What makes a book worth publishing I ask of readers, writers, agents and publishers? 

Davida Siwisa James 

What makes a book worth publishing? First, I want to highly recommend a novel titled “The Bestseller” by Olivia Goldsmith (who died getting liposuction on her hips; how sad is that?). Goldsmith wrote “The First Wives Club.” I’ve read “The Bestseller” three times and if you are interested in books, writers, and the entire publication process…this book is riveting. It is an A-Z of both the internal mind of the writer and an insider’s guide to how the publishing world works. Goldsmith knew of what she wrote. I’ve read that she had 27 rejections before “First Wives Club” got published. The book got published because someone wanted to make a movie of the manuscript. So, in a total turnabout of events, “The First Wives Club” went from author’s manuscript to film to book! Goldsmith also sponsored a writing competition through Harper Collins Publishing for a couple of years to help new authors get published. I love “The Bestseller” and it is so worth the read.

But I digress. And since this post is like a mini novella that you’ll probably need to read in stages, I should stay on point.

There is definitely a lot more to book publishing than the quality of the writing. I doubt if there is any literate person who can challenge that statement. All you have to do is randomly flip through some of the books that get published to know that it is not necessarily about quality writing. I also want to give a nod to really mediocre books that someone had the vision to make into really good movies.

Just as we live in a society where there are millions of people who actually care about whether Kim Kardashian, a spoiled rich exhibitionist with no discernable talents, has a new BFF or if her butt has grown another inch or what color her hair is this week, we also want to read (or at least own) a copy of books by or about famous people. Here’s my question for everyone who feels that you have to have the latest book “by” the latest actor or politician about their troubled or wonderful youth and struggle to reach fame or the governor’s mansion or know why they slept with that hooker or why the wife stayed with him after he slept with that hooker: Do you really think they ‘wrote’ the book?

Every time you see one of these ‘stars’ or notoriously famous people on the late night or early morning talk shows discussing the publication of their latest book, what you should really be asking is “where is the poor ghostwriter who actually wrote the book?” Were they adequately compensated for not having their name anywhere on the book? Do they get royalties?

(Generally not. It’s a work for hire.) Can they brag that they actually wrote it? Probably not; I’m assuming there’s a gag order in the contract and attached to the ghostwriter’s payment.

So that’s one genre of “what makes a book worth publishing? because I am hoping that most of those people who purchase these books realize that the famous person didn’t actually write much (or any) of it. At that point it comes down to whether you care. If you bought it because you are excited to see your hero’s very own words in print, buy something like “Harry Potter” and stick with fantasy. If you bought it because you were simply interested in the story itself, despite the fact that the subject of the book may have had very little to do with the actual ‘writing’ of the book, than that’s different. It’s like buying any other book. I just think it’s disingenuous of the interviewers to rave about how wonderful the book is when they know good and well they are giving credit to the star or politician sitting in front of them when that person probably couldn’t write a coherent grocery list.

But this is really no different than all the great visual artists, singers, screenwriters and actors who never get those million-dollar deals or starring roles and could act the pants off the main star or sing and make your heart melt (Susan Boyle anyone?). There are any combination of factors that make for success in any field in the arts. And sometimes talent is way down on the list. Michael O’Neill the accomplished actor who played the jockey’s father in “Seabiscuit” had a compelling article written about him several years ago in the L.A. Times about the disparity in actor’s salaries. It gave details that few people outside the acting industry probably think about: that there is one amount set aside for the ‘talent’ – the actors. If that amount is ten million dollars and the mega star is getting nine million, that leaves one million dollars to be split between all the other talent. And sometimes that leaves for a very small taste of the pie. Sometimes, the actors surely want to ask of the star: How much money do you need? How many more millions of dollars can you spend? Why not accept seven million so the rest of us can get a decent paycheck?  

The same could be asked with writing: How many bestsellers do you need? How many published books do you need to be satisfied as a writer? Why don’t you try writing and just leaving some of those manuscripts unpublished for awhile? Why, if you’re already an established actor, move into books too when you know you can’t write a clear sentence but you’re stealing the spotlight from another writer who deserves a break? Here’s the thing: a good actor can get a ghostwriter to write his or her book and pretend they wrote it. A good writer can’t get someone to act for them in a film.

Ghostwriters anonymous aside, there’s also the subject much closer and dearer to my heart of decent  and great writers who have never gotten book deals because publishing houses have to make room for 1) the bankable goldmine writers (like Sue Grafton, Nicholas Sparks, Toni Morrison, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Nora Roberts, etc.) and 2) the stars and politicians whose books are written by ghostwriters, 3) the writers who don’t produce goldmines for the publishing house but who have a good enough track record with sales of their first books to be published again,  and finally… 4) the new kids on the block who sometimes have wonderful first books and sometimes mediocre ones but for whom the book publishing gods have smiled down on and they got a book deal (a great many of which wind up on $1 book tables or get shredded for pulp).

Do I sound jaded? Probably. But I feel for good reason. And I write this for thousands of promising and great writers whose works never see the light of day (or the printed page) because publishing is almost all about numbers and profits. It is not always about making sure that talented writers get published. Writing is one animal. Good and great writing another. One of my favorite anonymous quotes is, “Some people write because they can type.” Getting an agent is another animal and publication a whole other one. That’s why you should read “The Bestseller.”

I went to a lecture a few years ago by Susan Driscoll, the former president of iUniverse (now AUTHOR HOUSE) and she quoted some startling statistics on book publishing in general (not self-publishing).

Author House is one of the most prominent on-demand, self-publishing platforms for writers. Anyhow, these are some of the stats she shared with the writers’ club event I attended (hope my notes are accurate and I am fully aware I am mixing numbers with percentages; blame it on my shorthand! There are 20 million fewer readers in 2002 than there were in 1982. The FIVE large publishing houses (some have merged by 2023) control 90% of retail sales. Of the books published in a given year, 7% of the books generate 87% of the sales; only about 1200 sell more than 50,000 copies; another 24,000 books might sell about 5,000 copies and 93% of books will sell less than 1,000 copies. So, just to be clear: if your book sells 5,000 copies, you are – in my humble opinion – a bestselling author. 75% of books will wind up on the backlist (clearance sales) and 40-50% of new titles will be returned because they didn’t sell. BOOKSTORE PROMOTION: Publishers pay for that prime real estate when you see certain books featured in the windows and on the tables at the front entrance. And finally (to cheer you up) 90% of authors who get an advance don’t earn out on it. Meaning, you didn’t generate enough sales to earn what the publisher “advanced” you and if they are stickler you could wind up having to pay that back.

You are in rarified air when you are at the Nora Roberts, Clancy, Grisham, Diana Gabaldon range of sales and fame. Author J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) is in a category of her own that NO writer in history has ever reached, and she is the top-selling author in the history of publishing.

I was represented by McIntosh & Otis (est. 1928), one of the oldest and most prestigious literary agents in New York City (and the country) for about eight years. This was the ultimate Madison Avenue (and now Park Avenue) literary agency. They were the agency that represented John Steinbeck at the earliest stages of his career (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, etc.) and they still represent his estate. Its authors include a who’s who of Pulitzer and Nobel prizewinning names: Aside from Steinbeck (which would be enough for any literary house), Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry) and the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and there’s nothing more to say about her or that book, Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and a Pulitzer winner, Mary Higgins Clark, Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers, etc.) AND little old me. There were some 2013 or so scandalous events with some of their former agents, but that does not change their incredible history.

So, just think about that. Think about how good of a writer you need to be to get represented by an agency like McIntosh & Otis. I’ve done the humble route, so now I am saying what other people have said of me and to me for years, and I am usually too busy being humble to acknowledge: I am a good writer. Certainly not Toni Morrison quality…but I am as good or better a writer than a lot of published writers.  My writing made her cry, made another stay up all night finishing my book, made another wish she had married a different man.

Powerful words that I smile about and in which I take pride. Not to say there aren’t just as many who probably think I should never write another word!

And getting a literary agent is probably harder than getting a talent agent. I have no definitive proof of that, but I believe it is true. There are really good writers who send query letters and sample writing out to literary agents for years and they NEVER get an agent. Some give up. Some keep writing in obscurity and some (like me) self publish eventually. It is so great that self publishing is a really viable alternative today and often leads to a mainstream publishing deal. But my point is that for me to have been selected by this very prestigious agency within six months of my attempt to get an agent is like hitting the lottery. This is a BIG deal in the life of a writer.

My first agent at McIntosh & Otis, Barbara Kennedy, was this dear, nurturing, mom-like woman with whom I had a great bond. It deserves to be mentioned that Barbara worked on the Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun” as Lorraine Hansberry’s assistant. I was blown away when she shared that with me. When she told me once that my writing reminded her of Hansberry, I told her that I could die, unpublished, and be satisfied with that compliment alone. I actually went to New York to the agency once to deliver a revised manuscript, met with Barbara and she took me to lunch. That was an out-of-body experience I still like to do an instant recall on every now and then.

My agents (both Barbara and the one I got assigned to after Barbara retired, Elizabeth) tried very hard to get me published. And I will always love them for that. I also have all the rejection slips to prove it, some kind and some brutal. And when Barbara retired she had a choice to either end the association with some writers on her list or, believing in their potential, assign them to another agent. And she assigned me to the president’s daughter. So I knew I was going to get a publishing deal. I just knew it. And I was wrong.

So, seven almost eight years into my association with Mc & O, I began to feel their enthusiasm for my potential wane. Early on there were two publishing houses where my first manuscript of “The Sea Grape Tree” had made it to a meeting of the editors and was hotly (I like to think) discussed and debated as to whether they would publish my novel. I really love my recurring dreams of their discussion about my potential as the next best-selling literary genius. Yet the debates in these two fine publishing houses filtered out, and I was sent a comforting rejection letter and no contract.

Finally, in 2007, I got into a huff and ‘disassociated’ (don’t care if that’s a real word or not) myself from Mc&O. I am sure they are all staying up at night still crestfallen over that. This was one more ‘huff’ where I made a major decision in a huff and now wish that someone could have talked me down off the ledge. Nevertheless, I did it and I moved on by self-publishing my third or fourth manuscript, “The South Africa of His Heart” with iUniverse. I am so proud of this memoir. I had three book signings, one at the Barnes & Noble in Westwood (near the UCLA campus). I have actually had strangers buy the book as well as multiple copies being purchased by my very good friends, bless their hearts. It didn’t sell well because I wasn’t willing to pay iUniverse for its marketing programs and because I was not into marketing the book myself. Another little publishing tidbit:  Even when you self-publish, it’s about money and not always quality. They don’t care how good your book is if you haven’t paid for that premium package for their editors to read your work. Or, you could have a stunning book, but if you don’t buy into their marketing programs a lot of good books are going to go unnoticed. When you self publish you also have to hustle to sell the book.

But I do know that the book was strategically placed in the offices of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen, Charlie Rose, a former studio exec…even Malcolm X’s daughter and lots of other folks and bookstores. My South African family got a copy to Nelson Mandela’s assistant who was supposed to give it to President Mandela. I don’t think I could do more than that. And recently another South African pseudo agent got one of the editors of Pan MacMillan to review it but it didn’t fit a tight little sub-genre that they had in mind so that was that. But I am a writer, not a book marketer. I had no interest in trying to ‘sell” myself or my book. I wanted someone else to do that. So “The South Africa of His Heart” has a small, loyal group of readers whose praise I cherish and feel uplifted by.

Here is the bottom line for me: I knew, after Mc & O failed to get me a book deal, that I needed to see my name in print before I left this earth. I did that by self-publishing. It warms my heart every time I see the spine of my book on my bookshelf between Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. The compliments, the book signings, the people who have told me they stayed up all night reading, that it made them cry or want to travel or rethink their love relationships or love their children more, the strangers who bought it and emailed me to tell me how much they enjoyed it…that was all gravy, icing on the cake, the crème de la crème so to speak and to use a cliché or two. Seeing my name on a book – that was the goal.

Most, if not all, writers write because we are compelled to do so, to tell a story, to put down in words our thoughts and dreams and fantasies. Most of us hope that our words will not die with us, unnoticed, unpublished having never been read and/or appreciated by someone else. When you are able to have even a small following of loyal readers who say to you, “You are an incredible writer. Your book made me cry or feel or yearn,” than you have lived and died for what writers pray someone will say to them. The fame, the fortune, the awards, the TV shows and public recognition are the dream world, the fantasy, and the heights to which very, very few writers will ever ascend. But if you can get that little piece of the pie, that crumb, that delectable crumb from a reader who is moved by your words…that is more than a lot of writers will ever get. And that is enough. It is enough for me on this day and perhaps forever.

So in today’s world the question of what makes a book worth publishing has a lot of different answers. Because today we satisfy that need by publishing the book ourselves. AND in 2023… well, it finally happened. In 2021, Fordham University Press (bless them) offered me a publishing deal and my historical nonfiction book “Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill” will be released on April 2, 2024. God spare life, I will be seventy when it comes out. See… it’s not over until it’s over.