Don’t Let Publishing Intimidate You: “You Are Your Own Best Advocate”


Messing With The Mystique

You have the right to ask questions.

You have the right to get answers.

You have the right not to like the answers.

To see your own publisher’s jaw drop? Phil Sexton recommends you ask him or her to let you review your book’s metadata.

Then, with smelling salts ready for your book’s sales people, tell them you’d like to know which BISAC codes are being used to categorize your title at retail and distribution points — both brick-and-mortar and online.

Many publishers are terrific. Some are so terrific they’d be delighted to find their authors adept at asking serious, smart questions about how their work is going into the marketplace.

Many other publishers might be less happy to have informed, intelligent inquiries coming at them from their authors.

No one is proud of this, but particularly over decades of corporate ownership of large publishing houses, a somewhat paternal publisher-author relationship has become the norm in some — not all — instances. Many writers feel that they’re to be seen only, picking up or turning in edits, and not heard asking difficult questions:

How much space is my book getting in your catalog this season? Full page? One-half page? One-quarter page?

May I see the catalog copy you’re using to sell my book?

May I see your marketing bullets for my book?

Is co-op — the money publishers pay to get certain titles into privileged positions in bookstores — being allocated to my book?

The pitter-patter you hear out in the hallway right now as those questions are asked is the sound of the more paranoid publishers and a couple of entire sales departments running away just as fast as they can. Good hearts, yes. Love of literature, no doubt. But you can believe that there also are people in the industry! the industry! who would rather Sexton didn’t deliver his writing-conference session called “Dirty Little Secrets: Learn How Publishing Really Works To Become A More Successful Author.”

And those made uncomfortable by this presentation are the likeliest to subscribe to the author-relations mode of Don’t worry your pretty little head about such sordid details as front-table bookstore placement, darling, you just go back home and write us the next big thing, call us when it’s ready.

Of course there are no such publishers. Of course not. Of course not.

Funny how this session’s audience is always so big — and so attentive — every time Sexton gives it.

Publishers “Are Not Evil or Stupid. They Are Overworked, Sleep Deprived”

Listen carefully, and you’ll hear Phil Sexton saying things that sound as if they might have come from self-publishing advocate Hugh Howey. For example, Sexton tells conferees:

Don’t antagonize your publishers, but don’t let them turn what should be a business partnership into a work-for-hire arrangement.

It’s significant that at a time when there’s so much debate around issues of the digitally enabled self-publishing movement, Sexton should be commanding big crowds and getting rapid-fire, clever questions from attendees in a program designed for traditionally published writers.

It’s also significant that Sexton is a publisher, himself.


Phil Sexton is the Publisher at Writer’s Digest, capital city to a vast nation of aspirational writers served by the program’s eponymous monthly magazine.

The iconic program, one of many enthusiast-serving niche offerings from content and e-commerce company F+W, for more than 90 years has run faithfully alongside its participants as they tilted at their writerly dreams. Today, Writer’s Digest is a powerhouse, with professionally produced instructional videos and webcasts; tutorials and webinars; in-depth offerings such as Writer’s Digest University; writing competitions; exhaustive listings of literary agents; blogged advice on best practices; a Writer’s Market service for selling work; easily the most extensive store of how-to-write-a-book books ever created; and — always, always — inspiration.

There’s a new program just coming online: Blue Ash Publishing is a cooperative venture  between Writer’s Digest and the self-publishing platform BookBaby. Having recently ended its participation in Abbott Press, a relationship with the Author Solutions corporation, Writer’s Digest has an educational role in Blue Ash. Authors using the program will be able, Sexton says, to customize their use of Writer’s Digest know-how to fit their needs, while producing their own books through BookBaby.

Such a concept matches the can-do spirit that pervades everything at Writer’s Digest. And at no time is that more evident than when all of this gets up and walks: at Writer’s Digest’s conference events each year, considered by many to be best-of-class on a national scale for clarity, efficient production, range.

We’re between two such events on the calendar now:

  • Last weekend, the Writers Digest Annual Conference in New York City drew more than 650 attendees — the largest turnout on record — with some 80 presenters and a squadron of more than 50 literary agents there to hear story proposals in the event’s centepiece, the Pitch Slam.
  • And just ahead, the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference sits down at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles in a week, August 15-17, an intensive weekend of discussion and education. Registration is still open for this one, which runs parallel to its sister Screenwriters World Conference. #WDNWC, as the novel-writing intensive is hashtagged, comes complete with boot-camp sessions on specialized topics and an appearance from High Strung lead singer Josh Malerman, whose drop-dead thriller debut, Bird Box, is out from HarperCollins’ Ecco Books and headed for a film treatment in Hollywood. (Here is our Thought Catalog interview with Malerman from the spring London Book Fair season.)

Sexton will offer his “Dirty Little Secrets” session in October, as it happens, at the Novelists, Inc. conference at TradeWinds Island Grand Resort on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Wherever he delivers it, a hallmark of the event is an unusual level of candor.

And Sexton is quick to explain that publishers who aren’t readily forthcoming with responsive, collaborative input for their authors “are not evil or stupid.

“They are overworked,” he tells his session audiences, “sleep deprived, and with no time to proactively tell you things that could lead to uncomfortable conversations.”

“Two Years Of Work And You Might Get 30 Seconds”

If there are some publishers who wouldn’t be pleased to hear Sexton hand out “Dirty Little Secrets” of the realm, you can bet there are some authors who would rather not have heard them, too.

The session is so wide-ranging that it includes titling fiction and nonfiction to sell. Sexton may be the only person smart enough to tell you to check not only your jacket art but also the spine — “In most cases, the subtitle [on a nonfiction book] does not appear on the spine, and that’s your primary real estate in brick-and-mortar stores.” Lesson: ask your publisher to show you the spine design.

Most difficult, however — for authors to get their heads around and for publishers, perhaps, to be forthcoming about — is how a book is being sold to store buyers. Remember, this session is geared mainly toward traditionally published authors, whose work (they hope) will live in the Barnes & Noble-dominated physical-bookstore realm. Print still holds a lot of sway here.

B&N buyers become the key players, and your publisher’s sales team will either put across — or not — your book. A sales call with a buyer lasts 15 minutes. That buyer expects to be offered five books in those 15 minutes. Sexton, who is a former bookseller, sales director, and author, himself, breaks it down with devastating clarity.

First five minutes are chit-chat, business, promotion results

Next five minutes are devoted to the sales rep’s lead title

Last minute is closing and summation

What’s left? One minute per title on average: Two years of work and you might get 30 seconds of that buyer’s time.

Sexton wants you to ask if there’s a marketing plan for your book. He wants you to find out how big your publisher’s list is each season. He wants you to know how many books in your genre or category are they selling each season.

Here are more questions he recommends you put to your publisher:

How many sales people do they have?

Do they have a library sales team?

Do they have a specialty market sales team?

How many copies did B&N take? (With close to 675 stores, he points out, a buy of 200 copies from B&N is nothing.)

“A good sales person will push, and push, and push for your book,” Sexton says. “The problem: You don’t know your sales person.”

And Sexton’s message is: find out. Ask, and ask, and ask. Today’s author, even in the traditional setting, is more than ever an entrepreneur whose job is to sort out what his or her work needs most to be fully supported in finding its market — and then driving it there.

“And when it comes to that sales call,” he says, nothing matters more than “what the writer can do to make that book gets good attention. Gratefulness should be there, but it’s a partnership. A partnership.”