The Book Deal Today

A recent post over at Anne R. Allen's blog outlined the thing that's been on the tip of my tongue for a few months now, and it's interesting to see that people (more people everyday) are seeing the same things happening in the industry.

I'm most keenly interested in how these large-scale industry changes are going to affect how writing and publishing are taught at the college level (as that's where the other side of my professional interest lies).

The old model of publishing that we were taught (with every bit the religious doctrinal fervor of the big tent fire and brimstone maniacs I grew up with) of landing a NY literary agent, polishing the book, sending it up to a big NY publishing house and landing some big advance against your publishing deal is DEAD AND GONE.

Yes. Dead. Gone.

But, moreover, I think it's important for people jumping into this industry half-cocked to know that this model of publishing NEVER existed, at least not the version that it has inexplicably ingrained itself into the collective culture.

More times than I can stand to count, I heard, hear, and will hear that TIRED old idea that someone will write "that great novel they have in them" and go on to great riches and publishing success.

It smacks of a level of either forgivable but sad ignorance or bold and willful stupidity and arrogance. Depends on the person.

The truth is those crazy book deals that people have heard about have always been flukes. Either the person was already famous or established at writing or from something else (Tim Tebow has a memoir out now--I mean, he's a great quarterback, but the kid's only 25. What kind of memoir is that?). Those people had/have a built in brand-name following and it's a safe bet they will sell a few hundred thousand copies or more.

It was a short-lived era through the 80's & 90's that saw a boom in publishing houses taking big risks on unproven authors, but these advances were not those six-figure deals you're thinking of. Hell, you were doing well to land a low 5-figure deal, and even then you never saw another dime because your book never even earned out its advance.

Nonetheless, it was a functional model of publishing for those lucky few who made their way to the mid-list. From these were born the venerable writing professors of today. And, my hat tips to many of them for their time in the trenches.

But, this isn't trench warfare anymore.

The big NY publishers now have smart bombs and UAV's seeking out their targets from remote, safe locations (yes, I like the rhetoric of war).

Anne R. Allen is correct to liken the coming of Kindle to the chronological game-changer of biblical proportions (at least in terms of this small industry). There is now B.K. (before Kindle) and A.K. (after kindle).

Because there are SO MANY, vast amounts of people, shocking amounts of people, publishing themselves or going with out of the box indie micropresses (like Burnt Bridge or Pulp Press) the big houses are now completely insulated against taking these big risks on unproven talent. Now, all they have to do is pay (or not pay) some poor schmuck intern to troll through the self-pub/indie-pub slush for the ones that are selling wares on a decent level.

This is how the game is played now. The bigs want to know you can hack it. Why should they take a chance on your book, blow a wad of marketing money on a writer that ends up a dud?They can wait to see if your book finds its market in the minors.

It's like baseball now: Majors and Minors. And, among the minors, there are further divisions. You're going to have to cut your teeth, prove your chops, and a half dozen other cliches at the lower level before the bigs take notice of you.

And, this isn't a bad thing.

The best part of the new system is the time to market ratio is vastly improved. Once the work is done (and it needs to be DONE -- pay a freelance editor if you have to -- don't use your wife or your mother for Thor's sake), you can have the work on the market within days (Kindle) and weeks (Print-on-demand).

So, hopefully, as the game continues to change, I can stop hearing all this rote, propaganda garbage about "major publisher deal" so damn much.

It's not about being a one-hit wonder. It's about establishing a functional career.

Like a friend says about the even finer art of drinking: it's a marathon not a race.


  1. Thanks so much for the shout-out. I always like seeing my name in electrons. Especially in a piece that includes an invocation to Thor. :-)

    This is all spot-on. I should clarify that the 80s and 90s did have big, 6-figure deals for unknowns and mid-listers, which is why the myth persists. (And why a lot of full-time writers who were making a nice living are suddenly putting in applications at Mickey D's) It was in the 2000's that advances began to shrink and contracts got predatory. Most Big Six writers make about $3000 per book, after the agent and the tax man take their cuts. And there are no royalties, because the books get pulled from the shelves within months.

    The most important part of the indie revolution may be longevity. Your book will be available forever. As opposed to six months. Yeah.

    The writers making the most money with indie ebooks are the ones with inventory. It's hard to get attention with one book. But with electronic longevity, book #2 will sell Book #1, and book #3 or 4 may get you a living wage.

    Better than $3000 for a book that took you years to write.

    And thanks for mentioning small and collective presses. I think they're the future. A lot of writers don't have the abilities to run a business, plus sufficiently self-edit, design covers and code books, so having somebody to do those things, plus provide some publicity and hand-holding, is worth a lot, as long as they keep you in print and pay a high royalty.

  2. I thought I'd add a few observations as an author marketing a memoir and a story collection. these ar emy observations bout recent activities marketing my work.

    Without an agent, the only markets left for stories are contests and small presses. More and more small presses are going to print on demand. The good thing about this is they can buy more books. The bad thing is you will not be placed in any brick and mortar stores as they cannot buy those books on consignment. So to market a collection, you simply must peruse the small publishers hopefully accepting unsolicited manuscripts, or pay the reading fees for the 1 in 300 chance of winning a contest.
    But as an instructor, the book deal is more important than an advance or royalties. it is the potential door opener for a tenure-track job, work at conferences, and invitation to appear in MFA reading series. If this is true, then even a print on demand book deal for a first book may actually be a bargain. But the one option completely off-limits is a self-published deal, if you are seeking a tenure-track job.

    This seems to be true even for nonfiction, although more opportunities exist for nonfiction these days--I think obviously because of its popularity.

    Seems also book publishers are looking for authors who are marketers. Many publishers I have come across ask for a marketing plan along with the manuscript. One small press I recently submitted to had a questionaire that asked why their investors should invest in my book.

    I had a marketing plan a long time ago, that I now realize was laughable. I have a better one now, that I hope will gain some attention. But the whole process does get discouraging. Someone expresses and interest only months later to say they must pass. While waiting you miss submission periods and make plans for self-financed book tours. Then you see on their twitter account they have selected their list, and realize you haven't been called, so the gig is up.
    Oh well! This is the life I have chosen, and with all of the frustrations, I stilll beleive a writer's life is better than any other I could have lived--except maybe as a trust-fund jetsetting international Hollywood playboy!

  3. CD:
    I had the same experience with the small presses asking for a detailed marketing plan. In my efforts to build one, doing research on what all that entailed, and doing lots and lots of homework, that was when I decided to form Burnt Bridge and go into business myself.

    I am fortunate enough with Raise a Holler to wear the brand of Crimedog Books, a subsidiary of the popular literary magazine Plots With Guns. But, they allow authors to maintain control of their own properties.

    The false ideology behind the system you describe with gaining a coveted tenure-track position at a college somewhere is eroding at its very foundation as NY publishing is changing.

    What will become of the CrW academy is yet to be determined. This is something to discuss at next years GCACWT Conf.

  4. This would make a great topic!

  5. Love the BK and AK time reference.....will incorporate into my report writing....