Work smart or go home

J. A. Konrath wrote about “the beginning of the end,” which details his opinions on the possible demise of the publishing industry. I’m not nearly as pessimistic as Konrath because I’m a small publisher. However, the facts he cites in his post are quite real…large advances for books that don’t advance out, and don’t come close to selling through.

And this has always been my beef with large publishers. They pay out-of-this-world advances in order to attract the big authors, but where is the guarantee it’ll pay out on the back end? It’s a lot like the baseball. Team owners keep raising the bar in order to get the best ballplayers, complete with signing bonuses and yearly salaries that reach into the gabajillions. The owners have to be praying to the Cosmic Muffin that Mr. HomeRun doesn’t pull a hamstring.

Well publishers pray to that same Cosmic Muffin that a book will earn out. And more often than not, the book fails to produce because they need to have huge sales in order to make a profit. If this happens enough, the publisher begins to wonder whether they’ll have enough money to keep the lights on. Hello, Dorchester.

To me, this is short-sighted idiocy. You can’t spend like a drunken sailor and not bump up against the top of the bubble, hoping it doesn’t pop. But in these economic times it can’t help but pop. Publishing cannot go on as before. For many, like Dorchester, it’s too late, and it’s a matter of time before they turn out the lights. And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Resistance

Obviously change doesn’t come without serious pain. I talked to an agent friend a few weeks ago, and she told me, “Lynn, you do realize we’re still making million dollar deals, right?”

Well of course I do, but I can’t help but look at those deals from an editor’s perspective. If that million dollar deal – or even that 50k deal – blows, how many people will be laid off? Especially if there are several of these deals that don’t perform as well as their projections indicated they would? It’s a huge risk, and no one in their right mind can afford to indefinitely gamble like this. At some point, one has to consider that “business as usual” is killing the industry. Sadly, the big house mindsets are resistant to change. And the same can be said about agents.

That resistance prevents the industry from curing itself. They discover all too late that they have Stage 5 cancer and it’s metastasized to every vital organ. Hello, Medallion. Crikey, if you have a sick patient, you obviously need to make some changes.

Are you really that good?

If a book/author is truly THAT good, then why shouldn’t they prove it by selling a bucket load of books and getting paid at the back end?

Oh! you scream, that isn’t the way publishing works! We must get our money up front!

Um. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been done? That’s a lousy reason to maintain a broken system. Is it because you’re afraid the book wouldn’t earn as much as an inflated advance?

Back in the day, advances made it possible for the author to take time off and write the book and still remain financially solvent. They were – and still are – an educated guess as to how well the book would do eventually.

Those days are long gone, yet the advances have grown higher and higher – just like the baseball managers looking to sign the big ballplayers. They’re unrealistic, if the sales records are any indication. Publishers aren’t making squat on these books (minus the blockbusters). In short, advances aren’t an honest litmus to how well a book will do, so the publisher is throwing away a ton of money for a hoo-ha author that won’t earn out. And editors are losing their jobs in droves.

This is ridiculous.

Just because publishers have morphed the industry into paying advances doesn’t make it smart business in a financially uncertain world. Where is it written that things can’t change so publishers work smarter and remain viable? On the surface of it, paying someone an advance – no matter how much one believes the book will be a huge hit – is Russian Roulette, and it’s always the publisher who’s holding a gun with bullets in every slot.

Given that scenario, then I’d wager that Konrath has a point and publishing is hitting a demise of their own making.

Times Be A-Changin’

But this is where the small indie press is cleaning up. Small presses always have to work smart just to stay alive. While agents and authors snootie tooted about the smaller advances they pay out and chose to take their big books to the big guys, the small fries remained solvent.

The big guys are flipping out wondering how to rearrange their businesses in order to stay strong – and guess what? The midlist author is now a casualty. Agents aren’t able to easily sell their midlist authors anymore because the big guys ain’t buying. They want – they need – the blockbuster books. This is cutting out a huge percentage of writers who have grown cynical about their chances to be published.

So while I don’t feel as pessimistic as Konrath about the industry, I firmly believe that publishers need to take the bullets out of the gun and work smart. And this means re-thinking the advance situation. If a clothes designer creates a winning outfit that becomes all the rage, they get their remuneration at the back end with orders. I submit that authors are no different, and it’s “business as usual” that needs a facelift.

9 Responses to Work smart or go home

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I’d be quite willing to take a smaller advance (or even none), as long as I knew the publisher was solvent, solid, supported its authors and willing to work with me on selling as many copies as possible.

    I think there are more important things than the advance in a 21st century publishing contract. Would I love a publisher to give me a 50k advance? Sure. But…I’d rather have a career in the long term than money in my pocket now.

  2. Suzi McGowen says:

    I agree with Ninja. I think my book will sell, and I’m perfectly willing to take no advance at all, reaping my money when it, you know, actually sells!

    I’ve heard, however, (you know how the internet is for unfounded rumors) that small presses have tough time getting books on the shelves at the likes of Barnes & Noble (which is having its own problems).

    If a book isn’t on the shelves, people have a harder time buying it. (Based on my family, I think book buying is a compulsive/impulse item.)

    So, is this true? Is it harder to get books on the shelves of the chain book stores? Is this about to break/change, because the business needs to change?

  3. Hi Suzi. This isn’t true of just the small indie presses, but of all publishers. I blogged about this not too long ago.

    I agree that the smaller indie press has a harder time of it, and that’s why we’re all so dependent upon authors’ promotion plans.

  4. Frank Mazur says:

    Isn’t it possible that you, Lynn, could be confronted with the same thing that confronts the Biggies? An agent approaches you with a manuscript that s/he thinks is right up Behler’s alley. Except that agent has worked with the editors of a couple other indies and feels it would be a pretty good title for them as well. So s/he offers it to A Pub, which offers, say, a 5K advance, but B Pub goes the advance a bit better at 7K. Now let’s assume you really like the story, think it would indeed fit with the Behler vision and feel it good bring in a ton of profit. You think a little further and realize you have a advantage or two in getting such a title into bookstore and so on. Might you not tell that agent you’re prepared to offer a advance of 8k? (My numbers are totally out of the air for easy digestion.)

  5. Believe it or not, Frank, it’s not always about the money with agents. They understand that the book will make money on the back end through solid sales. Most importantly, they want to place their client’s books with a solid publisher who can get the job done.

    I’ve had any number of agents place their books with us because they preferred the way we did things over another, larger publisher who would pay a larger advance.

    We have a ceiling that we won’t go over, no matter how much we love the book. However, we’re always willing to negotiate other parts of the contract so that everyone feels happy.

    In short, it’s not a matter that they tried all the large publishers and moved down the list. They take all kinds of elements into consideration that will yield the best product for their author.

    Very rarely have I lost a book due to the advance offer.

  6. I guess it’s possible that the current tsunami will cause the giant corporations that acquired so many publishers over the last few decades to divest them again, resulting in many more small presses devoted more to literature than to the quarterly bottom line.

    But I’m trying not to get my hopes up.

  7. cat says:

    I have always thought of advances as a loan to be paid back. I would therefore be happier to catch my own mice to start with if it meant I could have a fish meal down the track! Between you and Nicola Morgan though I wonder if I am going to be too old and decrepit to even catch the mice. But, I just have to keep my paws on the keyboard!

  8. Sorry, David, but there will always be a concern to regard the bottom line. The onus is to work smart, which is painfully hard to do when distribution and bookstore purchasing have all gone wonky.

  9. What? No Golden Age to yearn for? Darn.

    Well, at least a proliferation of small/smallish independent presses is better for writers than the current situation. When I was submitting my first novel, in the mid-1970s, I had a list of dozens of places to send it to. Most of them were well-known publishing houses, and most of those names don’t even exist now.

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