subsidy and self-publishing houses are really bad. Not just in the literary sense. They violate fundamental rules of grammar and organization!

Irene Watson, the publisher and editor of Readerviews.com, one of her two on-line book review sites, has a nice summary of the problem in a post over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011):



And, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Langer except the fact that I would say only 20% shouldn’t have published at all; that is, from what passes over my desk and often straight into the recycle bin.  Those don’t make the grade of being listed for review.  Many books aren’t even worth donating to the library or charity.  Yes…really, they are that bad. My percentage is probably less because Tattered Cover [Langer’s book store] gets more authors sending books in for consideration because the ultimate dream is to get the book into a bookstore.  Many authors don’t even know there is such a thing as a review, let alone how to find a reviewer. Yes…really.


 Norm Goldman from BookPleasures.com, when asked how many books he rejects upfront, claims that about 10% are not readable.  He also says “Personally, I chuck the book aside if after the first 50 pages the book is a disaster, and this includes books received as part of my Priority Review Service.”  I asked Ellen Feld of FeatheredQuill.com the same question and she said “Outright reject?  Not many, I’d say less than 5%.  However, about 40% of self-pub (slightly higher for subsidy – maybe 50/60% and guessing this is because the author assumes the subsidy is taking care of it) have some editorial problems that Joe Buying Public would find annoying.  We mention these problems in our reviews but don’t outright reject the book – the quality isn’t so bad as to demand rejection.”


The only way authors of books for small markets will be successful is if they produce high-quality products, professionally edited, and marketed aggressively. We don’t have the advantages of the “big boys” distribution networks; we have to reinvent the wheel. We need to also keep in mind that one of the obstacles we face is overcoming the terrible stuff coming out of the same presses we use for our high-quality work.

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How to Manage Sales Expectations

Oddly, I don’t remember obsessing over book sales for my first book. I had a reputable publisher (Transaction Books) and it was on a very timely topic (violence & the drug trade), but my goal was to be heard, not sell books. So, I didn’t pay much attention because I, indeed, became part of the public discussion on this book (and every non-fiction book I’ve published since). (And, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, all my non-fiction books have been financially successful, if not bestsellers.)

It was only as I published more books, that I started paying attention to sales volumes (and revenues). More relevantly (for this post), it was only when I started writing fiction that revenues (and thus sales) became an important part of my strategy: I needed to sell books to fund my fiction writing habit. I needed sales goals, and a marketing strategy for meeting my objectives.

And that’s when I had my “come to Jesus” moment. I found that selling books was really, really hard. In fact, without a mainstream publishing house behind you, reaching a benchmark of 1,000 copies sold would put me in pretty elite company among independent authors. (But not impossible by any stretch. In fact, my publisher, Wheatmark, has a special category for the scores of their authors that have reached 2,000 copies sold.)

Just how many books can you expect to sell if you’re using an independent press, subsidy publisher, or self-publish? Hint: set your expectations well below 1,000. Hundreds is a more realistic number, and the low-end of that. One self-publisher told the New York Times that most books in his stable sell about 150 copies. Irene Watson, who runs the book review websites Readerviews.com and Readerviewskids.com, noted over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011) that “Many traditional publishers feel that the self-published book has already reached its audience; in most cases this is less than 200.”

Getting beyond 200 requires a real marketing plan, a strategy, funds to underwrite the plan, and a high-quality product with a broad appeal. Fortunately, due to today’s publishing technology, you can still cover your out-of-pocket costs in this range if your are frugal and highly strategic in the way you approach publishing your book.

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More on Book Sales

A reader of my previous post on book sales (Books Sales By The Numbers), noted that I may have been too optimistic about when mainstream trade publishers might show interest in an author or their book. I suggested that 5,000 copies was the threshold for mainstream publishers to start taking notice. He observed based on his lengthy experience in the for-profit publishing world, that it’s more likely 10,000 copies, or at least 5,000 copies per year over two years.

For more on the changing market in publishing and the implications for new and niche authors, see here and here.

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Book Sales By the Numbers

It may seem like an odd question, but when do you know your book’s a success?

The question is a lot harder to answer than we might think. If you’ve published with a mainstream publisher, the answer is somewhat obvious: When the book makes money for your publisher. That threshold is also the point when they might consider publishing another book by you.

But, more and more authors are publishing with small and niche presses, subsidy publishers, or self-publishing. That begs the same question yet again. As someone with experience in both the mainstream and subsidy publishing world, I’ve developed a couple of rules of the road for my books.

1. I don’t worry about my publisher. I want them to make money, of course, but it’s up to the publisher to decide if they’ve made enough off my books to warrant printing new editions or picking up another book.

2. I want my books to cover my out-of-pocket costs. I love to write, but I can’t afford (or I’m unwilling) to shell out cash for books that don’t attract enough readers to at least break even from my personal checking account. (Note: I’ve given up on compensating me for the time I put into writing.)

Okay, these aren’t really rules; they’re principles. What does this mean in terms of cold, tangible, measurable numbers?

I got some help on this from Grael Norton, the acquisitions editor for Wheatmark, an independent publisher in Tuscon, Arizona (and publisher of my most recent novel A Warrior’s Soul) during on on-line publishing and marketing workshop for authors (their “Authors Academy,” of which I’m a member). I’m going to embellish his insight gained from practical experience with my own thoughts. Here are his thoughts in numbers with my embellished commentary:

One. By at least one very important measure, the physical sale of the first book is a major success, particularly for first-time authors. We often wonder if anyone will buy our book. That first sale gives us the confidence to go out and sell (or promote) the second copy. As I’ve discussed before, authors are the most important marketing tool for their books. So don’t under-estimate the importance of the first sale. But, of course, you haven’t come close to recouping out-of-pocket costs.

100. This, according to Grael (and I concur from my own experience) is a crucial threshold because this level of sales implies you have broken out of your inner circle of friends and family. Many people can leverage their good graces with their inner circle to sell 50 or 75 copies of your book. But, that’s about the limit for most individuals unless they are celebrities or have something near celebrity status. One hundred is a good number, but you are still far away from covering your out-of-pocket costs, let alone make money for your publisher.

500. At this point, you have broken out of the small, inner circle and really begun to sell a decent number of copies. This still isn’t a high enough threshold to sustain your writing career on its own, but if you have sold 500 copies, you have probably covered your out-of-pocket costs if you have used a reputable subsidy or self-publisher. (Notably, this is still not enough to make real money on your book, but at least your not draining your savings or checking account.)

1,000. Once you have crossed this threshold, Grael’s experience at Wheatmark suggests your book has tapped into a niche market. In short, it’s financially, and most likely literarily, sustainable. I would concur based on my experience with nonfiction and fiction books. You still aren’t selling enough to attract the mainstream big boys in publishing, but your making more than your out-of-pocket costs and subsidy-publishers are pretty happy.

2,000. At this level, you’ve tapped into a bonafide niche market and have a successful book. Indeed, this threshold might be sufficiently large that additional books will leverage the first into a sustainble series where you might be able to make some meaningful money. At this level, authors are approaching the sales range where mainstream niche and small presses can turn a profit on your work as well. (Notably, this is also the threshold for Wheatmark’s Great Expectations program where authors have access to a more complete array of publishing services similar to larger, mainstream presses.)

5,000. (My number, not Grael’s.) In my opinion, this is a threshold for a book to establish itself through the conventional publishing market. These sales volumes are high enough for an author to become attractive to agents and established mainstream presses (but still below what is increasingly necessary for the publisher or agent to make money). If your book is selling at these levels, a wider distribution system may well take it to a much higher level of sales. Your book will be noticed. You will develop a cadre of loyal readers that becomes your base for future books. You will be making money if you’ve signed with a decent publisher and have a decent publishing contract.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences. Because of spam, I’ve turned off the comment function on my blog, but feel free to email me at sam@srstaley.com.

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Putting the Squeeze on New Authors

Previously I’ve discussed how the modern publishing world has changed, and authors need to understand what these changes means if they want to be successful. I have a guest post over at Blogging Authors that discusses this issue in more depth. Using the case of a close friend who recently secured a publishing contract with an established publisher, but was turned down by a literary agent, I note in part:


The key point is that mainstream presses have largely abandoned the “small” (niche) book market; they are signing authors with wide name recognition or marketing “platforms” that can guarantee initial press runs in the tens of thousands of books. Agents have found their money in matching publishers with potential big sellers, not cultivating new talent.

The implications are pretty important for authors, particularly new ones, who now find themselves with fewer and fewer options among established publishers.

Take a gander through the complete blog post over at Blogging Authors as well as my previous posts on this blog here and here.




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Secret (Literary) Agent Math

Tortuga Bay earned two gold medals in the FAPA President’s Awards

Ever wonder why literary agents and book publishers don’t take on your awesome, life changing book project? It’s in the math. Literally. This point was recently reinforced by a fellow author struggling to get her book signed at a traditional publisher. At one point, she asked an agent to consider representing her. The agent respectfully declined, saying that the press run was too small for the project to be worth his while.

As the number of literary agents becomes smaller, and the number of conventional publishers shrinks, authors need to understand the basic logic underlying these decisions in order to shepherd their project productivity and profitably forward.

So, here’s the math that dooms the vast majority of books in today’s market for traditional publishers (and opens the doors for savvy companies with nonconventional business models).

First, recognize that publishers, unlike authors, exist first and foremost to make money. They can’t exist publishing books people don’t buy. So, while we (authors) may be convinced of the objective value of our work, publishers see mostly risk and uncertainty. Their goal is to minimize risk, and they accomplish that by choosing projects with the highest sales potential. You may have a great book, but not one that will appeal to a large enough market to make their investment profitable.

Taking a book from manuscript to printing to distribution requires a substantial investment upfront. Excluding the time and effort it takes for authors to write the manuscript, a conventional publishing company can easily invest $15,000 or more just in bringing a book to print. Here’s a quick back of the envelope breakdown of the costs for taking a book from manuscript to print (excluding printing and mailing costs), based on my experience costing out print projects and working with publishers on seven different book projects. (Note that this is a highly stylized estimate for illustrative purposes; each book has its on unique costs associated with the project specific to individual publishers):

  • Acquisition & project management: $5,000
  • Editing, copyediting & proofreading: $5,000
  • Cover design, layout: $1,500
  • Marketing: $5,000

Now, let’s compare these costs to the revenue the publisher can expect from book sales. Let’s start with a mass market paperback with a retail price of $10. This would be more typical of books published by major national publishing houses.

  • Discount the revenue by 50% off the retail price because books are sold to retailers at wholesale, leaving $5 per unit for the publisher;
  • The author receives a 20% commission on net revenues, or $1 per book, leaving $4 for the publisher;
  • Very large press runs (5,000 or more) can bring printing costs down to about $2-3 per paperback book, leaving $1-2 per book to cover editing, acquisitions and overhead.

It’s pretty clear that for a conventional publisher facing these costs would need to sell upwards of 7,500 copies just to cover the upfront costs of publishing this book. The publisher hasn’t even started to make a profit. Moreover, since many books fail to meet sales goals, publishers have to build these losses into sales expectations for new projects. So, they are likely shooting for a minimum sales target of 10,000 copies or more. (Remember, they still aren’t making money if they hit this target.)

Raising the retail price helps, but only by a little. Increasing the paperback price to $15, for example, reduces the break even unit sales point to about 3,700. Raising the price to $20 reduces the break even sales to about 2,500 (although this might begin to increase per unit print costs).

Here’s the reality check: The vast majority of books published today sell fewer than 1,000 copies. So, it becomes pretty obvious that most mass market publishers need to acquire books they believe will sell a lot of copies and appeal to a broad market. Traditional publishers and agents are looking for those projects they believe will move lots and lots of units. (Note: The logic, but not the example, works with smaller presses and university presses as well.)

Moreover, the value of a literary agent is in placing books with publishers that can sell large numbers of units. Most large publishers don’t even take unsolicited or unagented manuscripts because they expect agents to send only projects with very high sales potential.  In short, publishers and agents need to be completely, 100% in love with your book project and believe there is a very large market for it before they will take the financial risk of publishing it or representing it for publishers.

So, don’t be too discouraged if your book isn’t picked up by a literary agent or a conventional publisher. They’ve probably just done the math. If your book’s market can’t meet these sales thresholds, an alternative or nonconventional publisher is probably a much better route to paying readers than beating your head against a wall for years hoping that an agent or traditional publisher will “see the light” and bite the bullet on yours.

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A Note on My “Successful” Books

I realized after publishing the last several posts, all of which seemed to highlight the underwhelming financial performance of my first novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, that some readers might be wondering whether I’ve been successful at all! (Short answer: yes.)

If the standard is whether my books have made money for their publishers, the answer is yes in every case except The Pirate of Panther Bay. I’m using this is a case study because I often find I learn the most when I’ve screwed up. Success often has the tendancy to wash over the weaknesses of a project. When your projects fail, you have to look at everything to figure out how to make the next project successful. And that’s they way I approach the Pirate of Panther Bay. (Also, I hope to publish its sequel, Tortuga Bay, in 2012.)

BTW, I should also emphasize that PPB was unsuccessful as a financial venture, not as a novel, story or other content related issues. Indeed, the content was very well received–for those who read it and reviewed it! Check out the reviews and readers comments at www.pantherbay.com for proof. So, the really unfortunate aspect of this project was that our business model failed to get a very good product to a wider audience.

Also, for those still wondering about the details of my past publishing experience, here is a thumbnail publishing history. All of my books have been commercially successful for their publishers even if they didn’t make me (or them) rich! They also have had significant impacts in their targeted markets, and that was the primary measure of their success for their sponsors. (Note that my books have been primarily in academic, public policy and professional markets, not fiction.)



  • Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, hb 1992, pb 1994), about 2,500 copies sold, initial price $29.95 hd; 19.95 pb;

  • Planning Rules & Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994), copies sold unknown, price n/av;

  • Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), co-edited, about 500 copies sold, initial price $69 hardback only;

  • The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What You Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006 hb, 2008 pb), co-authored, about 5,000 copies distributed & sold, initial price $23.95 hb; $18.95 pb.

  • Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), co-authored, about 14,000 copies distributed or sold, initial price $23.95 hb.

Of course, I’m expecting to do well with the publication of my second novel, A Warrior’s Soul, beginning now! Visit www.srstaley.com and learn how you can get a 25% discount as part of our pre-order sale exclusively through www.skhquest.com.

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