Thursday, December 12, 2013

Adventures in Book Publishing

I had a lot to learn about publishing, when I was in my twenties. As luck would have it, I had some pretty good teachers. And I learned plenty.

My first hard cover book deal came about by accident. In 1978, through my friend George C. Larson (who went on to become the editor of Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine), I happened to meet Robert B. Parke, the recently retired publisher of Flying magazine. Parke was looking to sign up authors for a series of aviation books he was editing for Doubleday. Larson put us in touch and we met face to face.

Parke explained that an author of a book on dirigibles had bowed out of the Doubleday series; he was looking for someone to take over the project and bring it to fruition. At first, I thought "Good God, who the hell wants to read a book about dirigibles?" Then Parke mentioned the $10,000 advance. I began to levitate.

While thinking the matter over, I started to have other ideas. My recent maintenance experiences with an airplane I'd bought from a Delta Air Lines pilot (a nine-year-old Cessna 182) had left me with a considerable amount of frustration, but I had also acquired quite a bit of knowledge on things like brake-pad replacement, magneto timing, carburetor adjustment, and whatnot. I thought: "Surely I can't be the only private pilot who needs to know some of this stuff. If there's a market for books about dirigibles, there has to be a market for books about aircraft maintenance."

I still self-publish this book.
I decided that before I'd sign up to do a dirigible book, I'd query Doubleday on an aircraft maintenance title. To make a long story short, I decided not to go with Parke's offer to become an author in his series of books, because Doubleday, as it happened, was only too happy to consider my other idea.

When a contract arrived by mail from Doubleday, promising a $10,000 advance on a how-to book for aircraft owners interested in doing their own maintenance, I was ecstatic, of course. For most first-time authors, this would have been the endgame. Most authors would have signed the Doubleday contract right away and started writing. Not me.

I reasoned: "If Doubleday's willing to buy this idea, surely other major publishers who do aviation books will want to consider it too."

I staged my own book auction. (For an as-yet unwritten book.) Within a month, I had physical contracts in hand from Van Nostrand, McGraw-Hill, and Doubleday.

Comparing the contracts was an interesting exercise. Some promised to leave the copyright in the author's name; one had it in the publisher's name. Each contract varied as to the royalty percentage and payout schedule. Doubleday was offering a flat 10% royalty against all sales. The other two publishers paid a certain percentage that grew with each sales step; for example, 10% on the first 1,500 copies sold, then 12% on the next 1,500, and 15% on subsequent sales. Payment milestones varied. One contract was set up in such a way that the author would get a certain amount just for signing the contract, then another chunk of money when the manuscript was finished, then a third piece when the book went to press. In another case, it was half the advance up front, half when the manuscript was finished. In one case it was everything up front.

The number of "authors' copies" varied. One publisher would give you 25 free copies and the right to buy more at 30% off. Another gave you 50 copies and the right to buy at 40% off. And so on.

I argued for better terms on each contract, figuring if any one publisher got tired of haggling with me, I'd at least have one or two other contracts to fall back on. No one dropped out. Each publisher sent a followup contract with better terms! In some cases, a particular term was scratched out (in ink) and initialed, awaiting my counter-initial. In other cases, the new terms magically appeared in the fine print of the (typset, lithographed) contract. (This was before laser printers.) I had several "Aha!" moments where I said to myself: "Look at this, they've got two printed contracts, with two different sets of terms. Obviously they send the lowball version out first . . ."

There are lots of lessons here, one of them being, simply: You don't get what you don't ask for. Another being: Publishers don't shy away from auctions. It's what they do.  

I eventually went with McGraw-Hill, based on a step contract I was sure would have me making more money than with the other two publishers. ("Heck," I thought, "this thing is going to sell thousands and thousands of copies. I'll hit those steps in no time.")

As it turned out, I would have been better off going with the Doubleday contract (which had no steps), but it would take me years to figure that out. McGraw-Hill knew what I didn't, which is that the only step that counts is the first one, because most books don't make it to the next level.

Over the years, I'd write more books—and make more mistakes. In one instance, a publisher allowed a second publisher (TAB Books) to bring out another edition of a work I'd done. (I'd signed a contract that allowed this.) The second publisher had well-established mail order and other sales channels, with the result that the book sold much better through the sub-publisher than through my original publisher. The two publishers got into a dispute over something (I can't even remember what) and TAB ended up not paying my original publisher, and I stopped getting royalties on the book. The dispute was never resolved (and I certainly wasn't making the kind of money that would allow me to go to court over a dispute that wasn't mine to begin with), so I ended up making nothing, essentially, on the one edition of that particular title that sold well.

Ultimately, I started self-publishing my aviation titles, and that's when the real money showed up. (When I say self-publishing, this was circa 1993, before print-on-demand.) I had a newsletter audience to whom I could sell books, and I was doing a lot of speaking (at aviation conferences) for a while. At speaking engagements, I often sold 40 or 50 books, on the spot, making $25 (net) per book.

I still keep one title in print, with If you know anyone who flies small planes, check it out.

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but some lessons stay the same.
  • Publishers promote winners; they never promote slow-selling titles (see yesterday's post). 
  • Most new authors vastly overestimate the number of copies that'll be sold. 
  • Most titles do not sell well enough to offset the advance. 
  • You can get badly burned on subsidiary rights.
But I can also say, based on personal experience: If you truly do have a ready market for your book (and sales channels you can exploit yourself), you can make money in self-publishing.

And by the way? If Doubleday ever offers you $10,000 up front for a yet-to-be-written book? Take it.