Musing on Monday: Identifying Your Business Philosophy

In recent months, I’ve come to realize that writing is a lot more business than art. A lot more. Oh, the writing part is still the most important thing–it’s the production end of the business equation. You can’t sell a product you haven’t made (and although it’s possible to sell an unfinished product on proposal, in the final analysis, you still have to produce it at some point!).

As authors, we spend a lot of time and effort worrying about the writing end of our jobs. About all the C’s: craft, conflict, characterization. We read books about these things, about how to hone our product to perfection. We chat about them with our critique partners and writer friends. Agonize over them during revisions, and stress over whether we’ve done them “right” when we start submitting to agents or editors.

But oddly enough, I think most of us spend very little time analyzing our business philosophy when it comes to actually selling our product. Just getting an offer of publication can seem so remote and unlikely that we rarely think beyond that point about what we want from being published.

I know when I got the call from my Kensington editor offering to publish Behind the Red Door, I was so thrilled someone loved the book enough to want to publish it at all, I didn’t think very far ahead. I had achieved my dream–I was going to be published, my book was going to be in bookstores across the country. That was enough. I didn’t think to worry about how big my print run would be, which bookstores would have my book in them, whether my book would have any special in store placement (i.e., coop), what the publisher would do to market my book, or what they would expect/like me to do to promote it myself. None of those questions occurred to me and now, I really wish they had.

Now, I’m not saying any of this by way of complaining. I am still thrilled and delighted that Kensington published my book, that they gave it a beautiful cover, and that their sales force obviously did their job in terms of getting it into bookstores. But…I wish I’d gone into this whole publishing gig with a clearer idea of my business philosophy and strategy.

So, as I pursue that next contract, I’m thinking long and hard about the business end of things. Asking myself what will, for me, constitute not merely being published, but being published well. These are questions not just about money, but about things like format (would I be happy with another trade format book, or do I really want mass market paperback?), distribution (I want to be in WalMart and Target if possible, right?), promotion (is the publisher going to provide me with a publicist or other marketing support?), and so on. And they’re not questions to which I have perfectly straight answers. In some cases, the answer is it depends on the book. But by and large, I have a pretty good feel now for what I want versus what I need, and I know the difference between them (i.e., I know what’s a dealbreaker and what’s not).

The thing is, as a writer, you have to know enough about your business philosophy to walk away from an offer for publication if it doesn’t meet your minimum requirements. But you can’t do that unless you know what those minimums are. So, before you start seriously pursuing publication (especially with any of the major New York houses), be sure you know what you need. If you have an agent, be sure she knows what you need.

And then don’t take less, even if it means a dream deferred.

WTF Wednesday: What’s an Author to Do…?

…when it appears her book is sinking like a lead zeppelin?

Okay, I actually don’t have any hard and fast data on how Behind the Red Door is selling. I don’t have a subscription to Bookscan, so I can’t look it up there (and although my agent probably could, I’m not all that sure I really want to know). I did call the Ingram’s number a couple of times in the first few weeks after release (and those numbers were pretty discouraging), but now that phone number is no longer working (methinks Ingram’s has taken away that lovely free service and will replace it with something I’ll have to pay for). But the most telling statistic to me is that when I go into my local bookstores, all the copies that were shelved two weeks ago are still there. NOT a good sign!

Mind you, I don’t see this as evidence that the book itself isn’t good. I think the problems with selling it can be summed up as follows:

1. Debut author
2. Trade format (which many people don’t like/buy)
3. Relatively high cover price (related to format)
4. Not much buzz/few editorial reviews

The only one I can imagine having much impact on (as an author) is the last one, but I’ve already sent out review copies to those folks I knew about who weren’t on my publisher’s list. So far, that hasn’t produced any additional reviews. Whether that’s because the people I sent it to a) haven’t read it yet or b) didn’t feel moved to write a review after they read it, I can’t begin to guess. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that the people I sent it to read it and hated it, but I sincerely hope they wouldn’t let that stop them from reviewing it and saying so. Honestly, I can take negative reviews. I won’t go Alice Hoffman on you on Twitter or anywhere else, I promise.)

So, here’s the deal. I’ve got quite a few copies of this book lying around. I also have it in .pdf format. If you’re a reviewer or a reader/author who’d be willing to read it and register an opinion, I’ll send you a copy. Free. All I ask is that you give it a review of some kind somewhere online–good, bad, or indifferent doesn’t matter to me. Just email me (you can use the contact page if you like) and let me know what format you’d prefer. Depending on how many of you respond, I’ll select ten “winners” at random.

I’ll need to hear from you by next Monday, and (while I know there’s no way I can actually force you to do this), I’d like to see your review up by September 1. (If you know you can’t make that turnaround, just tell me in the email why not. I’m pretty flexible.)

I’m not convinced this will make the slightest bit of difference. But it can’t hurt, right? So I’m willing to give it a shot.

WTF Wednesday: How Much Honesty Is Too Much?

From authors, I mean. How much do you want authors to say about the trials and tribulations of writing and publication?

I’m actually not 100% sure this fits under the heading of “WTF Wednesday” quite as well as some of my other posts, but it’s something I’ve been wondering about lately, especially with some of these recent happenings in the writerly world:

  • Delilah Marvelle, whose publisher dropped her after two books, started a contest to encourage readers to buy her second book–out this month–in hopes of finding another publisher to finish out the series.
  • Cheryl Holt revealed on a reader forum that, after changing publishers, she’d had significant disputes with her new editor (who basically told her she didn’t know how to write) and ultimately had her contract dropped. She’s since picked up a new contract with a different publisher.
  • After initially expressing enthusiasm for the cover of her upcoming book, Justine Larbalestier admitted that she fought with her publisher over it but was ultimately overruled because the publisher apparently felt the face of a white girl would sell better even though the book is about a black girl.

These three things probably don’t seem to have much similarity to one another (the last one, in particular, evoked a real firestorm that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m talking about), but to me they share a common thread and that is that the author is revealing details about a dispute with her publisher. Whether that dispute is over a contract offer (or lack of one), editorial disputes, or dissension over cover art, it all comes down to authors telling us, on some level, how little control they have over the this big, complicated business we call publishing.

On some level, I’ll admit that I love to read this stuff because it makes some of my own frustrations seem less isolated and lonely. I mean, if even a New York Times bestselling author like Cheryl Holt can run into problems in publishing, it’s no great surprise that newbies like me would hit speedbumps in the road.

But on the other hand, these appeals and stories can cross they line between honesty and self-pity. I’m not saying any of these particular instances has that feel to me, but I can see how they might to others. And I wonder, in the final analysis, whether it does the author more harm than good to air her dirty laundry like this. It’s one thing to explain to readers that you are currently without a contract or that previously contracted books were ultimately shelved, but to get into the nitty-gritty of the whys and wherefores…I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Mightn’t readers think less of a writer who admits to being “down on her luck?”

At the same time, I think there’s a culture of secrecy in the publishing industry, one that discourages authors from being honest about the kinds of problems they encounter, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing, either. Surely though, more transparency in this business is better, not worse (and it’s one of the reasons I tend to post about the mechanics of publishing on a regular basis; because I think having a better understanding of how the industry works is a good thing, not a bad one).

So, what’s your take? Do readers really want to hear this stuff, or do they just want books? Do you ever think less (or more) of an author for revealing the “dirty secrets” of her experiences in publishing?

Musing on Monday: Digital Rights for the New Millenium

…Or The Reason We Need Big Name Authors to Care about Digital Royalties.

By now, you probably know that the fabulous team of Jane Litte (Dear Author), Sara Wendell (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books), Angela James (executive editor at Samhain), Kassia Kroszer (Booksquare and Quartet Press), and authors Lauren Dane and Maya Banks will be giving a “Rogue Workshop” on Digital Publishing alongside (but separate from) the RWA National Convention in Washington DC this week. (Deets here. The Twitter hashtag for the session, which will be live-tweeted, is #rd09.)

In large part, this fine group of experts in digital publishing decided to put on this workshop because RWA’s final conference schedule include nothing on epublishing. Not, as far as anyone could tell, the barest mention of it. But in the thread at DA that I linked to above, a bit of a dustup erupted over whether the workshop they’ve put together is a) necessary or b) really addresses the needs of broader RWA membership since it’s focused primarily on digital only publishers.

Now, I happen to think that the real crime here isn’t that there isn’t a workshop on epublishing per se (not that I don’t think it would be great and worthy), but that no one’s talking about digital rights and royalty rates at traditional print publishers. Because I’m telling you, folks, this is gonna come back and bite us all in the butt in another 10-15 years (maybe less). Edited on 2/22/11 to add: Okay, I was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The time horizon from this post was a little less than 2 years. I posited a 90:10 print:digital ratio in my numbers below. A lot of authors are already at WAY over that ratio.)

Right now, publishers who distribute primarily in digital format offer royalty rates to authors ranging from roughly 35%-50%. (Some may be a little lower, some a little higher.) If the publisher also offers print copies of the books, they pay royalties similar to print publishers.

By contrast, publishers who distribute primarily in print (i.e., the major New York houses) tend to offer royalty rates on digital copies that are less than half what the digital publisher pay. I would have to go check my print contract to see what my royalty rate on my digital copies it, but I know it’s standard for the publisher’s contracts, it’s probably not more than 15%, and we didn’t try to negotiate a higher rate because, at the time, it didn’t occur to me that I should try.

Looking back, I wish I had tried, although I doubt my agent’s efforts on my behalf would have been successful. Because, while digital copies are likely to be a very small percentage of my overall sales, by accepting that royalty rate, I basically made it harder for other authors who follow me to ask for more.

And this is why it’s so important for the big name, bestselling authors to start pushing the royalty rate envelope on digital. Now. Before it’s too late and the paltry 10-25% rates we’re seeing now become so ingrained, they never go away. So ingrained that even the primarily digital publishers start lowering their rates to match. (Because believe me, they will. I frankly don’t wear the rose-colored glasses that say epublishers are “the good guys” who will never take advantage of their authors. Um, maybe a select few, but even they are businesspeople and they publish books to make a profit, not to make authors happy/rich.)

As worried as traditional print authors are now about the possibility that their publishers will follow suit with primarily digital publishers and stop offering advances (a concern I know is out there despite claims to the contrary), they ought to be worried that they’re setting a precedent when it comes to digital royalties which, in the future, will ultimately cost all authors a BIG chunk of money. Including themselves.

It might be hard to see this right now if you’re a bestselling author in mass-market paperback. My bud and critique partner, Amie Stuart did an informal survey about digital royalty rates a while back, and one of the respondents said her royalty rate was quite low (perhaps around 15%) but that it didn’t concern her because while on of her books sold 800,000 copies in paperback, less than 800 digital copies had been sold. In that context, the difference between 15% and 35% is pretty meaningless.

The problem is, of course, that the numbers won’t continue to be skewed that way forever. More and more people are beginning to prefer reading on a digital device, be it a dedicated reader, a smart phone, or even their computers. (My 12yo would rather read on the computer screen than read a paperback. I bet, in his generation, he’s far from unique.) And while the traditional print publishers seem determined to make every effort to keep digital from gaining a foothold in the marketplace (DRM, high prices, and withholding release of the digital book for weeks or even months after the print book is on the shelves), in the end, the revolution will come. Print books will never go away, but those 800,000 to 800 numbers are simply not going to last. And even if we never reach the point where digital sales of New York Times bestsellers outstrip print sales, when they reach even 10% of all sales, the royalty percentages will begin to matter. A lot.

Let’s make the numbers easy. Say you’re the author of a book that sells 100,000 total copies. Let’s assume 90% of those are print copies at an $8.00 cover price ($7.99 is very common, but I’m rounding for simplicity) and your royalty rate for print copies is 8% (that’s pretty standard for mass market paperback, I believe), so you make $0.64 for every copy sold. You’ll bring in a tidy $57,600. Not bad, you say (and I agree; I’d be thrilled with that, lol).

But let’s look at the 10,000 copies sold in digital format (because we’re in the world of 90/10–and believe me, that’s coming fast!). Let’s say you got a fairly standard 15% royalty rate on your digital sales. Let’s further assume that your publisher is forward-thinking enough to offer digital books at a slightly reduced cover price, so they only cost $6.50 instead of $8.00 (in part because Walmart/Target/et al. probably doesn’t charge a full $8 for your print book, even though you get paid as if it did). You still make more per ebook sale than mmpb sale–97 cents per copy, and that means an additional $9,700 in royalties for you, which is quite nice. But…if you’d held out for the kind of royalty rates digital publishers off, even at the low end of 35%, you’d be earning 2.275/copy or $22,750. So even at 90/10 split in terms of sales, your income for the 10% digital sales are nearly half your total print sales earning.

Who wouldn’t want that? Especially since the percentage of readers who’ll be buying digital is only going to increase. At the point at which it reaches even 25% of gross sales, your digital royalties will account for fully half your income.

Now, maybe there are some folks who don’t believe that authors should get a significantly higher royalty rate for digital books than for print. If anyone wants to make that argument, go ahead, although a lot of folks also claim that the only reason digital publishers offer such high royalty rates is because they don’t have to support the overhead of print costs and returns. So, you know, either the digital distribution model is cheaper or it’s not, but if it is, why shouldn’t the author get a larger percentage of the return. Why willingly give up 85% of the profit to the publisher in that scenario.

But here’s the thing: we need print authors with bestseller status to be the ones to demand better royalty rates for their digital books. Because those of us still in the shallow end of the publishing pool just don’t have the clout. If we walk away from contracts with poor digital royalty rates, the publisher will just find someone else who will take it. We’re kind of a dime a dozen to them. It’s the big name authors who regularly hit the New York Times and USA Today lists who have the ability to make publishers sit up and notice.

Please? Because even if it never makes much of a difference to you, the next generation of writers is going to thank you.

Musing on Monday: Keeping the Faith

It’s over.

The proposal we had out on submission didn’t pick up any offers. Most of the rejections were along the lines of “love the writing, but…”

(FWIW, I always think that’s a cop-out. If you really loved the writing, there would be no “buts” because the writing is what makes the characters come to life and plot work.)

Naturally, I was discouraged and upset, even to the point of railing that boy, this time, I am really quitting.

“Why do I put myself through this?” I asked myself over and over.

It’s a damn good question. In publishing, you hear no a lot more than you hear yes (even if your book sells, you probably got a “No, thanks” from at least one editor on the way to garnering that contract). Even if you are lucky enough to land a contract, the publisher is probably not going to throw large wads of cash at you (unless you happen to be one of the tiny subset of writers who are already so “proven,” you could write the phone book and NY would want to buy it for six figures).

And guess what? After you do that the first time, you’re not done. No, it’s wash, rinse, repeat…possibly for years until you have that “breakout book” and possibly for always.

As my dear friend and CP Lacey Kaye said to me in email yesterday, this business is not for the faint of heart. I’m not even sure it’s for the bold of heart.

You see, I was pretty upfront and honest with myself about the relative chances of getting a contract for this book. Now, I still happen to think it’s a good book, more than good enough for New York publishers, but I also knew going in that even good books don’t always get contracted, and for reasons that don’t have all that much to do with their quality. Just for example, Several editors mentioned, for example, that their historical lists were very full and they had very few slots to acquire for.

So, before the proposal went out, I told myself in no uncertain terms that I would not EXPECT it to sell. None of this “positive thinking” stuff for me, no sir! I knew it wouldn’t sell and if it did, it would be the rough equivalent of winning the lottery.

Now, I think it served me well that I didn’t have high expectations, but I’d be lying if I said I truly had no hope. I did have hope. I mean, if I really thought it was so bad it had no chance of garnering an offer, I wouldn’t have put it out on submission in the first place. I may be a glutton for punishment, but I’m not that big a glutton.

When I realized it was definitely not going to sell (which was actually the day before the last two rejections came in), I didn’t cry, but I came pretty close to it. And over the next couple of days, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to decide whether I’m cut out for this or not. Because if I could be that upset when my expectations were low, how could I put myself through it again and again? What would happen the next time a project I really loved was rejected? And the next and the next? My answer to myself was pretty much that I’ll be just as crushed and raw as I was this time.

So, am I hanging it all up? Honestly, I sometimes wish I could.

The problem is, I can’t seem to stop writing. I can’t seem to stop. It happens in my head whether I want it to or not. Even while I was grousing to myself about this whole gig being so not worth it, I had multiple stories and characters pop into being and whisper sweet nothings in my ear. It’s kind of like a disease. In a way, I’d love to be cured. In another, it would be the rough equivalent of excising a part of my personality and changing the essence of “me.”

So, chucking the towel probably isn’t a choice. But I did come to a couple of conclusions about how my own goals need to shift as a result of this experience. Maybe, if you’re also out there chasing that contract, be it the first one or the one after that or the one after that, something here will keep you from contemplating towel-chucking:

1) It’s not about the contract; it’s about the writing. You don’t stop being a writer just because you don’t pick up a contract for publication. You stop being a writer because you stop writing. Period.

I know this isn’t an original thought, but I came to the conclusion that I’ve been far too focused on landing that next contract and a lot less focused than I ought to be on writing a book that pleases me, regardless of whether it pleases anyone else. It’s also something I have to remind myself of over and over and over again. Because I will forget sometimes.

2) Bite the bullet and write the whole book before trying to sell it.

I’m not saying this because I don’t think I can sell a book on proposal. It’s just that, if it’s rejected by all the NY publishers, I’m left with a book I can’t sell to anyone else without finishing it first. That’s a dilemma, because while it could earn me some money with an epublisher, there’s no guarantee that it will be worth the investment of the time and writing resources to finish it when I could be writing something else instead.

I am in a bit of a quandary over UNASHAMED, the book we just shopped unsuccessfully. It’s about half written. I love the characters and I really want to see them through to their HEA. But I also don’t know if that’s a worthwhile investment of my time when I have dozens of other things I could be working on that haven’t made the NY rounds and been rejected.

In other words, while there’s no guarantee that anything else I write will sell to an NY publisher, there’s a 100% guarantee that UNASHAMED won’t. Do I write it anyway? Decisions, decisions…

Decisions I’d rather not have to make next time!

3) Rejections are neither bad nor good. They just are. Overanalyzing them will only drive you crazy, so just set them aside and move on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “Oh, but that’s a good rejection.” I’d be equally hard-pressed to recall how many times I’ve used those very same words with my writer friends.

Now I think there’s no such thing as a good one. There’s equally no such thing as a bad one (well, perhaps if the editor tells your agent to stick this writer’s garbage where the sun don’t shine, but I don’t think that happens too often).

A rejection is a rejection, period. It means you didn’t sell the book. It sucks. No amount of positive feedback can sugarcoat that, nor do any glowing comments about this or that aspect of your project mean that this editor is any more likely to offer for the next one than for this one. Ditto the editor who loathed the book and apparently thinks you should go back and read Novel-Writing for Dummies a few more times. There’s nothing to say the next project you offer up won’t be right up that editor’s alley.

So, don’t try to figure them out. Don’t second-guess the book you wrote and wonder what if you’d just done this or that differently. It will only drive you crazy and keep you from focusing on the next project.

And whatever else we can say about ourselves as writers, it’s that there’s always a next project.