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  • Writer's picturePaul Wagner

Thoughts on writing books...

Quite a few people have asked about my experiences writing books for publication. This post should answer at least some of them!

The first book I published twelve years ago, was Wine Marketing & Sales, basically a textbook for the classes I've been teaching for almost thirty years. It was based on the lectures I gave, and each chapter is one lecture. It is now considered the definitive book on the topic, has won international awards, and is in its third edition. I went through a publisher that specialized in books on the topic, the Wine Appreciation Guild/Board and Bench. It has sold something on the order a 5,000 -10,000 copies. But I still don't see much in the way of royalties...

The second book, Wine Sales & Distribution, was a follow-up to the first, focusing on another area in the same subject field, but with a different publisher--one that specializes in textbooks. Rowlan/Littlefield. They did even less to market this book. It also won some nice awards, and is regularly used as a textbook around the world. Royalties are still pretty minimal. I could go out to dinner at a nice restaurant a few times a year on the cash.

I took the columns that I had written over the years for a trade magazine and organized them into a third book, Artisan Public Relations, this time going back to the first publisher. In some ways, I think its the best of these three...and yet it has sold the least. And the royalties are even smaller.

I have done two sets of audio lectures, one for The Great Courses "Your Instant Sommelier," and one for Audible, "A History of Wine in Ten Glasses." People think these are audio books, but the books themselves were never published--they are just texts that I read aloud. I was paid a significant advance for them, but have yet to see royalties beyond those advances for either set of lectures. In both of those cases, I had an editor and a production team to work with, and the companies do have significant marketing pushes to sell these.

I kept all of that in mind when I worked out a deal with Val de Grace publishing to print my first mystery novel. They were charming and helpful, but also made it clear that they weren't in the habit of doing much promotion. These days, all but the biggest sellers are all done on a print-on-demand basis, so nobody gets a big print run, and nobody has anything to lose. The book came out in June of 2021, and has done well enough that I've seen some royalties from that...but still the neighborhood of a few nice dinners, rather than a salary. I am very glad I worked with them, because I learned quite a bit about the process, and I continue to have a good relationship with all my publishers.

By the way, the third edition of my first book, and the second and third books were also done print-on-demand...After a small initial set up fee, the publishers just print up copies when they get orders. It is certainly the way things are done these days, unless you are planning to pre-sell a couple hundred thousand copies. Good luck with that, unless your name is Stephen King.

When it came time to print the second mystery, I had a long conversation with Val de Grace. They were nice and helpful as always, but also admitted that there was little benefit to my going through them. They would collect a percentage of the royalties in return for setting up the book for publication. That's it. And I used to run a company that had a design department. I knew enough to be dangerous, and I knew people who could set the book up for printing with very little trouble. And my wife is a professional proof-reader, so I had all the pieces in place to publish it myself through Ingram Spark. Which is what I did.

N.B. I ran an advertising and PR firm for thirty years. I know how to do that kind of work, although I don't do much of it for my books. I'm retired, and I like being retired. Writing the books is fun. I don't think that working to sell them is fun. And I have the complete team right at hand: I write pretty well to begin with, my wife is a superb proof-reader, and I have a good friend who is a graphic designer. And I took the photos on the covers of my mysteries--although they have been manipulated for effect.

My advice to aspiring writers?

1. Write a lot. These books were made much easier by the fact that I have been writing for a living, either writing press releases or advertising copy, or textbooks based on lectures, for forty years. And that writing was intently scrutinized by the most demanding of audiences--my clients and my students. They made me realize not only that every word matters, but also that tone matters as much as technical accuracy.

2. Write with someone in mind. I wrote my textbooks with my students in mind. I knew what questions they would ask and what they would want clarified. I wrote these mysteries with my two adult daughters in mind. They are both lawyers, and love a good story. I wanted a tone that would make the books fun to read by smart people. From what I have heard, I achieved that.

3. Bad self-publishing is easy. You can write a text and get it into an e-book for almost no money at all. But to self-publish a book well, you need to write a good book, proof the living daylights out of it, have a good designer make it look smart, and then print it. It needs to look professional, not "pretty good."

4. Amazon makes it very easy to self-publish. But I have a number of friends in bookstores--and they won't order books from Amazon. If you want your books to be sold in local bookstores, you need to buy your ISBN numbers and work through Ingram. Amazon will sell books published by Ingram, but small bookstores won't sell books published only through Amazon. It's not really harder to work with Ingram/Spark, but it makes a difference to the small bookstores. It costs a bit more.

5. If you want to make money publishing books, figurer that you should spend an hour marketing and promoting the book for every hour you spent writing it. That doesn't appeal to most writers, but that's the way it works.

By the way, the third book in my mystery series, Holes in the Ground, is currently in the proofing stage, and will be published by June. And numbers four (Granite Gorge) and five (High Sierra Quarry) are written, and in the pipeline to be release in the next eighteen months.

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Nice article this week in the book section of the Napa Register about my mystery novels. It's pretty cool to see how people have responded to these. I liked this line: "As fluid and effortless as hi


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