Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal

Recently an unpublished writer--a businessman who is considering a second career as an author--offered some comments that provoked in me two somewhat contradictory reactions. In Part I we'll consider his plan to invest his own capital into the eventual publication of his book. In Part II (which will be posted in the next few days), we'll consider the ways in which an editor might respond upon receiving this manuscript.
[To read the entirety of his original post, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog." ]

Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal
Let's start with an excerpt from an anonymous posting.

"I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day. I hear many discussions about how authors can no longer remain solely in the creative mode, that they must promote their book. I find this amazing. Authors should not only promote their book, but they should also take on some of the financial risk. I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future.

"People invest in their future when they go to college. They do it again when they start a business. Why do writers somehow feel they should be immune from financial risk when publishing their first book?

"I'm an unpublished writer. Am I extremely naive? I have the impression that first-time novelists, even the ones with the financial means to take on some of that risk, feel they should be immune to financial risk...that their creativity should be all that is required. I just don't think that's reasonable in today's business climate."

Dear Entrepreneur: I want to applaud your progressive views regarding writers investing in their own careers. Especially for those who plan to write multiple books within a single category--for example, business books, self-help books, mysteries, thrillers, romance novels--the sooner you establish an identity in that field, the better the chance of your career taking off. The textbook example of an author investing significant personal capital toward establishing a "brand identity" is thriller writer James Patterson, whose first several novels hadn't found much more than a niche market. That changed with the first Alex Cross novel (ALONG CAME A SPIDER, 1993), in part because Patterson took matters into his own hands, investing huge sums of his own money into national television advertising--a medium that, presumably, he understood extraordinarily well, given his long and high-profile career at J. Walter Thompson.

So Patterson's the model for someone like yourself--a successful professional who, at mid-career, made a decision of the sort you've described (though his contribution to his own marketing efforts ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). He had the means to do this, apparently, and put his previous professional expertise to great advantage in his second career. The result, needless to say, is that Patterson is one of the most dependable "brands" in book publishing.

The first issue, then, is means: many writers simply aren't in the financial position to apply your model, much less Patterson's. But my private advice to my own authors, especially those whose advances A) extend into six figures and/or B) are not the sole source of income for their families, is that they consider making precisely the sort of investment you describe. Many writers, and many agents on their clients' behalf, might feel that such a suggestion constitutes an act of bad-faith--perhaps because they fear that this lets the publisher off the hook in terms of its responsibility for marketing and promotion. My experience suggests the opposite, however: such willingness to contribute in some fashion tends (if presented strategically) to motivate the publisher to raise its game in kind, to devote more resources than might otherwise be the case.

There are those who'll debate such a scheme on principle, speaking in indignant tones about how it's the writer's job to write the book and it's the publisher's job to publish it. Perhaps that's how things ought to be. But the potential cost of such a perspective, especially if something misfires in the publication of those first couple of books, is almost always going to be far greater to the author than to the publisher; publishers are infinitely better equipped to weather the failure (say) of an individual title than is the writer; and when booksellers check their computers for sales histories on prior books, it's not the publisher whose name they're searching for.

Week after week, year after year, we read in Publishers Lunch, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere about writers getting staggering six-figure advances in hotly-contested auctions for their first novels. What we don't read about are the huge proportion of those writers whose careers barely survive that first pay-day, because the first book failed to perform anywhere close to the level of expectation. And so the level of expectation drops (and with it, the level of the advance) for the next book; and often this spiral continues to devastating effect. One can only guess how many of those writers, if they had it to do all over again, would have invested a substantial portion of their large advance into supplemental marketing.

This is such an important point. Those of you able to dig into your pocket to contribute to the marketing of your books--at any point, but especially early in your career--should do so aggressively. In the end, righteous bitching about the various ways your publisher may have failed you offers no solace whatsoever--the damage is already done. If you have the means to invest in your own publications, do it. Plan ahead. Talk to your agent, your editor, other authors. Find out what your publisher intends to do to promote your book, then figure out what ways you can supplement those efforts.

I feel duty-bound to say that no such investment will guarantee a more satisfactory outcome; nor is a writer who isn't able to follow such a plan relegated to failure. I've had plenty of experiences of books for which I paid a relatively low sum that, having won early in-house enthusiasm, have gone on to enjoy robust publications, supported beyond the level that might have been expected given the size of the advance. But in these days of instantly-accessible sales figures on one's previous books, there are no do-overs; so the earlier in your career you're able to make this sort of investment, the greater the potential benefit.



Anonymous said...


As an MBA with more than 20 years in marketing and advertising, and a shameless self-promoter in my own right, I feel equipped to wade in to this thread. While I thoroughly support (believe me) the notion of writers manufacturing their own making, I feel it essential to caution the wide-eyed that there is a reason we call it a marketing “strategy.” I can’t imagine a greater waste of a writer’s hard-earned cash (be it advance, or out of grandma’s handbag) than to flush it down the marketing loo without serious guidance and consideration. Foremost, here, I would suggest, is the need to be in synch synch synch with your publisher’s own marketing arm. Tactically, logistically, every-way-imaginably. And, perhaps naively, it is my thinking that, the simple fact that this is a (hopefully long term) partnership between writer and publisher (agent too) should cry for some kind of we’re-in-this-togetherishness. Who cares where the money comes from.

But could there be anything more frustrating for a rosy-cheeked young writer, fresh off the high of a book sale, to see their hard-earned cash pissed away (can I say pissed here?) to little effect? And that this is a one (or two at best) shot deal, before you have to change your name to have another go, simply raises the stakes.

And no disrespect to your braveheart contributor, but this day and age $10k + whatever the projected advance a first-timer might expect doesn’t even constitute pissing money (can I say pissing here?) in the great marketing machine (errr, unless that is what you folks are calling a tidy marketing budget in publishing these days, in which case, I’ll shut up). He would be better advised to sink the funds into a Dale Carnegie course, a shine and a haircut and some rubber gloves or hand gel, and hit the road to pull some paws, than to try to find anything like share-of-mind with that kind of chump change (my humble opinion). And I can’t shout the acronym “PR” from a high-enough hill top. Here is where a writer’s true creativity can shine, and for little dinero if they are truly, truly clever.

Love your stuff
N. Nominato

Anonymous said...

Just stopping in to say hello and to congratulate you on your recent nomination at the BoB Weblog Awards 2004.


Anonymous said...

I can only speak for myself, but I take exception to the idea that if I don't *automatically* offer to finance a large chunk of the publication and marketing of my book for its potential publisher, I am somehow sitting back considering myself "immune" from financial risk.

I've been writing since I was eight years old. I attended a rather expensive college because it had an excellent undergraduate writing program, in which I worked my ass off. I have worked as a journalist for twenty years, with stints as a writer, editor, and fact-checker (not necessarily in that order) for newspapers, magazines, and online publications, among many other gigs.

I spent three years working full-time on my novel, which meant I gave up a number of opportunities for paying work. I've called upon my spouse to provide childcare (and, hello, MORTGAGE PAYMENTS), after a full day at work, so that I could attend writing groups on a weekly basis. I've attended a number of writing conferences during the last two years, at a total cost of roughly $3000 out of pocket. I've joined online discussion groups pertaining to my area of writing so as to build up a network of friends and mentors in the industry, but more importantly to learn as much as I could about this craft... and that's far less than the half of it--not the website I will pay for, or many other things I've invested time, effort, and, yes, CASH in. I fully expect to do the majority of my own marketing writing, press kits, mailings, signing-gig-hustling and a thousand other things that might help the success of the book.

BUT most importantly, I've written the best manuscript I could--having only recently finished a year of revisions with my agent. I'm not saying I wouldn't try to fund professional outside marketing and publicity work, if i garnered a big enough advance (and in fact I would be happy to do it if I can afford to), but Jesus Christ, conservatively this thing has already cost me $100k (*very* conservatively), just in terms of the income I would have earned had I stuck with journalism or other editorial work .That IS financial risk.

So my fervent hope that potential publishers won't expect me to kick in for printing and binding does not, please God, mark me as some Symbolist Poet leech who expects to lie around and be fanned all the time while the publicists peel me grapes.

I have to wonder if this guy has spent half as much time WRITING his book as he has patting himself on the back for his marketing plan and account balance. Or whether he's even gotten *around* to the former, yet. (Funny, now I have a better understanding of why I find James Patterson's books to be so GODDAMN LAME.)

And hey, if "Entrepreneur Guy" here has so much cash to throw around, maybe he can hire one of us do that messy "creative" part for him, since he values it so little.

Anonymous said...

Dear Max,

Most of the writers I know have at least one book that was never purchased--usually because it wasn't an acceptable "kind" of book, we currently being under the thumb of a particular "kind" of story of tension leading to crisis and revelation. A friend of mine who has been widely published has twelve of these "unwanted-by-the-marketing-department" books. Twelve! I regard such books as clear evidence of what your poster calls "financial risk."

What was taking up a pen in the first place, all those many years ago, if not "financial risk." Financial foolhardydom, perhaps! I could have made more money as a steadily-employed handyman or house cleaner than I have as a writer, but so far I have published six books that I wanted to write. And I still believe that the crucial thing is not how much money a writer slings at the publisher's till--Max, have you looked at how much money we make for Them, versus how much we make for ourselves?--but whether or not the house (not just an editor) is enthused about the book before pub date. Without that, nothing will do the slightest whit of good. (Nevertheless, I note that I have sometimes paid for something on behalf of a book--an author tour, a web site, copies to distribute.)

As you are Max Perkins, I shall be: Isabella Weary

Anonymous said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, Max, but your Entrepreneurial Friend is naïve, and in his focus on the publishing end, he's overlooked the financial investment a writer has already made in getting to that point.

A writer's financial investment begins long before the day she prints her first copy of the manuscript to edit, but for the sake of argument, let's focus on the specifics after the first draft whispers into hard-copied life.

I've spent forty dollars on paper, forty dollars on postage, and two hundred dollars on a new toner drum for my laser printer. The paper and postage are average monthly expenses; I kill four toner drums a year. I also manage to kill at least two and usually four, computer keyboards a year. I can't hazard a guess how much I spend per month or per year on other office supplies (mailers, paperclips, etc..) but let's call it a hundred dollars a year. I have a subscription to the Writers Market online, but I also buy two of the hard-copy markets a year, for a total of a hundred dollars a year.

I pay 250 dollars for six months of web space to promote myself and my work; dues for my membership in a professional writers' guild are 250 dollars a year. I will probably spend two to three thousand dollars to attend one conference- not because I particularly care about yet another panel on the first person-present tense narrative fad, but because I need to meet editors, agents, publishers, and other people who might be inclined to eventually look at my manuscript.

We're up to five thousand dollars so far, and I haven't sold anything yet. That's five thousand dollars coming out of my regular salary, for a full-time job I'm doing in my off-hours, with no guarantee I'll ever recoup that time or money. Even if I do manage to sell a novel, I have no guarantee that anyone will want the second- the process may well start over again, even with that one success. Does it sound like I've failed to make a financial investment in my own success?

Would Entrepreneurial Friend would think it reasonable to charge people to get a job interview with his company? A hundred dollar cover charge just to turn in a resume? Heck, a fifty dollar cover charge, just to ask if it's all right to turn in a resume? Who on earth would ever take a job if they were told they had to pay the employer for the privilege?

If I said that young people looking for a job ought to do that, Entrepreneurial Friend would think I were on crack and rightly so. Job seekers have made their financial investment in their education, their professional wardrobe, their research, their transportation- applying is free, and if a company hires, it naturally pays. (And if the product the employee invents doesn't make any money, the employee gets fired- just like the writer who fails to sell.)

I think any writer has a responsibility to do what she can to help promote her work- and believe me, there are a thousand methods, expensive and inexpensive, that we investigate and attempt whenever possible. That doesn't mean she has to attend book tours cheerfully (at least, in private!) or enjoy clawing a hand into signing agony-nobody likes middle management meetings either, but they attend them because it's part of the job description.

However, I also think Entrepreneurial Friend needs to quit thinking like a CEO and start thinking like an independent contractor, because that's exactly what a writer is.

[Full disclosure: I make a pretty comfortable living as a screenwriter and freelancer and I've tried to separate my operating business expenses from my "trying to sell a novel" expenses. My expenses may not be representative of every writer...]

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

As an unpublished writer, who also works a full-time day-job to make ends meet, I don't have unlimited financial resources to front publishing let alone take on the cost of a marketing campaign...if I had all of that in place, I would have started my own damn company and I'd already be published and happy to receive back every dime I put into the venture. What seems to be overlooked in this whole debate is there are two different writing "beasties", there are some writers who write books that are the kind (such as self-help for example) that come with the expectation that the writer is willing to be active in self-promotion, whereas someone who is a literary writer, is usually a scholarly, retiring type of creative personality who would prefer to be left alone to work on their craft than be troubled with marketing strategies (these people didn't go to college to learn how to be marketing guru's).

Trust me, if I had the opportunity to work with an honest to goodness publishing company who took an interest in my work and is willing to risk money to promote my writing career, I would do what ever possible to get my part of the job done within reason (standing on my head at a book signing might be a problem, okay?). All I ask is someone to take the risk and WORK WITH ME.


Hey, Max. The usual stimulating fare. Thanks for starting this discussion.

As readers of TEV know, I'm presently at work on my first novel. And although I've published short fiction and sold screenplays, the world of novels is still the Undiscovered Country for me. And although my stuff would definitely fall under the rubric of Literary Fiction, where the notion of branding is perhaps slightly less important, it has been an absolute no brainer to me that whatever advance I MIGHT be lucky enough to bag will be channeled back 100% into an outside publicist.

It was one of the most sobering moments of my naive young life, wandering the stalls of BEA last June, seeing thousands upon thousands upon thousands of titles pleading for any sort of attention at all. And as I left a panel on promoting your first novel, it became clear to me that the author MUST take responsibility for this sort of thing. As you say, in a perfect world, it would be great if publishers did it all, but it isn't and they don't, and it's for MY OWN benefit that I would do this, not for the publisher per se. I've seen too many big first books sink like a stone.

I learned that lesson hard with my first screenwriting agents - a big agency, I thought I'd arrived, it was done, the work would pour in. HAH! A writer is always going to be his or her own strongest advocate, and one can't expect a publisher to push any harder than the author in question.

I used to have a girlfriend who wanted desperately to be an actress btu balked at doing what was necessary, and would complain about the indignities one was subjected to. I always told her you can either bemoan who things are an live an idealized life and basically get nowhere, or concede the realities of the marketplace and be your own strongest advocate. Same applies here.

Of course, this is all grain of salt stuff coming from me ...

Thanks, Max!

Anonymous said...

Great start Max, and I look forward to Part II.

I agree with Mark's comments. It amazes me how many authors and publishers contact me asking if I'll review their books. I don't have a counter on my site, but doubt the number of daily visitors is very high - I don't blog so it isn't rigged that way. I send my reviews and interviews out by email as you know - they currently go to just under 500 people. So, if 1% of those I email to buy a book based on my review or interview, it might sell five copies. I always explain this to the authors and publicists in question and they are still overly excited to send out the product. They've been this excited since I had less then 100 members to send the emails to.

I apologize for not reading back, but whoever said the authors need to think of themselves as an independent contactor is exactly right.

I'm not an accountant by any menas but my understanding as one who's thrown newspapers for five of the last six years and been one is that as an independent contractor, you get to do a Schedule C for your taxes. You write up a business plan that states you are an author intending on publishing a book and based on your research you plan to market and sell XXXX amount of books, developing a growing readership, etc., etc.

You then get to right off the website fees, the paper costs, the toner charges, and everything else you spend on your "job" as an independent contractor. Now you can only do this and lose lots of money for about three years before the IRS decides you have a hobby and not a valid business, but the losses you incorporate for your business gets subtracted from your real life income when it comes to filling out your 1040. Any fees a published author spent on publicists, books copies, postage, etc. in the promotion of his/her career would certainly fall into that category in my opinion.

Again, I'm not a tax accountant so check with your own to make sure they agree with the information I've been handed the past few years.

And paying for the right to work somewhere? Ever heard of unions? I'm not in one, and have a personal problem with ever letting anybody vote on my livelihood, but those that are pro-union have no problem paying a monthly fee so they get paid better wages and seemingly have more security.

The main thing is reading here and at MJ Rose's site and others and discovering how difficult it is to get that initial readership. Mid-list authors decline in importance every year with the bigger publishers and as Max points out, you need to get your readership early in your career by whatever means necessary to make sure that you actually have a career.


Dan Wickett

Anonymous said...

I believe it's important to promote your book by any and all means available to you, but be careful with that first manuscript. I am also an unpublished writer and I thank God that my first effort was rejected. It was good enough to attract several looks from both agents and editors, and some of them softened their reluctance to take it on by offering constructive criticisms. Through this process I've not only learned what they're looking for and expect to find in a publishable manuscript, I'm learning how to write it. At the time it was hard to take-I really thought it was a good book-but now, after moving on to another book and finishing it, I have to agree with my critics. I'd hate to see that first book in print now. Unless you are some kind of gifted genius, I seriously doubt that the first thing you write is anywhere near fulfilling your potential. I think it would be a mistake to pour money and resources into a project until it has at least created a positive buzz. It's about the writing, not the hype.

Anonymous said...

If I were to call my agent to let him know that I'd called the VP of publicity at my house to offer him ten grand toward the marketing/publicity/advertising of my book, he'd hit the roof. The meticulously negotiated contract that he'd pored over and amended for weeks, and in which he'd reserved all sorts of rights that were advantageous to me (and him!)--and I'm going to just toss money at the subsidiary of a major conglomerate? Not without a codicil to the original agreement, providing at the very least that the money would be reimbursed in full if the book reached a certain sales threshold. Perhaps an amendment to the royalty rate...12% to start, instead of ten?

And that's assuming that the house doesn't turn me down flat, which I suspect it would. I can see the publisher, the publicity guys, the sales and marketing people, and my editor anxiously conferring: does he want to have a _say_ in the marketing/publicity/advertising of the book? Is he going to be calling every day of the week if we don't book him on Oprah, or the Today Show, or Fresh Air, or at least Leonard Lopate? "Obviously," the associate publisher says, "this money isn't going to be free." Chances are she's right.

I also have to agree with all of those who've registered their objections to the implicit characterization of the relationship between publisher and author as that of patron and beneficiary. As natural as it may seem for a first time author to feel gratitude toward a publisher, the latter is definitely not doing the former a favor. Nor is the author like some lucky fool on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW who finds an 18th Century spittoon in his attic and unloads it for a tremendous price. As several others have pointed out, an unpublished, obscure, or uncommercial writer works without any promise of reward. That a publisher agrees to take on the finished work is an expression of faith in the greatest contribution the author can make to the project: the work itself. A book is not ambient, nor is it the sum of a bunch of "ideas" the author can pitch and then disgorge in written form once a paycheck is in hand. Well, maybe James Patterson can, but he can't write. But careerists and publishing folks often have trouble understanding the distinction between literature and crap.

Max completely ignores the various factors that distinguish between "first-time authors" and turn the playing field into a series of plateaus and defiles. Does the first time author look like Mary Karr, or Andrea Dworkin? Did the first time author hack away at the book at night for five years, or did the first time author graduate from a prestigious writing program in which he met famous visiting writers, established contacts with dozens of contemporaries, and laid the groundwork for an establishment career? Can the author think on her feet and respond intelligently to an interviewer's questions, or is she tongue-tied? Is the author as happy to attend the tenth appearance, in Ann Arbor, as he was to attend the first one, in New York? Is the author someone people like to go out for a beer with (a factor that even figures into the outcome of presidential elections)? And, finally, is a kickback really going to ameliorate serious shortcomings in any of these areas?

And what's the difference between what the poster suggests and just taking the book to a vanity press? Max's suggestion that, yes, it would be great if authors forked over dough, that it's a "progressive idea," does nothing to clarify the distinction between Vantage and Vintage. And as mercenary and venal and plain old commercial as trade publishing is, has been, and will be, there *is* a distinction.

Kevin Wignall said...

I'm looking forward to Mark's book, but I don't think you should be so quick to hire the publicist. You have to act like a guerilla fighter, which means being flexible, exploiting weak spots, playing to your strengths etc, etc. So if it looks like the in-house publicist is doing a good job, let it ride, and concentrate your efforts elsewhere. I would never, ever, give money directly to the publishing house - if they're making a mess of it, lack of funds will not be the cause, but rather a lack of commitment. An interesting post - I'll look forward to part two.

Anonymous said...

If you don't want to spend 3-4 thou for a workshop, you can come to our writers conference for $180 - that includes four days of workshops, meals and cocktails. You get a half hour appointment with an editor or agent. About a third of us have sold in book-length fiction within a year. We believe in self-promotion.
Karen Junker, Director

Anonymous said...

The poster has no plans to give any money to the publisher. He'll work in concert with the publisher, in order not to step on any toes and to allow an integrated marketing plan, but he won't transfer any money. It's a supplemental effort on his part, in conjunction with the publisher's efforts.

Libertarian Girl said...

To clarify my own position on this: I never meant to suggest that anyone fork over money to the publisher, for the publisher to use at its discretion; rather, that they work in consort with the publisher in determining how their additional "investment" might best put to use. To the irate, articulate responder who referred to this as a "kickback" (though who among us wouldn't enjoy a little payola now & again?), the fact is, yes, I'd absolutely expect that any author chosing to spend her own money in this way would be in position to determine where and in what way it was spent.

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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."