Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How Publishing Really Works

Back in the late 1970s, when $10,000 was a lot of money, I scored a five-figure book advance on a hard cover book with a major New York publisher. (The story of how that came about is kind of interesting, but I'll save it for another day.) I thought, at the time, I had really hit it big. The day I signed the contract was the happiest day of my young life (up to that point). "It doesn't get any better than this," I thought.

There would be many more "happiest day of my life" experiences, I hasten to add, none involving publishing.

But then came an educational process (right there is your clue: "educational process" being code language for painful experience), which most authors go through, wherein I learned how the publishing business actually works. (More code language.) I was disabused of certain myths.

Like all wet-behind-the-ears young authors, I thought my big-name publisher would put some bigtime marketing resources behind my book. It was a specialty book, so I wasn't completely unrealistic about what might happen (I didn't expect to see it in Macy's window), but still, I thought "Surely, they'll promote the heck out of this thing, make it visible to my target audience with magazine ads and whatnot."

Yeah, that's really what I thought. Instead . . . 

[Insert sound of crickets chirping.]

What I learned, of course, is that how the world works and how you think it should work are two different things. Authors think "Okay, if you publish a thousand titles, and there's a marketing budget of X, surely you spend roughly 0.1% of X on each book; maybe a little more for books with special potential, and a little less for books that sell themselves, like bestsellers."

Completely wrong.

Let me tell you how it works. If you're a publisher, you pump marketing money into your winners in hopes of making them even bigger winners. The stragglers, the losers, the backlist stuff, the specialty items (obscure titles only a few customers will buy)—those are the titles you don't lavish money on, because no amount of marketing is going to make a slow seller pay for itself; you'll only make a slow seller less profitable by spending money on it. What you do is promote your winners, and with any luck, they'll make enough money to carry the rest of the catalog for the rest of the sales year.

I suspect the music business works pretty much the same way. Because really, all businesses work this way. If you're a company (of any kind: toy company, restaurant, shoe company, you name it) and you have ten different product lines, one of which is consistently profitable, 5 of which break even, and 4 of which lose money, which products are you going to promote? Think of the product lines as individual businesses of their own. Do you invest money in a profitable company, or an unprofitable one? Turn the question around and the answer's even easier. Which product line do you get rid of, if you're forced to get rid of one? Answer: the one that's least likely to make money.

When you truly understand the foregoing principle in all its ramifications, you're ready to open a lemonade stand. Until then, don't go into business. 

My book (an aviation title) ended up doing reasonably well for a book of its kind (a specialty book). It got chosen as the Main Selection by two aviation book clubs and went into a foreign edition. It fell short of paying back the advance, however, and when the first printing finally hit an inventory level of zero, the publisher chose not to do a second printing. They sold the rights to me for one dollar, and said (not in these exact words): "Here you go, you can publish it yourself now. Go crazy with it."