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Okay, this deserves its own whatever-it-is-these-are-called (not comments, not threads?).

dancinghorse replied to my previous post on agenting, and she raises points that are all valid; I want them to have a wider audience, and I also want to wedge my take between her words, to add to what she said, rather than bury it.

The observation that bad sales figures are not fatal or permanent should be strongly qualified. Yes, they drop off the computers after a decade or so, but ask yourself how many meh-to-shitty-deal "rising stars of fantasy" from, say, 1993 are still publishing novels, and how many of them died the death of shrinking sales figures. Computerization of the system means that your agent can no longer fudge the figures. Anybody can look and see just how sucky they are--and decline to purchase your next project no matter how much they personally may love it. You might not get driven out of the business--but you might have to start over under a pseudonym.

[Just a quick aside: for those of you who don't read John Scalzi's very amusing blog, the "meh-to-shitty-deal" comment is indirectly related to one of his (as usual) amusing, silly, and at the same time informative posts. You can find it at: http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/archives/001126.html]

dancinghorse is right; I thought I'd qualified this in earlier posts, in the sense that I've discussed the difficulties of numbers, the problems with initial orders, and etc. -- but just in case I haven't, I wanted to address them here. Yes, I'm being lazy. why do you ask? I've done a quick scan of what I have rambled about, but all mentions of this seem a bit tangential; they can be inferred, but they aren't direct.

Part of the industry doom and gloom is always about the computerized sales numbers, and the way they lead to a downward spiral in your orders which leads to death. I know I've talked about returns, and how the returns processs works, roughly speaking. If you have bad numbers, they're easily accessed in a dozen different ways these days -- at least by publishers <wry g>. This is also true if you have good numbers.

What defines good in this case is two things: Your initial laydown, and your sell-through. Sell-through is the laydown minus returns. Because orders were computerized, and people were enamored of computers, there came a point in chain orders when the chains would look at the previous sales history of an author when a new book was offered, and they would try to order the number that the previous book sold. If you had a laydown -- let's keep this simple in numeric terms -- of 100K, and you were lucky, then after returns, you would have a total sale of 60K.

This is what I was told by a number of agents/editors and reps years ago. I stress that -- this was years ago, and things do change.

The chains at that time would then try to order 60K of your next book, in the odd theory that that's what sold the last time, and it would minimize returns. I've already pointed out elsewhere why this wouldn't actually work.

Since all books have associated returns, one thing that stops all publishing from being this sinking spiral is reorders. If the initial orders across the chain were 100K, some stores will, of course, return 80% of what they ordered -- but many will sell out and reorder, which changes your numbers. This can mean that in the end, the total sales numbers over a period go up. [I have no idea how the chains currently look at numbers. I know at one point they included tie-ins as part of your sales history, which was an underhanded way of getting high orders for your standalones, but that didn't last long at all.] So it's possible or even likely that the next book will be ordered at the same 100K. (although I did mention elsewhere, on sales reps, that this is also considered less than ideal; they want to see growth, or the possibility of growth).

Let's drop those numbers. Let's say you have a laydown in mass market of 10K. And a sell-through of 7K, which is being optimistic. If word-of-mouth is fast enough, and the book sells out in many places, those places will reorder. If the book is not a 900 page doorstop, it's possible that they'll reprint and fulfill those orders, and if this continues to happen, your numbers -- which still suck in comparison to better selling midlist authors -- will go up, and when and if the publisher presents your second novel, it's likely that the chains will increase their stand on the second book, and go to 20K copies.

What you will not get for this kind of growth is an increase in what you get paid by the publisher. Maybe fourth book out, if you continue to build momentum.

But if the publisher paid 75K for the book? It just doesn't matter :/. It doesn't matter if the reorders were decent if the numbers are that low. And in that case, fizzle.

Remember, however, that if it's a first book, you're not looking at that kind of advance, so the attendant expectations won't be as high, or the failure of those, as deadly.

Yes, bad sales figures are a bad thing, and yes, they will affect your ability to sell subsequent projects.

In the case where your book does not get those reorders, and it shipped those very low numbers and the returns were higher, things don't look good to anyone. This would be what is meant by bad. Or, if your books started out at 30K, and failed to get reorders, then in fact the second book would get smaller numbers ordered, and etc. Which also looks good to no one.

Consider that book sales are currently judged by performance in the first eight weeks, and ordering systems order the same number of new books as they sold of the previous book. Since sell-through or sales before returns runs around 40% on a good day, that means your first order can be for 100, but the next order may be for 40, and the order after that could conceivably be for 16.

I'm sorry, I'm having trouble parsing this :/. Did you mean sell-through or sales after returns? I'm not sure I'm reading this correctly.

As long as your name is in the system with X number beside it, that's your number. It seldom goes up, but often goes down. And each time it goes down, it's pretty much guaranteed to drop further. This is lethal for series writers, especially if you add in Stupid Publisher Tricks such as taking volume one out of print shortly before the publication of volume three--you may only see two or three volumes before the publisher declines to purchase more.

dancinghorse is right. I wanted to just add, though, that I'm seeing far fewer "first book out of print when the third book comes out" incidences than I remember seeing in the eighties and early nineties. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining. The books can go out of print shortly after the last book in a series comes out -- that still happens -- but there seems to be more continuity within a series than there was.

And the comment about writing under a pseudonym is also true; it's one of the ways in which your current work, which might have a broader appeal, or might hit the market with better timing, or might have a decent cover -- you can add to this list as you like -- can be presented again with a clean slate.

I'm not hugely attached to my name; I just want to tell the story. So for me, if something does fail at last in a spectacular fashion, I'm likely to keep on writing if an editor feels that losing the previous sales history will help me. Which is why, I guess, I don't think of the failure as a death knell.

The point about authors from 1993 is well taken. But many of the authors who published in 1993 and even beyond that failed to sell well in real numbers terms. I know of one writer who made four times what I was making on about a third of the numbers at the time, fwiw -- and at that time, the computers were certainly in place. It's not just about the numbers. If the numbers suck, but the publisher is willing to get behind the next book in a serious way, for whatever reason, or if the book got rave reviews and is a literary success, there's some impetus in-house to do whatever you can to continue. These are all factors outside of authorial control.

At some point? The numbers catch up with you if they never go up. But... I know authors who would have gone out of print and vanished if it had just been about numbers; first four books didn't sell well at all. Publisher stuck with the author, and the author is doing very well now. Had the chain buyers been totally unwilling to buy -- which, in theory, they should have, given the raw numbers of the first -four- books. the author would not now have a career.

It's why I'm a bit cautious about the whole "computers kill you" thing. It's certainly true, but it's not all of the truth, and as I can't, in spite of pressing my flat little nose against the relevant windows, get at the whole of the truth, I'm a bit more hesitant.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 12th, 2004 08:53 pm (UTC)
One thing I've liked is the number of duologies or trillogies that are back out in a single volume--maybe not feasible for really big fat series books, but so nice for bringing things back into print! No idea how common this is, though, or whether There Is Hope from such omnibuses.

One of the reasons to do this is that readers do, in fact, want larger books for their dollars. Baen does it (in mass market, but these days also in hardcovers), and DAW does it (in mass market as well).

However... these companies do the reprints in this fashion because they already own the rights to those books. They don't have to pay another advance for them, and they can slot them in as quasi-new, instead of as a straight reprint. The P&L statement for this "new" book is not burdened by something like an advance against royalties, because there isn't one; they can usually use the same plates to print the books (or the same typesetting files, with page number changes), and the costs for copy & line-editing disappear.

It's a good way to reprint and relaunch something. And yes, the books are fatter -- and no, that hasn't hurt them. Getting three books for the price of one is often popular <wry g>.
Sep. 13th, 2004 04:31 pm (UTC)
On the royalties angle, are they re-contracted for omnibus form? Since you could maybe have different contracts for the different books.

Sep. 13th, 2004 05:27 pm (UTC)
On the royalties angle, are they re-contracted for omnibus form? Since you could maybe have different contracts for the different books.

Yes, they're recontracted (okay, the DAW books are; I haven't asked any of the Baen authors <g>); the advance is set at zero, but the book is a different entity. In the old days it might have been possible not to do this, but I'd bet money that most publishing inventory systems are set up by ISBN, so there'd be no way of getting around another contract.

Sep. 14th, 2004 01:24 pm (UTC)
Me of the stupid questions:
What is a boilerplate?

Sep. 14th, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Me of the stupid questions:
In this context, a standard text. The default starting point for negociations, in other words, though the implication is that it's hard to change.

(Originally, in publishing, type that had been "stereotyped" or cast as a single plate instead of individual letters; this was very hard to correct, thus the metaphoric extension. Usually, this was only done for later printings or ads with VERY well proofread text.)

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )