Modern Publishing Puts the Squeeze on New Authors

Guest Post by SR Staley

A close friend of mine recently secured the Holy Grail for book authors: a contract with an established publisher. But here’s the sucker punch: A literary agent turned down the opportunity to represent her with the publisher.

In this case, the agent turned down a virtually guaranteed commission because the book wasn’t likely to break out of its niche market. The publisher is planning an initial print run of 3,000 copies.

Let’s put this in perspective. Ten years ago, I was represented by a literary agent who often pitched and sold titles to publishers even though the initial print run was typically less than 2,000 copies. JK Rowling’s first publisher, England’s Bloomsbury, rolled just 1,000 copies of the first Harry Potter book off the presses. Even today, the vast majority of books sell fewer than 1,000 copies.

Such is the state of today’s book publishing market: Books that would have been published by respectable traditional presses ten years ago can’t even get in the door. In this environment, prospective authors need to be more aware than ever of their options as the publishing environment changes in ways unknowable just a few years ago.

The key point is that mainstream presses have largely abandoned the “small” (niche) book market; they are signing authors with wide name recognition or marketing “platforms” that can guarantee initial press runs in the tens of thousands of books. Agents have found their money in matching publishers with potential big sellers, not cultivating new talent.

New authors and niche writers are getting the squeeze.

But all is not lost. New writers and niche authors can be successful in today’s market, but they need to revamp their own understanding of their role in this process. Small books can make money, even if they don’t make the author rich, and they can create a platform on which contracts can be negotiated with larger presses.

The key for authors is embracing a more hands on approach to publishing and marketing their work than ever before. In addition to producing their manuscript, success in today’s market requires authors to be their own publicists, quality control specialists, and distributors. Blogs, social networking, and the old standard of hand selling books at book clubs and book signings are essential to making a new author a success. Authors also have to be willing to embrace non-conventional approaches to publishing, including self-publishing and signing on with subsidy presses.

This brave new world of publishing, however, is treacherous for those new to the process. Publishing houses that focus on selling hundreds of copies operate very differently from those selling thousands, and authors need to separate the wheat from the chaff. That takes research and more than a little tolerance for risk. But, we wouldn’t have embarked on this journey if we weren’t already risk takers anyway, right?

SR Staley ( is the author of six books and comments on the business of publishing at his blog “Adaptation” ( His most recent book is the middle grade novel “A Warrior’s Soul.


Posted on July 22, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It seems strange to me that given the ability to print-on-demand, that the publishers are not taking on more new and emerging authors. Mark Kuhne is author of "Giving God the Helm, Overcoming Storms of Adversity."

  2. The challenges today are greater, but so are the rewards for persevering at it. IA

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