"How I made Simon & Schuster give me my own publishing company:" An Interview with Tucker Max
As you probably know if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, there are now many ways to bring a book to market. Whether it’s in print or digital, self-published or through a publisher, with or without an agent, the choices available to a new author is almost mind-boggling. Tucker Max is different. As the author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, he ignored all the options available to writers and made publishers do what they’d never done before — give an author their own publishing company.
In these times of great change, it's possible for authors to forge their own path — as Tucker did by picking and choosing the elements of self-publishing and traditional publishing that make the most sense for his book.
Watch our interview with Tucker — or read the transcript below — for some inspiration!
How publishing worked 15 years ago
Hi Tucker, it’s great to have you with us today. Let’s start from the beginning — can you tell us from the early days when you started to write and wanted to get your stories out into books?
Yeah, I started in writing in a totally different era (2001). I used to send emails to my friends, and they thought they were really funny. They kept telling me, ”you need to publish this. This needs to be a book."
In order to query agents and publishers at the time, you would send them actual mail — physical pieces of paper in the mail. And to find their addresses, there was this big book at the library, whose name I don’t remember. So I sent out hundreds of submissions — all of which I had to print out and put in envelopes… It was the worst.
Anyway, I sent them out. I got zero interest. I mean literally zero. 90% of the agents and publishers I sent my stuff to ignored it. The 10% who responded all sent rejections, and only 3 or 4 people took the time to send personalized rejections, only to tell me how terrible my writing was. We’re talking about stories that went on to become books that sold millions of copies and created a new literary genre.
At that point, as a writer, you basically had nowhere to go. Except there was this new thing called the internet, so I just decided to put my stuff up on there for free.
And then it got picked up by Collegehumor, which is big now but had just started then. And it blew up off of that. MTV came and did an actual documentary about me.
Of course, at that point, publishers all came back to me and wanted to publish my stuff. That was in 2003 or so and my first book came out January of 2006, because they take so long.
On self-publishing, traditional publishing, and distribution deals
So you had a publisher for your first book. But then you went on building your own publishing company, down the line. How did that kind of switch happen?
Tucker: Right. So what happened was, my first book kind of took off and spent five years on the New York Times bestseller list. There was a movie about it, and I published two other books. For my second book, I signed a deal with Simon & Schuster — just a normal publishing deal.
And then, what I realized was that after my second book, I was a big author. Not JK Rowling big, but I was big enough. I had 150,000-200,000 people on my mailing list before authors were even doing mailing lists.
Then I realized traditional book publishers don't really do much. They give you an advance, which, if you need it, can be nice. But the advance is not free; they own the rights to your book. Sometimes they can give you credibility, to help you launch. But once you're big, they don't really add much. All the other things they do — book covers, interior layout, editing, etc. — I already knew all the best people in the world to do this, so I could hire them independently.
Nowadays, most of the best people traditional publishers hire are freelancers — but, I don't have to tell you this, a lot of them have profiles on Reedsy, right?
So I went to Simon & Schuster, and I said, "Look, I'm going to either leave and go to Hachette" — Hachette had offered me a huge advance for my next two books, more than Simon was willing to pay — “or you can give me a publishing company. My own. Not just my own imprint under Simon & Schuster, I want my own publishing company." One where all they would do is distribution and sales.
You can think of it like Harvard University Press. They don't have warehouses or trucks or a sales team, but their books are all in Barnes and Noble, right? So how do they do that? They use a distributor. And Simon & Schuster and most of the big 5 have distribution arms. Mostly, they distribute their own books, but they may also distribute and do sales for other big publishing companies. So I just cut the same deal that Harvard University Press got, and I went from making 15% of hardcover royalties, to 85% of net receipts.
Of course, I got no advance and I had to do all the publishing work myself. Basically, I had my own publishing company.
There are hundreds of highly successful self-published authors nowadays, and they very rarely get “distribution deals” like that. I can only think of Barbara Freethy, with Ingram, or Hugh Howey. Why is that?
Let me tell you the secret. A big five publishing company, or big distributor like Pegasus, only want to distribute things that the retailers want to buy. So the problem is not the publishers or the distributors. The problem is Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble only wants to carry — for the most part — books that are published by traditional New York publishers.
And it's crazy. Barnes & Noble mostly cares about “looking reputable,” and about all these sorts of nonsense things. They don't think they're in the business of selling books — they think they're in the business of being cultural arbiters. And that's why Amazon is eating their lunch, and going to continue to eat their lunch.
If I were a fiction author starting off right now, I would not even think one second about being in a bookstore. I would only focus on writing stuff that people want to read. Because if you do that, not only will you sell more books, but the only company that's going to matter in terms of book distribution in physical locations — in probably 510 years — is going to be Amazon. They've already moved into retail, and they’re going to expand, expand and expand.
On Scribe Writing
Now you built a company in the past few years, called Scribe Writing [update: now known as Scribe Media]. What was the thinking behind this company? What opportunity did you see that you could serve with that?
Tucker: What happened is, I was at an entrepreneur dinner, and this woman had a great idea for a book. People have been asking her to write it for ten years. But she was like, "Listen, I don't have the time to sit down and type this out for a year. I don't have the time to figure out the publishing process.” She said, ”Isn't there a way to just get this idea out of my head, and into a book?"
Of course, I was like, "No, there's no way to write without writing." That's literally in the word.
This is the total normal writer view, right? But she called me out. She said, "Well then, why are you at an entrepreneur dinner? Entrepreneurs solve problems.” And she was right, so I kind of rethought the whole thing. And then, of course, I realized, Socrates never wrote a word down. Jesus Christ never wrote a word down. Putin never wrote a word down. But we have all of their wisdom in books. How did that happen? Scribes. So there's a way to get ideas out of heads, and into books — without the author having to be the one typing them out, or writing them up.
And this is exactly what Scribe Writing does. To find or more, watch the interview, or head to the company’s website here.
Tucker Max: publishing advice for non-fiction authors
What would be your top publishing advice for newbies and aspiring non-fiction authors?
There are three questions everyone needs to answer before they start writing.
- Question 1: Why are you writing the book? And in essence, what result are you hoping to get?
- Question 2: What audience are you trying to, do you need to reach with your book in order to get that result?
- Question 3: Why is that audience going to care? What are you going to say that's interesting and valuable to them?
If you cannot answer those three questions clearly, then don't write a book.
Now let's say you can answer those three questions. I would say that for almost all non-fiction, the best bet is to self-publish. That way you get to control the rights to the book, and you can use it to promote whatever it is you're trying to promote. As soon as you go traditional, you have now sold the rights and royalties to that book to someone else. So you can't give copies away. If you're trying to do speaking gigs with the book, you've got to buy the book at price from your publisher.
If you want to do excerpts, if you want to use the content other places, you don't own the content anymore, the publisher does. And they don't care about your business at all. They care about selling actual copies of the book. So for most non-fiction authors, their goals are not aligned with a publisher’s goals. So that's why going self-publishing is the better route, for almost all non-fiction authors.
Photo credit: Mac Danzig.
If you're a non-fiction author, do you agree with Tucker's take on publishing? What has been your experience of working with a traditional publisher, if any? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.