Understanding the Economic Side of Publishing

Eric Flint gave several talks on publishing this weekend at Willycon--talks I thought may be of interest to this group. As a caveat, please remember these are my paraphrases. Any and all mistakes are mine, so read at your own risk. Flint himself warned against using his information as hard and fast rules. This is from his perspective at Baen (as heard by me and transcribed by me from ear to page to computer, so there’s plenty of room for error along the way). Here are my rough notes:

Publishing is a good news/bad news scenario. If you write well, you can get published. A good book is rare. It stands out. It may bounce around until you find the right publisher, so you have to be patient. There are no short cuts to publication. Don’t go to vanity presses.

Create you own luck: be persistent, write another book after you’ve sent out the first, don’t let it depress you or you won’t write. (Flint said he got lucky because Shawna McCarthy had just decided to become an agent when he had won Writers of the Future so she took Flint on after reading his novel--he had an agent so he never queried publishers. He’d call her once every few months to ask if she’d heard anything.)

The bad news is that there’s an economic side to publishing. Don’t expect an informative rejection. You just have to be patient. Flint’s first novel published (not first written) took Baen twenty-three months, during which time Flint did not even query.

Baen is a small business hiring seven employees, putting out six books/month. Each book has the same start up cost: approximately twenty thousand, which is also usually the loss that a publisher absorbs on the road to seeking the new “stars” that will one day drive a publishing company. That cost is from renting the company building and paying its bills, the proof-reading, typesetting, the cover art, etc.

Of the six books published in a month, the publisher will make a list for distributors. At the top is the star or “lead-writer.” Everybody else is called “mid-list.” If the distributor takes nothing else, they should take the lead-writer. It is for this reason that new writers get no priority. A publisher is not buying the book but leasing an author for three books to see how they do. That fourth book is the real hurdle if the writer is bad-selling.

Book sellers put books in three categories: 1) order one book; if it sells, don’t buy more (i.e. first novels); 2) order one book; if it sells, buy another; 3) always make sure there are plenty of copies on the shelves. (Flint is approaching the latter category. Hell, he was just #1 on Amazon.com before his 1634 book even hit print.)

There are about seven or eight aspects that cause a book to sell (he couldn’t remember them all: i.e. print run, cover art and content), of which you can control one: the content. There’s mothing worse than bad-selling, high-priced author. You’ve got to be cold-blooded. As a new author, you’ve got no clout, no rights. Money talks. All you can do is fulfill your end of the bargain. Don’t blame publishers. Get to know staff. Never second guess. Publisher knows best--it’s his business. Don’t lose your temper or argue. Play well with others. He gave the example of Robert Yorick who acted professionally: Although he was considered rather talentless, he still got work.

It’s hard to get into a distributor’s pipeline. Ninety-nine percent of promotion is just getting your book on the bookshelves. Electronic is usually a great way to promote, but a lousy way to sell because it’s easier to browse the SF aisles at the bookstore than to trawl websites. Ebooks are like food processors: use once and it sits around the house--convenient for travelers but has to be cheap. Traditional publishing is best.

Publishers waste so much time and money on ebook encryption that drives up the price when all a “pirate” has to do is scan a book. To circumvent a pirate, all you have to do is sell the ebook cheap and the thrill of pirates’ sails is deflated. Publishers are reluctant to do so, but for Baen, it has added a significant amount to a writer’s income. The advantage a legal company has over a fence is that crooks can’t advertise and they have to continually move. You can always visit Baen at the same address. “Piracy” has always been with us as books have been lent out by friends and libraries and sold by used bookstores. What authors don’t realize is that this is how readers get to know authors and will use this to seek out more of their work. Flint discusses this further at Baen’s library.

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