Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hoop Dreams* [This edition contains a new "P.S." for our friendly neighborhood Grammar Cop]

The very first response I received to last weekend's Pity Party/Invitation for Inspiration was from an inner-city high-school teacher in Los Angeles named Alan Lawrence Sitomer. His exploits in the classroom make for an interesting story--he won a prestigious "Teacher of the Year" Award in 2004, and also put together a free SAT essay prep site for students who couldn't afford the $1000 such a prep course normally costs. But Alan was writing to ask a question about his YA novel just being published by Hyperion's Jump at the Sun imprint called THE HOOPSTER. His question wasn't remotely like the usual authorial rant; he wasn't asking whether/how he'd been "dissed" by his editor, or whether his agent had gotten him a respectable deal, or why there'd been no billboards or launch parties or full-page ads for his new book. In fact he lauded the efforts made by everybody involved (including his editor, Wendy Lefkon) and said they'd done everything imaginable to "make me feel respected, intelligent and valuable."

What he want to know was this:

"How will I know when they [Hyperion] feel good about their return on investment in me? My advance for this this three-book deal (it's the first in a planned urban trilogy) was quite fiscally responsible and fair from the publisher's perspective - and by that I mean nowhere close to quit-my-day-job numbers but solid in my eyes.(Then again, I am a teacher, so any dollars look like big dollars... LOL!)

"What I want to know is, HOW WILL I KNOW WHEN THEY FEEL LIKE I WAS A GOOD BUSINESS PARTNER? Is it sales and dollars? Is it cachet* and awesome publicity for the publishing house? Good reviews? What is the yardstick an author such as myself should be using?"

My first impulse upon reading this wasn't to reply--it was to applaud... genuflect... give the guy a hug, and a noogie, and offer him a place on my couch if he's ever in NYC. Some of us on the publishing side have been doing this for so long, and have so often had guns held to our head regarding advances for high-profile authors, that we forget that the vast majority of writers (especially in their early days) are often deeply anxious about "earning their way." The simple explanation is that authors whose books don't sell have a hard time getting published again--but I'm convinced that Alan's question reflects that, at a more profound level, many writers have an old-fashioned (some will say naive) desire that the deal be a good one for both parties. I've worked hard on this, and I want to get paid as well as possible, but it's important that you come out of this more or less as well off as I do.

And this, folks, is one of the reasons that editors sometimes love writers, and love (despite the difficulty of doing so) publishing first-time authors. Because they (the writers) aren't jaded yet (some never become so) and actually want you (the editors) to benefit from this joint endeavor; for their book(s) to be checkmarks on the good side of the corporate ledger that somebody in finace is keeping on each and every editor. Above all, I think, it's that they really want this experience to be a good one, and a shared one--and that, at the end of the day, you the editor are really proud of, satisfied by, and stand to benefit from, the fruits of your author's creative blood sweat & tears.

So: God bless you, Alan Lawrence Sitomer; may THE HOOPSTER and its two sequels (the first of which is written and called HIP-HOP HIGH SCHOOL) bring you and your publisher great riches and great success. Now to your questions:

The simplist formula for assessing your book's performance is whether or not it "earns out" its advance. Your book retails for $16.95; assuming that YA book royalties are structured the same way adult books are, we'll average your royalties at 12.5% per copy sold; $16.95 x 12.5% means your royalty account "earns" $2.12 for every net copy sold. Thus if your advance for this book were $35,000 [Alan admitted that agent Al Zuckerman had secured him a three-book, six-figure deal], you'd need to sell 16,509 copies to reach $35,000 in royalty income. Do that--earn your advance back on the hardcover alone--and everybody's going to be very, very happy.

But let's say you only net 10,000 hardcovers--now you've "earned" $21,200, so to break even you'll need to earn $13,800 in paperback sales. A $10.00 trade paperback x 7.5% royalties= .75 per copy sold; so in this scenario you'd need to sell another 18,400 copies in trade paperback. You'd then have "earned out" the original $35,000 advance; any additional sales would then start to accrue to you in the form of royalties. (For the record, there are other pieces that can contribute to the royalty "pool," such as foreign rights income, book club sales, etc.)

This is a two part answer. The simplest view is that great reviews and cache matter to the extent that they wind up generating sales. If your sales have been mediocre but you get great reviews (like the positive Kirkus review and the numerous 5-Star raves on Amazon HOOPSTER has already garnered, for instance!), perhaps that will translate into being nominated for a Prize. And if winning that *rize means selling more books, terrific. [I don't know if there's a Newbery Award for YA fiction--but if there is, and you win it, I suspect the Los Angeles public school system will be looking to hire someone to replace you right quick.] And--yes--this, too, will generate terrific publicity for your publisher.

The fact that you have a three-book contract with Hyperion, though, means that the reviews and accolades you accumulate for HOOPSTER, even if they don't immediately translate to sales, gives Hyperion ammo to use for the next book, and the one after that. This is one of the advantages to a multi-book deal--it gives you some reasonable sense that your publisher is going to stick by you, just as it gives your publisher additional incentive--and addition time--to recoup its investment.

Keep in touch, Alan. I'm running a pool for who plays you in the movie... My money's on Topher Grace...

Special thanks to the (anonymous) eagle-eyed etymologist who both intuited that our use of the word "cache" instead of "cachet" wasn't a simple typo, AND who so generously explained the difference between the two! Next time, don't be so shy about your identity--we'd like celebrate the important work you do, pointedly policing petty-minded mediocrity whereever it raises its ugly, ungrammatical head.


Anonymous said...


The financial contruct you describe makes sense, but you betray your roots as a publisher of adult books with the royalty assumptions.

For reasons we can leave to the publishers and agents of children's books to haggle over, children's publishers have traditionally paid lower royalties than adult publishers. Even if Mr. Sitomer's contract pays royalties at the scale you used for your calculations, most children's contracts do not, so the number of copies sold needed to earn out might be quite a bit higher, both in hardcover and paperback.

Anonymous said...


Is there an expected ration of hardback to trade paper to mass-market sales? I know, of course, that nothing is certain (quite the contrary) but any ballpark figures? 10,000 hb = 14,000 trade = 30,000 mm? Or whatever.

And: At what point do publishers figure they know how well a book did? A month after pub date? Six months? A year? I guess I'm wondering if there's any rough equivalent with Hollywood, wherein, I guess, they know how well a movie's gonna do after the first weekend.


Anonymous said...

A cache is a hidden supply of something. Cachet is the word that means prestige

Anonymous said...

Sure, like the difference between sache and sachet.

Oh, and the period is a mark of punctuation traditionally used to end such sentences as your second. You stinker.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Max -- I am deeply touched.

There are so many ways in which I hope to respond but first and foremost -- THANK YOU. I mean, you paint me as such a good guy in such a public forum in such a magnificent way that it is a bit hard to read about myself. (I mean, Jeez, is that really me?) You cite my credentials, you chat up my book, you rap about my efforts with the new SAT, you give my editor Wendy major props, you make it very clear that my book is being positively received, you mention my next book... is there a even a way to show you the gratitude I have for all of this? Like I said, Wow!

But my favorite part is, "A noogie on your couch when I am next in New York." Goodness, that's hysterical. It literally made me revert into an "Aw, shucks," mode. Too funny.

As for your answer, it was excellent. First off, I had not foreseen your spin on why new writers can be delightful to seasoned book pros like yourself. Yes, I am green, appreciative and eager to do right by my publishing company -- especially since I strongly feel that they are doing right by me. "Earning my way" is very key to me. What's a bit shocking is that this seems to be "rare" to you. I guess it's a good lesson for me as to the importance on not becoming jaded. Simply put, being ungrateful is not who I ever want to be - after all, writing books that get published in hardcover coast to coast is a dream. Forgetting this would smack forever of brattiness no matter how great I become as a writer. Yes, business is business but petulant is petulant, as well. I hope never to cross the line.

The specifics of how to gage my performance was particularly AWESOME!! Now I know. And now I feel more empowered to act. Not that I think I can do any more than I am already doing since my approach has been from the get-go, "Leave no stone unturned in the publicity/promotion/sales of this book no matter how apparently slight," but seeing a target goal of 16,509 books sold in hardcover revs my engines. That seems do-able. Frankly, it's a number lower than I had expected and the truth is I don't think I will feel good about my book if I don't hit this number. Knowledge is power and on this front I now feel, as I said, more empowered.

As for how reviews and cache factor in, this also seems to have told me things I knew but yet did not know. As you said, at the end of the day, sales matter. I am comfy with that. However, there are moral victories in good reviews as well as the chance that they might lead to even more positive attention for my next books -- which can let Hyperion have another chance at earning its money back.

Hyperion coming up smelling like roses on this business front in terms of dollars and cents, after reading your response, seems very important to me. Don't get me wrong, it always was from an ethical point of view (i.e. They did me right, I want to do them right.) But from a business point of view, if they come out winners with these books, then, logically, they are going to want to do more books. Which is what I want.

My feeling is that the world of publishing - at least MY world of publishing - needs to be a win/win. I'll end on a simple question, Max... "Can't book deals be good for both parties?"

Once again, by the energy of your response I hope I can infer you're feeling better (and less winded). As always, THANKS so much for all your generosity of spirit in answering my question -- and gracias for the fantastic blog you are weaving. Truly, it is top notch.

BTW, I'll be in NY for BEA to collect on my noogie!

All my best,


Anonymous said...

Great story, Max, thanks for posting it. And I wish Alan the best of luck for his books.

I loved the positive story because it shows that not everyone's negative. I've always been a glass-half-full person. I'm in a similar situation as Alan, though not YA and not h/c, and I view my relationship with my publisher the same -- we're a team. I WANT them to make money, because that helps solidify MY career and they'll want to keep me in their house. Also part of the team is my agent, who not only put the deal together, but gets to play the bad cop (if necessary.)

s/anon suspense writer

Beth Ciotta said...

I'm a few days behind in my blog reading. Just now seeing this and I am very glad I did. Great story, Max. I second s/anon suspense writer's comments. Well said. Best of luck, Mr. Sitomer!

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Anonymous said...

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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."