Monthly Archives: June 2011

Secret (Literary) Agent Math

Tortuga Bay earned two gold medals in the FAPA President’s Awards

Ever wonder why literary agents and book publishers don’t take on your awesome, life changing book project? It’s in the math. Literally. This point was recently reinforced by a fellow author struggling to get her book signed at a traditional publisher. At one point, she asked an agent to consider representing her. The agent respectfully declined, saying that the press run was too small for the project to be worth his while.

As the number of literary agents becomes smaller, and the number of conventional publishers shrinks, authors need to understand the basic logic underlying these decisions in order to shepherd their project productivity and profitably forward.

So, here’s the math that dooms the vast majority of books in today’s market for traditional publishers (and opens the doors for savvy companies with nonconventional business models).

First, recognize that publishers, unlike authors, exist first and foremost to make money. They can’t exist publishing books people don’t buy. So, while we (authors) may be convinced of the objective value of our work, publishers see mostly risk and uncertainty. Their goal is to minimize risk, and they accomplish that by choosing projects with the highest sales potential. You may have a great book, but not one that will appeal to a large enough market to make their investment profitable.

Taking a book from manuscript to printing to distribution requires a substantial investment upfront. Excluding the time and effort it takes for authors to write the manuscript, a conventional publishing company can easily invest $15,000 or more just in bringing a book to print. Here’s a quick back of the envelope breakdown of the costs for taking a book from manuscript to print (excluding printing and mailing costs), based on my experience costing out print projects and working with publishers on seven different book projects. (Note that this is a highly stylized estimate for illustrative purposes; each book has its on unique costs associated with the project specific to individual publishers):

  • Acquisition & project management: $5,000
  • Editing, copyediting & proofreading: $5,000
  • Cover design, layout: $1,500
  • Marketing: $5,000

Now, let’s compare these costs to the revenue the publisher can expect from book sales. Let’s start with a mass market paperback with a retail price of $10. This would be more typical of books published by major national publishing houses.

  • Discount the revenue by 50% off the retail price because books are sold to retailers at wholesale, leaving $5 per unit for the publisher;
  • The author receives a 20% commission on net revenues, or $1 per book, leaving $4 for the publisher;
  • Very large press runs (5,000 or more) can bring printing costs down to about $2-3 per paperback book, leaving $1-2 per book to cover editing, acquisitions and overhead.

It’s pretty clear that for a conventional publisher facing these costs would need to sell upwards of 7,500 copies just to cover the upfront costs of publishing this book. The publisher hasn’t even started to make a profit. Moreover, since many books fail to meet sales goals, publishers have to build these losses into sales expectations for new projects. So, they are likely shooting for a minimum sales target of 10,000 copies or more. (Remember, they still aren’t making money if they hit this target.)

Raising the retail price helps, but only by a little. Increasing the paperback price to $15, for example, reduces the break even unit sales point to about 3,700. Raising the price to $20 reduces the break even sales to about 2,500 (although this might begin to increase per unit print costs).

Here’s the reality check: The vast majority of books published today sell fewer than 1,000 copies. So, it becomes pretty obvious that most mass market publishers need to acquire books they believe will sell a lot of copies and appeal to a broad market. Traditional publishers and agents are looking for those projects they believe will move lots and lots of units. (Note: The logic, but not the example, works with smaller presses and university presses as well.)

Moreover, the value of a literary agent is in placing books with publishers that can sell large numbers of units. Most large publishers don’t even take unsolicited or unagented manuscripts because they expect agents to send only projects with very high sales potential.  In short, publishers and agents need to be completely, 100% in love with your book project and believe there is a very large market for it before they will take the financial risk of publishing it or representing it for publishers.

So, don’t be too discouraged if your book isn’t picked up by a literary agent or a conventional publisher. They’ve probably just done the math. If your book’s market can’t meet these sales thresholds, an alternative or nonconventional publisher is probably a much better route to paying readers than beating your head against a wall for years hoping that an agent or traditional publisher will “see the light” and bite the bullet on yours.

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“A Warrior’s Soul” Now Available for Ordering!

I’m pleased to announce that A Warrior’s Soul, my new novel, is now availiable for pre-publication ordering! You can purchase it at the regular retail price at the Wheatmark Book Store, or at a 25 percent discount through June 20, 2011 at the Dayton Quest Center’s on-line book store.

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The Humbling Truth about Choosing Book Covers

As an author, I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had substantial input in the design of my book covers. In fact, in all of my most recent books, I (and my co-authors) made the cover decision. Nevertheless, I probably learned the most about the process through the design and selection for my newest novel, A Warrior’s Soul (published by Wheatmark). I also learned a fair amount about the importance of taming my author’s ego.



Indeed, the design I really liked was not chosen as the cover. We determined it simply wouldn’t market well. And that’s the point. A book cover is all about marketing, not the ego of the author. This is one reason why most publishers don’t give their authors design approval for the cover. As authors, we often become emotionally vested in the characters, plots, and themes and lose sight of the fact the cover is first and foremost a marketing tool—it needs to viscerally grab a potential reader surfing the internet or browsing a book shelf with sharp and easily processed graphics.




During my selection process with Wheatmark, we always came back to one paramount question: Which design will sell the most books?




The selection process included three radically different cover designs. (They can still be viewed at A Warrior’s Soul’s facebook page.) I solicited input from my facebook friends (Sam R. Staley) as well as personal friends. Overall, I received specific input from more than 30 individuals during the four week process.



Interestingly, I found reactions all over the place. I was able to narrow the cover down to two: One with a dark, brooding teenage boy with very cool graphic lettering for the title and the other with a silhouette of a martial arts figure with cool (but not as cool) title graphics. I loved the darker themed cover. I thought the design was intriguing and provocative, and liked the intensity it brought to the book. It was also the cover that had the most divisive reaction among those providing input. People loved it or hated it. That doesn’t bode well for a book cover because the point is to reach as broad a readership base as possible.




We chose the silhouette because the design still “popped” graphically, it avoided casting a negative pall over the book, and it still conveyed key content (including an action theme with a martial arts tie-in). The design didn’t unnecessarily narrow the potential readers (to either boys or girls, older or younger).



The main lesson for authors involved in the cover design is to adopt some humility at this stage of the process. The cover is not about you; it’s about marketing your book and giving it a chance with the broadest audience possible. We may be great writers, but that doesn’t mean we’re great marketers.  

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When Reality Meets Fiction: Guns & Vigilante Justice

A sad story playing out in Oklahoma City reminds me of how fiction and reality sometimes collide. Part of my “style” in writing fiction is to make the stories relevant to contemporary times and issues. This is true for my historical novels, like The Pirate of Panther Bay, as well as my contemporary novels like A Warrior’s Soul. In the Pirate of Panther Bay, the story is set in the 1780 Caribbean Sea but the lead character, Isabella, grapples wth very contemporary problems of violence, death, and discrimination. In A Warrior’s Soul, Luke and Lucy struggle with contemporary manifestations of bullying and gang violence.

So, when I heard about Oklahoma City pharmacist Jerome Ersland’s murder conviction last week I had to pause and think about the implications for my characters in A Warrior’s Soul. The AWS trio of friends–Luke, Lucy and Chuck–must grapple with issues like whether weapons should be used (including a gun) to face down tough guy Dirk and and how far they can push their belief that self-defense justifies violence. These are apparently the same questions Ersland faced when two armed robbers broke into his store and he shot and killed one of them. A jury convicted Ersland of first degree murder (murder with the intent to kill).

The case itself is complicated. The problem for Ersland was that he just didn’t chase one of the robbers out of his store. He returned to the one that he apparently injured, and shot him five more times. Ersland claimed the 16 year old was still moving and threatening him, but the prosecutors argued (apparently successfully) that the kid was unarmed and couldn’t have resisted. What made the case worse for Ersland is that he is a former military officer. The jurly likely figured his training prepared him to make decisions in these situations rationally and not out of fear, haste, or emotional distress.

In my martial-arts classes, my instructors continually emphasize the importance of appropriate force when protecting ourselves from an assailant. Our training, when deployed effectively, can kill someone, and we have to take responsibility for the tools and skills we learn. That, I hope is a lesson that comes through in A Warrior’s Soul. Training and preparation are the keys to ensuring we don’t over-react (or under react) under distress and we use appropriate force as a last resort and when no other alternative exists. 

The Ersland case is a strong reminder as a writer that I have certain responsibilities for depicting the action and behavior of my characters. I shoud respect the fact that the consequences of not treating their actions seriously can have tragic implications if they were applied in the real world.

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A Note on My “Successful” Books

I realized after publishing the last several posts, all of which seemed to highlight the underwhelming financial performance of my first novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, that some readers might be wondering whether I’ve been successful at all! (Short answer: yes.)

If the standard is whether my books have made money for their publishers, the answer is yes in every case except The Pirate of Panther Bay. I’m using this is a case study because I often find I learn the most when I’ve screwed up. Success often has the tendancy to wash over the weaknesses of a project. When your projects fail, you have to look at everything to figure out how to make the next project successful. And that’s they way I approach the Pirate of Panther Bay. (Also, I hope to publish its sequel, Tortuga Bay, in 2012.)

BTW, I should also emphasize that PPB was unsuccessful as a financial venture, not as a novel, story or other content related issues. Indeed, the content was very well received–for those who read it and reviewed it! Check out the reviews and readers comments at www.pantherbay.com for proof. So, the really unfortunate aspect of this project was that our business model failed to get a very good product to a wider audience.

Also, for those still wondering about the details of my past publishing experience, here is a thumbnail publishing history. All of my books have been commercially successful for their publishers even if they didn’t make me (or them) rich! They also have had significant impacts in their targeted markets, and that was the primary measure of their success for their sponsors. (Note that my books have been primarily in academic, public policy and professional markets, not fiction.)



  • Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, hb 1992, pb 1994), about 2,500 copies sold, initial price $29.95 hd; 19.95 pb;

  • Planning Rules & Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994), copies sold unknown, price n/av;

  • Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), co-edited, about 500 copies sold, initial price $69 hardback only;

  • The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What You Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006 hb, 2008 pb), co-authored, about 5,000 copies distributed & sold, initial price $23.95 hb; $18.95 pb.

  • Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), co-authored, about 14,000 copies distributed or sold, initial price $23.95 hb.

Of course, I’m expecting to do well with the publication of my second novel, A Warrior’s Soul, beginning now! Visit www.srstaley.com and learn how you can get a 25% discount as part of our pre-order sale exclusively through www.skhquest.com.

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Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 3

My previous posts on book pricing covered the importance of marketing and distribution systems (Part 1) and the willingness to pay (Part 2). Today, I want to conclude my series commenting on why charging a higher retail price for our book is actually consistent with a well functioning economic world. In other words, demand curves do in fact slope downward, even for niche books (like mine) that focus on a narrower reader base. I’ll still use my experiences with my debut novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, as the illustrative case.



So, what about the Law of Demand? Won’t a higher price discourage sales? The short answer in the classroom is “yes,” but the practical answer is you need to have the right price for the right market.




This is why preserving the ability to discount from a realistically high retail price for our book is essential for our success as authors. Discounting can only be achieved by setting a high initial retail (cover) price. So, even though the price may be higher than most books sold in bricks & mortar book stores, the effective price for most of our customers wouldn’t have been that much different because the sales path for small books is so radically different from the “big boys.” For readers of pirate novels, the difference between $8 and $12 is really not very much and has almost not effect on their willingness to buy the book. (In technical terms their demand is inelastic; less responsive to changes in price.) They value the story in the book more highly than the typical romance reader. They are willing to pay the higher price because they believe the story is worth it. Real-world pricing is about market segmentation—niche markets give us more ability to set a higher price based on willingness to pay.




This is quite consistent with the Law of Demand and the downward sloping demand curve I teach in the university classroom. We tend to forget (and neglect to teach) that each buyer has a different price point. In the real world, publishers and authors should be trying to match a price to each buyer’s preference. The market demand curve represents all the buyers for a particular product for the entire market (niche buyers + general readers). Some buyers will pay the full price for our book (in our case $19.95). Others will not be willing to pay much at all (mass market readers without a specific interest in pirates or action stories).




So, pricing in niche markets is really about recognizing that we operate in a different, segmented market with different buyer sensitivities to the retail price. We can price higher because our customers see enough value in what we produce they are willing to pay for it. Moreover, a higher retail price allows us to provide a more competitive price to customers in very specialized parts of our market such as book clubs, nonprofit organizations, corporate sales, or book fairs. In the end, to stay viable, we need to price based on what the market will bare, not simple theory that neglects the nuance of how real markets operate.



Oh, and by the way, the retail price for my newest novel, A Warrior’s Soul (a bully action story with a martial arts theme) is $19.95, but you can buy your copy now at a 25 percent discount before June 20, 2011 through an exclusive arrangement with the SKH Quest Center for Martial Arts (www.skhquest.com)!


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Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 2

This is the second post in a three-part series on how to realistically price books in the small or niche book market. I’m using my experiences with my debut novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, as the quintessential example of how not to price a book. We priced it to be competitive with the “big boys” (large mainstream publishers) and got our shirts handed to us. Rather than pricing our book at $8, we would have been much better setting a retail price of $17.95 or $19.95.



Would this have worked? Yes.  And the reason is basic microeconomics. You should set your price at the level your customers are willing to pay. We could sell The Pirate of Panther Bay at a higher price because, quite simply, our readers were willing to pay a higher price. Readers of pirate novels have a stronger interest in our book because we were positioning it to fill a specific need in the market. So, readers who love pirate books are willing to pay more for a pirate novel than general readers whose interest in pirates is secondary. Big publishers need to sell to both groups. Actually, they focus on the general readers, expecting to pick up the pirate enthusiasts along the way. Start-up and niche publishers don’t have that luxury; we need to focus on a more targeted audience from the beginning and work outward from there. Our books are a “slow burn.”




We also didn’t understand or appreciate the difference between the retail price (cover price) and the effective price—the actual revenue we received for each book sold. Although we priced the Pirate of Panther Bay at $8, we needed to average something close to that to make money. We didn’t recognize the importance of the standard 40 percent discount off the retail price that comes with the wholesale distribution of our books. For on-line retailers such as amazon.com, the discount can be as high as 60 percent. So, we were already starting in the hole. That was a rookie mistake, and we paid dearly for it. We didn’t just lose money on the book; we couldn’t generate the revenues to further market it to its natural and logical readership base. We ended up with a great product (based on reviews) but no ability to broaden its distribution.




Thus, in retrospect, we should have priced The Pirate of Panther Bay at $17.95 or $19.95. We could have then discounted the book to $12.95 or even $10.95 to many targeted audiences although many readers would have been happy to pay the full price. As our readership expanded, we could have printed new editions with larger print runs to bring down the price as our distribution network became more robust and resilient as our base broadened.




Final post in the series
: Why setting a higher retail price doesn’t violate the fundamental economic Law of Demand.

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