Of course there are exceptions to the following list, but the odds will be strongly against success with any of them. I know because I’ve published or tried to distribute at least one book in each category, and in several cases, I’m sorry to say, more than one.
General Business Advice Books
Every business consultant has written a book. There’s even a company that will put anybody’s name on a book of canned business advice. Buy cheap and sell dear, be nice to your customers, be a tough negotiator, and so on. Every consultant wants to be the next Tom Peters, but it’s not the book that makes the star business guru. It’s the star guru who makes the book.
Business books that give very specific advice on specific kinds of businesses, or on specific business problems, do have a chance. For instance, how-to publishing books often do well and the 33 Ruthless Rules of Local Advertising has been a strong seller in the PMA/IPG Trade Distribution Program. Independent publishers should only work niches within the business category, as in most other categories.
Novels by Authors with No Previous Writing Experience
Hemingway’s first wife left all of his early manuscripts–the only copies–on a train, and they were lost forever. In later years, he thanked her for sparing him a great deal of embarrassment. Very, very, very few good novels aiMjAroduced by novice writers.
Newer publishers cherish the hope that a fabulous work of fiction can come out of nowhere. However the truth is that good novels are usually written by authors who have served a long apprenticeship and have had some of their writing published. A few years ago, the vogue among rank beginners was spy thrillers. Now it’s fantasy action fiction in quasi-Arthurian settings. Let such authors learn their craft on someone else’s nickel.
Expert Books by Authors with No Credentials
New theories of the universe, refutations of Darwin and Einstein, miracle cancer cures, what’s wrong with America and the world in general–such topics absolutely require authors with relevant credentials, and almost always academic or professional credentials. With these books, the buyer’s first question is always “Who is this guy?” If the answer is essentially “Nobody,” the book will not be stocked.
Beautiful Butterfly Within You Books
Books in this genre suggest that if you can do just one or two things–easy things–your heretofore hidden beauties will suddenly burst forth into the world. Your spouse will fall in love with you again, you will have more and better friends, your career will prosper, and your children will all get into Harvard. This sort of book seems, finally, to have run its course.
The spirituality books that work now are usually attached to a sophisticated religious or moral tradition, one that asserts that meaningful personal improvement requires considerable effort and time.
Harrowing Accounts of Individual Suffering
Accounts of personal suffering, or the suffering of loved ones, no matter how terrible or extraordinary, should generally not be published. Such accounts should certainly be written in order to bring comfort to the family and friends of the sufferer, and perhaps a copy should be given to the local library or historical society. But they’re almost always a bad bet for commercial publication. Readers who must face similar trials want general information that can be applied to their own situations, not a blow-by-blow description of the sufferings of others.
I’ve looked over eight or 10 perfectly heartbreaking accounts of Alzheimer’s patients written by their wives and daughters. The evident nobility and high courage of these caregivers could not make up for the fact that they were not professional authors. It takes a truly superb author to rise far enough above the particulars of suffering and reach a level of universality that can interest a broad audience.
Children’s Picture Books
A cute story with a twist in its tail and some charming watercolors does not add up to a publishable book. The toughest nut to crack in all of publishing is the children’s picture book market. The really good books command shelf space in the bookstores for decades, sometimes generations, which means that competition for shelf space in this category is fierce.
Despite having few words, children’s books are remarkably hard to write, and the quality of the graphics in the ones that the big players produce is extraordinarily high.
If you have studied at the knee of a great children’s book author, or worked in the art department at Knopf for 10 years, you might want to give this category a shot. If not…
Collections of Photographs
The world is now awash in brilliant photographic images. We see them in magazines, movies, and TV advertisements. Even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal now have color photographs on the front page. The rise of the Asian printers has solved the quality and price issues that kept all but the most sophisticated publishers out of this market. Today anyone can do gorgeous photography books and everyone is. (Oh dear, not another fabulous southwestern sunset!)
Fine art photographers understandably want to collect their best work in a book. They and the galleries that show their work would like to have books to sell. It might well make sense for an independent publisher to produce the books so long as most of them are presold for more than the cost of producing them (a 50% discount is about right). Otherwise, to be marketable, books of photographs need to be built around a very strong theme, not just the photographer’s best shots from an aesthetic point of view. And that theme probably needs to be supported by a strong text, not just picture captions.
What Does Work
Here are the eight titles that sold best through the PMA/IPG Trade Marketing Program this year.
Nonviolent Communication. A self-help book about a particular aspect of the self–how measured and thoughtfully controlled speech can change many situations for the better. Sales are up to 13,000 this year, the book has sold 35,000 copies in the four years it has been in print, and each year it sells better than it did the year before.
Birthing from Within. The hippest guide to giving birth–offering all the psychological and spiritual aspects of the process as well as the physical ones–was self-published by a doctor who has practiced this sort of medicine for years. About 40,000 copies sold in four years; more than 10,000 sold this year.
Signs For Me: A Basic Vocabulary. A guide to sign language produced by one of the leading organizations dealing with the issues of the deaf. About 30,000 copies sold in the last six years; this year’s total is 6,000 copies so far.
Accepted! 50 Successful College Admission Essays. A collection of the actual essays that helped 50 students gain admission to elite colleges, and also some advice on that process. It was written and published by two recent Harvard graduates and therefore has credibility with the young. Released in February 2002, it has sold 5,000 copies at this writing, with sales trending up each month.
Get Into Any College (2nd Edition). Another college admissions book by the same authors as the essays title above. The first edition sold about 5,000 copies; the second edition has sold about 8,000 copies to date.
Your Guide to Hysterectomy, Ovary Removal, and Hormone Replacement: What All Women Need to Know. Not an account of one woman’s medical problems, this book offers science-based information interwoven with case histories of many women. Some 4,000 copies have sold since its publication in March 2002, with sales trending upward.
Yellowstone Treasures. A big, $19.95, amazingly detailed book about the national park. There are dozens of Yellowstone guides, but none of the others begins to offer as much information as this one. Who wants that much information about a particular park? Since publication in the spring of 2002, 3,000 copies have been sold and a grand total of 51 copies have been returned.
Growing Wine Grapes. For the last six years, this no-nonsense how-to has sold 3,000 copies every year, and I expect that it will continue to sell 3,000 copies a year into the foreseeable future.
What do these books have in common? Of course they are well packaged, fairly priced, and well edited. Books that aren’t have no chance at all in the marketplace. These books are successful because they have been given titles that clearly describe their content, and because this content is targeted enough to inspire individual book purchasers to reach for their wallets. Books for everybody are for nobody.
Curt Matthews is CEO of the Independent Publishers Group and the Chicago Review Press.