____________________________________

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


More on the Startling Statistic

Yesterday I wrote about a startling statistic from a new release called Bestselling Book Proposals which says that 80 percent of the books published will fail. After I wrote the entry, I connected with the author to try and verify the “industry figures.” While I heard from the author, he answered that he wasn’t sure. It places it into question doesn’t it?

Later in the day I was talking with a former editor turned literary agent about this statistic. Here’s someone who has also been inside the publishing houses and seen the actual financials on books (something the author never sees). This agent instantly discounted the validity of the failure figure.  He estimated that in the case of his publishing house, they had about 80 percent success.  His first step was to define failure and success.  For him, failure meant the book failed to earn back it’s advance during the first year of its release. Now how did they achieve such a success?  It boils down to careful choices and careful management of the advances to authors.

I understand as an author that I want to get the largest book advance possible. Why? A large advance is one measure of the commitment of the publisher.  Whenever you receive a book contract from a traditional publisher of any type (a publisher which gives royalties on the book), the publisher has taken a risk. Even with a modest advance (say $5,000 or less) the publisher has committed to spend $50,000 to $100,000 on your project (in the production, design and editorial area) with zero marketing dollars. The larger the book advance, the larger the risk for the publisher and the greater the motivation for the publisher to increase their efforts to market your book. Don’t get me wrong, the publisher has the greatest financial interest in the book—no matter what their advance.

Book advances are typically tied to projected sales for the book. The greater the enthusiasm for the book’s potential, then the greater the sales potential.  From sitting in these publishing meetings, I know sales and marketing are often the most reluctant to give their enthusiasm—because in the long run, they are held accountable for their sales projections. Yes, their jobs are on the line. If the sales and marketing people aren’t enthused about your book proposal, then the decision is going to be a “no thank you.”

When it comes to the success or failure of the book, many of the factors are outside of the control of the individual author. Yet there are several factors you can control from the beginning. (If you are getting depressed about this topic and the long way you have to go to get published—like the comment yesterday—here’s the encouragement so keep reading.) Your first task as a writer is to have a terrific idea that has to appear in print. Then you have to write this idea in such a compelling way that the editor, the sales person, the marketing person, and the publishing leaders will all be enthused about the potential of your book. It takes a lot of work and effort on your part to craft such a sample chapter and book proposal—but it can be done. You’d be shocked at the sloppy material from authors which comes across my desk on a regular basis. Publish it? Not a chance—and they wonder why they receive a form rejection letter. Craft and excellence in your writing is the first challenge for any would-be author. Then you have to make your proposal stand out from the crowd of other proposals. I’m not talking about a distinct color of paper (totally bad idea that people regularly try). I mean in showing that you understand the basic principle of publishing—it’s a business and books need to be sold. Because you understand, you are going to put together a marketing effort which will merge with the publisher’s effort and reach book buyers and readers.

As editors, we seem to reject a bunch of material—but underneath each of us are optimistic. We’re looking for that next bestseller.  Hope springs eternal in publishing—but it involves persistence and perseverance and commitment to craft to find the right writing life.

6 Comment:

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Sarah Anne Sumpolec Left a note...

Thanks for that post Terry as it helps remind me of the way publishers look at it.

The thing I still don't understand is how books with great marketing can still fail and books with no marketing can suddenly "grow legs". It just seems to be one of those things that no one can predict (though would be helpful if they could:-)

 
At 7:14 PM, Blogger Bonnie Calhoun Left a note...

It's a good thing to know that when the writing's done, the job is just getting started....the weak need not apply!

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...

Yes, persistence is important. I've seen books repeatedly rejected until they find a champion. Where editors and agents tell the author it isn't a book but a magazine article--yet the author persisted to believe it was a book--and eventually it happened. It's unpredictable yet we're in it because we believe in the power of the printed word to change lives--at least that's why I continue the journey--and hopefully you do as well.

 
At 5:53 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington Left a note...

Thanks for the encouragement in your posts. Persistance definitely seems to be what distinguishes the men from the boys, so to speak, in writing.

 
At 6:45 AM, Blogger Tim Bete Left a note...

It seems to me that defining failure as not earning back an advance is a pretty low hurdle. Many books that earn back an advance aren't profitable for the publisher. I wonder what percentage of books have a positive bottom line after all direct expenses are added in. Any thoughts?

 
At 7:29 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...

Tim, typically when we make our profit and loss statements inside the publisher, the advance that we offer is tied to the sales for the first year. So if everything works as expected--and the book advance is earned back in the first year--then the basic expenses of publishing have been covered and the book begins to become profitable for the publisher--and the author. It all depends on the publisher and how they work these numbers internally (something you as the author and anyone outside of the publishing house doesn't know) but in general terms, this is how it works. If you've earned back your advance, then your book has become profitable.

 

Post a Comment


That's the writing life...

Back to the home page...