Chip MacGregor

May 30, 2008

From my Death Bed…


Okay, so maybe I’m not exactly on my death bed… but I caught this really lousy flu that has kept me in bed with a sore throat, aches, and a fever the last few days. Thought I’d emerge from my Robitusson-induced haze and answer a handful of questions from people.

Janet wrote to ask, "With the advent of e-book readers, how will this affect authors and the money they are paid? Will there be a bunch of ripple effects from all the electronic gadgets?"

Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s e-reader are developing fans, and they are certainly beginning to sell some units. If you’re not aware, Kindle is a book-shaped reader with a great, easy-to-read screen that receives book text via cel phone technology. You can purchase a book from Amazon and they’ll send it to your Kindle wherever you are (using the same technology as text messaging) for ten bucks. A Kindle can hold about 200 titles before the memory is full. Last week Amazon cut the price from $399 to $349 — still too high, but moving in the right direction. I like the product a lot, though I think it’s a bit too plasticky. The Sony e-reader doesn’t have nearly as nice of a reading screen, but costs a hundred bucks less and you can send Word document to it — so many New York editors have been given them, in order to read manuscripts without having to lug around a bag full of heavy books. I’ve thought about getting one just so I could be reading the manuscripts of the authors I represent before they are sent into the publishers.

There are a lot of things to like about the future of these products, though neither are perfect. (The Kindle doesn’t do graphics; neither is doing textbooks yet.) Amazon reported yesterday that they now have 125,000 books available to send to your Kindle, and [get ready to look doubtful] that more than 6% of the overall sales of those available titles were sold to Kindle users. (That’s according to a report in Barron’s yesterday.)  All that is interesting, but to this point their impact on the market has been negligible.

Publishers are still debating how to pay an author for electronic books. Some want to pay a flat royalty like any other book (which is questionable at best, since the publisher has no ink/paper/binding costs). Others want to pay a higher royalty than a regular book. And still others want to pay a fairly high percentage of any money that comes in (I’ve seen it as low as 15%, as high as 50%). So… yes, there could be interesting ripples. It’s still shaking out, but theoretically an author should earn more from electronic sales than from a standard ink-and-paper book. Yet to this point… it hasn’t added up to enough money to matter.

A quick question from Jim: "What factors into a decision on whether or not a book should be published as a hardcover?"

Though most authors think of the main factor being prestige (i.e., "If they put me in HC, I must be a big shot!"), the factor that most plays into the decision is money. A hardcover book will cost $1.50 to $3 more to produce than a trade paper…but the cover price will rise $7 to $10. So the return on the investment in hardcover is greater. Simply put, "We make more money per book when we sell hardcover books." BUT we’ll also sell fewer books, since the price tag will keep many buyers from purchasing until it comes out in paper. Sometimes releasing a book in hardcover will kill it, since it won’t sell and therefore won’t leave open a trade paper following. And some genres just sell better in trade paper than they do in hardcover — many "Christian Living" titles just seem to die on the vine when offered in HC. So the publishing team looks at the numbers and makes some projections — If we project 10,000 sales in hardcover, but 35,000 in trade paper, is it worth releasing this book in HC first? Or should we just go straight to TP? I’ve been part of that discussion numerous times, and the numbers basically drive the decision.

Tiffany wants to know, "Is there a way an author can make his or her work more marketable for foreign rights? I’m fluent in French and would like to push publication in French-speaking countries. Should I create an entire marketing plan for francophonic countries? And do publishers simultaneously release in two languages?"

Oui, eet eez certainly possible to make money doing translation work, but writing exclusively for a French audience would probably mean you’d need to explore a French language publisher. A good agent should help an author try to make money by selling sub-rights and foreign rights. (Something I don’t see agents doing regularly.) A good publisher will do the same thing, and the larger publishing houses have Special Rights sales people who specialize in getting their books published in other countries and languages. However, I’m not sure how helpful it would be to actually pitch a French language book to an American publisher. It’s nice that you might be able to do a French version… but they’re not in the market of creating and selling French books. As they say in France, Passe moi le pomme de terre! (I think that means, "We sell American books to Americans," but my French is a bit rusty.)

Carol wrote and said, "In a recent discussion with a publisher about a nonfiction book proposal, he asked me, ‘Just how big do you think this will be?’ I wasn’t prepared to answer him. In fact, I have only the simplest notion of how I’d obtain such information. I can track similar titles, but different writing styles, different platforms, the cover, the marketing of the book, and a million other elements could influence that. What could I have said?"

I don’t think I’ve ever heard that question, but I think your words here are pretty good. You’re right — the overall success or failure of your book rests on a number of factors, and you’ve named some of the biggest. But perhaps your publisher was looking to gauge your enthusiasm — do you see this as being your life’s work? Have audiences responded with enthusiasm when you’ve presented this material at conferences? Is there a groundswell of support for this type of message at this time? I have occasionally asked authors the "what are you writing these days" question, and had them reply with, "What do you need?" That’s a weak answer, in my opinion, since it means I’m most likely going to see a book without much passion (and maybe without much research). There’s nothing wrong with writing to a topic, or writing to a need, but I at least want to know the author is enthusiastic about it, and knows enough about the topic to see potential success.

One other point: You mentioned referencing other titles. That’s a great idea. In fact, being able to point to similar books that have been successful generally offers a good reminder that people are looking for a solution to whatever problem you’re writing about. So this is the time to offer that short speech about how this topic has proven popular with readers, and you are the person to write it, and you have the solution everyone is looking for, and the writing is fabulous.

Rhonda wrote to me with this: "I have one publisher who looked at my proposal and said he was interested in my manuscript. He asked me to revise my sample chapters. But now a second publisher has called to make me an offer. What do I do? I think I’m actually more interested in the publisher who has asked for the rewrite, but I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth."

Here’s what I would do, Rhonda: "Hello, Mr. Publisher? I received your very nice note suggesting revisions to my chapter. In fact, I’ve already started doing those revisions, and I’m excited about the possiblity of working with you. But something has come up… I just received an offer from another publisher. In fact, it’s a very good offer, and I’m tempted… but you’ve always been my first choice to work with. I can beg off for a week or so, but would it be possible for you to have your team talk about my proposal and give me a response a bit sooner than we’d expected? In the meantime, I’ll be making those revisions you requested. Thanks very much."

And I’d offer you one caveat as well — make sure you have a reason for wanting to work with that first publisher. As I’ve said on this blog numerous times, organizational enthusiasm really counts in book publishing. If that second publisher sees great potential in you, and is enthusiastic about your writing, they may work harder to make you successful than a publisher who isn’t quite sure you’ve got what it takes. Give it some thought.

If you’ve got a publishing question, send it in. I’ll try to get to it before I die.

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