Interview with Chuck Sambuchino: The Keys to Publishing Success

Portrait of Chuck Sambuchino

When I was still at Writer’s Digest as editorial director and publisher, I oversaw the Writer’s Market series and had an upfront seat from which to observe the excellent work of Chuck Sambuchino (@ChuckSambuchino), who launched the Guide to Literary Agents blog—now one of the biggest blogs in publishing—and who edits the Guide to Literary Agents and Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market annual guides.

In addition to his editorial work at Writer’s Digest, Chuck also authors humor books. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Variety, New York magazine, and more; his humor book on garden gnomes was optioned by Robert Zemeckis. His newest humor book, When Clowns Attack, just released this month.

Chuck recently took the time to answer some questions about his own career, as well as lessons for writers about the publishing industry today.

JANE FRIEDMAN: You’ve been networking with and researching agents for a long time now. What significant changes have you seen in agenting or in the market since you entered the industry?

CHUCK SAMBUCHINO: I came to Writer’s Digest ten years ago, and I can certainly say that it’s more difficult to sell books now than it was then—simply because people are buying fewer books now. That’s why agents and editors are only looking for the best of the best debut novels. You really have to turn in an excellent, polished product. And that’s why nonfiction publishers are only looking for projects where it’s a unique combination of a good idea plus good author platform.

But what’s interesting in all this is that the number of literary agents in the country has not gone down; I believe it’s gone up. And I think that’s just because you’ve got a percentage of people who really, really want to be part of the publishing industry and see books succeed, and agenting offers a good entry route (rather than being an editor or publicist), in my opinion.

But from a fiction writer’s perspective, these changes shouldn’t really affect anything. A fiction writer’s job today, just like it was ten years ago, is to write something magnificent.

Your own work presents an interesting case study for the multi-genre approach, which I usually recommend against, at least for unpublished writers. Can you speak to the advantages and/or disadvantages for your career in writing and publishing many different types of work?

That’s true. I create writing reference books for Writer’s Digest. I write pop humor books for traditional publishers. And I even have a kid-lit agent and a screenwriting manager trying to sell stuff. So you’re right about the diversity of my work. Personally, I think it’s exhausting to fire in many different directions. I don’t do it for the logic or money. I do it because it’s more fun and I have writing A.D.D. Trying new things excites me, even if it’s not the 100 percent best career decision at any given moment. But I’m doing okay with it all, so I am a case study of how it can work if you put in the time and effort.

You’ve authored several books (When Clowns Attack releases this month), and of course also continue to edit the annual market guides at Writer’s Digest. So you’ve had a lot of experience year after year of launching and marketing books. Can you give us an idea of how you put together a marketing game plan, and/or what you consider the must-do tasks?

The books are different, so each one requires a different strategy, and I will show you how I lay out some marketing plans below. But real quick, let’s discuss two things:

  1. Although I am writing in different categories (in this case, writing reference and nonfiction humor), the titles can still help each other. There is some opportunity for sales to bleed over. Certainly some people who notice me for writing advice will enjoy a good gift book. And certainly some people who notice me for the humor books have a small interest in writing. There is some overlap, although it’s hard to say how much. The point is all promotion can help all books in little ways, if you let it.
  2. The other thing I need to mention is that just because you do something one year doesn’t mean you can do it the next. For example, look at this interview we’re having right now. Let’s imagine I emailed you next fall and said “Hey, the 2017 Guide to Literary Agents is now out—want to do an interview?” You may say yes, but I am guessing part or all of you would think “But didn’t we already cover that ground in our interview last year?” So when you’re seeking promotion for a second book (or third or fourth), you want to think about both new promotional opportunities and the familiar ones, because you can’t really ask everyone who’s helped you with coverage in the past to do it for every book.

Now let’s look at some promotional specifics for each of my three new books that came out this fall. The “must-haves” for each include:

  • a blog giveaway contest
  • newsletter mentions
  • mentions to my social media networks on Facebook and Twitter.

Cover to the 2016 Guide to Literary AgentsThe 2016 Guide to Literary Agents: I held a big giveaway contest on my GLA Blog. All readers had to do was comment to try to win a free book. The contest got 200 comments and was a success. I helped my own cause by allowing anyone who tweeted news of the contest to have two entries into the contest instead of one. Doing things like this encourages others to promote for you. I also mentioned it twice already as the lead news item of my big Guide to Literary Agents newsletter. After that, it becomes a matter of contacting other publishing-related or agent-related sites and doing guest blogs, usually accompanied by giveaways. So I’m guest-blogging for agent Carly Watters’s blog and agent Linda Epstein’s blog and thriller writer James Scott Bell’s joint blogging site, The Kill Zone. In terms of what I guest blog about, it’s a matter of finding nice little excerpts from my books or blog posts, or coming up with new blog ideas that I put aside for a special opportunity.

Cover to the Children's Writer's & lllustrator's Market 2016The 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market: This book is solely for writers and illustrators of children’s books and novels, so it requires some special targeting. When I put together some guest blogs to send out, I contacted specific kidlit sites, such as Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s InkyGirl site and Adventures in YA Publishing. And then I send them specific guest posts that they will like. For example, I just sent Debbie a post called “5 Literary Agents Seeking Picture Books NOW.” Besides that, I reach out to every SCBWI regional advisor in the country and say, “The new CWIM is out. Please let me know if you want a copy for a giveaway contest online in the next few months. And if you are having a regional conference in the next year, I can send a copy for a door prize giveaway. Thanks.” That helps push it out to specific markets. I will also do a giveaway of it (like the GLA book) on my GLA Blog in the coming months.

Cover for When Clowns AttackWhen Clowns Attack—A Survival Guide: This one is the trickiest, because there are not central anti-clown humor hubs online. So it requires a more focused and targeted approach. After the usual blog giveaway and such, I will be writing blogs on my own site,, and then sharing news of those posts to people on Twitter one by one. I just search for different phrases, such as “I hate clowns.” You’ll turn up hits all over, and I engage them by saying “I hate clowns, too.” If there is some sort of conversation, I point them to my new website, and they see an article like “5 Ways to Clown-Proof Your Office,” and then there’s a picture and buy link for the book. I also will reach out to pop culture sites (some cold, some through referrals and my publicist) and ask them to excerpt the book.

All Books: You can sell a lot of books on the road, so I packed my fall with conference speeches and instruction. Besides being at my hometown (Cincinnati) book fair in October, I am teaching at six different writers conferences from September through November. (See them all here.) When I speak publicly, I get the chance to instruct on writing, but also make people laugh—and the former will draw people to consider buying the GLA or CWIM, while the latter will draw people to consider buying When Clowns Attack.

Here’s a very unfair question, but I hope you’ll play along. By the time I left Writer’s Digest, I had experienced a 180 on the role talent plays in writing careers. When I started, I felt like talent was essential. When I left, I came to see it as a squishy, hard-to-pin-down quality. This has become a vexing issue, because so many writers basically want me to say whether they have what it takes. Where do you come out on this issue?

This is difficult to answer because in every case, the answer is both yes and no—it depends on the case and the book and the writer. Let’s look at some more details.

  • Do you need talent to get your fiction traditionally published—i.e., to get an agent and sell to Doubleday? My answer is basically yes. Hardcore writing talent is more in demand than ever before in this crowded marketplace. Talent is always subjective, but I think the answer is yes.
  • Do you possess extraordinary talent if your work becomes a bestseller? My answer is basically no. One agent recently said to me, “I believe a bestseller can be completely manufactured. All you have to do is print 250,000 copies of the book and make it your lead title and push it down readers’ throats, and they’ll buy it.” And the agent was basically right. Bestsellers often happen because (1) the author’s name is one the populace recognizes, so they buy the book without scrutiny, or (2) the book is just visible everywhere (every bookstore, in Target, Walmart, etc.), so a reader thinks, Hmmm, this book is everywhere—maybe I should see what the fuss is about, or (3) it’s a Fifty Shades of Grey situation where it takes off for any strange reason (in this case, I think, the lack of a breakout erotic mainstream book in many years and the fascination [naughtiness!] that came with that), so a reader thinks, Hmmm, this book is everywhere—maybe I should see what the fuss is about. So right there we’ve examined three possible ways for a book to become a bestseller without the writer having oodles of talent. But again, this is a massive gray area (like the book—ha), because you look at a book like Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, and that was just another contemporary YA debut that came out and kind of piddled along sales-wise. But it was really good, and word of mouth slowly slowly slowly drove it to the bestseller list, where it has remained for years. So that is a case of a bestseller that I attribute to talent.
  • Do you need talent to get your nonfiction published? My answer is basically no. If you’re on TV or your pop culture website blows up overnight or your name is Chelsea Handler, you can sell a book easily. Platform is everything in the nonfiction realm. However, the exceptions really start coming in when you examine non-celebrity memoir as well as narrative nonfiction. Those books need to be superbly written to get published, most of the time.

For years, you’ve collected and run stories on your blog and in Writer’s Digest magazine about breaking in—how debut authors eventually got their first deal. What themes come up again and again in these stories?

  1. Get in this for the long haul.
  2. Educate yourself. Study how great stories are written, and read lots of writing advice.
  3. Get involved in your writing community and make friends (and meet critique partners).
  4. Write more than one book.
  5. Don’t give up.
  6. Edit, revise, edit, revise.
  7. Ask for feedback from others and realize some of the story critiques you get (even the stuff you don’t like) is dead on.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, and what’s the worst advice you’ve been given?

I can’t think of any terrible advice I’ve heard, so let me throw out two helpful notes that stuck with me. Seven and a half years ago, I heard a novelist at a conference say “We all have a time-related excuse to not write.” What he was saying was: I know you may have kids, I know you may be caring for a sick relative, I know your job may wear you out—but you need to get past that excuse or it will drag you down forever. And he was dead on about that point.

Another quote is one attributed to writer David Mamet, I believe, but I cannot verify that online. Anyway, it’s the quote/question, “What have you done for your career today?” The quote basically says that there is always something you can be doing to help your books and your career—will you put in the work and do it?

To read more of Chuck’s work, visit his blog, or take a look at his fall releases:

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