Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.19: What is Publishing For, Anyway?

So, what is publishing for, anyway?

The question may seem glib, but DongWong Song raised it in their newsletter, and in this episode we answer (or at least refine our asking of) the question.

Liner Notes: The Publishing Question

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Describe your target audience.

Thing of the week: Kate McKean’s Agents and Books on Substack.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Why publish? For the money? For the audience? For fame and glory? Because writing is a habit, and publishing helps pay for it? Because publishing let’s you put your energy into your own ideas? Publishers want to make money. Publishing is market-driven. To engage with publishers, focus on the question of who’s the audience, and how big is that audience.

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] What is Publishing for, Anyway?

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[DongWon] So, this is a big topic. I think this kind of comes out of one of the newsletters I wrote that I called The Publishing Question. It was me trying to encapsulate a little bit what I think the fundamental question of publishing is, which kind of led me to further questions of why do this. Right? You write books, you tell stories. What is the purpose of engaging in publishing as an industry, as an enterprise? Why go through all of this complication and frustration to get your book out in the world? I mean, the short and obvious answer is, well, then you get paid for it, and you can make a living doing it.


[Dan] Yeah.

[DongWon] There’s a certain appeal to that. But one thing I want us to think about a little bit is understanding what the publishing industry does, how it does it, and why it does it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think that this is a question that I asked students a lot, is, like, why do you want to publish? Which is different than why do you want to write. I think that you have to know that it’s like if you want it for audience, if you’re doing it for money. If you’re doing it for fame and glory? Why do you want to publish? Because there’s a lot of different paths to publishing. If you want to be somebody who regularly hits the New York Times bestseller, then you’re not somebody who writes a book every 10 years. Usually. With a couple of notable exceptions.

[Chuckles coughing]

[Mary Robinette] So, like, why are… What career path do you want that publishing to look like. It’s a lot of why in that.

[Howard] Many years ago, my friend David Kellett, talking about cartooning, said, “None of us get into cartooning to be rich. We get into it because we’d be drawing the comics anyway, and this is a nice way to be able to do it all the time.” I love that spin on it, and it totally applies to being a full-time author. We attach ourselves to the publishing industry because it is a way to pay for our habit.


[Dan] Well, as someone who has done a lot of freelance and write-for-hire… I’ve written in virtually every medium that you can name. I keep coming back to the publishing industry itself because I have so much more hands-on control of what stories I am telling. I’ve written for TV, I’ve written for games, I’ve written for movies, I’ve written for all this other stuff. Most of that is putting my energy into somebody else’s ideas. Publishing is the one where I really get to sink my energy into my own ideas. Which is just really fun.

[DongWon] Absolutely. Yeah, it’s funny, that’s actually kind of… My first job out of college was working in television production for a news program, actually. What brought me to working in books was… It was a smaller team. It was three people, four people. So I could get closer to the art, I could get closer to the process and work with the creator very directly. I think that is one of the appealing things about the process. It’s important to remember that publishing… I will talk about publishing in a way that will sound almost cynical. Right? Because publishing is a business. It’s a capitalist enterprise. It’s a corporation. It’s important to remember that the only reason a publisher exists, under that logic, is to make money. Right? That profit is what drives them. There are a few exceptions. There are a few nonprofit presses out there that do incredible work. There’s a few academic presses. They are subject to some money demands, but not in the same way that a big five publisher is. But, [garbled] big five publishing, Indy presses, most of those things, money is king, unfortunately. Because that’s the world we live in. When art and capitalism collide, it can be an awkward fit. There can be a lot of churn in that. So I think that figuring out what publishing is trying to accomplish, and what it’s building for, and what its tools are for, are important to building a sustainable career for yourself and figuring out what it is you want to get out of this. Right? So, in Howard’s case, that is very much a I want to be able to keep doing this. Right? I want to be able to spend all of my time creating the art that I love. Publishing is a way to do that. Right? I think comics, in particular, led to a very direct audience self-publishing model through web comics in a particular era. When you’re looking at traditional book publishers, that gets a little bit more attenuated because of the time involved.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Although I will say that if you are wanting to do this simply so that you have more time to write the things that you want to write, getting an extremely high paying job where you only have to work one day of the week, and then publishing to AO3 is actually going to give you more time to write.

[DongWon] Absolutely.


[Mary Robinette] In a lot of ways. Because much of what the career in publishing is, is all of the other stuff which we’ve been talking about, like newsletters and conference appearances and all of that. But I think everybody who goes into publishing, like, even the editors… The editors who seem all high-powered and fancy… They don’t make a lot of money. People go into this because we love stories and we love connecting to people.

[DongWon] Yeah. Passion driven industries are tricky, because they are driven by the fact that I love books, I love stories, I love the books that I work on. I also need to pay rent and pay for groceries and do all of those things. As an agent, my income is very directly tied to book sales and to my authors success. Right? So, I need to be publishing and representing authors who are selling enough books that they could make a living, and I could make a living. Right? Those are just things that are the base requirements of what I do. If you are an editor, you can’t just acquire what you love, you also have to acquire things that have commercial potential of success. Now. Figuring out what has commercial potential of success is its own sort of very complicated game to do, but it’s a thing to keep in mind, that even on the other side of the line, from the industry side, even though we are driven by our love for this and our passion for this, we’re also facing certain realities of the market. Right? Of sales that need to be answered to in one way or the other.

[Howard] When I was in the software industry, we called one aspect of that job inbound marketing. Which was the process of looking at what the market is consuming right now, and then going back to our team and saying, “Can we build that?” When authors do it, and we often counsel against this… “Oh, you’re just chasing the market. By the time you write that, it won’t be ready.” But as I understand it, editors do this all the time. Where their market research people come to them and say, “You know what? We need to get books that look like this. Can you go get books that look like this?” As an author, I have no idea how I would get inside that loop so that I give them the book that they’re exactly looking for.


[Howard] But that’s a thing to be aware of. It’s a thing that happens.

[Mary Robinette] Time machine.

[DongWon] Exactly. Time machine. That’s how you do it.

[Dan] You’re not using a time machine, Howard?

[Howard] I’ve been using… No, I’ve been using it wrong. I’ve just been using it… I’ve been using it to make sure the eggs are fresh. That was silly.

[Dan] Well. There you go.

[Dongwon] If you use all your time machine time to go look at dinosaurs, you can’t expect to get a bestseller.

[Dan] Okay. So, DongWon, I want to ask this. I want to turn this back to you. Because you asked this question of what is publishing for, and we kind of gave our answers. You’re coming at this from a completely different perspective than us. You’re not the one who is writing the stories, you’re not the one who is putting your own vision out there. What is publishing for from your perspective? Why are you as passionate about it is we are?

[Dongwon] I… There’s sort of two answers to that. I mean, one is it is my career. Right? It has been my entire adult life. So I’m trying to make a living and I would like to be rich and successful, etc., etc. I mean, the other side of it is, I do think telling stories is very important. I do think it is sort of how we change the world over time, is we make a better world by imagining better futures. Right? So if we can tell the right kind of stories, then, I think, we can really have an influence over, at a generational scale, the world. Now figuring out a way to make those two things dovetail is the real challenge. I heard a quote recently that was from a podcast, Brendan Lee Mulligan said something like, “Maybe that’s what peace is, is when you realize that the thing you have to do in the thing that you love to do are the same thing.” I think, for me, working in publishing is very much that. So I’m both greedy and want all the bucks and all the big bestsellers, but I’m also very mission driven in addition to passion driven. Right? All these things kind of dovetail for me into one thing that has a cohesive core. Yeah. So I think that is kind of the thing that really is the engine that keeps me doing this, keeps me pushing through a lot of the heartbreak that this business involves. I want to get a little bit more into some of the nitty-gritty’s of what that means on a day-to-day basis, but before we do that, let’s take a break.

[DongWon] So, the thing of the week this week is another newsletter. A newsletter that is from a very dear friend of mine and a colleague of mine, Kate McKean. She is also a literary agent at the same agency that I’m at, the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Kate and I started our newsletters the same week, the first week of 2019. We had not talked to each other. We did not coordinate this. We just both started sending newsletters out about what we were doing, coincidentally. It was such a delight to… For both of us to take our own perspectives, our own different methods, and start building an audience. Kate’s newsletter is truly wonderful. Unlike me, she publishes on a very regular schedule, twice a week. Has much more grounded and practical advice, and really thoughtful perspectives that comes from her many, many years in the business as well. I cannot recommend Kate’s newsletter highly enough. You can find it at It is called Agents and Books. Or you can just follow her on Twitter. Again, that’s Kate McKean’s Agents and Books.

[DongWon] So, one thing I also want to talk about, in addition to sort of like my passions in the industry… The reason I love working in publishing as a business… You won’t find a lot of people who say that they love publishing as a business model. But I genuinely do. I love it because it’s kind of stupid.

[Ha ha]

[DongWon] What I mean by that is it’s a business model that has not fundamentally changed in hundreds of years. What you do is you print a book and you hope that that cost less money to do than the revenue you make from selling it to people. Right? We make physical objects. We ship them around the world. Then we collect revenue from people who want those. Most profit in publishing still comes from selling physical books in stores. Publishing is as much a manufacturing and distribution business as it is a content business. Right? That’s why publishing has been so resistant to startups, to disruptors, to all these different things. Because it’s kind of too stupid to mess with on some level. That gives me so much joy and so much hope for a future for publishing. Which I know sounds backwards. What I am saying is that the future for publishing is kind of backward looking. I think it’s truly a wonderful thing that I find a lot of interest and joy in figuring out how to survive in that.

[Howard] I think during season one of Writing Excuses, and it took me a few minutes to look this up during our break, Mike Stackpole described publishing… The whole point of publishing was to make money by shipping cheap bundles of paper all over the world and tricking people into buying it by getting people’s stories printed in it and only paying those people tiny little amounts of royalties to ensure that you’re being paid as much as possible for shipping this paper around. It was such an incredibly cynical point of view. Then I read David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague talking about the birth of comics and learned…

[DongWon] Low-grade books.

[Howard] That the comics page existed because it was a way to sell surplus paper. They had surplus paper and a way to print color on it and they wanted to make money. So they got kids to draw… I say kids. The guys who created Superman were like 20 years old. So, at that very cynical vein, publishing exists and has existed for 100 years or more in order to sell paper by putting your story on it.

[DongWon] After three years of the paper shortage, boy, do I wish we had that surplus stock now.


[Mary Robinette] So, I have this series of thoughts that is colliding in my head. The first of those is we have been talking about novels.

[DongWon] Yup.

[Mary Robinette] There is also the whole short story publishing industry. That has moved almost exclusively online. There’s very few… Like, most of the short fiction is electronic these days. Except for the things that come out as novellas, as beautiful artifacts. The whole idea of the cheap bundle of paper… I think that is a fundamental shift that we’ve seen, is that now people really want the artifact, that you are seeing the cheap versions… That these are being replaced by other things. I’m curious about what your thoughts are about how that’s shifting.

[DongWon] Stackpole was talking about a different era of publishing.

[Howard] Yup.

[DongWon] That was the mass-market era of publishing. That era died, unfortunately, in like the early… In the 2000s, the oughts. That was sort of my start in publishing, was watching the mass-market, which is the thing I grew up on and deeply loved and will miss every day, get phased out of existence. Basically. By the way, I’m making lots of big broad generalizing statements…


[DongWon] I fully recognize that. Please don’t ask me on Twitter about all…

[Howard] These are the broadbrush. We’re getting paint everywhere.

[DongWon] These are broad brushed. I did state my publishing is stupid thing somewhat provocatively. Obviously, I’m aware of these things. Caveat there. But basically, so I think we moved away from the cheap bundles of paper to expensive bundles of paper.

[Mary Robinette] Okay.

[DongWon] I think the goal… I mean, we’ve seen the individual cost of books go up two fold, threefold, fourfold over the course of my career in publishing. Right? Most of our money’s now coming from hardcovers. We aren’t shipping 100,000 mass-market’s of a debut novel anymore. We’re shipping 10,000, 15,000 hardcovers. Right? Profit is still going up. Publishers are making more money. Publishers are quite healthy, financially. In general, when they’re not losing lots of money trying to buy other publishers. In general, though, the business has been doing quite well, and that business is doing well primarily on the back of print. That has really been focused on high quality, beautifully editions. We’ve seen all these special editions that Barnes & Noble is doing, Waterstone’s is doing. All the book crates. People are investing very deeply in books as objects. Which is very delightful to me in many ways because I love a beautiful book. But there is also the part of me that has seen the readership contract because of that. As the price points go up, you have fewer readers. There are some concerns I have about that as well. So it’s a balancing act. When I say the business hasn’t changed, I mean, fundamentally, we’re still printing books and making money from selling physical goods. But how we sell it, who we sell it to, what genres we emphasize, those do evolve and shift over time. We are kind of going to an older model, pre-pulp fiction, pre-penny dreadful, sort of into this more like elevated bigger book kind of mode. I think we can see that in the kind of books that are succeeding. Even what’s winning awards, what’s on bestseller lists. There’s been a subtle shift. Not that commercial fiction isn’t still incredibly viable. It obviously is. But I think undeniably, especially in SF F space, there’s been a little bit of a shift in what traditional publishers are looking for and finding a success in.

[Erin] This leads me to a question, which is perhaps a very silly one, but, if I am a writer, how much should I care about that part of the business? Like, how much should I be watching these shifts and trying to catch them, as we were talking about earlier? How much should I, like, is it good to know publishing is a business for my own peace of mind, so that when, like, they reject my book…


[Erin] I can be like, “Well, it’s just a business decision.” How much should I care about it and try to work with that business?

[Howard] Did I go into anything for peace of mind? No.


[Howard] No, I went for the roller coaster.

[DongWon] Absolutely. I think it’s a fantastic question. Right? Sometimes I talk about this stuff and I’m like, “Is this helping anybody?” I think that is kind of the core of that question, is what do I want writers to do with that information. A little bit of it is peace of mind. A little bit of it is understanding that when your publisher is making a decision, it might look insane to you. There are reasons why it’s happening. Right? There are logic behind it. It may be bad logic. You may not like that logic. It may be bad for you in particular. But, one thing I want to emphasize is that publishers are rational creatures. Given certain definitions of insanity which is capitalism. Right? But they are making their choices based on a certain kind of logic. I often don’t like the logic. Right? I think that helps, as a baseline of understanding. I think the more practical thing is understanding that publishing is really trying to answer one single question, which is how many copies of this book can we sell? And who can we sell it to? Right? The way they answer the question of how many can we sell is by saying this is the audience. Right? This is why comp titles are so important, because this is the language in which publishers use to talk about how big the audience is. But, anytime they’re acquiring a book, putting marketing dollars behind a book, printing a book, publicity decisions, all these things derive from the fundamental question of we think this book will sell N copies. Right? A success is when it sells a multiple of N. A failure is when it sells less than N. Right? That’s… The whole business can be boiled down to that. Right? So, for you, as you’re approaching the industry, the thing that I think you need to start thinking about as a writer is who’s my audience, really, and how big is that audience. I don’t think that’s something you should think of when you’re deciding what novel to write or when you’re writing your first draft. But once that novel exists and you’re getting ready to pitch it to publishers, I think taking a step back and really thinking about who is my audience, how big is that audience. Right? Is it five people who like this one very tiny subgenre? Or is it applicable to the biggest audience in whatever genre you’re in? I think those are questions you want to think about and make sure you have good answers for them, and a way to frame your book as you’re, like, pitching it to publishers, to agents, so that it looks like it’s going to hit the biggest audience as possible.

[Erin] Follow-up to that, like, what do you do if you feel like publishing doesn’t value the audience that you think you’ll reach the way that you do?

[DongWon] Oo, you’re asking the big questions.


[DongWon] That’s where it gets really tough. Right? I publish a kind of fiction that I believe that audience exists, and is an underserved, underutilized audience in publishing’s mind. By that I mean, mostly, like marginalized audiences. So convincing publishers that that audience exists and we know how to get to them is the real challenge. Right? Sometimes, if it… Publishers want to follow existing success because that’s where the safe money is. Even though that means that there is potential for more audience if we go in a different direction. Right? So it’s a balancing act. Right? It’s how do you find a way to make your thing look enough like another thing while still getting to the new thing. I don’t think that was a very clear way to do that, but…


[DongWon] It’s… You almost need to like disguise what your book is, like hiding a pill in cheese for a dog, in some ways.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is a thing that we had to do with… So, puppet theater, we run into this all the time, that everyone… You say puppet theater and people think it’s for kids. When you’re doing serious adult drama with puppets, and you say I’m doing adult puppetry, everyone’s minds go someplace that is not where you actually are. So what we learn to do was to pair it with someone. It is… I’m doing a retelling of Hamlet incorporating puppets, Disney, and stage theater. You say I’m incorporating things, and then… It’s the strange and the familiar.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] You package it with something that they are familiar with, so that they’re like, “Oh, I like this. Oo, and you’ve got this other spicy thing.”

[Howard] The other thing to look at, and this is as difficult as finding the right piece of cheese to put that pill in so that the dog will eat it. But, I like this one more. Find allies who share your vision, and who are in a position to connect you with more people who share that vision. Because ultimately, if there’s a demographic that’s not being served by publishing, you’re unlikely to solve the problem without someone in publishing deliberately pivoting and aiming at that demographic.

[DongWon] Exactly. So building a cohort is a great way to do that.

[Howard] Building a cohort.

[DongWon] Finding a group of writers who do kind of the same thing that you do. That’s a way to convince publishers. Publishers are very easy. This is why it’s important to understand the publisher business and they have this logic. Is, once you understand the fundamental logic of what they’re looking for, then you can start… I don’t know, manipulating them. Right? Like…


[Mary Robinette] But this is where the short story market comes in. Because it’s an opportunity for… That we were seeing that happen a lot with short fiction, that the stories that were winning in short fiction were shifting the demographic. Then people were like, “Oh. Let’s give that person a platform with their book.” There is a… It is not the fast movement we’d like to see, but that’s one of the places where we will see people starting to experiment.

[DongWon] Exactly. So I think finding those experimental markets, and then using that to build into the more traditional markets… It’s why change is so slow in publishing. It takes a long time to publish a book, it takes a long time to move publishers off of a certain logic. Change does happen, but it is incremental and it is painfully slow sometimes.

[Dan] This is reminding me so much of the conversation around energy and renewable resources. People realized decades ago you can’t convince an energy company to switch everything from coal towards solar purely out of the goodness of their hearts. Because, like we’ve been saying about publishing, they’re a business. They’re in this to make money. So the goal then became we’re going to make it so cheap that it just makes more business sense to use solar. We’ve already seen that in Europe. They passed that point this year or last year, where it is literally cheaper to produce solar power than through any other means right now in Europe. So that kind of goal of greener energy, renewable energy, has been accomplished through business means. It just takes a long time and you have to approach it with that right mindset.

[DongWon] Exactly. So, with that in mind, I have a little bit of homework for all of you. I want you to start thinking about… Take a look at your work in progress and think about who your audience is. Think about what comp titles there are. Think about how you want to… If you had to sit down with an agent, with an editor, with a publisher to try and convince them that there’s a market for your book, how would you start doing that? So make a list of your 3 to 5 titles that your book is like, and here’s the audience for that book. Then, you’ll be set up at least to start thinking about how to turn your book into a commercial success.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we help you figure out if working in publishing is right for you, and, Erin explains why you should take a bath after you receive a rejection letter. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.