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Newsflash: It’s hard to be a writer!
Written by
Brooke Warner
September 2017
Written by
Brooke Warner
September 2017

This past Sunday’s New York Times opinion page ran another one of those sky-is-falling publishing op-eds that always raise my hackles. Writers eat this stuff up; it seems to serve as some sort of validation for why it’s so fricking hard.

This particular op-ed, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” by OR Books co-publisher Colin Robinson, is ostensibly about how readers are disappearing (although it's really about the fact that so many people publishing books makes it hard for writers to stand out and Robinson is really bummed about it). Even if you ignore the statistics Robinson cites in his own piece—that profits are steady at the big houses—there is ample evidence out in the world that in fact readership is at least steady, if not on the rise. It just looks different than it used to.

The attitude conveyed in this piece is exactly what prompted me to leave traditional publishing. Book industry professionals love to bemoan the state of the industry. If you’ve been in the industry for over ten years—whether as a professional or as an author—it’s hard to not remember how awesome it was before digital publishing and massive consolidations turned everything upside down. Things were simpler. There were fewer books and therefore less competition. The established order and way things had always been done was comfortable and writers knew their place in that order. If you couldn’t get published, there weren’t viable alternatives, so it kept everything safe and secure and ordered for industry folks. The gatekeepers did what they did well—and readers listened to them, providing said gatekeepers with a sense of power and control. Marketing teams had strategies that worked that didn’t require them to be nimble the way the Internet forces them to be now. There was no such thing as social media and “platform” was not a buzzword.

For those who’ve been around, the new state of things feels hard. I get it. It’s hard that relatively few authors can make a full-time living as a writer. It’s hard to get discovered. It’s hard to get reviews. It’s hard to get publicity. It’s hard that so many people think they can write a book and that so many new books are published every year. And wah-wah-wah. I hear these kinds of complaints all the time from writers. Sometimes they’re just venting—and that’s fine—but sometimes the complaints start to sound a lot like those of my seventeen-year-old stepson who feels like senior year is just so haaarrrd—you know? I, of course, can’t help but wonder how some of these same writers would have felt ten-plus years ago when there would have been nothing but closed doors for the majority of them. Now, of course, we all have the opportunity and privilege to greenlight ourselves, if we so choose.

The reality of writing and publishing is that it’s a privilege. It always has been. Writers have always struggled and worked really hard to get paid. Now it’s that much more difficult because there is so much competition. And the playing field has changed. Social media and technology are in the mix, and while some authors are thriving under this new paradigm, others have been left in the dust, feeling quite overwhelmed and even paralyzed by all the demands.

But today, as writers, we also have more access, more control, and more possibility than ever. Not even my New York Times best-selling client makes a living exclusively as an author. The people I know who do make a living on their writing alone are those who are writing their asses off and producing, producing, producing—at least one book a year, and multiple articles. Always submitting. Read this very convincing post by novelist Dean Wesley Smith about how writers really can make a living on their writing.

Other full-time authors are teaching (online and offline), speaking, and consulting. The writing fuels these opportunities, but there needs to be new content being produced in order to keep the engine running. To paraphrase Dean Wesley Smith, you need to be filling up your store, putting more and more inventory on your shelves. Discoverability today is not about having one breakout book; it’s about consistency and the long, steady, slow race to build a fan base and a loyal readership.

Meanwhile, mid-list authors, the ones Robinson is concerned that we’re losing, are the authors who are opting out of traditional publishing. The brewing question is this: Why would you give over 93% of your earnings to a publisher who is not going to spend any publicity dollars on your book and whose sole marketing strategy is to leverage your contacts? (Read Kamy Wicoff’s post about why she turned down a deal from a Big Five publisher to understand the thought process behind an entrepreneurial author’s decision to say no to this nonsense.) So maybe mid-list authors are being left behind in this new publishing landscape, but there is so much more going on outside of traditional publishing that is exciting and cutting-edge and hopeful.

We need to be very careful when we read and share these kinds of articles and op-eds to not engage in the propagation of this sky-is-falling mentality. The sky is not falling. You, as writers and authors, have agency. You choose how you show up to play. You can get depressed and mope around, or you can buck up and get with the program. There are proven ways to be a successful writer today, but it involves a constant tending. It will not just happen because you’ve written an amazing book—as much as we all love to fan the flames of this beautiful dream. Dedicate yourself to building your message, getting in front of your idea, tending to your platform, and creating spaces where your readership comes back for more. And no, there’s nothing easy about it, but is it rewarding? Oh yes. Very.  

Oh—and Bay Area folks: if you're interested in how to tend to your message and your platform, please come to my Book Passage class on February 2. Super excited to be spending the day at this beloved bookstore teaching writers about fun and positive ways to stay in and ahead of the game.

* This article was originaly published in January 2014 *

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  • Martin Fass

    Brooke, thanks very much.  You make me realize that (maybe) precisely because it is a specialized area and fraught with obstacles, producing and distributing a picture book still has the potential for the work to have a good life out there, if one is willing to persist and get past setbacks and roadblocks.  

    I suppose one piece of encouragement is in the fact that a wonderful number of widely loved picture books are in print today, and being purchased for the new tots regularly appearing, while also popular from libraries and in schools...that originally debuted sixty or seventy (or more) years ago!  It is stunning to go into a Barnes & Noble, say, and see the fresh new copies on their shelves!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Martin, yes, price point is a big dilemma, and self-publishing does pose a dilemma. You're trying to make a profit, and compete. But you can't be publishing at a loss. It's all about what the market can bear. Beautiful four-color art books have an audience that will pay $40-$50. Comic collections have cult followings, and they print limited editions, which is why those books are so expensive. You're competing in a very very tough space, but I think you must charge more so that you're not operating at a loss. You might be in a genre where the economics of self-pub don't make as much sense. I know that we have spent so much money to produce our cookbooks. And SWP won't even do children's books or picture books of any sort because I know all that's entailed. It looks easy, but it's so not. Anyway, thanks for the conversation and good luck to you. Maybe the next step is that you'll land an agent and go the traditional route.

  • Martin Fass

    Brooke, thanks for your several notes.  Yes, we're learning.  Meantime, notwithstanding that we've gone from September through Christmas, we don't think of this first book as something to set aside.  We've taken no further action yet, but we assume that soon we'll be asking our designer to send the file to a different printing company, or possibly, as determined by something new developing, to an agent or a publisher

    We've known going back to the fall that our required printing could cost far less if done in China, for instance.  We didn't act on this because at least one specific company required an order much larger than we wanted to risk, and there was also the matter of the shipping expenses.  

    Maybe repeating myself, but it is a major dilemma to face the question of how to price a hardbound book which cost us $20 (or even $18 if we increased the order) a piece, when it seems the typical picture book today from the major publishers is selling at $14.99 or often a few dollars less!

    Meanwhile, we do see that the price of book can be all over the place and not always make sense.  There are stunning collections of newspaper comics, such as Pogo, selling today for about $40, and often less.  Printed in China.  Meanwhile, there are other comic collections priced at $100 or more, and apparently finding many customers.


  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    I completely agree with you, Martin, that publishing a picture book is a totally different ball game, and I would never advise someone to print a picture book domestically. We have two full-color cookbooks on She Writes Press and both have been printed in Asia, for quality and for economics. I don't think that domestic printers—and certainly not POD printers—can do justice to four-color. Regardless, I'm sorry to hear you spent so much money. It's always a learning curve out there and hopefully the next time around you have a better experience.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Sherrey, thanks for your comment and perspective. I'm excited for you as you make your way through your memoir!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    This side conversation you're all having is very interesting and I think it speaks to the fact that there is a lot of misinformation out there, and there are so many options, so you do of course have to be careful. Martin, you wrote:

    I notice that subsidizing "publishers" and "distributors" are good at blowing smoke, and that's obviously in their self-interest, rather than to help the client, you or me, understand the realistic risks we are undertaking when we pay them a few or many thousands of dollars and agree to go.

    I see that many of the experts advise that authors stay away from such sharks and wolves...but o the temptation to try anything when a smooth talking "pro" is working to make a sale and the buyer is--a lamb.

    One of the things I've been particularly committed to doing with She Writes Press is to be very transparent and clear about the risks and rewards. When you self-publish you have to work really hard at the promotion and marketing piece. It's critical. And there's the question of quantity, which I raise in this piece (read Dean's magic pie piece—really good). I think there are people out there looking to take advantage of authors, but I also think there are as many or more good people who really want to help authors do the right thing. But the right thing is not a recipe where book publishing is concerned. I have a lot of authors who've spent a lot of money on publicists for almost no results, and it's not because the publicist didn't try. It's competitive out there, and it's important to be your own advocate but also not to think that everyone is out to get you.

  • Martin Fass

    I think there is a confusing soup here (a good deal of it came as a result of my variety of messages) that doesn't always make distinctions between various objectives and different results.  If we pause and consider, I imagine we'd agree that while making money is fine and not in and of itself immoral or unethical, a book that makes money is not necessarily any good as literature.  (Did I use the word "crap?")

    Earle Stanley Gardner wrote a ton of books and made scads of money, but from the first to the last, he was a fairly terrible writer, as can be observed by reading any five or ten pages at random.  He apparently didn't concern himself too much with editing, except to check spelling and punctuation.

    As I tried to emphasize, publishing only begins to cost more when one has something like a picture book.  Many self-published books come from printers and "publishers" who offer a limited group of options.  I think I mentioned someplace here at SheWrites a few months ago that CreateSpace finally suggested the way for us to have a landscaped format picture book would be if we agree for the binding to run horizontally at the TOP.

    Then you can read by turning the book according, and like magic, landscaped format.  But of course it is not.  It is both a totally awkward design to handle a book, and there is no way at all to have a double page spread.

    The people at CreateSpace clearly did not care about such matters.  Take it or leave it.  I imagine that if the day ever comes when their marketing experts discover they are losing a large amount of business because of their ill advised standards and economies, they will proudly announce their newly improved service. 

    But we already know (thanks to SheWrites) about the realities of CreateSpace and its quality.

  • kelly mccann

    J.A. Konrath has published his sales, and the post you're referring is a compilation of advice/posts he's written over the years, comparing how in December 2010 he made $1650, enough to cover his mortgage, and then in December 2011 he made over $22,000. 

    What doubts and questions did he leave you with?

    Not sure why you feel it costs thousands or more to self publish, it costs nothing to self publish, although I would suggest you need to have at least a professional cover made and if needed, pay a few hundred at the most for editing or formatting help.

    Not really sure why you think all those who self publish are crap, or what your standards are for something being worthwhile enough to read, but if your goal is to make a living writing, you have a much better chance with self publishing.

    And yes of course it's better to write a book, offer it on all the platforms at the smallest expense possible, and keep the rights and hopefully make money.

    Isn't that obvious?

  • Martin Fass

    One more ps.  I don't disparage whatever it is people want to write...and read.  Thrillers, romances, anything.  And if one prefers or even adores e-books, that's ok, too.  But in our own experience (as first timers, too) with a picture book that COULD be in an e-book format, but really requires fine printing in a landscape volume, the situation is markedly different in so many ways.  And we are more than a little aware that the world is not starving for more and more picture books.  Many questions.

    Obviously, it is nice, and I'm sure tempting for many, to write a book, offer it in an e-book format, with the most limited required expense, and watch for the money to begin accumulating.  

  • Martin Fass

    PS to Kathryn.  Decided to pick up on your suggestion and look up Mr. Konrath's blog.  He is impressive in many ways, and seems to know a lot.  He also speeds along and leaves lots of doubts and questions in his wake.

    For example, if he has sold two million books, that's wonderful, and ought to have meant earning some money.  On the other hand, he writes of being pleased that he received enough royalty in one month to cover his mortgage.  I find it hard to believe, unless his mortgage is up there in five or seven figures a month, why such a trivial matter would ever concern a person with millions in book sales.

  • Martin Fass

    Kathryn, no, not working or ever worked for a publisher, and no, not published in books, though in periodicals. 

    In my mind, though I did not specify, I was thinking of people who self-publish, period.  And of those who may have attempted to go another route via agents, publishers and distributors, but failed to come up with anything.  This leaves out the exceptions, the established people, and I believe the list includes Mark Twain and lots of others, who wanted their books to live or live again beyond what the original publisher did to distribute and promote their work.  I know, in connection with this, that there are far too many authors who sooner or later became disappointed and discouraged by the support, or that should be LACK of support, from their agents, publishers, etc.

    Meanwhile, in terms of money one might wish to earn, it certainly sounds better to get 15% or 25% rather than that awful, shivering sounding 4 to 7%.  However, one has always to be mindful.  It is all too easy for the self-publishing and subsidizing author to wind up staying in the red regardless of the percentage, unless it is one of those rare and wonderful instances where the book takes off, and even a return of a pittance of profit on every sale can suddenly add up and mean something.  

    I notice that subsidizing "publishers" and "distributors" are good at blowing smoke, and that's obviously in their self-interest, rather than to help the client, you or me, understand the realistic risks we are undertaking when we pay them a few or many thousands of dollars and agree to go.

    I see that many of the experts advise that authors stay away from such sharks and wolves...but o the temptation to try anything when a smooth talking "pro" is working to make a sale and the buyer is--a lamb.


  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    the thing you don't understand is that there are now many older authors (or authors that have been publishing the traditional path for many years and had been with bigger traditional publishers) who are tired of getting that awful 4 to 7% royalty and are now self-publishing their old and new titles (like me)...and they're often excellent authors who bring all they've learned over many years to the self-publishing table. It's happening all across the publishing world. Read J.A. Konrath's blog. There are now many great eBooks being self-published by authors who know what they're doing.  I chance do you work for a traditional publishing company? Just curious. Are you a published author?

  • Martin Fass

    So long as the books of highest quality--in terms of their writing--continue to come from established publishers who do not ask authors to subsidize their books--I am thinking of a writer such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has the company of many others--the only way that self-published books will attract attention and readers is by being books of highest quality themselves.  So far, that hardly happens.  IF, say, from traditional publishing, the percentage of worthwhile books is 15 or maybe 10%, the hard reality is that in self-publishing it is more like 2% or maybe even less than 1%.  But--we carry on.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Brooke, in a Tweet you mentioned you'd like my thoughts on this post. I had read the article previously via Facebook, and today came back and re-read your post. My thoughts and feelings are the same as when I first read the article and your post.

    I am completely in agreement with your thoughts and the reasons you give for the various feelings traditional publishers and others in the publishing community are expressing. True, we may not have the number of gatekeepers as a decade ago, nor do we have fewer books coming out which provides a spotlight for books when they hit the marketplace, nor do we have people getting rich from the 93% of hard-earned money.

    When you and I talked last week, we touched on the subject of publishing. Coming from a traditional publishing family (no longer in business), I feel strongly about the printed page--I will always love holding a beautifully bound book in my hands and turning the pages. However, I have recently read several self-published books which were nicely produced as well as several e-books which I'm learning are handy for reading on the go.

    And as a writer hoping to be published one day, I cannot see myself contracting with one of the traditional houses and going through the process of waiting for this stage or that stage of publishing. I'm not that young that I have time to wait for them to decide whether or not my book is worthy or not.

    I think, given time, the traditional houses will accept the fact that they no longer have a lock on publishing and will accept that we are writers who are not only good writers but savvy enough to see what lies on the horizon as far as getting our books in the hands of readers. 

    I look at SheWrites and am excited to see that it is succeeding at what its founders hopes and dreams have been and still are. It proves that publishing a book can be done with less money coming out of the writer's pocket, and in today's economy that is part of the issue.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post and the cautionary bit at the end about posting things like this and perpetuating the idea that the world of publishing is falling apart.

  • Martin Fass

    That's exactly what I was getting at.  Getting into trouble referred to the possible consequences of thinking you can scientifically (or professionally or otherwise) predict what will sell and what will fail to sell.  

    What we might be overlooking or not appreciating here is that the more the cover is organic in terms of the contents of the book, the more it will be the right choice for this specific book, and the value of the book will be enhanced, extended.  The shoe will fit, and there ought to be nothing more to be said.  Unless, of course, one feels that the same result COULD have been achieved at half the cost.

  • kelly mccann


    Martin, where are you getting this from?

    No one can predict scientifically what cover will sell well.

    NO ONE, not even if they are a publisher.

    You pick a cover, see if it sells, if it doesn't, the cover is the easiest thing to change (at least for the self publishers).

    Get in trouble how?

    Falling down the rabbit hole here, Martin.

  • Martin Fass

    There are still questions to consider about the differences between covers for electronic books and covers for paperbacks and hardcovers.  Sometimes, it has been noted that a hardcover jacket did not do well for a paperback version, which then apparently picked up dramatically in the marketplace when a new and different design was created.  

    Also to note that sometimes one wants not a beautiful cover, but one with other qualities, even to the extent of choosing a cover that is in no way close to beautiful.  However, as soon as we try to look seriously and scientifically at what sells a book, we also begin to get into trouble.  There are too many exceptions, too many times when a publisher was right in choosing a specific cover, and, the same person, too many times was apparently all wet.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    or one can write an excellent novel and find/purchase an outstanding cover by a talented young graphic artist and have a book that readers will love to look at and read, and cherish. Dawne Dominique is not only a great cover artist, she's a sweet person and has reasonable prices for how beautiful her covers are. She is also one of those artists that seem to read a writer's mind to what they want in a cover. Never forget, a diamond starts out as a chip of rock...

  • Martin Fass

    Kelly, obviously my comments (all and any of them) could well use some editing.

    A book with an impressive cover might, after a casual scan or some period of reading, be set aside for a variety of reasons, independent from one's reaction to the cover.  Or, of course, there is always the situation in which the book turns out to be far better than one imagined from what the cover seemed to suggest.

    Maybe I was merely repeating a sort of truism.  One can have a budget-priced cover, with the increased odds that it will look nice, but be, at best pedestrian.  Or one can hire Chip Kidd or people with extensive background in doing creative work for books, and still not make a dubious or ordinary book any better than it is.

    As for vanity, one aspect I see for myself is that vanity can blind me and coach me towards poor decisions, such as hiring a designer whose greatest skill is to flatter vain people.

  • kelly mccann

    Martin, I'm not getting your point.

    A good book cover is one that attracts readers to read your book, yes?

    A book cover that attracts readers like crazy and then the book itself is rejected (not read) after a few pages is one that has a cover that doesn't match the story.


    What does that have to do with anything?

    And of course it's important to get a good cover at a great price, what's the alternative a great cover at an exorbitant price or a bad cover at a great price?

    Lost as an Easter egg over here, Martin.

  • Martin Fass

    PS.  Those unfamiliar with the design work of Chip Kidd, or even if you know (and see value in) his creations, might want to check him out.  Not as a novelist, but as a designer in "Chip Kidd:Book One:Work:1986-2006."  He also has a recent book I've not seen yet, "Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design."  

    Yes, I imagine he is a person whose work is too expensive for most of us, but I don't know the facts.

  • Martin Fass

    That's a great big territory, design of book covers, jackets, and what constitutes a "good" one, let alone a "special" one.  And keeping in mind two worlds which are so greatly different--an e-book, and an actual book, where, with the latter, the book can have a literal presence in one's home or office, displaying the front, or the back, or the spine, for days or years.  In short, it is more (I believe) than a matter of getting an "attractive" cover at a nice price.

    There is also such a thing as a book with a cover that attracts like crazy, and then the book itself is rejected after a few pages, who can say why.

    In general, I get the impression often that both writers and illustrators have to watch for VANITY as being an ongoing condition that is not a particularly helpful personal characteristic.  Pardon me, I have several hundred people to text and tweet, maybe even a thousand, and they are waiting to hear from me.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks, Renate!

  • Renate Stendhal

    Fabulous post, Brooke -- powerful, on target. "Get with the program" of a writer's life -- "the sky is not falling"! Love it.

  • kelly mccann

    Ty, Kathryn :)