The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked

From A Writer’s Notebook:

At least once a month, there’s a big discussion online about something or other that has happened in publishing. It might be about where novelists find inspiration, or how authors use sources in nonfiction, or the research practices of journalists versus academics, or the intent of a memoirist, or how much power and influence your average author has. Regardless of the topic, one thing I’ve noticed, which tends to run through all these discussions, is a series of common misunderstandings and misconceptions about how modern trade publishing actually works.

It makes sense, in a way. Why should your average non-author know what an author actually does in the process of writing, publishing, and promoting a book? Most representations of authors and the publishing industry in popular culture, from television and film to characters in books themselves, do not reflect reality. It’s a fantasy, and people project onto that fantasy. They see Carrie Bradshaw enjoying a book party that costs more than most people’s weddings, and assume that a toned-down version of this must await most authors at the end of the publishing rainbow.

Yes, every now and then a first-time author who is not already famous will get a big seven-figure advance. But these are usually hot young novelists, and are quite literally one in a million. They were the exact right person in the exact right place at the exact right time. For the rest of us—the remaining nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine—the reality is very different.

So what is it really like to “get a book deal,” publish your first book, go on tour, and do press to promote it?

I’m a traditionally-published nonfiction author, so I’m talking about trade nonfiction here. That means nonfiction books that are published by the Big Five international publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon&Schuster, HarperCollins, and Macmillan) and the independents, as opposed to academic presses, texbooks, self-publishing, and other options.

So without further ado, here are nine basic trade publishing myths.

Myth #1:

Getting a “book deal” means getting a bunch of money that the author then “lives on” for years.

No. Not even in the slightest. Especially not for a first book. Almost never.

A realistic first advance for a trade nonfiction book is between $1,000 and $10,000. After your agent takes 15%, you get 25%-50% of what’s left. The first check usually arrives a few months after signing, and then nothing else until the book is done.

A common first advance for a trade nonfiction book is $5,000. You sign your contract, and in a few months you get a check for $2,125 to write between 70K and 100K words.

Sometimes you might get lucky and sell your book to a bigger publisher who is willing to pay more—maybe your first advance is more like $30K! In that case, you’ll get $12,750 to “live on” for the year or years it takes you to write those 70K to 100K words.

Of course, you can’t really “live on” even a first book advance like this. If you have a well-paying full-time job, and you’re somehow writing in your spare time, then this money is more meaningful. However, if you’re a freelancer, you’ve just signed up to write an enormous amount for far, far, far less than you would be receiving for the same hours and word count at a newspaper or magazine.

I’m not meaning to complain here. Most books are passion projects, and authors are generally thrilled to publish at all. But getting “a book deal” in trade publishing does not mean $$$$$. In most instances, the promotion that an academic might receive due to publishing a book without an advance will result in greater earnings in both the short and long term.

Myth #2:

Once you’ve written a trade book, the money keeps rolling in.

No. Most books do not “earn out” their advance, meaning that the author never sees another penny from the publisher for that book again.

This is true even for books that you have heard of. Even books that you read a review of in The New York Times, or hear the author speak on NPR. Of course some books earn out—mine did, thanks to small advances—but most do not. Once your book earns out the advance, then you will start getting a check from your agent once or twice a year with your royalties. Most sales happen in the first year, so these are usually small.

(I’m pretty sure that a single California bookstore is responsible for me still getting enough royalties to take myself out to dinner twice a year because they keep my first book on their shelves. Or did. It stopped during Covid lockdown.)

In our current era, books tend to have “a moment” when they come out, and then there are very few opportunities for readers to find them after that.

. . . .

Myth #4:

Authors are paid for readings at bookstores.

No. I doubt even Stephen King would take a speaker fee from a bookstore, and 99.9999% of the time no fee is offered. The bookstore is doing the author a favor to host them.

If a bookstore is willing to host an author for a reading, it’s great for the author because it means the store will stock their book. It may be on the front table! They’ll have signed copies! This is how books get sold.

Myth #5:

Your publisher will pay to send you on a book tour!

No. Most of the time, there will not be a budget that pays for you to fly places and stay in hotels. All of these costs will fall to you.

When my first book came out, my publisher did schedule me to read at bookstores in different parts of the country, and then informed me of those dates. It was then up to me to see if I could afford the airfare and hotel to actually go and do it.

If a publisher has invested more money in your book, then this equation starts to change and you may be sent on a book tour. But most authors will not be given any financial support in this capacity and are expected to pay for all expenses. The cost of a “tour” alone can easily be more than the entire advance.

Funding your own book tour or series of readings is simply a fact of the business for the majority of trade published nonfiction authors. Again, whenever you can, it is always worth it, and a privilege, to be invited to read at a bookstore, so most do so whenever possible.

Also, if your publisher does not help you secure readings in bookstores—good luck getting them! Even if you have published before and drawn large crowds to your readings, if it’s just you cold calling a bookstore to try to get a reading, you may not be able to get a slot!

Myth #6:

Surely authors must be in control of the cover, title, and subtitle of their books! They get to choose. It’s all them.

No. These choices are made collaboratively, and authors must pick their battles if they don’t agree with a publisher’s choices.

I’ve talked to a lot of authors who go through this, and it can end up being an agonizing experience. For the cover, you’re usually given a few choices, and have to pick one. It can behoove you to go with the one your editor likes best. If you hate them all, it’s a whole thing.

Publishers have professionals whose whole job is to know what will sell the most books. These are obviously different skills from writing the books. Most of the time, authors are encouraged to trust these pros, and often the publisher is right.

Nonfiction books are usually sold to a publisher on proposal with a title attached, and agents can have a lot of say in this too, because they are also extremely good at knowing what sells most of the time. But sometimes the title can change even after signing. Subtitles are trickier and can be actual hell to work out!

A subtitle has two major tasks in a trade nonfiction book:

1. It can explain what the book is actually about.


2. It can tell you what kind of book this is and how it will feel reading it; the genre, tone, popular accessibility, etc.

Link to the rest at A Writer’s Notebook

2 thoughts on “The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked”

  1. One thing I didn’t see mentioned in the OP is the thing that motivated me to write my first nonfiction book: “Doors will open when your book is published.”

    Not for everyone, of course, but for me: Yessiree, Bob.

    There’s still a lot of weight to a signature line that includes “Author of …” (again, for nonfiction). That little line can be parlayed into all kinds of benefits. I’m guessing it works well for academics, but in my case—writing a technical How-To for the digital imaging and printing crowd—it worked fantastically in securing a consulting gig with a major technology company that eventually crossed the 7-figure line.

    So “Doors will open . . .” is not a myth.

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