Managing Expectations

(Encore presentation.)

A big part of dealing with this business of publishing is managing your expectations. If your expectations are out of whack to begin with, your publishing journey will disappointing.

I realize there is so much information and misinformation out there that it’s hard to know what realistic expectations are. And when you first make the leap from “being a writer” to “learning about the publishing industry,” many of your expectations are immediately dashed. (Sorry about that!)

But there are many writers who hold on to unrealistic expectations long after reality should be setting in. This is an ongoing concern for agents, editors, and publicists who constantly find themselves not living up to writers’ expectations. In many cases (and yes, there are plenty of exceptions), the writer’s hopes and beliefs were simply too idealistic to begin with.

I don’t want to sound like publishing professionals are all perfect. We’re not! We make mistakes, we sometimes let things fall through the cracks, we sometimes don’t do the best possible job on some aspect of a book. But what I’m talking about here is the more common scenario: the publisher/agent/editor/publicist did the appropriate amount of work on a book, but the author thinks much more should have or could have been done.

We all need to keep our expectations in check. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably trying to keep up with the industry, so you’re doing your part to learn what kind of expectations are realistic. Kudos! Here are a few unrealistic author-expectations I’ve dealt with lately:

“My book would be perfect in Wal-Mart.” Yes, it might be. But Wal-Mart makes those decisions, and they only choose a very few books, a tiny fraction of the books actually published. So it’s a long shot.

“I’ll go with the publisher who will commit to putting my book on the front table of Barnes & Noble.” I’m sorry to say that this is highly unlikely if you are a first-time author without a huge platform or marketing hook. Now, I’ve had clients whose books have been on the front table of B&N and other exciting places. But it’s more the exception than the rule, so enjoy it if it happens, but don’t expect it as a matter of course.

“I just know this book is going to spark an auction between publishing houses.” Despite what you hear and read in the media, auctions are relatively rare, particularly amongst Christian publishers. Whether there is an auction or not isn’t necessarily a good indication of how well your book is going to do.

“If I don’t see tons of print ads and reviews for my book, and I don’t get a multi-city booksigning tour, and I’m not on dozens of TV and radio shows, then my book didn’t get proper marketing.” The truth is that a good deal of the marketing and publicity budget for any given book is spent in places the author may never see—particularly, marketing to the trades (influencing retailers to stock your book and trade publications to review it). Another truth is that publisher marketing budgets are limited, and they usually know exactly how much they will spend at the time that they contract the book. There is not a lot anyone can do to change it. If publishers spent as much on marketing each book as the authors want them to, they’d be out of business in no time, because the ROI for book marketing is often not that great. This is why your own efforts are so important.

“If my book doesn’t sell to a publisher, it’s my agent’s fault.” I suppose this could be true in some cases, but agents have limited power. If they have a good reputation and good contacts in the business, then they can get your book in front of the right people, and follow up appropriately. But they can’t force a publisher to buy your book. Sometimes the book isn’t ready for the market, or the market isn’t ready for the book.

Of course, I could go on all day addressing unrealistic expectations, but I won’t. I don’t want to be a discouragement, but I want you to understand that if your expectations are impractical, and you are unable to change them based on reality, your publishing journey won’t bring you pleasure or fulfillment or excitement. It will instead be a disappointment at every turn and you will end up resentful and talking negatively about your publisher, your agent, and everyone you’ve ever met in publishing.

Many of us in the business have been on the receiving end of this, and it’s not pleasant. So keep learning, and keep being optimistic and positive, while not allowing your expectations to get out of hand. A fine balance!

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  7. David Amburgey on July 31, 2010 at 10:18 PM

    >More great information. I can tell you have a writer's heart (which you are a writer, I realize) but what I mean is, that you understand what an author needs to know and do what you can to show us that need. You are there for us and to help us. Thanks.

    My experience in the publishing world is extremely limited; been writing forever, it seems, but only been published for less than two years. (Second book coming out early next year – now seeking an agent for the third – you will receive a proposal from me soon – maybe even as soon as you open again, Aug. 1)
    What I have learned through the quick learning curve of, been there, but couldn't afford the t-shirt (because I need to sell books) is that the best voice for any book is not the agent or even the publisher, but the author. No one knows the book better or has a heart for it more. If a writer wants to be on the front table of BN or see their book in Walmart, get out there and work your tail off for your dream and maybe, just maybe, you will see the fruits of your labor. It may take ten years and ten books, but to think a book sells itself just because it's a good book is insane.
    We all think that we've written the best book ever and love it like a child, but the only way for others to realize that is to buy it, open it and read it. There is no one out there more qualified for the job of helping people realize that than the author of the book.

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  9. Brad Jaeger on July 30, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    >Great post, as always.

  10. Amanda Daubenmeyer on July 30, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    >Humility and perseverance is the balance. If you just have perseverance, you will have unrealistic expectations and fall into pride, as in the cases above. On the other hand, if you just have humility, you’ll give up when your expectations are not met.

  11. Anonymous on July 30, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >Anon: So interesting. That's the problem: How can we know which agents are the right ones for us when we're not privy to this behind-the-scenes info? Doesn't it make more sense to allow writers the chance to approach editors directly (not just at conferences)?

    Waiting for agents to respond is slow and time-consuming–then (if we're lucky) we have to do it all over again with editors. Since we'll probably end up promoting our own book anyway, why not let authors pitch straight to acquisitions editors or junior assistants who act as first readers? If editors/agents can decide whether to read more based on a first page anyway, isn't that more effective?

  12. Anonymous on July 30, 2010 at 8:43 AM

    >Very interesting.
    I've been on all sides of the fence—as an acquisitions editor at Harper for 10+ years, at Potter, as an acquiring consultant elsewhere; and then as an author—and perhaps I know too much about the business and the way it operates. As an author who has also had the benefit of sitting at the pub board table when a group of people are deciding whether or not to let an editor acquire something, I can say without a doubt that yes, expectations may run high (and often unreasonable). BUT, pub boards often focus on the way the agent has positioned the property rather than the actually property itself; and if that agent has represented it poorly or just incorrectly, that property won't have a chance in hell.
    Years ago, a well-known food writer came to me to consult (as an editor), and told me that she expected to have her agent sell her first book for 6 figures. I told her she was (politely) insane. THAT kind of expectation is just all wrong, and representative of an ego gone wild. The flipside of that, though, is seeing (as an editor) a publisher acquire a book, and then not put a red cent behind it, leaving it all to the author to create buzz, to pay their own way to events to sell the book, and to generally offer no support whatsoever etc. And let's not forget that when a book does sell, the publisher takes a hefty cut of the sales. And the agent, who may or may not have been around to insure the support, takes a commission. This happens all too frequently, across the board.
    Long way of saying, until publishing becomes a understood partnership–where author, agent, and editor are all holding up their various ends of the bargain and working collaboratively–the industry will remain in the straits that it's in, and savvy authors will no longer stand for it, and instead find other, more creative ways of selling and producing their books. Sad, but true.

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  14. Elizabeth Mahlou on July 30, 2010 at 1:27 AM

    >You hit the nail on the head on every point. Under my real name, I have a dozen books in print. When my books sell well, yes, I know the publisher has done a good job (I have two great publishers), but I also know that I have accurately pitched my book to the interests and needs of my audience. Given the number of competing books in the market these days, I think authors should be grateful for each sale — and put those often-hubristic unrealistic expectations aside.

  15. Marja on July 30, 2010 at 1:07 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle for sharing this! Great notes.

  16. S Spann on July 29, 2010 at 1:14 PM

    >Rachelle: There's a question I've had for a while that perhaps you could answer, or at least respond to.

    How effective is author self-marketing in terms of assisting publishers' efforts? For example: an author who has a stable blog with significant (>1000 uniques per week) readership, who is also willing to talk with bookstores/book clubs/local clubs and arrange signings, readings, etc. I'm presuming for the moment that the author is (a) a business professional who understands how to talk with these people without damaging the relationships or coming across as unprofessional, (b) the type of energetic individual who is comfortable with public appearances, and (c) willing to cooperate with other efforts rather than fighting the publisher's lead – in other words, making supplementary efforts in areas where the publisher hasn't already claimed the field.

    I can't see publishers disliking this, but I'm curious about how you as an agent would advise such an author to proceed (or not to proceed).

  17. Daisy Harris on July 29, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    >Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  18. Brother Cysa Dime on July 29, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    >What sells is based on what the customers want, not on what the author thinks they should read. There is a tragic case of this involving a book about avoiding toxic relationships and marriages. You would think that this would sell well. It sold two thousand copies in ten years and we still have millions of miserable marriages. In that same time period, end times fiction, which does not help your quality of life, sold tens of millions of copies.

  19. Tawna Fenske on July 29, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    >Terrific post!

    On of 14-gazillion things I love about my agent (Michelle Wolfson) is that she's always very clear about the difference between our "hopes" and our "expectations." We might both joke about our dreams of trillion-dollar book deals, but she always keeps me grounded by letting me know what's LIKELY to happen. Doesn't mean we can't both dream big, but she does a terrific job keeping me grounded in reality as well.

    Thanks for this post!

  20. Andrew on July 29, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    >Excellent post! Thanks for writing it.

  21. T. Anne on July 29, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    >I'd love to hear from first time authors regarding the first day they saw their books available and how long those bookstore days lasted. I'd like to hear the reality of a first published novel and how it works out for them. I have a few friends that are published and a few of them from big houses. Some of their books I can only find on the internet, and it's relatively soon after publication. I'm fascinated by this!

  22. Timothy Fish on July 29, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    >From the standpoint that a very small percentage of books make it into Walmart, having a book in Walmart is a big deal, but when we consider the nature of many of the books in Walmart I’m not sure that having a book in Walmart is something to brag about. My understanding is that some of the publishers, such as Harlequin, have agreements with stores that work more like magazine distribution than typical book sales. Each month, the publisher ships some number of books. Walmart doesn’t actually read the books and make a decision based on the book itself. It just fills a slot that is available to the publisher. When the new books arrive, the books from the previous month are removed from the shelves and destroyed. Many of the readers of these books don’t even bother to evaluate the book before they slip it into their carts and take it home.

  23. Bri Clark on July 29, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    >Dear Rachelle,

    There is a universal rule in life that I was taught that applies here. When you start looking around and accusing and expecting gerat things of others it's time to take a step back in put the finger down, purse the lips and ask yourself what exactly have I done? And exactly how great was it?

  24. sharonbially on July 29, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    >I couldn't agree with you more, Rachelle, and in my work as a publicist I am constantly managing often-unrealistic client expectations as well.

    BUT — PLEASE NOTE — that on the other hand, slightly or even totally overblown expectations can be one of the wonderful characteristics that make writers able to do what they do! Seriously, unless we're also publishing insiders who know the whole picture from the get-go, we writers NEED to believe in miracles and the extraordinary in order to commit the time, the energy and the passion our projects require.

    Occupational hazard, I guess, for both writers and those who deal with them professionally. But also, in many ways, a gift to all.

  25. Windmill Duke on July 29, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    >Yer wonderful, but scarin me. All this time building a blog and sm stuff (uphill challenge for a guy turning 70)and all those folks, ALL of 'em, telling me what an excellent book (Generational Fathering) I'm writing. Guess I'd better be prepared to shift from La-La Land to Lump Lump Land. I know the content and style and change factor will be good. But, does it matter?

  26. Shmologna on July 29, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    >Man, I wish I had time to go back in your achives and read all of your posts before I came on the scene. Another fine entry!

    Maybe my expectations are too low. At this point, I think I'd be excited to see my book at a yard sale.

    ~Britt Mitchell

  27. Sharon A. Lavy on July 29, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    >I didn't know having a book at Wal-Mart was a big deal. I wonder if they would let me take my camera to the store to take pictures of my friend's books?

  28. Michelle DeRusha on July 29, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >I think my expecatations are pretty rock-bottom: get published.

    That said, I appreciate this post…I often have a problem with high expectations, so who knows…maybe I'll get to the point someday where that's a problem!

  29. Jill Kemerer on July 29, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >Thanks for sharing this. Writers have big dreams–we need to–but we also need to remember that just because it's our dream job, doesn't mean every dream attached to it will come true!

    Actually, I find everything in this post relieving. It takes the pressure off. Let's face it, most writers don't see their books in Walmart, or go on book tours, or even get great reviews the first time out.

  30. Sue Harrison on July 29, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    >If I have some disappointing moments concerning publicity or book rank, I remind myself how happy I would have been during my unpublished-but-still-submitting years to have that particular problem. ("Poor me, I'm a published author" doesn't get you much sympathy. Nor should it!)

  31. Steven Till on July 29, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    >Does getting your book on the front table in a bookstore have something to do with how much a publisher will pay for that spot? I've always heard that's valuable real estate, and publishers compete for those spots to promote their titles.

  32. Rebecca Murray on July 29, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    >I just released my first book. It did not suprize me at all that I was expected to publicize it myself. It's the author's job to write the book and the editor's job to make sure it's marketable to their target audience. If the editor doesn't think your book can be easily made to fit the formula that works for his/her customer base, they aren't going to buy it no mater how good the author thinks the book is.Any expectation beyond that is unreasonable.


  33. Amy Sorrells on July 29, 2010 at 8:35 AM

    >Perspective is crucial, indeed, and keeps a lot of things in check in the writing life. I think it builds character, like perseverance. 🙂 Thanks for this super post, Rachelle!

  34. Jaime on July 29, 2010 at 8:15 AM

    >I always wondered how Walmart got their books … it always seemed so random. Now I know. 🙂

    Again, great post and I'm enjoying reading them even if they're reposted since I'm new to your blog. Learning a lot! 🙂


  35. Anonymous on July 29, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    >I think that blogs like this one help temper an author's expectations. I've been working on my second book for about a year and half now -writing takes longer when you work full-time, church full-time, parent and husband full-time. I think I'm approaching the end stages of my current work and want to begin sending out sample chapters, but first I'm combing over my WIP a few more times to be sure its as ready as I can get it.

    My expectations are positive, but realistic. I would be living on cloud 10 if my book was a huge success and landed on B&N's front display, but I realize that's not likely the case. I have to live in the real world, where even if I get my book published, I will likely have to keep working full-time.
    So, Rachelle, your blog today is helpful and well said. Maybe in the next few months I might be sending a writing sample to you. Thanks for the post.

  36. Kelly Freestone on July 29, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    >From what I've seen, the author has lots of footwork to do.
    I think marketing ourselves and our books would give us a HUGE sense of ownership and accomplishment.

    I'm all about the "selling myself" aspect of publishing.
    It may seem intimidating and scary, but hey, if I can believe so much in this work that God's leading me on, then I can certainly promote it!

    Thanks for the reality check, Rachelle 🙂

  37. Travis Robertson on July 29, 2010 at 7:51 AM

    >Thanks so much for sharing this list. As someone who is working toward writing my first book, I guess my expectations have always been much different.

    I don't have the same expectations for starting "cold" as it sounds like others do. I plan on working on my book and material for a while through my blog, self-published e-books, and other projects while I build up a base and platform.

    Then (and only then) will I approach a publisher. And while I believe they may be more likely to sign and invest in me, I still expect to do most of the leg work myself.

    I know a lot of people who could stand to read this list because their expectations are completely out of whack! Thanks so much!

  38. Daniel Decker on July 29, 2010 at 7:28 AM

    >So very true. I'm on the book marketing end and often work in the middle between the author and the publisher (trying to help the author manage their expectations of what the publisher will or should do). 9 times out of 10 the author has a perspective that is always out of whack to what reality really is.

    Passion for a project is one thing but when EGO gets in the way… that's a whole different story. 🙂

  39. Courtney (Women Living Well) on July 29, 2010 at 7:26 AM

    >This was an interesting read. I haven't written a book. I'm just a blogger – but I have this tribe that is growing that has said "write a book" and I say back to them "on what?" lol!!!

    My tiny blog was "discovered" after a producer of the Rachael Ray Show discovered it – on their own – I wasn't seeking it out. So after being a guest on the show 6 months ago – my blog has suddenly grown!

    I'm not sure how this will all work out in the end – if a book will happen – but I thank you for this article – cause if I ever do – I'll stay away from these "attitudes" :-)!

    Much Love,

    Stop on by at:

  40. Richard Albert on July 29, 2010 at 6:43 AM

    >Most books don’t warrant the tremendous marketing hype that many best sellers receive. So it’s no surprise, in a business that’ trying to make a profit, most of the responsibility must fall on the author. Now – we are people of little means, but we still must believe in our product enough to invest in its future.

    I know that for myself, I had high expectation going in of making a boat ton of money. Yup – I was one of those. Write a great story and the world will be a path do your door. Then I walked into a book store one day (looking for something else) and found myself staring at the racks and racks of books in my genre. Holy cow! All of the sudden it struck me. How does one little author with one little book even begin to make themselves noticed in the sea of brightly colored bindings. My expectations were dashed, but it brings reality to the industry. Thousands of books are printed, and not only do we compete with current but also past publications on the shelves. It is eye opening when you finally realize how much of a job this is and still keep pursuing it.

  41. Don Booker on July 29, 2010 at 6:15 AM

    >I think the writer has a responsibility to their own material, any input from agents/publishers is such a bonus.
    I'm sure as writers everyone would like 'a machine' behind them. Unfortunately in most cases that is just not a possibility.