We all remember the story of Goldilocks and the whole “this bed is too hard, this one’s too soft, ahhh…this one is just right.” Well, a book deal is a lot like that. One may be feel too right, the other, all wrong, and the other is absolutely perfect. In order to figure out which book deal is juuuust right for you, it’s important to consider some factors that you may not be aware of.
For this post, I’m going to use Big Gun publishing, commercial trade press publishing, and e-book publishing. The golden thread that weaves its way through all types of publishing is MONEY. If you gots it, the more you can spends it on cool things like advances, editing, production costs, marketing/promotion.
Traditionally, paying an advance allowed the author to survive while writing his book. So the higher the advance, the more the publisher believed in the book’s potential. Along the way, the whole advance idea exploded into Mr. Stay-Puft marshmallow man in Ghost Busters. The reasons are many, but the end result is advances have often exceeded the publisher’s ability to earn back what they’d paid out, which resulted in many editors and sales people being handed their walking papers.
Big Guns: They still pay out far larger advances than their smaller counterparts, but they pay them out to fewer authors because their cash flow isn’t what it used to be. They are beholden to their corporate leaders, and those books have to make a ton of scratch to continue feeding the corporate monster.
A giant payday is a lovely thing for the first-time author, but it’s also wrought with the demand to perform – a daunting task. If you don’t earn out, your Big Gun publisher may not be so happy, and you could be the one out on the sidewalk. As all publishers do (or should), they do a P&L statement and weigh the risks. Most of the time, it’s a matter of Pay It and Forget It…meaning that the advance is the only bit of money some authors may ever see because their books don’t earn out. In short, Big Guns, on average, are learning to be smarter because they’ve seen fellow Big Guns go bankrupt.
Trade Press: Used to be called Indie publishing, but the self publishers sorta stole the verbiage, so Trade Press is used to define publishers who aren’t owned by corporations. They’re independent. And since they’re independent, they have to work smart. They can’t spend more than they have, and they have to feel confident the authors they sign will sell well. To that extent, advances are lower because they are more risk averse than their corporate brethren. If the book sells well, the author will make big bucks via royalties.
E-publishers: Since the digital technology has exploded, we’ve seen an explosion of e-publishers because it’s cheap and there is little risk…which means they don’t need a lot of money or experience to hang out their shingle. It’s not unusual for e-publishers to pay zero advances. Many authors who sign with e-publishers are new writers, and are willing to accept these terms.
For the print trade, there are a lot of production costs associated with publishing a book, so the more you gots, the better the product – or so the saying goes. The standard costs are wrapped up in editing, cover design, layout, interior design, sales and promotion planning, print runs and other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting at the moment.
Big Guns: They gots money, so they can afford just about anything they want, depending on where the book fits on their list. If it’s a top list book, they’ll pull out the corks. If it’s midlist or lower, they will put less resources into the project, which translates to lesser effort to promote and market your book. That isn’t to say it won’t get out there because it certainly will. But it also depends on the genre and how it syncs up with their current lineup.
Many of my midlist author friends are very happy with their publishers, and a few have been sorely disappointed…and it all went back to genre. Some sell better than others, and the Big Gun is going to put more money into what’s selling better.
An unhappy byproduct to print runs is returns, and it’s the bane of every publisher. The odd thing about the Big Gun is that they’re all about shipping books out to market, and they don’t care as much about returns. Yah, sounds insane, and there is a huge explanation for this, but it doesn’t play into this discussion. Suffice it to say that if your editor says they’re printing up X number of books, you should ask how many they plan on shipping.
Trade Press: Their budgets are smaller, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put out amazing books, and sell a ton of them. They have great cover designers, interior designers, and do a great job at layout. They meet with their sales teams to discuss marketing and promotion. For example, we are distributed by Consortium/Perseus, and I just had my sales meeting with them yesterday, where we discussed everything; titles, cover design, marketing and promotion strategy, and print run forecasts.
Depending on the book and genre, print runs aren’t as large as the Big Guns. Where they might do a print of 15k-20k units, the trade press might do 5k-8k units because they want to avoid returns. Books that are returned can’t be sent out again because they often look like they were repackaged by bipolar baboons…so that’s a loss.
Conversely, if the book explodes, it takes a week to get another run done (provided you have a very good relationship with your printer). It’s all about working smart and conserving costs, so those resources can be utilized with promotion.
E-publishing: Production costs are, on average, lower because the e-publisher doesn’t have as large of an operating budget. They can’t afford to shoulder too much risk, so they need to conserve costs as much as they can. They don’t have print run costs, and their promotion costs are lower because everything is done digitally. For instance, we send out around 100 books to reviewers and media, so we not only have the printing costs, but the mailing costs, which have gone through the roof.
Since there is no physical copy, traditional media is less likely to pay much attention to the book, so this is an important consideration to factor in.
Editing is part of the production costs, but I wanted to talk about this specific issue because it’s the blood and guts to any publishing company. You can slap on a gorgeous cover and market a book ’til the cows come home, but if a book is poorly edited, you ain’t got nuthin’. Do this on a consistent basis, and your publisher will be known as a dud…and so will you, by association.
Big Guns: It’s hard to find fault because they are the Great Yoda of the publishing industry. Since they were here first, it’s natural that they would have the greatest stable of fabulous editors.
But the Big Guns have a problem that others don’t, and that’s turnaround time. They still publish more books than everyone else, which means they have a lot of authors in the queue waiting their turn to be edited. The general waiting time for a book to be published is two years. And because they have so many books to publish, editors need to work very quickly.
I have some editor buds who work at the big houses and are exhausted at the lack of time. More than one bud has told me that books simply went out that weren’t editorially ready, but they had to meet the schedule. Ouch.
Trade Press: Trade presses are smaller, they specialize in one genre, and their publishing schedule isn’t nearly as frenetic (on average). But they still need great editors. With the Great Publishing Implosion a number of years, we saw many editors walking the streets looking for an editing gig. Many have hired out to the trade presses on an independent contractor basis, provided they will pay them what they’re worth.
Without great editing, a book is nothing more than an empty suit, so trade presses make sure to have nothing but the best. Their business depends on having strong books, and experienced editors are worth every dime.
E-publishing: Here’s where things get really odd. Since e-publishers, on average, have a much smaller operating budget, they can’t hire the most experienced editors. Nor can they pay them a standard editing fee. Many editors at many e-publishing houses are paid a percentage of sales on the books they edited.
Not only is this incredible, but it forces the editor to shoulder the same kind of risks the publisher is…yet they’re not an owner. If a book they edited doesn’t sell well, that editor is going to make peanuts, and it’s not their fault.
Who would agree to such an arrangement? And this is the rub. Many e-publishing editors have little to no experience in the industry. Invariably, they are writers, which is fine, but just because you write doesn’t mean you understand editing. It’s an art.
So what is the quality of these editors? I’m sure they’re trying their very best, but that shouldn’t be a standard by which someone should be hired. And what about the attrition factor? You can’t ask someone to work for peanuts and expect them to remain loyal. What if they simply decide to just stop editing a book, midstream? Since many e-published authors are new, they don’t know this is out of the ordinary.
Sales are the lifeblood of publishers. We needs ’em to keep errant beagles in designer chewie bones. So how do the various kinds of publishers get sales?
Big Guns: They have a well-oiled machine, so their books (for the most part) are going to be shelved in bookstores. They have teams of sales people who put together a catalog of their upcoming releases and pitch to store buyers at the corporate and local levels. They have teams who deal with national accounts like Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, etc. They send out advance copies to the media for review and publicity purposes. This is all done to make people aware your book exists.
This works well for many of their authors, but it depends on genre and what’s hot. The Self-Help book, or midlist mainstream fiction may not get the attention that a Young Adult. The big guns have a lot of mouths to feed, and they can’t feed them all.
Trade Press: Since trade presses have a smaller lineup each season, they have more time to dedicate to each title. Since they specialize in a genre, chances are strong they have established relationships with media, which helps a great deal during promotion. For example, I had a radio host call me a couple weeks ago asking to interview a couple of our authors because he so enjoyed interviewing one of authors last year. If you have these guys in your Rolodex, it’ll go a long way to getting the word out to your author’s intended readership.
Since most trade presses are too small to have their own sales team that have enough clout to get the attention of the book buyers, they have agreements with distributors, who have sales and promo teams – and they do the same things the Big Guns do. Their experience and long reach go a long way to getting books shelved in stores.
If you’re considering a trade press, make sure you know who distributes them. If they say Ingram and Baker & Taylor, they’re telling you a hot one because those companies are wholesale distributors, meaning they fulfill orders placed by bookstores or libraries. They don’t have sales teams who pitch their catalog to store buyers.
E-book Publishers: Sales are online. Period. There is no other venue where your book will appear. I’ve noticed that the successful e-publishers do a great job at branding their company, so a book will sell well because of the publisher’s name recognition – not necessarily the book. This means that if you’re with a brand new e-publisher, you may not be happy with your sales. Simply put, no one knows who they are.
To date, I haven’t been able to nail an e-publisher down as to the specifics of their promotional practices, so I’m still, sadly, in the dark about how they promote individual titles. One thing I do know is that the successful ones publish a specific genre. Romance still seems to be the leader among successful e-publishers, so I’d be leery about an e-publisher who publishes all genres. They would have to have the editing expertise for all those genres, and I just don’t believe they have it…just as I don’t believe the small trade press can do justice to all genres, and they need to specialize.
How Long You Been ‘Round?
This is the most important thing to consider. How long has the publisher you’re considering querying been in business? My suggestion is to wait until a company is at least two years old because that’s about how long it takes for the warts to show, and for them to run out of their seed money.
No matter what publishing option you choose, you gotta channel Goldilocks. Their porridge can’t be too hot or too cold. It’s gotta be just right, which means that they have sufficient working capital, experienced editors, good distribution, healthy sales, and are adept at selling your genre.