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The second half of 4, or 4B

When I first started working in the bookstore as a part-timer, the reps told us it took about 5 books for an author to really find her legs and have enough of a shelf presence to take off. That's certainly not what they say now. Now, you've got 2 books at most houses in which to establish a place for yourself. This is now in the territory of gross generalization, fwiw, and things are changing because they always do. Many authors have more than 2 books out, but they're not making a decent living writing. I actually think the rise of the superstores helped because there's not only room for backlist, but some demand for it.

The P&L statements mentioned in a previous ramble? They come into play here. In most houses, the time period for the P&L statement is set across the board. It probably varies from house to house; I assume, in this example, that a year is the time for a mass market original, and 2 for a hardcover that will then be a mass market. You really want that P&L statement to show a profit. The -longer- the period, the more likely this is. If you can set the period. It's an accounting thing. The more the publisher paid for your book, the higher the expectations. If it doesn't do well, it's (obviously) bad. I will refrain from pointing out cases in which an author made money but the publisher lost a lot. But they definitely do happen. If your P&L is bad, one of two things will happen by the time the numbers are in and they're looking at your third book (the numbers won't be in until the second is out, although the publisher will have a decent idea anyway). Either the publisher will pass on the option clause in your contract, and therefore the book, or they'll offer you less money than they offered for the previous book. As a first time author, there's not a lot less that they can offer in a majority of the cases.

Spending money on bookmarks, bookplates, etc., doesn't really make a difference, in my experience. Post cards don't either. The most effective use of direct marketing that I've seen was something done by Jennifer Roberson for her Lady of the Forest novel. It wasn't published as a genre title, and because it wasn't, she wrote a letter which she sent to a large number of SF/F specialty stores. In it, she made clear that the reason she was writing was to let us all know that it was a book she thought would appeal to her readers -- but that she thought might not be -offered- to speciality stores because of its positioning by its publisher. She was right, too. It wasn't. We kept an eye out for it because she'd let us know it was coming, and her SF/F readers did want to read it. She made clear, though, that she wouldn't be writing at all if she hadn't thought there was a chance we wouldn't be offered it; she trusted us to know our own field for her other books, which were all fantasies.

One of the interesting things, for me, as a behind the counter bookseller, is watching what people pick up. There is a very, very vocal group of people who complain about endless series of books, and long, long books, etc., etc. Vocal. Did I mention vocal? But dollar for dollar, in my very subjective experience, it's -still- the series books that sell. If a reader loved the characters and the world, they want more of those. They want to spend time immersed in that set of creations. These people aren't vocal in the same way; they talk with their wallets <wry g>.

People are willing to pay for books, but if the book is too short, they complain about the cost. I've had people bring up books that are short and ask me if the book is really 30.00. To which the answer is Yes. Buying books by the pound is something that people can laugh at -- but there's a bit of truth in it. The only author I can think of whose books don't get that instant "why is this so expensive when it's so damn short" incredulity are the Stephen Brust Vlad Taltos novels, sort of a case of the exception proving the rule.

The next thing: There are no guarantees. I realize that this is obvious, but I feel I have to state it bluntly. I've seen garbage sell hundreds of copies. I've seen genius sell hundreds of copies. I've seen garbage disappear without a trace, and I've seen genius disappear without a trace. The quality of the book itself is not in question. In my experience, the writing matters to -writers-. But to readers, it's the -story- that matters. If the story can be gained through the clumsiest of writing, the most clichéd of dialogue, it will often sell where brilliant writing with a less clear story won't. Weeping doesn't help. I know this from personal experience because books I've loved, adored, and handsold in large numbers simply don't have that kind of dogged push everywhere else, and they disappear from view.

Some authors take longer to find their audience than others. The best example of authors who I feel weren't initially given a real chance with a series that had -- imho -- legs are the Miller and Lee Liaden books. The first three (I'm pretty sure it was three, but it was a while ago) were published by Del Rey, or Ballantine.

Meisha Merlin was founded some time later; it was not, and is not, considered one of the "big publishers", but it picked up Plan B, publishing it in trade paperback. I believe it may have also printed a limited run of hardcovers simultaneously, but my memory is not all it should be, and I'm being lazy enough not to google. My bad.

[A digression. Trade paperback is considered a bookstore format. It's never going to fit a rack in a supermarket or a drugstore. It'll sit quite nicely on a bookstore shelf, if the distribution works out. The cost of producing a trade paperback is similar to the cost of producing a hardcover, as opposed to a mass market paperback. Royalty rates are less for a trade paperback than they are for a hardcover, because the retail price is less than that of a hardcover. But because it's more expensive it's more cost effective to produce in smaller numbers. Trade paperbacks are not stripped; they're returned full-book. Small publishers don't tend to pulp their returns.]

Plan B sold. And subsequent books in the Liaden universe, offered by Meisha Merlin in trade paperback and hardcover also sold. Enough so that eventually a major mass market publisher did pick up the books again, and have reprinted them all. This regrowth took years, but the audience that found Miller and Lee initially wanted more of them, and that audience grew by word of mouth; Meisha Merlin, smaller at the time, responded in different ways to scheduling, and it kept the books in print so that word of mouth could make a difference. The fact that Miller and Lee continued to write, regardless of their initial experience, is an important one: they had no control of the publishing universe, or of how they were initially presented and sold, but they had control of their writing, and they continued to write.

The book is the only thing that one has control over, in the end; the vaguaries of timing, cover art, sales force, etc., are things that are usually outside of our control. Being bitter or angry about the lack doesn't make a difference. If Miller and Lee were bitter, I can't say -- I imagine it would be hard not to feel bitter sometimes. What's important is that they didn't give up. I admire that.

(next rock)

More -- a little bit, at any rate -- tomorrow after work. Sleep now.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
janni
Jul. 31st, 2004 08:59 am (UTC)
But to readers, it's the -story- that matters. If the story can be gained through the clumsiest of writing, the most clichéd of dialogue, it will often sell where brilliant writing with a less clear story won't.

This is one that drives me less crazy as a writer than as a reader. Because as a reader, I find it hard (and sometimes even tedious) to read books with clumsy prose, no matter how compelling the story is. But I know I'm in a minority on this.
msagara
Jul. 31st, 2004 09:42 am (UTC)
You're reading as a writer. No, really. I don't think writers -can- read as anything else. So when I say it matters to writers, what I really meant is that most writers go berserk reading something that they feel is poorly written -- but most readers who are not also writers don't notice, as long as they can access the story beneath the words.
janni
Jul. 31st, 2004 10:34 am (UTC)
I think it was an issue even before I was a writer, though--although I suppose one could debate whether I was ever, on some level, not a writer.

But I know many other writers who can put prose issues aside--in a suspend-disbelief sort of way--more readily than I can.
msagara
Jul. 31st, 2004 08:19 pm (UTC)
Actually, I always thought this was true ... but when I return to read things I adored as a younger person, I choke on them now <wry g>. So some part of it is time & experience, and I think some part of it is my growing awareness of technical issues.

And you know, that growing awareness only deprives me of things to enjoy, so I'm not entirely fond of it...
(Anonymous)
Jul. 31st, 2004 04:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks
Thanks for writing these out. I find them very interesting.

Harry
buymeaclue
Jul. 31st, 2004 09:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks for these. Useful stuff!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )