Kindles, Advances, and Self-Publishing Questions
March 14, 2009 | Written by admin
I've been out on the Left Coast, enjoying some sunshine and renting a house, but neglecting my little corner of the blogosphere. (Hey — we've now had more than a half-million people check out this blog. Pretty cool, considering I have very little actual "talent" for anything.) Some of the questions that have come in lately…
Andrew asked, "Why does everyone in publishing prefer the Sony Reader to the Amazon Kindle, when it seems like the marketplace prefers the Kindle?"
It's true. The publishing houses all got Sony Readers for their editors. In this age of green thinking, editors no longer have to lug home a big sack of dead trees. Instead, they download everything to a Sony Reader, and can take home all those bad proposal ideas in one small tool. But why the Sony over the Amazon Kindle? Three reasons, I think… (1) Price: the Sony is $299, though you can find them on sale for $250 fairly easily. The Kindle is $359, with no discount, ever. (2) Design. The Sony looks and feels like a book. It has a nice cover to it, and the device is metal. The Kindle is plastic and ugly. It feels like a toy. Thank God they got rid of the stupid plastic cover, since all they did was break off. (3) Formats. The Sony will give you Word documents, PDF's, RSS feeds, and blogs for free. The Kindle will charge you for each of those. (Though they will give you that bastion of ignorance Wikipedia for free! Barf.) So publishers went with the Sony.
The Kindle has two big advantages to it… (1) Wireless technology. Since it works like a cell phone, you don't have to hook the device up to your laptop, log on, and download book as you do with the Sony. Great advantage. (2) Marketing. Amazon has spent millons selling everyone on the advantages of the Kindle. I like them both, though I use the Sony. It's been said that the Kindle is basically a portable bookstore, whereas the Sony is more of practical a tool for readers. I don't think you'll go wrong with either.
Laura wrote to ask, "Are advances on the way out? I read that publishers are going to stop giving author advances."
To say that book advances are out is an overstatement. This crappy economy has certainly affected the world of books. Publishers have trimmed their lists, are taking fewer risks, making fewer deals, and offering less money. In addition, we're seeing a few imprints try to change the way they're doing business, so we're seeing things like non-returnable books and no-advance deals happen as a way to find some successful strategies to spread the risk. This is a time of change in publishing — we saw the distribution patterns for books change significantly over the past six or seven years, and now we're seeing the production and economic patterns change as well. That's to be expected. My guess is that we'll see more no-advance deals in the future. But no, publishers have not stopped the practice of offering a writer an advance-against-royalties as any sort of widespread policy.
Carol sent this: "If someone chooses a 'no advance' deal, does the publisher refrain from pushing sales as they would with a book that had a healthy advance?"
Here is a perfect example of the way publishing economics have changed. Traditionally, I would dissuade an author from taking on a no-advance deal. In a situation like that, the publisher had very little at stake. They had their hard costs (ink/paper/binding) and overhead (editorial salaries, etc), but there was no advance to earn back, and therefore no real motivation to push the book very hard. After just a few thousand copies, the basic costs are covered and the publisher is earning money. While I realize most publishers will deny this, I've seen it happen where publishers would basically refuse to put any marketing efforts into a book like that. As my former boss Rick Christian at Alive Communications liked to put it, "There's nothing keeping the publisher awake at night, wondering what he's got to do in order to make a profit." When a publisher has taken a risk, he or she HAS to work overtime in order to make the book successful and have the risk pay off.
Yeah, that may be overstated a bit, but the basic truth is that I think it's hard to find a no-advance deal that has received a lot of marketing and sales effort aside from bestselling authors who felt they didn't need an advance. (One publisher I know used to crow to prospective about his bestselling author never asking for an advance, which basically glossed over the fact that the author already had a loyal readership and had earned hundreds of thousands from previous books, so "paying the light bill" wasn't exactly an issue for her.) Again, an advance is an investment the publisher makes in your book. In my experience, the smaller the investment, the greater the tendency for there to be less commitment to making the book succeed.
Gwen wants to know, "What do you think of authors sending proposals to online-only book publishers, rather than traditional book publishers?"
I haven't been a fan up to this point, since I don't see any of the online-only book publishers having much success. However, I expect that to change. The dwindling number of slots with regular publishers, combined with the growing interest in e-books, means that we'll probably see some online-only book publishers find some success in the next few years. But no, I don't know who that will be yet.
Gene wrote this: "So help me out… I can send in my manuscript to a regular publisher, wait 12-to-18 months, and have it release from a publisher who just axed his marketing staff. Or I can finish my manuscript, get a decent-looking copy self-published at Lulu, and have it for sale on Amazon in a couple weeks. Can you convince me to be patient and go the traditional route?"
Here's my response: Most self-publshed books fail to make the author any money because the author doesn't know how to market and sell what he or she wrote. You may be an expert in crime scene investigations, and able to put your experience into an interesting manuscript, but if you can't get word out to prospective buyers, all that expertise will not get noticed and will go to waste. (And, in my view, simply posting another book to Amazon's list of more than three million titles doesn't qualify as "marketing.") The issue usually isn't with the book itself, but in the marketing and distribution of the book that causes it to fail.
On the other hand, if you have a big online following, or you regularly speak to large groups of people, or you have media opportunities like a daily radio or television show, then you might be able to self-pub and do fine. However, that's not usually the case. Instead what happens is that an author talks to publishers about his sure-fire idea, but gets rejected. He then turns to agents and tries to sell them on his wowzer manuscript, but gets rejected. He shows up at conferences to pitch editors directly on his wonderful project, but gets rejected. So… he assumes that everybody in the industry is wrong, that his idea and writing is too brilliant for the average fenderhead working in publishing to recognize, and he self-publishes. He turns in a manuscript, the vanity press up-sells him to hardcover, and one happy day he receives 1000 copies of his book to place in his garage. After giving away 25 copies to relatives, and selling 15 to friends at church, he then waits for the stampede of readers to purchase the remaining 960 copies. He chats it up, maybe buys some ads, and does what he can to move all those books he paid for. Three years later, he wonders what he'll do with the 922 copies still collecting dust, since the cover and tone of the book is beginning to get dated. They get donated to garage sales, offered as free giveaways, and eventually turned over to a recycler to be turned into pulp.
I've noted on here that I have successfully self-published a few books. But I only did so when I knew exactly how I was going to sell them. The huge majority of self-pubbed titles lose money for the author. Sometimes large quantities of money. And then the word doesn't get out anyway. That's why you may want to consider sticking with a publisher who knows how to market and sell books.
In a similar vein, Caroline wrote, "What if I'm doing a book on a very current subject and don't want to wait two years to see it in print? Let's say I'm dealing with a political situation or a new technology — something that's actually NEW and not a re-hash of old ideas andI don't want an agent querying and showing it to others. Should I consider self-publishing?"
In my view, the same rules apply as my previous answer. If you have a very current subject (let's say you want to do an instant book on Rush Limbaugh's speech to the RNC, or you're planning to do a handbook on "how to get the most out of your Kindle"), you might ask yourself if a book is the best way to get the word out. Would an article on the web be better? What if you created some sort of handbook and sold it on your site? Publishers can handle the occasional drop-in book, but there has to be a reason they're going to surprise bookstores with that sort of title. You can do the book yourself, but again, if you can't reach the buying public with effective marketing of your title, then it doesn't matter how good your manuscript is.
As for the implied concern you've got about secrecy, my experience is that those concerns are usually overblown by authors. I've had writers ask me to sign confidentiality agreements before showing me their manuscript (I declined) and tell me things like, "You've never seen anything like this before" when in fact they've just created a novel that turns the Book of Revelation into a novel. Whoopie. If I've got a good idea, I'm probably going to sell it. I work with good authors, so I don't lose much sleep over the worry that somebody else is going to steal the idea.
Before I go, let me point you to a couple things you should check out. Lisa Delay's blog at lifeasprayer.wordpress.com gave me much to think about as I've been reading it lately. I always seem to learn something when I go to Rachelle Mee-Chapman's magpie-girl.com. And the latest words from both Jenny B Jones blog and Jon Acuff at Stuff Christians Like (links for both can be found to the right) made me snort coffee through my nose.
The Dumb Stuff:
1. So I had two letters this week that started with the words, "After taking hours to research agents, I came to the conclusion I needed to send this to you…" And they are both children's books. We don't represent children's books. We state clearly on our website (which you can link to here: www.macgregorliterary.com) that we don't do children's books. Are people really so dumb as to think I'll believe they took hours to research this?
2. This week's hot book concept came from a guy who wants me to represent his "cross between Stolike and Schmerna." Um… I have no idea who Stolike and Schmerna are. None. Polish authors, perhaps?
3. And you'll be happy to know that creative packaging still works. Somebody sent me a chick-lit novel in a Jimmy Choo shoe box. The novel didn't work, but I loved having the box to hand to my wife. (And no, I won't send it back.)