Top Ten Publishing Myths

by Erin Brown

  1. Editors and agents aren’t looking for great writing’s all about the almighty dollar

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Okay, there’s a bit of truth to this, in that publishing is a business, and businesses strive to make a profit. However, many, many authors who can’t find an agent end up telling themselves that this is the reason. As if their writing is simply too good to be published. This is not true (sorry to that guy who will remain nameless who sent me a ten page email about how brilliantly talented he is and that’s why he’s never found an agent). Most companies will always continue to take on books that have definite commercial and mass appeal (i.e. the writing might not be great, but it will charm millions of people nonetheless) so that they can afford to take chances on publishing beautifully written masterpieces that might only sell a few thousand copies. The business of publishing is a business, after all. But remember that an editor’s ultimate goal is to find that gem that is incredibly well-written, even if it will inevitably be financed by some bestselling piece of schlock. Of course, there are also some extremely well-written bestsellers, don’t get me wrong (The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner, to name just a few). 

2. Self-publishing will make an author a bestseller

The odds of this are very, very slim. I wrote an entire article on this concept a few months back and received some irate emails in response (which I welcomed wholeheartedly, although “You Suck” might’ve been a bit harsh for a subject line, Marcia), but I stand by this. The chances of self-publishing and finding anything remotely close to bestseller status are a million to one shot, no matter who (or what self-publishing company) throws around names like Mark Twain and Shelley (let’s stick to the past one hundred years, shall we, when commercial publishing as we know it actually exists?), Walt Whitman (poetry is not considered a commercial subject), and L. Frank Baum (he did indeed self-publish his chicken-farming manuals, but not his notable Oz series), etc. Self-publishing can be a legitimate route if you want to see your work in print and can devote your entire life and money to self-promotion, with the realistic (and legitimate!) goal of selling a few thousand copies. That’s nothing to scoff at, but just be realistic with your ambition. 

3. “I don’t need an agent”

Yes, you do. An agent will protect your interests, use their know-how and connections to find the right editor and house for your book, get you the best deal, and do the work for you! Also, if you can’t find an agent to take on your book, it is a good sign that you need to go back to the drawing board. There’s no shame in this, just move on to your next project. 

4. Publishers take care of all of your marketing and publicity

A publishing house can do a lot for you, especially if they are devoting a lot of money to your project, but self-promotion, especially for smaller, debut authors (i.e. books without a huge budget, at least initially) is key for finding success. I can’t tell you what a difference author motivation and self-promotion makes to a book’s ultimate success. 

5. Talented authors get huge advances

Assume that you will get a few thousand dollars and if you’re happily surprised and your book starts a bidding war, consider that a one in a few thousand blessing! Remember that advances were originally given to struggling authors who literally needed money for food while they were finishing their books. If your book finds success, it will come back to you in royalties anyway. So count on just enough of an advance to stock your refrigerator and pay a few bills. Anything more will be unexpected gravy! 

6. Editors will be able to devote most of their time to your book

Most editors are juggling multiple authors and books per season. So although it’s reasonable to ask for, and get, the best effort for your book, don’t expect an editor to devote a majority of their time to you, no matter how important you think you are. Once you’ve reached bestseller status, then an editor will kiss your butt (and should!).  

7. Editors will be able to devote most of their time to your book

Once you’ve gone through a strong list of agents, and have been at it for over six months, it’s probably time to revisit your novel (make some changes), query letter, or set it aside completely and start on a fresh project that might make more of an impact. It’s not that the agents are simply not appreciative of great work—perhaps the work isn’t truly great yet. 

8. Editors will be able to devote most of their time to your book

Many, many (did I say many?) books don’t reach bestseller status, and that’s okay. You can still make a living without ever making it on the New York Times list. And you can get fantastic reviews and acclaim without attaining bestselling status. Often, it takes many years and books to get these types of sales. On the other hand, some people just get lucky, for a variety of reasons, and hit the list on their first try. But this is extremely rare. Be realistic and you’ll sleep better at night. 

9. Editors will be able to devote most of their time to your book

Often, smaller agents can devote more time to you and your book. Sure, bigger publishing houses usually give faster first looks and respect to the more established agencies, but that doesn’t mean they shut out smaller agents. There are many respected agents who have smaller lists and makes some historic sales. So don’t rule them out. There’s a lot to be said for personal attention. 

10. Once your book is sold, you can give up your day job

I can’t tell you how many authors do this. Please, don’t. I’ll say it again. Don’t give up your day job until your royalties can pay all of your bills and more. And especially don’t give up your day job to write full time as an unpublished author unless you have a trust fund, a recent inheritance, or an extremely supportive spouse who is willing to be the only breadwinner for years or possibly forever. This is the most important piece of advice I can give, especially in this economy. There’s a lot to be said for following your writing dream, and you should, but don’t be foolish about it.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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