As an Acquisitions Editor, I get a lot of questions outside the scope of my work. Hopefully, I can help a few people understand the process of publication.
The most often question asked is ‘What kind of marketing does your company provide?’ Several writing sites encourage the idea that a small publisher will market your book and they’ll be good at it too. I’m not sure where this idea arose from. Traditional publishers won’t sink a dime into a new author. It’s too risky and chances are, they’ll lose money in the process. The more suitable question would be ‘Does your company offer marketing support for the author?’.
If you research various authors, popular and millionaires now, you’ll find that most had a difficult time starting off. You’ll have to dig deep. John Grisham’s wiki entry barely references his first book, and the fact only 5,000 copies were originally published. What it leaves out is that his sales were abysmal, most likely due to lack of prints and marketing. John gathered up over 1,000 copies, which had been returned by book stores, and loaded them in his van before starting out across country. Remember the days when an author would make an appearance at a school, library, or bookstore? He sold the books, on his own, from money in his own pockets. If you aren’t willing to take your marketing strategy in hand, put yourself out there, in person and online, then why would someone else do it? At no cost to you?
The company I work for, Distinguished Press, does offer a marketing strategy and works closely with each author to make them a success. They understand that becoming a best selling author isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Time is needed to develop a following, a readership. They also understand that readers don’t contact the publisher for an autograph, to request a book signing or any number of other questions. A reader wants contact with the authors themselves. As a new author, you need to realize this too.
The other question most often asked is ‘How are sales?’. This is difficult to answer, because we have so many authors in various stages of their series (we’re a series publisher). But aside from trying to narrow down how well each author is currently selling, I don’t understand why someone would think we’d answer the question specifically. A new author wouldn’t call up Penguin and request author sales. Not only is it an invasion of privacy between publisher and author, but it would be a massive undertaking to gather and release that kind of information.
For a small publisher, sales can be great, but look small, because the number of books released, the amount of effort from the author, time of year, among other outside forces can dictate the current sales of an author. The best you can hope for is a generalization of sales. Even if you were to go to a specific author to ask the same question, the answer, by no means, is a reflection of your own possibilities or even sales of other authors under the same publisher.
A few years ago I came across a blog post of a NYT best seller. She outlined that her book sales had approached 421k while her earnings had reached just below 25k. Of course, it didn’t take long before the publisher had her remove the post, but some people still saw it. Now if the above question was posed to the publisher, the answer would be great, she had over 100k paperback sales this year. Does that mean that all their authors have sales that high? Nope. Does that mean the author is now set for life? Nope.
Numbers can’t be relied upon. You have to read your contract carefully and be prepared to market your book to the best of your ability. Actually, writing, as painful as it is sometimes, is the fun part of publishing. The rest of the process, you need to research and prepare yourself for years of hard work (in most cases) to make yourself a successful author.