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What To Do After You Sign The Publisher’s Contract

Pub Date: Nov 6, 1996 | Columnist: Jeff Herman

" There are ways in which every author can substantialy remedy the endemic problems (of becoming published)."

What To Do After You Sign The Publisher's Contract

Jeff Herman, respected New York agent and author of Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers And Literary Agents advises Authorlink! readers on how to avoid the frustrations of a newly-published author. A "must read" for unpublished writers, too!

By Jeff Herman

Congratulations! You've sold your book to a well-established publishing house, and now belong to the elite club of published authors. You'll soon discover that your personal credibility is enhanced whenever this fact is made evident to others. It may also prove to be a powerful marketing vehicle for your business or professional practice.

Unfortunately, once your book is actually published, there's a better-than-even possibility that you'll encounter several disappointments. Some of the most common are: (1) Neither you nor anyone you know can find the book anywhere. (2) The publisher doesn't appear to be doing anything to market the book. (3) You detest the title and the jacket. (4) No one at the publishing house seems to be listening to you. In fact, you may feel that you don't even exist for them.

As a literary agent, I live through these frustrations with my clients every day, and I try to explain to them at the outset what the realities of the business are. But I never advocate abdication or pessimism. There are ways in which every author can substantially remedy these endemic problems.

What follows are practical means by which each of these four most common failures can be preempted. I'm not suggesting that you can compensate entirely for the publisher's failures; that's a tall order. However, with lots of smarts and a little luck you can accomplish a great deal.

ATTACKING PROBLEM NO. 1: NEITHER YOU NOR ANYONE YOU KNOW CAN FIND THE BOOK ANYWHERE

This can be the most painful failure. After all, what was the point of writing the book if it's virtually invisible?

Let me digress briefly by introducing a bit of philosophy. As many of you may know from the popular material on codependency, to be a victim is to be powerless, which means you don't have the ability to improve your situation. With that in mind, avoid becoming merely an author who only complains and remains forever bitter.

No matter how badly your publisher screws up, don't fall into the victim trap. Instead, find positive ways to affect what is or is not happening for you.

Your publisher is like an indispensable employee whom you are not at liberty to fire. You don't have to work with this publisher the next time; but this time it's the only one you've got.

There are a handful of writers, such as Norman Mailer, whose books pay a large part of the publisher's rent. These writers have earned the luxury of being very difficult, if they so choose. But the other 99.98% of writers are not so fortunate. No matter how justified your methods may be, if you become an author to whom everyone at the publishing house dreads speaking, you've lost the game. They still have their jobs, and they see no reason to have you in their face. In other words: Always seek what's legitimately yours, but always try to do it in a way that might work for you, as opposed to making yourself persona non grata till the end of time.

Trade book distribution is a mysterious process, even for people in the business. Most bookstore sales are dominated by the large national and regional chains, such as Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Barnes and Noble, and Crown. No shopping mall is complete without at least one of these stores. Publishers always have the chain stores in mind when they determine what to publish. Thankfully, there are also a few thousand independently owned shops throughout the country.

Thousands of new titles are published each year, and these books are added to the seemingly infinite number that are already in print. Considering the limitations of the existing retail channels, it should be no surprise that only a small fraction of all these books achieves a significant and enduring bookstore presence. The bookstore will dedicate most of its visual space to displaying healthy quantities of the titles they feel are safe sells: books by celebrities and well-established authors, or books that are being given extralarge printings and marketing budgets by their publishers, thereby promising to create demand.

The rest of the store will generally provide a liberal mix of titles, organized by subject area. This is where the backlisted titles try to stake their claims. For instance, the business section will probably offer two dozen or so sales books. Most of the displayed titles will tend to be by the biggest names in the genre, and their month-to-month sales probably remain strong, even if the book was first published several years ago. In other words, there are probably hundreds of other sales books written in recent years that, as far as retail distribution is concerned, barely made it out of the womb. You see, the stores aren't out there to do you any favors. They are going to stock whatever they feel they can sell the most of. There are too many titles chasing too little space.

It's the job of the publisher's sales representative to lobby the chain and store buyers individually about the merits of her publisher's respective list. But here too the numbers can be numbing. The large houses publish many books each season, and it's not possible for the rep to do justice to each of them. Priority will be given to the relatively few titles that get the exceptional advances.

Because most advances are modest, and since the average book costs about $20,000 to produce, some publishers can afford to simply sow a large field of books and observe passively as some of them sprout. The many that don't bloom are soon forgotten, as a new harvest dominates the bureaucracy's energy. Every season, many very fine books are terminated by the publishing reaper. The wisdom and magic these books may have offered is thus sealed away.

I have just covered a complicated process in a brief fashion . Nonetheless, the overall consequences for your book are in essence the same. Here, now, are a few things you may attempt in order to override such a stacked situation. However, these methods will not appeal to the shy or passive:

Make direct contact with the publisher's sales representatives. Do to them what they do to the store buyers—sell 'em! Get them to like you and your book. Take the reps near you to lunch and ballgames. If you travel, do the same for local reps wherever you go.

Make direct contact with the buyers at the national chains. If you're good enough to actually get this kind of access, you probably don't need to be told what to do next.

Organize a national marketing program aimed at local bookstores throughout the country.

There's no law that says only your publisher has the right to market your book to the stores. (Of course, all orders must go through your publisher.) For the usual reasons, your publisher's first reaction may be "What the hell are you doing?" But that's okay; make them happy by making your efforts work. It would be wise, however, to let the publisher in on your efforts up front.

If your publisher objects—which she may—you might choose to interpret those remarks as simply the admonitions they are, and then proceed to make money for all.

ATTACKING PROBLEM NO. 2: THE PUBLISHER DOESN'T APPEAR TO BE DOING ANYTHING TO MARKET THE BOOK

If it looks as if your publisher is doing nothing to promote your book, then it's probably true. Your mistake is being surprised and unprepared.

The vast majority of titles published receive little or no marketing attention from the publisher is beyond catalog listings. The titles that get big advances are likely to get some support, since the publisher would like to justify the advance by creating a good seller. Compared to those in other Fortune 500 industries, publishers' in-house marketing departments tend to be woefully understaffed, undertrained, and underpaid. Companies like Procter & Gamble will tap the finest business schools, pay competitive salaries, and strive to nurture marketing superstars. Book publishers don't do this.

As a result, adult trade book publishing has never been especially profitable, and countless sales probably go unmade. The sales volumes and profits for large, diversified publishers are mostly due to the lucrative—and captive—textbook trade. Adult trade sales aren't the reason that companies like Random House can generate more than $1 billion in annual revenues.

Here's what you can do:

Hire your own public relations firm to promote you and your book. Your publisher is likely to be grateful and cooperative. But you must communicate carefully with your publishing house.

Once your manuscript is completed, you should request a group meeting with your editor and people from the marketing, sales, and publicity departments. You should focus on what their marketing agenda will be. If you've decided to retain your own PR firm, this is the time to impress the people at your publishing house with your commitment, and pressure them to help pay for it. At the very least, the publisher should provide plenty of free books.

Beware of this common problem: Even if you do a national TV show, your book may not be abundantly available in bookstores that day—at least not everywhere. An obvious answer is setting up 800 numbers to fill orders, and it baffles me that publishers don't make wider use of them. There are many people watching Oprah who won't ever make it to the bookstore, but who would be willing to order then and there with a credit card. Infomercials have proven this.

Not all shows will cooperate, but whenever possible you should try to have your publisher's 800 number (or yours) displayed as a purchasing method in addition to the neighborhood bookstore. If you use your own number, make sure you can handle a potential flood.

If retaining a PR firm isn't realistic for you, then do your own media promotions. There are many good books in print about how to do your own PR. (A selection of relevant titles may be found in this volume's Suggested Resources section.)

ATTACKING PROBLEM NO. 3: YOU DETEST THE TITLE AND JACKET

Almost always, your publisher will have final contractual discretion over title, jacket design, and copy. But that doesn't mean you can't be actively involved. In my opinion you had better be. Once your final manuscript submitted, make it clear to your editor that you expect to see all prospective covers and titles. But simply trying to veto what the publisher comes up with won't be enough. You should try to counter the negatives with positive alternatives. You might even want to go as far as having your own prospective covers professionally created. If the publisher were to actually choose your version, the house might reimburse you.

At any rate, don't wait until it's after the fact to decide you don't like your cover, title, and so forth. It's like voting: Participate or shut up.

ATTACKING PROBLEM NO. 4: NO ONE AT THE PUBLISHING HOUSE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING TO YOU

This happens a lot,though I bet it happens to certain people in everything they do. The primary reasons for this situation are either

(1) that the people you're trying to access are incompetent; (2) that you're not a priority for them; or (3) that they simply hate talking to you.

Here are a few things you might try to do about it:

If the contact person is incompetent, what can he or she really accomplish for you anyway? It's probably best to find a way to work around this person, even if he begins to return your calls before you place them.

The people you want access to may be just too busy to give you time. Screaming may be a temporary remedy, but eventually they'll go deaf again. Obviously their time is being spent somewhere. Thinking logically, how can you make it worthwhile for these people to spend more time on you? If being a pain in the neck is your best card, then perhaps you should play it. But there's no leverage like being valuable.

Maybe someone just hates talking to you. That may be their problem. But, as many wise men and women have taught, allies are better than adversaries. And to convert an adversary is invaluable.

CONCLUSION

This essay may come across as cynical. But I want you to be realistic and be prepared. There are many publishing success stories out there, and many of them happened because the authors made them happen.

For every manuscript that is published, there are probably a few thousand that were rejected. To be published is a great accomplishment—and a great asset. If well tended, it can pay tremendous dividends.

Regardless of your publisher's commitment at the outset, if you can somehow generate sales momentum, the publisher will most likely join your march to success and allocate a substantial investment to ensure it. In turn, they may even assume all the credit. But so what? About The Author

Books by Jeff Herman: Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents

Publisher: Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA. Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold and Why

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

Jeff Herman is founder of The Jeff Herman Literary Agency, Inc., in New York City, where he works. Jeff lectures throughout the country about how to get published. He can be contacted at:

 

The Jeff Herman Literary

140 Charles St. Suite 15 A

New York, NY 10014

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Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents

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Copyright, 1996 by Jeff Herman