Publishing a Book: My Story
Later this week I’m going to post about the dynamics of publishing, the future of publishing, and the effects gate-keeping have on publishing and readers. It all relates to critical thinking, and I want to explore it with you. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the future of publishing, especially with the release of The Domino Project’s first book, Poke the Box. As a largely unknown published author (meaning with a publishing company, not Lulu) I have plenty to say about publishing—a lot of which may surprise you—but I don’t think that I can actually frame many of my ideas without telling you the story of how I published my first book, Outsmarting the SAT, which most people have never heard of, and what happened after it was published.
How I Decided I Needed to Publish The Book
Back in 2007, I had been tutoring students in SAT and ACT prep for several years and decided I needed to create a study guide for my SAT students. I had noticed that I was writing the same notes for them over and over ad infinitum and couldn’t find another prep book that presented ideas in the same ways I did. It probably comes as no surprise that it’s all framed in the same ways I write at StayOutOfSchool. Anyway, my students were extremely successful using the ideas I shared, so I knew I had to write the guide.Then, it hit me: if I’m going to write this book anyway, because I actually need to, why not get it published?Now, you have to understand that at this point in my career, I was really good at what I did. Those fabled score increases of over three hundred points? That’s me now, and that was me then (I even had a student go from the 50th to 96th percentile on one test). However, I was working for other people as a contractor. Other companies were billing over $400 an hour for my services and I was working in the homes of celebs and billionaires. The whole operation was so exclusive that I’m not even legally allowed to tell you what company I was working for, let alone my clients.Gosh, I wish I could tell you.Anyway, I had no website. I had virtually no clients that were my own (everyone was contracted from someone else). I had no social media presence and no major budget for marketing. I was single, 28, and living in Harlem.
How I Got an Agent
Fast forward to the process of getting the book published. I got a little book on how to get published and wrote a book proposal. I knew someone who had just gotten a job in editorial at a huge publishing company and she was kind enough to pass my proposal along. That company dug the contents of my proposal and, in its correspondence over email with me, accidentally copied the name of the agent I’d always wanted in an email note to me. That company then pumped me for information and went out and hired someone else to write a book that had a feel similar to mine and was eventually released four weeks before Outsmarting the SAT. I never heard from them after I received an email that said “We’re going to put together a financial package and get back to you.”This happens in publishing fairly frequently. That’s important to understand. It’s like an intellectual war zone.In the meantime, I called up that agent from the email. Hey, do you remember when you were accidentally copied on that email about the SAT book? Want to be my agent?“Sure! That book sounded like a great project!”I got an agent because of a fluke mistake happening over some great ideas.
Selling The Book to a Publisher
That agent and I reworked my proposal and sold the book to Ten Speed Press, which was at the time a cool indy publisher out in California. They’re the same people that put out What Color is My Parachute, which I’m pretty sure is the bestselling business book of all time.Now, I want to stop and underscore two things that may slide by at this point:1. We sold the book. As you’re probably aware, there was (and is) a glut of test prep material available. Most publishing companies already have test prep materials available, so they can’t buy other authors’ materials because of conflict of interest. To have found a publishing company that a) didn’t already have material of this type available and 2) decided it was in their best interest to buy mine, was nothing short of a miracle. This is a “just happy to be nominated” genre.2. The only reason the book was published is because its contents are so damn good. This isn’t my opinion. This is the truth. I had nothing else to offer: no fan base, no public acknowledgment of where I had worked or what celebs I’d met, no marketing budget, no grand tour of high schools in the works. They published my book because it’s really stinking good.Ok. That being said, here’s where it gets painful:
Book companies aren’t largely known for creating marketing campaigns for their authors. Someone once said to me, “If your name were Steven King instead of Elizabeth King, you’d be getting a lot more help.” No one mentioned this to me before the book came out, so I was nothing short of shocked when this book we all thought was so great got next to no marketing support and, therefore, no response.Shortly after Outsmarting was published, Ten Speed was purchased by Random House and Ten Speed became an imprint of Crown Publishing. “Great!” Wrong. Random House publishes the Princeton Review’s materials. I’d already gotten a rejection slip from them: conflict of interest. I was dead in the water.
People Love It. No One Buys It.
The final word on this: Outsmarting has still sold several thousand copies. Eight thousand? Something like that. Since most books get pulped, eight thousand is nothing to sniff at but it's not exactly funding a three-month jaunt to Tahiti. Nevertheless, I receive emails from kids who have used the book that go nuts about it and even (and I’m copying this straight from my files):
I teach a SAT prep course at ————— High School (a charter school in —————, — ). I'm also an SAT prep guide co-author, of the book “——————————“ - but I decided I liked your book better so I'm teaching using your book as the primary text! (Don't tell my publisher :) We just put in a bulk order for 50 copies.
I can’t make this stuff up.
The Mortifying Truth
So. The final thoughts to frame my upcoming post (and I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to say this first bit):
• I still haven’t earned back my advance on Outsmarting. That means I have never made a dollar beyond the typically paltry advance I received three years ago.
• I published a great book that most people have never heard of.
• I do believe, in a nod to Seth Godin, that those “ideas that spread, win.” They win money and attention. They don’t necessarily win that money because they’re the best ideas.
• I still believe in publishing companies.
• I just signed another publishing deal with Lou Imbriano. We're writing for McGraw-Hill this time.
UPDATE: It turns out that at the time of this post I had, in fact, earned back my advance and didn't know it yet. I just want to be up front about that.