Current trends in book publishing: Robert Mackwood presents at the Canadian Authors Association, Vancouver

On Wednesday, May 15, 2013, I had the privilege of hearing literary agent Robert Mackwood give a presentation to the Vancouver Branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA).

Mackwood is a literary agent with thirty years’ experience in book publishing, including fifteen years working for both large and small publishers and fifteen years as an independent literary agent and consultant.

His fast-paced, entertaining talk provided an insider’s take on current trends in publishing. His advice could be helpful to many authors, especially those writing their first book and wondering about self-publishing. This post will highlight some of his points.


• There are no mid-size publishers left in Canada, only the huge international publishers and very small independent publishing houses.
• The number of independent bookstores has been decreasing for some years and that trend will continue.
• Books sales are down.

Beware of who you choose to be your literary agent

Mackwood estimates there are only about twenty legitimate literary agents in Canada. Anyone can claim to be an agent. A person’s track record is crucial. Ask your potential literary agent, “What have you sold?”

Challenging assumptions: the facts

• 95% of books are not represented by an agent.
• Agents don’t do editing or marketing. Agents are an arbitrator between an author and a publisher.
• A bestseller is a book that is on a bestseller list. Mackwood talked about the often-quoted (but incorrect) statement: “A Canadian book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies.” He explained that this misperception originated when someone asked Jack McClelland, sometime in the 1970s, how many copies a book would likely have to sell in Canada to make it onto a bestseller list.
McClelland’s reply, “About 5,000,” doesn’t mean that any book that sells 5,000 copies is automatically a bestseller. Mackwood joked about the guy who paid to have 5,000 copies of his book printed, and then claimed to have written a “bestseller”.
• Don’t write a book if your main goal is to make money. Write a book if you have an idea or topic you feel strongly about, and you want to make a contribution.
• No one writes a bestseller in thirty days. Don’t believe it.

Advantages of traditional publishing

• There is still prestige attached to being published by a recognized publishing house.
• The publisher will provide some editing and marketing services.
• The publisher will cover printing costs.
• The publisher will provide an advance against royalties (though advances are getting smaller).

However, Mackwood is very much a promoter of self-publishing. It no longer carries the stigma of the old “vanity press”, when people printed books that no publisher would touch. These days, many bestselling and critically-acclaimed books are self-published. Many started out as self-published books and were then picked up by traditional publishers once they had become successful. The quality of self-published books can now be as high as traditionally-published books.

Advantages of self-publishing

• Author control.
• Building your own brand—a book is an excellent tool for this.
• Much better royalties—but you have to work a lot harder, at preparing your book for print, marketing, and distribution. (There are independent distributors who, for a fee, will get self-published books into stores. However, they take a large chunk of the profits. The danger is that stores retain the right to return unsold books. When books are returned, the publisher—in this case, the author—loses money.)
• Online marketing opportunities can be good—if you learn how to use them.
• Happiness. Most people experience a huge sense of satisfaction when they can hold their finished book in their hand.

E-books and other predictions about the future of books

• The number of e-books sold in the United States is getting close to the number of print books sold.
• One advantage of e-books is that they allow older books to be continually available. Before, backlisted books would be removed from a publisher’s list if they didn’t sell at least thirty copies a week. Then they would be out of print and unavailable anywhere except libraries or used bookstores.
• The average price for an e-book now is in the $6.99–7.99 range. There are plenty of e-books available for 99 cents or for free. Authors usually get a 25% royalty.
• It’s still the “Wild West days” of e-book publishing. What will people be willing to pay for e-books? Should writers specifically gear their books to the e-book market? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions.

Robert Mackwood is now doing more consulting work, helping authors who need guidance and direction with their book ideas (in contrast to trying to sell an already-completed book to a publisher). He can be reached through his Seventh Avenue Literary Agency website at .


Ryan Vetter speaks about self-publishing e-books through Wundr

Ryan Vetter, founder of the self-publishing company Wundr ( ), also spoke at the same meeting to tell us how his company can assist writers who want to self-publish an e-book. His company has produced writing software called Playwrite that allows writers to create a book from scratch and end up with an ePub file, with no need for file conversion.

The company also offers writers many other services, such as a wide selection of high-quality, affordable book covers (including animated covers), free ISBN #s, and lots of advice about how to market e-books and ramp up sales. Wundr’s basic fee is 5% of royalties, but they can provide more extensive marketing packages to writers for a higher fee.

Vetter mentioned that the two things critical to successful e-book sales are
1) The cover image.
2) A superbly-written preview of the e-book—this preview consists of about 10% of the book’s content, and is offered to readers for free to entice them to buy the book.

Someone in the audience asked Vetter if Wundr provided editing services. He replied that they did, but it was an automated process. As an editor, I didn’t like the sound of that. I know there are excellent editing software programs available, but reputable editors don’t work with software alone. Many editors use software to be efficient at mundane tasks of copy editing and style consistency, but good editing is much more than that.