Things I have Learned About the Publishing Biz

Here are some of the things I have learned about the publishing biz in the last few years:

  • Never quote song lyrics in your work. Organising permission is an expensive pain in the bottom. In fact, never quote anything that’s still copyrighted. Stick to public domain quoting.”My luve is like a red, red rose . . . ” Permissions, on the other hand, are like a deep, dark cesspit.
  • Assistants, be they in editorial, publicity, marketing or wherever almost always know more than you do.
  • A good agent is worth their weight in mangosteens.
  • Vampire books are sure fire winners. Especially when there’s love in ’em. Also monkey knife fights work well in any genre. And girl books with pink covers. Everyone should aspire to write a pink book—especially Lili Wilkinson.
  • Much of what I learned from researching the world of science fiction publishing does not apply to my new world of young adult publishing. (This is even truer of uni press publishing.) When I switch to writing adult historical romances I imagine I’ll have to go through another steep, steep learning curve.
  • Even when you’re published, you can’t get out of writing synopses.
  • The novel is not dying. (And, nor are panels, Gwenda!)
  • Librarians and booksellers are your friend. No matter how high or low they are in their profession, you need them. Besides they’re almost always fun to hang out with. Especially if they’re cricket fans.
  • Sometimes your editor has as little idea as you do of how various other departments of their company works. Particularly contracts and royalties.
  • Most of the people who work in publishing (especially in editorial) are there because they love books, not because they want to make money.
  • Nobody cares about your book as much as you do. Nobody.

I’m off to Bologna tomorrow for the SCBWI conference and then the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. I expect to learn many more publishing pearls of wisdom. In the meantime, do any of you lot have some to share? Or recommendations for monkey-knife-fighting books?

Posted: NYC, 22 March, 7:50PM.


  1. Hezaa on #

    This is not entirely related to publishing, but today I have learned that most of the time, a website’s administrator appreciates that a visitor has found a typographical/grammatical error and aspired to correct it—given that the visitor sends a polite and businesslike message via e-mail. (I’ve done this. I’m a proud stickler and I know it.)

    I finished Magic or Madness this evening—you and Scott both have a strong penchant for ending your books with one magical sentence that entices the reader’s mind to beg for more.

  2. lili on #

    i have learned:

    -we judge books by their covers. live with it.

    -the layout and design of a book is almost as important as the words. if a book is physically difficult to read (shallow gutters and margins, too much text on a page), then people won’t read it.

    -always listen to your editor. sure, they might be wrong, and then you should fight for what you want. but chances are they’re right.

    -good proofreaders are worth their weight in gold.

  3. lili on #

    oh, and my pink book is percolating.

  4. Justine on #

    Hezaa: Do please point out any typoes you see here. I aim to eradicate ’em all. (Though I’m a bit perverse when it comes to grammar. Some stuff other folks reckon are grammatical errors, well, I don’t think so. Language she be changing.)

    Well, it is book one of a trilogy—gotta keep some stuff up in the air otherwise why would anyone come back for the second and third books? Hope the ending wasn’t too frustrating for you and that your library has Magic Lessons!

    Lili: Oh, yes! A bad (or inappropriate) cover can sink a book stone cold dead no matter how good it is. And the older I get the less likely I am to read no-leading, tiny-font books. The eyes they hurt!

    Good editors have a knack for spotting what’s wrong even if they don’t have a fix. And why should they have a fix? That’s the writer’s job.

    Amen to that. Badly proof read books make me want to cry. Like Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. Why? Why?

  5. Little Willow on #

    Lili: I followed Justine’s link, read your FAQ, and discovered that you have 32 different editions of Alice in Wonderland. I don’t know you, but YOU ROCK. Alice is the best ever. I envy your collection.

  6. Andrew Macrae on #

    Here’s ten things I’ve learned so far about writing short stories:

    1. Read your work back to yourself out loud.
    2. No one cares that you’re having trouble with a story.
    3. No amount of critiquing will fix a broken story.
    4. Never query a submission.
    5. Don’t talk about your work-in-progress.
    6. Start the next piece as soon as you finish the last.
    7. Read heaps, and read heaps of short stories outside your preferred genre.
    8. Cultivate a generous spirit, and give praise where it’s due.
    9. Compose on paper, away from the computer.
    10. Eschew all rules for writing.

  7. Hannah Wolf Bowen on #

    Well, of course panels aren’t dying. They’re so dead that they’re starting to come back around to live again.

    Mmm. Panel braaaaains.

  8. John H on #

    “it was a dark and stormy night. a flash of lightning glinted off the cold blue steel of bonzo’s bowie knife. he had plans for professor boyd, and no matter the outcome – tonight would be the last time the professor put him to bed…”

  9. John H on #

    on the subject of proofreading – how much of this is still done by hand? i realize that the actual editing is still a hands-on process, but i’ve seen more than a couple of books lately that had obvious typos – the type of mistakes any basic word-processing program (or is that programme?) would catch.

  10. sara z on #

    It was a cold, sad day when I realized I would still have to write synopses. Sigh.

  11. veejane on #

    Proofreaders get a lot less time than they used to, IIRC, and copyeditors get taken out behind the gym and robbed of their lunch money. Also, since so many things are being published in any given year, there aren’t enough of the best proofers and ce’s to go around.

    Permissions editing is the hairiest, most bizarre aspect of publishing, in my mind. Eschewing permissions, unless you absolutely have to have something under copyright, is definitely the way to go.(That goes double if the actual copyright holder is not inside the country you’re in.)

    The saddest part? Short-story writers who are so happy to be included in an anthology, and don’t have any idea that the gigantic company that has copyright of their story is charging $2500 for the privilege of a reprint. The writer, of course, sees about $12 of that fee.

  12. Kerri on #

    Hi Justine,

    I just found your website/blog today–I linked to one of your articles on Writer’s Block. I really enjoyed it and it helped me realize I am just lazy!


  13. Chris S. on #

    A few more good things to know about publishing:

    1) You can’t rebut reviews. You just can’t. No matter how stupid and inaccurate the review, you will always come off better if you ignore it (though in private, go ahead and burn the review while sticking pins in a reviewer-shaped doll)

    2) There will always be someone better than you. But resentment is corrosive, so don’t waste much time on it.

    2a) There will always be someone worse than you. But if your sense of superiority gets blinding, refer to #2.

    3) You have one book to worry about. Your editor has dozens; your rep, hundreds; your bookseller, thousands. Just to keep things in perspective.

    4) People want to like your book, they really do.

  14. kristin on #

    If a book is geared towards a certain age group…

    Either the publisher said…”no-one outside this age group will read it”
    or demographics say this….

    All I have to say is that Justine is a wonderful author….very full of description, feeling and wonder!
    My son got “Magic or Madness” from his school library….after he read it in a few days…I had to read it….I loved it.

  15. Ben Payne on #

    I’ve only learnt three things about writing so far:

    (1) Stop writing crap
    (2) No really, Ben, stop writing crap.
    (3) Wait, it’s okay. Ben Peek writes good, and people think I’m him

    I don’t know if this method will work for other people…

  16. Ben Payne on #

    ps. I was very upset the first time I heard someone say point one from your list. I had some kick-arse song-quotes in my first novel, man. The writing itself was abysmal crap, but I was relying on the song-quotes to carry it… *shakes head*… oh cursed fate…

  17. kk on #

    The trick with permissions is to go through an entertainment lawyer (I work for one, and I spend a lot of time filing lyric permissions). If your lawyer has been in the business long enough, he’ll have contacts at all the music publishing places, and he’ll call them up, or take them out to lunch, and convince them that they should half their fees and include worldwide translation rights. Of course, a lawyer will take another 5% of what you make, but what they can do for your contracts easily makes it worth it.

  18. Justine on #

    Thanks everyone for all the fabbie comments! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to take part in the convo on account of being on the road with very limited internet access. Why is not the whole world wireless?

    KK: That would work great for a writer with a sizeable advance, but for a writer with a small advance (ie most of us) it would be out of the question. I still think the best policy is to avoid song lyrics unless there is no other way.

  19. danny bloom on #

    Great post and yes, ”nobody cares about your book as much as you do. nobody.” So true. Every author needs to know that.

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