PowerCues_72dpiIn celebration of the publication of my new book, Power Cues, let’s compare the state of the industry in 2003, when my first book, Give Your Speech, Change the World, was published, 2008, when Trust Me, my second book, was released, and today, May 13, 2014, Power Cues’ debut.

In 2003, there was an Internet, and email, but no social media to speak of.  Authors relied on traditional PR to sell books, and Oprah was the top of the heap, followed closely by the Today show, for moving books.  Oprah liked heartwarming stories, so if you were in the business book world, the Today show was the gold standard.

Book reviews still mattered, and Amazon was a big player, just not the monster presence it has become.

Give Your Speech, Change the World came about because I wrote an article on creating a great speech for HBR, and got a call from an agent the day the article came out, suggesting that I write a book about the ideas in the article.

That kind of reach for a print magazine seems, well, quaint, now.

Five years later, in 2008, social media was just beginning to take off, but people were still telling each other what they ate for lunch on Twitter and Facebook was not the juggernaut it is now.

Trust Me came out at an awkward stage when the traditional means for promoting books were fading in reach, but the online world was not yet in full fig.  The book sold with some reviews in specialist magazines and mostly by word of mouth to specialists in the communications world.  It remains a passionate insider’s guide to rhetoric and communication.

Today the world for authors has changed completely.  We live in a golden age of social media, and the author of a book has – if she has done the work beforehand – a myriad ways to promote her publication.  But I stress the word “beforehand,” because by publication date it’s too late.  You need to start building interest long before publication day.  Hence, my efforts on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about Power Cues starting last year and continuing through today.

It’s only a golden age if you don’t mind doing the work of telling the world that your book is coming and it’s worth reading.  If you find that impossible, or embarrassing, or painful, then this is a nightmarish era for you.  Traditional PR doesn’t move books any more, and a reliance on the occasional notice in a newspaper or magazine that people don’t read will inevitably lead to disappointment.  Of course, because change is never linear and uni-directional, there are exceptions to these rules, but on the whole you should not imagine that traditional PR will sell books.  PR agents worth their salt these days have a digital strategy first and foremost.

In celebration of the new era, and Power Cues’ publication, then, here are 5 ideas you probably didn’t know about publishing to guide you when you get ready to publish your first book.

1.The most important meeting about your book is one you won’t attend and likely won’t even hear about.  That’s the meeting between the editors of your publishing house and the sales people.  In that meeting, they decide which books are likely to sell and which ones are not.  Your book will either get a push and a nice print run based on enthusiasm in that meeting, or it will quietly die, long before publication.

2. Sending a complete manuscript to a publishing house for consideration is the kiss of literary death.  Publishers like to be able to work with authors and manuscripts, in the same way that boat builders work with a ship.  If you present the complete aircraft carrier, they don’t want to deal with you, because they don’t believe they can have any effect on it.

3.You – the author – pay for everything that makes a potential reader notice a physical book – and most of the virtual ones.  Want to have your book facing out, rather than spine out, in the bookstore?  That will cost you.  Want one of those displays in an airport?  That will cost you a lot.  Want a video on your book page on Amazon?  That will cost you or your publisher.  Want virtually any form of notice for your book online or in a physical store?  All of it will cost you.  It’s all about attention these days, and you pay for the chance at that attention.

4.Self-published authors make a lot more per book than traditionally published authors.  Most traditionally published authors make a couple of bucks on a $20 book.  If you self-publish, your take-home can rise to 80 percent, depending on the deal you strike – and you can even choose what the price of the book is going to be.   

5. Most authors never earn any money from their books beyond the advance.  The advance is the sum that the traditional publisher pays the author upon agreeing to publish the book.  The amount is based on how many books the publisher thinks she can sell.  They’re usually right, and so most authors never earn more than pennies over the advance.

Here’s to Power Cues — and your (next) published book.  Here’s to that precious person, the reader.



  1. Fabulous article, as always Nick, and congrats on the new book!
    There is a teeny typo in your article: It’s all about attention these days, and _it_ you pay for the chance at that attention.
    (No need to publish this comment, of course 😉

  2. Yup, these are all true. Publishing now and then has a big difference. Now that self-publishing and ebooks has become a trend plus the social media.

  3. Congratulations on the new book Nick! The work you do has changed my life. Thank you for being the great person you are. Can’t wait to read your latest masterpiece and tell everyone I know about it,

  4. So how many copies would you have to sell to break even on the advance if you self published?
    If HBR paid you a 10k advance and you made $16 a copy self publishing, you would only have to sell 625 copies. 1250 for 20k…etc. That doesnt seem like it would be that hard for you. So I think the part of the analysis that is missing is: what is the imputed value of the HBR brand to you Now, 5 years ago, and 10 years ago? Is it worth $20k, $30k? From where I stand I am surprised you arent self publishing…clearly you thought about it.

    1. Andrew — it’s a great question. As it turns out — and I’ve blogged on this before — I think Harvard really gets it — the new world of social media and publishing. So I went with them because the brand value of HBR is higher today than in 2003 — not the print magazine, but HBR.org.

      1. Makes sense.

        I see publishing brands like Penguin trying to make make their platforms more accessible to more authors to compete with self publishing. It seems like a short-term, losing strategy. If the tangible value that publishers/reviewers/PR firms can add is rapidly falling, then the intangible value of a publishing brand (the network, the imprimatur, the participation in events) actually needs to rise for publishers to exist.

        Surprised that most authors still don’t earn royalties. That feels like a counter-productive strategy for publishers. If the author is now the main marketer, and he believes he is unlikely to sell books beyond a certain threshold, then he won’t work as hard to sell them, except for his own (non financial) reasons.

        Would be interesting to learn the comparative book sales of Tim Ferriss when he works through a publisher compared to when he self promotes his own books.

        1. Andrew — yes on all counts. I’ve thought that publishers have been taking a self-defeating line for a number of years now, and it has only accelerated since the advent of Web/social/selfpublishing. For authors like Ferriss, who have huge brand recognition, self-publishing makes the most sense now.

  5. Thanks! I suspect that most authors (whether traditionally- or self-published, fiction or nonfiction) barely make minimum wage in direct advance/royalty. Maybe the real value of publishing a book with a bespoke publisher (especially a nonfiction book) is the indirect benefit of boosting one’s personal branding?

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