Sunday, December 14, 2008

Things Writers Believe

It's Sunday again, and I'm in search of content, as usual. So here's some of my contributions to another rec.arts.sf.written thread that turned to publishing stuff, in August of 2008. Some of the things I said were:

1: Authors complaining that their books get "no marketing"
Authors tend to think getting their books sold into hundreds of retail accounts across the country (or around the world), and thus available for purchase, is "not marketing." They also think that about their covers and many other functions of their busy marketers.

We marketers tend to fume in private about this.

If your book is on a shelf in B&N, thank a marketer. (And a sales rep.)

2: Without an advance, a publisher will just POD the author's book, do no work, and rake in the profits.
Paranoid writers sometimes think that, but they fail to remember that publishers are in business to make money. Signing up a book, even with no advance, costs money. (I speak from experience; I now work in professional publishing, where advances are far less common.) Even a
book without an advance needs to cover its investment; a publisher has budgeted each book to bring in a certain amount of revenue, and would be much, much happier if that book did better than expected.

Only the tiniest of fly-by-night publishers could make a go of it on the basis you suggest, and such outfits should be avoided anyway.

3: Wal*Mart will demand a higher discount.
Discounts in the US must be offered to all accounts on equal terms, by federal anti-trust law (such as the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936). There was a major lawsuit on that very subject in the 1990s, when the American Booksellers' Association sued a number of publishers over terms.

So Wal*Mart likely gets the best terms that a publisher offers -- since, if they're buying a book, they're taking massive quantities -- but they won't get better terms than anyone else buying in the same quantities. (Unless they buy non-returnable, which happens sometimes. Even then, the terms they get will be available to any other account buying nonreturnable in that quantity.)

4: Not earning out an advance is a bad thing
It's calmed down a bit now, but a few years ago, it was common for the top-end bestseller books to have advances that could never possibly earn out under any level of sales. What that meant, really, was that those authors were getting effectively much higher royalty rates, but the publishers didn't have to put that in writing and trigger most-favored-nation clauses all over the place.

Whether or not a book earns out is generally orthogonal to the question of whether it's profitable to its publisher -- which, though, doesn't stop the publisher from using "but your last book didn't earn out" as ammunition in a negotiation.

5: If you can't get a big advance, just ask for a higher royalty percentage and a guaranteed ad budget!
Both of those things are easier said than done; some houses don't negotiate royalty percentages at all (or at least say that they don't). And a guaranteed ad/promo budget is similarly something that only the very biggest of cheeses can get.

6: Publishers used to give advances to good young writers, and hardly even expected them to finish a book.
That's how advances still work, some of the time. Publishers generally would prefer to have a completed work in hand to evaluate, particularly with untried writers. Writers would prefer to be paid before working, and the more popular and tried they are, the more often they get their

But there's still occasionally an advance given to some literary wunderkind on the basis of a few short stories or a great first chapter -- the problem being, of course, that many of those wunderkinder end up like your father [reference to previous rasfw post -Ed.], and the publisher is out the money.

7: A writer without a day job writes constantly and makes lots and lots of money from the flow of new books and the constantly-in-print backlist.
This is demonstrably untrue for most professional fiction writers. Ask around SFWA.

For most writers, the day job is what pays the bills so they can afford to write as a hobby. It's a hobby that pays -- some years and some writers more than others -- but still a spare-time activity.

8: Said all-day writer isn't waiting for the advance to start writing, either.
Actually, most professional writers do wait for the advance. Writing something you don't have a contract for is "on spec," which can easily turn into completely unpaid work.


moonrat said...

good post. some of it is a little more applicable to nonfiction than fiction--eg publishers committing to unfinished works--but otherwise, i hear ya, brother.

Anonymous said...

Question -- is an online buyer like Amazon under a different set of regulations on discounts or no? I'm thinking of Amazon's recent blackmail efforts in Britain, but the regulations may be different there from the U.S.

Andrew Wheeler said...

KatG: The UK in general has fewer consumer price protections than the US does; I don't think they have anything like the Robinson-Patman Act. It looks from here -- any UK observers feel free to chime in with actual facts -- that booksellers over there can get whatever terms they can wring out of the publishers, by whatever means they want to use.

In the US, terms must be given equally, period. The accounts that would be the pushiest in this area, if they were allowed to be, would be the mass-merchandisers (department stores, warehouse clubs, etc.), which take only a few ISBNs but take those in huge quantities.

Bob Houk said...

The Robinson-Patman Act is pretty much unenforced these days -- occasionally someone at the Federal Trade Commission gives it a bit of lip service, but that's about it.

As for private-party action under R-P, suits are filed from time to time, but most don't go far -- the ABA suit being a case in point.

Violations of R-P are rampant, in all categories of merchandise, and pretty much ignored.

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