The conversation left me in a funk for two days…and continues to haunt me weeks later.
In September, I traveled with my wife to Seattle. She was attending a conference, so it was an excuse for me to connect with friends and associates on the west coast face-to-face rather than Facebook-to-Facebook. Besides, I had never spent significant time in Seattle.
As a long shot, I sent a book proposal to the president of a respected publisher, told him I would be in the area and requested a meeting. The proposed volume contained a series of provocative ideas and came to, in my humble opinion, significant conclusions in the final chapter. I was pleased with the outline, structure and the fifty or so pages I had already drafted.
To my astonishment, he agreed to a meeting. I approached the appointed hour with moderate expectations. Certainly he saw something of value in my proposal, otherwise why see me. He must receive hundreds of such requests and can honor only a select few.
It turns out even my modest expectations were wildly askew. He was kind enough to express an appreciation for my writing and provocative ideas, but then, ever-so-gently, splashed icy cold reality in my face. “I can’t publish your book. And, while you are welcome to try, I’ve been in the business for many years and am quite certain no one else will either.” Enter funk, stage left.
In the ensuing moments he provided an advanced degree in the non-fiction publishing industry as it has progressed…or perhaps regressed. “I tell prospective authors to prepare for two realities. Don’t expect anyone to buy your book…and don’t expect anyone to read it.”
In today’s world, he explained, a substantial number of non-fiction books are not purchased by the owner—they are “pass-alongs.” The book was gifted to the current owner at a conference, at work, or by a friend who liked the book and felt the current owner would as well. “So, don’t expect people to buy your book.”
He went on to explain how, in this fast-paced world, no one has time to read books—we get everything we think we need in sound bites or short blog posts. The expectation today is that non-fiction books have a clear message, and it will be revealed in the first few pages. Once those are devoured, the remaining pages are retired to the bookshelf untouched. “If you write a book, select your message, say it in the first chapter and fill the rest of the book with stories and support…but be aware almost no one will read beyond chapter one.”
He pointed me to a book in their recent catalogue whose message was exposed in the title, and finished early in chapter 1. That book has sold more than 650,000 copies, many of those to corporations that passed them along to managers, some of whom read chapter one.
I subsequently recalled a friend who wrote a book of non-fiction. She tells me books given out at her keynotes often find their way unread onto amazon.com selling for a fraction of the retail price…then others can own it and not read it for next to nothing!
So, as I lick my wounds, I remain depressed and horrified by the conversation. I continue to ask myself why? Why spend hundreds of hours writing a book with the expectation that no one will buy it or read it. And, if I were to proceed, the core idea must be captivating and modest enough to be told in a page or two.
So, at least for the moment, I am shelving my book before anyone has the opportunity to not buy it and not read it.