Great Expectations: Book Advertising

By Richard Curtis

If the discontent of authors could be likened to a pie, the largest slice by far would represent resentment about the failure of publishers to advertise, publicize, and promote their books. Although I'm fairly articulate when it comes to explaining to my clients why publishers do or don't do certain things, I'm all too often at a loss for an answer when they ask me such questions as, "Why would my publisher spend $25,000 to acquire my book and $1.25 to advertise it?" Or, "How could they spend $100,000 to advertise that dreadful piece of pornography and not a dime on my book about nuclear disarmament?" Or, "Why is my book the best kept secret since the Manhattan Project?"

We live in a world in which it is universally acknowledged that the most effective way to move merchandise is to hype it to consumers. In the publishing industry, however, most of the product goes un- or under-advertised, and even books that publishing people consider to be heavily pushed are ridiculously underboosted by the standards of most other business enterprises. A few years ago, I handled a book by a leading business executive, and one day I proudly announced to him that his publisher had decided to allocate $75,000 for advertising and publicity for his book. "Great!" he exclaimed. "And how much are they going to spend on the second day?" In his field, $75,000 could be thrown casually into a single-page ad in a magazine.

Something is definitely out of whack here. In their own defense against author complaints, publishers respond that writers cherish unrealistic expectations, that even modest promotional campaigns are too expensive, that many books sell themselves without any publicity whatsoever, that many investments in this sector are unproductive or actually counterproductive, and that authors are not always aware of the efforts their publishers make to promote their books.

I don't think it's unreasonable for authors to hope that their publishers will try to stimulate consumer interest in their books. Nor is it unrealistic to suggest that publishers might benefit as much as authors from the publicizing of their products. But after countless discussions with publishers on this issue (not all conducted sotto voce, you may rightly guess), I have to admit that it is more complicated than we may think. Before you rush to judgment, listen to what your publisher has to say.

* Some types of books are going to sell whether we push them or not. A great many routine paperbacks sell and sell well with little or no help from their publishers. The reason is that paperback publishers have learned that there is a hard-core audience for romance, science fiction, western, horror, and other genres. These readers will buy just about any book in their favorite category whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. In certain male sectors like action-adventure or science fiction, for example, a paperback publisher can anticipate 15-25,000 guaranteed customers, and he would have to work very hard to sell fewer copies than that.

But, you ask, don't publishers want to sell more than this minimum? You'll be surprised to learn that the answer is: not necessarily. The cost of stimulating sales beyond the minimum support level may not be balanced by the profits. Some publishers are content to take a small profit on each title, rather than risk a loss going for the bigger profit.

Paperback publishers have also discovered that popular authors will naturally separate from the pack as a result of such factors as word of mouth, viral publicity, good reviews, feature stories in the press, and consumer demand in bookstores and other points of purchase - all with little or no money spent to create that demand. When those sales figures begin drifting upward, a wise publisher will consider ways to elevate that author even further. At that point advertising and publicity may come into play. Which leads to a second truism that publishers hold dear:

* Advertising can't make a book successful; it can only keep it successful. The fate of most books is sealed long before they are released to the public. The critical period is when the sales staff solicits orders from bookstore buyers and distributors. The enthusiasm or lack of it will determine the print run, and if the support is feeble, as likely as not little or nothing will be spent to advertise. Nor will ads necessarily send buyers flocking to the stores, even assuming the publisher feels that ads are a wise investment. If, however, a book meets with high popular demand, publishers may spend money on advertising and publicity to reinforce that demand. A new book by a popular author will probably get advertised, even if it's a lousy book. A new book by an unknown will probably not get advertised, even if it's great. Which leads to the very next rule of thumb, to wit:

* Very little midlist fiction benefits from heavy investment in advertising and promotion. Publishers are, understandably, reluctant to invest a lot of money to push serious, literary, experimental, and first novels. With hardcover sales projected in the low thousands, and with no guarantee of book club or paperback reprint revenue to underwrite the cost of publishing such midlist books, publishers prefer to let them make their own way on the strength of free advertising such as reviews and feature stories or word-of-mouth praise, or low-cost advertising such as catalogue announcements, publicity releases, or house ads that tout many of the publisher's books in one display package. As we've seen, though, there is some reason to believe that even if publishers spent heavily on ads for midlist fiction, it wouldn't compel consumers to buy, because the authors' names are not familiar to most of them. I believe it was Alfred A. Knopf who said, "We know book advertising is fifty percent effective; we just don't know which fifty percent."

As for promoting the authors themselves, it almost never works for midlist fiction, and for a very simple reason: it is extremely hard to express effectively the virtues of a work of fiction on a radio or television program, especially if the audience has never heard of the author. Which leads to the next item:

* Star authors are exempted from all of the above rules. If midlist fiction is so hard to promote on talk shows, how come bestselling authors show up on them all the time? One reason is that the subjects of their novels may be discussed as if they were nonfiction. While the plot of a novel is impossible to summarize entertainingly and the characters are too complex to capture in a pithy one-liner, there is usually something in the subject itself that serves as an excellent launching pad for stimulating discussion. "Tell us who your drug-crazed starlet heroine is in real life . . ."

Even more significantly, in the world of bestsellers, people are often more interested in the authors than in the books themselves. Bestselling authors are celebrities like movie and sports stars. Publishers who promote them stress the charms of the writer as much as they do the charms of the writer's work. If you'll listen carefully when a star author appears on radio or television, you'll notice how superficially the book itself is discussed. Attention focuses on such questions as: "Where did the idea for your novel come from? Did anything unusual happen to you when you were researching your novel? How much money did you get for your book? Is it true you're: getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, having another baby, buying a yacht, buying a castle, buying a nation?" These are precisely the same questions that might be asked of a film star hyping his or her latest movie.

Bestselling authors are also exceptions to the rule that print advertising can't make books successful. While ads seldom make consumers visit a bookstore to buy a midlist novel, they will attract them in droves to purchase a new novel by Stephen King, Janet Dailey or John Grisham. Why? Because these fans are predisposed to buy the books to begin with. It's a sad truth, but far more people are interested in how Oprah lost three pounds than how a righteous person rescued five thousand people from the Holocaust.

* Nonfiction authors are easier to promote than novelists. The subjects of many nonfiction books are, as we've seen, much more appropriate topics of conversation than the themes of novels. Nor must the author enjoy immense celebrity to quality for an invitation to a talk show. An interesting subject about which you feel passionately and speak articulately is often good enough to score a hit on radio or television. Terrific buns, washboard abs, big bazooms, and doe eyes are not necessary to furnish an entertaining fifteen or twenty minute chat about the current state of bioengineering or the destiny of wildlife on Alaska's North Slope.

I don't suppose they do any harm, though.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Random House Changes E-Book Royalty Policy

By Richard Curtis

In a letter circulated among literary agents, signed by David J. Sanford, Director Publishing Contracts, and Katherine J. Trager, Senior Vice President, Secretary and General Counsel, Random House announced a shift in e-book royalties from one based on the list price to one based on the actual net moneys received by the publisher. "With the widespread use by consumers of electronic devices such as the iPod, the Amazon Kindle, and the Sony Reader, a significant market for ebooks and digitally delivered audio content is finally ready to emerge," the letter stated. "In response, Random House is making major investments in our digital infrastructure and is creating digital files of active titles so that they are available for sales as ebooks, as downloadable audio, and for Internet search and discovery."

Commencing December 1, 2008, the new royalty rate for sales of ebooks will be 25% of the amount received for all sales, Random's letter goes on to state. What does Random House actually receive? Most e-book retailers take a discount of approximately 50% of an e-book's list price. Therefore, the amount received by Random House -- the amount on which the new royalty will be based -- is about half of the list.

How does that play out in real dollars?

A recent Random House contract states that on all copies of a work sold as an electronic book, the royalty will be 25% of the US suggested retail price until the book's advance has earned out, and 15% of the list price thereafter. Under the current (pre-change) royalty structure, on a book retailing for, say, $10.00, the e-book royalty would be $2.50 per download at 25%, then $1.50 per download when the royalty rate shifts to 15%.

By contrast, the new royalty of 25% of the net receipts comes to something like $1.25 per sale on a $10.00 book (25% of 50%). So, Random House's change is definitely a reduction of e-book income for authors.

Random's justification for the change is "1) The new rates are very much in line with the e-book and digital audio rates being offered today by our major competitors... 2) The way the market is developing, the publisher's list price will soon no longer be a relevant basis for calculating royalties in the digital environment... 3) The electronic formats are not as inexpensive to produce and publish as many believe [...] We have made substantial investments, and we will continue to invest, in related digital infrastructure, such as the creation and maintenance of a digital archive, and in the development of the market for electronic formats... 4) The new ebook rate continues to compare favorably to the rates we pay for other formats in which books are made available."

By way of comparison, and as a matter of full disclosure, E-Reads pays a royalty of 50% of net receipts for e-book sales, and has done so since its founding in 2000. On a $10.00 book, that means a royalty of $2.50. At no point is the royalty rate ever reduced.

New Writers Must Be Careful Not To Emulate Bad Writing By Poor Authors

By Michael Neff

Many years ago I stumbled upon a Sydney Sheldon book on the rack at a local grocery store. I picked it up, read a bit, and said to myself: I can write better with my eyes closed.

Well, hyperbole or no, there was some truth in that statement. Most likely, the work was not written by Sheldon at all, but some hack ghost brought in by the publisher to poorly imitate Sheldon. Sound implausible? Not at all. Lots of big names are "hyperbranded" these days, i.e., they don't write their own stuff. They are a brand. Others write for them and the original authors simply wave a hand in approval, or nod their mythic head, or something such as that.

Regardless, new writers often make the mistake of emulating established authors who have grown lazy, hyperbranded, or just plain crappy over the years. They ape their characters, plots, and even writing styles, then become astonished or even hostile when agents or editors don't immediately praise them for their wondrous contribution to the American literary scene.

God bless 'em, it's not their faults really! After all, the book was on the shelf, yes? People were buying it, yes?

So what's the answer? New writers must learn to emulate authors who themselves are fairly new, and yet successful to a reasonable degree. Freshly minted authors are not only a much better weather vane for what the market wants in terms of premise, settings, and characters, but also in terms of prose style.

Recently I pulled a copy of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION off the rack at Union Station in D.C., just to check on the state-of-the-art in that genre, and was disappointed to see poor writing by name authors. And by poor, I mean very poor. One author, an established SF/F type (who has been chumming around for decades), not only made himself offensive with a hackneyed hook, but bombarded my brain with "was" so relentlessly that I wanted to call him and beg him to attend a basic creative writing class in order to learn how to choose verbs at level somewhere beyond that of a sixth grader.

Keep in mind that the old gang of authors can cough on a page and get published. New writers cannot. They must choose their role models wisely!


Will Oprah make the Kindle a Bestseller?

By Anthony S. Policastro

My wife called me at work yesterday and was excited to tell me that Oprah was going berzerk praising the Kindle as her favorite new gadget.
"She is just going nuts over it," my wife said. "She has Jeff Bezos on the show, too."

CNET and Information Week ran stories on Oprah's endorsement within hours of the airing.

We both knew what that meant. Will the Kindle be enveloped by "The Oprah Effect" her legendary magic that instantly turns a book into a best seller? Will the Kindle became the best selling ebook reader? Maybe. While Amazon still covets the Kindle's sales numbers, one guestimate I saw estimated that 250,000+ units have been sold.

This may be good news for authors who have books listed on the Kindle (myself included), but there is one core element that I believe restricts Kindle sales. You cannot feel, touch or play with the device before shelling out $359+. Amazon even created a "See a Kindle in Your City" forum where Kindle owners hook up with potential Kindle buyers to show them the device. Sooner or later we may see the Kindle in bricks and mortar stores, but not sooner. Rumor has it that Amazon is losing money on each Kindle and putting it in a store would only increase that loss.

This is ok for now because I believe the Kindle has no competitors with its wireless capability. It is the only ebook reader with the wireless download feature. However, its closest competitor, the Sony ebook reader, has a significant market share because it is sold in physical stores as well as online. It has also been around longer. Buyers can feel, touch, and play with it before paying $275+ - a major advantage over the Kindle.

Sony has a looming opportunity to grab market share from Kindle by creating a wireless ebook reader with GSM mobile phone technology. GSM would enable downloads anywhere in the world where there is GSM coverage, while the Kindle downloads work only in the US. It is surprising that Sony has not yet produced a wireless ebook reader when it has a joint venture with Ericsson, the giant Swedish mobile phone manufacturer, under the Sony Ericsson brand.

So for now Kindle will be king promoted by the queen of marketing until another wireless ebook reader comes along similar to the Kindle.
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Can Your Book Publisher Become Your E-Book Publisher?

By Richard Curtis

Yesterday I commented on a news item about a publisher, St. Martin's Press, that had released a book as an original e-book. I said,
It raises a provocative question for authors and agents (and publishing lawyers): is there anything in a conventional book contract that prevents your publisher from releasing your book originally as an e-book? Or, for that matter, exclusively as an e-book as opposed to print on paper? I would guess that the author of the St. Martin's Press book explicitly waived his right to have his book published first in a hardcover or paperback volume. But what about us garden variety authors? Could a publisher elect to go straight into e-book without our express permission?
After I wrote this I realized these questions only give rise to more questions.

Suppose that the St. Martin's book were not merely a one-time exception to the traditional practice of publishing books originally in print format. Suppose instead that it was the first step in a major shift among conventional book publishers - the Random Houses, Simon & Schusters, the HarperCollins, as well as the St. Martinses -- from launching books in hard copy to launching them in e-book format - indeed, to launching them only in e-book format.

This is not a fanciful question. Given the inefficient economies of print publication, and the efficiencies of digital publication, it is entirely possible that we could experience the same kind of shift that we are seeing in the newspaper and magazine business as the paper-reading generation gives way to a digitally-oriented one. (I am writing this on the day that the New York Times reported a 51% drop in earnings.)

If original e-book publication becomes not merely an occasional or optional event but a primary format - well, what does that say for the identities of the Random Houses, Simon & Schusters, HarperCollins, and St. Martinses? What does it say for the publishing industry? For editors? For authors? For -- omigod -- agents?

Just asking!

Publicity – Giving Your Book the Help it Needs – Part 2

I recently received an email from Milton Kahn and I was so impressed with his pitch and the fact that he knew I had written two novels that I invited him to post a two-part series on the importance of book publicity. He was nice enough to share his invaluable information with us. –This is Part 2. Part 1 is the post preceding this one - Anthony S. Policastro

By Milton Kahn

Preparing an author to be an interesting guest is a critical element and one that should be worked on prior to the promotion of a book. I sometimes recommend that my clients sit down with a coach to help go over some of the basics of public speaking and interviews. For example, when Dallas-based author James Halperin hired me to publicize his science-fiction novel "The Truth Machine", I recommended that he contact a staff member of the Southern Methodist University drama department to engage him in videotaped mock interviews. As a result, Jim became a very effective interviewee. What made James Halperin such a fabulous client was his willingness to do anything it took to be successful. Halperin was willing to avail himself for interviews regardless of the hour of the broadcast as he realized that the only way that people would buy "The Truth Machine" would be through his being able to talk about it and make people aware of his book. Through my campaign for Halperin, over 200,000 copies of "The Truth Machine" were sold.

During the interview it is important for the author to mention the title of your book so that the audience can order it from their bookstores or online. It is also important for the self published author to make sure that his or her novel is readily available to the public and currently listed with Amazon as well as other major online distributors such as Barnes & Noble.com. Your listing on Amazon is crucial and as an author you should take advantage of all the free publicity that you can secure. A helpful tool for convincing prospective buyers on the internet to purchase your book is to have people who have read your book send in positive reviews to the major online distributors such as Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, etc. These positive reviews are very effective and can be the difference between a prospective book buyer deciding to order their book or not.

Another essential is to have your own website where potential buyers can learn more about the book and the author. A website is also a good way for readers to purchase your book and gives you yet another opportunity to promote yourself to your audience.

While book signings are certainly not going to produce giant revenues, I think that doing local signings in which you do not incur any travel expenses are worthwhile. It gives you the opportunity to refine your skills as a speaker and also to meet with the public and get a feel for what they are looking for in the way of science fiction books. However, I do not recommend that you spend your own money orchestrating an expensive book tour to various parts of the country, as the costs of hotels, plane fares; car wear and tear, etc. can run into high numbers very quickly. The reality of book signings is that unless you are a famous author you are not going to generate a tremendous number of book sales.

Staying abreast of the publishing world and networking are incredibly important elements that no author should ignore. It is essential to be apprised of what is going on in the publishing industry at all times. I am surprised at how many authors do not subscribe to Publisher's Weekly, nor read other publications that devote a great deal of important information about the publishing industry such as the Book Review sections that appear in the Sunday editions of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, etc. It is not necessary to buy a subscription to these publications as much of this information is available on the internet. Another very helpful way of getting a better feel for the publishing industry is to watch C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2. These cable networks are devoted to the publishing industry and feature extremely interesting authors who have a great deal to say about their books. Watching these authors in action can help you become more successful in communicating with the media and the public.

It is also vital that the author creates a great title and cover for their book, along with receiving a strong quote or endorsement from a celebrity.

Milton Kahn, President and CEO of Milton Kahn Associates, which is based in Santa Barbara CA is considered to be one of the premiere book publicists in America. Among the honors that Kahn has received number Publicist of the Year by the Book Publicists of Southern California.

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Be sure to visit Milton Kahn's website for more information.


Original E-Book Publication - A Loophole in Your Publishing Contract?

By Richard Curtis

Publishers Weekly recent carried the news item that St. Martin's Press was launching its first exclusive e-book title, The 100 Day Action Plan to Save the Planet by William Becker. Obviously it's a book about the environment and, as the news item pointed out, "releasing the title as an e-book would be the most environmentally-friendly approach." It sounds like a book everyone should read, and we applaud St. Martin's initiative for going straight to e-book.

It does however raise a provocative question for authors and agents (and publishing lawyers): is there anything in a conventional book contract that prevents your publisher from releasing your book originally as an e-book? Or, for that matter, exclusively as an e-book as opposed to print on paper? I would guess that the author of the St. Martin's Press book explicitly waived his right to have his book published first in a hardcover or paperback volume. But what about us garden variety authors? Could a publisher elect to go straight into e-book without our express permission?

Just asking!

I raised the question in a column years ago and raise it again now. It might be worthwhile for author and agent organizations to examine publisher boilerplate and, if I'm right, push to sew up this loophole.

Publicity – Giving Your Book the Help it Needs – Part 1

I recently received an email from Book publicist and PR guru Milton Kahn and I was so impressed with his pitch and the fact that he knew I had written two novels that I invited him to post a two-part series on the importance of book publicity. He was nice enough to share his invaluable information with us. - Anthony S. Policastro

By Milton Kahn

In today's highly competitive literary marketplace publishers and authors are finding that it takes more than reviews and book signings to make a book successful. The reality of publishing today, even among the mainstream, big-name houses, is that unless you are one of their heavy-hitters you are going to have to promote your book largely on your own time and with your own money. While hiring an experienced, knowledgeable publicist does not guarantee success, it can go a long way toward separating your book from the rest of the pack. A successful public relations and promotions campaign does more than simply sell books for an author; in addition to increasing sales, a well executed campaign can also serve to institutionalize the author's name, which leads to bigger and better publishing deals.

To give you an idea of how the publishing industry has grown, in 1975 there were approximately 3,000 publishers throughout the United States. According to my friend Patricia Schroeder, President and Chief Officer of the Association of American Publishers, Inc., today there are well over 200,000 publishers in the United States made up of large, medium and small publishing companies as well as vanity press houses. These publishers produce over a million books a year, many of which are competing for the same media attention.

Though publishers and authors can certainly contact the media on their own, including sending galleys to publications such as Publishers Weekly for reviews – and even mount aggressive book-signing campaigns, there is a very limited amount of meaningful exposure that an individual writer can secure without the resources and contacts of an established publicist. A solid national public relations campaign targeting all of the key media in television, cable, radio, newspapers, magazines and wire services is the most important factor in determining the success of a novel.

Once you have decided to engage a professional publicist, the next step is finding one who is right for you. Beware of any publicist who offers guarantees. Ask for references and contact authors they have represented. A good publicist will work with you to find issues in both your book and your personal life that will make you a saleable interview to the media. Interesting background elements about the author are often what open the door to interviews.

Issues touched on in a book that relate to history or current events are another positive element in getting media exposure. An example is my campaign for former head writer of the CBS series "Murder She Wrote", Thomas Sawyer, for his first mystery novel "The Sixteenth Man". In his novel Sawyer had developed a theory about the Kennedy assassination which was highly controversial and intriguing. As a result of this particular issue I was able secure countless television, cable, and radio interviews throughout the country as well as articles and mentions in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Liz Smith's nationally syndicated column.

While everyone dreams of getting on major television shows such as Oprah, a variety of key radio shows is really critical to building a successful national publicity campaign for a book because it allows the author a much greater block of time to promote his or her book. As an example, a show such as the Jim Bohanan Show, which is syndicated by Westwood One, reaches over 5 million listeners every weekday night, with authors getting approximately one hour on the air. Talk show hosts such as Richard Neer, Michael Smerconish, and Jerry Doyle, are incredibly effective interviewers who give the author a great deal of time to talk about his or her book as opposed to a show such as Good Morning America in which the author will most likely get two or three minutes.

Be sure to visit Milton Kahn's website for more information.

Milton Kahn, President and CEO of Milton Kahn Associates, which is based in Santa Barbara CA is considered to be one of the premiere book publicists in America. Among the honors that Kahn has received number Publicist of the Year by the Book Publicists of Southern California.


Watching Books

By Richard Curtis

Book editors are not famous for being early adopters of technological innovation. But at long last, a decade after the introduction of the Rocket Book and Print On Demand, mainstream publishing has joined the Digital Revolution. A generation of mouse-clicking youngsters has swept into editorial cubicles and even old-timers who only a few years ago couldn’t distinguish between ROM and RAM are now fully wired.

Manuscript Submissions via E-mail

One of the most significant reflections of editors’ comfort level with digital technology is their growing acceptance of email submissions of manuscripts. Until a couple of years ago the practice was discouraged and it still is, except for material solicited by literary agents and professional authors. But as editors recognize the competitive advantage of instant transmission of potentially hot projects, submission of emailed documents is becoming commonplace.

What do editors do with these documents? In many instances they print them. But the high cost and environmental wastefulness of printing manuscripts motivated editors to try reading books on desktop or laptop computer screens. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove very satisfactory. Though they became used to editing manuscripts on computer screens, they found that reading at length on desktop monitors or laptop screens was hard on the eyes.

Enter E-Book Readers

Happily, e-book technology matured just in time to solve these problems. Not long ago an editor told me she’d discovered that the Sony Reader was so perfectly suited to reviewing manuscript submissions that her boss purchased them for everyone on the division’s editorial staff. She simply uploads manuscript files and reads the book at home or on her commute to and from work. Recently I have heard many an editor rave about the virtues of the Sony (and to a lesser extent Amazon’s Kindle) as an editorial tool. They also speak of the “green” benefits of paperless transmission of texts. Authors and agents benefit too, thanks to savings on photocopy, printing, and mailing costs.

What’s Missing from this Book?

The blessings of submitting books by email are so obvious that it’s hard to imagine a downside. But indeed there are drawbacks and unintended side effects of this technological shift, and we need to acknowledge them. For instance, Word for Windows (the format of choice for most authors) displays typographical and grammatical errors in the form of glaring red and green underlines on text pages. This can be a serious distraction for editors hoping for a “page-flipping” experience (as your pitch promised). Conditioned as they are to spot and correct errors in manuscripts, they may find their eyes lurching from one red or green flag to another, requiring them to stop reading and ponder some solecism beckoning for attention on their screen. Too many lurches could make a critical difference in the decision to buy or reject a book. (Although current models of the Sony Reader and Kindle don’t yet employ spell- and grammar-check features, it’s a good bet they eventually will.)

Of far greater significance is the vast difference between reading text printed on paper and text displayed on a screen. The visionary Marshall McLuhan made us aware of the different temperatures of various media, and though he originally described television as a cool medium, if he were alive today I think he would agree that our society has become conditioned to think of screens as hot compared to print media. Thanks to television, the Internet, video games and computers, we have come to expect color, interactivity, instant gratification and a complete immersion of the senses from our screens.

Is That All There Is?

Reading text on a screen without sound, color, or movement, one develops the uneasy feeling that something is missing. We wonder, Is that all there is? I’m not a psychologist but it seems more than likely that we are bringing to text viewed on screens the same expectations we bring to television, movie and computer screens. Indeed, something is missing! How can we not be disappointed - even, God help us, bored - when these blocks of words fail to stimulate the same intense response as a YouTube video? We are trying to extract a linear experience out of a nonlinear medium.

The fundamental appeal of books is their ability to transport us to the author’s world. The best books immerse us so deeply in that world that we become almost immune to distraction. But screens are breeders of distraction from the sort of commitment to thinking, reflecting, and imagining that books demand. Books are vehicles for ideas; one can set a book down and ruminate and process. Computer monitors, television sets, and e-book screens discourage reflection. Thinkers simply live in a different time zone from watchers.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that a lifetime of exposure (if not addiction) to media - indeed, to multimedia - may have compromised editors’ ability to judge books on their own merits. Rather it is tempting for editors to judge them in a context of entertaining audiovisual displays. As successive generations accustomed to being diverted by watching, rather than by reading, enter the editorial workforce, impatience with printed text is demonstrably increasing, as we can see in the sharp decline of newspapers and magazines. Books require a commitment of time and attention that we either don’t have or aren’t willing to give. The temptation to skip or skimp is strong. One editor confessed to me, “I tend to scan manuscripts on screen rather than read them the way I do a printed text.”

We must therefore ask ourselves whether instead of reading books on screen, we are watching them.

The Click of Fingernails on Keyboard

Agents pitching projects over the phone routinely hear in the background the click of fingernails on a keyboard. That’s the sound of the editor googling the author and surfing his or her website, amazon.com rankings, and BookScan sales figures. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if the editor’s first exposure to a book is on a screen, he or she may unconsciously rely on extrinsic factors when making acquisition decisions? If so, it places on authors and their agents the burden of making submissions more entertaining, and that is exactly what many are doing. To make sure that the editor’s first impression is a favorable one, a growing number of authors are enhancing submissions with such colorful embellishments as author photos and audio and video clips, websites festooned with hotlinks to amazon.com pages, sales spreadsheets, screen captures, review quotes, celebrity endorsements and other flourishes designed to stimulate editors’ audiovisual responses.

It never hurts for authors to be attractive and promotable, and no one in publishing is so na├»ve as to deny that publishing decisions are influenced by an author’s sex appeal, charm, showmanship, and other extrinsic factors. To utilize the mighty resources of the Internet in order to play up those factors is by no means deplorable as long we keep things in proportion. Which means that, ultimately, it’s all about the book. But as the publishing industry’s drift into the rapids of show business accelerates, we should not be surprised to see computerized pyrotechnics become significant if not decisive factors in the acquisition of books.

Nor will we be surprised to discover authors writing not to be read but to be watched.

Copyright © 2008 Richard Curtis. This article is an expansion of one that originally appeared in the summer 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin under the title "Watched Any Good Books Lately?"

For an interesting piece about literacy and media, click on Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? by Mokoto Rich in the July 27, 2008
New York Times.

Pub Date

By Richard Curtis

Few events in the life of a book are as thoroughly invested with magic and mystery as its publication date. Although the season, month, and day of publication are, as often as not, selected merely to satisfy the expediencies of a publisher's schedule, many authors and even some publishers assign kabbalistic value to pub dates, and a great deal of myth and nonsense has come to surround the process. One hears such platitudes 
as, "January is a lousy month to bring out a book," or, "Nobody buys books in August," or "Can you believe they released my book on Friday the thirteenth?"

As tens of thousands of books are published annually, you may safely assume that a day does not go by without one being officially launched somewhere. I know of no records correlating the success or failure of books with their pub dates, but I daresay that if someone were crazy enough to trace the fates of bestsellers back to the dates on which they were published, it would be demonstrated that successful books debut on just about every date on the calendar - including Friday the thirteenth. It would also be discovered, I'm sure, that just as many books flop as triumph whose pub dates are agonized over and deliberately selected for maximum impact.

A few words about the differences between hardcover and paperback distribution might be pertinent here. Hardcover books are for the most part shipped directly from publisher to bookstore (though the advent of powerful hardcover wholesalers and jobbers is changing this, it should be noted). Hardcovers can be, and are, shipped on any date, but traditionally they are categorized by season: spring and fall. Sometimes Christmas is designated a third "season." Hardcover publishers hold spring and fall sales conferences to introduce books scheduled for the following season, and they issue spring and fall catalogues. A hardcover published in July will probably be considered a spring book; one published in February, a fall book.

The rise of the paperback industry created a very different distribution rhythm. Until relatively recently, when the great bookstore chains made direct distribution of paperbacks a significant factor in the publishing industry, paperback books were carried only by the same distributors who stock magazines in newsstands and drugstores, and this form of distribution is still the dominant mode in the paperback industry. But because distribution of magazines follows a monthly cycle, the scheduling of paperback books became a monthly affair. Catalogues issued by mass market publishers are for the most part monthly, and, unlike their hardcover counterparts, paperback editors refer to pub dates by month, not by season. And while it is impractical to conduct a sales conference every month, paperback publishers do consult with sales staff and distributors on a monthly basis far more extensively than hardcover publishers do. The lingo of paperback distribution is closer to magazines, too: hardcover books are published, but paperbacks are released (or issued).

In an earlier era when novels and general nonfiction were affordable only by a wealthier segment of society, the summer was undoubtedly a dead time for booksellers as the carriage trade fled the cities for favorite rural watering spots. A book published in July or August could very well die, and it's easy to see where the notion arose that August publication is the kiss of death. In September the affluent returned to the city, presumably hungry for good books to read and mindful of the impending Christmas holiday, when books make excellent gifts. That is why fall has always been considered the best time to launch a book, and for the most part that remains true, because a book that goes on the bestseller list in the fall has a good chance of carrying into the Christmas buying season. And if January is considered a lousy time to publish, it's because bookstore owners are preoccupied with post-holiday returns, budget deficits, and winter vacations to recover from the intense business of the previous few months.

Mass market publishing and marketing have smoothed out many of the hills and valleys of bookselling, making the business a year-round enterprise. The capital required to feed a mass market maw allows for no downtime. Every month must carry its share of the annual business, and every book, whatever its publication date, must be considered a source of maximum profit potential. "People used to say things like 'July is a good month for publishing but August is bad'," Robert A. Gottlieb, former president of Alfred A. Knopf said in a New York Times article. "All those maxims are true until books come along that disprove them, then the opposite is true." Gottlieb added that Knopf published most of its books "at the first rational moment," and I would say that many of publishers do the same.

Some books definitely do have seasonal pertinence. Sports novels or nonfiction books come to mind, for they are often dependent on the start of playing seasons or tournaments. It makes common sense to bring a baseball book out in March and a football book in August. And sometimes there are excellent strategic reasons for publishing a book in a specific month.

The scheduling of books for publication on a specific calendar date is usually aimed more at gratifying whim or superstition - publisher's or author's - than at achieving any significant commercial advantage. It is flattering for an author to have his book published on his birthday, but from that day forward the book is on its own. It seems logical to bring out a biography of Lincoln on Lincoln's Birthday, or an account of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, or a study of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, for these dates possess a certain degree of promotional cachet. But that's as far as it goes.

Quite clearly, a book's publication date is nowhere nearly as important as some other factors on which publishers spend a great deal of time and energy during scheduling meetings. Possibly the key one is what the competition is doing. If, for instance, Simon & Schuster knows that Crown is going to be publishing a new novel in September by its blockbuster author, S&S might well think twice about scheduling its own fall leader around the same time. Information about the pub dates of major books is usually available from a variety of sources such as publishers' catalogues, Publishers Weekly, and the free exchange of information among friendly competitors (to say nothing of gossipy agents). And occasionally, when the exchange of information is not so free, friendly competitors have been known to resort to subterfuge.

If, however, two lead books scheduled for the same time are not really competitive - a literary novel, say, versus an international thriller - the publishers might not be afraid to go head to head, because two different audiences can support both books and simultaneously boost them onto the bestseller list.

Publishers may not be so gentlemanly if they get caught up in a race to be first out with a book on a hot subject such as an unfolding high-profile criminal trial. Dramatic news events will occasion rivalries that are anything but friendly, for now the competing publishers are committing a great deal of capital to getting their books into the stores first. In some cases both books do well, but on many occasions the second book across the line suffers grievous losses.

You can see, then, that unlucky pub dates can occur on any given page of the calendar, and the circumstances attending the birth of your book are far more auspicious or inauspicious than the date. Any day is Friday the thirteenth for the author whose publisher goes bankrupt on his pub date, or the one who finds himself on pub date without a sponsoring editor because the one who originally acquired his book left six months ago to take another job, or the one whose pub date was unheralded by a single ad because the whole advertising budget for that month was allocated to a blockbuster on the same list.

But such misfortunes are not reserved to the lowly. Not long ago a superstar author reportedly blew a gasket because her publisher hadn't had the prescience to realize that another publisher had scheduled a book by an equally illustrious name for the same month as hers, and she dressed her publisher down in terms usually reserved for marine recruits.

- Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

"P & L"

By Richard Curtis

One of the least pleasant duties that agents are obliged to perform is explaining to their clients why their books have flopped. And there is no dearth of reasons: the editor was fired, the company was taken over by a conglomerate, the salesmen didn't understand the book, someone stuck a lousy title on it, they didn't advertise it, they didn't advertise it enough, they underprinted it, they brought it out too soon, they brought it out too late, there was an Act of God, there was an Act of Satan - an agent's files are a veritable Grand Guignol of publishing horror stories.

The one thing it does not always occur to agents to tell their clients, however, is that their books have not really flopped, at least not from the publisher's viewpoint. Maybe your book wasn't a bestseller, but that's not to say your publisher didn't make money on it. Most authors and a great many agents tend to equate the earning-out of an author's advance with the recoupment of a publisher's investment. It's an understandable misconception, for to authors, royalties are profits. If their books start earning profits, they assume the publisher has started making profits too; and conversely, they figure, if the advance doesn't earn out, the publisher must have lost money on the book.

Seldom is this equation true. Although royalties are a gauge of success or failure for an author, publishers use an entirely different system to determine how well or badly a book has done for them. In that system, authors' royalties are only one element of the profit picture, and it is entirely possible for a publisher to make a big profit on a book whose advance has not earned out, or to lose money on a book whose advance has earned out.

Because I have never worked for a traditional publishing company, it took me a long time to grasp this distinction. But because it's a terribly important one, explaining as it does why publishers often seem to be doing everything they can to lose money on their books, I've tried to educate myself in basic publishing economics and would like to share my findings with you.

In most cases today, publishers prepare profit-and-loss projections for books that they are considering acquiring. The calculations differ widely from company to company, from type of book to type of book, and even from book to book. The database for an illustrated book is quite different from that of a hardcover novel, which in turn differs from a paperback novel; and even within the genus paperback novel are such species as lead novel, category novel, movie tie-in, etc.

Many staff members may be involved in producing these estimates: editors, production people, sales managers, sub-rights directors, advertising and promotion personnel, the company's treasurer, the art director, and so on. Each tries to factor into the profit-and-loss worksheet the best-case and worst-case numbers that will help their firm formulate as accurate a picture of a book's potential as is possible in our unpredictable business. The worksheets are really a tool, and their data may be manipulated and negotiated so that costs trimmed from one area may be applied to another in the hopes that enthusiasm for the book will not be dampened by discouraging figures from one or two precincts. If, however, all or most of the committee members come in with poor profit projections, it's unlikely that hearts will prevail over heads when the votes are cast at the editorial meeting.

I may be romanticizing the past, but these complex formulations don't seem to be much of an improvement over the intuitive judgments reached by the founders of such illustrious houses as Knopf, Harper, Scribner, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Be that as it may, publishing decisions today are reached by computers, consensus, and committee, and we may consider ourselves lucky if someone remembers the love factor when the bottom line is being examined.
Love aside, what are the elements of a profit-and-loss projection? What kind of "P & L" figures are resting at your editor's elbow when he phones you or your agent to commence negotiations on your book?

The key figure on the positive side of the ledger is revenue to be realized from sales of the book. You get this by multiplying the number of copies sold by the wholesale price of the book, that is, the actual price received by your publisher after he discounts it to the book trade. If the list price of the book is $20, and the average discount offered by your publisher to the stores is 40 percent, the actual price received by your publisher will be $12 per copy.

"Copies sold," remember, means net sales after returns, for in the publishing business books are sold on a returnable basis. So, if a publisher prints and distributes 25,000 copies of a book but 30 percent of them are returned, the actual number of copies sold (what publishers call the "sell-through") will be 17,500. Multiply that 17,500 by the $12 per copy that your publisher is getting and you get the publisher's gross sale. In this example, that comes to $210,000.

To this figure is added the publisher's anticipated share of subsidiary revenue: book club, paperback reprint, first or second serial, foreign rights, etc. Depending on how liberal or conservative the firm's fiscal policy is, these numbers range from wishful thinking on the one hand to zero if the publisher doesn't want to count on income that is not absolutely guaranteed at the time the book is acquired. More and more publishers tend to take a highly conservative position in prognosticating sub-rights income. The most important reason is that agents have grown tougher over the last few decades about permitting publishers to participate in that income. So, to play it safe, some publishers leave subsidiary revenue off the ledger sheets when preparing their projections.

Another source of revenue for publishers is the sale of remainders. If the undistributed or returned copies of a book, such as the 7,500 copies in the above example, are sold to remainder jobbers they will bring in a few thousand dollars for the publishers, and that goes into the plus side of the P & L.

Now for the minus side. From the income generated by book sales, remainders and sub-rights income, your publisher subtracts its costs. These fall into several categories that are reckoned by formulas drawn from company and industry experience and the counsel of the firm's financial officers and accountants. One category is plant costs: typesetting, color separations for the cover or for color illustrations, preparation of halftones for black-and-white illustrations, and all other procedures up to the actual printing of the book.

The second category is manufacturing costs, lumped together as "PPB": printing, paper, and binding.

A third is overhead. Included here are rent or mortgage payments on the publisher's offices, electricity, salaries, telephone, office supplies, the cost of money, warehousing, sales commissions, insurance, and the many other expenses required to run a business. Because each publisher includes or excludes different items when calculating overhead, the fluctuations in overhead allocations differ widely from one publisher to the next. A safe guess is that most houses allocate between 30 and 40 percent of gross sales.

The next category is author's royalty. This figure is fixed by contract. Royalties represent a big chunk of a publisher's costs. An 8 percent royalty on a $6.95 paperback comes to about 56 cents. But remember that the publisher sells that book to the trade at a discount. If the discount is 50 percent, or $3.50 a copy, the royalty will absorb about 16 percent of that revenue.

Then there are some miscellaneous costs such as outside design, cover art, copyediting, indexing, illustrations, and the cost of free and review copies.

And, finally, there is the cost of advertising and promotion.

As I mentioned, accounting practices vary widely when it comes to allocating costs to specific books on a list. Should the publisher allocate the same share of his total costs to every book regardless of its importance, profitability, and actual share of the company's investment? Or should big books carry a proportionately larger share of the cost load than routine ones?
Because publishers don't agree on the fairest way to deal with the question, their allocation formulas vary widely, and a good example of this is advertising and promotion. Some publishers simply average out the cost of advertising and promotion for all books on their list and add some percentage points to the overhead charge on each book. For other publishers, it makes no sense to allocate to a routine book a percentage of the enormous cost of pushing a bestseller. These publishers therefore "break out" the advertising and promotional cost of each book and show it on their profit-and-loss worksheets as a separate item from overhead.

Okay, we're ready to do some calculations. Take the gross sales of your book, add remainder income and anticipated subsidiary rights revenue, and you have an income projection. From this you deduct your plant and manufacturing costs, overhead, royalties, advertising and promotion, and miscellaneous costs. What you end up with is projected profit or loss.

The final figures are educated approximations, of course, and don't take into account many factors on both the income and outgo sides of the ledgers, such as corporate taxes, inflation, damaged copies, losses due to strikes, fire, and flood, interest earned on royalties banked between semiannual royalty periods and on reserves against returns, and much, much more. Still, on the average, paperback publishers earn something like 15 to 20 percent pretax profit on routine books. And, because unit costs go down and sales volume goes up on bestsellers, the profit on major books is even higher.

What do the numbers tell us? For some of us, they only bear out our worst paranoid fantasies that publishers are battening on the lifeblood of authors. These fantasies are fueled by the fact that publishers do not share their profit-and-loss projections with authors. Some conceal vital sales information when reporting royalties. And, because many publishers are owned by larger corporate entities such as entertainment complexes, they are not required to disclose financial information to stockholders or the public. One of my western-writer clients says writers are like mushrooms: "They're fed a lot of horseshit and kept in the dark."

Others among us may realize that publishing is a tough, unpredictable, and treacherous business, and perhaps the people who play for such high stakes deserve a handsome profit for the risks they take and the capital they invest (though it must be said in all fairness that 15 or 20 percent is not exactly a windfall profit). I don't know the answer. But I can safely say that the profit-and-loss worksheets of most authors I know are a lot more depressing than anything I've seen from publishers.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.