Kathy Sierra, co-creator of O’Reilly’s popular Head First series has an interesting post on “creating a bestseller”. Btw, Head First proves that there are still opportunities to develop a new computer book series and have it do well – congratulations to the entire team that built this one.
I just wanted to add my two cents to Kathy’s post. While I agree with much of what she said, I’m not on board with everything. The first area where our opinions start to diverge is where she talks about the publisher not being solely in business to help an author build a better resume. While this is certainly true, there are other things implied in this part of her post. For example, the casual reader might think that many publishing/authoring deals are a one-sided decision, that the author simply tells the publisher what book to do and the publisher skips their own due diligence stage. I can’t think of any projects I’ve worked on where we simply published a book to help an author build their resume. Sure, we’ve all published books that haven’t lived up to expectations. But believe it or not, the editor, publisher, marketer, etc., go through a lot of industry and segment analysis before deciding whether or not to sign a book. In short, both the author and publisher need to feel they can make money on the project.
Kathy also mentions the self-fulfilling prophesy of an author going into a project not expecting to earn out their advance. Again, I agree that both author and publisher should be as optimistic as possible, there are also market realities to consider. Additionally, the advance on project “A” could be a significantly different number than the advance on project “B”. If the publisher does their homework, they should be paying out an advance that they feel will definitely earn out, preferably in the first year of sales. One of the most unpleasant aspects of my job is facing the prospects of an unearned author advance write-off!
When I was on the authoring side, I wanted to make sure I had enough of an advance to cover my expenses and hopefully cover a good chunk of my time. I say “a good chunk of my time” because I always hoped I’d earn more than the advance, making the project really pay off in the long run. The trap some authors fall into here is dividing their advance by the number of hours they expect to invest in the book – the resulting hourly rate is then compared to the rate they charge as a consultant, for example. If the “book rate” falls too far below their “regular rate”, they look for a higher advance. Negotiations often fall apart at this stage because it’s simply impractical (in all but the rarest of cases) for a publisher to match that sort of hourly rate on an advance.
Despite all this, I accept the fact that some authors are only writing a book for the advance. They assume that’s all they’ll make and anything above that is gravy. Here’s one reason why this isn’t as unhealthy an approach as Kathy suggests: it prevents the author from mortgaging their future and being disappointed. It also helps them from over-extending themselves financially, waiting for the arrival of that “first, big royalty check to make up for the missed mortgage payments.” I’m not trying to “set the bar too low” with this. I’m just trying to encourage fiscal responsibility by both the publisher and the author.
Finally, I wanted to speak to Kathy’s point about the publisher keeping the book available. There’s no doubt that it’s critical for the publisher to keep the book in stock. On the plus side, more sophisticated modeling systems have helped many of the chains/stores do a better job of managing inventory. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a totally automated process though. I review the in-store inventory levels of a large number of my group’s books every week. When I see a stocking opportunity I alert the sales rep and they present the case to the chain/store buyer. Keep in mind that all stores across a chain are not equal. The A-level, or lead store for chain “X” in New York City should probably stock more copies of your book than their B- or C-level stores in Ohio, for example. These chain buyers are pretty smart. They also have a good feel for what sells in certain pockets of the country. That means that the author might not find their book on the shelves in Davenport Iowa and assume it’s nowhere in that entire chain. Bad assumption. The buyer may have decided to put it only in A-level stores. If it takes off, that same buyer is likely to place a follow-up order and stock the book deeper across the chain.
Also, it’s important not to lose sight of the key online accounts. Sometimes the inventory they sell isn’t at their warehouses anyway – it’s sitting in a wholesaler’s warehouse and gets shipped directly from the wholesaler to the customer. Therefore, “stocking” levels are less meaningful for these accounts as long as they can fulfill through one of their wholesaler partners