Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

On Publishing: Katherine Schwarzenegger Spews Hooey


So, Katherine Schwarzenegger told the Washington Post the other day,

I had an idea for a book and a passion about body image.  I submitted a proposal, just like every other person does, to several different publishers.  I went down the exact same path that everyone who wants to write a book did.  I didn’t get any special treatment with any of this.

Congrats to her for landing a book deal.  I certainly wasn’t thinking of such things when I was that age.

But shame on her for peddling this hooey about how she did it.

It is Hell for an unpublished author to get their book idea accepted by a publisher.  The economics are very simple: the supply of manuscripts is much larger than the demand for manuscripts by publishers.  Moreover, first books by unknown writers rarely sell well.  With the Inter-tubes and general media proliferation buffeting the book industry, publishing houses are even more leery of taking on new, unknown authors.

Your average unpublished author has about zero percent chance of getting published doing as Ms. Schwarzenegger claims to have done. That does not stop would-be authors from trying to do it—this is why publishing houses have “slush piles” where they dump all the unsolicited manuscripts they receive.  (Sometimes, editorial interns and newbies are assigned to dig through the slush pile and bring anything truly spectacular to the attention of editors.  Said special manuscripts then are pulped like all the others in the slush pile.)  And this is why vanity presses (Xlibris) are popping up like dandelions—to cash-in on the desperate would-be-author market.

In truth, there are only two ways for a new author to land a manuscript with a publishing house:

(1) You must have a personal contact or maybe a second degree contract with an editor at the publishing house.; or

(2) You must have an agent who can persuade a publisher to buy your manuscript.

Unfortunately, the brutal economics is roughly the same for agents.  Agents get paid for landing books that sell with publishers.  So, they too are loath to take on new, unknown authors.  It is not unusual for good writers to spend a few years trying to find an agent, only to whiff.  Now, it is worth adding that if an aspiring author has toiled for years at a newspaper or magazine and built up a  readership, well, an agent may find him or her appealing than your average nobody.  The agent, like the publisher, wants to make money by selling books.  An agent’s confidence that an author can sell is increased by the writer showing a track record of producing writing that gets read. The same goes for folks who have used music, TV, or even blogs to build up a big readership.

Thus, as Ms. Schwarzenegger is only 20 years old and has not proven herself as a writer, her contention is just silly.  Of course she received special treatment. Had she mailed a book proposal under the name of Katherine Smith to these same five publishers she wouldn’t be talking about her book deal.  She would be anxiously waiting months for a rejection form-letter.

Happily for young Katherine, though, the Schwarzeneggers have more than a few books to their names already—see here and here.  Which means that unlike most aspiring authors,  she has family with publishing connections.

That a publisher took on Ms. Schwarzenegger is no surprise—it is in its self-interest.  For one, doing so might induce her parents to publish their future books (memoirs, recipe books, whatever) with the same press.  And for another, young Katherine’s book will sell at least modestly well.  Why?  Simple—celebrity books sell.  This is why book stores devote lots of shelf space to non-writers like Kelly Osborne and Tony Danza; and this is why one reads of Demi Moore being paid $2 million for her memoir proposal by a mega-publisher.  Given the choice between a kids-food cookbook written by the unknown Missy Lapine and famous Jessica Seinfeld, consumers are more apt to buy the latter.

Meanwhile, innumerable unknown writers toil for years on their craft and only occasionally land a book with a small trade or academic press.  And when this happens, nobody, certainly not the Washington Post, writes about it.

(Happily, there is one small upside—these harsh publishing economics have sparked the growth of small publishers that are more willing to work with new and overlooked authors who don’t swim in the usual big publishing house ponds.)

9/28/10 update: A Wall Street Journal article substantiates the contention that it is very difficult for a new author to get picked up by a big publishing house.  See Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, “Authors Feel the Pinch In Age of E-Books,” Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2010. So, quit kidding yourself, Katherine.

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