Do Million Dollar Debut Authors Help or Hurt Publishing?

Million Bucks

Point One: Book publishing, like the entertainment industry at large, relies on a few breakout successes to overcompensate for the projects which don’t succeed. Point two: We as humans are wired for “narratives” in our lives-thus we seek opinions which confirm our pre-conceived notions, rather than being challenged.

For book publishers and authors, nothing beats a “rags to riches” narrative, given the struggles of pretty much every author who has a book, many who may live in poverty or low-income conditions, who see their work come to life via publisher. They watch the book become a hit, get rich, and stand tall as the next wave of eager beavers send in their manuscripts, in the hopes that their book might be the Next Bit Thing (NBT). The desire to stand on top of the mountain and shout to everyone behind you “yes, you can do it. See me? See me? I did it and perhaps it could be you.” Whether that desire is eager optimism to help fellow authors or a cynical ploy to sell “services” or “advice” to wannabes, depends on the author.

The desire to find the next breakout story drives publisher to seek the NBT. The problem is, it’s not really clear why some books do phenomenally well and others don’t. If it were, publishers and agents would only accept authors with a 95% chance of that book hitting the bestseller’s list. (Subscribe to my blog for a future post on this 95 percent confidence interval and what it means). But since determining those books is difficult without market research (which I don’t see them do for most books), they are left to what we used to call in grammar school “educated guesswork” or “guesstimates”.

The Wall Street Journal had a recent article about the “millionaire debutantes”- authors who got $1 million or more for their first book. This is like the legendary City of Gold or Shangri-La for authors, since it’s so rare to ever hear of an author receiving an advance this big. Or is it?

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a former marketing copywriter in Los Angeles, dreamed for years of becoming a novelist but never had any illusions about earning a living from it. Her goal in writing her first novel, “The Nest,” which she tackled in her early 50s, was merely to finish it.

In a whirlwind week as publishers read the manuscript last December, HarperCollins’s Ecco editorial director Megan Lynch made a pre-emptive offer to publish the novel for at least $1 million. “I never imagined people would respond that way in a million years,” said Ms. Sweeney, 55. The book, about four adult siblings whose anticipated inheritance has all but evaporated because of one brother’s bad behavior, is scheduled to be published next March.

Literary fiction, long critically revered but poorly remunerated, is generating bigger and bigger bets by publishers. Thanks to a spate of recent runaway hits such as “The Goldfinch” in 2013 and “All the Light We Cannot See” last year, publishers are increasingly willing to pony up enormous advances to secure potential blockbusters.

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads have contributed to a culture in which everyone reads—and tells their friends about—the same handful of books a year. It’s increasingly a winner-take-all economy, publishing executives say.As a result, publishers are competing for debut literary talent with the same kind of frenzied auction bidding once reserved for promising debut thrillers or romance novels. “If they feel they have the next Norman Mailer on their hands, they’re going have to pay for that shot,” literary agent Luke Janklow said. “It’s usually the result of a little bit of crowd hysteria in the submission.”

“They’re basically betting on the book establishing itself as an important book in the canon,” Jane Friedman, co-founder of e-book publisher Open Road Media and former CEO of HarperCollins said of Knopf’s deal for “City on Fire.” “You’re betting that this is going to be the most-read book of the year.”

The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations. “You can pin all your hopes and dreams and fantasies on a debut novel,” said Eric Simonoff, an agent known for negotiating seven-figure advances.

Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said.

“It’s not that they’re betting on the wrong writer, it’s that the bet’s too big,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher at the independent house Grove Atlantic, who noted that Grove can’t afford seven-figure advances.

Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel. “That is a scarlet letter that you don’t get out from under,” Mr. Janklow said.

Indeed, million-dollar investments in debuts often don’t pan out, publishers and other industry experts say.

Read that quote by Eric Simonoff again and scratch your head. Is that how a business should operate? Committing millions of dollars to unproven projects because you could project your fantasies onto them?

Authors, unlike musicians or actors, are generally not public figures and rarely have the extroversion needed to build a massive social media or TV following to sell books. Whose fault that is you can argue all day. But the point is, you don’t see any reality TV shows featuring the writer’s life or asking aspiring writers to read their best flash fiction on-air for judges. Just imagine if publishers took most of that over-sized advance and instead committed it to marketing their books. Might they not sell more, especially of the ‘midlisters’?

The whole point of an advance is to provide authors with a source of income for their writing while they waited for their books to sell and collect royalties.But how can you justify handing one author a million bucks, probably 20 years’ of pre-tax pay for their job, when other authors barely get enough to pay their mortgage or rent? Or get nothing at all? Especially when who gets what is based on guesswork and not data.

The bottom line is, in an age where Amazon and self-published authors are taking market share from the traditional publishers of all sizes, the last thing the Big Five need is to spend millions on “guesstimates” of which books will succeed, enriching a tiny, tiny number of lucky authors while leaving the 99.999% out to dry, and focus on marketing the titles they already have. Then they might not need to rely so much on blockbuster titles.

photo: http://mymoneycounselor.com/net-worth-how-are-you-doing/million-bucks

 

Oyster Wants to be the Next Amazon

Yesterday Oyster announced they were going to enter the ebookstore market, and the initial reaction was that they are competing with Amazon for titles. All big 5 publishers have signed on. This is separate from their subscription service, which was popular for those seeking many books at a low price but who then discovered some of their favorite authors or desired books were unavailable from the subscriptions.

Apparently Oyster’s e-bookstore won’t have cross-over titles from their subscription service, which makes sense if you think about it- if you could sell a copy of your book for say 99 cents via their bookstore, then why would you want it bundled with a subscription model if your customers can’t find you anyway? I maintain that subscription models are great for readers and newer authors who are desperate for discover ability, but seasoned authors with successful novels or series may find the subscription model damaging to their earnings, since the wealth is essentially redistributed irregardless of how many downloads you have.

The argument is that Oyster isn’t so much competing with Amazon as it is to keep its members from leaving- they’ve lost some of their subscribers over the last few months as people’s buying and reading habits shifted.

Will this e-bookstore idea work for Oyster? Or will Amazon find a way to maintain its dominant status as the largest e-book publisher in the world? And don’t forget about HarperCollins- they are headed the way of developing their own platform and selling their authors on their site. We’ll stay tuned to the HC-Amazon dispute.

Is Indie book publishing the best way to go?

There is a lot of debate among authors as to which methods of publication is best. Here are the four most common options:

1. Traditional publishing (Big 5- Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillian, Simon & Schuster, and all of the smaller printing companies they own)

2. “Indie Publisher”: small and medium sized printing and publishing companies unaffiliated with the Big 5.

3. Self-publishing with a major company like Amazon publishing, where you publish with a major company but it’s largely self-publishing, just on their platform.

4. Self-publishing: you do all the work yourself of creating  or hiring someone for the content, graphic design, editing, etc, and then you publish it on a site like Amazon, Nook, or smash words as an e-book with the possible Print on Demand function.

*Disclaimer: I am not at this time a published author. This is my take on how I view the industry based on the experiences of other authors and my understanding of the publishing industry.

Traditional publishing has the biggest pro in terms of marketing and budget. They can get your book into stores faster than any other method, you can sell copies, print in particular, faster through a big company AND they can quickly have your book translated and sent to foreign nations. They also have massive credibility. The catch is, you actually have to get these services. Go on your typical author message board and notice how many authors complain about the contracts they have to sign (granted, they may have other reasons to complain, but that’s another topic). these contracts often require signing away rights to books for a long time, if not forever. You would get a very low royalty, unless you have had previous success. Advances can vary but they seem to me to be almost totally at random, depending on whether you “fit” with the current crop of publishers. Even if you get a book deal you are still going to have to do your own promotion, though they can help you out. Many authors don’t seem to be good at self-promotion. Also, you will have very little say in how your book is produced, including cover art, illustrations, etc.

Small/Indie publishing: Small/indie publishers are more likely to work one on one with you to make the book look the way you want. As a legitimate publishing house they will take the costs of production onto themselves, and you can (and should) expect better contract terms- higher royalties, more control over cost and production, and legitimate assistance in marketing and promotion. However, you should not expect a large advance, your print runs will be smaller, and you will likely have to do even more self-promotion because indie publishers rarely have the staffs to keep up with the bigger publishers. One bonus is that BECAUSE budgets are smaller at indies your books won’t cost as much to produce, and a basic  economic principle is that the lower the price of a good or service the more likely you are to sell that good or service. Also, books get out to market much faster than big houses but slower than self-publishing.

Amazon publishing or similar service, including Kindle Direct Publishing- many authors who don’t want to write query letters, can’t handle rejection, and/or who can’t, don’t, or won’t wait for an agent to accept a book, pitch the book, sell the book rights, and then have the publisher decide when to print and sell it. You sign with a large company like Amazon, choose what contract terms you want (in KDP), and your book is available as a Print on Demand (POD) or as a legitimately published book. But I got this from the website today:

Amazon Publishing does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, proposals, or other submissions at this time.

Plus you also have to realize you’re working with Amazon…now while the “Big 5” don’t seem like the most pleasant bunch to deal with, and they do control way too much of the book publishing industry, Amazon controls over half the total e-book publishing market and they control a large number of sales volume on the internet. And another economic principle- monopolies are not a good thing. Replace the big 5 with Amazon and it will be exactly the same, but with one company in control and not five.

True self-publishing: You don’t sign a contract with anyone, other than choosing your terms with KDP or Nook Press, for example, for how much in royalties you want to receive. You write your book, take care of production yourself, and sell it as an e-book with POD option available. You publish it on as many sites as you are allowed (depending on your terms) and hope for the best. If you are lucky you might even sell a bunch of copies while keeping 100% of profit and not signing away any rights to anyone!

But…self-publishing has a bad stigma. Anyone can do it, and when anyone can do it, it isn’t very valuable. You will have to take care of ALL your publishing, production, promotion, etc. Many authors, as I stated above, cannot manage to essentially become entrepreneurs. Plus publishers can get access to media and brick and mortar stores you the lonely author are not likely to get access to, even if you’re nice.

My take: I personally favor the small indie publishing model, provided they are a credible publisher. You get the advantage of working with a real publisher who will handle much of what a big publisher will just on a smaller scale, and you will have a better chance of getting a more favorable contract. Self-publishing is very risky and giving your printing rights to a big corporation carries its own risks too, that you’ll either be drowned out by the huge roster of authors they already publish or you’ll have to live with the knowledge of letting an oligarchy have control of your hard work.