Sunday, January 16, 2005

Advancing the Notion of (...ahem...) Realistic Advances

[Ed. note: I want to thank all the editors and agents--including the three new "posts" below--whose feedback to my "midlist" queries have been featured here over the past week and which have inspired such robust and productive commentary. ]

1. "ADVANCES IN LINE WITH THE LONG ODDS" The true problem is that we all pay too much for these books. We often pay advances that don't truly take into consideration the odds against one of the books selling more than 7,500 to 10,000 copies. If advances for this type of project were more in line with the long odds, then perhaps "midlist" wouldn't have become such a dirty word.

Yet the truth remains that we're all eternal optimists; and every week one of us editors falls in love with something that's a long shot for breakout success, but that we want to place a bet on. And the fact that every once in a while something does break out--that these bets do, occassionally, pay huge dividends--allows our corporate overseers to encourage this sometimes-costly optimism.

I just wish we could all exercise some restraint, and not to make that bet too big, though, because it ends up hurting us all. Including authors. I'm sure authors and agents would hate to hear me say this, but there's really no downside for us trying to keep our advances more in line--because if the book is the one-in-a-hundred that does exceed expectations, authors will keep making money in royalties commensurate with the success of the book. And when they are overpaid, and sales don't meet expectations, it usually hurts the author's career in the end.
--EDITOR-IN-CHIEF (Anonymous)

2. "THE UPSIDE TO ADVANCES THAT EARN OUT" When I speak at conferences and authors bitch and moan about not wanting to be in the 'midlist', it makes me a little nuts. I tell them that 'midlist' applies to the majority of a publisher's list, and that it's not such a bad place to be. For one thing, a 'midlist advance' is usually in the $20,000-$75,000 range. While many authors and agents don't exactly have orgasms over advances of that size, the upside is that those advances are much more likely to earn out. And when the advance earns out, the author has a much better shot at selling his/her next book for a higher advance.

We also tend to expect a certain number of our midlist books to 'break out' and become more successful than we'd planned, either because the final manuscript is even more fantastic than expected, or because current events or something in the media happens that makes the book topical and gets it more press attention than we'd originally bargained for. I tend to think that's it's always better to be a come-from-behind midlist author than to be one of the hotshots who scores a $500,000 advance. Being saddled with great expectations can really suck. The hotshots can only watch helplessly when the book sells 25,000 copies and suddenly the publisher stops returning their calls. A midlist author who was paid $50,000 and sells 25,000 copies is going to enjoy a nice lunch at Michael's--and the likelihood of a much more substantial advance for the next book.
--EDITOR (Anonymous)

3. "SPEAKING OF PEJORATIVES..." I agree with you that the midlist represents a more significant portion of the business than it's commonly given credit for. In publishing as in so many other fields, everyone likes to talk about the stars, not the workhorses that carry the bulk of the load.

But what does this mean? That midlist titles deserve more respect than they get? I suppose that's so, but it's because of the quality of the ideas they contain or their execution or their ability to entertain, all of which is independent of their commercial impact. If you're just looking at commercial impact, the truth is that no individual midlist title does deserve a lot of respect, even if the category as a whole deserves more than it's generally afforded. And even as a whole, the category has shortcomings. Unfortunately, the overhead involved in publishing a book that sells 10,000 copies is roughly the same as for one that sells ten times as many -- you have to negotiate for roughly the same amount of time, you have to edit the same number of pages, you have to do the same amount of proofreading, you have to paint as many covers (i.e., one), you have to pay the same plate charges, etc. So from a business point of view you're much better off publishing one 100,000-copy seller than ten 10,000-copy sellers.

Speaking of pejorative terms, though...if you really want to talk about a term that has acquired an unfair connotation, how about "mass market paperback" or "paperback original"? Say those words at a gathering of publishing machers and it's as though you uttered the phrase "direct to video" at an A-list Hollywood event...
--PUBLISHER (Anonymous)


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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

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"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."