Thursday, December 6, 2012

In legacy publishing your book is a high-risk stock

When you ask a legacy publisher why you should look for a contract with the Big Six, now the Big Five, soon to be the Big Four, you will get a predictable list of questionable responses. Most of them involve day-rate services that they provide (copy editing, cover, formatting for pbook and ebook) for which they want to take a percentage in perpetuity. The one legitimate point they can offer is the advance, the publisher serving as an investment banker, fronting $50K to $100K or so (their inflated costs as a dinosaur) to make it all happen and get your book on the shelf for 30-60 days.

One of the more amusing, and debatable, justifications is that they will finance marketing your book to generate exposure.


I got a legacy publishing contract in 2001, long before the era of the Kindle, and was happy to do so. When Welcome to Fred was released, and also the subsequent books in the trilogy, I was dissatisfied with the publisher's marketing efforts. I'm afraid I became a pain and was ungracious in expressing my displeasure.

The fact was that I was unlearned in the ways of the industry. Now I see things differently. The publisher did everything they said they would do to make my book successful and in retrospect I appreciate what they did. But whatever they did, it was not enough to push my novels past the tipping point into financial success. And in my mind I (wrongfully) blamed the publisher.

At the time my day job involved marketing for an international telecommunications testing manufacturer. My company spent millions of dollars to develop a product and then marketed the beans out of it to generate the required revenue to turn a profit and pay the bills. I couldn't understand why my publisher wasn't doing the same thing with my novels. It seemed that the A-list, king-of-the-mountain authors got all the marketing dollars when they didn't really need it and up-and-coming authors such as myself were virtually ignored. It made no sense to me and I wasn't reticent on the subject.

Then one day I stumbled upon an analogy that explained how legacy publishing allocates their marketing dollars between competing books in their catalog. At a mixer at a recent Writer's League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference, I posited this theory to a veteran agent in the industry and he said, "I just learned something about the publishing industry." I was a little surprised. After all, this was his day job and had been for a few decades. He should have been teaching me.

The paradigm comes down to managing risk.


A legacy publisher's catalog is very similar to a stock portfolio for a risk-averse investor. Put most of your money behind blue-chip stocks, proven earners, but dedicate a limited amount of your portfolio to unproven, high-risk stocks in the hopes that one of them will take off and become the next Apple or Google or Facebook.

In book terms, that means that Stephen King and James Patterson, et. al., will get the lion's share of the marketing dollars, even if it seems they don't need it. Does anyone think that the next Patterson novel will fail due to lack of advertising? Don't you think fans will buy it when it comes out, even if they don't see an ad?

But for the first-time author very little marketing is done, and it continues to decrease as budgets tighten. Most of the budget for the book was spent in production and getting it on the shelf. The publisher won't be placing ads or financing book tours or slots on the morning news shows. They may get review copies out to their usual media outlets, perhaps finance a blog tour, do things that costs hundreds of dollars rather than tens of thousands. And then they will wait for one of their high-risk speculations to take off. If one does, they will follow it with money to see if they can ride the wave. But the publisher will never create the wave for a first time author.


Back in 2001 I met my editor for the first time in Atlanta. He drove down from Nashville. I was at the premier telecom industry trade show, exhausted from a day on the show floor and a month of travelling North America and Europe marketing test gear. I wanted two things desperately: to go home to Honolulu to collapse for a week, and for my not-yet-written novel to break out and rescue me from this rat race.

I spent a break from the grueling trade show floor wondering what would make thousands of total strangers buy my novel and grant me financial independence. I put the question to the editor after dinner. He described the things the publishing house would do for my novel. I told him that, with all due respect, that sounded like a lone guy pissing into the ocean. He said I had just described self-publishing, that an established publisher taking on a book granted it a significant level of credibility. I conceded the point and modified it to say it sounded like a fire department directing a fire hose into the ocean. Perhaps the stream was hundreds times the strength of the lone guy, but it was still the ocean.

He answered with the truth as I now understand it. A daunting truth.

"You have to write a novel so good that when someone finishes it, they immediately call their friends and say, 'You have to read this book!'"

I said, "Then we're screwed. I can't write that book."

He smiled and said he thought I could do it or he wouldn't have signed me.

Obviously his faith was misplaced. As good as I thought Welcome to Fred was, despite the fact that it won awards and garnered favorable reviews from Publisher's Weekly and many fans, it didn't cause thousands of people to demand that their friends and family read it immediately.

It comes down to my post on How to sell lots of books. Write a good book.

So, if you go looking for a legacy publisher, remember one detail. That marketing thing, they're going to treat your book like a high-risk stock, whereas if you believe in it and publish it yourself, you'll probably treat it more like a blue-chip stock.

Now maybe we can convince Tosh to do a post on paying people royalties to do day-rate work.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.