Five Questions for the Traditional Book Deal
As any of you who have read my recent blog posts know, I finished my first novel a few months ago, and, a few weeks ago, my agent submitted it to a fairly heady list of some of the biggest editors in the business. And guess what? I got a deal! A good deal, from one of the Big Five, within weeks of submitting the manuscript.
But (as many of you also know) I’m not taking it.
Why not? The short answer is, the deal wasn’t good enough. Not when I own my own press. But for those of you who don’t own a press, please read on, because I would argue that for most authors, accepting such a deal should be far less automatic than it currently is.
As I said before, I didn’t originally plan to submit to traditional houses. I had always thought I’d publish my novel with She Writes Press. But when it came down to it, my agent felt I might be lucky enough to get an offer I couldn't refuse—the kind of offer that lets you know a publisher is going to put your book at the top of its list and put the considerable weight of its staff, budget and expertise behind you. Those offers are extremely rare, of course, and, unsurprisingly, I didn’t get one. I got one a lot like the offer I got on my first book, which I accepted gratefully nearly ten years ago: from a major house, with a good advance and a well-respected editor attached. But then, as now, the message was not, “We will do anything to have this book!” It was more like, “We like this enough to publish it and see what happens.”
And that kind of offer should not just give me pause as the founder of She Writes Press. It should give pause to all authors considering publishing traditionally, who might (or might not) be a whole lot better off doing the “third-way” publishing model we are pioneering with SWP. When Brooke Warner and I started SWP, I said it would not just be a press for people who couldn't get a traditional deal. It would be a press for people who might not want a traditional deal even if they did get one, because they recognize that these days, the average traditional deal (not the exceptionally super-great one) has less than ever to offer a writer, and other options—SWP being only one of many—offer more than ever before.
When making my decision to turn down the deal last week, I worked through the five most pressing questions I had about what I might be missing by not going the traditional route. They are listed below, along with the answers I eventually arrived at after a research, number-crunching (another thing writers should do more of) and thought.
**Majorly important point to make before I jump in: many of these arguments apply to independent presses in general, not just to She Writes Press, and many existing independent presses’ business models do not rely on authors paying editorial and production costs. But we believe our model gives us the best chance of running the press as a successful, sustainable business over the long haul, and that our commitment to author's reaping the vast majority of profits from book sales is the wave of the future.
1) The Curation Question, or “How Do I Know My Book Is Good Enough?” One of the primary arguments made by the traditional publishing industry is that it serves the crucial function of curation. Manuscripts that don’t get picked up simply aren't good enough, and we can thank the publishers for keeping those inferior books off the shelves. Really? If you’d put this to me six months ago, I would have responded confidently that this was complete and utter bullshit – I know too many terrific writers with wonderful manuscripts whose work didn’t pass muster in that system. It’s all about sales, I would have said, not quality. (Luckily those two things do often go together, so that many quality books are published, right along with the Snooki-junk. But you know what I mean.) When it came time to publish my novel, however, an interesting thing happened. A little voice popped up in my head. “Why aren't you submitting it to the traditional publishers?” this little voice asked. “Are you afraid it isn't good enough?” I had originally told myself I was submitting just to see if I could get a “great” deal, but it was deeper than that. Deep down, I was afraid—or I believed—that the traditional system truly new best. And sure enough, as soon as my agent began submitting, and editors started passing, that little voice became a big, haranguing, horrible voice that threatened to keep me up at night. “It isn't good enough!” the voice shouted. “You are failing in the eyes of the REAL experts, the REAL judges of what’s good, and anyone who says different is just being nice!” I was unprepared for the depth of my need to be legitimatized, ratified and “let in the club” by these particular gatekeepers. For a few days, in fact, I felt awful. I worried I’d humiliated myself by sending out a manuscript that was less than subpar. Then I started reading the emails more closely.
My agent asked me not to quote directly, so I’ll do some very general paraphrasing. “Great writing, great platform, not right for my list.” “Time travel isn’t ‘in’ right now.” (My book has a wormhole in it. That’s for another post.) “I love this but can’t see bringing it out in hardcover.” Yes, there was some feedback on the writing itself. One editor, in fact, said it needed an edit she “didn’t have time to give,” which is pretty incredible given that she is an editor, but tells you a lot about the pressures editors are under to acquire titles at a clip and please the marketing department. But as a rule, the reasons for passing had very little to do with whether the book was good—I’m proud to say there was near-consensus in the affirmative—and much more to do with other considerations. Like whether my book was right for a particular editor’s list, which is essentially a branding issue. Or a consideration of perceived trends, aka whether my book was hot-or-not. Or the mandate from big publishers to pursue the Holy Grail of contemporary book publishing, particularly in the age of the e-reader: a literary “must-have” hardcover, because hardcover margins are significantly better than paperback. (More on this in #5.)
These are all completely legitimate, necessary considerations for executives working for huge corporations focused on the bottom line. But I can’t resist saying that one of the things I love most about the She Writes Press model is that if your book is good, we’ll publish it. (If it’s not, we won’t.) We can afford to consider only quality when we review submissions because we don’t make money on sales, but on production, and as a result can cheerfully dedicate ourselves to making your book as good and as beautifully published as it can possibly be.
2) The Advance Question, or “Can I Afford Not To Take This Deal?” Getting an advance is far and away the most convincing reason to take a traditional publishing deal, and I am completely sympathetic to authors who can’t do it any other way. Advances, of course, are smaller than they used to be (my agent told me that one of the most respected literary imprints in the business has fixed its advances at $15K), but still, bird in the hand, right? There is a significant difference between laying out your own cash to invest in publishing your book, as we ask authors to do with She Writes Press, versus being paid for it up front for it, and for many authors that’s the end of it. But for me, the number just wasn’t big enough to account for what I would give up.
This is partly because I think I have a good chance to sell more than 10,000 copies of my book. If I hadn’t thought that, I might have taken the deal, because I would have earned more for writing it than I’d have earned for selling it. But even then I would have been wise to hesitate. For one thing, 15% would have gone to my agent, and the advance would have been paid in three installments over the next two years, which puts even a respectable advance in an entirely different light (my book would not have been published until 2015). Fortunately, I was not in immediate need of the advance, but certainly needed and wanted to make as much money on the book as possible. So the question became, if I can afford to wait, which is the better deal when weighed against investment or risk?
First, I needed to know how many copies of my book would have to sell to earn back my investment if I published with She Writes Press. For design, production and traditional distribution of my book to the trade, I would pay SWP $3900. How many copies would I have to sell to break even? With SWP, I would earn 70 percent of net on a paperback, or roughly $3 per book, and 80 percent of net on an eBook, or almost $5 per book. Approximately twenty-five percent of all books sold nowadays are eBooks, so, assuming those proportions on every 1000 copies sold, I’d have to sell roughly one thousand one hundred and fifty books to break even. (If I sold it directly, and not through the trade, I’d make a whopping $11 a copy, but I’m not sure I want to turn my living room into a distribution center. I think that’s what drove Amanda Hocking mad.) Assuming I would invest further by sending books to media and review outlets (SWP sends to a short, standard list, but it is not as thorough as a major publisher’s), and an additional several thousand dollars on an independent publicist, the break-even number would be closer to 2,000.
Did I believe I could sell more than 2,000 copies of my book? I did. Authors who don’t might consider taking an advance if offered, though it’s hard to imagine a book that neither you nor a publisher can imagine selling at least that well ever getting one. (And be warned: when a book doesn't “earn out,” as the majority don’t, the next advance, if there is another one, will likely be smaller to nonexistent as a result.)
The last calculation I needed to make? How many copies I would need to sell to match the advance I was offered, less the agent’s fee. Unfortunately I can’t be as transparent here as I’d like, as my agent asked me not to disclose my specific advance. I can say, however, that with the standard traditional deal I was offered, I would earn roughly $1 a book (15 percent of net) for each paperback sold, and $1.75 (25 percent of net) for each eBook sold. When I did the math, it was immediately obvious that I would have to sell more than ten times as many books to earn out my advance as I needed to sell to break even on my costs with SWP. Sure, I might fall short of selling enough with SWP to match the advance. But at $3 and $5 a book, the bar was exponentially lower for me to get there.
3) The Marketing and Publicity Question, or “Ask Not What Your Publisher Can Do For You, But What You Can Do For Your Publisher.” One looming question in all of this, of course, was: if I pass on a traditional deal, aren’t I passing on a crackerjack team of marketers dedicated to making my book a success, a publicist with press contacts I can only dream of, access to reviewers I can never get, and a sales team pitching my book for the front table at Barnes & Noble where it would otherwise never land? Ah, the dream of the publishing fairy godmother. It is very fondly held, even by authors who have languished on the midlist before, myself included. And why not? It is a tantalizing fantasy, imagining a team of attentive experts flitting around you and your book, with no other goal than making all your publishing dreams come true. But for all but a very few books on a traditional publisher’s list, this is just what it appears: fantasy. For one thing, when preparing to shop my novel, it was not enough that I polish the manuscript to perfection: I had to prepare a bio that was essentially a one-sheet pitching my platform, my contacts, my ability to promote my book on social media, my ability to get blurbs. (Ask not what your publisher can do for you…) The acquiring editor asked to speak with me as she was considering making her offer, and we spent the first half hour talking about these things – it was like a job interview for me as my book’s publicist. Again, this is perhaps legitimate given how the business has changed. These days, the advance reflects a publisher’s assessment not just of a book, but of an author’s ability to promote it. When I asked what the marketing budget would be, I was told there wouldn't be one, because in their experience nothing works better than authors making personal pleas to readers. When I asked her what the publicity strategy would be, she started by saying, “First we would leverage your contacts.” Say no more. I know that drill. I did it the last time. And frankly many authors use a hefty chunk of their advances to fund just these efforts: author websites, plane tickets for “tours”, independent publicists. Just because you get a deal with a traditional house doesn't mean you don’t invest in your book.
The real question was: is my book more likely to sell 10,000 copies if a traditional publisher is behind it, or if I do it with She Writes Press? Conventional wisdom says the former, but experience tells me that whoever publishes it, I, as the author, will be the deciding factor in how it sells. And the publisher’s focus on author platform tells me that they think so, too. Yes, I will have to pay a publicist to do what this publisher surely would have done—send galleys to reviewers and its media contacts, and get me into review programs on Amazon and Goodreads. (Actually I think I can do that.) But my publisher did those things with my first book, and while there were a few successes, my biggest media hits came from “leveraging” my contacts. Wise advice. (Again, this can obviously be different for authors who get bigger advances than I was offered, and some houses are better about marketing and publicity than others. So if you get an offer it is always worth asking to speak to other authors at the same house to see what their experience was like.)
During my deliberations I talked to a gifted writer who published a nonfiction book traditionally, and a novel (blurbed ravishingly by some very famous fiction writers) on a platform similar to She Writes Press, though without traditional distribution. (This well-reviewed novel, apparently, was one of the novels we should be grateful to traditional publishers for rejecting in their role as “curators.”) When I asked her about the two publishing experiences, she put it this way: “I did basically the same things for both books, because I received so little support from the traditional publisher. But when I did it for my novel, I felt good about it. When I did it for my traditionally published book, I felt bitter and resentful.” This really resonated with me. I don’t want to be bitter and resentful. And frankly one of my biggest pet peeves, nowadays, is listening to authors bitch about their publishers and all the things they didn’t do, partly because it infuriates me at the publishers, but partly because I want to say, “Have you been paying attention the last decade? What did you expect?”
4) The Distribution and Review Question. Or, “Is My Book Gonna Get Respect?” Aside from the advance, this is probably the single biggest reason to publish with a traditional publisher, and honestly, if I had been faced with the choice between publishing with SWP and a Big Five imprint six months ago, this would have been the deal-breaker--I would have taken the traditional deal. But last month, She Writes Press signed with the biggest traditional distributor in the country, Ingram Publisher Services. (The Big Five do their own distribution.) If you want to know exactly what that means, read Brooke’s post here, but if you are content with the broad strokes, it means that we have a team of sales reps selling our titles to the trade (B&N, the independents, Hudson Booksellers, the works), a catalogue marketing them to libraries and other buyers, and management of our metadata on all the big ebook platforms. Signing with Ingram also got the attention of Publisher’s Weekly, which began accepting She Writes Press titles for traditional reviews when it heard the news. (We already have one starred!) Other traditional reviewers followed suit.
So no, you don’t have to be with the Big Five to get respect. (Or distribution and reviews.)
5) The Format Question, or, “Do You Really Want To Be In Hardcover?” I’ve left this for last, but for me this was one of the most fascinating parts of the publishing-equation I was attempting to work out in my head. Because when I talked with the acquiring editor, after we made it past the job-interview phase, one of the first questions she asked me was, “Do you see this as hardcover or paper?” and before thinking about it I said, “Paper, of course!” She was pleased, because that was what she was thinking, too. Some of our reasons were the same, but they differed in one critical way.
My reasons for not wanting to be in hardcover were simple. For one, my book is a fun, light read that should be easy to carry around and affordable to purchase. It isn’t a literary event, or a collectible, and those are really the only two reasons I can think of to shell out the $30 list price for that format. (It’s sad that Amazon and B&N discount so heavily that it’s closer to $20, while indie booksellers can’t afford to do the same.) I also want to come out in paperback because I think it sucks when all your publicity hits and you’re stuck in a format most readers don’t want to buy. It is so annoying to read an amazing review and realize that if I want the book now, I have no choice but to buy it in hardcover or as an e-book, because hardcover is bulky and hard to carry around, and e-books are, well, e-books, and I’m not totally used to them yet. Not only that, but book clubs almost never read hardcovers. So again, when you are doing all your most aggressive publicity and getting all your good (you hope) reviews, you aren’t book-club ready, which borders on the idiotic.
The editor’s perspective on my book overlapped with mine, I think. Certainly she agreed with me on the first point—that my book is neither a collectible nor a literary event—and that from a genre/category perspective, it should be in paperback. But there was more to it than that. Hardcover is, and always has been, a statement by publishers about a book. It used to be a simple statement: hardcover was for the important books, the quality books, the books a publisher really respected, as opposed to pulp. It was an insult and a demotion to be published “straight to paper,” and I remember feeling it was very important for my first book to get a hardcover deal. (I loved Christina Baker Kline’s recent oped on her angst about her latest novel coming out as a paperback original earlier this year. It’s become a New York Times bestseller.) Ebooks have irrevocably changed this, however. Now, readers can get a book right away as long as they are willing to read it electronically. Which means forcing readers to buy hardcovers is a lot harder than it used to be. The problem is that publishers rely heavily on hardcover sales, where margins are much higher than in paper. (Margins on ebooks are best of all, however—yet another reason to hold back the paper edition.) Therefore a lot of the prominent editors who read my manuscript and liked it rejected it explicitly because it was not a book they thought would sell well in hardcover—a very particular kind of book, mind you, that will appeal to the elite book buyer who cares so much about having the latest “important” book right away that he or she won’t blink at the price. Ironically, I think my book is probably more commercial than a lot of those titles, but the evaluation was conducted less on sales potential than on sales potential in a particular format. Undoubtedly this impacted the advance I was offered, and the editor was quite candid with me: the publisher was behind my book, yes. But, as a trade paperback, it would not be given the kind of attention and support a hardcover would get--or the advance.
The problem is, it is incredibly hard to judge which books will sell well in hardcover – partly because so few of them do. As Christina wrote in her oped, “It's estimated that half to three-quarters of hardcovers shipped to stores are returned unsold to the publisher.” And it is authors who pay the price for publishers’ insistence on gambling this way, looking for that one hit that will carry the house and eating the loss on the rest. Because in most cases, books would sell better out of the gate in paperback (again, when publicity is at its height), but instead are burdened by a high price point and a unpopular format. Not only that, but increasingly authors are punished for not selling in hardcover the way a publisher had hoped by having their paperback editions dropped. Yep, you heard me. Dropped. Like, you didn’t sell enough in this format that almost nobody wants to buy, so we just aren’t gonna do a paperback at all. Sometimes the publisher gives the author the paperback rights so she can take it somewhere else; sometimes it doesn’t, because they don’t want the paperback competing with the last hardcovers they are still trying to unload.
It feels good to publish my novel in paperback with She Writes Press for the right reasons, rather than feeling like what is essentially a smart business decision is a reflection on the quality of my book, or how much somebody should care about it.
In conclusion…First of all, if you have stayed with me this far, you are some kind of major publishing nerd, and we should have coffee together. Second of all, thank you for following me along this journey (all the way back from my first “Gone Writing” postnearly two years ago), and for giving me a forum in which to write it all down, and a community to draw strength and inspiration from. Writing always clarifies my thinking, and it helps to see the argument for publishing with SWP laid out logically, point by point. Not only is it convincing, it is so exciting and cool! How amazing that these new technologies are making it possible for indies of all kinds to thrive and compete on a more level playing field than ever before.
Part of me, of course—even after all this—still keeps the fantasy of the publishing fairy godmother tucked away somewhere, of being surrounded by experts devoted to making my book the biggest thing since sliced bread, leaving me to write and eschew the tawdry world of marketing and sales. It’s a fantasy, of course, not only because of changes within the Big Five, but because my book is likely to sell modestly anyway. And the truth is that my real fantasy is less of a corporate makeover, and more of being taken under the wing of the proverbial gentleman publisher, that passionate lover of literature who doesn’t mind losing money here and there—perhaps because he has a trust fund—more benefactor than businessman. Changes in technology, however, have made something entirely new possible. That gentleman (or gentlewoman) publisher just may be you. Free to publish your book because you believe in it, and want it to be in the world, even if you lose some money in the process. Because let's face it: most books, traditionally published or not, never earn enough to pay a writer’s rent. That doesn’t mean, however, that the world isn’t a richer place with them in it. And I for one am excited at the prospect of launching this book as an owner, rather than feeling owned. I may lose money on the deal, but who knows? If the book takes off, the world won’t just be richer for it.
I will, too.