Vicki's Book News and Articles

Business: When You’re Between Publishers

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011

I’ve been writing and selling historical romance novels since 1988 and making a good living. Some years better than others, but always able to support myself and my two children. My income is the only family income. Now, for the first time since 1988, my publisher has decided not to renew my contract. She would love to renew it, but can’t get approval because my last three sell-throughs are pitiful at around 25%. I don’t know what to do.

Okay, let’s explore some strategies.

1. Adjust your mindset. Do NOT start that negative, self-doubt business regarding yourself or your work. It’s normal to do, human, but it doesn’t do a thing to resolve the situation. You CAN write, and you CAN sell, and you’ve proven both. So any niggles or nags cease right now. You’re just at a turning point.
Let’s focus not on the problem, but on a CONSTRUCTIVE solution to the problem. That means ditching the fear and doubt now–right away–because it’ll only get in the way and toss positive action right out the window. We don’t want to wallow, we want to act, right?
Right. If you’re feeling these things, look in my library for an article on Fear and Doubt. If you can spare a minute, read the article on IS IT WORTH IT, too. Between the two, you’ll see that you aren’t alone in your quandary. Other writers–many, many writers–have experienced what you’re facing now. It’s not lethal. It’s a growth opportunity just waiting for you to recognize it and snatch it up and run with it.

2. Think time. Okay, now that you’ve got a positive frame of mind, let’s take a look at what you’ve been doing and what you want to do.
It’s typical for a writer’s early works to be fired with enthusiasm. As the writer progresses, changes, and grows, sometimes their enthusiasm wilts. You can determine this by reviewing your books. You’ll see improvement on the mechanics of writing –experience teaches–but what about the nature of the novels? Are you still as eager to write the type of book you’ve been writing as you were when you began writing them? This exploration will give you a good grip on what you’re writing and its value to you.
If you love writing this kind of novel as much as ever, great. If not, what kind of novel gets you fired up to write? A hint: check your TBR (to be read) stack. What kind of books are you buying and reading and most enjoying? Have you considered writing that type of book?
Could be you’ll rediscover the passion you had for your work. Could be you’ll become aware of a new passion for another kind, or genre, of writing. Either way, you’ll get back on track with what you want to write. That’s important because creativity is fueled by desire. It’s through desire that we create–and continue to create.

3. Commercial realities. Now we need to look at the realities of the business of writing commercial fiction. Sell-throughs are important and elevating the number of units sold is of vital concern. We all want fiscally responsible publishers. These folks must operate so that they have the money they owe us and can pay us. Bankrupt publishers due to unsound financial policies we do NOT need.
Fiscally responsible publishers buy books they love and can sell. They know their readers. Publishers understand fulfilling those reader expectations lifts their bottom line so that they are fiscally sound corporate entities. This is a healthy thing for them and for writers. Sometimes it requires them to make harsh (seemingly-to-the-author brutal) decisions. I’m betting they don’t like that position anymore than we like being in that position.
Remember here that only a small percentage of books are sold directly by the Publisher to the reader. Most books are sold to distributors, such as Baker and Taylor, Koen, and Ingram’s. You have groups like Andersen’s who stock tons of grocery stores, Wal-Mart, Target, and many others.
These books are wholesale and the distributor then sells them to bookstores, or wholesale outlets (like Wal-Mart, drug and grocery stores, etc.). (I realize you probably know all this, but we need to remember it, and some on the list might not yet be aware, so we need to include it here.) Many libraries and independent booksellers buy through the distributors; some buy from Internet stores like Amazon because they save money by doing so.
These two interim-sales links–distributors and retail sales–are further divided. You have centralized buyers like the chains (Barnes & Noble, Walden, Books-A-Million, etc.), who buy for all their stores. You have groups of independents who buy collectively to get better (thus more competitive) discounts from the publishers. The interim links between publisher and reader expands.
And all of these pit stops between publisher and reader track sales. The last distributor I spoke with said he invested heavily in books with a track record of 70% sell-throughs. One sales representative recently told me he’s responsible for eleven publishers’ list in his territory–as many as 400 books at one time.
Now imagine yourself pitching (or having pitched to you) 400 books. Now picture pitching or being pitched 400 books in a 15-30 minute meeting. And now you’re getting a strong image of why the cover art and cover copy are so very important. Often, according to this rep, decisions on buying rest on the author’s name and/or the cover art. There simply isn’t time to sit down and read 400 blurbs or 400 excerpts. Decisions are snap–often 5 seconds or less, on a single book. If you’re on the lower end of your publisher’s list (versus being lead title), your book isn’t going to get ordered by many buyers. That’s the reality. Authors hate it, publishers hate it, and buyers hate it, too. But that’s the way it works.
Publishers offer incentives to show their enthusiasm for a book or author. They do promotional campaigns, advertising, and take other steps to enhance sales. Some are successful, some are not. Some attempts that have been previously successful just don’t work on other books. It’s not an easy task, that’s the point.
Now many booksellers would be totally content with a 50% sell-through. Sure, they’d like more, but they are content with 50%. The problem comes in then with the retailers/wholesalers who are not content to use their shelf (or warehouse) space for items with a 50% sell-through rate. Either the store staff or wholesale representative puts items on those shelves that moves, or the store manager is going to replace the books with items that do move. The buyer warehouses books that move or the buyer is unemployed. Selling books is their fiscal responsibility to their companies and to their customers.
So we’ve taken a look at this challenge from the publisher’s perspective and we better understand the impact of low sell-throughs on them. To stay in business, they must buy and sell books they can entice book buyers to buy and sell to readers.

4. Decision time again. With a firm grasp now on what we want to write and understanding the importance of publisher’s needs (and the book buyers/sellers needs), we writers now have some choices to make. We can shop for another publisher, who is definitely going to look at those numbers from the previous publisher. The new publisher might or might not be daunted by them.
If the new publisher can tag the reason for the low sell-through (cause and effect) and it isn’t the quality of the work, then they ask themselves if they can rectify that challenge. For example: Your books are wonderful, the covers are lousy. They are not indicative of what’s inside. Now this new publisher has a fabulous art department and they know exactly what kinds of covers these books need. So the packaging is determined to be the problem, not the work. They can fix this!
Yet the problem remains with the book buyers. Yes, they can fix the problem, but can they convince book buyers who also keep extensive records to get on board, stock, and sell the writer’s books. They confer with marketing and sales staff and gain a consensus that they can. They have a plan and its solid.
The sell-throughs aren’t so vital anymore. This new company has a strong program in effect that diminishes this packaging challenge and a strategy for selling the books to buyers. They’re good at both. This challenge can be overcome.

5. You can approach your existing editor with the idea of writing under a new name. I know a lot of authors who cringe at the thought of this. Some downright refuse to change their name for a fresh start. But it is a strategy worthy of consideration. Yes, you’re starting over again with building reader identification. But you’re also starting over without the liability of that low sell-through, and that can be an asset–to you, and to the publisher.
Regardless of what you decide to do in reference to your writing name, you need to determine the root challenge on sales. Only by investigating and exploring and making that determination can you then know what action to take that negates the challenge. To fix it, you must first know what it is, and then you’re ready to act, to seek a publisher (which might be your existing publisher or a different one) with strengths in your specific vulnerability.

6. You can expand your writing to include works in a different genre or subgenre. Many who write, say, historical romance also write contemporary category romance. Or category romance writers often write science fiction or fantasy or mysteries. Some do so under the same name, though I caution you on that. Readers of one kind of book expect you to write another like novel, not a totally different kind of novel. So many writers use two names: one for each type of novel they write.

7. Right now, you’re feeling a great deal of pressure–you have a family to support. That can and will impact you on many levels. Emotionally and physically as well as financially. Some writers produce their best work under pressure, some their worst. Only know how you react to the pressure. And you must choose to do all you can to not let this position negatively impact the work. That can be difficult, a huge challenge, but it is so important to you creatively and personally. It takes time to gain the trust of a new editor, who knows you and your abilities.
If getting an outside job will relieve that pressure, then I vote you do it. Perhaps a part-time job will give you the assistance you need to minimize the financial pressure so that you can retain focus on creating. Perhaps you can work from home, editing or critiquing or writing via the net. This action, whichever you choose, or if you choose another entirely to supplement your income, can provide added income and give you the breathing space you need to make good, solid decisions. Not desperate ones.
This is going to sound strange, but it’s true. Desperation carries a scent and it’s not an endearing one. It can lead to you make awful decisions–ones you then must live with having made for a long time. So you can see how essential it is to you professionally and personally to do what you must do to rid yourself of desperation so you can choose wisely your course of action.
The last point I want to make is that you are on a familiar bump in the road. Many, many authors are in this position right now. Many more have been in it, and more will be in it in the future. That’s because this is a dynamic industry, and before you curse that truth, remember that stagnant industries die.
Sometimes we need to get shaken up to get fired up again. Sometimes we face the darkness only so we can grip the contrast between it and the light. The reasons why writers find themselves at turning points are many. How we react to them determines how easily we transition from where we were (or who we were) and where we’re going (or who we’re becoming). We either put our individual business hats on and analyze and adjust to the realities of writing commercial fiction or we don’t. If we do, we’re stronger and wiser and have the opportunity to come back revitalized and rejuvenated. The one thing we can’t afford to ever forget is that turning points are a natural occurrence in every life.
Writers are not exempt. We are going to have them–many of them. A turning point is simply a change, and change is going to happen. We are going to experience it. We cannot avoid it. If we accept that, then we work with making that change. We also save ourselves a lot of suffering and pain and wasted energy by denying or fighting it or being close-minded about it. Aren’t we all for sparing ourselves from pain and suffering?*


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