RECAP: Dirty Little Secrets: How Publishing Really Works with Phil Sexton

RECAP: Dirty Little Secrets: How Publishing Really Works with Phil Sexton

by Mally Becker, TWC Outreach Coordinator

“How’s the soon-to-be-published author?” someone teased me as I entered MONDO-Summit last Sunday.

Thrilled and clueless. That’s how I felt. I had signed a three-book contract with Level Best Books just weeks earlier, with my debut novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, to be published in February 2021. But the fairy dust was settling, and I was facing how little I knew about the business of publishing. I had a sneaking suspicion that ignorance was not bliss.

That’s why I’d come to hear publishing guru Phil Sexton expound on “Dirty Little Secrets: How Publishing Really Works” at TWC’s March 1 special event. Sexton is the vice president and publisher of Media Lab Books, a former publisher and director of Writers Digest, and the author of five books. I knew that, three hours later, I’d leave MONDO with the beginnings of a “to-do” list that would strengthen my book’s chance of success in the marketplace.  

But first, the hard truth: It’s as difficult as you suspect to get published, especially if you’re a new author. Sexton explained that publishing is a low-margin business. Profits are slim, and recent disruption in the industry encourages publishers to focus on well-known, popular authors and pass on newcomers. But why is that?

The first “dirty little secret”: The economics of book returns. Phil explained, “It’s basically a consignment business and publishers are at the mercy of retailers.” Booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and Costco will stock up on copies of a new book (should we be so lucky!) and then return them to the publisher when they’ve figure out the book’s “sales velocity” – how quickly the book flies off the shelves. In other words, the publisher spends money to print lots of books based on these “big box” sales orders, then bears the risk of all those returns. That’s another factor making publishers more cautious about investing in a new author.

Another dirty little secret? Don’t count your royalties before they hatch. Royalties reflect gross sales less returns. So your publisher might ship out loads of books, but won’t know until they get back the returns how much POS (point of sale) business a book actually generates.  Authors don’t get paid until they “earn out” their advance, which can take a while—if it happens. Ever.

Sexton’s point wasn’t to scare the many aspiring authors in the room, but to empower them. “The more you understand the levers that move publishing, the more you can control your success,” he explained. Writers can develop more effective and creative strategies to promote their books if they understand how publishing works. That was the message he drove home.

The more you understand the levers that move publishing, the more you can control your success.

Sexton powered through a host of questions writers should ask their publisher both before and after signing a book contract. He gave us a quick tour of publishing P&L (profit and loss) statements, described a publisher’s sales call to a bookseller, and provided suggestions on how to work with editors more effectively.

“You are our own best advocate,” he said. “You have a right to ask questions and a right to get answers. You even have the right to push back on those answers. Between two authors with equivalent books, the squeaky wheel will be more successful.”

Based on his talk, I’ve begun my own publication tick list.  Here are just some of the items:  

  • Review the publisher’s catalog copy, which is intended for booksellers, and my book’s jacket copy, which consumers will see.
  • Work with my publisher on the book cover (front and back) and remember to review the spine. The spine’s design and legibility matter, Sexton said, since it’s the first thing browsers see on the bookstore shelf.
  • Ask for the metadata (search terms for web browsers and retailers like Amazon) that the publisher intends to use to make my book more “discoverable.” Metadata lets potential readers find the right book in an online search. I’ll want to add additional words or terms to make sure readers find my novel.
  • Let my publisher know the level of commitment I’ll be bringing to the project. How much promotion and networking I can do. That I’ll write free short stories to entice book purchasers. Maybe draft a book group discussion guide. Hire a publicist at my own expense. (Yes, that’s how it’s done. Some publishers do very little in-house marketing these days for smaller books.)
  • Promote pre-orders of my book on Amazon to increase its visibility and sales.
  • Keep track of sales after the book comes out, and use social media to push new readers to the book outlets that are selling the most. That will help prove that my book has “sales velocity.”
  • Start reading the books Sexton recommends, including Publishing for Profit, What Editors Do, and The Business of Being a Writer, plus online resources, including these:

There’s no guarantee for any book these days, but now I feel like I have a better plan and I’m ready to put the strategies I learned into play as I approach my February 2021 publication day.

Mally Becker is a writer, former attorney, and outreach coordinator at The Writers Circle. Her debut novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, will be published by Level Best Books in February 2021.