Watch acclaimed novelist and memoirist David Goodwillie as he explains (and simplifies) the often daunting process of writing and selling a book. How does the publishing industry actually work? Who are the publishers, and what are the different genres? What about e-books, audiobooks and self-publishing? He’ll discuss the process of writing itself: What, exactly, do you want to write — a novel, a memoir or a collection of essays — and how can you get started? He’ll also talk about craft of balancing character and plot, dialogue and exposition, and the ever-important role of revision. And, finally, he’ll help unlock the secrets of selling your book. What are editors looking for? Do you really need an agent (and what’s the best way to find one)? Can you write a proposal, or should you have a finished manuscript? How do advances work? He’ll even touch on foreign sales and optioning your book to Hollywood. Finally, the discussion will be turned over to you, and David will answer any questions you might have about books and the process of creating them.
David Goodwillie is the author of the novels Kings County, a 2020 New York Times Editors Choice and finalist for the Gotham Book Prize, and American Subversive, a 2010 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, along with the memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He writes about books for the Times, and his journalism has also appeared in Newsweek, Popular Science, New York magazine, Men’s Health and The Daily Beast. He’s been drafted to play professional baseball, worked as a private investigator and was an expert at Sotheby’s auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives in Brooklyn and the Catskills.
Read below for a full transcript of the conversation.
David Goodwillie - Cancel. And I guess my whole thought behind this talk…And I guess my whole thought behind this talk is to demystify that a little bit, and to explain what the industry is. Almost everybody I meet thinks they have a book in them, and often many people do, thinks they have a book in them, and often many people do, and it can be daunting enough to sit down and try to write, and get words on paper and come up with a story, and so the second half of that, which is selling it, finding an editor, maybe this will help make the whole process a bit less daunting. Just really broadly, as an overview, there are five major publishers, just like every other industry there's a lot of consolidation that's been happening in the last few decades, but there are five major publishers. And then there are several, probably 10 to 15 independent publishers, that are also very, very good, and capable of getting their books distributed widely in "The New York Times", and capable of getting their books reviewed in the New York Times, and all the attention that a book might need. In terms of the major publishers, most people probably know them, Penguin Random House, which merged, those two companies merged several years ago, Simon and Schuster, which is actually in the building I think you might be in right now, Brian. I don't know if you're on the East Coast or West Coast, but that building, and, let's see, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan, are the other three. And they make up much more than 50% of books that are published. There are smaller publishers you've probably heard of if you're a reader, like Grove Atlantic, like Algonquin, like Norton, that published wonderful books. Bloomsbury is another one. And so when my agent submits a book I've written to publishers, she'll submit to several different editors, at each at one of those Houses. And so you end up with a list of 10 to 15 major publishers where you can submit. Each publisher, let's take Simon and Schuster, because that's my publisher, has several different imprints Avid Reader is kind of their new hotshot one, and each of those imprints, Scribner's a very famous one, Avid Reader is kind of their new hot shot one, which is my imprint.
Each imprint specializes in a certain type of book. So it can be literary fiction, it could be commercial fiction, it could be business books, it could be self-help, it could be Health and Wellness, cookbooks, each of those kind of has their own specialty within a publishing house, and that specialty is called an imprint, and each imprint has its own editors, and so an agent submits to a specific imprint within a publishing house. And that's kind of like how that works in terms of all the publishers are in New York just as almost all magazines are in New York. And so it does help a lot. A lot of times I get questions from younger writers especially, who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, like, "Do I have to live in New York to be a writer?" And the answer is no, of course not. There are plenty of writers who don't, but it's still very much a people business. You know, you'll go to readings, you're in that world if you're in New York. And you'll meet people, you'll meet agents, you'll meet a young editors who are hungry, who are looking for good stuff. And so it does help, in a kind of very people centric industry, to be in the city if you have that choice.
Brian Moroz - So let me ask you, David, so just thinking about the advent of audio books, ebooks, and you know it seemed like maybe 10, 15 years ago as you were seeing more of that format, it almost seemed like your hard copy books were going away, I don't get the sense that that has maybe occurred at the rate that we had thought, but I'd be curious... I mean, number one, how has the advent of that additional technology and these extra delivery systems, how has that impacted the industry? And do you have any sense on how that's affected sales, good, bad, or indifferent, one way or the other?
David - Yeah, I actually can tell you, right down to the book, what my sales are, and what type of sales they are, whether they're ebook, whether they're audio, whether they're hardcover, whether they're paperback. Publishers have to break down that stuff for authors. The way it worked is forever publishing was a business of hardcover and paperback books, and a hardcover would come out first, and depending on how the book did, the paperback would usually come out a year afterwards. Sometimes, if a hardcover was doing incredibly well, and just selling, and selling, and selling, obviously, a publisher makes a bit more on a hardcover "Like All the Light We Cannot See", What's a good example? Like All the Light We Cannot See, that Anthony Doerr's book that was a runaway best seller for several Scribner put that out, Simon and Schuster, and so put it into paperback for three years, I think, and it kind of became a joke within publishing, because they were kind of milking it, and milking it, and milking it. Sometimes it'll be less than a year, because a book doesn't do well, and the publisher wants to rebrand that book with a new cover for the paperback, and really try to have a second kind of burst with it. Sometimes a publisher decides not to put it in hardcover at all, and put it in paperback, especially if it's like a younger adult book, or meant for people in their twenties, who might not buy a book that's $30, but might buy a book that's 15 or $16, which is usually what a paperback is. And sometimes that's put in the contract, sometimes an editor decides later on that it shouldn't be a hardcover, sometimes a book does so badly in hardcover that it doesn't come out in paperback, and that's not fun for an author, but that happens too. But usually a book comes out in hardcover, then a year later, paperback. Then starting, you know the turn of the century, in 2001 ebooks kind of became a thing. Kindles became a thing soon thereafter, and all of a sudden, everybody in publishing was worried that the industry would totally be turned on its head, become fully electronic, kids who understood the digital age would just buy books on Kindle, or just buy books on iPads, or whatever. And what happened is that that did not happen. And it was a very slow growth, and it's still growing, but very slowly, about 30% of books now are purchased electronically as ebooks. And what also happened is that people... The exact opposite of what publishers assumed would happen happened. So everyone thought, early on, that younger people would go digital, and what's happened is that older people have gone digital because you have larger print that you can make very easily on a Kindle.
You can buy several books at once for less money, and older people tend to read more books than younger people, because they're retired. So older people have adapted to ebooks, whereas younger people, there's a certain cachet to actually carrying around a paperback, or reading a hardcover still. And even though it's more expensive, people who are readers will make that investment. And, of course, there's plenty of young people that use Kindles, and there's plenty of older people that still do hardcover, but it's not what people thought would happen. So that has been a trend. It's leveled off at around 30%. And then the latest trend, which I think everybody can probably guess, is audio, which has blown up in the last couple of years, partly because of the podcast revolution. People have gotten so used to getting their news through podcasts, or listening to true crime on podcasts, whatever it is, you know, in their car. Instead of music, so many people are listening to podcasts. And because of that, people have gotten comfortable enough to start listening to books in their cars, or on their commutes, or walking around. And so that has taken off, and it's almost 10% of the industry. It'll probably be a couple of years famous actors to read authors' books, and it's really become this whole new side to publishing. And so those are the different ways people read, or listen to, or get books. And a lot of that is set down in the original contract, whether you're going to have an audio book, or not. Almost every book does automatically come out as an ebook, so that's not a big thing. But those are the books. It's still hardcover and paperback that dominate, but more and more, it's these other forms as well.
Brian - Well, David, so many fascinating points there. So first of all, audio books, or Books on Tape, as we've known them for years, right? That is not a new phenomenon, but it's interesting how it's just exploded here recently.
David - And it's funny they'd be called Books on Tape, by the way, because they're not on tape anymore, but everybody calls them Books on Tapes. You can still get them on CD on special order sometimes, but there's no actual tape anymore, but that's still called Books on Tape.
Brian - That's still the term. And then just the other point on just the relationship between an actual hardcover or paperback book, the physical book and the reader, is that's a special relationship that I think is proven regardless of the technology, it's really not going anywhere.
David - Very much so. And there is not just a cachet, but reading a writer's book is a very personal journey for the reader, right? And you're in submersed in a world for 20 hours, or 30 hours sometimes, reading a book, and it is a relationship. And a lot of people want that actual physical thing still. And to be able to go back and look at stuff, and to be able to look at the cover, and look at the author of the book, and all that stuff, that and of course, to have it on the shelf afterwards for what decorates a house better than a book?
Brian - Oh, no doubt. You finish a great book. I mean, it's like saying goodbye to a friend. I mean, it's a rough experience. All right. Well, let's shift gears. So for those of us who might be interested in writing our own books, can you talk for a few minutes about the process, and the actual craft of writing? How did you become a writer yourself? What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome, and then kind of take us through, as you're doing it for a living, take us through how you ultimately conceive of, and shape a book.
David - Yeah. I would say that I'm a very optimistic person, especially for a writer. And I would say that the journey to becoming a writer is very possible for everyone. I mean, you do have to have some talent it is there, and everyday editor wants great books to buy, and everyday agents are looking to find great new voices, so there is a system set up for writers to sell their work. The trouble is it's tough to become a writer. It is tough to make that switch, and decide that you can do it. It is a long process, in an age of like 10 minute attention spans, it is tough to start a project that's going to last two or three years sometimes. And it's tough to find the time to do that in this world too. Almost every writer I know had a very weird journey to becoming a writer. And it is, in a good sense, not something that people do when they're 23 years old. You have to live some life. You have to have something to write about. You can be a great actor when you're 23 years old, you can be in a great band when you're 23 years old, you find very, very few writers publishing books in their twenties. It takes a long time to learn. It takes a long time to build up the confidence and the courage, and it takes a long time to write. And these are things that it's good. You should become a writer in your thirties, forties, fifties. You need that experience, and you need to have stuff to put down on the page. So for me, I had a especially weird journey. I moved to New York after I went to Kenyon College, which is a liberal arts school in Ohio, which is very writery, and I always wanted to be a writer. I loved reading. That's the one thing every writer has in common is they've always read their whole lives usually. Some haven't written, some have been writing since age five. I didn't really write much at all, but I just loved books. And in the back of my head, always thought I would get there and start writing. I got to Kenyon, and there are all these other people just like me, who were young, idealistic, like I'm going to be the next Phillip Roth, or the next Joan Didion, or whatever it is, and I took one English class for two days, and I was like, "I can't do this. "All these kids are way smarter than me." I chickened out. I majored in History, and I never wrote a thing in college.
Then I moved to New York, and again, I had these visions of becoming a writer. But I was 23 years old, I'd had a very, not successful baseball career, and I moved to New York and lived downtown, and just sopped up the writing world. And I'd go to readings all the time. I had real jobs all day, 9 to 5 jobs that I couldn't... So I decided I couldn't find the time to write yet, but then I didn't know how to break in either. Both my parents were lawyers. I didn't come from an artsy family. I didn't know anyone in publishing. And for years, and years, and years, I used these as excuses not to write. And then I was 30 years old, and I looked around and I said, "Well, I'm not super young anymore, "and I still have this dream in the back of my head, "and I don't know what to write. "I don't know how to write a novel, "sit there staring at a blank page." But I've lived a really weird . I was a private investigator. I was Sotheby's. I rode the dotcom boom, up and down, all this stuff that happened at the end of the '90s, and beginning of the 2000s that was really interesting. And I was either really bad at each thing, or I just didn't like it, and moved on. So I had all these weird experiences, and I said, "Well, maybe if I don't know "how to write a novel yet, "it's suddenly the golden age of the memoir." Where, for the first time, younger people could write a memoir. You didn't have to be a celebrity. You didn't have to be a president anymore. You didn't have to write about the sweep of somebody's life, and call it an autobiography. You could write this new genre called memoir, where it could be an aspect of somebody's life. It could be a lost weekend, it could be a romance, it could be a job you're writing about, it could be a shorter amount of time, it could be almost anything you could come up with, you could write about. And so I said, "Maybe I could do that. "Maybe I could write about "trying to become a writer in New York." At the time, I didn't realize that every editor hears that pitch, and they roll their eyes. I was so innocent to it. So I saved up a little money, I got a room at the Chelsea Hotel, hotel on 23rd street, and I'd saved up enough money for like a year, and I wrote a memoir about the struggle of art and commerce, about not knowing what I'm doing, about all these other jobs that were intrinsically interesting as well. So it was a very episodic book.
It was called "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time". I, lucky enough, found an agent, and she was somehow sold it, and all of a sudden, I was a writer, and it was a really weird experience. And then I was like, okay. And I went out on the book tour, and I didn't feel like a writer, but I had a book, and it was in bookstores, and there it was. And then I was like, "Okay, well, I'm not David Sedaris. "I'm not going to write another memoir, "I gotta write a novel." That's the gold standard, if you're going to be a literary writer. And now I had the confidence to sit down, and take my time, and write a made up story. And it had taken that weird path to get there, and I was like, "I can do this." And I wrote a novel called "An American Subversion", which "The New York Times" was very nice to, and then all of a sudden, I really was a fiction writer. And then, years later, last year, my second novel came out called "Kings County". And now I'm three books in, and I'm still sometimes feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, but I don't think any writer ever feels completely, any artist at all, ever feels completely safe in what they're doing, and that's what makes the art industry interesting, I think. So, many, many writers have that kind of weird stop and start way towards becoming a writer, and it's okay, because it's an industry where you can be a little older, and finally get there. And so that's certainly how I started.
Brian - That's a fascinating story. So thinking about you came out of the gates with the memoir, then you went over to the full on fiction, the full on novel, made up story, as you put it, let me ask you this, just from like as you're structuring the story, did you find yourself, and do you find yourself, following this conventional pattern and process to put this story together that's more academic, or is it more of a free flowing process for you?
David - Yeah, so that's a great question. And again, every writer has a different approach, a different process to writing, and, obviously, a different way of writing. For me, what keeps me interested in it is that every every book is an opportunity almost to do something radical, not radically different, because you always have to be the same writer every time, but I want to tell different stories. I don't want to write, you know, someone like Daniel Silva, who's a fine mystery writer, but writes the exact same book every time with the same character, or similarly James . I wanted to write very, very different books that were challenging, both to me as the writer, that have flashbacks, and flash forwards, that are complex, that have layers, that have flashbacks, and flash forwards, and they kind of move in different directions, and keep a reader guessing, but are also rich and deep in character as well. And that's not going to be for everybody. Some people are going to want to write much more commercial stuff, some people are going to want self-help, business books. It's all the same in terms of deciding to write, and sitting down in a chair, and clearing your head, and getting serious about writing. But the types of writing you're doing, we'll talk about fiction, because that's what I do now, but you have to decide. People are like, "Well, do you start with character, "or do you start with plot?" You know, these big sweeping questions that are super legitimate questions, and the answer is it kind of depends on the book. My last book, "American Subversive", was a kind of political , and I started with plot. I really wanted to write about things that have bothered me in the real world. And I did a bunch of research, and it just was a very plotty book. This time, I wanted to write a very character driven book. And I'm talking about "Kings County" is my book that came out last year. And that is a very character driven book. I wanted to write a love story in this age of disconnection, of this age of the internet, and how did two people fall for each other very deeply. And what happens when that relationship is seriously challenged by outside events. And it takes place in Brooklyn, which is where I live now, even though I'm in Charleston at the moment.
And I wanted to write it in an atmosphere of early 2000s Brooklyn, which was this artistic hot house of creativity. And so I had that idea, I had the geographic place, and I had the two characters. I had no idea what the plot was going to be, but because I had done this a few times before I knew that the plot would come. I knew if I got the characters right, and put them in a room, something would start to happen. And you just kind of write, it sounds weird, but you write your way to a plot. You write your way to the story you're going to tell. Not every writer does that. Starting with plot is fine. Starting with character is fine. What is almost the most important, and certainly as important as those two things, is the voice you're going to tell the story in. How are you going to tell a story? What do you want the story to sound like? And that encompasses point of view, is it going to be first person, third person, second person you can write a story in, although, a book, I wouldn't suggest it, but people do. Do you want the narrator to be conversational and funny? Or do you want him or her to be a bit distant, and a bit more like a 19th century English novelist? How do you want the book to exist? Do you want short chapters? Long chapters? Paragraph breaks? All these things you need to find your way into. Those are just as important as plot and character. And these are all great things, because they're great choices that you make alone in a room, by yourself, before agents get involved, before editors get involved. It can be a very lonely process, but it's a very freeing process, because it is all on you. It's not like a screenplay where a million people are going to tinker with it before it comes to a show or a movie, it's just you. And these are the decisions you get to make. And in the end, it's going to be your book. An editor is going to edit your book somewhat, but it's your book. When you write a magazine article, it's basically, the magazine does whatever they want with it. They sell a page of ads the day before it's going to to come out, and they cut your piece by half, and you can't do anything about it. A book is always your book, even though they're publishing it for you, and they don't ask permission really, but they always work with you, editors. And they don't want to make you uncomfortable in what the book is going to finally be. So those are great things to consider. It can be daunting thinking about all especially once, but you need to get an idea of what the book might look like, and how it might sound. And when I write, I actually read to myself out loud what I've written, like a couple of days later. And the book starts to sound a certain way.
And each book, for me, is different. The new one I'm writing is in first person, "Kings County" was in third person, but it had an epistolary part, where it's a letter in the middle of the book, to break stuff up. It has flashbacks and flash forwards, and all this stuff, the decisions that I made early on, end up very much being the book that it is. So that's the stuff that the writer has to decide, and it's really fun to make those decisions. But think about that stuff as you're sitting down to write in the beginning. And just a real quick thing about process, because I get this question when I used to do book tours, which we're not doing at the moment, everyone's like, "Well, where do you write? "How do you write?" And that, again, just like everything else. I have friends who write from midnight to three in the morning, and smoke a little weed, and write that way. I have friends that like treat it, and this is myself included, as almost a 9 to 5 job, where I have to go somewhere, commute somewhere. I have a writing office, and I sit there, and maybe I write for four hours of that seven hours, and research the rest, or walk around mutter to myself. But I treat it like a real office job, because that's how I'm programmed. A lot of people I know, and these are some of the most, you know, the people that get the most done of any writer I know, have full on day jobs, and they write from six to eight in the morning. And because they have no time to do it, they get the most done. And so it just totally depends on who you are, what your circumstances. Are you single? Do you have a family? There's no right way to do it. I know writers who get the perfect room overlooking a beautiful vista, and I'm going to write the perfect novel here. And I know writers who write in roadside motels off of Route 80. And it's just that does it for them. There is no answer. It's just sitting down, deciding to do it, and starting to put the hours in. And there's no other way. There's no shortcut at all.
Brian - It's fascinating, just the variability of the writing process itself, the structure in which it takes place, and then your points around ownership, which I think is drastic. And it's really different from a lot of the other arts, where you own it solely, particularly a book. I mean, it's not a full cast and crew, and production crew. You've mentioned "Kings County" multiple times. It sounds like an incredible read. You've held it up as well. Just to remind our group, you can register for a free copy of "Kings County". Just go into the chat, there's a nice link there. Please take advantage of that. One more question before we get into the Q and A. I've actually a couple of different questions here, put into one that I'm thinking of. So a lot of folks on the line, I'm sure, are thinking, "Okay, how do you actually sell a book to publishing house?" Do you need to write the whole book first? Is it a sample? Do you have to actually have an agent to go about that process? How does it work?
David - That is a great question, and this is the biggest mystery of all in publishing. How do you ? Say, all the other stuff we've talked about, you somehow do it, you're sitting there with a manuscript, the first thing I would say, and every writer jumps the gun on this, is make sure it's as good as it can be. Before you start going crazy about trying to sell a book, make sure the book is as tight as it can be. It's going to help you so much in the process if you don't hand in a book that's 500 pages, but should be 350 pages. Or 300 pages, and it should be 200. And every first-time writer makes that mistake something that not a word can be changed. And I would always encourage somebody, and I made this mistake myself, my first book, when you're finished with the book, go away for a month. Go somewhere else, do something else. Come back to it after a month, and look at it, and revise it again. One more revision, and just cut, and cut, and cut. Every single book has a bunch of fluff in there that doesn't need to be there. And believe me, it's going to get edited. Your agent's going to take a whack at it. Your editor's going to take a whack at it, but you should take that first real whack at it. And just make sure it is as tight as it can be, because there is a process to selling it, but the people that are the gatekeepers, the agents, the editors, have no time. And if they get to a manuscript, and it starts to kind of float, and it starts to just not move like it should, there are 20 more that they have to read before lunch. So just make sure that this revision is probably 70 to 80% of your job. You're going to write that first draft, but you're going to write a second draft, and a third draft, and a fourth draft. There are no writers I know, not one, even the best writers in the world write draft, after draft, after draft. And when I write my first draft, I never show it to anybody because it's so bad. It is unreadable. But all of a sudden I have the scenes, and I have the people in the room where I need them to be. And I have some snippets of dialogue that might work. And then I start through to the second, and third, and fourth draft, to make it pretty.
To make the actual words sing, to make scenes sharp and crisp. And I can't say how important that is, to just be able to take the time to do that, because it's going to matter so much. It's going to be the difference between being able to sell a book, and not be able to sell book. There can be great books that are just too full of stuff that shouldn't be in there, that never find the light of day. So that is really, really important. So say you do, and you cut it down, and it's ready to go, and you can't change , then what do you do? If you're going to sell a book to a major publisher, and maybe that's not your goal, there's nothing wrong with self-publishing, there's nothing wrong with writing a memoir about your family, and getting out 50 copies to your family. That's great, and tons of people do that, but that's not what we're talking about really today. If you want to sell a book to a real publisher, and that's going to turn around and put it in bookstores, and get reviews for you, and all that stuff that leads to a writing career, you need to find an agent. There are no such thing as slush piles anymore. There's no unsolicited manuscripts that get through. So how do you find an agent? They are mostly in New York, again, like anybody else, you can go online, and there's lists of agents that you can find. But the great trick, and I did this myself, is to find books that you love, right? That are somewhat like yours, that you've just written. Whether it's a memoir, whether it's a novel, whatever, a business book, whatever it is, go to , or go to whatever your local bookstore is, find similar books you really like and think are really great books, look in the acknowledgements, guess what the first person that always gets thanked in acknowledgements from a writer is the agent. Find out who that agent is for those books you really like. Copy their names down, figure out what agency they work for, it's very easy online to figure it out, and call that list. Make that list of say five to 10 agents. Maybe five agents, say, and start with those agents. Start with the agents that are going to respond to your work the best. And they're going to respond to it because they're already interested in that kind of work because they're publishing similar books, and conceivably having success with those books because they're in bookstores.
So that is the best way to find an agent. It's like a kind of an old trick, but nobody knows about it unless you're a writer. So write to those agents, be persistent, call them, be it annoying. They have so much stuff on their desks. They're so busy all the time. An agent's shop is very weird, because half of it is very , you know, negotiations. And the other half is very editorial and very creative. They're working on a manuscript with you. They're making suggestions to make this a better book, a more sellable book, and that's a weird kind of dichotomy, those two things. So it's an interesting kind of person who becomes an agent. But remember this, an agent is always, always looking for stuff to sell. And I think if a writer can remember that, that helps a lot in terms of confidence, right? All the time, they need books to sell. People read books all the time. People are looking to read new books. So the whole system needs to be fed. So agents are looking for great stuff. They're looking for new voices. They're looking for distinctive material. Every single week, my agent gets taken out to lunch, well, during non-COVID times, by editors, like four times a week. And the editors say, "Do you have anything interesting? "Do you have anything good?" These are very busy people, but they're also looking for new stuff. And so , just remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. So you do need an agent. What happens after that? So say you find an agent, they are going to work on that manuscript with you. Even though you think you got it down to like no words can be taken out, they're going to to do an edit. A good agent does a round of edits with you, and they give you notes, and you go back to your little cave, and you work on those for several months, and you come back with a even shorter book, or a better book. And then that agent, and this is their crucial job, they know everybody in publishing. So the book you've written, they know the 10 editors that are going to respond best to that book. One at Random House, one at Grove Atlantic, one at Scribner, one at wherever. And they're going to put a list together, and they're going to send your book out to each of those editors at the exact same time, and cross their fingers. And you're going to cross your fingers. It's the worst time for a writer. You think writing is bad? That's the worst time. And you sit there, and you don't know if your life is going to to change. been working on this thing by yourself in the dark for years. Just you sit there looking at the phone. It doesn't matter, you can go to Cancun, you're still going to sit there, and look at the phone in your room in Cancun. It just is so bad.
And you just, sometimes it takes weeks. Sometimes, an editor reads something over a weekend, calls the agent two days later, and it's like, "Oh my God, "this is the greatest thing that ever happened." That's rare. Usually it takes weeks and weeks and weeks, and somebody gets to the manuscript, because your agent may be great, but there's a million other great agents also sending stuff in, but hopefully two or three editors respond well, and are like, "This is a great piece of work, "and I really want to bid on this." Then your agent sets up, if it's more than one editor, they set up an auction, and they asked for best bids, a couple different ways you can do an auction. But, basically, it comes down to the money involved, what they offer, the publishing house, what they say they can do with the book. How can they market it, how do you feel about the editor? You have a meeting with each editor who's interested, and they talk to you about the book, and what you're going to have to work on , what they work in the book. And all this stuff comes in to make who you publish with. One other thing is do you write the whole book first or not? The answer with fiction is you do have to write the whole book first, unless you're Stephen King or whatever, and you have some five book deal, which is maybe five authors in the country have something like that. Every normal author has to sell each book individually. With fiction, you always have to write the whole book because the editor doesn't know what the end is going to be, because you're making it up. With non-fiction, and that can be anything from a business book, to a true crime book, to self-help. It can be a million things. You can write a chapter or two, and then write a proposal for the rest of the book, and outline for the rest of the book, and submit that because it's clear what the book is going to be. It's clear what the ending is going to be. And that's totally fine. And that's what most people do with non-fiction. It can be like a memoir, I had a friend who wrote a book where she just said yes to everything. And she found herself on all these adventures she wouldn't have otherwise found. Well, she sold that on a proposal because she said this is what I'm going to do. This is what the book is about. I've already done some. And an editor can see what it's going to look like. So with fiction, you do have to write the whole thing first before you can find an editor, before you can get an agent. With non-fiction, you can sometimes write a chapter or two, so they can see your writing style, they can see that you can write, but you can write the rest on a proposal. And the good thing about that is if it sells like that, you get the money upfront, which you can then use to take the time to write the rest of the book. And so that is basically how a book works. And once it's sold, it takes about anywhere from a year, to a year and a half, to come out. Sometimes "Kings County" took longer than that, because we had a bunch of edits, and my editor changed imprints, and sometimes weird stuff like that happens. But generally it takes six months to a year to do the next rounds of edits with your editor to make the book the book. And then it takes months for the publicity cycle to go. They send out what's called galleys, advanced reader copies to magazines, to podcasts, all the places that are going to promote your book, to "The New York times", and that takes a while because they need to be able to assign a reviewer, and blah, blah, blah.
So the whole thing, after you sell a book, is another, especially with fiction, another year, to a year and a half. So the cycle is a pretty long cycle from beginning to end, but, hopefully, when that's happening, you're writing your next book, and it's not quite as long as it seems. But it is doable. It is possible. I did it, and believe me, if I can do it, a lot of people can do it. And every single day, people are looking for new stuff to publish. And just remember that it's the most important thing. And be serious about it, and somehow take the time, in this world that's moving so, so fast, you need to find a quiet place in your mind to write. It's just, absolutely, you can't have kids yelling in the next room, life just spinning forward, and backup, and find the quiet and do it, and then you can really write a book, and it can work.
Brian - Yeah. So I would imagine it's a very competitive business. As you said, anyone could attempt to do it, so the barrier of entry is pretty limited, initially, at least, to take a shot. Does it get easier over time? So if you have success early on, or at some point, does it get easier to find a home? And can you get to a point where people trust your work enough, where you get under contract for a certain amount of books or concepts in advance, how does that process evolve?
David - Yeah, it does... I mean, I've written three books now, so I have something of a name, and that's going to make it easier because it's going to make publishers... When my agents a novel, most of the editors are going to read it, as opposed to a total debut author who they've never heard of before, where it might go to the bottom of the pile. I know the editors. I write them notes when I read a book of theirs that I love. I keep on top of what the industry is, just like anybody should in any industry. You should know what's happening. You should be proactive in that way. I live in New York, so that helps. I know a lot of novelists, and talk to them about their experiences at different publishers, and that kind of thing. Also it helps with ancillary stuff. So before I got published, I'd send what I thought were the most amazing magazine pitches out to "Esquire", "GQ", or "The New Yorker", or "New York Magazine", all these places, I had great ideas, and I never heard anything back because I didn't have a career. I was doing other stuff. I didn't have a writing career. And then as soon as I published my first book, I would send those exact same proposals out, and all of a sudden, every single editor was like, "Oh, what a great idea. "Absolutely." with books. This industry is a bit rigged like that. It's a bit of a chicken and an egg thing, but once you've published a book, other avenues open up for you. Like I write reviews for "The New York Times" now because "The Times" hires novelists to write reviews. And I don't think I'd be able to do that, in fact, I know I wouldn't be able to do that, if I wasn't publishing novels. So it certainly helps to be published, but there's also... Publishers love the idea of the debut novelist. It just is finding the hot, new voice out of nowhere. That's such a marketing gem for them. So there is an advantage to being a first-time writer as well, because you're unknown. You don't have a sales track record yet. They don't know what could happen. You could crash and burn, or you could sell 500,000 copies. Nobody has any idea. So it's not all bad, in terms of coming in cold, and being a debut author. But it is to be established as well, certainly.
Brian - Ah, that makes sense. All right, let's move to a handful of questions from the group here. First one's a good one. Should an aspiring author want to have a title and cover art also when submitting, or does the publisher want that control?
David - So you should have a title. Definitely. You should come up with the title. Often it gets changed, as you might imagine. It's another thing that every author thinks that their title is the greatest thing ever, and inevitably it gets changed, and sometimes it's much better, and sometimes it's worse. But you should definitely have a title to your book when you submit it. Cover art, no. Every publisher has an art department, and they are going to do their own thing with a cover. If you're more established, and you have some juice behind you, you, in your contract you get final say . For "Kings County", which I love this cover, it's the Waynesburg Bridge, this is the first book that I got say on what the cover was going to be, and I'm glad I did because some of the first versions were a little dicey, I thought. But this version is great. And we got there with the art department at Simon and Schuster. And they're so talented. I can't imagine how difficult it is to be a book cover artist, because you have so many books out there, and how do you differentiate? And people really do walk into bookstores, and buy books because of the cover art. And it is an important part of the whole package. So don't worry, unless it's a photo book, or something. Or an art book, where you're the artist, and the art really matters to the book, and stuff, and then, of course, you're going to have a lot of say in that, but otherwise, the publisher has an art department that handles that
Brian - Got it. Yeah, that makes sense. It's probably so interesting too to see someone else's interpretation, in the form of art, of your story. I mean, that's a big deal. So let me shift gears. One of our attendees has a question around the use, and the cost structure, of using a ghostwriter. For example, this person has a detailed outline of a straightforward, non-fiction, personal financial advice book, but they would prefer that the drudgery, and all of the work of that first draft really be prepared and handled by someone else. Well, I mean, what are your thoughts on that?
David - I'd prefer if somebody else did my first drafts too. Unfortunately. Yeah, for a business book, or something like that, yeah, sure. I mean, Stephen Schwarzman's book, which was a huge bestseller, he had a ghostwriter. I know he had a ghostwriter. And that was , and somebody is going to have tremendous insight. You're not buying the book to see how great a writer Stephen Schwarzman is, you're buying that book to get his business tips, and see how he became a success, and how you can emulate somebody like that, right? and you have some kind of platform like Schwarzman does, So, absolutely, If you're writing a business book, and you have some kind of platform like Schwarzman does, get a ghostwriter. It certainly helps. The way, financially, that you deal with a ghostwriter is totally up to you. If you already have a publisher, sometimes they have ghostwriters that they can recommend to you that don't do a lot of stuff. Obviously, celebrities usually use ghostwriters. If you don't yet, and it's your first book, you kind of fish around the internet, or read other celebrity books or business books that the ghostwriters are always going to be thanked. Sometimes they're on the cover. Sometimes they're not. And, say, find somebody you really like, the final is kind of up to the two of you. You can pay him a straight fee, you can do an hourly thing, you can do a thing based on how many books end up getting sold, or some mix of all the above. It depends on how long it's going to take, what kind of book it is. There's no right or wrong or normal way of doing that. Usually there is some kind of set fee involved.
Brian - Okay. Makes sense. So what's the deal with self-publishing? When does that make sense? And then, if you have a traditional publisher, does that add a lot, in terms of marketing, publicity for the book? I would imagine so versus self-publishing.
David - Yeah, of course. So one of the reasons you have publishing houses is to market, distribute your book, get it into Barnes and Noble, get it into every bookstore, get it on Amazon, get the magazine, have a publicist. Every writer has a publicist at a major publishing house, and you sit down with that publicist, and you go through lists of magazines that you want to get reviewed in. You go through lists of newspapers. You, depending on the type of book, like "Kings County", takes place in the music scene in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, so we sent it out to music publications. We sent it out the podcasts that focus on not just literature books, but music as well. You tailor each publicity drive to different angles that might help. Publishers are very good at that. They know all the reviewers. Sometimes, if you're published by Random House, or Simon and Schuster, and it's a literary novel, it's almost always going to get reviewed in "The Times" because "The Times" knows that they don't publish, kind of, schlock, at that level. And if it's worth them, publishing it, it's worth being reviewed My first book did not get reviewed in "The Times". My last two have, so it's never a guarantee, but you certainly have way more of a shot if you're publishing with a major publisher. Even with some of those really good indie publishers, who get their books reviewed all the time. Self-publishing is a way to go, but it is very, very difficult. You can self-publish, and, obviously, there are companies that help you do that, and that create the actual physical book for you, and they'll also get your book on Amazon. They'll get you a government number for your book, an ISBN number. So they'll do all the structural stuff for you, but then what? After you've sold it to your 50 best friends and family, how do you get it out there, right? That is the problem with self-publishing. Everybody thinks that they know a million people. That because they have 3000 friends on Facebook. But of those 3000 friends on Facebook, 20 are going to end up buying your book. So how do you with all the other books being published? does happen. It tends to happen in genre stuff, like Romance, or stuff like that, where somebody kind of has a platform somehow, or they're a blogger, or they already have a platform, and they can transition that into book sales. But it very rarely happens for more mainstream non-fiction and fiction because it's just too tough to... Unless you're a brand already, or have branded yourself in some special way, it's too tough to get that attention that a book needs to really take off.
Because a book can get all the reviews it can get, but it's really word of mouth. It's book clubs, it's people coming together and saying, "Oh, my God! "You gotta read this book. "It's so amazing." But if you don't get enough of those initial people, that's never going to take off, and that's the problem with self-publishing. The good thing with self-publishing is the economic model is better for the author, right? Like, I give my agent 15% of everything. I can get an advance on my novels. I only advance. I have to sell through it to basically have to sell enough books to make money on the other side. So with self-publishing, you basically keep all the money yourself, or 90% of it. So whatever the company takes is some small part, but not a lot. So it's really tough. It does get done, and sometimes a book takes off being self-published, and Random House, or HarperCollins, or someone will swoop in and buy it then, and then you have the best of both worlds. You sold a bunch on your own, and then it gets major publisher interest as well, and you buy it that way. So it's not a perfect industry. So many books get overlooked. Everybody knows J.K. Rowling, who wrote "Harry Potter". She sent that book to a zillion publishers, and a zillion agents, before one agent said yes, and one publisher took a chance on her, and look what happened there. She changed the world. Same thing with "Moby Dick", same thing with "Ulysses", same thing with so many big books today. Tons of stuff , but there doesn't need to be a process, or else everybody would just flood the publishing industry with books, and nothing would ever get done. So usually good stuff does rise to the top, and does find interested editors and agents to champion that work. It doesn't happen all the time, but this system basically works.
Brian - Got it. And you mentioned the financial arrangement. So with that example, agent typically takes 15%. I would assume that the publisher is also entitled to a percentage of the revenue. Is that revenue share pretty consistent? I guess when you're looking at the Big Five, if you get signed on, is it fairly standard, what the revenue arrangement looks like?
David - Yeah. It's set in stone kind of. What is not standard is the advance you get. So you can sell a book... This is the other part, you work through all this stuff, and you can get an agent, and you get . You can sell a book for $10,000, or you sell a book for $1 million. You just don't know what the market is going to be. Obviously, it matters how many other editors are involved in an auction, or interested in a book, because that will drive the price up, but it is just a weird economic thing. You have no idea if it's going to be life-changing money, or whether it's going to be, you know, you can get your car fixed. Like, it just is, you don't know. And that's not for everybody, that kind of financial insecurity, for sure. But once you have sold a book, let's just say a $100,000, which is a pretty good advance in the book world, you do get that money guaranteed, no matter how many books you sell. You could sell 100 copies of a book, or you could sell 1 million copies of books, you still get that full advance. It's usually split up into several different payments over time. But then once you've sold through $100,000 worth of copies, and the publisher is making money on the backend, you get a percentage of that backend . So that's kind of how it works.
Brian - Okay. Let me ask you a question about children's books. You know, you were talking about barrier of entry. I think there's a lot of people, a lot of us who feel like, "Oh gosh, I could write a children's book." What's your take on that space, and is the approach any different, in terms of everything we're talking about, in terms of how you go to market, et cetera? And just overall, do you have any tips or suggestions for aspiring child authors?
David - Children's books work just like adult books. There are imprints of publishing houses that just do children's books, just do YA, which is Young Adult books. During COVID the children's book market boomed like it never has before, as you might imagine. And it is a very hot area right now. It is very competitive. That's an area where artwork matters a great deal, and the writing, or whether they have a partner, or however that works, and it works often in both those ways. It is a huge, huge market. It's not that, obviously, I work in very much, but I know that it is making publishers a lot of money, and tons of children's books are selling. And, obviously, it takes a great imagination, and it takes some really unique and interesting ideas usually, that just are kind of new. And that's what publishers are looking for. Just like with fiction, or just like any other new voice. But it is a market that you need an agent for. That agent usually does children's stuff specifically, and knows all of the good, great children's editors. Just like anything else, they're going to send your book out to editors who do similar kinds of books. So it's sometimes a little harder to find these editors because they don't necessarily have acknowledgements in the back of them. So it's a bit different in that way. But you do your homework, and you'll figure it out. And it is a great, great market to be in. For sure.
Brian - Yeah, I can imagine. My mind's just flashing to the movie, "Elf", and the whole pitching the children's book, and that was a nice bird's eye view into the process. I don't know how accurate that was, but... So we have time for one more question. For folks who are looking to write a proposal, do you have a good resource for that?
David - Yeah. So there are just like, you know, writing an outline for anything, or a resume for anything, there are books about writing book proposals. And you can go online, and they're right there. I tend to think you're dealing with the creative industry, and it's not the business world necessarily. It is a business, but it's not necessarily the business world, make your proposal interesting. Make it well-written, for sure. You need the base things in there. What's your book about? Here's how I see the chapters. Here's the market for it, here are similar titles. Always pick titles that have sold well, obviously. Here are the different reasons you should buy my book that I've written. But make it creative, make the writing very good. Don't make it dry like some other business writing can be, some proposal writing can be. You're not asking for a grant, right? You're trying to sell an interesting book, so make the proposal as interesting as possible, for sure. No matter what kind of book it is. Yeah. And if that's the last question, I think you'll probably... You've already said this once, you guys are giving away free copies of "Kings County", so just all you need to do is register for it, and you'll send the book right to them, I think.
Brian - That's exactly right, yes. Please take advantage of that.
David - Yeah. And I really hope you enjoy on my website, Davidgoodwillie.com, any other questions you have, actually just feel free. I really enjoy emailing back and forth, and getting to know my readers a bit. So it's always super fun for me, and if I can help out, I certainly got a lot of help along the way. So feel free to reach out
Brian - Well, David, this has been fantastic. We're so thrilled that you've taken the time here, given us great insight into the creative process, the business process, what your personal journey has been. It's really been amazing to listen to you. So thank you so much for spending time with us. And one more time, please get a copy of the book. It is supposed to be phenomenal. I know I'm actually going to get a copy myself. So David, thanks so much, and we hope you enjoy your time down in South Carolina.
David - Right, and Brian, thank you so much for doing this. It's wonderful. I'm actually client. You mortgage my house for me, this is not just some author you picked out of nowhere. It's a wonderful place you work in. Thanks so much for this, and for everything. I really appreciate it
Brian - Well, we appreciate it. And we are thrilled to reside in the Simon and Schuster building, which, yes, I am very much in that building right now. So we've got that in common.
David - See you back at the office soon.
Brian - All right, thanks so much. Have a good evening, thank you.
David - Great fun.