A Bit of Priming on Publishing — Part 4

This is the last part I’m going to excerpt from my posts in a discussion on publishing options and factors in this forum thread on SFFWorld. It deals with marketing — one part on marketing to agents and publishers and then one on marketing and promotion of books and more self-pub issues. There is some more material in the thread, which you can check out if you are interested, but it was more specific to other posters’ material, rather than general information:

In terms of literary agents, agents are not like training-wheels. They are business managers. Big authors, including the self-pubs eventually, almost all have agents because they have lots of complicated contracts for a variety of different licenses and they need someone to help market, manage their business stuff, deal with contracts, collect monies, etc. In the U.S. market, if you want to do partner pub or you’re going to be doing a lot of subsidiary rights license sales, a literary agent is pretty much needed as part of the process. However, there are territories where publishers receive government funding and contracts are heavily regulated/standardized, and the use of agents for direct book contracts may be less. In Australia, for instance, our friends tell us that there is a fairly standardized contract so they are more likely to use agents for international subsidiary rights sales.

A lot of authors starting out may not be using agents and may be going to medium and small presses that don’t require agents for submissions. This can work out great but it can also work out bad because a lot of the small press contracts are awful and have missing language, like how long the publisher has to publish the work. So if you’re going that route, go use resources from author groups about contract language. Even though sometimes the advice is a little over-idealized and you’ll likely have to compromise, they offer good guidelines. The SFWA (Science fiction and fantasy writers of America) offers stuff, and there is the National Writers Union (also US,) the Author Guild, etc. Mike Sullivan has offered a lot of useful info on self-pub.

Remember that you are, in writing a work, including the short ones, creating an intellectual property (manuscript.) And it is the exploitation of products from that property (book, audio book, film, game, etc.) So contracts are all about either licensing rights to produce, market and distribute product (publishers, etc.,) or vendor contracts to distribute/sell product (Amazon, POD, etc.) So when you self-publish, you are simply exploiting your own rights to produce product from your property. But if you are exploiting the production rights, then you aren’t offering first publication exclusive rights to a licensee. You’re offering reprint rights — a subsidiary right licensed to exploit your property. So if you self-publish your book online and/or in print, and then market the same property to publishers for partnering, that’s a reprint license, not a publishing license. It’s the same as a small press offering reprint or reprint paperback sub-rights to a larger publisher (and splitting the money from the license with the author.) As a self-pub, you are a publisher, not just an author. The license has already been exploited in some way, so it’s not a first launch.

So you can self-pub and market a work at the same time, but it’s then a reprint. And there are different issues in a reprint license. The publisher will consider if the likely market for the book has already found the book and that’s pretty much the audience, meaning a reprint won’t sell much more, or is it likely that the publisher can expand the audience with wider distribution, etc., which they likely expect if the book is doing very well in self-pub. How many rights in the property they can license is also an issue in reprint deals — do they get print and electronic and you stop publishing, or only one, can they do hardcover or only paperback in print, etc. So it’s different factors and attractions and you have to figure out, as a publisher yourself, what sort of licensing deal you want to do/offer to publishers and offer an agent to market for you if you go that route.

Finding an agent hasn’t particularly changed much except that now the submission process is cheaper and faster because of online electronic submissions (which some agents may only take for queries, but most have gone electronic altogether.) Authors do indeed gather agent names from the Acknowledgement pages of their favorite authors’ books. There are also associations of agents like the Association of Author Representatives. Their members agree to follow basic business practices, so that member list isn’t a bad place to start. If you are going to a convention for other reasons (since they are expensive,) and they have agent/editor appointments, you can try that. Likewise writers conferences do usually have agents who are giving talks do appointments. On both of those, it’s important to follow the rules. And it’s entirely possible if you publish short fiction in various places or you are selling well in self-pub that an agent might come to you, but it’s rarer.

Agents are dealing with thousands of authors who would like to work with them, which is not possible for them to do. So even the newer, more hungry ones are not that hungry that they’ll snap up any author with an offer from a publisher. If an author goes and gets an offer from a publisher, then goes for an agent, the agent will be coming in late. The agent will have a lot less leverage to negotiate deal terms and may not be able to improve the offer much, as opposed to the agent being the one who submitted the work. And there can be contractual issues of whether the agent is going to be the agent of record on a deal you first got yourself. If the house is smaller, there may be not a lot of money on the table and it’s tricky to be able to take the work to a larger group of publishers from an offer made by a publisher in good faith on exclusive submission. There is a time constraint. So it’s not automatic if you get an offer. An agent will usually want to take a look at your book property before deciding because it’s a long business relationship, even with the time constraint. But it does sometimes happen. If you somehow got an offer from a big publisher without having an agent, certainly you would want to go and try to get an agent. If you can afford it and you get an offer from a publisher without an agent, you could hire a lawyer versed in literary law to look over your contract. The lawyers tend to push for things that aren’t going to happen, but at least you’ll know about any hidden pitfalls.

Because there are thousands of authors submitting to both publishers and agents, they don’t like to have spent time reading something and working up an offer for rep or license and then finding out it’s with fifteen others and they wasted their time. So the publishers want an exclusive submission from authors, if they are unagented, and put up with multiple submissions from agents because they have to because the agents have multiple authors. And the agents do not want to get in compete wars with other agents over authors.

The reality is that authors often skirt around these exclusivity commitments and I’m not going to tell an author not to do that. But one way you can manage it is by sticking in a business-like manner to the response periods the publishers and particularly agents tell you they aim for, and you can give them an exclusive for most of that time period. So if an agent’s response period is two months on a partial ms. submission after query or a query packet, then when you’re getting to the end of the two months and haven’t heard, you can contact them about whether your stuff is still really being considered. If it is, you can then still leave it there if you want, or withdraw it, but the exclusive look is done and you can send it to the next agent. But that second agent is then not getting an exclusive and you may have a problem if both first and second agents want to rep you. It’s a balancing act and it’s still slow. Electronic submissions are faster processed, which helps.

Luck is very much a part of what may happen in the fiction market, but not in the way that you are thinking of it. Luck is partly involved in finding a partner publisher to believe in and invest, in making people aware of a book’s existence and in word of mouth happening obviously. But it’s not luck of marketing and pretty packaging (although a nice cover doesn’t hurt in SFF.) Again, fiction readers are promotion resistant. They don’t give a crap about cultural nerves or literary fads. In SFF, they’ve been reading about the same monsters, myths and spaceship adventures for centuries. Murder mysteries have remained murder mysteries. You don’t get any social status for reading a particular book like you do for owning an iPhone or a designer purse or the latest hot game or being the first to see a movie even. Nobody cares what novels celebrities are reading. It’s not like other entertainment sectors. Readers like what they like and they all like different things. The market is broad and it could be a lot broader and that’s how it grows. The fiction market is quite small compared to other products but it’s loved. There are people who love Twilight and there are people who love The Kite Runner and there are people who love The Melting Dead, and sometimes they overlap and sometimes they do not.

There is no such thing as “quality” and “merit” because it is all subjective as to what is good and what is not, and no one thing runs the market. (And claiming you’re more hard-working than other authors will not leave you with a lot of friends.) What mainly happens with a book being a hit is that a lot of people, one way or another, find the book and like the characters in one way or another and find meaning and entertainment in the narrative one way or another. And they talk about it to their friends. This is insufficiently sexy enough a rationale for a book doing well for most people, but it is very much what happens. You should certainly be aware of what is out there in the market and coming out, because fiction is a symbiotic market and knowing lets you be able to describe your work effectively with quick references. And you can try to write to trends if you want; some authors do. But publishers are buying licenses three to one years ahead of bringing the books out, and self-publishers put out fast and in mass quantities so it’s every which trend.

Publishing folk will try to “guess” what might happen and what might be of interest, and authors keep an eye out for opportunities and drift from one sub-category to the next in the field they like, which means we often get clusters of authors who happen to end up doing similar stuff. But every sector of the market has to keep churning, and publishers — and self-publishers for that matter — are bad guessers. :)

Take vampire books. We always have a steady stream of vampire books — hundreds, thousands of vampire books for decades and decades — romances, horror, contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, alien SF vampires, etc. Some of them sell and some of them don’t. And even more thousands of vampire manuscripts get rejected by publishers as not right for them. But when a small group of authors doing vampire fiction do well and/or we get a phenom seller involving vampires, several things happen. First, because fiction is symbiotic, the publishers do extra marketing of their vampire titles to try and attract attention of readers of the hits. They also do it with other fantasy fiction, including epic sec world fantasy and science fiction that has nothing to do with vampires because an interest of more readers in fantasy fiction means some readers will drift browse outwards, but definitely some of their vampire titles. And the media does not like lone hits. They like to make articles about trends. So they make trends by bundling hits together. And this increased media attention helps attract readers to fiction, but it ignores most of the market and other hits.

So in 2003, 2004, you’d go ask agents and editors and pundits on panels what’s selling in SFF, they’d say, well write a vampire novel, that’s all that’s selling. Except that wasn’t true because reams and reams of vampire books were not selling to publishers and on shelves, in fantasy or fantasy romance. And publishers were buying other books than vampire books and putting them out and some of them were hits. Lots of dynamic things were happening in sec world fantasy and many sectors were expanding. But the media liked vampires and then they liked zombies, etc. Meanwhile during that period, SF was pronounced to be dying, again. Fantasy was all the publishers wanted, it was growing so big and SF wasn’t, the readers were dying off in age, it would be abandoned, etc. But if you looked at the whole market, that wasn’t true. Four years later, SF was rapidly expanding especially in the young adult demographic, and now it’s a little star in the fiction market (and in other media,) and The Expanse is a t.v. show. So if you predicted the trend that SF was in eclipse in 2004, you were wrong. If you predicted that vampires would dominate everything, you were wrong, and if you predicted that vampire books would basically disappear out of favor, you were wrong because the vampires never die. :)

So no, a special snowflake of a quality novel will not only be a niche novel that can’t be a hit because it doesn’t hit some sort of cultural nerve. It may be a hit, it may not be. Most authors take a span to build up enough of a fan base to get to bigger numbers. Most of the authors who are sudden hits are utterly surprised by that happening. (A few believe that they did it with massive advertising, but they are wrong.) And luck is involved. Your publisher partner avoiding bankruptcy may be involved. Amazon soaking you for algorithm fees may be involved. Your spouse having a health crisis so you can’t promote may be involved (though we hope not.) But it’s not the luck of being a shallow trend-spotter, because look at all those different best-selling authors from National Book Award winners to erotica. Which trend is the magic key then? And why doesn’t it work with every single book each of those authors puts out? (Because it does not.)

But that’s not a bad thing. It’s an opportunity thing. It means there’s a wide pool that can be jumped into by anybody, that you are not sunk if you don’t have the magic marketing formula or a lot of money. It means you can find an audience and build a career, big or small, and word of mouth can have phenomenal effects.

So I generally tell people to look at the market not to try to game it, because you’ll fail and pull out your hair, but to see where what you are writing fits in it. Because you do fit in it somewhere. And you might sell in it too. And if you’re not a white male in the West/English language market, or a male elsewhere, there are some things you will probably have to deal with/be aware of unfortunately, but there is still opportunity there. More than you’ll get in any other area of entertainment.

The second part which was answering a side question:

While they overlap and are connected, marketing and promotion/publicity are two different things (and usually two different departments in big houses.) Marketing is primarily marketing the products to vendors to get them to buy them for stock and stock them in their sales venue — bookstores, non-bookstores that sell books like Target and Amazon, wholesale resuppliers like Ingram’s, jobbers and distributors that supply the wholesale market of newsstands, grocery stores and such. Marketing is where the publisher sales reps come in and publisher catalogs, etc. Some of this works concurrently with publicity/promotion — co-op advertising arrangements is when the publisher pays for the book vendor to advertise their products (marketing fees) — an in-store display or table, a bookstore ad in the paper or online that features several titles including the publisher’s, algorithms to pop the title up on websites (Amazon makes a ton of money on that one,) and joint events, etc. Some of these marketing issues work with promotion to customers and some of them, like giving vendors bundle discounts, pricing of books, publication scheduling, and various types of returns terms, are not publicity issues.

Promotion involves making the reading public aware that the product exists, is available for sale and of interest. And this is the big problem for fiction, all kinds, because readers are resistant to publicity and promotion of fiction works. They don’t like to be advertised to and they mainly ignore ads and promotions for word of mouth recommendations from family, friends and possibly a few reviewers or media folk whose opinions they like and thus trust. They do also browse book-selling vendors for books so the in-house displays (and cover art) can be effective — which is why book vendors soak publishers for marketing fees for them. Both self-pub and license pub fiction and magazine fiction, etc. rely on word of mouth and no one can control, create word of mouth. This is a very frustrating thing for them. Authors and publishers keep trying to game it — which is why networking became a buzz word and “branding” at one time, borrowed from other industries. But it remains the same — word of mouth sells fiction and ads do not generate word of mouth, which, since ads are very expensive, means that publishers don’t do a lot of the stuff that other entertainment industries do — they don’t do market research as it is expensive and doesn’t help, and they don’t do heavy ads or big promotions on most titles. Especially since the majority of fiction novel titles come out in mass market paperback originals that don’t even get that many reviews.

So the more an author sells and is well known, the more advertising and promotion the publisher can and will invest in because then it’s effective to announce that a new title from the bestselling author is coming out. It becomes worth the cost to pay for an author to book tour, rather than the author touring at their own cost, and so on. And sometimes because they think a new book will be big, they’ll gamble on ads and promotion for a newbie to get some attention. But it’s very selective because of limited effectiveness and smaller presses don’t have the money, so publishers also do targeted advertising — a SFF title might get ads in SFF media if they think it will be or is big enough. They try to get the book to those likely book buyers listen to and to reviewers. They are mainly just trying to make people aware that the book is there, in hopes that some will read it and spread word of mouth.

If an author is working with a license publisher, the author will be doing almost nothing in marketing and distribution tasks — the publisher will be doing those since it’s part of their license and control of their product and it involves the vendors and financial terms. However, authors do sometimes, especially if they are with a small press, try to get bookstores local to them and such to stock their book and then get the publisher to back them up on that. But on promotion/publicity, authors will be doing 90-50% of promotional work and it depends on the author and what they can afford to do in time and money. And what they do promotionally has to be coordinated with the publisher — you can’t step on what the publisher may be doing. But publishers, especially small presses, are happy to have authors go out and get interviews, reviews, do promotions, tour bookstores, go to conventions or book festivals, etc., in addition to what they may do. If the author comes up with something good, they may throw the author some money for it and borrow the approach for other book promotions. If the author has the money, the author can hire a free-lance publicist, but again the publicist has to work with the publisher’s publicity people.

How effective the author’s promotional efforts or any promotional efforts are is a long debated point. Networking on social media or appearing at a bookstore or convention may do nothing, but everybody figures it can’t hurt to try it to put the word out. Since a lot of online/social media stuff is free, publishers encourage authors to do as much of it as possible. Books that have barely any promotion have become massive hits and books that had extensive publicity investments by the publisher have flopped. Publishers do give a lot of authors time to build up an audience slowly, because most bestsellers are made slowly through steady word of mouth. How much time depends on economic conditions for the economy and the publisher specifically. Booksellers are more impatient and they keep trying to codify it with numbers, like other industries use. The use of BookScan numbers is an attempt to somehow be able to predict who’s going to sell for stocking decisions of non-debuts, even though it doesn’t work. Bestselling authors do not have consistent sales. A book that’s a hit for a bestseller does not mean the next book will be a hit, even if it’s in the same series. It’s dips and rises.

So you could say that an author who is working through license publication has three businesses — one: production of creative property (writing,) two: marketing the product to producers (publishers and other types of producers, and frequently to agents to help get to producers,) and three: promotion and publicity work for the licensed publications. That’s a lot of work — authors doing license work do not sit on their butts. For the purposes of accounting and taxes, however, authors in licensing have one business with multiple income streams from licensing to various producers who sell the products made with the property and give the author their licensing cut (royalties.) It is a creative property production business.

The self-press authors have two businesses — the creative property production business just like the license authors, which includes promotion work which can be deducted as business expenses, and the small press business. As a small (self) press, authors do production, art, pricing, marketing, distribution, promotion, collection of sales monies from vendors, and accounting. The self-pub authors do all the jobs that are done by people in a publisher, the whole thing, plus all their author jobs.

Because the author is promoting just themselves, with no other people having invested in them, they face a client base that is even more publicity resistant than license authors have and even more dependent on word of mouth. Ads are likely to be ignored or drowned in a sea of ads, unless the self-pub author has sold well enough to be known, just like license publishing. Self-pub authors have problems getting reviews because there are too many of them, nobody is paying much attention to them, and the self-pub market doesn’t yet have the full marketing infrastructure and media to help them out. Self-pubs have a harder time getting their print books with vendors because there are too many of them but mainly because they can’t offer the business terms and discounts booksellers require. They aren’t professional businesses most of the time, although local booksellers may be willing to carry local self-pub authors if the product looks okay enough. Online POD sales off-set this, but getting people aware of the books through vendors or online outlets for POD remains difficult.

For e-books, to create a fully viable e-book retail market, Amazon made it easy for self-pubs to hop on in with Amazon as their vendor, made production easy and gave them a break on marketing co-op fees. Now that things are more established, they are giving self-pub authors less of a break on marketing fees. (The battle between the big publishers and Amazon was not over e-book prices — it was over Amazon wanting bigger co-op marketing fees as their cut.) But it’s still a lot easier on production costs and distribution costs than doing print. The main problem is that there are just not a lot of vendors in the English language market. Amazon squashed competition and many possible vendors, mainly tech ones, decided books weren’t interesting to them. So that means the bulk of e-book self-pub is awash in the sea of Amazon display. Word of mouth can still spread, which causes a small percentage of books to gain more awareness and Amazon will give free or cheap co-op to the self-pubs still to help that. But the same pyramid shape of sales in license publishing can be found in self-pub — only it’s about seven times as large a group of authors.

If a self-published author works with Amazon, they do not have to go exclusively with Amazon. They can also sell through vendors such as iBooks (Apple,) Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Smashwords, etc. But Amazon smartly insisted that if you sold an e-book for less at another vendor, Amazon had to have the same price as part of their vendor agreement. In the print world, you can do a special discount sale with one bookseller but not others. But if you try that with say the Nook, Amazon will automatically lower the Kindle price to the same price. And if you wanted to do a free giveaway with another vendor, which e-book self-pub authors use as a promotional strategy to get readers for word of mouth, Amazon will drop your Kindle price to zero. So it gives them price control over the market, as does their insistence that if you price your e-book too high or too low, Amazon gets a really big marketing fee cut of your profits. Amazon has enough potential distribution that many self-pubs just sell on Amazon, since the others are a lot smaller with the squashed market. But it’s a big ocean there and dealing with any of the e-book vendors, you have to give up a fair amount of control over your product to be able to sell on their platform, especially with Amazon using a specialized format. And, unlike with publishers and book vendors who negotiate set terms, Amazon and the other e-book vendors can change their terms with self-pub authors any time they want. So these are business factors that can be managed, but authors need to understand them.

Amazon also has programs, such as Kindle Direct, in which self-pub authors agree to sell e-books only with Amazon, and to include their product on Amazon’s streaming book service. This can work well for some authors, but it’s also caused problems for some authors and the streaming service has caused some of them to lose income and so some have gone back to the regular Kindle program apparently. The electronic market is still evolving, has lost the initial launch momentum and lookey-loos on sales growth, but it has become an established tool that took up some of the lost mass market paperback market that publishers have been dealing with since the wholesale print market shrinkage of the 1990’s.

What needs to be perfectly clear is that there is no form of written fiction publishing in which authors do not have to do tons of stuff. But how much stuff is up to the author and involve business decisions of time and money. Authors each have to decide how to run their business and what works for one does not work for all. An author doing hybrid — as most of them are doing — is dealing with different types of income and different business factors depending on the product.

If you receive income from self-pub sales, it’s sales income, not royalty income. Royalty income is done on a different tax form, reported differently, from sales/service income, and is a fee for an authorizing license, mostly but not always based on unit sales or net receipts of unit sales. However, if Amazon is sending tax forms to self-pub authors (and the copy to the IRS) as royalties, then that would be how the author also has to report the income to the IRS (or other country equivalent tax agency.) But this may mean that authors are missing some business deductions they could take from sales income. So it’s a good idea, if you can, if you are self-pubbing or hybrid pubbing, to check with a tax accountant or try to get some info on it. Because when you are acting as a small press (self-press,) you are not licensing from yourself, you are just exploiting your rights, and you don’t pay yourself royalty cuts from the net sales. Instead, you just keep the net sales of your press business. So it’s different.

A self-pub author may hire freelancers to provide press services, such as a cover artist, editor, publicist, etc. All these are business costs of the self-press and deductible tax-wise. A self-pub author may also be licensing subsidiary rights, including book rights, as well as acting as a press. A self-pub author might do an English-language version of their book and sell it as a self-press in North America and the U.K., etc. but then get interest from a publisher in France and so license the French-language/territory rights to the French publisher to translate and produce. So the self-press author then is a publisher in one territory and a license author in another. Same with audio editions, film adaptations, etc.

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