This industry has changed A LOT since I dipped my toe in 5 years ago. And I mean a lot. As I was exhibiting yesterday at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, I had a couple of epiphanies I’d like to share.
I never really think about how far I’ve come. But yesterday at the book festival other authors were coming to my table (which had all 6 of my books on display). And you could see the twinkle in their eyes when they found out I’d had a book published by a Big 6 publisher. They’d look at my table and say, “Wow, you’ve written a lot of books! You must never sleep!” Honestly, I don’t think of myself as having written a lot–certainly not enough. As long as I have stories that need to be told, I will always feel like I’m behind. And right now I’m way behind. But one thing I have done in this short time period is experienced a significant range highs and lows of this industry. Not the biggest highs, not the deepest lows–but certainly enough of both. Having indie published, been picked up by a big six publisher, and gone back to indie publishing, I think my perspective is…how shall we say…a mature one.
And the biggest piece of advice I have for new writers sitting around with twinkly eyes hoping and praying for a book deal is to understand one thing–this is a whole new world, a whole new marketplace.
I’m an avid reader and remember the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s for black authors. Successful authors were few and far between,; super successful authors could be counted on one hand, and they were publishing royalty. Rock star writers. I still go groupie at the mention of the names Eric Jerome Dickey or Terry McMillan. The status is certainly a goal to which we can all aspire but their careers will never be your career. That’s theirs. They ran their race, in their time, their way. You’ve got to run yours. Will yours include rock star status? Maybe, maybe not. But you shouldn’t make a book deal as if that has already come into fruition.
I started my publishing career right at the tip of the ebook explosion. In 2009. It has been truly amazing to see the evolution. Simply amazing. I started publishing at a time when selling 1,000 ebooks a month was a true feat. The Bum Magnet accomplished that when not many people were doing it. Now there’s been a flood of authors into the marketplace and self-publishing has evolved from being shunned to being respected (in some circles–even with the quality issues). I mean there was a time no one would look twice at self published authors, and now we’re a part of the conversation and we can build our own readerships.
While people are all full of “keep it real” advice for those going into self-publishing, nobody really gives the “keep it real” advice to those still seeking book deals.  Nobody gave me any advice and I admittedly didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. I’m not even sure I read my contract past the advance amount and due dates. LOL I’m kidding–but certainly I didn’t understand how to put the small print into context of what do I need to happen in this deal, in this marketplace, if I’m not a bestseller.
What’s the one piece of advice I would give to an author making a book deal today?
Don’t make a 1990’s deal in a 2014 marketplace. You are no longer one of a handful or the few. You are one of thousands. And to take it a step further, since most books do not become bestsellers, don’t make a deal assuming your book will be a bestseller, rather make a deal with the full understanding that most do not.
It’s not about minimizing your success or the excitement of your deal–or its possibility; it’s about making smart business decisions for now and for your future. It’s about ensuring your book has a future in the marketplace, even if you don’t have a future with your publisher.
Keeping it real — you can absolutely find success with a traditional publishing and have a wonderful career filled with love and light. A lot of authors do–even today. But you better plan for the worst, hope for the best–and ask the right questions. So, let’s begin…
Books don’t sell themselves — Do you know what kind of promotion your publisher is going to support you with? And what you’re expected to do? I mean really know–in detail. Are they just sending out advanced copies for reviews? Are they going to get you some prime space in the font of bookstores? Are they sending you on a multiple city book tour? You better find out up front what is truly expected from you and from them–and let them be specific. Too many authors, including me, stopped reading the contact past the advance and the due dates.
Speaking of advance — do you understand what it really means to get an advance? And if you do, have you considered what happens if your book sales aren’t sufficient for you to earn out your advance? Oh, you better think about that before you sign the dotted line. You better consider whether you really need a large one—or whether you’re asking for a large one because of “how it looks” and how many people will “ooh and aaah” when they hear “5-figures” or “six-figures.” You better not be concerned about what other people think of your advance — and instead better focus on ensuring you can earn out so that you can sustain your career.
What about your editor? Have they taken the time to talk to you, not just about THIS BOOK, but about your career? Are they filling space on a list? Or are they investing in your career? Do they care about what you want to do next…or down the road? Do they ask what you see for your future with them–and did you ask them what they see for your future with them? Did you ask them what they and the publisher would need to see to consider your book “successful”? If not, YOU better ask. Set expectations up front and that way there’s no disappointment on either end.
Did you read the small print in your contract about what happens after your book says bye bye to bookstores shelves? Can they keep your ebook rights forever? When can you get those back?
In 1990s you needed a traditional publisher to get wide distribution to readers. In 2014, you do not. What happens if your publisher gives your book the wrong cover–or way overprices your book? When the sales are flagging and drop beneath the agreed upon threshold (and there will be one in the contract)–do you want your book rights back? And if you do, what will you need to get them back? So many authors who had mediocre sales with their publishers are now finding great success once they self publish–but they’ve had to wait years before getting their rights back. Is that realistic in this new marketplace?
And what does out-of-print mean? What are your options when your book has sold out and they opt not to do another print run?
How about this — can they list your book in “print-on-demand” and keep your book “in-print” forever? This is a new reality in this new marketplace and you better find out and make sure you deal with it in the negotiation phase–not when your book is out of print and the ink on the small print is dry.
If I had to do it all again, with what I know now–would I still take my book deal?
Yep. Sure would.
But I would ask the right questions, read and understand the small print, and ensure that my plan covered my ass whether I became a bestseller or not—because in the real world, or not is most often the case.
I hope this helps someone ask the right questions…