penelope-trunk-the-new-american-dream-blogsizeWhen author Penelope Trunk wanted to publish a book about the American Dream, she writes in her blog that she was blown away by how inept her traditional publisher was when it came to marketing it. (She does not name the publisher, but says it’s a major household name.) This publisher had already paid her an advance, and as the time approached when the book itself would be published, she was stunned when her publisher originally suggested marketing through “newsgroups”, and then through a LinkedIn fan page.

When she took a meeting with them to discuss the issue, she realized that there were several fundamental problems with the publishers’ ability to publicize her book. One is that publishers simply don’t have any way of knowing who is actually buying their books anymore.

It used to be they could look at sales figures from major outlets and get at least some general idea of who bought them—but now 85% of all books are sold on-line. And most of these books are sold by Amazon, which is notorious for how little information it shares with anyone. So now publishers know very little about who buys what, but Amazon knows almost everything.

When I pointed this out to my publisher, they told me that for my book, they expected to sell more than 50% of the books in independent bookstores. And then they showed me slides on how they market to people offline. They did not realize that I ran an independent bookstore while I was growing up. It was the family business. I ran numbers for them to show them that if they sold 50% of the sales they estimated for my book, they would single-handedly change the metrics of independent booksellers. That’s how preposterous their estimates were.

Publishers, Trunk says, simply don’t know how to market on-line. They’ve never bothered to learn how. And the profit margins are so low that she can actually make more money per book sold with Amazon referrals to sell someone else’s book through her blog than to sell her own.

In the end, after a final falling out in which the publisher decided she was too much trouble to work with, Trunk elected to publish her book herself, as an electronic-only title via Hyperink. She’s not bothered that she won’t have a physical edition, because the only reason to have a paper version of the book anymore is “to be in Barnes & Noble,” which she considers to be mainly about ego (being able to go and see your book in a real book store!).

I’m not so sure how well Trunk’s experience generalizes across all publishers. Just because she had a bad experience with one doesn’t mean they’re all that bad. Certainly there are some traditional publishers (such as Tor and Baen) who are a bit more savvy when it comes to the Internet. And to be fair, this is only Trunk’s side of things; the publisher might tell a different story. All the same, it does seem a trifle odd that any publisher could be so out of touch with the current state of affairs as to think about marketing through “newsgroups”, or that a LinkedIn page could drive any significant amount of traffic.

Trunk also makes an interesting point about sales data. I’d known, intellectually, that Amazon accounted for a huge amount of the market, but it hadn’t really sunk in what that would mean in terms of the demographic data that publishers need. Amazon really has made a sea change in the way that the publishing industry works, and that was true even before it invented the Kindle. Small wonder publishers are so touchy when it comes to the company.

(Found via TechCrunch.)


  1. So … she had already received an advance … yet she then published it herself ? Can someone explain how this came about ? How did she get out of the contract ?

    While this lady seems pretty smart and clued in … the thought that I was left with after reading her blog was how come this smart and intelligent lady ever got to a point of agreeing to publish with a company that was so poorly and to transparently ignorant about marketing online ?

    I mean have we not got to a stage yet in 2012 where authors have gotten the message that they have to be far far more proactive before signing away their work ? research the publisher, research the contract ? THINK before leaping at the chance of being in print ?

    Apart from Ms Trunk’s subsequent Damascus moment, this is quite a depressing story.

  2. Usually, the only reasons a publisher will drop an author after giving them an advance and signing a contract is the final version of the book is poorly written and beyond repair, the book is finished so far beyond the due date that there are major scheduling or relevance problems, or they have realized that the market for the book is no longer there so they claim the book doesn’t meet their standards and drop the book.

    All of this is written in the contract, and all the power to decide on whether the book is going to market is the publisher’s, not the author’s.

    If the book has good possibilities of making a profit, the author’s pain in the rear attitude won’t matter, and her knowing more about marketing than they do would be seen as a positive thing if the book really sold.

  3. I suppose it’s possible that she and the publisher reached a point of mutual dislike while both realized the book was unlikely to make much money. So they found a way to part company despite what was probably a very small advance.

    But that is hardly important. The significant issues she raises are the clueless marketing of publishers in the digital age and the unimportance of the physical edition of a book.

  4. TeleRead should know better than to publish a crazy statistic like “85% of all books are sold online.” For most publishers, and certainly a “major household name” like the one Trunk supposedly contracted with, that is not close to true, and simply repeating it because a disaffected author says so is careless. Trunk’s criticisms of big publishers’ online marketing may be valid, though her account seems hard to believe. But the TechCrunch post, and Trunk’s own original blog piece, spouts the most hackneyed “big publishers are clueless” line and this site ought at least to have done some fact-checking before uncritically passing along her highly dubious statistics.

  5. Binko – I think the marketing point is the least interesting – after all, who on earth ever thought that trad publishers knew anything about marketing online ? It’s pretty much common knowledge.

    But that a modern informed writer would still, in 2012, be signing up to a publishing deal without such basic information and background on the company they are handing their work to, is surely the most shocking point coming out of this article.

  6. Binko Barnes says, “The significant issues she raises are the clueless marketing of publishers in the digital age and the unimportance of the physical edition of a book.”

    First, traditional publishers are not quite as clueless as the majority or wanabee authors who run traditional publishers down think they are. Results don’t lie. The traditional publishers are still making great profits. And they will adjust with the times.

    Second “the unimportance of the physcial edition of the book” is a really naive statement. My “The Joy of Not Working” still sells almost 5,000 copies a year in print edition twenty years after it was published. My self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” still sells over 15,000 copies a year eight years after it was published. How many ebooks sell this many copies?

    Incidentally, although I have two books published on Kindle, I still don’t have the two above books (which earn me about $85,000 a year) published as ebooks.

    I have two new books in mind that I will publish independently in print without giving much thought to ebook versions, simply because I know that the print versions will do extremely well (as well as my retirement books) and the ebook versions will make a pittance – just like the ebooks published by 98 percent of the authors gleeful that they can now self-publish.

    Jane Friedman in a recent article in “Writer’s Digest” magazine poses this as one of the most important questions for people considering self-publishing their book:

    “Do your readers prefer print or digital?”

    Jane Friedman’s question is so basic. Yet it is important and overlooked
    by most people (talk about clueless).

    I read blogs and articles by people claiming to be book experts saying that ebooks are definitely the way to go without giving consideration to print books.

    None of these so-called experts have ever posed this important question. This just shows that they are not even close to being as astute as Jane Friedman. Neither is Penelope Trunk.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    Internationall Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Creativity Consultant
    Author of the Bestseller How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller The Joy of Not Working
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  7. Ernie, your entire post is a prime example of the common logical fallacy of arguing against a general proposition by citing an individual example.

    It’s interesting that you are doing well with your print books. But it doesn’t really mean much in a general sense.

    It’s as if somebody said “World hunger is a major problem.” and you replied “No, it’s not. I’m eating really well. I even had steak for dinner and a bottle of wine.”

  8. Re: Binko Barnes:

    Again about “the unimportance of the physcial edition of the book”.

    Read this post, ironically by the author of “Going Digital”, and how he made a mistake by not bringing out a print edition of the book earlier than he did.

    I also question how well Penelope Trunk is going to do on her own with her “The New American Dream.” Go to Amazon’s page for the Kindle edition of this book and there is no sales ranking for the book. This tells me immediately that not one copy has yet sold. Granted, it’s only 12 or 13 days since it’s publication on Amazon. I would like the actual number of sales after a year of publication.

    As another blogger recently said, “70 percent of nothing is still nothing.” See this post:

    Here is a general idea of the type of income self-publishers of ebooks can expect to make:

    Mark Coker of Smashwords projects $12 million in revenue this year. Smashwords publishes 127,000 titles by 44,000 writers and takes 10% commission.

    This works out to about $94.50, less 10% = $85 revenue per year per book published
    and about $273, less 10% = $245 per author per year in revenue.

    Granted, this does not include Kindle sales. Even so, this gives a general idea of the expected level of revenue for the average self-published author. Keep in mind that this is revenue and does not include any expenses that the authors incurred by all the so-called experts selling them services such as cover design, editing, and marketing courses.

    This is in line with:

    “The average author only sells about 100 books!”
    – Rich Frishman, Book Expert, Host of Author 101 University

    If you want to make decent money from self-publishing books, whether ebooks or print books, here is the ultimate test:

    Are you one of the 1 percenters? By 1 percenters, I mean are you the type of special, adventurous person who puts in more creative effort and gets better results than 99 percent of the people attempting to do what you are trying to do?

    If not, forget it. You are deceiving yourself.

    In short, it is possible to earn good money from self-publishing, whether it is ebooks or print books. I know because I have done it. But I attained the success that I did because I was a 1 percenter. And I am still a 1 percenter.

    The questions is: Are you?

    If not, you likely will be much better off to get a non-refundable advance from a traditional publisher, even if it’s only $5,000, because that is ten times what you are going to make in the lifetime of the book by self-publishing.

  9. It’s pathetic to see people who have never written a book, never signed a book contract, never worked in the publishing industry, and never read the trade journals tell someone who has been very successful in this business for many years he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Here’s the reality. Teleread and sites like it have a very skewed vision of the publishing industry, as a whole, and you are as likely to read some author’s flawed self-justification for why no one in the publishing industry wants their precious book as an article by someone who really understands what is happening in this complex industry.

    Assuming that what you read here gives you a good overview of the business is totally flawed.

    This is under the heading, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

  10. Penelope Trunk is a serial liar. If you’ve read her blog for a stretch of time, you know she tells tall stories and they change from post to post, and she’s hard to pin down. She’s a lot like another serial liar out of Alaska who talks a great game but can’t back it up. She says in this post she got a “huge” advance from a “major publisher,” but then she kept it and published the book herself. Now, if publishers let writers do this, they’d be out of business in six months. That’s why “major publishers” have excellent legal teams that draft contracts that do not permit this to happen. And anyone who believes her—and judging from her comments it’s damned near everyone—is as big an idiot as she is. She constantly tries to give the impression that she’s actually so much more savvy than everyone else, especially establishment enterprises. Yet her documentable career consists of playing professional beach volleyball, writing online porn and changing her name, changing her name again, changing her name yet again and briefly writing advice columns for Yahoo that were syndicated, and then starting her own blog. She claims in some bios to have founded two and in others three businesses. One of them she once identified– I wrote to the president of asking if this were true. He replied to me that he had no record of a Penelope Trunk ever working there, let alone co-founding the company.