Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Publishing trophies come in three forms: signed contracts, making a best-seller list, and winning a writing award. But, with all the changes in the publishing industry, these trophies are beginning to look like kids’ sports trophies–if you were on the team, you receive a trophy. That way everyone wins; but that also means trophies lose meaning. Here are some hints to figure out what’s what:
Signed contracts. Scrolling through posts on Facebook, I see plenty of pics of writers turning into authors as they sign their first book contract. It is a heady moment, and the writers have worked diligently and probably for years to arrive there. But a contract with a tiny indie publisher that includes little or no advance is not the same as a contract with a long-established and revered publishing venue–let alone a contract with one of the Big Five.
Not that all writers should strive to publish with one of the largestpublishers in the world. Many projects would simply be swallowed by the big boy authors who swim in those roiling waters. But the difference between signing with a publisher who will sell a couple hundred copies of your book and signing with a publisher who can bring in thousands, tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of copies sold is like the difference between riding a tricycle and revving the engines of a Harley. Yes, it’s a triumph to ride either, but they’re almost not the same thing.
Making a best-seller list. You may have read about marketer Brent Underwood’s hoax in which he created a #1 Amazon best-seller with $3 and in five minutes. He recounts how he created a wordless book and sold three copies to make his book a best-seller here.
Underwood explains the trophy aspect of writing (or in his case “creating”) a best-seller:
The reason people aspire to call themselves “bestselling author” is because it dramatically increases your credibility and “personal brand.” It can establish you as a thought leader. You’re able to show that you not only wrote a book, but that the market has judged it to be better than other books out there. It’s a status symbol, one that cashes in on the prestige of one of man’s oldest past-times. At last, I had acquired this coveted title for myself.
Underwood set out to reach best-sellerdom to make a point: If you become an Amazon #1 best-seller, that might be akin to the kid who showed up for every grade school baseball game wearing a uniform. If you understand what you need to do to win the trophy, it’s not all that hard to achieve.
Now, legitimately winning a spot on the New York Times list, Publishers Weekly list, USA Today list, ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers) list is not so easily achieved and holds real meaning.
Even managing #1 best-selling status on Amazon can mean significant sales have occurred. The caveat with Amazon is that fame can be fleeting (capture a screen shot of that #1 status because it can be gone in the next hour). And the book must achieve that status in highly-competitive categories (parenting, historical fiction, cookbooks, etc.). Or, your goal might be to demonstrate that you can reach a significantly large segment of readers in a specific category (say, gluten free cookbooks).
A book that’s hot right now on Amazon shows it is selling signifcant numbers of copies by its rankings. Quieting Your Heart: Six-Month Bible Study Journal by Darlene Schacht is ranked at this moment like this:
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #1 in Books > Arts & Photography > Drawing > Coloring Books for Grown-Ups
- #1 in Books > Humor & Entertainment
- #1 in Books > Christian Books & Bibles > Worship & Devotion
This title is #1 in the top 100 of all books, #1 in the all-the-rage coloring books for grown-ups category, #1 in humor and entertainment, and #1 in worship and devotion (this category includes all devotional books, including the huge NYT best-seller, Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling). And, get this, Quieting Your Heart is a self-published book, which means the best distribution plan is sell it on Amazon.
I’m pretty sure publishers are vigorously explaining to Ms Schacht why her next book should be traditionally published–and why she should bring Quieting Your Heart into their waiting arms. That’s because publishers understand those rankings are impressive but also that they can distribute it in places Ms. Schacht can’t reach.
But it takes knowing the details to ferret out whether Amazon #1 best-seller holds any meaning beyond the author being wildly successful in books about feet, like Mr. Underwood. (Underwood’s book has now been moved from the foot category into the “parodies” category, and alas, is no longer a best-seller.)
Winning a writing award. We all know that winning a Pulitzer or a Man Booker Award or an Orange Prize (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction–way to kill the value of being branded the Orange Prize, by the way) indicates your book is several cuts above all other books and worthy of a sticker on the cover. But what if you win a writing award at your favorite, small-but-national writing conference?
My clients frequently ask me which writing contests they should enter their books in (or request their publishers to). That’s because writers don’t know what award will be meaningful to publishers and bookstore buyers, let alone to readers.
While it’s affirming to win an award at the small writing conference, it holds little merit beyond that sphere. It’s like being named Most Valuable Player on your grade school’s team. Nice but shoulder-shrugging-worthy in the larger scheme of things.
Awards of real merit are those awarded:
- For quality of writing, judged by those capable of grasping such things (not one’s fellow writing friends).
- In a national competition with significant entries (at least hundreds) in every category.
- By an organization that has shown through the years that those selected were worthy of the honor of being declared a cut above in the writing.
The waters are muddy in each of these three areas–signing a contract, writing a best-seller, and winning an award. Most individuals who work in publishing can figure out which trophy is meaningful and which one isn’t weighty. Writers often are befuddled by the possibilities and unsure what’s what. Even established authors have difficulty knowing which trophy is worthy of holding triumphantly over their heads and which is a nice pat on the back for showing up.
What other publishing trophies confuse you? Do you agree with me on which trophies are meaningful? What trophy are striving to attain?
Have publishing trophies become meaningless? Click to tweet.
How can you judge if a publishing trophy is meaningful? Click to tweet.
Written a bestseller? Is that a meaningful achievement? It depends. Click to tweet.
Ummm…I’ll have to take exception with at least the first category, Janet. Forgive me.
* BPH was published under a standard royalty contract by a published best known for vanity contracts. They came to me, as BPH had been SP’d on Kindle under a different title.
* I’m proud of this; someone liked the book enough to invest in it, and to me, it does assuredly not feel like a tricycle compared to a Harley.
* It’s not the cachet of being a ‘published author’ that is the brass ring; it’s having someone else believe in my work enough to put time and effort into making it available.
* BPH touched some hearts, and, so I am told, changed some lives. I will never slight the experience, and never look down at a small house. They do their best, and sometimes, it’s the best there is.
* It was for me. I lived the dream…the dream that someone said, “Thank you for writing this.”
While I’ve got one foot in it…guess I’ll add the second. It wasn’t a participation trophy for me. I heard, and still hear, the echoes of Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma”. I won.
Agreed, Andrew. That’s a good trophy.
Andrew, I wholeheartedly agree with you that you received important validation for the wok you had done. My point, which apparently I didn’t make well, is that there are levels of achievement in publishing, just as in any other activity we undertake. But what each of those levels is can lose its meaning if we view every achievement as being on a flat plain rather than on a ladder.
Janet, point taken, and a very valid point it is…I think the misunderstanding came from a couple of things –
* The comparisons of ‘participation trophy’, tricycle vs. Harley (I used to ride), MVP of the grade school team, and ‘shoulder-shrugging’ achievement came across – to me, perhaps alone – as a bit of a value judgement, and demeaning of the highest levels most authors will reach.
* The ‘competition’ is different in kind from athletics, in that quality of the finished product is not the arbiter. The gold medalist clearly excelled in her area, but many A-list writers made it more through catching a wave of marketplace interest rather than writing skill.
* The achievements therefore seem to be something of a moving target…and while I am glad for those who sign with Random Penguin, I don’t feel my contract was worse. It was different, that’s all. There was never a need to compare.
From someone on this side of publishing, I always appreciate the look you give us into that side of publishing when you post. What a complex industry it is!
It is complex. And ever-changing, which makes it all the harder to get a fix on what each merit really means.
Interesting post. Absolutely, there are distinctions between signing a contract for a tiny indie and one for the Big 5, being a best-seller on a USA Today list and being number 1 for 5 minutes in an obscure category, and winning a big, nationally-recognized award as opposed to a small, subjective one.
However, I think there’s merit in even those small accomplishments. Is my kid getting selected for the all-star game in his township baseball league the same as winning the Cy Young Award? Heavens, no. But is it a stepping stone? Does it have some merit? Is it important to him and appropriate for his experience level and accomplishments to date? Yes.
I personally prefer validation that is more objective than subjective, that has greater meaning with regard to my accomplishment, but I’ll gratefully accept the stepping stones if they’re earned on merit.
Amen, Carolyn. In teaching combat skills to indigenous ‘civil defense’ folks, you take every small accomplishment and make them proud, because that’s the lodestone of confidence…and confidence is the key to survival.
I am annoyed when someone assumes that getting out a book is simply a matter of words rolling off your fingers and sending them off to a publisher. And I am aggravated when I run across a self-published book that rambles and is loaded with errors. That is like getting the trophy without showing up for practice, forget about winning the game.
* But there is a vast array of human need and interest, and a book doesn’t have to be from a big-name publisher or on a national-best seller list to be trophy-worthy. It must be well-written and meet the needs/desires of the folks in its niche.
* There should be a special trophy, however, for writers who take a special niche and lay it out to a wider audience. I come from a family with Huntington’s Disease (my grandfather had it, as did six of my aunts and uncles). Lisa Genova’s “Inside the O’Briens” created a fictional family that lived out our nightmare and touched thousands of hearts. I have a huge tear-stained trophy for her.
That’s a great and very moving example, Shirlee.
The only trophy I’m working for is sales of books to reading customers.
Although, notching my first radio interview (to be taped this Thursday) is awfully close.
Congratulations, David! Getting a radio interview is COOL!
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. ” – Theodore Roosevelt
A little off-topic but pertinent to the discussion, what’s really at the heart of writing?
Thank you so, so much for writing this. It’s just what I needed to read today.
Michelle, this is beautiful I agree with Hannah; thank you for writing it, and sharing the link.
Thanks, Michelle. This brought tears to my eyes. I appreciate your perspective. “A baby is more valuable than a book.” I have 5. No published books yet. Thank you for your humility and willingness to be vulnerable.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
In Canada, we have The Giller, which is Canadian for “more angst than a Swedish art house film”. I am under no delusions to think I’ll be accepting this award anytime soon. And no, I do not like Margaret Atwood’s work.
Some trophies are pointless for learning how to be a grown up. Participation trophies teach kids that showing up is what matters. I’m fine for little ones getting them, but for middle school and older? Time to wean the darlings back to reality.
A few years ago, Oldest Son won Most Sportsmanlike at his team’s awards night. Now, this is a kid who played defense for varsity hockey, his job was to protect the goalie. He’s 6’2 barefoot, 6’6 on skates. And he ‘s a wall.They won 3 provincial titles the 3 years he played.
When the coaches announced the winners of all the different awards, I was annoyed that OS didn’t win a certain few of them. But when he won Most Sportsmanlike, my husband choked up and said “That’s the one that counts the most”.
Last year, Middle Son won Most Improved Player from the same coach. And in the speech he gave, the coach said “Jordan went to Haiti and came back a different person, we all saw it. His game changed, too.” That trophy wasn’t just about his game, it was also about his influence on the team.
For my husband and I, those two trophies mean the world. They were about the boys we’d raised, not about their points or hits.
If I can be “most sportsmanlike” in how I treat my peers as I continue through the publishing adventure, I will be quite happy. If I can keep improving and apply the hard lessons to my work and not give up when things get difficult, then I will learn more than I thought possible.
I few shiny trophies like the Christy or the Man Booker, or even the Giller, would be nice. But I really want my readers to see their worlds differently and make efforts to understand other people better.
If one says “I found Jesus because of your book.” then my work means something.
You gave me goose bumps … and I may have teared up a bit. 🙂 You are everyone’s cheerleader. xoxo
You are so spot on, Jennifer! I have some national awards for my R&D work. Less than 5 years later they meant very little, and now that I’m retired they mean…nothing, really. Just some plaques on the shelf in the garage. I agree totally that the greatest award I could possibly receive is for someone to say that one of my novels moved them along their path to believing in Jesus. There’s the treasure in heaven that nothing can degrade or destroy. Everything else has true value only if it helps get to that end.
There’s also the question, “Who will be remembered?”
* Xerxes and his Persian victors, or the Spartans at Thermopylae?
* Santa Ana, or Bowie and Travis’ Texians at the Alamo?
Pursuant to the above, there’s a ‘major motion picture’ coming out about ‘Eddie The Eagle’, the British ski-jumper who placed dead last at Sarajevo, but still showed up.
* Can anyone even remember the names of the 70m or 90m gold medalists in the last Winter Olympics…much less Sarajevo (1984)?
I see many awards and best-seller proclamations, and I’m so happy for those people. I don’t know what is good or what isn’t. I have much to learn. But I’m thankful to have found you ladies here. One day I’ll have a masters in writing, whether or not I ever have a published novel, thanks to you ladies. And a meaningful achievement? At this point in my walk, my chin lifts a little bit every time someone I admire in the publishing world welcomes me, pats me on the back, tells me they are glad I’m here, and tells me I’m family. And believe me, my whole family hears about it … “so-and-so commented on my blog … so-and-so wants to meet me for lunch … so-and-so asked to take a picture with me …” 🙂
I’m nobody important in the publishing world, but I’m sure glad you are here, and I love your blog posts, both here and on your own blog. My respect for you won’t increase a bit when you get that masters. I’ve lived my life in the world of advanced degrees, so I have a pretty good understanding of their true worth. A degree on paper can open professional doors, but it won’t make you one bit better than the wonderful person we’ve already seen you to be. You’re the precious daughter of our Father, who has already gifted you beyond what any university program can hope to accomplish. They can only put a little polish on a woman who is already the apple of His eye.
Absolutely right, Carol. Shelli, you’ve brought the kind of faith to the table that would make Paul say, “Golly, I wish I had said that!”
Carol, you are so sweet. And you are so important to me. I look so forward to meeting with y’all every day!
One more thing to say, and I’m done. Well, three bullet points.
* I’ll never be a NYT bestseller, and never win the Pulitzer, and never sign with one of the Big Five.
* Whether my achievements are meaningful to the publishing industry, or not, they are meaningful to me.
* I will not allow anyone to take that away.
I’d take it two steps further, Andrew.
More importantly, they are meaningful to the readers who’ve told you your book made a difference.
Most importantly, they are meaningful to God as you’ve done them in His service, and no one can take that away.
Thanks, Carol. Dead right.
We’ve probably all heard the saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If I compare my “successes,” however small, with the successes of others, they’ll probably always look like a tricycle. Instead, I choose to find joy in whatever trophy I may have or receive.
Regarding Janet’s point, however, I wouldn’t ride my trike to Chopperfest, no matter how tricked out it was.
Katie, I love the image of your tricked out trike at Chopperfest. Yes, you get my point.
It would be nice if the major CBA publishers only published the best books, or the books most likely to touch lives. But they don’t. They are businesses, and exist to make a profit. They publish the books they believe will contribute to that profit.
Sometimes that means publishing a book from an established author they know will sell rather than a better book from an unknown author. Or a book from a genre that sells rather than a less popular genre. Or a book set in a familiar and beloved location rather than an unknown location.
There are some good small publishers who are prepared to take a few risks and publish the unknown author, the underselling genre, the new location. Unfortunately, there are also some not good small publishers who think “comprehensive editing” means “running through Grammarly”. And let’s not get into the horror of vanity presses . . .
And there are self-published authors who believe their writing is good enough to stack up against the best, but recognise the big publishers aren’t interested in their niche genre.
As a reviewer, I’m increasingly finding the books from the major publishers are solid. Solid writing (usually). Solid plots. Solid characters. But nothing special, nothing memorable. When I find the truly special books, they are usually either self-published or from a small press.These books are often from authors who were once published in or employed by major publishers, but who have chosen to self-publish.
Thank you, Iola. You were able to put into words what I’ve been thinking.but struggling to express.
Well said, Iola. And in these modern times when NYT bestseller status is bought and paid for, these trophies are starting to look very tinselly.
Selling a book to a small press is not easy. Let nobody tell you to shoot only for the holy grail of large honkin’ publishers because “settling” for a small press is such a defeat. Far from true.
There is no holy grail in publishing. Every book is a major achievement for that writer because, as we all know, writing a book is dang hard work (unless you go Brent Underwood’s route and create a wordless book). And every book will reach a certain audience but no other audience–the size of audiences is the variant). Mid-size to large publishers aren’t constructed to reach smaller, niche audiences. So to view being published by them as the holy grail is a fool’s errand. We would wish for every book that it be published by just the right publisher for it. That would be success.
I understand your point(s), but *pop!*–there goes my bubble.
Well, that’s a bummer.
I have noticed publishers qualifying the term “best-seller” and using terms like “national best seller” or “international best seller” or “USA Today best-seller,” etc. I remember seeing one of my books in the “top ten” of a local bookstore and smiling to myself at how that would be quantified. “Best-seller in zip code XXXXX for over two weeks” LOL. Actually it was a thrill for me personally because there was my book up there with a couple NY Times authors I admire greatly. I took a picture. Even though it was just for me and had no meaning when it came to my career. Thanks for this great, informative post, Janet.
Stephanie, I remember asking your editor why the publisher felt it necessary to quantify that you were a national best-seller. She explained to me that “best-seller” was becoming meaningless and that the term needed to be quantified. That was a few years ago and was the first time I became aware of how desensitized readers could become to words that have been potent in the past.
I think the only think that matters is if the trophy has meaning to the person holding it. Publishing my first book was a huge trophy for me, one I will be proud of forever. Getting a publishing contract is meaningless to me. I don’t want one, big or small. Getting to the top of even a small best seller list on Amazon would mean a lot to me. I’m not much interested in awards.
Obviously, some writers really want that traditionally published contract and some writers dream of being on the NY Times Best Seller list. It’s not really what I’m looking for. I’m much more excited about the self-publishing world and I love the fact that Amazon gives away a ton of little awards as incentives, kind of like the awards kids might get for little league baseball. What’s wrong with that?
This is absolutely one of my pet peeves, so much so that I also wrote about it back in 2012. I don’t care much for people who stretch the truth. A friend of mind commented on that post, “I am most puzzled, however, by the way in which it would seem that the Internet makes it easier than ever to suss out lies, but it seems to also make us culturally more inclined toward lying.” Exactly.
Would the big 5 be Tyndale, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Baker/Bethany and ???B&H, Abingdon or Harvest House?
Kathy, the Big Five refers to the largest publishers in the US and the UK: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan.
Thank you. I was thinking of the Christian publishing houses.
Right. Christian publishers don’t have a phrase such as Big Five. To categorize them based on size, you’d need to decide if you were going to include the Christian divisions of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster, or if you were going to only look at the family-owned Christian publishing houses.