Writing a Book? Read This.
Part Three: A Report on One Book
By adding a piece to this Platform on Substack, it has become a series. Over time, there may well be more. The first two parts, according to the Dashboard data supplied by Substack, have been viewed thousands of times so far, shared by readers and reposted on LinkedIn and Facebook.
I decided to monitor the process of publication for one recently published book, Would You Believe…The Helsinki Accords Changed the World?: Advancing Global Human Rights and, for Decades, Security in Europe. I am the author with Holly Cartner – which is why I don’t need permission to share this report. The publisher is Platform Books LLC, an imprint started by my wife, Susan Sherer Osnos, and me, which has now released five titles in two years, including one in partnership with Harvard Business Review Press.
The book was sold into stores by Two Rivers, a division of Ingram, the country’s largest distributor.
The topic, with a war in Ukraine and continued concern over democracy and human rights around the world, is relevant to the moment, even though the Helsinki Accords were signed almost fifty years ago. But to be blunt, this is not a book intended for a mass audience or, as I like to say, destined to be turned into a major motion picture.
Being, unusually, both the author and a publisher with decades of experience in the world of books, I can assess results from a variety of angles. Here is an update, one week after its official publication on March 22.
The hardcovers available in stores around the country number about 750 (that is 7-5-0) by any measure a very small number, compared to the tens of thousands for anticipated bestsellers. The largest quantity is at Amazon, which overall represents about 40 percent of all book sales. An ebook edition is available, but how many will be sold cannot be predicted.
To encourage booksellers to order more, Two Rivers and Platform Books offered an additional 10 percent discount for retailers taking five copies, well above the standard rate, which is less than 50 percent. The offer was the subject of an article in Shelf Awareness, a newsletter sent daily to the publishing community and widely read. The only two stores that accepted the offer, as far as I know, were those I contacted personally, one owned by an old friend, the other by a relative.
Our promotion offer was a test not a stunt. We were giving booksellers more of the revenue than they usually get on the principle that for the publisher, some sales are better than none.
The strongest reaction to Shelf Awareness came, unexpectedly from James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest chain of bookstores, who has been widely credited with reviving the stores since he took over. Daunt emailed me to say that a characterization of the chain’s pursuit of “bestsellers and celebrities” (not, in fact, my words) was “bizarre.” John Mutter, the publisher of Shelf Awareness, and I were surprised and flattered by the attention of the most important brick-and-mortar bookseller in the United States and Britain.
And here’s an important discovery: A Google search of the book’s title shows that it can be ordered from (by my count) twenty-six booksellers, including Walmart and several in Britain. Customers would certainly have to know when entering the store what they wanted to buy, because there would almost certainly be no copies on the shelves.
So, books are widely available – but only if a reader knows about them.
As for publicity in this first week, in Washington on Thursday I was in conversation about the book in the morning at the Council on Foreign Relations and in the evening at Politics & Prose, one of the two stores that bought a number of copies because of the event. Video of these appearances are now on the websites of the CFR and P&P, and as of Sunday morning have been viewed more than a thousand times and should continue to reach viewers. As word of the book gets around, other talks and media appearances are likely, aside from what is already scheduled..
There have been no reviews yet and, to be clear, none in the major outlets have been promised. As I wrote in a previous piece, the leading book reviews almost never acknowledge submissions by publishers anymore, because there are too many of them.
So, what is the conclusion?
If your book is what I consider “sober” nonfiction and you are not a significant public figure (although you may well be an established expert on the subject), what happens to the book will depend on the energy, connections and determination of the author, engaging the publisher’s support but not relying on it. Many nonfiction authors of stature tell me that they are disappointed with the sales of their books, with a tendency to say that it was the publisher that fell short. I have news for them.
Authors: this is your book. You are the one with the greatest commitment to it, and the more you can do to support the outcome, the better the results will tend to be. And this: the potential readership for serious nonfiction in the United States is finite, by my informal calculation about 10 percent of the entire population.
Why do I go into this detail – almost certainly more than most readers or even most authors can absorb? Because if you write a book and really do care what happens to it when it is published, understanding the process is essential.
And the process of book publishing has evolved. When I entered the business (which, after all, is what it is) in the 1980s, there was no internet, no ebooks, no ebook readers like Kindle, no Amazon – all of which are now indispensable to the way the industry functions.
Authors of nonfiction are almost always reporters and researchers as well as writers. My strong recommendation is to apply that energy to what happens at the all-important time when your book actually is published and for sale.