Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Marketing Value of a Second Book

One of the more pleasant surprises from the publication of A Warrior’s Soul has been the increased interest in The Pirate of Panther Bay. Even though Panther Bay was published in 2006, I’ve more than doubled its sales this year as a byproduct of marketing for A Warrior’s Soul. Both are teen novels, and apparently they pair together reasonably well. (The themes and content of a Panther Bay, however, are more mature and best suited for 7th-10th grades).

I’m also finding that the two books compliment each other when I give talks on writing and publishing.

It’s a good example of being open to synergies in marketing to improve the overall prospects of your most recent work. (It also helps that they two books have strong reviews.)

Inside the Mind of Literary Agents

I was digging through my files and found a very interesting rejection letter from a literary agency. They were unusual in that they provided some insight into their process for deciding whether to take on new authors and books. So, I thought I would share some key parts from the letter (which I received in 2009).

“Like the rest of the arts, publishing is a very subjective business. Even though the founders of the agency have written and coauthored 14 books, most of which have been successfull, they still get rejected. And although we have sold book to more than 100 publishers since 1972, our clients’ work is still rejected. Nor do all of the books that we sell succeed.

“[We] are eager to find new books and writers, and we love to get excited about them. But the only way we can make a living is by selling books to the large and medium-sized New York publishers, and selling small books by new writers to big publshers is becoming more difficult. So, finding new writers is the hardest part of our job. And it’s getting harder.
[emphasis added.]

“Like editors, we recieve thousands of submissions a year and reject more than ninety percent of them. This forces us to use a form letter. But rejecting manuscripts that become successful books is a publishing tradition.”

(Frankly, I sometimes wonder if agents can do basic math. If they receive 1,000 books, the last statement implies they accepted 100 new authors/titles on average. This is highly unlikely. It’s probably closer to a dozen, and that probably represents new titles from current clients.)

For more, see my earlier articles on (Secret) Literary Agent Math, when it’s time to approach an agent, and literary agent “fishing.”

How Long Should You Market Your Book?

Just heard from an authority over at the Author’s Academy that authors should think about marketing their book over a three-year time frame. Yeesh. That seems like a lot. But, alas, it’s been my experience that this is probably about right. In fact, it’s probably closer to 3 1/2 years because I believe you should be marketing 6-9 months in advance of the actual publication of the book. In fact, for all of my books, it’s taken at least a year to create a basic level visibility once they’ve been published.

Here’s a quick, thumbnail sketch of a three-year marketing plan:

  • Stage I: Pre-publication marketing that builds awareness by creating a web site, getting local media, securing endorsements and early book reviews, holding a launch event; generate “buzz” (6 months);

  • Stage II: Build an readership base/audience once the book is published, primarily by honing your core marketing message based on stage one, publishing articles in key venues, contributing to blogs, building content on your website/blog, and experimenting with marketing toward specific segments (12 months);

  • Stage III: Consolidate your readership base by targeting the most receptive audiences, continuing to do what you did in stage two but focusing more on sales generation, reaching out to targeted audiences for special sales, and creating depth and consistency with your marketing (12 months);

  • Stage IV: Branch out to new markets based on the success of your initial marketing efforts (12 months).

Something to ponder: a second book, targeted for publication in late Stage II or in Stage III. This is a great way to validate you as an author and provide another hook and reason for people to buy your first book. On a personal note, I’ve seen revitalized interest in my first novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, now that  A Warrior’s Soul has been published.

For more details about the specifics of what this plan might look like, see my earlier series of articles on Guerilla Book Marketing here, here, and here.

The Reality Behind Book Advances

Irene Watson has a useful commentary on book advances over at Blogging Authors (Nov 13, 2011) that current and prospective book authors should read. Traditional and established publishing houses often provide an “advance” to an author-an upfront cash payment for their book. Advances can range from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on: 1) your ability to negotiate, and 2) how much sales potential the publisher sees in your book.

Irene, however, notes that sometimes advances come with strings attached:

“But, that’s not where it stops.  The huge misconception is that traditional/big time publishers promote authors.  They don’t…unless you have an important name.  When the author gets an “advance” it doesn’t mean the money goes into her or his pocket and he or she can take a trip they’ve always wanted to make.  It means that the marketing/publicity expense has to come out of it.  The author is expected to hire a publicist, attend signings/events (sometimes even arranged for by the publishing company,) travel, stay in hotels, promote, promote, promote, and it all has to come out of the advance. As well, the agent takes 15% off the top.  So, when we hear that an author got $800,000 advance, that’s all it is; it’s an advance for all the expenses and the higher the advance, the higher expectations for promotion by the author will be.” 

I generally agree, and it’s been my direct experience (now with seven books under my belt, five through conventional publishers), that new authors shouldn’t expect their publishers to market their book. They geneally put their resources into the authors they think will sell the most copies. If you have a weak marketing platform, or are not well known, or sell to a niche market, you probably won’t end up in that category.

Nevertheless, I think Irene might be taking this a bit far. I queried a friend who does get decent size advances on her books (and her books sell well), and her experience (as well as her published author friends) is that their publishers have not required them to hire publicists and they even usually cover travel, lodging and other costs associated with book signings, events, and book tours. This was her response to Irene’s comments:

Although it’s true authors are expected to do LOTS of promotion on their own, in my experience (and that of most writers I know), the publishing houses do a great great deal to promote our books. The advance IS yours to keep and do with as you please. There is never an obligation that you will use it for promotion, although many authors do. I’ve never known of an author “expected” to hire a publicist. I’ve always been assigned a publicist from the publishing house. Granted, that publicist is usually handling about 20 or so writers at any given time, but still, they work their *** off. I do set up a lot of events on my own, for which the publisher is very grateful. Often, even if I’ve set it up myself, the publisher pays for travel and lodging. They’ve never arranged something for me and then asked me to go on my own dime.

Despite this, I think Irene’s points are generally on the mark. An advance is an advance, and author’s should recognize it for what it is: an indication of the potential for your book to make money for the publisher. These advances are, however, deducted from royalties on book sales. Most authors would likely rationally choose to spend most of that on marketing and publicity, particularly of they are new and cultivating a reader base.

Most importantly, however, my belief is that if your publisher offers an advance, by all means take it. It shows the publisher has “skin in the game,” and they have a tangible motive to invest resources in your book. If they don’t offer you an advance, that commitment to your work will be weaker.

My takeaway from Irene’s post is that if you are negotiating with a conventional publishing house, you should be represented by a literary agent. Their job is to protect your interests while maximizing the potential for your book to do well. Irene’s post does a nice job of showing the pitfalls of not having a knowledgeable representative working for you in the publishing process.

When Is It Time to Approach An Agent?

Okay all you first time novelists, sit down before you read this post.

A couple of weeks ago, the Author’s Academy (hosted by the independent publisher Wheatmark) had literary agent Ann Rittenberg on to talk about literary agents and how to land an agent. Ms. Rittenberg represents some big names in fiction, including Dennis Lehane, C.J. Box, and Laura Whitcomb.

The best part of these calls is that they provide an opportunity for existing and aspiring authors to hear from experts about what it takes to be successful. And Rittenberg’s comments were candid if not sobering.

Rittenberg’s agency receives about 150 manuscripts a week. She picks up…maybe…one or two clients a year. She is excited enough about three to four submissions to read the entire manuscript…in any given year. So, do the math. It’s a competitive world.

So, how do you get your manuscript to stand out? Obviously, it has to be really, really, really good. And different. Perhaps even unique. And commercialy viable.

But, here’s the money piece of Rittenberg’s advice: Don’t even bother sending your manuscript to an agent until it is outstanding. As a rule of thumb, Rittenberg thinks writers need to be writing for about 10 years before they get good enough and polished enough to produce a manuscript that even has a shot at a major publisher. Agents can usually tell based on the first page or two whether it’s any good or not.

I actually don’t think her advice is too far off. Rittenberg referenced the book Outliers, where author Malcolm Gladwell notes that the greatest artists, minds, inventors and businessmen & women typically toil for at least 10,000 hours at their business or craft before they excell. (I also talked about this in one of my first posts on this blog, “The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success.”)

The point is not to discourage new authors. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that writing is both skill and art, and the more practice you have the better you get at the craft. (Personally, I can see this maturity in my own work, comparing literary style of A Warrior’s Soul with the earlier The Pirate of Panther Bay, and both of these published books to my third yet unfinished novel Renegade.)

Reading Rejection

Like most authors, I’ve had more than my share of rejections from agents and publishers. The most frustrating part of the process was trying to figure out if I could glean anything positive from the process. Most of the time, all you get is a post card saying: “Thank you for your submission. We don’t think your manuscript is right for our list at this time. We are confident you will be able to place your book with a suitable publisher.” Yeah, right.

But, the truth is, this little postcard says a lot about the approach many agents and publishers take to accepting or rejecting manuscripts. It’s not a complete blow off. As the publishing market becomes more competitive, agents and publishers can only accept manuscripts they are excited to represent and publish. The margins simply aren’t there to carry a manuscript that they can’t be excited about.

More telling, and helpful, in my view are rejections where the agent or publisher has taken some time to give you feedback. One of my more disappointing rejections from an agent (for A Warrior’s Soul) said: “Alas I am already representing an author whose work is too similar to yours so I am going to pass on reading more.  Best of luck with your body of work.” Of course, I don’t know who that other author is. (There are only two other teen martial arts series I’m aware of and neither one takes the contemporary reality-based approach I do.)

The letter that left me scratching my head was a New York publisher’s rejection of The Pirate of Panther Bay where an editor wrote a very complimentary letter back saying: “The writing and the storyline is tight and well developed…and you have done a wonderful job of weaving historical elements into the story line while keeping them relevant and interesting.”

Okay, great, so why didn’t you publish it?

In truth, the sobering reason is pretty straightforward: As good as the book was, it just wasn’t right for that publisher at that time.

Such is the world in which authors, particularly new and the not-so-famous ones, operate.

What we (authors) should not assume is that our book isn’t any good because it was rejected.
A Warrior’s Soul is “highly recommended” by Midwest Book Review and the reviewer from said he was “inspired.” Former teachers and librarians have recommended it for the classroom. The Pirate of Panther Bay has recieved reviews calling it a “swashbuckling tale of piracy, action and romance,” “A grand high seas adventure any teen would love; many adults as well,” and “masterfully captures a sword fight, building tension it seems hard to believe possible short of seeing it on a huge movie screen.”

So, I’m confident my books are solid contributions to literature and my genre. (I guess I’m just a little ahead of my time.)

Now, on to editing the completed draft of that third novel….

Literary Agent Fishing: How Many Books Do You Need to Sell to Hook an Agent?

I’ve written before on how the conventional publishing market is changing, and how literary agents are increasingly focused on the authors capable of selling lots of books right out the door. I suggested in an earlier post that 5,000 books a year is probably a minimum. Then, someone very knowledgeable about the process suggested the threshold was closer to 10,000 or more.

I recently ran across an admission from a major literary agent (she represents a few best selling authors) that she usually doesn’t consider picking up an existing author unless he or she is selling 1,000 books a month, consistently, over a period of time. So, that translates into 12,000 a year. (Btw, that could mean annual author royalties of between $12,000 and $50,000 depending on your publishing agreement.)

This number might be misleading and on the low-end. The agent was answering a question about an independently published author hoping to snag a conventional publisher. In other words, the agent thought that an independent author capable of selling 12,000 copies of her book on her own likely has a marketing platform that a conventional publisher could leverage into much sales volumes through their established distribution channels.

Very few books make it into this category.

But remember, you can make money on selling as few at 500 books through an independent publisher; that’s just not a level high enough to interest the biggest fish in the ocean (or in New York).