Monday, June 11, 2007

Now, a view from the author side...

...of the proverbial desk. I had to smile at one comment that came in about what an author would want from an editor—"a publishing contract would be nice!" Yes, it is. It is, indeed. But this is actually a musing from beyond that point, when you’re talking seriously about a publishing contract and/or offer. Say, in the best of all possible worlds, that you have two or more publishers interested in your work. (Hey, it could happen.) How do you pick the one you want to go with, or stay with? Well, my first gut level answer isn’t everything—but it’s way ahead of what’s in second place. And I see this “little detail” forgotten about, or sacrificed, so many times around me that I think it’s high time someone stepped in and asked why. First requirement for me to consider my work respected, much less sold? Show me the money. I’m a big fan of advances; quite frankly, I don’t think much of publishers who don’t offer them. The Bible says where your treasure is, there will your heart be—and I want my publisher behind that book, heart and soul. To me, the best way to ensure at least a modicum of that attention is to get some kind of dollar commitment out of ‘em first! The longer I go in this business, the more I believe that publishing your book with a house that pays no advances is in essence the same as paying to publish it yourself. In effect, you are paying to publish it—you’re foregoing an advance to cover publishing costs. While this can be a “nice” gesture in certain particular cases, if you’re not careful, it can soon turn your writing into a charity rather than a business. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not in this entirely for my own amazement. Of course, there are exceptions, big-name ones in some cases. Years ago, I heard that Harlequin didn’t pay advances for its specific Romance line. (Just the specific Romance line, not the Presents, or the Intrigue, or the others; just so we’re clear.) Sounded like a bad deal, until the author giving us this information explained that those no-advance contracts also included the automatic, pre-scheduled worldwide distribution and publicity that Harlequin did for all its books—with the result that at that point in time (which was several years ago), the average Harlequin Romance author was making $75,000 in royalties per book. Yup, you heard right. That was an average. Some people even made more. And while it didn’t come in all at once, enough of it came in within a normal time frame in the industry that even if you had to wait for half of it until the foreign sales were completed, you were still making pretty darned good money, over a pretty darned long period of time. Add to that the fact that most Harlequin Romance authors wrote way more than one book a year, and it’s not hard to do that math and come up with the conclusion we all came to, which was “Where do I sign?” (!) But that’s not the kind of no-advance publisher I’m talking about in this particular spot. I’m talking about the instances more familiar to most of us: the startup publisher, the small press, the e-press, and the like. Many authors I know are willing to go with publishers who have no cash to put up front in exchange for the compensatory “warm fuzzies” of being treated well, having personal contact with the editors, etc., or who believe in a startup/small house and are willing to wait for “back end” compensation in the form of increased royalties. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing—if you’re also in the habit of throwing other money into investment schemes with complete strangers, for no more reward than their heartfelt thanks and a few compliments thrown in. In the end, if you “sell” your book for “no money down,” that’s exactly what you’re doing. And I would submit that that is not the best way to build a successful writing career. “But they’re nice to me,” you say. “They ‘get’ me. They appreciate my voice. They don’t mess with me. They communicate with me, they’re accessible to me…” et al. That’s great. That is indeed the kind of working relationship you want to have with someone. But why does it have to come at your expense? Make no mistake: merely because you’re not taking out your checkbook up front doesn’t mean you’re not paying for those fuzzies. If you’re not taking out a deposit slip and going to the bank, you’re still losing money in the transaction from the get-go. In our everyday lives, when people try to get us to part with something valuable for nothing more than promises and a little praise, we back away. Why not in this case? Bottom line, your publisher is supposed to treat you well. They’re supposed to afford you personal contact with your editor. Those aren’t “extras,” and they don’t reflect “bending over backwards”—they’re only what is due you as a fellow professional in the writing business. As a professional, you are entitled to fuzzies and cash. I’m not saying it has to be a lot of cash. We all joke about six-figure advances, but let’s face it: those can have their own sets of problems as well. (!) But surely our work is worth something. Some kind of commitment from the house in question that moves it from “Yeah, we want this,” to “Yeah, we believe in this enough to pay you for it up front, because we know we’ll make our money back and then some.” In the end, it’s the dollars—not the praise, not compliments, not applause or appreciation—that make you a professional in your field. It’s the dollars—not the signed contract in itself—that make your book “sold.” Without some cash up front, you’re basically giving the book away on spec; if you’re going to do that, you may as well self-publish. You’ll get a much better deal in the long run, because at least you’ll guarantee by this that the person paying for the publishing will care about whether the book is a success. That simply cannot be said for a publisher who doesn’t pay you anything for a sale. No matter how “nice” they are, no matter how much they claim to like what you do, it’s a sheer numbers game at that point: if they don’t put any more than minimal production money behind your project, it’s no skin off their noses if your book doesn’t succeed. They just “buy” enough of these books from enough different authors so that, eventually, the odds catch up with them, one or two or half a dozen of these “bought” books catch fire, and those successes then “carry” the rest of you. That may be good enough for amateurs in the business. People who just want to see their names on book covers. But is it good enough for a professional building a career? It’s not for me. And it’s one of the first sorting mechanisms I use when considering where next to submit my Great American Novel. Because the way I figure it, if it’s really that great, someone else will think so besides me. And she’ll be willing to put her money where her praise is, to prove it. My take, Janny


Deb said...

Just goes to show, one person's path may not be the same as another's. I'm willing to go the distance with my small press on books that larger presses have already said "no-thanks" to, in the long-term expectation that it will get me some name recognition.

And no, the advances aren't there. Yet. I'm willing to accept an advance, but I'm even more willing to actually have some feedback from a publisher instead of sending my work to advance-paying houses and having them ignore it completely for 6-12 months at a time.

I'm talking NO communication. I drop the nice 3-month "status of the project" note and I get NOTHING.

I'll take my small press relationship over that, anytime.

For now.


Janny said...

It's true enough that one of the conditions of being willing to wait to be shown the being willing to wait for communication as well.

What I'm actually talking about in this post is what's happening later than that initial long wait for feedback; this is AFTER the publisher has already communicated with an author about wanting, being interested in, or being "inclined to go to contract" with a book. That's after the 6-12 months for a response on the manuscript is already past, and it's all over but the committee, the contract, the negotiation, the...:-)

The promises of name recognition, to me, are pretty empty unless someone's heard of the publisher to begin with. In the case of a small pub, a startup pub, or many e-pubs, you're waiting in effect for the publisher to make ITS name first, and then your name recognition will kick in. That's gonna be a long, looooong wait in most cases, and when you look at that in perspective, waiting 6-12 months for a big name pub to respond doesn't seem so long. :-)

At least when and if Big Name Pub does decide to buy the book, the publicity, the promotion, the distribution, and even the name are already in place...which to our mutual dismay, we've found out over and over again, isn't necessarily the case with a small pub. So not only are you struggling to get name recognition at that point, but sometimes you're just plain struggling to get the books out in the first place. If you factor all that in with receiving no money up front to at least partially compensate you for your's lose-lose-lose.

Not a tradeoff I'm willing to make, at least not anymore, without there being a compelling reason.

Donna Alice said...

Thanks for this post--I always felt so mercenary for wanting the money first. Now I find it's just good business sense. Who'd have known?

Deb said...

Well--it's good business sense always to get the advance. Whether it's right for everybody--I've never had an advance and it doesn't look like I'm due for one anytime soon. Most of these small press operations simply cannot afford to pay them--they're in cash-flow binds most of the time.

It's true that many authors use their modest advances to promote their books. These efforts are expensive and hard to assess whether they are truly leading to increased sales. If/when I get one, no more than half, no matter the amount, is going to be used on that, at least 'til I get some assurance I'm spending those monies in good stewardship. I.e., I want the bang for the promo buck.

Now, if someone offers me an advance of virtualy any size, I'll quibble not.