It’s not looking good for authors who seek to make money from their writing. Recent data from Author Earnings shows a growing gap between authors who self-publish/go with a small publisher vs. those who receive a contract from a “Big Five” publisher or one of their imprints. And the obvious takeaway: Writers are really, really, really, really, really, really unlikely to make money from their writing, despite the vague “more writers earning a living from their writing than ever before” meme pushed out by a few top authors.
Books have never been the most popular form of entertainment and while there’s been a bounce with people buying more work, particularly from indies, the long-term challenge of encouraging a reading culture remains. The problem is, the literary world is ill-equipped to overcome these challenges. There are many reasons, but today we’ll focus on what book publishers can do to improve the quality of their product.
As a newbie writer, I have no ill will towards publishers, nor do I believe an author is wrong for choosing traditional publication. But I do follow publishing news, and I get the impression the major publishers (other than Amazon) have no idea how to consistently build readership. I say to build a readership, they need to develop the talent who can build the readership. So I propose the publishers…
create an Author League.
The concept is simple: publish fewer books, but invest more in their talent to develop. I got this idea from baseball. Players are drafted and nearly all go into the minor leagues. The goal is to develop the players and see who is good enough to become a pro. While most will never make it that far, at least they get some level of coaching. And those who DO make it are better because of the training, the experience, and the commitment to the player from the organization.
Here’s the plan: Sign an author to a contract and place that author in a ‘league’. The expectations and money goes up as the author’s writing improves. Authors who don’t improve or who miss objectives get cut.
Pros: Reserved for only the top few authors who either have, or are capable of, massive sales. These authors seldom need coaching, though having some from time to time never hurts. They have big platforms and really need help distributing their works, primarily in print. These authors are fully ready for international tours, major Hollywood movie deals, merchandising opportunities, and essentially running a medium business. Authors who can sell 50,000 or more copies a year belong here.
AAA: Authors here are emerging breakouts, but not quite mega stars. These authors are well-known in the literary community, and they have a solid fanbase who will come to their book signings or other events, though they may not be household names and blockbuster franchise-ready yet. These authors are experienced and skilled writers who may or may not need additional help with their prose. The main challenge here is helping them improve their storyboarding or getting their careers to the breakout level. They may be ready for minor movie deals or limited merchandising/licensing opportunities. Expectations are high and advances and contract perks are higher as well. Authors who sell between 15,000-49,999 belong here.
AA: The next level up for authors. These writers have some type of working platform, some level of public speaking ability, have shown a greater range of talent needed for major publication, and are taking the craft more seriously. Authors here tend to not be the best at marketing themselves and still need help improving their craft and productivity. Authors here typically sell 5,000-15,000 books per year.
A: The lowest tier for all authors who are ready for professional publication and don’t qualify for Rookies. These authors typically lack previous writing experience, including coaching or supervision. They also lack the star power needed to move lots of copies. Expectations are lower, but so are advances. Authors here have some talent, but need help improving their writing. That may mean improving productivity, forming outlines, or platform building. Publishers will dedicate help to authors who land here. An author who would sell between 2,500-5,000 books per year would be best suited here. Note that authors who really could not move at least 2,500 copies (smallest possible print run for a publisher) are not worth the publisher’s time and would be better off self-publishing or doing something better with their time.
Rookie: Reserved for new authors under 30 who aren’t ready for higher levels. This is more of a “career development” than anything. Not just improving writing, but helping young talent adjust to becoming a professional. The truth is, few teens and twenty-somethings are fully prepared to be working professionals, putting in all the time needed to be a full-time author, and even fewer would be prepared for celebritydom if their novel took off. The goal here is to seek publication for short stories or small works and build their platforms.
This is only a base guideline, but it’s something to think about. Whoever comes up with this idea is in great shape to retain talent and cut into losses. If you give every signed author some marketing help and lowered expectations for smaller players, the industry would be more likely to break even or profit from work rather than lose significant money on most books. Publishing a book with almost zero marketing help is totally worthless.
What would you add/subtract to my list?