Englang Books is 30 years old this month. Gulp. Hard to believe I’ve been a writer/publisher for three decades. To mark the occasion, and to help others avoid the mistakes I have made over the years, I have compiled two lists: Seven Lessons Learned as a Writer, and Seven Lessons Learned as a Publisher.
Before we get to the lists, a few words of explanation are necessary, as my writing/publishing status is highly unorthodox.
- I’m a published author. (German-English False Cognates, Parkes & Cornell, NTC Chicago; plus various short stories).
- I’m a self-publisher.
- I publish books by other people.
Of Englang’s sixteen titles, around half are written or co-written by me and half by other people. Fourteen are books about English Language, and the remaining two are novels.
Sixteen books in 30 years – why so few? Because, for most of that time, my full-time job was running a language school. Writing and publishing books was a pleasant sideline, but one which grew steadily in importance. Now let’s get to the lists.
Seven Lessons Learned as a Writer
- Study your craft.
Read widely, learn from the masters, seek experts’ opinions, pick people’s brains, go on courses (like Swanwick), attend lectures, workshops, and seminars. The keenest of my writer friends belong, as I do, to two or three different writers’ groups. The most useful type of group is one which offers feedback.
- Don’t expect a publisher or an agent to tidy up your work.
You know the saying: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Nowhere is this truer than in publishing. Your work should be thoroughly self-edited, examined by beta readers, polished, and copy-edited BEFORE you send it to any agent or publisher.
- Think short.
Books are getting shorter; sentences are getting shorter; words are getting shorter – no doubt because attention spans are getting shorter. Why else would flash fiction, novellas, and tweets have taken off as they have done? If you’re writing your first novel, aim for 70,000 – 80,000 words rather than 100,000.
- Remember that publishers are increasingly risk-averse.
This follows on from point 3. The ideal book for a publisher is a short book written by a celebrity: it carries zero risk. You represent a risk for a publisher if (a) you are unpublished and/or unknown; (b) you write in a genre or on a topic with limited appeal; (c) your book is long. Long books are not only more expensive to produce – paper accounts for about 30% of production costs – but, being heavier, are more expensive to transport and distribute.
Printing on Demand eliminates risk and can be the right solution, especially if you write fiction and want to self-publish, but bear in mind that unit costs are usually higher.
- Don’t give up the day job.
In the UK, only 13% of writers have writing as their sole source of income. Median earnings of professional writers are £10,500 per annum compared with the national median annual income of £29,000. In my first two years as a publisher/writer, books accounted for one twentieth of my income. The rest came from teaching. It took twenty years for that fraction to rise from one twentieth to one third.
- If you need money, write non-fiction.
Write fiction or poetry for the love of it, and expect to be paid peanuts. If your novel is not self-published, the usual royalty is 10% of the publisher’s net receipts. This means that, when the publisher sells at a discount (e.g. to a supermarket chain), you may get 10% of 60% of the cover price. On a novel with a cover price of £8, you’d get 48p. Not much.
According to three bookshop owners I talked to, the average self-published novel sells 20 – 60 copies. To sell more, you have to invest inordinate amounts of time and/or money, e.g. on social media promotion or magazine advertising. Weigh up carefully whether it’s worth it.
The picture is very different with non-fiction. If you do your research thoroughly, you can sell thousands. I have a friend who writes psychology textbooks for schools. The average first print run of each book is 12,000. The first EFL book I ever wrote had a print run of 3000 copies, which sold in two years. It then sold 1000 copies per year for the next 20 years. This had nothing to do with social media and everything to do with fostering face-to-face contacts.
- Co-authors: 1 + 1 = 3
(This is mainly relevant for writers of non-fiction.) If you are lucky enough to find someone reliable to collaborate with, the rewards can be enormous. Most of my EFL books were co-written with Dr Alan Cornell. We acted as catalysts for each other, working late into the night with ideas fizzing and popping. We inspired each other but also vetoed each other’s less practical suggestions. Into the bargain, we derived huge job satisfaction and had loads of fun. Our reward was to see six titles become set books at a dozen German universities. We could never have achieved that individually.
Seven Lessons Learned as a Publisher
- Don’t expect good writers to be good editors.
A depressing number of intelligent, imaginative authors lack the ability to self-edit. Equally disheartening is the number who are poor at grammar, spelling, layout, or all three. If you can see a book has potential, send it back and ask the author politely to put these basics right before resubmitting.
- Concentrate on list-building.
Nobody takes much notice if you have only two or three titles, especially with non-fiction. However, when you have half a dozen books that have been well received, people start taking you seriously. List-building is easier if you publish some books by other people.
- Be prepared for unequal sales.
Not all titles sell in equal numbers. The book you like best may not be the one that readers like best. Fortunately, one runaway bestseller can subsidise half a dozen slow sellers.
- Learn to say, “No, thanks”.
Some people, especially if they know you, try to exert unsubtle pressure on you to publish their work, however irrelevant it may be. The father of a friend of mine offered me his wartime reminiscences and was hurt and mystified when I turned him down, explaining that I was a specialist EFL publisher. “But you publish books, don’t you?” (Sigh.)
- Keep a close eye on late payers.
Don’t extend credit beyond six months (and keep it to three months if you can). Shops go bankrupt. Buyers get into debt. Both of these things have happened to me. In the worst case, a friend – now an ex-friend – started ignoring my requests for payment and I had to start charging interest on the amount owed (£5500), as well as threatening court action, before I got anywhere. She eventually paid me £5670 – three years late!
- Price books astutely.
Pricing books is a nightmare. Forget the hours you put into a book: you’ll never get paid for that time. It’s as easy to overprice a book as to underprice one; both will lose you money. If it’s overpriced, not enough people will buy it. If it’s underpriced, you won’t cover your costs. An old rule of thumb is that the cover price should be around four times the printing cost. That doesn’t mean that three quarters of your takings are profit. Marketing, royalties, design, postage, tax, equipment, warehousing, and a hundred other expenses make inroads into your earnings. Look at three or four similar titles already on the market and select the average price.
- Books stay around longer if they are self-published.
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the big fish here; more the minnows. If you are lucky enough to have your novel published by a small or medium-sized publisher, it’s likely to have a print run of between 2000 and 5000 copies, and – unless it becomes the next Harry Potter – it will stay around in bookshops, with ever-decreasing prominence, for two to four years.
By contrast, if you publish your own book, whether fiction or non-fiction, you can decide if and when it goes out of print. No publisher likes to see titles go out of print, so that even if sales are flagging, you can keep a book in print for 30 years.
We can add a number 8 for both lists: put in the hours! When I was building up Englang Books while still running the language school, I worked 16 hours a day for more years than I care to remember. It doesn’t do much for your social life, but it pays off in the long run.
As always, I welcome any comments or questions – please post below.