Adventures in Publishing

As I mentioned, last week’s English meet-up involved a book exchange, where people donate their used books to the group in exchange for reading other member’s books.

I went home with a short stack of books myself, including two from very well-known authors. One book that I read was written by Mary Higgins Clark, who has to be the worst author I’ve read in a long time.

Romania is definitely a very challenging country to live in, with picayune bureaucratic rules and lots of crazy stuff that would challenge the patience of a saint. But nothing – I repeat, nothing – could ever be more frustrating and exasperating as the world of book publishing.

Books have played an important role through my life. I can easily list 20 books that shook me from a mental torpor and prompted me to make real, concrete changes. I know of a handful of books that have had a major impact on the way I think and live my life.

The fact that (most of) these books had to go through the meat grinder known as the book publishing world is a miracle. Ceausescu and Stalin and all their minions could not have conceived of a more convoluted, f*cked-up and stupid way to run a business.

I have been talking extensively with Romanian publishers and the system here is, for all intents and purposes, the same as in Britain and the United States. Perhaps in North Korea there’s a better system but as far as I’m aware, all countries in the “modern” world use basically the same template.

As I am now officially a professional writer (which just means I’ve gotten paid for writing) I can tell you that this has to be the worst career move a person could make. If you’re retired, unemployed, in prison or interned at a mental hospital, this might be a profitable outlet for your creativity but otherwise it’s bordering on suicide to consider this as a full-time activity.

Writing a book is already hard enough. There are thousands of websites (including the well-known NaNoWriMo) which can give you tips and information on how to take all those thoughts in your head and convert them to (digital) paper.

I type at over 550 keys per minute and am familiar with computers and word processing software and it still took me five months of hard work to get my first book written. I was lucky in that I had quit my job (and therefore had time), have no kids (besides my cats) to take care of, and I have my own quiet apartment in which to work. Other people write books in the midst of far more challenging daily routines and I salute them.

Once the book is written however, you must enter the Shadowy World of Publishing and that right there is twice as difficult as writing. If you think all those long, hot nights of typing away and wondering if anyone will ever like your work are difficult, that is nothing compared to the way you’re going to be treated when you dare to try to get published.

That’s exactly their attitude too – how dare you write a book?

Since I’ve been selling my book, I’ve met lots of people who have asked me about publishing a book and how one goes about doing it. This post is the summation of what I’ve learned along the way. Again, even finding out how to publish your book is made extraordinarily difficult because the system is intentionally designed to be confusing so that the “unworthy” are excluded.

All terms are mine and not the “official” terms, whatever those might be.

Publisher Pays You

For the last 100 years or so, this was the only option. I sometimes refer to it as the “JK Rowling” option because her story about how she went from a single mother on welfare to being a multi-millionaire is fairly typical.

First, she wrote at least the first book. Then she sent excerpts of it and a cover letter to several agents, six or seven of whom sent her rejection letters. Finally, after God knows how long, one agent “saw the value” in her book and agreed to pitch it to a publisher.

The publisher then forced her to use her initials (since “people don’t buy fantasy books written by women”) and barely marketed her book. It then turned out to be “surprisingly” popular, sold well, and the rest is history.

If this route is the one that appeals to you, the “Bible” of the (English-speaking) industry is called Writer’s Digest. If you live in an English-speaking country, you can find this book at your local library or bookstore and read it for free there.

In a best case scenario, your excerpt and cover letter are amazingly persuasive and a literary agent wants to sell your book right away. S/he will then call up all their crony buddies in the publishing industry and you’ll get an advance (money before the book sells) and then you can write your book in leisure (also known as the “Eat, Pray, Love” model). The publisher will then professionally edit your book, market it well, and sell a billion copies.

In a more ordinary situation, your excerpt and cover letter will barely impress anyone (even if you’re a future JK Rowling) and only after months and years of rejection will you sell your book to the publisher. They will then poorly edit the book, poorly market it, and sell only a few thousand copies. About all you’ll get is a few bucks and the pride of seeing your book on the shelf of your local store.

As part of its “services”, the publisher will pay for your ISBN (all books must have one to be sold through official channels) and handle the paperwork necessary for this.

You Pay The Publisher

This is the route I took with the paperback version of the The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania. Again, even though you’re paying them, they still treat you like a rich idiot and will try to soak you with unnecessary fees and costs while simultaneously explaining almost nothing to you.

Not only do you have to write the entire book but edit it, format it and design the cover yourself.

Mind you, there’s a key difference between a printer and a publisher. The people making the physical book (the printer) will charge you a flat fee and then it’s up to you to sell them however you can (from your website, face to face, etc).

The publisher will usually pay for and handle the ISBN but you will be restricted to the sales channels the publisher wants to use. In the case of The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania my publisher (for the paperback) is Amazon USA, which means they will sell books on their website but not any other way (Barnes and Noble, etc).

Going through other channels (British stores, Amazon UK, Powell’s, etc) then I have to find another publisher (and therefore another ISBN).

You Are The Publisher

This means that I buy the ISBN (in USA, this is done via Bowker, in UK via Nielsen BookScan, in Romania via Biblioteca Nationala a Romaniei) and register myself as a publisher.

I then contract with a printing company (to deliver the physical books) and then I must contact all the sales channels (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc) myself.

This route is the most expensive of all (since you pay for everything and do all the legwork) but gives you the most control (and most profit).

Everybody’s Hands In Your Pocket

Regardless of which route you take, a whole host of people will arise in your path with the sole purpose of putting their hands in your pocket to take a percentage of the profit away from you, the author, the one who actually did all the damn work of writing the book.

If you have an agent, s/he will certainly take a percentage of whatever you make.

Your printer will certainly make a small profit from physically creating your book.

The publisher will take a huge slice of whatever you make, anywhere from 40% of the cover price to 55-60%.

Then the distributors (the actual stores selling your book, whether online or a physical store) will also take a huge chunk of the price. This can be as much as half of the cover price.

In my case, Amazon is the printer, the publisher and the distributor (of the paperback version) so obviously they take a huge slice of the total price. In other situations, these might be three separate companies and so each will take their portion.

And just in case this system wasn’t convoluted enough, all distributors have a policy in which unsold books must be bought back by the publisher.

Therefore even if you’ve received your pitifully small royalty on books that were sold to a distributor (say Borders Books) but those books get sent back to the publisher, you will have to give this money back.

And of course all of these damn companies only pay you 60-90 days after the sale is complete, meaning they get their cut right away and you are left like a dog to wait months for your tiny share. The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania was launched on December 1, 2010 and I sold quite a few copies that day. I will not however get one cent for them until March 1, 2011.

And then the government steps in, as this income is considered “self-employed” and falls under its own special tax rules. This isn’t the publishing world’s fault however but it still sucks.

In summation, unless you’re a world-famous author, expect the following:

  • Writing a book takes a tremendous amount of work.
  • Whether anyone is interested in publishing your book is a total crapshoot and has no relation whatsoever to the quality (or lack thereof) of your work.
  • Publishers have no interest in making things easy for you to understand. They have a highly profitable system in place and you, the pesky author, are mostly an annoyance to them.
  • Everybody will get paid before you, the author, do.
  • If you, the author who made the entire book possible, end up with 10% of the cover price in your pocket (before taxes!) then you’re lucky.
  • An enormous quantity of publishers, advisers, agents, marketers, book vendors and publicists are waiting to take your money through any trick they can but offer little in the way of genuine advice or useful information.
  • It takes a long, long time before you receive one penny in income.

And thusly total shit books by crap authors (such as Mary Higgins Clark) get published and distributed in bookstores and others of high quality (for the sake of argument) like J.K. Rowling receive multiple rejections and minimal support, minimal marketing and lackluster distribution unless by some fluke their book becomes popular through word of mouth. I should note here that Herman Mellville went through the same bullshit and only became famous and sold lots of books after he was dead.

I’m starting to understand why the publishing world fears digital books and is a dying industry. Good. I hope they die like the antiquated dinosaurs they are. Taking half the cover price for the “service” of storing your book on their shelves and then getting their money back anyway if it doesn’t sell is a crime against art, in my humble opinion.

I wrote my entire book, edited it and even designed the cover with a computer. My book is therefore an entirely digital entity up until the moment it is printed.

In a saner world, “bookstores” would simply be a computer with all the available titles that a customer could browse through (and read the first chapter for free). When the customer is ready to buy a book, it is printed in the store on demand, bound and ready to go, just like the books that currently sit on the shelves and collect dust.

Why not? That’s what’s going on already with my book, just in a more indirect way. When you log onto Amazon and buy my book, an order goes out to a printing company (in Charleston, South Carolina) which loads the digital file of my book into their machine and out comes my book. It then gets shipped to the customer.

All I’m recommending is cut out all the middle men. Load my book’s digital file into the store’s computer and then if somebody wants a copy, print it on the spot. Not a single tree gets wasted in printing an unsold book and there’s no shipping cost. The customer walks away a few minutes later with a normal paperback book. And the store wastes no money on storing and displaying unwanted books.

Of course this is far too simple of an idea and all the fat cats in the publishing industry wouldn’t get to keep 80-90% of the cover price anymore, would they? Of course not. And there would be no need for agents and bullshit marketing and rejection letters (even for “good” books) and no need to constantly push tripe (Mary Higgins Clark) simply because it’s more profitable to peddle crap people know versus crap they don’t know.

It’d also reduce the cover prices as well. If I didn’t have to give all these parasites their cut, I could lower the price to $5 for my book and the customer would be happier and I’d still make an income.

Oh well. As I’ve said many times, it is what it is. I think books are wonderful and I’m grateful for all of the wonderful authors who have somehow managed to run this insane gauntlet and come out the other end with their sanity intact and a few bucks in their pocket.

I wrote both of my books with one goal in mind – to give something back to the people of Romania for all of the generosity I’ve received over the years. Despite all the headaches and bullshit in the publishing industry I’ve had to deal with, I already consider this mission a success.

If I ever get my hands on an extra $150,000 or so I will definitely implement my idea of printing books on demand in the store while the customer waits. In a world where I can get prescription eyeglasses cut in an hour, waiting for weeks to ship dead trees halfway around the globe is just ridiculous.


12 thoughts on “Adventures in Publishing

  1. This is good to know – thanks Sam.
    I might contact you laters this year for some extra tip.
    Not sooner – I might get scared and quit .


  2. The book is simply full of great advice.
    Don’t despair if things seem to go wrong. There is always a way out.
    ISBN number is about 200 Ron.
    Than the printer keeps about 12 copies of the book to be sent to the National Library.
    And the rest is yours to sell.


  3. Pingback: World Spinner
  4. Hi Sam,
    I’m an English teacher in Portugal (and also Romanian) (and also thinking of a career move) (and also occasionally blogging about the above) – so I must say:
    1. You probably are more Romanian than me.
    2. Ouch. I had a vague idea publishing a book is not a walk in the park, but this is DIRE! Let us know when you open your publish-as-you-wait store! I’ll wait.
    3. Is there a good side to this story (apart from the publish-as-you-wait idea)?
    4. What are the 20 books that shook you?
    Até logo,


    1. You wouldn’t happen to be related to the OTHER Wolfe Murray who speaks 5 words of Romanian, are you? If not that’s one hell of a coincidence, especially as I see he posts on your blog.


      1. Sister in law. (The other WM has got 3 brothers and the youngest is mine!)
        I speak more than 5 words of Romanian (I may not know the best way home from the airport anymore, but I CAN TALK!)
        Don’t think I don’t know that you’ve sidestepped my questions with all this family chatter…


      2. Ok just for you, teacher :D

        Off the top of my head:


        Tao te Ching
        The debate between Sheep and Grain
        Story of B
        Critique of Pure Reason
        Either/Or (Enten-Eller)
        The apology of Socrates
        The Black Swan
        Journey to Ixtlan
        The Lucifer Effect
        Jewels (Rumi)
        The Dancing Wu Li Masters


        El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (best novel ever, imho)
        Infinite Jest
        Gravity’s Rainbow
        The Silmarillion
        Mister God, this is Anna


  5. I think you are starting to get real Romanian over here. All that venom in you veins against the shitty system. I likes it.


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