So how much actually applies and is useful?
I recently taught at a conference that forced me to get back to basics. Both in terms of the craft of writing and the business. Like many agents and editors, successful authors, after years in the trenches, become a bit jaded, and we also tend to forget what it was like to be on the outside looking in.
Looking at many conferences and conventions we see the same names presenting, again and again. Normally, they are very successful authors, whether indie or trad, who indeed have a lot of great information to impart. Still, the same person saying the same thing at a lot of conferences the same year might be overkill. The same is true of popular blogs where the same party line is touted, without considering the nuanced sides to every issue. After all, I’ve never seen a business event in publishing to be all good or all bad. Every thing has shades to it that every writer has to factor into their own personal situation.
But, after all, we want to hear from success stories, not failures. Still, if it were easy to replicate those successes, then everyone would be doing it. Plus, many success stories feel their path is the path, and don’t take into account not only other paths, but the changes in the business and even in story telling since they started.
For decades the spiel was pretty much the same: write a great novel following a traditional form of narrative structure (I still teach the five part structure) and then query an agent, hope the agent takes you on, then the agent pitches an editor, etc. etc. etc.
That’s somewhat true now, but there are so many more options, if I were new to publishing I’d be completely confused, as many writers I’ve met at conferences are.
First—does what the 1% say regarding their career path even apply any more? Things are different now than they were just six months ago. For trad authors issues like rights granted, reversion clauses, and non-compete clauses are growing more and more important. For indie authors, the market is saturated, so how do you get a toehold in it and leverage your way up, especially if you don’t have backlist, which is the conundrum for the new author?
When I was listening to an agent present I felt like I was in a time warp going back five years or more. Much of what she said was applicable but some of it had cobwebs hanging all over it. In fact, the success story she touted was a couple of years out of date and no longer applicable. But in a similar manner, I’ve heard some on the indie side speak and while what they say is often cutting edge, the cut is often very much slanted toward indie, while disparaging to trad publishing. I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve. I think it all co-exists, much like Cool Gus & Sassy Becca above.
Second—does narrative structure even hold true in a different story-telling market? I turn to TV for this as my wife and I spend an inordinate amount of time watching it (she always controls the remote and she’s always right about what to watch). Shows like Orange Is The New Black do things to story (time hops, protagonist really not being part of climactic scene, etc) that are non-traditional but fascinating.
While I teach the basic narrative structure, I do so as part of craft, always reminding writers that to be true artists they have to learn the rules, then break them.
The same is true of the business. We hear “This is the way to do it!” shouted, but is it for you? Actually, the true entrepreneur blazes a new path. One reason I’ve stayed alive in publishing for a quarter century is I never thought I had it made. Every author I know who thought they had it made, ended their career the second they thought that. I’ve constantly reinvented myself and still am. I’m doing things differently now, both creatively and business-wise, than I was six months ago.
I want to hear from you—the writers getting all this great advice from so many sources. What have you heard that you liked, didn’t like and what do you want to hear that hasn’t been spoken yet?
That’s it in one word.
Author: do you control the rights to any of your work?
If your answer is no, then bend over and take what’s happening and especially what’s coming.
Let’s make two assumptions:
- Authors complaining will not get Amazon to change its stance.
- Authors complaining will not get Hachette to change its stance.
(Reference my blog post: Complaining is not a business strategy which pointed out something like the Hachette situation was coming– again)
When digital blasted across the musical landscape over a decade ago, the artists left standing were those who did one of, or both of, two things: toured and/or controlled the rights to their music. Since touring isn’t likely for authors that leaves us with the issue of rights, as digital blasts across the publishing landscape (and don’t even tell me we’ve hit a plateau, print is coming back, yada, yada, because then I got a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell you).
Because the history of publishing was steeped in authors selling rights to publish their work in order to get distribution, we find most authors still trapped in an archaic mindset. They believe they need their agent, their editor, their publisher, the bookstore.
Several years ago a #1 NY Times bestselling author asked me at dinner whether she needed to be worried about this ‘eBook thing’. I told her ‘not really’. Her sales were strong, she was well positioned with her publisher, and had a backlist that sold well.
Today my answer would be different. In fact, the authors who really need to be worried about not having any of their rights (and probably never getting the rights to any of their backlist in their lifetime) are the bestselling traditional authors. Which means they really need to evaluate what their future is going to be now, before they sign that 3 or 4 book “major” contract locking them into a gilded indentured servitude for the next half a decade or so. Remember your books will outlive you, but your career won’t if a publisher owns it. Which is not good news for your family.
For midlist authors, we’re seeing how Hachette and Amazon haggling over terms is costing them sales, which is costing them royalties (if they’ve earned out!). We saw how the Simon & Schuster vs. Barnes and Noble battle kept some books out of B&N at just the wrong time for some authors and essentially destroyed their careers. They cried, they complained, they wrote blogs and tweeted/bleeted, but the reality is that publishers truly don’t put authors’ careers first. They put their own bottom line first. If an author who has signed their rights over to a publisher is crushed in the process, oh well. That’s business.
A midlist author really, really needs at least to go hybrid. Get a footprint in the ‘self pub’ world. While I don’t believe you can truly self-pub, there are those who can help (caveat emptor). At Cool Gus we specialize in helping authors go hybrid, such as working with Colin Falconer, Jennifer Probst, Janice Maynard and others. Actually the reason Cool Gus came into existence is because I went hybrid back in 2009 (before I invented the term in a blog in 2011) and realized I couldn’t and didn’t want to, do all the work involved. And there’s a lot of work involved. There is a reason publishers exist. But trad publishers have just way too much overhead and also too ancient a mindset. The author has to come first. Not the publisher!
That’s not to say things are all rosy over on the indie front. There is a flood of content and discoverability on the internet is attached to reviews, likes, keywords, categories, algorithms, and alien technology, making it difficult to not only stand out but actually be discovered. Also, our royalties are at the mercy of other large corporations—Amazon, Apple, Kobo, et al. But the key here is we also have control because we have our rights AND we have choices. We can actually do direct sales (with 100% royalties), something we did at Cool Gus in the past and will be resurrecting with a twist in the coming year (the groan you just heard was Jen Talty as she realizes her workload just doubled). Right now the big corporations that control our main distribution are actually in competition with each other unlike the Big 5, which were found guilty in court of colluding (still amazed at the lack of outrage over that and the gouging of readers with eBook pricing).
Here’s another thing we’re going to see more of: rights being sold. Harlequin was just sold. While the HQ authors might not be focused on it, believing they still write for Harlequin, they actually write for an entirely new set of corporate masters. I remember when David Geffen, in an HBO special, discussed trading the rights to Poco to another manager for Neil Young. Guess who made out with that deal? But guess who had no control because they’d signed contracts? Poco and Neil Young. We’re going to see a lot more rights being sold, wrapped up in these mergers and consolidations. Authors are going to end up working for the Russian mob the way things are going (some already may).
The minute the author signs a contract, they’ve lost control. Seriously. James Patterson complaining about sales???? Don’t even get me started on Scott Turow. The Authors Guild is actually an example of the dinosaur mindset of many trad authors. It should be called the Publishers Guild, because it truly believes publishers are an absolutely essential part of the process of getting their stories to readers.
The distance between the reader and the author is the internet. If anyone gets between the two, they must provide value. If Hachette is screwing authors over (you signed with Hachette, not Amazon, authors, so focus your outrage appropriately) then they are not providing you value. But also remember that you cashed your advance check. This is the dark side of all those great things you crow about your publisher and editor and agent doing for you. Because your publisher and editor and agent ultimately have a different agenda than you do, because their business is not primarily YOU. It’s themselves, and if you don’t think that shifts things somewhat, well, there’s always that bridge.
When you control rights, you also have access to much higher royalty rates. A trad author should take a look at their last royalty statement and consider what would happen if their eBook royalties were doubled while subtracting all their print sales (a radical possibility, but it gives a baseline). Where do you stand? Then consider the shrinking print footprint. Consider the development of Print On Demand technology. Consider having complete creative control. Final say on cover, subject, copy, etc. In other words, try thinking ahead, something very, very few in publishing have bothered to do (music gave a ten years warning! Pulling SMPs buy buttons gave Hachette a few years warning!)
At Cool Gus we focus on the author. Each author is in a unique position with different goals and their own yellow brick road to Oz. As a publishing partnership our job is ward off the flying monkeys and anyone trying to steal those shoes. Our role is to help the author achieve THEIR goals. We have to provide value. And we have to accept that authors are protective of, and value, their rights.
Do you control any of your rights?
Posted by Jen Talty
Lets take a step back. Bob and I were at Romantic Times last week and on Wednesday we did a workshop together titled: What a Publishing Partnership Does. Right before the workshop, Jon Fine stopped by. While we were chatting, Jon said something interesting to us when we told him what our workshop was about. “That’s interesting because I don’t really understand your partnership. I mean I do get it, but I don’t, but it works.”
Halfway through our workshop someone asked me what my work day was like. Basically, “what exactly do you do?” My knee jerk answer was, “whatever our authors need.” But I realize that’s too generic to help authors understand our partnership and why it works so well not just for Bob and I, but for Bob and I AND our authors.
I’m going to do a series of blog posts that show various aspects of what I do and how we work with our authors. Every author is in a unique position and has their own specific personal career goals. This really is key to helping any author on the THEIR personal yellow brick road to their personal OZ.
There is an enormous amount of information out there on all aspects of publishing. All of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, including what you read here. What works for one, won’t work for someone else and everything is changing quickly its often difficult to keep up with it all. And more importantly, we can’t be experts in EVERYTHING. Not possible.
Two minds are better than one.
While I’m writing this, I’m also communicating with our author Janice Maynard who is working on a Janice Maynard Sampler. I’m compiling the excerpts and doing the formatting while she’s writing a personal note about each series for the reader. Once I have that, I’ll put it together and offer it free. We first tried it with the free Bob Mayer Sampler and its gotten great feedback from both people in the industry and readers. It gives readers a way to flip through an author’s entire catalog. This is a great tool, especially for someone with an extensive back and front list like Bob, Janice and Colin Falconer (I’m working on his too while he’s off researching his next Shakespearian Detective story). And that right there is the key. A writer’s job is to write. To create story. Readers consumer story.
Another thing I’m working on with Janice is her personal branding. I helped her create her website and worked with her on her “branding” plan. We’re also paying close attention to what her other publisher is doing and working on coordinating our efforts with both promotion and discoverability. While doing that, I’m working on keywords and categories with her books, matching some to her Harlequin novels and getting her in other ones. I actually spend a good hour each day just looking at keywords and categories. Because everything changes so quickly and there is less of a “standardized” system these day, it’s my job to “milk” the system, so to speak. Though you can’t really milk it, but you can play on the playground.
I’m also making a “digital” catalog of all of our titles to bring to BEA. We’ll be putting them on thumb drives along with our authors samplers, videos, slideshares, as well as some information on Cool Gus.
I then scheduled a special promo for 4 of our audio titles with a new company. What’s funny about this one is that as Bob and I went back and forth about the ads, about 4 emails into I received from him: “this is why you do this. Do what you think is best.” And I did, but honestly it took a good hour to read through the options, and because what works for one author, one genre, isn’t going to work for another, I picked different options for different audio books
I updated our Kindle Countdown Schedule and sent the information on to my team at KDP. I’m also sending them an accounting of how each countdown worked and what other promotion we scheduled.
I scheduled some promotion for our FREE sampler for Bob.
I’m uploading all our books to Google.
I’m also updated end matter for Bob as we’re going to be relaunching the Green Beret Series on all platforms soon. It’s 8 books, so really, not our entire catalog, but I create a file specific for each platform. That would take Bob a long time and he’s under deadline, so.
I also have to do that with 5 of Colin’s books. Again, not a lot of time necessarily, but he’s on deadline both with Cool Gus and with his UK publisher.
The other thing I worked on today was a proposal for Jennifer Probst and our upcoming new releases later this year. I talked with my assistant today about Jennifer’s booktrailer and slideshare that we’re doing for Beyond Me.
That’s just what I’ve done today so far. Oh wait, I sent emails from Bob and I from our meetings at RT and I’m sending emails for our meetings at BEA.
As I write this it occurs to me that some might be thinking, well, you have all that because you have a company with Authors. True. But we don’t have 100 authors with a couple of titles. We have over 100 titles with a couple of authors. Our goal to support an author’s career. To support their goals. Our goal as a company, or our mission statement, so to speak, is to help authors reach their OZ. Many yellow brick roads out there. Watch out for flying monkeys and witches who want your shoes.
When talking with an author about possibly partnering with Cool Gus, the second they drop the phrase “my agent” into the conversation, we know the odds of coming to a working partnership are not likely. This is not because agents are evil or mean, but because we’ve found most to be mired in an outdated business model and unable to see the advantages of focusing on long-term profitability. This is because traditional publishing didn’t particularly value the long tail because it wasn’t possible with limited shelf space in consignment outlets, called bookstores.
Ten years ago when someone from the outside asked me to describe the publishing business, I would say: “Slow and Techno-phobic”. While the Big 5 and others scramble to adapt to the digital world, there is a segment that has been very resistant to the winds of change blowing through the publishing world: agents.
When I present my Who Dares Wins concepts, whether for people inside the industry or those outside, I use the Myers-Briggs 16 character types as part of understanding character. I focus not on what one is, but what the exact opposite character type is. After all, we all like to do what we’re good at. Where we need to improve is where we aren’t good.
For example, the least common of the 16 types is actually labeled Author. INFJ. Introvert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judgmental. The exact opposite, the ESTP: Promoter. Duh. Big problem authors!
What do we want an agent to be? Most agents want to be Sellers. The exact opposite? Architect. That suggests to me that while agents might be very good at selling, they are not so good at structuring a business plan or analyzing the changes in publishing. An architect tends to be a strategic thinker, while a seller is tactical.
I’m generalizing here, and I know there are agents who have adapted swiftly, such as Kristin Nelson and Scott Waxman. But overall, most agents are still so focused on the traditional format of publishing doctrine, they can’t see the bigger picture.
First, agents are focused on the advance. The ‘guaranteed money’. Authors have been propagandized into thinking an advance is the kindness of publishers giving them money so they can write. Authors need to rethink that. An advance is the money that binds the author’s content to the publisher via the contract. Nothing wrong with that if the author is happy with the money and the almost complete lack of business control they’ve surrendered when they cash those checks. The concept of monthly income after publication seems to escape many traditionally published authors and especially agents since over 90% of traditionally published books fail to earn out. The concept of a publishing partner working for the author, allowing the author the final decision (after getting experienced advice) on everything from cover, to content, to product description, to metadata, to promotional opportunities, to pricing, etc. is one that doesn’t seem to do much for agents. Also, working with a publishing partner that considers the publishing timeline in terms of days and weeks rather than months or years is a concept few in traditional publishing seem to grasp.
Let’s break this down simply. The bottom line in publishing is: Authors create the product, which is content (not the book). Readers consume the content. Everyone else is in between. They must provide a value to that relationship or they are not relevant. Since an agent is more focused on the relationship between author and publisher (not reader), their value is even more put to the test in a market where distribution no longer rules. It is discoverability.
Recently I’ve seen a spate of earning reports that indicate a trend: while overall print sales are slowing or down for major publishers, they’re making more. Where is this ‘more’ coming from? The higher P&L on eBooks. Where are the agents rallying to point out that this ‘more’ is being taken from the authors? That authors getting a royalty rate that is pathetically out of date is lining the pockets of publishers? When 75% of the cover price of an eBook goes to the platform and the publisher, something is very out of balance. And then 15% of that 25% for the author goes to the agent? In essence authors are getting just over 20% of cover price. At Cool Gus our authors make over 50% of that cover price, varying depending on each one’s situation—which is another thing. Every author, every book is a unique entity. In Special Ops, one of the tenets is that Special Operations Soldiers can’t be mass produced. Authors can’t be treated that way either.
Yes, there are big-name authors, in the top 5%, whose agents have negotiated for them higher royalty rates (hey, midlist author, ask your agent about that). Good for them. I submit however, that we will see some big name authors jump ship and go hybrid, not for more money, but for creative control. The problems for these authors are several:
- Backlist is held hostage by their traditional publishers.
- The politics of becoming hybrid, where publishers and agents feel the author has ‘betrayed’ them, when in reality it is a positive for everyone involved if they work together. For example, we’re working to promote Jennifer Probst’s books from Pocket with her backlist and also the frontlist we will publish. We link and promote all her traditionally published titles. We can actually run price specials, countdowns, and targeted ads that promote Jennifer Probst, which is a win-win for all involved, including her traditional publisher and her agent.
- Lack of awareness of how to ‘self’ publish. I refer back to my Kirkus article on how the term ‘self’ publish is a misnomer. Top authors need help in this area, especially if they are focused on writing. They need the expertise and advice of an organization experienced in what they want to do. But they don’t need boilerplate services: they need a partnership tailor made for each one’s unique situation.
- Fear. I won’t get into it, but fear is ruling publishing. Many authors are terrified to break free and take a chance. Understandable. But potentially fatal to their long-term career.
- Editorial. Some authors are wedded to the editors. While we can say this is purely a business relationship, it goes beyond that. We’re talking creative process. However, there are very good freelance editors and one thing we do at Cool Gus is invite authors to our Write on the River retreat where we all work together on story and they also have access to my wife, who has worked with several NY Times Bestselling authors. A few weekends ago we had Jennifer Probst here and Richard Phillips and his writing partner.
We’ve negotiated with authors about their backlist, only to have the agent jump in between and shift their client’s focus toward selling their electronic backlist to a traditional publisher and getting an advance. I submit they are harming their clients in their own self-interest (and mistakenly in their client’s interest). They want that advance money which is guaranteed. I occasionally check on the status of the digital version of books we tried to partner on, and not a single one has been published yet, over a year after talking to the author. So a year’s worth of revenue that can’t be recouped is gone while they wait on the rusty wheels of traditional publishing to get around to their backlist. And, as an editor at Random House told me: We can’t promote our front list, never mind our backlist. How do you think they’re going to focus on you? I make more in one day from my backlist I own the rights to than St. Martins does in six months in the three books I co-wrote with NY Times Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie. Who at SMP has a vested interest in promoting and selling those stories? No one. They’re overwhelmed dealing with their current authors and frontlist.
Lastly, agents are effective in securing foreign rights. But even that model is changing. Three years ago, people were laughing at eBooks in the US market at only 3%. They aren’t laughing now. Russ Grandinetti from Amazon said at the Frankfort Book Fair that they’re seeing a growth in digital devices in Europe matching the US market three years ago. So three years from now, digital will be a huge earner in foreign markets. A market authors can have control of via digital, instead of signing away their rights. Something to consider. While I believe in operating swiftly in most areas in publishing, foreign rights is one area I’m taking my time in.
Bottom line is that authors have to consider the long-term business, thinking strategically instead of tactically.. The long tail of earnings. Publishers, and especially agents, seem to be more focused on the immediate dollar. Authors need to be focused on their income stream five to ten years from now and also accept a fundamental truth: no one cares more about their stories than they do.