Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Writer’s Dream: An Agent and a Deal—Part II

In part one of our adventure, I shared that I was inches away from realizing “the dream.” Lit agent lined up and fired up, publishers in the wings as likely buyers, visions of deals and bookstores and midnight book launches with lines around the block. Okay, the last one not so much, but the other two were solid. Then, the news: my author platform was weak.

For those who don't know what this is, there are many wonderful posts on the Internet by authors who have written on the subject, not to mention numerous consultants who will help you set up a platform for a fee. In a nutshell, an author’s platform is your marketing web presence and social media infrastructure. These two things combine to help you sell your books to readers. A typical platform has the following pieces: author website, online store, author blog, video-book trailer, per click advertising, social networking (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), podcasting, e-newsletter, e-article marketing, and other inbound marketing partnerships that link your platform to other platforms, etc.

The agent told me that I had a great product and it was salable, but I was not salable due to my shaky platform. I had the infrastructure, but my numbers were bad. Traditional publishers, these days, have reduced budgets for marketing and promotion of their authors; consequently a first-timer is not likely to get any marketing help from a publisher. Pubs prefer to make deals with writers who have their platforms in place, and strong, before they publish the book. Big-name authors still get the old treatment (media support, public relations, book tours, etc.), but not the average Joe-Jane writer. Those days are over.

“Okay, fine,” I told my agent. “What kind of numbers do I need to have to be ‘salable’?” Her response was, “To put it bluntly, you need more zeros.” Sigh. I know writers with great platforms. They have thousands of followers, thousands of subscribers, thousands of fans and friends. They took years of working the Internet and publishing multiple books to build up their followings. My puny hundreds just didn’t stack up—too few zeros. It was sounding like I was suffering from the cart-before-the-horse syndrome. Before I could sell anything, I needed the people ready to buy, but before I could get them to want to buy, I needed something to sell. Yes, if your head is about to explode, join my club.

The agent wanted to go for it and spin-doctor my proposal to make me more attractive. I suspect, if I had agreed to jump on board, she would have pulled it off and gotten me a publishing deal. But, the business facts weren’t adding up for the way of the dream. If I took a traditional publishing deal, I was looking at these facts:

  • It would take me at least eight months to write the book.
  • If I went with a traditional publisher, it would be at least a year, after delivery, before there was a book in a bookstore.
  • Between the writing and the publishing cycle, it would be almost two years before I’d have a book to sell.
  • I needed product now to support my growing writing seminar business; I couldn’t wait two years to have products to sell attendees.
  • It would take me at least a solid year of self-marketing to build up my platform to respectable numbers.
  • If I signed a traditional deal, I would get less than 8% royalties for print books and around 25% for digital rights.
  • With a traditional publisher, the book could go out of print in a year and there’s nothing I could do about that.
  • There would be agent fees.
  • Bookstores would take my book and I would not have the headaches of returns.
  • I could get real reviews for the book.
  • If I wanted my book in bookstores I'd need a publishing deal.
  • I would lose rights, especially digital rights—for years.
  • There would be little or no support for promotion, marketing and sales.
  • I would have to do all the heavy lifting to create the market for my book.

If I self-published, the following facts were present:

  • I would have to do all the heavy lifting to create the market for my book.
  • I would have to do the sales and marketing, even after there was a market.
  • I would have no agent fees.
  • I could get paid reviews for the book, but mostly these are useless.
  • I would retain all rights, especially digital rights.
  • Bookstores would not take the book, unless I entered into a wholesale deal with them large enough to support returns, which I would have to manage.
  • I could end up with 65–70% royalties on the digital side vs. less than 25% in a traditional deal.
  • Penguin, Houghton Mifflin and other pubs are moving into the self-publishing space, or distributing books from Amazon.
  • The number of online venues available to market and sell my book have grown exponentially in the last 12 months, and will grow exponentially more in the next 12 months.
  • I could have product to support my workshops in less than a year (actually just a couple of months).
  • I could do just fine without a bookstore presence. The biggest bookstore in the world is online.
  • I could possibly leverage any success for my book and land a traditional deal later down the road, if I wanted.
  • If I wanted hard copy of my book I could use the Espresso Book Machine, or work directly with a print-on-demand company like Lightning Source.

The conclusion came fairly quickly:

Authors with established readerships who opt-out of traditional deals (Barry Eisler, JA Konrath) can do so because they have a built-in market for sales, i.e., their established readers. Writers like me are starting from scratch (in that sense), so marketing is a much harder thing to pull off. This is why a traditional publishing deal is still the brass ring for first-time writers. There may be no financial backend, but the price of entry is worth it for the legitimacy of being published. Novelists, especially, find this road a godsend. Nonfiction writers, however, have to think twice before stepping onto that road. How-to and self-help are easier to sell and can find a readership more easily than fiction, and nonfiction is what keeps most publishing houses financially solvent.

So, knowing all this, I had to think hard about the facts bulleted above. No matter which way I went, I’d have to do all the heavy lifting in order to build up my platform and find my audience. And then, even after it was created, I’d have to do all the footwork necessary to sell my book. I could not afford to wait two years to have a book in hand; I needed product sooner than that to grow my business. In addition, I knew that digital self-publishing was finally coming of age and the stigma of self-publishing was quickly diminishing. I knew that the financial terms would benefit me on the digital side of the process both in the short and long runs. If I was publishing a novel, probably not, but I had a strong how-to book, one that credible people were telling me would pretty much sell itself.

My road was clear: self-publish.

I won’t (and can’t) claim that my process here is right for you or your book, especially if you write strong genre fare (crime, YA vampire/werewolf romance, etc.). But if you have a strong how-to or self-help book, you might want to think strongly along these lines. What is critical to realize here is that once a traditional publishing deal was a matter of professional life and death for ambitious writers. This is no longer the case. Traditional publishing is now just one more option a writer has available. Traditional publishing is one choice, in a long line of business choices, that we as entrepreneurs must weigh and consider as we build our brands and our businesses. Because that’s what we are doing, we are business people engaged in start-up activity. Even if this idea of being an entrepreneur is frightening to you, or overwhelming, or you just can't make that leap—no problem. You still have the choice to leap or not. A few years ago, that was not the case; you had no choice. Now you do!

As someone has already said, the publishing problem has been solved. And we are all the better for it.

Now, go be brilliant.


Lee Ann said...

You're thinking in the same direction that I'm thinking and for the same reasons.

A very timely blog post for me. Thanks for sharing!

Jeff Lyons said...


Thank you for the comment... I suspect there are a lot of writers thinking along these lines :)