Knowing What We Don’t Know

When facing massive uncertainty, as exists in today’s highly interconnected global economy, it is essential to appreciate both what one does know as well as what one does not know.  ~Vikram Mansharamani

In some ways, the entire publishing industry is still operating “business as usual.” Most of us have years or decades of experience behind us. We know things. Based on our experiences from the past, we’re reasonably accurate at making predictions for the future and making decisions accordingly.

And yet, things are changing. There is truly so much we don’t know. I think it’s crucial that when discussing career paths, when making decisions for the future, we acknowledge what we don’t know.

I know publishers are still making traditional advance/royalty deals, they’re still printing paper books, and they’re still taking a year or more to get a book out. I don’t know how long this will continue.

I know print books are still selling, and I also know e-books continue to become a larger proportion of sales. But I don’t know if/when the sales of e-books will level out, and I don’t know if/when print books are going to become nearly obsolete.

I know my clients are free to self-publish a book any time they choose, and they’re free to do it with or without my involvement. I don’t know exactly how it will affect their publishing future.

I was talking with a client who was telling me about the advice “her friend’s agent” had given her friend, which was different from the advice I was giving about the advisability of self-publishing a novel. But I reminded her that (in this new area of e-books and self-publishing) none of us are operating out of any great body of evidence or data. We’re often speaking from a limited amount of personal experience, a bit of evidence/data, and a lot of our instinct based on years in the business. But it’s a mistake if we fail to acknowledge what we don’t know, and instead act like we “know” what we’re talking about.

I do think agents and others in the business have a body of knowledge that’s valuable. I also think that authors (and everyone) should be aware that when it comes to the future of publishing—and by extension the right decision at every given juncture—there is a great deal that is unknowable.

What do you KNOW about current and future publishing? What DON’T you know?


  1. Jim Gilliam says:

    After 36-years in the medical field the most important lesson I ever learned was the recognition of my limitations. In other words, when to seek help. I’m a retired physician assistant turned author and I’ve carried forward the principle of realizing what I don’t know to my new writing career. Every field of endeavor is evolving. If that wasn’t true, the particular field: writing, agenting, and publishing, for instance, would cease to exist.

    It is no longer enough for writers to write well, they must be involved and evolve or remain unknown.

  2. Jack Dowden says:

    Very interesting article. I was an intern at a publishing house a few years ago, and I learned a lot. My girlfriend currently works in the publishing industry, and she’s constantly fascinated by all the different stuff going on there. It’ll be interesting to see how the next few years go.

  3. I know a good story remains with the reader regardless of its delivery. (Electronic,paper,audio)
    I don’t know enough about market trends to even attempt going it alone.

  4. Joe Pote says:

    What I know: I’m having a lot of fun writing, blogging, learning and getting acquainted with all of you.

    What I don’t know: Where it all is leading or what sort of writing/publishing I’ll be doing a few years down the road.

  5. Eldon Hughes says:

    These are excellent observations, thank you. In every industry, craft, or hobby recognizing what we don’t know is as valuable to our growth and progress as recognizing what we do know. Why should we think that writing/publishing would be different?

    Thank You!

  6. J.M. Bray says:

    I write but have to balance that activity with the necessity of my current profession. If I invested the time to learn what the industry will do, I would not have the time to write. While I don’t want to be ignorant of the trends, chasing the details could be a counterproductive investment of the precious time I do have. So, here is my list.

    I don’t know what an agent knows.

    I know that what an agent knows, I don’t necessarily have to know.

    Ya know?

    Once I finish this edit, I will (hopefully) find that knowledgeable agent and let them handle the specifics, while I keep writing.

  7. I know it still seems like it takes forever to hear back from publishers when a book is out on submission. I don’t know if that is a bad thing or a good thing:)

  8. Sue Harrison says:

    My greatest fear is for bookstores, but here’s what I envision in the future –

    A store that still has a large variety of books on the shelves – even more books than it would have carried 10 years in the past. But fewer copies of each book. And on the spine of each “paper” book would be an identification code that bookstore customers could use to download that book on their ereaders (all brands of ereaders), which they would have with them. They could do that right in the aisle without going to the checkout counter. The bookstore and the author and the publisher would all get a cut (AND THE AGENT!)

    If the customer decided to buy the paper book, he or she could still download an ebook from the code on the spine, and so could anyone who read that paper book in the years to come. And each time the e version was downloaded the store would get a cut, as would the author and the publisher and the agent.

    That way I could go into a store and hold the book and leaf through it. Then I could make my decision : paper or e, OR BOTH! And 60 years later my great great grandson could make the same decision when he inherits the book from me.

    WOW! A whole new world with more choices and more possibilities and MORE BOOKS SOLD, yet still the option of sitting in the bookstore with my chai tea and a brownie and the book that I’m just about to fall in love with…

    • What a great vision. I am told some stores can print and bind on demand – under the same setup as you describe.

      • Sue Harrison says:

        I didn’t know that, Cherry. It’s going to be amazing out there in the future. One thing I do believe I know is that people will continue to love stories and that storytellers will continue to find joy in the telling.

  9. Susan H. says:

    Currently, there are only hints of what e-publishing will look like when it has a history to tell the tale. What compounds the frustration of that unknown is having to do either tradition or e-publishing just so in order to be successful. On one side we need the perfectly worded query letter to get an agent’s attention. On the other side we need to know how to market the e-book by ourselves and devote the time to do so, something new to most of us. We’re pioneers in an fast-paced electronic age with a whole new set of rules.

  10. Another thing I know – the Lulu business model is a crock.

    One of the most appealing things about books is that we can talk about them with our friends – we’re social beings, after all. If everyone’s reading something different, that need isn’t addressed.

    Best-sellers achieve that status for a reason – they reach across the boundaries between people and unite us in a shared vision, and in shared imagination.

    A million authors selling a hundred books each, indeed.

  11. I walked into a “real” bookstore this weekend and was assaulted by the captivating fragrance of new books. Ah! I hope we always have this. I know we need to adjust. I know we need to be fluid, to move with this rapidly changing world, to adapt to the brilliance of new technology and discoveries. We have to do this to survive, to get our stories into hearts and minds, to be relevant. But, I hope we’re always able to walk into stores full of books and inhale that heady aroma.

  12. I’m willing to make a guess: we writers will e-publish, and the publishing houses will simply peruse e-books for the next blockbuster. It’s a win-win: publishers will already know the book can sell, authors will get the help with marketing and PR that they need.

  13. I know that , “of the making of many books, there is no end.”

    What I do not know is what (ever changing) form the publishing of books will take.

    The idea of story used to be oral. Research moved from notes on cave walls to scrolls, to encyclopedias to CDs to the internet. Science fiction, in its propensity for predicting the future, has already portrayed libraries – the repositories of information and history – as talking holograms conjured up with the wave of a hand.

    I do not know what form dissemination will take, but the making of many stories and the collecting and organizing of increasingly massive amounts of information will continue.

    Who will be able and prepared to keep pace?

    • How far is the hologram and wave of hand from the Wii and E-book reader? ^^

      Preparedness to keep up is perhaps the key to publishing in the future. The author will be focused on writing while the pub co’s will focus on the ever changing mediums. I try to do a little of each and wind up dog paddling between two docks while loaded literary cargo ships pass by.

      • Ahem. Forgive me, but “The author will be focused on writing while the pub co’s will focus on the ever changing mediums.” seems a bit idealistic. I am just skeptical enough to think that the publishing companies have lost ground, have their head in the ground or are mired down in the ground. This makes me over-stressed as a writer.

  14. I’ll go out and dance on a limb here, and see if anyone cares to join me.

    I know this…

    Recently I read Chris Hunter’s “Extreme Risk”, hi memoir of life in EOD. I’ve got PTSD, and toward the end he wrote something that spoke to clearly and kindly to the wrecked places in me, that I ran my fingers over the words. I felt a connection, a vibration through the slightly raised ink.

    A paper book has something of a beating heart, and a Kindle never will.

    • Did you know you have a way with words?

      “something that spoke to clearly and kindly to the wrecked places in me, that I ran my fingers over the words. I felt a connection, a vibration through the slightly raised ink.”

      That’s what writers do – they dance out on a limb more often than they mean to.

  15. R.A.Savary says:

    As I read through all the comments I began to think about the job of the critic. Maybe in the future, the critic’s job will tank on more meaningful airs of integrity, responsibility and credibility.

    • Uh, did you mean “take on” rather than “tank on”?

      It can read both ways, and “tank on” does have rather an intriguing implication, both regarding the current interpretation of the critic’s role and the demands of the new marketplace.

      • Yeah, I like the idea of the critic’s job tanking:)

      • R.A.Savary says:

        First off, I am glad to see someone is paying attention, as I sometimes think my comments should be directed more specifically as replies to others’ comments. After I read and reread it, I decided it was one of those mistakes, that’s not a mistake. The critic who’s not for sale will gain those deeper airs (with much deserved respect) while the position of his opposite will probably “tank” (deservedly so).

  16. Shawn Inmon says:

    I’m not sure why so many people equate being self-published with putting out an e-book only. I can see that being true before the advances of POD, but now there is almost no reason to not be able to “hold your book in your hands.”

    My first book is coming out in August. I never sought traditional publishing. Still, I have a great editor, proofreader, cover artist and layout person. And, my book will be available in print and e-book on the same day.

    What I don’t know, of course, is how that book will do. But, I wouldn’t know that if it was being traditionally published, either.

    One final thought about what I don’t know. This is actually one of my favorite sayings. I hire an editor not to fix my grammar errors, but to add a fresh and knowledgeable perspective. I often tell him “I can’t fix what I can’t see.” He helps me see those things that need fixing.

  17. I KNOW that what I DON’T know about the publishing world, scares me 🙂 — but I also KNOW that what I DON’T know has never killed me before, so it’s an adventure to pursue. I do so while taking the proverbial hand of my mentor and critique partners and cutting off their circulation as I squeeze too hard!

  18. I know I have books in me that sparkle and help people discover they are more than they know. I don’t know how they fit into marketing at any given time. I know God is ahead of each step and has my best interests at heart. I don’t know every moment of His Plan.

  19. Jeanne says:

    What I know is that there is a lot I don’t know about the future of publishing. I know I want to be teachable, remembering there’s always more to learn.

    I don’t know how much publishing will change in the coming years, but I know the model will look different in a few years than it does now.

  20. Amanda says:

    I admit it. I don’t know much of anything.
    But, most of the teenagers I’ve asked prefer paperback books. When I hold giveaways that offer eBook or paperback prizes, nine out of ten times the paperback is preferred. And, I too have a Kindle and an iPad, and they *both* give me terrible headaches. I think they’ll balance for a while and hold each other up – complement each other, if you will.
    Holding a book in my hands is an experience I want to continue having. I get tired of devices.

  21. What I know: I still prefer to see it in print. Reading from a monitor, be it 36 inches or 5 is annoying to me.
    I feel a connection to the author if I am holding their book in my hands. I do not get that when I’m reading an e-book. Silly perhaps, but there it is.
    What I don’t know: Whether or not this makes my like my dad who always used to tell me “turn that music down!”
    Am I a dinosaur? Will there come a day when too few of us are willing to pay for a hardcopy that they just stop making them? I sure hope not.
    Food for thought: I think the music industry is following a similar path. Have you noticed that a lot less effort has been put into “cover art” for new albums? It’s because no one really sees them anymore, unless they’re a thumbnail next to the title in your IPod (did I just date myself by using an IPod reference? They are soooo 2010).
    I hope I am wrong, but I think as we progress down this road of convenience, we are losing a portion of our creative spirit. Our ability to express ourselves, to stand apart from everyone else, is getting chipped away.
    Part of how I choose a book is by author, but part is how the cover grabs me on the shelf. How is it shaped, what colors it has, the cover art, what type of material is the book made out of. How does it stand out from the rest? Is that dumb that I am falling for such obvious marketing ploys? Maybe, but the truth is I like walking the isles and seeing how each book tries to convince me to pick it up. Hard to get that at

  22. Colin says:

    I *know* I would love to be published. I don’t know when, with whom, or with which agent’s help. 🙂

  23. Kevin McGill says:

    What I know:

    I don’t care how it came or who it came through, just tell me a good story.

  24. Ann Bracken says:

    What I know: I still want to pursue traditional publishing and hold my book in my hands one day.

    What I don’t know: I’m pretty sure there’s a character limit on how much can be written here. If I try to enumerate this I’ll run over.

    What I think: There will still be paper books, just fewer copies. Even my two-year-old grandson gets excited about holding a book. I don’t think that reaction will ever go away.

  25. I know that I have you in my corner and I’m extremely grateful for that.

    I also know I love to write and no matter what else changes in this industry, I’m thinking that’s here to stay.
    ~ Wendy

  26. I just can’t imagine paper books will ever become obsolete. I have a Kindle and ipad and all the rest of it, but I STILL prefer to hold a book. AND a magazine.

    Oh good Lord. Am I OLD??

  27. What PJ said….

    I KNOW that publishing is very much like any other industry in several ways. It’s not going to look the same 10 years from now as it does today. Anybody who claims to know everything about it doesn’t. And as writers, we’re the folks who are providing the desired content for the consumer, and thus in the same position as musicians when vinyl records went away.

    I DON’T KNOW what it’s going to look like 10 years from now. Nobody does. I have my predictions, but nobody cares about those.


  28. I know, given what I know about publishing at this very moment, I’m still stiving to be the best storyteller I can be. I don’t know what my future in publishing looks like. I know that I will keep an open mind when decision-making time comes to place my current story into readers’ hands.

  29. Even when traditionally published, there is a tremendous amount of work, or expectation of it, expected from the author – if she/he wants to be successful, then pull on those work-boots and step in it up to the knees!

    So, I imagine self-published writers must work even harder, without the “back up” of a team of professionals who fashion covers and create titles and blurbs, and who offer the key to some doors that may remain, still, locked against non-trad published authors.

    I can’t say I’d never self-publish – I am just hoping I always have a team behind me (though no, I do not have an agent and am not searching for one, I do have a wonderful small press behind me that I adore).

  30. I heard this bit of wisdom from, of all people, Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban. I don’t particularly think of him as a role model, but he’s right–it’s the things you’re sure you know that keep you from learning anything. I don’t know anything for sure, but I’m trying to learn, and I’m willing to change.

    • Beth K. Vogt says:

      Going with what Richard said: Every time I think I’ve got the writing world figured out (which is actually quite rare), something changes.
      I’ve got a lot to learn — & part of the challenge is how much everything has changed & continues to change. Staying the course while embracing the new stuff along the writing road makes life interesting and frustrating all at the same time.
      But never dull.
      Never, ever dull.

  31. Yeah, what PJ said!

    I only know what I read on the Internet; I’m neither a publisher nor an agent, and as an author my interest is in riding the wave, putting out the word about both the print and ebook versions of my novel. I know more or less where the wave is going, and since I have no control over it (i.e., no control over market forces) a reactive, rather than proactive response is appropriate.

    In the end I suspect that our ‘knowledge’ of the digital revolution is going to be something like our ‘knowledge’ of the social revolution of the 60s.

    Just as greying hippies and faded Young Republicans sat together in PTA meetings ten years after the Summer of Love, so too will ebooks and print lean on one another in the metaphorical shelves of our shining houses of the future.

    The world’s a big, wide place, and extends far beyond our literary province with its blustery microclimate. Whether it’s a paper book or a tablet, the medium a person chooses to pick up is, in the end, just a medium.

    And McLuhan’s wrong. The medium is NOT the message, and never will be.

  32. What I know…old books smell like vanilla. Paper books will sell until the tapioca of my mom’s generation sours. By then, you won’t be able to read paper books in public, except perhaps in bars, but not California. Trees will be people too by then.

    What I don’t know…pretty much everything else about publishing. Knowing requires being sure and I’m only sure that I don’t know surely.

    If there’s an apocalypse, I will amend my second statement.

  33. What I know:

    Stories will always be wanted. Writers and story tellers will always be needed.

    What I don’t know:

    How readers will find stories worth reading among the hundreds of thousands published each year.

    Who will be the gatekeepers? Blogger reviewers? Amazon reviewers? Publishers? I’m not sure.

    • Jackie Ley says:

      Exactly the ‘don’t know’ that bothers me,Sally. We can’t dispense with the gatekeepers. Already, trawling the e-book market is like panning for gold in an ocean of mud.

  34. I think you make an excellent point, with the digital revolution, we know LESS than ever before.
    Which is why the advice from pros like you is so essential to newbies like me!
    And yes, in this uncertain world, I’m amazed to see the vast number of authors who’ve gone down the pot-holed road of self-publishing.
    How very daring! Or is it blissful ignorance of all the dangers lurking? I know that in my case, it’s been the latter and if now I could somehow unpublish and start all over again, I think I would!
    No matter, it’s too late now so I’m going back to the only thing I really know how to do (and that I love to do!): write!

  35. This is yet another reason why I’m seeking traditional publishing – there are so many UNKNOWNS in the future of publishing, I want to KNOW I have a team of people working with me, who have the most up-to-date information, and years of experience, to back up their best efforts.

  36. Jeff Kent says:

    I don’t KNOW anything, really. But I think that novels and other light reading will eventually outpace paper books because they’re cheaper and take up less room. The only thing stopping them is the cost of the readers and people not adjusting to the times.

    Technical books and anything with pictures or books that make you want to jump around a lot will still outsell in paper than in E format (imho).

    I love paper books, but ebooks are seductive – they are giving me my house back.

  37. Iola says:

    Good points. Some of what we say we ‘know’ is based on fact, while some of it is just opinion. And some opinions are more informed than others.

    As with everything in life, we need to become as informed as we can, and surround ourselves with people whose opinions we trust, both online and in ‘real life’.

  38. Jillian Kent says:

    I’ve learned a lot in the last 20+ years. But today I don’t think I know a lot. I’m just starting to think about my next book or series while editing the last book of my first series. It’s going to take awhile. I think I’d like to finish another book that I really love and see who might be interested. Must discuss future plans later with Rachelle. I can tell you that I’m not scared. Don’t know why. I may even consider a non-fiction work as an e-book. Just don’t know. I’d encourage us all to write, whatever we want with passion and outrageous enthusiasm. I’d encourage all of us to THINK BIG!!! And go for it, whatever your it is. 🙂

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