by Kristen Tsetsi
As longtime readers know, writer Kristen Tsetsi is the host of a regular author Q&A at this site, 5 On, that asks 5 questions about writing and 5 questions about publishing. (You can browse them here.)
Recently, Kristen sent me questions related to book marketing that she wanted to be answered but didn’t know the right person to ask. As I reviewed them, I decided that I myself might be the right person to address them.
Thus, in a strange turn of events, I am running an interview with myself at my own site. My thanks to Kristen for sparking what I think is an important—and I hope useful—discussion.
Kristen: Authors published by a Big Five publisher are often responsible for much of their own marketing and publicity, and chances are slim that their novel will be the one that takes off and veritably markets itself. What, then, is the benefit of publishing with a major house versus publishing with a small press with decent distribution channels? An author publishing with Random House might have a better reason to at least hope for a Today Show or NPR interview, sure, but obviously most Big Five authors aren’t interviewed on the Today Show or NPR.
Jane: Much depends on what we mean when we talk about a “small press with decent distribution channels.”
First, and most critical to understand, is that the playing field is more or less even when it comes to retail distribution, or what I might call “availability.” Any self-publishing author, and any small press, can make their books available to be ordered or purchased in the same retailers as a Big Five publisher if they’re willing to use print-on-demand technology. It’s not logistically complicated or expensive. That doesn’t mean the author’s or publisher’s books will sit on the shelf of most (or even a few) bricks-and-mortar bookstores in the country—just that the book can look and appear like any other when viewed in an industry database.
Where the playing field is not even is when we look at how print books get sold and purchased in advance of publication, then stocked on physical store shelves. That’s an investment and risk on the side of the publisher, since it requires doing a print run of books that may not sell as expected, plus all books are returnable by bookstores at any point for a full refund. Retailers such as Barnes & Noble commit to purchasing hundreds or thousands of copies of book, prior to knowing how successful it will be, and their commitment is based on how persuasive the publisher’s sales pitch is. When you’re playing that kind of game, the Big Five publishers have a huge advantage—their sales teams pitch books for placement at bookstore accounts, big-box stores, specialty retailers, and so on. It’s part of their job to get the biggest sales commitment possible in advance of publication.
When considering a small press, you should figure out how their books get sold into stores. Do they have their own sales team? Does a larger publisher sell their books for them to store accounts? Do they not even try—do they just make the book available for sale on Amazon or available through Ingram, and call it a day? That’s not a deal breaker (and the majority of all book sales are through Amazon any way!), but for authors who place a great deal of importance on seeing their book stocked in physical retail stores, then the bigger your publisher, the more muscle they probably have to get that nationwide store distribution, and possibly pay for displays or other merchandising during your book’s launch.
Next time you’re in a chain bookstore, study carefully the front-of-store tables and look at the publishers. Those publishers have paid for that placement. You won’t find many “small” presses. You’ll find that Big Five and mid-size houses or strong independent houses (such as Sourcebooks or Chronicle) dominate.
But here’s the other side of the argument: most Big Five publishers, after your book has been out three months, they’re done with you. You won’t hear back from the publicist or marketing team unless your book has gained traction and the publisher sees an opportunity to build further sales and attention. A smaller press may have more time and bandwidth to spend with you both prior to launch and after, in order to find the audience. The approach may be more thoughtful and customized. A Big Five publisher does not have time to take a customized approach to every title on its list; as you say, only a few get the attention they truly deserve, and it tends to be based on who received the highest advance, because that’s where the most risk resides. So a Big Five author is more likely to see a cookie-cutter approach to their book’s launch unless they’re an “A” title (one of the most important titles that season) or otherwise selected for special treatment.
So is it worth the trade-off? There’s not one answer to that question. Partly I think it depends on the author’s personality and how they’re best complemented by the publisher, and maybe even who their agent is. (An agent can play a role in getting marketing support from the publisher!) At some point, money usually speaks loudest, and authors go with the publisher that pays the highest advance, which then can help ensure sufficient attention. If your advance isn’t much of a risk (let’s say $20,000 or below), then you may be better off with a small press if they offer more personalized marketing attention or support, or better and more informed reach to your particular readership. (Here’s my post on evaluating small presses.)
People scoff at debut authors who want to negotiate with publishers over, for example, conditions related to film rights: “It’s your first novel. Don’t even worry about film rights and just be happy to have a publisher. Have three books and a following before you start thinking about film rights.” However, debut novels are optioned: Melanie Raab’s The Trap, Michael Hodges’s The Puller, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Because it could happen, then, however unlikely it may be, shouldn’t each contract be approached with that potential in mind?
My rule of thumb is always “Assume everything is negotiable.” However, in every industry, there are some things that basically are not negotiable, especially if you have little or no leverage over the publisher. The 25% ebook royalty rate is not negotiable, no matter who you are. Granting ebook rights along with print: it will be demanded. This is where having an agent is invaluable, because they know from experience where and when a publisher is willing to negotiate. They also know why things might not be negotiable. For example, the ebook royalty rate isn’t negotiable for now because every single author with a decent agent has a clause that says as soon as another author at the same house receives a higher rate, they’ll get the higher rate, too. To ameliorate that, an agent can say, “We know you’re not going to budge on the ebook royalty rate, but that means you need to do better on these other terms.”
It never hurts to ask for what you want, to ask “Can you do better?” and to get an explanation for why your requests aren’t reasonable or standard. But the truth is that unless you’re a highly desirable author, or unless you have an agent who is able to leverage their influence on your behalf, sometimes you have to accept terms that are less than satisfying.
Do authors have any more negotiating room these days simply because there are so many publishing options available? Do publishers (typically) fight for manuscripts these days if they’re not written by someone well-known, or could they take or leave most authors?
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