Thursday, August 30, 2007

Top Five Signs of a Crumbling Publisher

I've been distressed lately by the number of small presses shutting their doors for various reasons, and even more distressed by the authors who are left hanging--bitter and unhappy and wondering what happened to their dreams.

The problem is compounded by the Internet and the juicy rumors that fly all over the place--some spot on, some wildly inaccurate.

The sad fact is, the demise of some publishers casts doubt on other publishers who might be doing just fine. I'm amazed at the number of rumors I hear about solid companies, while everyone seemed to be taken by surprise when the not-so-solid ones go out of business.

Writers need to not only BE CAREFUL who you sign a contract with, but also know the difference between rumors circulated by disgruntled authors and a company that's truly in trouble.

Here are some top warning signs that a publishing company is crumbling:

1. Sudden turnover in top staff.
2. Checks that are very late (like months to a year).
3. Checks that bounce (this is one of the best signs that it's time to leave--ignore excuses).
4. Staff quitting quickly and not being replaced (attrition).
5. Very rapid veering from what company is good at to strange new ventures.

Many of the rumors ("so and so ran off with the money;" "this company is in serious financial trouble;" etc.) are not always verifiable, but the five things I've listed are very good signs--gossip aside--that it's best you quietly look for another place to sell your work.

Please remember that I'm talking about extreme things--all the executives being replaced in a week, every author's check bouncing, the company going from publishing erotic e-books to print travel guides. If your check is a week late, that's not a sign of bankruptcy. If the company replaces a CFO, it might be just fine (people do move on).

So how do you avoid signing up with a shaky publisher in the first place? Research!

1. Buy the books--are they typo-free, well formatted, don't look cheap?

2. Talk to the authors (a wide cross-section, not just cheerleaders or disgruntled former authors)--ask for their good experiences and bad.

3. Ask about sales. Don't be embarrassed. It takes just as much energy and time to write a book that sells 25 e-copies as one that sells 2000. Some authors sell better than others of course, but it's good to know the potential sales you might reach.

4. Check out the publisher's website--is it professionally done and easy to use; is it easy to purchase the books?

5. Attend conferences where the publisher is presenting itself. Are the executives professional or a little flaky? Just because you and the CEO both call your cats Cuddle Poos doesn't mean she's a good person to run a publishing company.

6. Look at their boilerplate contract. Does it meet industry standard (there's a reason for industry standards). Is it negotiable? (Pray that it is.)

None of this guarantees your publisher will never have problems, but you can avoid the worst of them if you think it through beforehand. It is a new writer's instinct to leap at the first contract offered--'cause, duh, we're dying to be published--but you need to be happily published, not ripped off.

One aside about contracts---Never, EVER, sign a contract where the royalty clause says you get royalties on the "Net Proceeds" of a book. DON'T. You should get royalties on the retail cover price.

Why? Because the retail cover price is fixed. If you get a 37% royalty on an ebook that sells for $5.95, you get about $2.00 per book. Period.

"Net proceeds" might mean that the publisher says: "Oh, the reader paid 5.95, but it cost us this much for the cover, and this much to re-do the link page when it broke, and this much for the editor, and this much for my cat's manicure for the promo session . . ." whittling down your share of the pie to possibly nothing. I'm not saying all publishers who pay on net proceeds do this, but you've handed them the means to do it if they want to.

Rule of thumb: Do NOT sign a book contract (e- or print) where the royalties are paid on net proceeds. I don't care how many epublishers do this (EC does not--I have contracts with them). Authors cannot afford to let this become standard. Refuse--or get an agent to refuse for you.

People get very hung up on the "we keep the rights forever" clauses (which are negotiable--if not, don't sign), and completely miss the net proceeds garbage. The forest for the trees . . .

That is my rant about authors getting taken by shaky publishers. Research, READ your contract thoroughly, and keep an eye out for the warning signs. None of this guarantees a fantastic career, but you'll be much more comfortable on your way up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

What Makes a Bestseller?

Before I start, let me give one caveat: This is my take on things based on observation and asking pesky questions, not a scientific study!

I've gotten to a point in my career where I've been hitting bestseller lists and many of my writer friends (at about the same point as me) are too. It's kind of fun to sit back and watch which books hit, and I've come to realize what makes a bestseller.

Five things make a book hit the top lists (USA Today, Pub. Weekly, and NY Times) upon publication:

1. A large print run
2. Excellent distribution with reorders filled quickly
3. Placement in stores
4. Marketing
5. A great book on a subject readers care about.

Now, if you look at each of those, which do writers have most control over?

Number 5 of course.

(Number 4 a little bit, but when I say "marketing" I'm talking about to distributors and booksellers, which is done long before the book is due out.)

Looking at these in turn:

1. A large print run: A good sized print run (say 65K and up) will allow you to hit USA Today if all the other factors are in place. Bigger ones let you reach higher. Let's face it, the more books out there, the more available for purchase.

2. Excellent distribution with reorders quickly filled: If no one can find the book, no one can buy it. Simple as that. The largest chunk of books are sold in Walmart, Target, Costco, drug and grocery stores, and other retail giants. Surprisingly, bookstore chains order only a small percentage of the print run. Independent bookstores are also a small percent, but Indies are good at selling! (Because they're usually owned and operated by people who truly care about books. Go Indies!)

You want the sold books replaced quickly because, duh, if the book's not on the shelf, no one can buy it (online sales can't take up the slack at this point). Good distribution where the book stays on the shelf=good sales.

3. Placement: Getting your book on an end cap, a table, face-out on a shelf, or getting a shelf-talker (those labels of the author's name on the shelf itself) help readers find the books. Placement is not up to you the author, it's up to the bookseller, and what the publisher negotiates with the bookseller. Publishers can "buy" good visual space for a book they want to push.

4: Marketing: I mean the sales reps for the publisher enthusiastically selling the books to the distributors or bookstore buyers. The more belief a publisher has in an author or title, the more enthusiastic the reps are, and the more interest the buyers have.

Author marketing can help too. If the bookseller knows you're out there with a video, bookmarks, a website, a blog, a newsletter, etc., that's a good thing.

5. A darn good book that readers want to read: Ok, writers, this one's up to you! :-) A book with a strong voice and strong characters, well plotted and well constructed, on a topic readers care about is what you need to do. (Easy, right? [snicker]). Keep trying (I am).

When I say "what readers want to read" or "a topic readers care about" I don't mean the latest paranormal trend (though catching a rising trend helps). I mean a theme like healing, coming home, finding one's self through love of another--all those universal constants that appeal to us.

And, true, a popular time period and setting doesn't hurt. It's sad but true that certain times/places sell better than others. (This varies from genre to genre, so study your genre before you start!)

Ta da! A bestseller.

I know this is simplistic. I always need to break things down into simple terms to understand them myself.

If all of these factors are in place, there's still no guarantee the book will sell well. But it's a very good possibility that it will.

There are things that can weaken the above setup:

Books being sold early, so the first week's sales are not as strong (because of the dribbles before). There's a reason J.K Rowling's publishers were trying to sue people selling the last HP book early, and not just because they might give the plot away. They wanted that huge, frantic burst of sales on day one to guarantee that it was number 1 on every list.

The print run selling out quickly and not being replaced fast enough, or at all. (No books on shelves=no sales). Interestingly, some publishers just will not reprint a book. They decide--the print run's gone, we're done. I'm sure there's some accounting reason for this--don't ask me.

A stronger selling book than yours making booksellers adjust what's on the end caps, tables, etc.

Sometimes readers just don't connect with the book, even when you've done your job. If they don't like it, they stop buying.

But enough depressing stuff. Go out and write a strong, well-plotted, well-characterized appealing book :-) If the publisher likes it enough, they'll push it--and if they get factors 1 through 4 in place, you might be on your way to bestseller-dom.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sometimes No isn't always a bad answer

Rejection . . .

I hate it. I can't imagine anyone likes it. I got rejected plenty before I was published, had plenty of heartbreaks seeing that SASE come back in the mail with "Not for me" scrawled on the first page of the ms.

I got "good" rejections as well, where the editor took time to tell me what she felt was weak about the book. Those hurt less, because the editor was trying to help, and a busy editor doesn't have time to waste on a writer she doesn't take seriously. (It hurt less, but it still hurt!)

I got a lot of "almost"s before I finally got a "yes."

People often ask me if I have a drawer in which I keep my rejected mss, and if I have sent those to my editors for publication (implying "ha ha ha, see what you passed up" to the editors who initially rejected them.)

The answer is a decided NO.

I do have copies of my rejected mss (somewhere), but after I got published, it was like the fog lifting. I saw very clearly why Perils of the Heart got published and the first six or seven didn't. At least one of the following was wrong with each of them:

1. Weak or implausible plotting
2. Weak voice
3. Main characters were unbelievable or not very strong people
4. Stilted writing
5. Rushed pacing (I mean really rushed!)

The things I did ok or learned quickly were dialog, setting, and love scenes--I wonder what the last says about me. :-)

If any of those six books had been accepted, they would have needed massive revisions, and even then likely would not have sold very well. A book with weak sales can hurt your career, sometimes irreparably.

So in retrospect, those particular mss. should have been rejected, and I'm even glad they were. (There are two that possibly could be saved with work and a little plot rethinking; the rest--flush!)

I'm glad I was rejected because I want my very best work to go out in front of the world. Not my self-indulgent scribbles, but a polished, well-thought-out book with solid characters and plotting. This will be for sale! With my name on it!

Second point:

Even after I was published, I still got rejected. When I was talking to one of my editors several years ago about what I'd do for the last book of a contract, I mentioned four or five ideas, and--she didn't want any of them.

At the time I didn't want to write another pirate romance (I'd done two). I wanted to expand into something else, or at least have another book between pirates. I love writing pirate romance, but I didn't want to be the "Pirate Queen" for the rest of my life.

But my editor, my wise, wise editor, turned down my ideas and advised me to write another pirate book. I was a little disappointed, but in retrospect, she was right.

Why was she right?

1. The book I was keenest on hadn't been very well thought out. I've kept the idea in mind and it's grown into something much, much better and much, much stronger, and one day everyone may see it in print. But if she'd let me write and turn in that idea as it stood, it would have been a weak book. It might have ended my career, who knows?

2. A couple ideas I had really weren't marketable. "Marketable" means the reader in the bookstore "gets" what the book is about and connects with it quickly. You can't be standing next to every reader in every store in the world, explaining what the book is about. They have to know instantly. The ideas I had then didn't have this quality (I would have had to stand by every reader for fifteen minutes--and they'd have long since decided to buy something else.)

3. The book I ended up doing, The Care and Feeding of Pirates, was probably the best of my early books. It had a bigger print run, sold out that print run fairly quickly, had a strong sell-through, got several foreign rights sales, was reprinted, and I'm still getting good royalty checks on it. It was also pure joy to write, I think the hero, Christopher Raine, was one of my best ever heroes, and readers loved it. I still get enthusiastic fan mail for Care & Feeding.

So in this case, I'm glad my editor said No to my wild ideas and steered me back to what she knew I already knew how to do. Then when I pitched my fairy-tale historicals to her for the next contract, she welcomed them with open arms.

Third point:

Sometimes when someone is rejected, I hear them say: "The market isn't ready for my work."

Maybe that's true. The cynical me, on the other hand, remembering my own rejected mss., says, "Well, you can think that if it makes you feel better."

I'll grant that the market not being ready could be partly true. When I first started writing romance, I wrote very hot love scenes. They were raw, I named body parts, and I used naughty, four-letter words.

This was greeted by critiquers and contest judges with shock and horror. I couldn't use that word, I couldn't have them do that on page 36! I, the paranoid newbie, believed everyone, and tried to learn to say manhood. (I never could quite bring myself to write it, though... I mean who, in real life says manhood? With a straight face?)

That was in 1998. See how the market has changed since then? Readers at the moment prefer scenes in which nothing is left out to coy purple prose.

BUT, while I might have been "ahead of my time" writing romance scenes, that doesn't change the fact that the rest of the ms. was crap.

My point here is that rejection isn't necessarily Them not wanting the genius of You. (Those poor befuddled editors who don't understand what readers want.)

Writers need to learn to look at their own work objectively (or at least find someone they trust to analyze it for them), and be painfully honest!!

Is your ms. really too brilliant and scary for the publishing world to deal with? or could you do better with your dialog, revise your roundabout descriptions, get rid of your adverbs, cut some characters, tighten the plotting?

Sometimes, yes, ideas are outside of the box and editors don't want to gamble their careers on them.

But if you make sure your book is well-written, well-plotted, well-characterized, with good dialog, a strong voice, etc. etc. etc., your chance of getting that off-the-wall idea accepted is much, much, much higher.

My bottom line: Rejection hurts, but it should be a challenge for you to write better and stronger, not an excuse to rail that the world doesn't understand you. :-) (Well, ok, you can, but still get back in and write stronger stories.)

And soon all the nos and maybes will become an ecstatic yes!