Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Over the last seven years, all categories of authors have seen a dip in income and in sales figures. That includes those who consistently have significant sales; those who are mid-list; and those who are newbies. But in this risk-averse environment, publishers still are eager to sign up and to keep publishing authors whose next book is likely to have a strong performance.
Who can blame the publishers? Strong winds keep hitting their sailboats, threatening to tip them over. The latest challenges include Amazon, the Regular Disruptor, making it hard for online book purchasers to buy a book from the publisher rather than a third-party; the continuing loss of mass market sales; the closing of Family Christian Stores; the unending challenge of returns and the struggle to manage inventory well.
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 buzz in a publishing house.
The Mid-List Challenge
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 trail 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.”
And digital sales are likely to be lackluster as well, partly because the publisher won’t invest much in marketing since, in the past, that hasn’t proved to be effective for this author. But also because the author’s books haven’t connected with readers in the ways the author, publisher, and agent had hoped.
And maybe the author hasn’t figured out how to promote his books. This is especially a struggle for “legacy” authors who have been writing for 15 years or more. Many haven’t kept up with how energetic an author’s promo plans must be because, in the past, the publisher did most of the marketing.
That’s a tough reality to know how to respond to.
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 (this includes collaborating with someone who needs major help completing an acceptable manuscript; ghostwriting; or writing for a publisher who wants to retain all the book’s rights) 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 receive a positive response from a publisher to your next book idea.
Meet Your Deadlines.
Publishers are using missed deadlines 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 in the right situation, this is the best option. If you’re a strong writer, but your numbers are lackluster, changing your byline gives you the new start you might be needing.
Come Up with a Breakout Idea.
A number of my clients’ careers were in the doldrums when they dug deep and came up with a concept strong enough to generate book sales regardless who the author was. That’s the kind of maneuver that can reinvigorate a shipwrecked career.
Work Hard and Smart to Connect with Readers.
The goal is keep your sales trajectory going up. Publishers look for upward movement–or even sales that remain constant. They don’t need to see sales figures increase by tens of thousands in one, grand leap. Strong writing+great idea+reader connections=increased sales.
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 you or your friends doing to keep your writing financially viable?
What a mid-list author can do to save his career. Click to tweet.
Want to stay in the publishing game? Here’s how. Click to tweet.