Our Changing World: Whom Are Publishers Cutting?
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
As the publishing industry experiences a sea change brought on by the Internet, e-readers, and the fluctuating economy, I’ve observed that one segment of authors is especially feeling the affects of these changes.
Oh, sure, all categories of authors–those who consistently have significant sales; those who are mid-list; those who are newbies–have seen a dip in income and in sales figures. But in this risk-averse environment, publishers still are eager to sign up and to keep publishing the authors who are pretty much guaranteed to write books that will have strong performances.
Who can blame the publishers? They’re working hard to right their tipped sailboats, which were blown over by the recession. Why take a chance when you’re off-balance? Or when it’s hard to see what future winds will blow in your direction?
But publishers understand that producing books is a business of chance. If they don’t invest in the future, they’re nowhere. So debut authors still can create a buzz in a publishing house. It’s like discovering you’re pregnant (and you want to be). Who knows what wonderful things await this baby? The sky’s the limit!
Unfortunately, that leaves the mid-list author to take the majority of the hit when publishers downsize their publishing lists. That means authors who have been writing for 5, 10, even 15 years and have honed their craft and built a bit of a following, are considered the biggest risk of all. Why?
Because their low sales figures are trailing behind them like toilet paper stuck to their shoe soles. Sales reps know that, when they present these authors’ new projects, book buyers will say, “I’ve never sold more than a couple of copies for that author; so, with my limited shelf space, I’m going to pass.”
That’s a tough reality to know how to respond to.
So what’s a mid-list author to do?
- Talk to your agent. Brainstorm ideas with your agent about how to keep the wind in your career’s sails. And tell your agent how much money you need to make each year to keep writing. A few weeks ago I had this discussion with one of my clients, whom we’ll call Bob. Then I picked up the phone and called an editor at Bob’s publishing house. I explained that Bob might have to quit writing to make more money to support his family. The editor, who had been considering asking if Bob would co-author a project with a new writer who had a built-in audience, immediately presented the co-authoring idea to everyone involved. Within weeks, I had a new contract and an infusion of cash for Bob. Now, I hasten to add, no agent can pull that rabbit out of the hat on a regular basis. We don’t do magic. But if you just sit and stew, you certainly can’t resolve your concerns. Talk to your agent!
- Be open to writing work-for-hire. Yup, I know you didn’t sign up for that. I know you love writing whatever your creative muse bids you to. Why not think of work-for-hire as if it were a day job? When you started to write, if your family was dependent on your income, you had no choice but to take a day job and spend your early-morning, late-night, holiday , and vacation hours writing. Sometimes those projects are connected to a person or organization that has the ability to sell large quantities of books. If your name is attached to several successful ventures, you’re more likely to look like a winner worth backing to both publishers and to book buyers.
- Meet your deadlines. Publishers are using missed deadline as a contractually-acceptable reason to end a publishing relationship. Don’t play with fire! If you have a contract, do everything within your power, to fulfill the obligations you’ve agreed to.
- Think about a name change. I’ve never gone this route with a client, but with publishing as fickle as it presently is, I’m considering it. If you’re a strong writer, but your numbers are lackluster, changing your byline gives you the new start you might be needing.
- Use your imagination to connect with readers and to keep your sales trajectory going up. Publishers look for upward movement; they don’t need to see sales figures increase by tens of thousands in one, grand leap.
I “get” why publishers are reluctant to continue relationships with stalled mid-list authors. I really do. But I also feel sad for the industry as a whole that many fine, deeply-invested writers are having to make difficult decisions about their careers. I would hope that more publishers would step forward and do something significant to help like the publisher who instituted a plan to keep Bob writing. After all, it isn’t just Bob who has invested years in his writing; so has his publisher.
What are your thoughts about the fluctuations publishing is experiencing? What are you or your friends doing to keep your writing financially viable?