ArcheBooks Publishing Insights

January 22, 2010

THE VANITY OF AN INDUSTRY

Filed under: Getting Published — jpeinc @ 11:49 AM
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By Robert E. Gelinas, Publisher, ArcheBooks Publishing

What’s “Real” Publishing?

There has been much debate in the publishing industry of late over what constitutes a “real” publisher from a “false” one, legitimate versus the pretenders. The core of the argument comes down to making distinctions between what are termed Traditional Publishers from Vanity Presses pretending to be traditional publishers.

In this debate I’ve heard many seemingly intelligent people make blatantly ignorant statements like, “Real publishers pay advances and Vanity Presses don’t,” (ergo all publishers who don’t pay advances must be Vanity Presses) Or, “Real publishers use Offset printing, and Vanity Presses use POD (print-on-demand),” (ergo any publisher who uses digital production must be a Vanity Press). If you’ve heard silly statements like this, then you’ve heard someone expressing their ignorance, specifically their ignorance in understanding the difference between manufacturing technologies and the difference between business models. And worst of all, they fail to understand what it means for any publisher, no matter how they position themselves, to exploit the vanity of unpublished authors.

The truth of the matter is, many major publishing houses, which traditionally pay authors cash advances against future royalties, often use digital Print-on-Demand (POD) printing technologies, where appropriate; and many smaller publishing houses which may or may not pay advances often use offset printing technologies, where appropriate. Whether or not a publishing house pays advances is a business model issue, not a manufacturing issue. Whether or not a publishing house uses digital or offset printing technology is a manufacturing issue, not a business issue. There is no direct correlation between either factor, and in fact, there are several other factors of much greater importance that should be considered when an author is looking at any publisher in terms of whether they might be able to do more than merely cause their book to exist in print, but more importantly, to give that book a good chance for success in the marketplace and the author an opportunity to develop a viable professional writing career.

This article takes a closer look at all of these key issues, and hopefully sheds some light on the darkness of a lot of ignorance and bias in the publishing industry, and most importantly, provides some insight as to where ArcheBooks Publishing in particular stands on these issues. Let’s start with some of the basics.

Digital vs. Offset

There are two primary categories of manufacturing technologies employed today for the production of books—Offset Printing and Digital Printing.

Offset Printing is the most common method and most well-known, literally starting with Gutenberg’s printing press. Today, this production method consists of printing many books at a time from Printing Plates placed into a press printed out onto large multi-page sheets, which are then cut and collated and bound. The unit costs for Offset printed books are relatively low, as compared to Digital printing, while the setup costs to create the Printing Plates are relatively high and somewhat time consuming (a process measured in weeks). Offset printing technology is most appropriate for high-volume print runs (typically measured in thousands).

Conversely, Digital Printing, or what is referred to as Print-on-Demand (POD) consists of printing entire books one at a time, in any increment, even as low as one (1) copy. This technology is relatively new, one of the advents of the digital revolution spearheaded by firms like Xerox and IBM. The unit cost for Digitally Printed books are much higher than Offset Printed books, while the initial setup costs are relatively low and timely (measured in days). This technology is most appropriate for low-volume print runs, sometimes call “short runs” (typically measured in tens or hundreds).

What is especially important to note is that comparatively speaking, as Digital Production technology has improved dramatically over the last five years, both technologies produce a very high-quality product. Nevertheless, it is still possible to achieve a superior quality finished product with Offset Printing, due to more available production techniques and materials options. However, for the same specifications for paper stock, board thickness of the covers and spine, dust-jacket paper stock, etc., the two methods produce remarkably similar results. In fact, if you didn’t know how a book was manufactured, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two. And as far as the end consumer/book buyer is concerned, that’s how it should be.

Therefore, which particular printing technology a publisher uses really has nothing to do with their legitimacy as a traditional publisher, or whether they should be considered a Vanity Press. At ArcheBooks Publishing we use both methods, offset printing for high-volume runs, digital for short runs.

Traditional Publishing vs. POD Publishers

This issue is arguably the most confusing of any in the publishing industry. The confusion arises, as noted at the outset of our discussion, from the failure to distinguish the difference between Manufacturing Technologies and Business Models. As we just discussed, it has little to nothing to do with the physical manufacturing process. However, from an industry or cultural perspective, the concept of a “Traditional Publisher” is more accurately contrasted in business model terms with respect to the many publishers who have sprung up over the last five years or so, employing Digital manufacturing technology, virtually exclusively, hence referred to as POD Publishers, to create Vanity or Subsidy Presses.

Vanity or Subsidy Presses are typically distinguished by:

Paying little or no Advances, rather having the Author pay for some or all of the Publication Costs

Viewing Unpublished Authors as their Primary Customer Base and Revenue Source

Accepting all material for publication with no screening for professional quality

Little to no Formal Editing

Little to no Marketing and Promotion

Little to no Distribution and Sales Capability

Unsold copies are Non-Returnable Poor Quality Finished Product


Conversely, a “Traditional Publisher” is normally distinguished by the opposite of all of the items above, specifically with respect to not charging the Author anything, ever, and most importantly, viewing Retail Consumer Book Buyers as the Primary Customer Base and Revenue Source—not the author.

Frankly, a publishing house that chooses the Vanity Press business model has nothing to do with which manufacturing process they use to spend the Author’s money and make a profit for themselves. Most of them have gravitated around the Digital methodology due to its lower setup costs and no initial substantial financial commitment to larger offset print runs, warehousing and logistics. Unfortunately, their proliferation has given the underlying manufacturing technology a bad reputation it doesn’t deserve.

In fact, you’ll find that some retailers and distributors have an irrational negative bias toward Digitally manufactured (POD) books—almost a “religious prejudice” against them—not wanting to be associated with a book produced by a particular production method, as opposed to rightly shunning certain Vanity or Subsidy publishers who turn out a truly inferior product—not an inferiorly manufactured book, but a poorly published book.

This is regrettable, because any book can be manufactured digitally, and many, many good ones are. As the saying goes, “While all axe murderers use an axe, everyone who uses an axe isn’t an axe murderer.” Likewise, every publisher who employs Digital production technology isn’t a Vanity Press.

This is not to say that some Vanity or Subsidy Presses don’t have a legitimate function. In the arena of self-publishing, a subsidy press is appropriate. There have been many great books that began as self-published works, e.g. The One-Minute Manager, Huckleberry Finn, etc. Many seminar speakers and business experts also offer books at their public appearances to augment their earnings, but normally don’t sell enough of them to warrant a large investment in a major offset publication run. This is another good application of where a subsidy press enables to author/speaker to fulfill an exact need. Numerous non-fiction books have benefited greatly from subsidy press publishers.

What most people do not realize is that most Traditional Publishers these days, if they’re smart, employ both manufacturing methodologies—both Offset and Digital—in a Hybrid Production Strategy, as is appropriate to the production volume they need for a particular title. For example, if an older book consistently sells a few hundred copies a year, or for one that is updated regularly, it makes no sense to print thousands of them, only to have them sit in a warehouse and have to be managed as surplus inventory. But if they can be printed Digitally, one at a time, as sales demands, that makes perfect sense. And that’s why so many Traditional Publishers use digital technology today (they just try to keep it a secret!).

Conversely, if a Vanity Press had an author/customer who wanted 1,000 or more copies of a book printed, they would be very foolish to use Digital technology to fill the order. They could have those same books Offset printed and increase their profit margins dramatically, which many do in such instances.  Therefore, the selection of production method has little to nothing to do with whether you are talking about a Traditional Publisher or a Vanity Press. So let’s look at the rest the items on the previous list:

Paying little or no Advances, rather having the Author pay for some or all of the publication costs

Traditionally, many people in the publishing industry today hold to the convention that if a book doesn’t receive an Advance payment of at least $2,000, then it doesn’t qualify as a professional sale. So on one hand, all the small publishers paying advances of $100, $200, or $500, believing that this automatically qualifies them as “Traditional Publishers” and not “Vanity Presses” on that basis alone are therefore mistaken—assuming they derive their sense of legitimacy purely based upon a tradition or a single business policy. On the other hand, many well-known best-selling authors and very famous books never met that threshold. The truth is, only a small segment of the tens of thousands of publishers in existence have the financial wherewithal to pay authors, especially brand new unproven ones, at least $2,000 per title in advance. Authors with an established track record of performance are rightfully entitled to advances as opposed to being forced to wait for payment in the protracted compensation model of the New York tradition (discussed in depth later).

Actually, if the truth be known, this artificial criteria of what constitutes a “professional sale” is really there to make it easier for certain organizations to discriminate against small publishing houses or new up-and-coming ones. The amount of an advance really has no bearing whatsoever on how well a book is going to do in the market place. Many other factors determine that. And for the record, if you as an author are paid any money for your writing, the IRS considers you a professional and wants their cut.

The topic of Advances is really only relevant in one respect to our discussion of Traditional Publishers vs. Vanity Presses: Is the author making money from the publisher, or is the author paying money to the publisher? If it’s the former, it’s a Traditional Publisher, if it’s the latter it’s a Vanity Press. As was noted, some small publishing houses simply don’t have the financial resources to pay large up-front advances. Some would prefer to use their available capital resources for marketing and promotion, which if they are small, that’s wise. What good does it do to pay an author $2,000 up-front and then not have any money left to go out and promote the book?

Do we pay advances at ArcheBooks? Yes, we do, and will continue to do so in the future—based upon our own metrics, and where we feel it is appropriate.

There’s also a “dirty little secret” in publishing that you might want to know about with regard to the topic of advances and the financial practices of traditional publishers—which to be fair, you need to examine the entire author compensation model of a publisher, not just whether an advance is a part of it, to determine whether or not an author is being exploited or properly rewarded.

You see, for the most part, (and if you don’t believe this, just ask your Literary Agent) Traditional Publishers of the New York variety do their best to acquire a new book for a certain advance amount, with no great desire or intent to ever have to pay the author another cent—regardless of all the percentages and breakpoints and formulas you might read about in the contract. A calculation is made of how much they think they can sell of a particular book, then reduce that amount down to what they think the author will accept, and that’s the basis of the advance to be negotiated and finalized with the Agent. So far so good.

However, after that point, with most NY-type houses, the books themselves won’t debut in the market for at least a year, sometimes two. After the book actually comes out, the NY accounting model is measured in six month reporting periods. Actual royalty payments are only made after the entire advance is earned out, i.e. when the original advance is completely recovered, and on top of that they reserve a portion of the royalties earned for “reserves against returns.” Let’s look at the math of all that.

Let’s say a brand new author was given a $2,000 cash advance, for a book that is going to be printed and released as a paperback original, with a 6% royalty rate, and a retail price of $7.99. With those numbers the author would therefore earn forty-eight cents ($0.48) per copy sold. That means over 4,000 books would have to be sold for the author to ever earn out the advance. If the book is released a year later, the author makes no more money at the time of release. If the book happens to come out in January, then the reporting period ends in June, and royalties are not paid usually until late in the subsequent reporting period—like November. If you’re keeping up with the math, virtually two years has passed in this process.

So let’s say the book sells 2,000 copies in the first six month period it is available—not bad for a brand new author with typically no promotional help other than “throw ‘em on the shelves and hope for the best.” In this instance no additional royalties would be due, because less than half of the advance would have been recovered.

Let’s say in the next six month period 3,000 copies are sold. Now some royalties are supposedly due, i.e. a grand total of 5,000 copies have sold. With the $2,000 advance repaid, only another $400 is due to the author—oh, but wait! They hold a significant percentage of those royalties as “reserves against returns,” so you’re still in the hole, and again see no royalty check. Another six months goes by—we’re at the end of year three now—and then you discover that the entire first printing of 5,000 copies is gone, and since there is not a huge backlog for it, your publisher isn’t reprinting it, and very shortly it is “Out of Print.” Surprise, surprise, you never see another cent. Maybe at some magical point in the future they release the other $400 to you, but that’s the end of it. So over a two to three year period of your life you made a whopping $2,400! Book the cruise! Not exactly an income you can live off of, now is it?

OK, now here’s the “dirty secret” part: Meanwhile, those 5,000 books that your publisher printed (and that’s all they printed) and sold generated them about $3.00 a copy in revenue, so they made at least $15,000 off your book, and were happy to do it. Even if they had printed 10,000 copies and still only sold 5,000, since paperbacks cost them $1.00 or less each to print, even if the other 5,000 were destroyed, they still made $10,000 or more off of your book and were happy to do it. But in that case, since you only had a 50% sell through, they probably don’t want any more of your books, or even if they give you a second chance, will make sure to only print 5,000 the next time. The wholesalers earned approximately $1.00 a book, so they saw around $5,000 for just getting them shipped from the publisher’s printer to their regular clientele of stores. The bookstores made around $3.00 a copy, so they enjoyed around $15,000 worth of income, too. But hey, you got $2,400, and it only took you three years to see it—after that great big $2,000 in advance! See who wins here, and who loses?

Pay special note to one other key element: When you thought you were going to see 50,000 copies of your first book sold in the first year, and therefore earn at least $24,000 in royalties, i.e. $22,000 on top of that $2,000 advance, there was no specific intent on the publisher’s part for that to ever happen. Indeed, if your book “took off” and happened to generate a big buzz in the market, and it quickly generated significant backorders (“quickly” being defined as in the first 30-90 days, and “backorders” measured in increments potentially as large as the initial print run or more), the publisher would be only too happy to commission a reprint to satisfy the demand. But short of that happening, the publisher only printed enough for him to make a tidy profit then move on to the next project. Don’t misunderstand—all publishers would love for all of their titles to be bestsellers. However, their business models are constructed such that the majority of them don’t have to be bestsellers for them to be profitable. In fact, few ever are, and yet they continue to make money.

Granted, in the example above, we’re talking about what are termed “mid-list” books from major publishers, which is where most new authors start out—if they’re lucky. Mid-List books are distinct from A-List books or Lead Titles, which is the classification for a publisher’s top sellers, i.e. their “stars” or choice new books expected to sell in very large volumes. Mid-list titles are not expected to be best-sellers, just to generate a satisfactory Return on Investment (ROI) to the Publisher by putting them into a general distribution cycle, whereby they know a certain minimum quantity in certain genres will move no matter what. If a mid-list book happens to do exceptionally well, wonderful. But that’s not the expectation, nor is any overt effort by the publisher to help the author develop a viable long-term audience and establish a professional career. Punchline to the Joke: They never printed any more books in the first place to allow you to earn anything more than your advance. It accomplished their business goals, not necessarily yours.

It was for this very reason we at ArcheBooks Publishing instituted our Author compensation model as one where a viable income stream could be derived for the authors, immediately, not years down the road. Granted, it may start humble and build up over time in accordance with actual sales results, as we work in cooperation with our authors to help them build a viable credible audience. But it’s honest, and it works.

Nevertheless, be assured that in our business model generating a recurring income stream for our Authors is important to us, while artificial policies to prevent ever paying out anything else is not. That’s our difference. What’s absolutely certain is that we don’t ever charge our authors a penny for anything as the Vanity Presses do, which is the topic of the next item.

Viewing Unpublished Authors as their Primary Customer Base and Revenue Source

It has been dully noted many times by many parties that a particular well-known POD-based Vanity Press (who refuses to admit that it is such) boasted a while ago that it printed its millionth book, and also has 10,000 authors. The math says that this works out to an average sales history of only 100 books sold per author, which it pretty pitiful. What this also says is that any publisher that only looks to sell 100 books per author isn’t making any meaningful money off the sale of books, rather in the fees charged to the author for their publication.

The topic of fees is the easiest Red Flag for anything in the publishing industry. Real Literary Agents don’t charge Authors fees, they earn commissions from the sale of books. Real Publishers don’t charge fees, they earn profits from the sale of books. As was noted before, Real Publishers pay authors. Vanity Presses get paid by authors. That’s really the hardcore difference between the two.

Furthermore, another clear hallmark of a “real” publisher is their emphasis and investment commitment to marketing and promotion. Do they advertise their books? Do they initiate outbound marketing campaigns? Do they provide their authors with effective promotional materials—at the publisher’s expense? Do they seek to get their books into distribution? All these things speak to the issue of whether the publisher is looking to make a profit from the sale of books, or from publication fees from desperate wannabe authors. At ArcheBooks Publishing, marketing and promotion is one of our top investment priorities—at no cost to our authors. This is covered in much greater detail in a later section.

Accepting all material for publication with no screening for professional quality

This one is easy to understand. If a publisher is a Vanity Press, and makes its money off of the authors and not the actual sale of books, then it’s irrelevant what is actually printed as long as the author who wants it printed pays his fees.

Real publishers reject everything but the best material they can find, eager to find the works they believe have the best potential for market success. They have to, because their business model places its success criteria on selling books, and because they don’t get any money from authors.

At ArcheBooks Publishing we have a policy of primarily accepting submissions from established literary agencies, contest winners, or some other similar quality assurance mechanism whereby only material of the highest professional caliber is considered for publication.

Little to no Formal Editing

With the aforementioned contrast in manuscript acquisition in mind, Vanity Presses don’t care if books are done well or not, and don’t expend any significant resources to hire or pay professional editors (which is a far cry from basic formatting). Real Publishers care a lot about professional editing, as it has everything to do with whether retail consumers ultimately like their products, will recommend them to others, and buy more of them in the future.

ArcheBooks Publishing adheres to the highest professional standards of editorial performance. We never publish any books “as is” and routinely work closely with our authors for necessary revisions, major and minor, to ensure our books are as strong and commercially viable as they can be. We publicly publish our own in-house Style Manual, which is available for free from our website (www.archebooks.com).

Little to no Marketing and Promotion

This item is one of the most important ones of all. Think about it: if an author gets little or no advance from a small publisher, and even if their book is initially manufactured digitally, but that publisher goes out, and at no cost to the author, pushes that book and promotes it such that thousands of copies of it sell, whereby both the publisher and author make a decent dollar off of it, who is to say that publisher isn’t “real”?

On the other hand, virtually all of the major publishing houses in the nation, in New York or elsewhere, get woefully poor marks when it comes to general marketing and promotion, especially for their mid-list and backlist (i.e. older) titles. Sure they do a lot for their top stars. But what about their brand new authors?

As has been noted in many of our other published articles, some of the biggest houses in publishing do little more than “throw ‘em on the shelves and hope for the best” as a basic marketing strategy. For the books that happen to “catch on,” those authors may move up the food chain and get better contracts, a little more promotion, and hopefully continue to build an audience and ultimately enjoy a measure of professional success. However, for the first-time author, that trial-and-error styled approach is pretty much a “dumb luck” or nothing strategy, and highly inefficient. It is for this reason that so many major publishers have all but closed their doors to new talent, opting only to go with established names or high-visibility celebrities who bring with them a built-in audience, and therefore a more predictable sales volume.

What distinguishes ArcheBooks Publishing from many other publishers is that we are willing to take risks on new authors that many other publishers won’t. Since we were founded, one of our core competencies is Demand Creation—first class marketing and promotion capabilities. What’s important to understand is that we are not adverse to giving new publishing opportunities to new talent, because we are supremely confident in the quality of our own Demand Creation/Marketing capabilities to make our products successful. And our strong sales results and glowing reviews of our books are a testament to that fact.

With that said, this doesn’t mean that we are foolhardy or take unwise business risks. It means we have developed an innovative market penetration and development model that mitigates many of the “unproven new author” risks, while giving new titles their best chance to succeed. We never guarantee success of a particular title—that would be naively arrogant on our part. The market, and the market alone, will always tell us who the winners and losers are. Our challenge is to give new voices the break they’ve been looking for, and do our best to help them exploit that opportunity.

Little to no Distribution and Sales Capability

This issue is where most of the large, well-established publishers have indisputably held a clear advantage in the market. Distribution relationships don’t happen overnight, and most major distributors only want to do business with publishers with high-demand products, for obvious reasons. Thus, for small presses and/or brand new publishers, there is a natural growth curve, measured in months, if not years, to build and develop those relationships. But just because a publisher is in the process of establishing those relationships doesn’t diminish or nullify their legitimacy as a “real” publisher, or in any way categorize them as a Vanity Press.

When it comes to the genuine Vanity Presses, again this is an irrelevant issue for them. So if you are trying to understand if a particular publisher is for real, simply find out who distributes their books, and/or how hard they are working to improve that every day.

All ArcheBooks titles are listed in the Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor databases in the US, and in Bertram’s in the UK. Our titles are sold online at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, who handle all of our online fulfillment.

Unsold copies are Non-Returnable

Virtually all Vanity Presses, and even most of the traditional publishers who are small and exclusively use POD technology to keep their costs low don’t allow bookstores to return unsold copies of their books. This is because the publishers are charged for the printing of a new POD book at the time of the order. So if a bookstore ordered 100 books, but only sold 10 of them, and then wanted to send the other 90 back for a credit, the publisher would still get charged for printing all 100. Chances are his entire business model is built around an expected profit margin of a guaranteed sale, above and beyond the printing costs. But if he only sells 10 books out of 100, the cost of printing those other 90 are easily going to wipe out any profit he made on the 10, and therefore he loses money. So the remedy for that is to institute a No Return policy, which equates to “All sales are final.”

The No Return policy is probably the number one stumbling block that keeps POD manufactured books out of most traditional bookstores. Bookstores are used to a standard business practice of being able to return books that don’t sell for a credit to make room on their finite shelf space for new arrivals to give them a chance. With publishers who use offset runs in volume, they normally factor in a certain minimum sell-though rate of a print run. As we saw in the earlier example, they don’t have to sell 100% of all books printed to turn a profit. They just have to have a certain level of confidence of selling enough to hit their breakeven point. So even if some percentage of the books are unsold and end up destroyed, or remaindered to a half-price chain, they don’t end up losing money. So in that situation, the books are usually returnable by the bookstores.

Therefore, the issue of whether books are returnable or not is not necessarily an absolute indicator of whether you are dealing with a traditional real publisher or a Vanity Press. But it is a significant factor that may be a profound hindrance to the distribution breadth and depth of your book.

All ArcheBooks titles are 100% returnable. See our printed Return Policy on the Booksellers page of our website for full details.

Poor Quality Finished Product

Finally, the bottom line hallmark of distinguishing real publishers from the pretenders ultimately has to come down to the finished product. Are the books made well, or shoddy? Are they priced competitively? Or do you see paperbacks priced like hardcovers, or hardcovers priced like encyclopedias? Are the covers artistically designed and imaginative? Or are the covers simplistic and crude, like someone did it with crayons? Are the pages well-formatted and professionally laid out? Or did it look like a giant cut-and-paste from a Word Processor? Are the books well-edited, or are there ten typos on page one?

As the Good Books says, “You judge a tree by it’s fruit.” That’s true for the manufacturer of any product in any industry, publishing included.

A Final Word

ArcheBooks Publishing is very proud, as of September 2004, to celebrate its first full year in business. We’ve come a long way from a radical new business concept on paper in just one year’s time, exceeding all of our original projections beyond our wildest dreams. While nine out of ten new start-ups don’t survive their first year, we’ve got a lot to be proud of. We’ve been cash-flow positive from our earliest months, our books are selling, thousands of book buyers are enjoying our books, we’ve got very happy investors and stock holders, we’re mailing out royalty checks, our authors are making money, new channels of distribution are opening up every day, even Hollywood is taking special notice of us, as one of our titles is soon to become a major motion picture.

But like any new business venture starting out in any industry, establishing baseline credibility, product legitimacy, and gaining a foothold in our target markets were naturally some of our core start-up business goals. In our first year of existence we fully expected to have to go out and earn our place in the industry amid a sea of formidable competition and an ocean of pretenders, to establish and build our reputation on deeds not wishes. No one was rightly going to consider us a viable business entity, not to mention a “real” publisher, just because we claimed to be one. We had to prove it, as we bear the continuing responsibility to do so every day of our existence for as long as we remain in business.

While we’ve enjoyed a great deal of welcome praise, we also know what it’s like to be disparaged or criticized due to our youth. While we’ve checked off all of our key business milestones one by one on our path toward success, we also know what it’s like to be mislabeled and maligned by ignorant parties who don’t understand the intricacies of our industry, much less appreciate the innovations and logic of our unique business model in contrast to the many arcane business practices readily found in the traditional publishing industry.

Therefore, we have a great deal of both sympathy and empathy for the many new publishers and small presses out there who daily endure the same treatment, and we applaud any entrepreneur for that matter with the courage and capital to take a risk and work earnestly to produce a first class product.

Now let me explain something that might surprise or even shock you. And this information is shared with you to give you a little better understanding of all the publishers in the industry, regardless of how you might wish to subcategorize or label them. For starters, one of the unspoken assumptions of this entire debate is that Traditional Publishers are good and Vanity Presses are evil. In reality, any kind of publisher has the ability to exploit authors for their own gain.

You see, the great VANITY of the Publishing Industry, long before the amazing technical innovations of digital printing and desktop publishing software and online sales and distribution, etc. were ever invented, book publishers as a whole, existed purely to turn a profit. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with a business being profit motivated, as any businessman with ambition must be. If not, he’ll go broke and be out of business in a hurry. What’s wrong is when inherently misleading business practices are used to exploit others to gain that profit. That’s the core indictment against Vanity Presses.

However, Traditional Publishers, who throw a couple of grand at an author to make that author believe that because they are finally going to be “published” that they’ve now therefore “arrived” and are about to become a “star,” when in reality they are only being used to generate tens of thousands of dollars for the publisher, with no real intention for the author to ever see another cent beyond those first couple of grand—that too is exploiting an author’s vanity. Sure, from the publisher’s standpoint, if some small percentage of titles they throw out there take off and do well, then they make even more money. The point is, the author’s long-term career potential is entirely incidental—not the publisher’s problem.

Obviously, once a few of a publisher’s better selling “names” develop some marketable “brand value,” they then have to start paying them like “stars” to keep leveraging that brand name to generate accelerated profits at the best-seller levels. However, the few that break out and becomes “bestselling names,” as opposed to the many who don’t, really don’t concern the publisher that much. He has plenty of titles he knows are going to generate a decent return on his investment, and if a few bomb, then the overachievers more than compensate for the loss.  Either way, he’s still in the plus column. That’s how the media barons of old ended up living in homes that were more accurately described as castles.

True Vanity Presses prey exclusively upon the vanity of a desperate author, hence their name. Many of them work very hard to convince authors that they aren’t Vanity Presses, and instead pretend to be traditional, endeavoring to make the author believe that by paying them for their services, they are officially “published” and therefore now able to become a star, or at least begin a career as a professional writer. However, it’s almost axiomatic that anything printed by a Vanity Press implies that no “real” publisher would touch it, and therefore is of low quality and no consumer would ever buy it. This stigma is so strong it blemishes legitimately self-published works that have no intention of getting on the bestseller lists, but exist to meet some other need, usually an educational one.

So from the perspective of an author with the desire to write professionally, avoiding Vanity Presses is a wise move. However, ironically, this same author who has avoided Vanity Presses makes the exact same mistake naively believing that any “traditional” publisher, regardless of how big they are or respected in the industry, is going to do much of anything for him beyond causing his book to exist. And looking at the situation from that perspective means that the only substantive difference between the two, traditional vs. vanity, boils down to who paid for the printing costs—the author or the publisher.

At ArcheBooks Publishing we promise no one stardom. We only offer an opportunity for our authors to work hard with us toward the goal of success; and we only offer those opportunities to those we think have a good chance to become successful. We say no to the rest. We don’t charge for that opportunity, we invest in it. We have constructed a unique proprietary business model that keeps us financially viable, even while taking risks on new authors that many other publishers are hesitant to do. We plan for each of our titles to have a long-term lifecycle, as in a minimum of a year to eighteen months, i.e. to give it a legitimate opportunity to find its audience and succeed—not a 30-90 day sales cycle to liquidate a limited mid-list print run inventory goal before moving on to the next one.

Our future success as a business is leveraged on our steadfast confidence that our world-class marketing and promotional efforts will cause some significant number of our products to enjoy broad-based commercial success, not just a few exceptions. Our author-centric model is designed to help authors become successful and build a long-term viable career out of their writing talents. And indeed, our portion of our author’s success, in turn, is what makes us successful as a business. In our view that’s how it’s supposed to be. All our authors know this. We don’t do everything identical to the old New York business model, and our business and our Authors and Agents are the better for it. Our approach, by design, is never to appeal to an author’s vanity, but to their ambition and talents, equipping and training them for success—at our expense.

So the next time you’re tempted to sit in judgment of a particular publisher, any publisher, questioning their overall legitimacy, credibility or any specific business practice or policy, we’d ask you to keep this one key truth in mind:

Any publisher, deemed traditional or non-traditional, whether they be old or new, large or small, old-fashioned or high-tech—any publisher who has no sincere intention of cultivating the long-term success of their authors and their works, in the final analysis, is disingenuously preying upon an author’s vanity for their own gain, which if you think about it, makes them no better than the Vanity Presses—regardless of any other business practice or production methodology.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (FOR A NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTHOR)

Filed under: Getting Published — jpeinc @ 9:39 AM
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By Robert E. Gelinas, Publisher, ArcheBooks Publishing

OK, so got your first book contract—not with a vanity publisher, but with a real one, whether they be large or small, who is taking your work to market. Now what? Is it time to sit back and wait for those Royalty checks to start rolling in?

NEWSFLASH FOR THE NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTHOR: Getting your first book accepted by a publisher isn’t the end of your work. It is just the beginning.

To be clear, there is no one prescribed process for how an aspiring writer makes the transformation to published author. For a handful of new authors, they already bring an established audience to the table: a famous personality, celebrity, politician, infamous criminal (all of the above?). In cases such as these, the author themselves may be newsworthy, and writing a book therefore becomes news in and of itself, and inevitably makes a huge market splash. For these people, generating interest in their work is not that great a leap for the book buying public. This is not the group we’re talking about here.

No, this paper is dedicated to the multitudes of non-household names out there who would like to change that fact—simple storytellers of fiction, with little to no guarantee of success. More and more these days, the largest of publishing houses, with the greatest of resources and the widest distribution, prefer to only publish works from writers described in the previous paragraph, not this one.

However, it does happen on rare occasion that a veritable “nobody” submits a work to an editor at a large publishing house, who takes a fancy to it and decides to give this unknown a chance. I can say that from first-hand experience, as my own very first novel was purchased by Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books, one of the largest New York publishing houses, and released as a paperback original with a very large advance. It was a lead title no less. After it was released, my book could be found in bookstores all over the country. I even got off a plane once at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport and saw my book on the “New Releases” rack of the news kiosk. That was a great feeling.

Yet after about 30 days, I couldn’t find my book anywhere anymore. I was told there were no copies available in the warehouses. I assumed that meant it was sold out. I thought that was great news, until I learned that unless there were a multitude of backorders for it, it wouldn’t be reprinted. As I said, it was a paperback original. That is, people buy them, enjoy them, then toss them aside and look for what’s new the next time they’re at the bookstore. There was no pent-up demand for this particular book, due to the fact that no one had ever heard of me prior to the book’s debut. However, I did receive a lot nice fan mail from readers who had thoroughly enjoyed it. But that wasn’t the point.

Now let me tell you what didn’t happen in my experience with Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. Yes, my book was listed in the distributor catalogues that goes to over 20,000 bookstores—quite prominently, actually—since it was the lead title in women’s fiction that month. But as far as marketing and promotion went, that was about it. And that’s really the message of this paper.

It doesn’t really matter if your book is published by the largest of publishers or the smallest. You simply can’t rely on the publisher, the distributors, nor even the retailers to lift a finger in the arena of “demand creation” for your book. The primary contribution of publishers, distributors and retailers is to facilitate “availability.” Publishers cause your work to become a tangible product. They make it exist; and then distributors and retailers make it available to the public—on the off-chance someone might actually want to buy it. In a perfect world, publishers, wholesalers and retailers would participate proactively in the sales and marketing of your book, but… well, we don’t live in a perfect world. Now do we? In a seemingly illogical paradox, the lion’s share of marketing dollars are spent by the largest publishing houses on their most popular authors, not the least popular, who obviously need it most.

Some publishers do help promote their authors and their works—the better ones do (regardless of their size). But for the brand new, unknown author, one truth is universal: your publisher has a finite amount of marketing funds, and those funds will be used to help the publisher get the best return on the investment of those funds—which may or may not have anything to do with you and your book. In the large publishing houses, millions may be spent on marketing campaigns for the authors who probably need it the least—i.e. for their top names. And that’s how a lot of top names stay at the top and their publishers maintain the “brand value” of those names. Even at the small- to medium-sized publishers, where marketing dollars are even more scarce, again, the lion’s share goes to the authors whose books they believe have the best chance of succeeding, and therefore making the best return on investment for the publisher.

So, dear author, you may have thought that after waiting so long in obscurity, sitting on that pile of rejection letters, elated at finally having someone put your book into print, that you’ve arrived. Yet you may soon discover that the experience may not go much further than where you are right now, with a book in print, but still mired in obscurity. For many unpublished authors, you may feel like, “I just want to see my book in print. I don’t care if it’s a bestseller or not!” To that notion I say, this is not the attitude of a professional author. The vast majority of professional authors have never written a “bestseller,” but still seek to make their living, or at least some steady supplemental income, from their writing. To the wannabe who just wants to see their name on the cover of a book, there are many vanity presses out there. Go find one; that’s what they exist to do. But if you really want to participate in the book business on a regular basis, and genuinely call yourself a novelist, there’s much more at stake here—and much more required of you.

You see, one of the dirty little secrets of publishing is the fact that much of the success/fail formula of book acquisition and production, specifically with regard to new names, is little more than “trial and error.” It is for that reason that so many of the larger houses have all but stopped giving new voices a chance, and focusing exclusively on books from established names with fairly predictable sell-through rates. For those lucky few who are given a chance, it is just that—a chance. Your book will be printed in some quantity, large or small, sent into the marketplace where the wholesalers and retailers will have never heard of you. They’ll give you roughly thirty days of retail shelf life in the stores to see if anything happens sales-wise. If your book takes off, wonderful. If it doesn’t, the booksellers don’t care. Your book just gets returned for credit, and the next month’s allotment of new titles takes its place on the shelf. Or even if your book sells out, if it was primarily an impulse buy and no one was necessarily asking for it by name, then when it’s gone, there are typically no backorders for it—because no one is asking for it.

Availability Does Not Equal Demand Creation

One of the biggest causes of confusion and frustration among new authors stems from the misconception between the concept of “Availability” and “Demand Creation.” Many believe these concepts are synonymous. They are not. The erroneous expectation is that if a publisher publishes your book then you can walk into any bookstore in the world and there your book will be in a huge featured display. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that. Instead, I encourage you to learn the psychology and tactics of how book are sold, and more importantly, how Demand Creation is facilitated, if you want your books to sell in sufficient quantities to be considered successful.

First of all, recognize that there are basically two kinds of book buyers: 1) Seekers and 2) Browsers. Seekers go to a bookstore or a discount retailer specifically looking for a particular title or author. Browsers on the other hand go to the bookstore looking for something new, with minds open to new authors and new stories that appeal to them. Bookstores know this distinction and organize their stores to service this dynamic accordingly.

Seekers know what they want, even if it’s just to see if their favorite author has released anything new. And if their favorite author doesn’t have anything in the New Releases section, they head for the “Stacks,” i.e. the aisles of bookshelves organized alphabetically by author, title, or by genre, or any combination thereof, with the books displayed spines out, with only the title and author’s name showing. All the information a Seeker needs is on the spine.

On the other hand, the New Releases are always nearest to the door. These books are prominently displayed face out, with the knowledge that the cover is what will entice a Browser to pick it up and check it out. And that’s important because contrary to the admonishment of the old cliché, people do judge books by their covers. It’s what gets a Browser to pick it up, inspect the description or blurbs on the back, perhaps read the flaps of a hardcover, and make their decision—which according to studies all happens in about eight to thirty seconds.

Unfortunately, the established authors’ works hit the New Releases section before being filed in the Stacks, leaving very little room, if any, for brand new debut authors. And for paperback originals, it’s even worse, unless it’s a lead title from a major publisher. No, in many cases, mid-list books from the large houses, and virtually all the books from small to medium sized publishers, get put in the stacks right away where only a Seeker is likely to ever find them—that is, someone who walked into the store specifically looking for that particular book or works by that author. And that’s why most bookstores only have a few copies of new titles from unknown authors, if any at all, i.e. just to be able to sell a few on the off chance someone actually wants one. They’re NOT pushing it.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Well then, if I’m not a lead title from a major house, or even if I do make it onto the New Releases rack, then I only have a thirty day window of exposure to the Browsers, who are only going to give it a shot if they like the cover and look at it for less than thrity seconds. Otherwise, no one is going to find my book hidden back in the stacks by accident!” And to those who put all their hopes on availability alone to generate sales, you’d be 100% correct on that point. And therein lies the misconception. Just by having your book in stock, i.e. its availability, has nothing to do with causing people to want it.

Your Book Not Being in a Bookstore Doesn’t Mean It’s Unavailable

Do the math. Ingram Book’s Advance Magazine boasts of going out monthly to over 20,000 bookstores nationwide. Let’s use that number for the sake of discussion. If every one of those bookstores were to order five copies of your book, that would necessitate a 100,000 copy print run. Guess what? Unless you already are a major author, your publisher isn’t printing 100,000 copies of your book as an initial run. If they printed 10,000 copies, then half the stores would only have access to one copy of it. And if that one copy sold in a given store, it would be gone, and no longer available at that store.

“Availability = Demand Creation” is the biggest myth first time authors need to get out of their minds. Having a 100 copies of your book in every bookstore in the country is extremely unlikely, if not a patently absurd expectation. On the other hand, if 100,000 people suddenly wanted a copy of your book, and it couldn’t be found in any bookstores, but it could be ordered online at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com, it could still become a bestseller!

That is, demand stimulates availability and availability services demand—it doesn’t create it. The sight of a large pile of books in a bookstore isn’t what compels people to run over and buy one. Besides, large piles of books are the result of large publishers printing hundreds of thousands of copies for their top authors with high expectations of selling lots of them, feeling the financial risk of such a huge investment is worth it. You see, true Demand Creation for a new author’s works, i.e. an unknown, untested commodity, is a function of “Buzz.”

Buzz

Buzz is an exponential viral networking of simple word-of-mouth. It’s what happens when even a small group of people read a book, like it, and recommend it to their friends and family, who in turn read it, like it, and tell others who do likewise. Buzz can happen suddenly, when very influential individuals (like Oprah) decide to have you on a national TV show and pushes your book to millions of viewers in one day. This is why getting good reviews and garnering editorial coverage is so important. Many people are intrigued about a new book after they read about it in a magazine or newspaper article. Or Buzz can sometimes be generated artificially on a grand scale when a publisher decides to invest hundreds of thousands, if not a million dollars or more, in a marketing campaign of advertising, press tours, media events and the like to garner attention for the new product. Again, only the largest of publishing houses have these kind of financial resources, and even if they do, rarely expend them on rookies without taking on some substantial business risks.

So what if you’re with a small- to medium-sized publisher, or even a big one, who isn’t spending big bucks to help you? If that’s your situation, then you’re at the mercy of grass roots Buzz. Let’s be more specific. Let’s say you’re with a small- to medium-sized publisher, who has printed 5,000 copies of your new hardcover title (of which 3,000 is more typical for a smaller publisher). In our example, your 5,000 copies are split and sent to the two largest book distributors in the US: Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Let’s say Barnes & Noble sees that there are 2,500 copies in Ingram’s warehouse, where they get their books. They order 500 of them to have in their own warehouse. Five copies are then sent to their 100 largest stores to see how it does. Because it’s a hardcover, and has an attractive dust-jacket, it gets put on the New Releases rack for thirty days. In several of the stores they sell a few from impulse buys from Browsers. If in those first thirty days the 500 copies sell out, they will look in their computers, and see how many of the original 5,000 are left in Ingram’s warehouse. If there are some left, they may reorder. If there are none, they may chose to backorder. If the 500 didn’t sell out, they may consider the title not to be very popular, and return what didn’t sell to Ingram. If no one else is asking for the title, the books get returned to the publisher or destroyed, and that’s the end of that title.

So even when availability was 100% in the retail world, it has nothing to do with creating Buzz and generating sales. On the other hand, if five people a week were walking into every Barnes & Noble in the country asking for a particular title, and they didn’t have it in stock, they’d special order it. And when they started seeing hundreds of requests for the same title, they’d want to know how they could get it in stock on a regular basis to prevent those customers from shopping elsewhere. They’d query Ingram. If Ingram didn’t have it on hand, they’d go directly to the publisher. And if the publisher was asked by Barnes & Noble if they could place an order for 1,000 books, any small- to medium-sized publisher would do everything within their power to respond to that request as quickly as possible.

Think about your own shopping motivations. Haven’t you ever decided to go out and purchase a particular product—could be anything, a book, DVD, CD, etc.—but when you went to the retailer you thought would have it, for some reason they didn’t. They either didn’t carry it, or were sold out, or were waiting to get it in, whatever. What did you do? Decide you no longer wanted it, or checked elsewhere? If you really wanted it, you probably looked around until you found out how to get it. That’s what everyone else does, too, even when it comes to books. Buzz is what triggers that “I gotta get that” impulse in people. It’s what can make a book buyer go straight to the Stacks to find your spine-out book if it’s there, or make them special order it, or buy it online if it’s not.

Furthermore, if demand does exist for a book that exceeds its first print run (which all publishers pray for!), there will be backorders, even for bestsellers. Backorders trigger reprints. That’s how the system is set up to work. And because that’s how it works, it’s perfectly likely that even for a very popular title, you might go into a specific store that already sold the first few copies it had on-hand and they are waiting for a new shipment. This “lack of instant gratification availability” doesn’t mean the book isn’t available at all, nor that anything is wrong. The buyer will then either special order it and wait, or find it from another channel of distribution, be it at a brick and mortar store or online.

Another newsflash for the new author: in simple mathematical logic, as we’ve noted, unless your publisher had a print run in the hundreds of thousands, there will be bookstores out there who don’t have copies of your book in stock—ever—and won’t even think to order it, unless they, too, get wind of its Buzz.

So where does grass roots Buzz come from, assuming your publisher doesn’t have a multi-million dollar marketing budget to spend on you? The answer: Buzz comes from a sustained campaign of hard work and promotional effort, for as long as it takes, even if measured in years, to kindle the flame of interest in a quantifiable audience for your work.

Far too many new authors conveniently forget that even the biggest names and stars are rarely overnight successes. People think of John Grisham and his success with his novel The Firm, but forget that his earlier book A Time to Kill came out first and wasn’t a big hit until after The Firm. Dan Brown, the author of bestseller The Da Vinci Code had several previous novels in print before this particular one caught on and became a hit. In Stephen King’s autobiographical book On Writing, he speaks candidly about his stack of rejection letters, collected over many years, before he got his break and found his audience. Yes, there are some “miraculous” exceptions, just like there are lottery winners who become instant millionaires. Instant success does exist, but it isn’t something you can exactly plan on, nor count on happening.

The real risk most new authors have in their efforts to generate Buzz for their new book, in the traditional publishing model, is the finite size of the window of opportunity to demonstrate sales traction. As noted, most retailers only give books a limited shelf life—literally, a finite period it is allowed to sit on their costly retail space shelves—before pulling copies of any book that isn’t moving, and then returning them to the publisher for credit in order to give that space to another title, all in hopes a different book will sell and make them some money. The greatest asset a new author has is a patient publisher who will work with them over a longer period of time to help develop Buzz and thereby build a new audience for that writer. Without that, you are basically at the mercy of sheer “luck” that enough souls will stumble over your book in the window of time that it can first physically be seen, and then buy it in sufficient quantities to convince retailers and distributors to keep ordering it. Yet, for many authors, they feel as if their book isn’t sitting on a shelf of a bookstore as the primary means of demand creation (its pretty cover?), it has no chance for success. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Real Demand Creation—the cultivation of Buzz—is direct result of effective marketing and promotion, which both author and publisher should conduct together. And if the publisher won’t help, then the author needs to take direct responsibility for this process in spite of their publisher. Hint: if your publisher doesn’t lift a finger to help you, but you go out and generate a healthy audience on your own, then with a quantifiable audience in hand, you can always find a new publisher who will help you make that audience even bigger on your next book. More on this point to follow.

So far in this paper I’ve spoken of the publishing world in terms of a lot of broad generalities, and surely there are numerous individual publishers out there who stand as shining exceptions to many of the pitfalls I’ve noted. I can’t speak for any other publisher in great detail other than myself. But as an independent publisher who fights these very battles on a daily basis on behalf of our authors, I can speak from the perspective of what we do and what we expect from our authors. We’re a traditional publishing house in the sense that we’re not a vanity/subsidy press, and see book buyers as our primary customer base.  However, we’re a very “non-traditional” publisher when it comes to marketing and promoting.

First of all, we don’t “Publish and Pray,” i.e. throw books out there and just hope for the best. We proactively seek to stimulate Buzz. From a corporate perspective, all of our titles are advertised to the booksellers (over 20,000 of them). We send out targeted Press Releases, media kits, announcements, etc. to specific segments of booksellers by genre group. We attend trade events. We send out review and promotional copies of titles. We target editorial coverage in genre related periodicals and the like. Yet all of those efforts are only half the battle. We also equip all of our authors with an Author Promotion Kit.

This Kit (provided at no cost to the author) consists of collaterals and promotional tools to generate attention for their books. We’re talking about full color Title Announcement Flyers, Book Signing Posters, Cover Art posters, Post Cards, Book Marks, sample Press Releases for local papers, etc. This Kit was developed for the expressed purpose for authors to get out and promote their books!

We expect our authors to schedule and hold book signings at every bookstore that will permit them to do so. We expect our authors to submit local press releases to their local papers in parallel to our corporate Press Releases to national and international wire services. We expect our authors to attend genre related trade events and conventions, where we work to get them on writing/publishing panels, autograph sessions, etc. to gain more visibility. Obviously, any additional media coverage in print, radio, or TV is welcome. If the authors have the financial means they are welcome to hire professional publicists and Ad agencies. But the common theme here regardless of total investment or scope is a steady professional effort to reach out to more and more people each and every day, seeking to intrigue them with your work.

At some point in this “tipping over the first domino process” one of two things is going to happen: either

1)      Some critical mass of people are going to be intrigued by your book, buy the book, read the book, like the book, then tell others, and true Buzz starts; or

2)      Few people are intrigued, few buy the book, few read the book, few like the book, few if any tell anyone else, and there is no Buzz.

In the first scenario, the book goes on to become a success. In the second scenario, it goes out of print and dies.

Of special note, not all publishers have the same degree of patience in waiting to see how long it takes for Buzz to ignite before declaring a title a flop and moving on to the next one. Again, speaking only for my own publishing house, we took this dynamic into account in building our publishing model, which was geared to help new authors find an audience, rather than depending on finding authors who already had one. Doing this required us to take a much longer lifecycle view of a book, i.e. measured in twelve to eighteen months, not a mere thirty to ninety days. We also employed a more graduated model of production and deployment, that is, spending the majority of our resources and time on Buzz creation, not huge initial print runs, to allow demand to dictate availability.

Candidly, this approach has frustrated some of our very own authors who held expectations of seeing their book in every bookstore from the date of its release. That wasn’t our model. Our model is to grow to that point as a result of successful marketing over a four to six month period leveraging both online and brick and mortar retail distribution, carefully measuring response rates, and supplying the sales channels with product as our Buzz creation gains traction and takes off. We feel this is the best chance a new author has of building a career and ultimate success, not being at the mercy of “luck” in a tightly constrained window of retail opportunity.

It’s Not All or Nothing

The second biggest myth for new authors is the expectation of “bestseller or nothing.” Many authors make an adequate living selling a modest amount of books on a regular basis. For example, if it takes you two years to build an audience of 25,000 readers who enjoy your work, and will buy it consistently, that’s great! What that means is that if you’re earning $2.00 or more in royalties per book, you’re earning a $50,000 a year income, well above the poverty line. If a bestseller is defined as 50,000 copies or more selling within a short span of time, you might never hit that threshold, but still make a fine living nonetheless. And like Dan Brown, perhaps on your fourth or fifth or sixth novel, that special one might break out and become your million copy bestselling “hit,” with movie adaptation deals, the works. But keeping your focus on Buzz creation, with a long-term marketing view, not mere day-one availability, is the key.

The third biggest myth of the new author is the expectation of making substantial money—and quickly! In the traditional publishing model, according to most surveys, a new author might get from $2,000 to $5,000 as an advance on the sale of that very first book. With small- to medium- sized publishers, it’s less than that, or no advances at all. The traditional accounting model in the publishing industry goes in six month reporting periods. So if your book debuts in January, your publisher will compute sales from January through June of the first reporting period. So the soonest you can expect to see that first royalty check is going to be in July (best case) or August, or later, depending on how promptly they pay, which isn’t something any publishers are renowned for doing.

Ah, but you also have to remember that $5,000 advance! An advance against royalties is recoverable against future royalties, or more accurately a non-recoverable draw (i.e. you don’t have give any of it back if you never earn it out). So if your royalty rate per book is $2.00 a copy, and your book sold 2,000 copies in the first six months (which might not be bad for a brand new author in hardcover), you’re still $1,000 in the hole, and don’t get a royalty check for the first reporting period. If your book sells another 2,000 copies in the second reporting period, the first 500 are needed to cover the rest of your advance, and the other 1,500 generate $3,000 in royalties, of which your agent takes 15%, or $450, so you actually see a payment of $2,550 (of which you’ll need to set aside some of that to pay your taxes). And bear in mind, your book most likely took a year or more after you were given that first advance for its actual release date to arrive. So in terms of actual cash flow, let’s say you received a $5,000 advance, less 15%, or $4,250, then waited a year for your book to come out, then waited another year for your book to sell more than your advance, only to see $2,550 over two years later. That’s not exactly a career income there, is it? Yet in its first year of life, your book sold 4,000 copies, which for a hardcover, isn’t a bad start.

It was for that reason we at ArcheBooks Publishing scrapped the old “traditional” compensation model and went to a new monthly payment system. In our model, we introduce titles in a matter of a few months after contract, and as sales actually happen the authors then get paid on a regular basis. Admittedly, if the author only sells 100 books the first month that their new title is out, they may only make $200, but it’s a start. And their title doesn’t get yanked because it only sold 100 books in its first thirty days after emerging from literal obscurity. If it sells 150 copies the following month, the author makes $300. If a year down the road, as Buzz starts to take off, they’re selling a few thousand books a month, then they’re making several thousands of dollars a month, the kind of money they can live off of. And they will have “arrived” at their goal on the “get rich patiently” plan, i.e. steadily growing their audience base, day after day, week after week, month after month, without the axe hanging over their heads of “instant great performance or forget it”—which is the hallmark traditional publishing model.

Cumulative Success

The next fallacious expectation I believe needs to be challenged is the “one hit wonder” syndrome. That is, it’s OK if your first book just does OK. Your entire career need not depend on the audience reaction to your first endeavor. As was noted, that wasn’t John Grisham’s experience, nor Dan Brown’s. Obviously, if any book takes off in a big way, everybody’s thrilled, whether it’s the first or fifth or tenth. But it’s OK if the goal of your first novel is to get a foothold in the market. If your first book sells 5,000 copies or more in the first twelve to eighteen months that it’s in the market, then chances are, there are 5,000 people out there who just might buy your second book. And most small- to medium-sized publishers, as well a few big ones, can justify the production investment on a book that they believe has a good chance of selling 5,000 copies or more. But instead of seeking to generate Buzz from an audience of zero, you’re starting on the second one at 5,000 potential known customers, who likely all have friends and family to tell about your new book.

So perhaps on your second title, getting to 5,000 copies in sales doesn’t take 12 months, maybe only three, and new readers help that second title achieve the 10,000 copy level. But what’s even better is that those first 5,000 not only want the new book, but those new 5,000 readers may like your work enough to go back and buy the first one, boosting its sales in its second year—assuming it’s still available and not “Out of Print” due to an impatient publisher letting it die. And therefore, over time, as you’ve diligently built your audience to a larger and larger predictable number, you’ll find you have become one of those “established” authors who justify the larger initial print runs, bigger advances, the bigger marketing budgets, and all that goes with it. If that’s the case, then it wasn’t luck that produced your success; rather, it was something you worked for and built, setting realistic expectations and demonstrating perseverance and dedication with no guarantees of ultimate success (which is how life works in general).

In summary, if your expectation as a newly published author is that now you can sit back and wait for the great big royalty checks to come rolling in right away, counting on sheer availability in bookstores to make you a star, then you are taking an extremely naïve risk, and are neglecting the very time sensitive efforts that are required on your part, which are vital to giving your book, and ultimately your opportunity for a career as a writer, a real chance to succeed in the first place.

January 21, 2010

WHERE’S THE DOWNER DEPARTMENT?

Filed under: Getting Published — jpeinc @ 3:08 PM
Tags: , , , ,

By Robert E. Gelinas, Publisher, ArcheBooks Publishing

Some Advice for Aspiring Novelists

As a Publisher, and the Editor-in-Chief of my publishing house, a good portion of my day is consumed with the review of queries and book proposals for acquisition. Even though we clearly state in our submission guidelines that we don’t accept material that doesn’t come through established Literary Agencies, that little tidbit of information doesn’t seem to deter many aspiring authors from sending me their pitches.

Most unsolicited submissions get quickly deleted or are sent a polite rejection/no-thanks reply, informing the writer of our submission policy—but on occasion (and I know I’m going to regret sharing this) something catches my eye and I give it a more thorough look. Once in a Blue Moon, that which catches my eye turns out to be something worth seriously considering. OK, Major Disclaimer: this rarely happens. Most of the time what I’m sent causes me to race my finger to the “Delete” key faster than I can get to the Mute button on the TV remote when the billionth “DITECH” commercial intrudes upon the serenity of my home*.

Therefore, this brief article is an urgent plea from me, on behalf of all publishers and editors in the world in similar circumstance, to all the aspiring writers in the world determined to send us your projects, i.e. this article is specifically about what NOT TO SEND.

Guaranteed Rejections

The Downer

Chief on the list of books that should never be published is the “life of despair memoir/angst” novel. It’s obvious how these things come to be. Someone goes through a hard road in life, they wrestle with their own demons, they experience pain/loss, disappointment and rejection, cellulite, whatever—and misery loves company—so they feel the need to both purge and share. Makes perfect sense.

Admittedly, not every book has a happy ending, or should. These depressing tomes are best described as the venting of the soul, each one filled with a lifetime of sadness and morbid reflection. And for some strange reason, believe it or not, these books just don’t seem to catch on in a “bestselling” sort of way. I mean, when was the last time anyone walked into Barnes & Noble, hungry for a great new book to take home and sit in their favorite easy chair and enjoy, and so they went over to the information desk and asked the sales clerk, “Where’s the Downer Department? I’m looking for a real depressing story that will make me want to put a gun in my mouth?”?

It doesn’t take a licensed psychotherapist to understand that it was probably very therapeutic for the writer to sit down and get all that bile and pus out of their system and on paper, as well as their sincere need for others to hear the tragedy of their existence and thereby sympathize and empathize, and who knows, perhaps even learn a great lesson about mistakes in life and love that could possibly be avoided by others. What these tortured souls don’t realize is that the vast majority of the “middle of the bell curve” of consumer book buyers out there really don’t consider this type of book their favorite form of entertainment. Oh sure, there’s probably some Goth suicide-club or coven out there who fawn over this type of material and can’t get enough of it. But for the most part…oh, let’s be kind and just say it’s not very Mainstream. And for the writers of such material, if you can’t find a publisher who specializes in depression tales, don’t think that for a moment that the rest of us are interested in being converted. It’s a waste of your time, I promise.

“Oh hold on there, Bob,” some argue, “but many great works of literature have dealt with the trials and tribulations of man’s journey in life.” Yes, but you’re no John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway. Become famous and then people will want to know about your morose inner workings. Just keep in mind that advertising your psychosis and all your emotional baggage isn’t the way to build and develop an audience.

The Coming of Age

For reasons very similar to The Downer book, many an aspiring writer was deeply impacted by their own navigation of adolescence, loss of virginity, loss of innocence, realization that there’s a lot of stupid evil people in the world, or that there really is someone out there in the world that likes you and accepts you.

Don’t get me wrong here. Coming of Age novels can be very good—IF, and only IF—the novelist can really find something unique and entertaining to bring to the table other than clichés. The metamorphosis from child to adult is a very turbulent period in anyone’s life. THAT’S WHAT MAKES YOURS JUST AS ORDINARY AS EVERYONE ELSE’S AND NOT SPECIAL! Yes, that first kiss was special to you. We all felt that. You’ll have no trouble whatsoever finding common ground and understanding with 99% of the references you wish to use from that period of your life. Been three, done that—that’s the problem. The fact that these things moved you, and were possibly even quite monumental in your own catalog of memories, isn’t enough. There has to be a STORY in there somewhere that tells us something we don’t already know.

The Day in the Life

Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t care for books that don’t contain a plot or that lack anything even remotely resembling a storyline. Please don’t send me manuscripts about, “this character’s existence.” If you want to write about people who never change, whose situation is stagnant, who have nothing to offer the audience other than anecdotal episodes or vignettes—please go to work in the television industry.

The most common “day in the life” submission I see on a regular basis is where the book opens with the main character in some new situation and/or environment due to some upheaval in their life, and then spend the next 300-400 pages learning to accept and embrace their new circumstances. These type of books come real close to being just Downer books, but at least most Downer novels have some thread of a storyline.

Child and Animal Abuse

In the land of freedom-of-speech and artistic license, there is an argument (albeit a legalistic one) that an author ought to be able to write about anything their twisted little imaginations can conjure up. While this is technically true, this “freedom” doesn’t obligate a single publisher to accept the author’s work for publication, especially if that publisher believes the work is going to deeply offend the target audience that publisher hopes will buy the book.

At the top of the list of elements NEVER to put in your manuscript except by very rare and delicate exception, is the murder or abuse of children or beloved animals/pets (killing sharks, wolves, snakes etc. is not what we’re talking about here). People don’t like it! It’s a turn-off, more negative than the mere depression instilled by the Downer book.

I’ve had to instruct some of my own authors, on occasion, to revise a scene due to some of these issues. “I’m sorry, but in this scene were the woman seduces Tommy, Tommy can’t be ten. He’s got to at least be fifteen or sixteen, maybe even older.”

Even if you lost your virginity at a very young age, perhaps even under tragic circumstances, and therefore feel this kind of material is pretty powerful stuff: PEDOPHILIA ISN’T ENTERTAINING to non-pedophiles. It’s icky. Are we clear on that one?

Even in the situation where you’re writing a detective novel where the villain they’re chasing is perhaps a pedophile, you need to tread very lightly. Most non-brain-dead adults already freely concede that any instances of child sexual abuse are horrific, and there’s nothing you need to explicitly depict in your story to convince them it’s not as bad as bad gets. So don’t.

The Carbon Copy

The most commonly rejected submission comes from the avid reader/fan turned wannabe author. This person has read every book by a particular author or thousands of them in a favorite genre and are ready to try their hand at it. Nothing wrong with that. The problem here is that their manuscript is merely an echo of other voices that we’ve all heard a million times. The effect these submissions have on an acquiring publisher/editor is the teeth-grinding, eye-twitching irritation you experience when hearing burnt-out clichés like “You go girl,” “Right On!,” “That’s what I’m talking about,” “Far Out!” “I lost another loan to Ditech!” and “This is just more tax breaks for the rich!”

Even in the context of established genres, there must be an element of originality in every author’s work. There’s a concept in writing known as “voicing,” which we’ll not delve into in great depth here (we’ll save that topic for another article). But suffice it to say, an author must have his own unique voice—a stylistic element of their own inherent talents that shines forth in their writing. That’s one of the most important things we look for! And if it’s missing, what’s left can sound very hollow and flat.

Welcome to My World

From: Helen Wannabe <hwannabe@aol.com>

To: publisher@archebooks.com

Subject: Query for my novel “Forgotten Arms”

Dear Publisher,

I have written a 280,000 word manuscript about the life of Lucy Livermore, a seventy year-old woman who grew up on a farm in Nebraska, who was raped by a farmhand at age 12, but never told anyone except her cat (who was the only creature in the world who thought she was pretty), then moved to Montana to raise Alpaca with her aunt Grace, the one on her mother’s side who went stir-crazy one winter and killed all the Alpaca one night with a shovel. Lucy never had her own bicycle, and she experimented with lesbianism with the clerk at the seven-eleven, then became a prostitute at a truck stop, had her nose broken six times, got her Chlamydia under control, married one of her johns, who was a one-armed trucker twice her age and who was an alcoholic, and who suffered from post Viet Nam flashback episodes, especially during sex, and he also raised albino rats, but she faithfully stayed at his side even through all ten years of his cancer treatments (which came after the seven to ten he did in prison for the school shooting), only to find out he never really loved her, just his stupid rats! He dies. Ha! She donates all his rats to the reptile house at the zoo. After her hysterectomy and mastectomy and tongue piercing, when she’s in her early 60’s, at that point almost unrecognizable with liver spots, she reunites with Sherry, her old lover, the seven-eleven clerk, who Lucy coincidentally finds is living at the same trailer park she’s in, just outside Reno, NV. Sherry’s been through years of surgery herself, which stupid Medicare wouldn’t pay for, and is now a man named Terry. They learn to accept one another, get their own double-wide with six cats, and start a pottery club that meets on Tuesdays at the VFW hall. The whole story all takes place in one day as a flashback, right before Lucy kills herself after killing Terry with a shovel. The end.

This heartfelt coming of age story is based upon much of my own life experience, but I’ve changed all the names. And don’t worry, “Terry” is really OK. I made that part up. I promise. God told me to send this to you.

Sincerely,

H.W.


* The National Institute of Standards (NIST) has determined this increment of time to be the smallest interval possible to measure, replacing the “nanojiffy.”

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