Monday, May 02, 2005

Filthy Lucre: Some Thoughts on the Profit Motive

Far be it for me to take someone else to task for anonymity; but I found one recent anonymous post (in response to Vol. II of the Mad Max Survey: Keith, the thriller writer) especially wearying, spouting as it does received wisdom about the lock-stock correlation between the size of the advance and the extent to which a book will (or won’t) be well published.

If this writer thinks his publisher didn't do much for him after receiving his large, life-changing advance, he should consider that the effort would have been far less if his advance had been small … I've heard this "I got too large of an advance" story before and it defies logic. Sure, he didn't earn out. But who's to say he would have earned out with the smaller advance? Smaller advance would have certainly meant smaller effort by the publisher, smaller interest by the media, and smaller sales all around.
As an editor in good standing who has paid seven-figures for books, and who has far more frequently paid five figures, I’m here to dispute, emphatically, the claim that publishers never publish well books they don't pay a ton for. And before anyone accuses me of striking a pose designed to contradict the ingrained cynicism/skepticism with which publishers are viewed—after all, people so enjoy demonizing the ugly for-profit instincts of publishers, and have such uncanny insight into the ways this ugliness motivates us, above all other things—I’ll speak not of art, or of supporting the little guy, but as the bottom-line capitalist I am. Because here’s the truth about what a “small” advance represents to me: it’s a chance to earn a profit

To turn a (relatively) modest investment into a (potentially) lucrative return… From the Latin lucrativus—from whence comes the rallying cry of investors since time immemorial:
“Hey, man—
let’s make us some
Do publishers pay tons of money for books sometimes? Yes. Do they sometimes support such investments aggressively? Often, yes. But it's specious (and down-right illogical) to suggest that the inverse is true—that books bought “small” are necessarily doomed to be published that way. Again, I won’t play the “for the love of literature” card; rather, it stands to reason that, if we buy a book for $50,000 (a “small” advance, according to some), and publish it well, there’s a far greater likelihood of
Getting…into…the BLACK
The failure of a book for which a small advance has been paid is no more guaranteed than is the success of those seven-figure mega-deals that get headline ink in the trades. Are there publishers whose eyes, as a matter of course, glaze over when they see such books on their publishing grids? Yeah: stupid ones. Smart publishers are opportunistic. Sometimes opportunity presents itself in the form of bestselling authors for whom huge sums are paid based on the expectation that huge quantities will be shipped out, generating a stream of receipts that, even when not profitable by every conceivable measure, can nonetheless make a huge contribution to operational overhead. But nothing represents a greater (theoretical) opportunity for publishers than a book bought low that can be sold aggressively. These situations represent the ultimate win-win for author and publisher alike.

What does this outcome require? It requires vigilant activism on the part of editors, and it requires the trust of the people managing/supervising those editors. As the number of publishers shrinks; as the remaining publishers grow in size; and as the number of titles being published on each list increases, especially relative to the number of people needed to publish them well; it is, of course, inevitable that those charged with overseeing those lists focus greater and greater portions of their resources on titles & authors that have a proven track, or on which large bets have been placed—this is what Anonymous means by “chasing the money.”

But under these circumstances, editors have opportunities to be mini-publishers, even—no, especially—for these relatively smaller titles. Their managers are counting on them to do precisely that. And at the end of the day there is nothing so satisfying, so thrilling, so rewarding—for everyone involved—as putting the right book into the right hands at the right time, and turning a project for which expectations are modest into a lead title. Is part of that thrill the realization that you may have earned a terrific return on your investment? Well, this is a business--what do you think?


Zornhau said...

Well put Sir!
In any business, altruists are to be distrusted, since they have an agenda.

As a wannabe author, I don't want a publisher to judge the abstract merit of my work, I want them to decide whether or not people will buy it, and act accordingly.

Anonymous said...

"Bottom-line capitalists" don't have an agenda? Or do you just mean they have an agenda other than pure profit motive? In which case, fine, though it sounds like circular reasoning to me. (Don't trust those who don't have a profit motive, because they're not motivated by profit.)

Look, this whole profit/altruism thing is pretty clearly a false dichotomy, right? With the possible exception of corporate overseers, anyone who gets into this fraught business purely out of a desire to make a buck is insane. Seems to me that the satisfaction in a successful book is not just the capital that's generated, but the confirmation by the marketplace of the book's "abstract merits." This is more of a dialectic than many people admit: publishers don't just have to respond blindly to the market--they can also work to make a good book succeed in the market.

Bob Liter said...

I'm addicted to writing fiction. Agents are addicted to selling fiction. Publishers are addcited to publishing fiction. Perhaps we're all addicted to the gamble involved. I might as well go to the casino.

zornhau said...

OK, OK. Bottom line capitalists do have an agenda. People in publishing must be in it for more than cash.

So, really, my ideal publisher would be one whose agenda was being good at selling books for profit.

Anonymous said...

Just a note: in my career, where I've seen six figure deals and that euphemistic "nice deal" (which means less money than most 22 year olds make in food service jobs), there has been very little correlation between advance paid and marketing/ad/promo push for the book. It's the in-house and reader and bookseller interest in the book that has made the difference.

I really think any writer who gets an enormous advance (100K -to a million) with a first novel would be wise to:

1. Put 1/4 of it into a long-term savings account and not touch it.

2. Take 1/4 of it and put it into everything possible that involves marketing the book from the author's side. And then deduct this off the enormous tax bill you'll get hit with fairly soon.

3. Pay 1/4 to the tax guy before you even have it in your bank account for more than one day.

4. Live off the final 1/4 and assume there may never be another book deal.

5. Keep your day job until the amount of that 1/4 is so big that it's more than you can make at your day job plus the extra self-employment, social security tax and medical/dental insurance payments you will need to make -- for two years.

Barring this, move back in with your parents, if they'll have you; marry someone rich, if they'll have you; or better yet, have parents who married rich and who built a special wing onto the family mansion so their daughter or son who writes books can have an office overlooking the pool.


Secret Writer

Anonymous said...

That's a straw man, Max.

Here's what I think Anon was saying: "The solution to a big-advance book that doesn't earn out is -not necessarily- a smaller advance: that book probably -still- wouldn't have earned out."

You say: "I’m here to dispute, emphatically, the claim that publishers never publish well books they don't pay a ton for."

Nobody says that. Nobody believes publishers -always- ignore small-advance books. What people say, and what I read Anonymous as saying, is that publishers do far more to market big-advance books than small-advance books. (And that--this is my own, not Anon's--probably, the best single thing a writer can do to ensure to promotion of her book is to get a high advance.)

"But it's specious (and down-right illogical) to suggest that the inverse is true—that books bought “small” are necessarily doomed to be published that way."

Again, a straw man. You're making some sort of category error here. Anonymous said that if a big-advance writer is unhappy with the marketing, he'd almost certainly be even less happy if -he'd- been a small-advance writer. Not, that is, if he'd been someone else whose small-advance book was incredibly well marketed. Clearly, some small advance books do tremendously, terrifically well--better than any other books ever. But is this specific guy's books didn't earn out after whatever extra push a big-advance gets, you think the book would have done as well or better with a small advance?

If you get a big advance for AYELET IN BED, and are unhappy with the lack of marketing, getting a smaller advance on that same book almost certainly means you'd have been even unhappier. Do you disagree?

The solution to big-advance books that don't earn out is -not necessarily- a smaller advance, as the book probably -still- wouldn't have earned out. That's all Anonymous was saying, I think.

Scared in Scars

Anonymous said...


With a blurb from Michael Chabon?

Too too funny.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I don't know where to begin. First off, I didn't post as "anonymous", I used my initials, which are my real initials btw, and which is how I sign most things on the internet, out of expediency and a lack of interest in spouting my name all over the place. If you, "Richard" or "Keith" would like to reveal your true identities I'll be glad to spell out my name for you, although many people who read your blog would have no trouble figuring it out. I wasn't hiding from anything when I posted my response. The fact that you seem to feel I should have posted my full name seems incredibly hypocritcal coming from you.

Secondly, you managed to completely misinterpret almost everything I wrote and you twisted my words to suit your own agenda. The person who signed their post "Scared in Scars" has addressed much of this very well already so I won't waste our time tearing your assault apart. As "wearying" as my post was to you, your response to it was almost laughable.

To be brief, I never said books with small advances can't or won't be marketed succussfully. But if you're going to sit there and tell everyone that a book with a small advance gets the same kind of attention from its publishing house and the media as a book with a large advance does, then you're just being a front for the publishers.

The numbers are built into the computer at every house. X advance gets X dollars in marketing and promotion. The higher the advance, the higher that second number is. Sure, some editors can get a bit more play for their authors if they push hard enough, but the power of the editor seems to be on the wane these days (sorry Max) and the power of the numbers crunchers seems to be driving the business. (And yes, I'm very aware that it IS a business. Thanks for the reminder.)

Your presentation of how the business "should" work is quite logical and it would be great if everyone in publishing thought the way you do in these matters, but I think we all know that it doesn't always work out that way. I would even venture to say it doesn't USUALLY work out that way. If it did, then the publishing business would probably be working at a slightly higher profit margin.

And a lot of good mid-list writers would still have careers.


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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."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"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."