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Fallout

rco-2
rowyn supplies the question for tonight's ramble.

Subject: Is the writer blamed for bad sell-through?

This is sort of an interesting question. If my first book sold 16,000
hardcovers out of a 20,000 copy run, presumably my publisher would be
pretty pleased.

But obviously, if the book sells 16,000 copies of a 50,000 copy run, the
publisher is gonna be miserable. But I didn't have any say in whether the
publisher printed 50,000 or 20,000 copies: am I still going to take the
flak for the failure of the extra copies to sell?

Of course, this could be justified -- after all, the shelves were full of
my books and I had all this good buzz: arguably, if the book itself had
been better, it would've sold more.


Teresa Nielsen Hayden has an excellent and funny post on her blog, making light, itself one of the best examples of a general blog with a vibrant community on the net. This specific post is about the various types of insanity that afflict authors. I think it would be a great meme -- to copy it, and then to identify which of the various flavours one feels one's been subject to. I see myself in enough of them that the laughter on my part is largely rueful.

I've been mulling it over since I read it, which was a while back. As I haven't asked for permission to post it, I won't, but you can read it here:

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004307.html

And I've been thinking that there are types of apparent insanity that can also afflict publishers, and among them, my first would be:

1. If you had written the right book, it would have sold.

The short answer to the question rowyn asked is yes. And no. Which is hardly definitive. The correct answer should, in a perfect world, be no. And on a personal level, that's probably true. But this begs the question: What does the word "blamed" in this case mean?

[Aside: hardcover sell-through should be higher than mass market paperback sell-through for a number of reasons. One of them being that hardcovers go to bookstores, not to rack-jobbers, and bookstores have a lower rate of return in general than the rack-jobbers will.]

There is a strong belief among authors that if the publisher got behind a book and got it out there (the one leading to the other) in stores across the nation and in large numbers, that the book would sell. Certainly the inverse is true: if the book isn't out there, on shelves, it isn't going to sell, at least not in the month-long window most books have. But it's not an if and only if statement.

The example I made, which is clearly the basis for the question, was to illustrate a case in which an author could make money when a publisher lost money. I would say that this does not happen often -- but in the case of a small publisher, it only has to happen once for the company to sink beneath the weight of both its expectations and its debts. More often, the publisher can make money when the author doesn't earn back his or her advance.

But… let's follow through with the question. The book doesn't sell through well. The publisher, it can be argued, did everything right. Obviously the cover worked, there was enough in house buzz for the book that the sales reps conveyed enthusiasm for it, and the bookstores bought it, and bought into it. The books got out there, were on the shelves, and all the remained was … readers.

For one reason or another, not enough of those readers were there for that book. 16,000 copies in hardcover is a decent number of hardcovers for a midlist author. But not when the lay down was so high. Since the publishers did, in fact, do everything right, they're left in the unhappy position of trying to explain what went wrong.

Human beings are human beings. In private, editors can shake their heads. This happens. But the book wasn't bought in a vacuum; it was bought as part of a hopeful continuum, which would be the author's career at said publisher.

But as I've also said, "good enough" is something that very often has little to do with quality, and lots to do with that indefinable something that reaches readers.

In the case where author and editor are both fairly sanguine, no mention of blame or fault will arise. But this is a business. You, as an author, will no doubt have your next novel in the wings (or probably your third, as the numbers aren't always in when the second is in production), and understandably, you'll want to sell it to the same publisher with whom you have a working relationship.

This is where things can get tricky.

Because the book failed to live up to expectations, and in fact, did worse than that: it lost money. It died on the shelves. And when it comes time to make an offer on the next book, one of two things will happen. The first: the publisher will make an offer that is significantly less than the offer they made for the previous book(s); the second, that they will decline to make an offer at all.

Does this make the publisher evil?

Not in my opinion.

Does this make the author incompetent?

Not in my opinion.

Does it matter either way? No. In the heated arguments that often arise during negotiations burdened by this type of history, the question of blame does come up. And I know of several cases in which it comes down to this: It's the author's fault. Or, if not fault, the author also bears the burden of the loss. To an author, who writes and works in isolation, it seems the same -- it seems that they're being blamed for the failure.

I've heard editors who will quietly shake their heads when something like this happens; they don't understand why, and they're perfectly willing to admit it. But I've also heard editors be more defensive. This happens when they're under attack, because it happens when anyone is under attack.

There's nothing you can do to change history. There's nothing the publisher can do to change it, either. You had no say in how many copies were printed and shipped; you also had no say in cover or typeface or in house promotion. Look at it a different way.

If you heard that you had orders for 50,000 books, would you then leap up and tell your publisher No way, that's too big of a risk? Not if you were sane. Well, okay, not if you were me -- if you were me you'd be running around in little circles pumping your fist in the air and shrieking with glee.

If, in the end, it failed to work, that would be a bitter blow to everyone involved. And there would be fallout. It's best to realize that the fallout is not specific; that if it feels like its you who's being blamed, that it's only you who suffers, it's not. Yes, it's unlikely that the editor loses her job. And it's likely that you're in the position of having to find another house at which to publish.

But given that even if it were possible to do so, you wouldn't have stopped them from shipping those books in the first place, it's a horrible cost of doing business, in this business.

Comments

(Deleted comment)
lnhammer
Aug. 6th, 2004 12:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Betraying my ignorance of the publishing process..
It's part of the gamble. Author gets to keep anything paid.

---L.