So I have this book, right?
Last year, a small publisher read some of my works, and I got picked up for short story in an an anthology (which is threatening to go nowhere due to a herding cats syndrome) and the novel, “Trolley.” So I wrote some shorts, and while the anthology is going nowhere, another short got picked up by Wolfsinger. The novel is in final beta mode, and this looks like a decent hit. The editors said the same thing: great book, work on your grammar, here’s some changes, but let me be frank: this is good enough to have a major publisher pick this up.
Now, by “major publisher” they mean Del Ray, Tor, Viking, and so on. All publishers you’ve heard of, or at least seen the logo on the spine. Right now, the company that is doing my novel is small and local, BUT, they have a six month exclusivity contract with a default non-renewal should I re-sell the concept to another publisher. Basically, after six months, I have full rights to my book again and can re-sell it to them, or get another (perhaps bigger) publisher. They are focusing on getting authors off the ground, and don’t mind to bask in the glow of someone who gets famous. This is good, long-term, for them.
Major publishers don’t take submissions directly. I’d have to have an agent, which is a PITA, and will cost time and money. The way major publishers run (according to the trades I read) is that they have requests about 6-12 months ahead of time with all kinds of marketing jargon. “We’re looking for cooking books in the female post-college graduate space,” or “our studies show that coffee table books about midgets in medieval armor will sell well in the late teen demographic for Christmas 2011.” So they tell that to agents, who then look among their pool, and select authors they have bios and resumes for. The chance of me getting picked, regardless of skill, is low. Even if I did get picked, there’s no guarantee I’d get published, and even if I did get published, there’s no guarantee I’d make much money or see any sunlight.
For instance, I have sold two screenplay “options” which means the studio has the rights to produce it by paying me to transfer intellectual property (IP) ownership. This is real common; most scripts and options never see the light of day, it’s like a form of IP squatting. I sold these rights fully well knowing that if my stories become a major motion picture, I already gave up those rights. But I got money for them, which is what I wanted. Now if a major motion picture comedy about the TSA sold like a 50s hygiene film every becomes popular at Cannes, I can bask in the knowledge I did that. And the studio may come back to me for more ideas.
A major publisher would own my work in a similar way. They’d have the rights, so if they sold it to a major studio, I’d get a cut but maybe not much of one. Just because you’re famous, doesn’t mean you’re rich. Being a famous author is not like winning the lotto. One of my friends who was on the NYT best seller list made a total profit of $16,000 off her book (not including speaking engagements she made on her own). Luckily, she made inroads into the Star Trek venue, and makes a decent living doing 4-5 books a year. I spoke to a multi-Nebula and Hugo award winner last year, and she said she “does okay,” but living in Nowhere, Minnesota on a military retirement income helps pay the bills. She also makes some side money in guest speaking appearances. Authors like Le Carre, Stephen King, and JK Rowling are rarities in the industry. Not to mention the outlets for some of the major publishers are vanishing: Border’s Books, for instance, can’t pay their bills. A huge Canadian publisher recently went bankrupt. And why?
The Internet is changing everything.
Meanwhile, I spoke with some people who are self-publishing through Amazon.com who are making fairly good money. If your book sells “only” 5000 copies, which would be considered “paltry and embarrassing failure” to a big publishing house, you could make a net profit of $25k. Plus, if you start making best sellers via word-of-mouth, you have control over what you publish, how much, and who gets the movie rights. There are some people making major profits selling “raunchy romances” (something my publisher works with as well) for about $3. They have followers in the hundreds of thousands, and even though their profit is maybe $1 or less per title, that’s several hundred thousand dollars per title for some of the top semi-smut authors whose names are practically unheard of (if they are even real; some might be multiple people under the same pen name).
But the stigma of self-publishing is still there. I have been to cons, I have seen the lonely guys who set up a card table, put down their staple-bound, single-color publications in neat piles, and sell a few out of a cash-box. Later, they pack up their merchandise into their AMC Pacer and drive home on Sunday with a slumped posture. “I made $150 this weekend, and spent it all on gas and food.” They have no ad budget. They sell to the same people until the market taps out at about 30 regular customers.
Major publishers have no promise of advertising, either, unless you’re a big name that will “grow the brand.” Have you been to a book store, and looked through all the books? Know most of the names? Have you even heard of 10% of them? Maybe if you’re a big fan in a small niche, but for John Q. Public, that’s never the case. It’s mostly based on cover art and “this author is like this more famous one.” In the young adult (YA) market, when Harry Potter became popular, “schools for witches and wizards” because a sudden niche that I think was an embarrassing attempt. But that’s how the publishers work, “We need more wizards and witches in the YA reader space…” and the agents sift through their files…
In my case, I already have a small following. People know me. I do lit podcasts, have author friends, work the convention scene, and have enough friends of friends to at least sell a few hundred titles (if my past book in pre-Internet 1993 was any indication). I have sold short stories, two screen play options, and I do some ghost writing for a few blogs and reviewers you might have heard of (but I can’t say, because of NDA). Then word of mouth will expand that to probably 1000 in a year (if the book is any damn good, which it seems to be). I know authors, people in the industry, and have a few strings I can pull locally. I have a far better head start than a new author from out of nowhere (which, given the recent authors we have had on the Balticon podcast, doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, either). Plus, this won’t be my Hail Mary pass; I have quite a few titles boiling, some already-bought-to-be-published shorts, two sagas, and whatever else I write in the next few years. I don’t expect to be a one-hit wonder because I am aiming for steady work.
I want to be the Edie McClurg of the author world. That girl has an acting and voiceover resume that spans decades, even though she’s no “super star.” She’s a hard worker, and a steady worker without the giant lens of fame searing her every move.
But all endeavors like this involve risk. On one hand, I know I am taking a risk not trying to jump up and down like a toddler at the candy store counter during Christmas, trying hard to be seen by the man at the counter. Maybe not taking the hand of a giant adult publisher to lead me to a publishing future is a big mistake. But all the successful adults learned on their own as kids growing up. Plus, those grownups may NOT have my best interests at heart. Major publishers are a company, and only survive treating authors and works as a mass commodity. Then there are some that are underhanded. Chris Hardwick said on his days of “Singled Out,” the studio sent everyone a clock radio as a Christmas gift, then billed them for it. Salt’n’Pepa, huge music pop stars of the 90s, made only $40,000 in the end after the studio charged them back for limo rides, parties, and promotions. It was all legal, but those poor girls did not have the wits to read the fine print. The album sales made millions, and they were dead broke.
So far, my writing career has pulled in maybe, maybe $400/year. I am 42 years old, and in about 8-10 years, the IT industry (which I love and adore) will start passing me by and I have to have a backup plan. It’s time to take this seriously from a “wouldn’t it be nice to be a well-known author?” to “fuck, I better have some age-proof, sit-in-a-chair-with-massive-arthritis, career plan soon.” I am not sure I want to risk my future in the hands of a giant corporation.
True, maybe in a few years I’ll read this post and slap-drag my face in embarrassment “what was I THINKING?” I’ll ask, sitting in my Random-House-paid yacht. But I have to start somewhere, and this seems like the smartest way to do it for now.