Editing Magical Words: Week III


Half of editing is working with words in some way, and half of it is working on business-related issues. I did a little reading this week (Misty and Faith both sent me their Top 25 lists this week, so they’re off the hook), but mainly my time was spent in discussion with the members of MW about the pros and cons of approaching various publishers who might be interested in this book. We already had one highly reputable small-press publisher who expressed interest, so the discussion centered mainly around the question of small press vs. large (read: New York).

This is a bigger question than it might seem on the surface.

Working with a large New York-based publisher comes with a variety of pros and cons. One the one hand, they can offer larger printing runs, easier access to distributors and book stores, and more sizeable advances. On the other hand, authors cede a lot of control to the publishers when they work with New York. For one thing, they have no control over what the book looks like, which is tremendously important to the success of the book. Within author circles, you often hear the term ‘death cover’ (or something similar): this means that the book has such a bad cover that it is going to kill the book’s sales, regardless of other factors. It may sound extreme, but it really does happen. That’s not to say ‘death covers’ don’t happen with small-press publishers, too; it’s just the difference between a self-inflicted wound and one that is perpetrated on you by another. One is significantly easier to bear than the other.

Working with small publishers gives the author(s) more control over what the book looks like and how it is presented to the buying public, but there are cons as well. Invariably there are fewer resources that the publisher can put behind the book (which goes far beyond just marketing dollars). Probably the most important thing for an author to consider when looking at a publisher is access to distribution. Many readers aren’t aware of this, but publishers don’t, for the most part, sell directly to book stores. The big ones may make deals with mega-chains like Barnes & Noble, but they primarily sell to distributors, who then put together a catalog of inventory and sell to the stores. So if you sign with a small publisher, one of the most important considerations is their access to distributors. Even if they produce a gorgeous looking book, if they can’t get it into book stores, it makes little difference.

Back to the subject of marketing dollars…

These days most authors are expected to do their own marketing. It makes little sense, but the authors who need the least help — authors like Stephen King or J.K Rowling — get 90% of the publisher’s marketing budget, while everyone else is left scrambling for the left-over table scraps. Most authors are expected to use a portion of their advance (a very substantial portion, if the publishers have anything to say about it) to send themselves on signing tours, to take out ads, etc etc. So in the marketing department, the difference between big and small publishers is not always that great. Except…

Except that at least with a big publisher, you’ll get an advance to use to promote the book. Many small publisher’s can’t afford to pay an advance, so their authors are paying their promotional expenses out of pocket.


On the subject of advances —  Well, I guess the first thing I should do is make sure everyone understands what an advance is. Here’s the nutshell version: When you sign a contract with a publisher, you are giving them the right to publish your book, in exchange for which you (the author) are given a percentage of the sales that result from that book. Percentages vary, as do the rights that the publishers receive (rights are a whole other post for another day), but at the end of the day, the author receives their percentage of the sales. This percentage is called ‘royalties.’ An ‘advance,’ then, is just what it sounds like: the publisher gives the author a certain percentage of the expected royalties in advance, ie paying out money ahead of the actual publication of the book. This is something of a simplification of the process, but I think you get the idea. The nice thing about an advance is that if the book does not earn the money the publisher expects it to, the author gets to keep the money anyway. The bad part about an advance is that the author does not see another dime until the books ‘earns out’ its advance, which means earning enough money for the publisher to recoup the advance money they paid out.

So… that’s what an advance is. If your head doesn’t hurt yet, you’re obviously not paying attention.

Meanwhile, back at the big vs. small publisher conversation…

Even if a small publisher doesn’t offer a very large advance, or any advance at all, that doesn’t mean the author won’t make money working with them. In fact, it means that if the book sells well, the author will start getting royalty checks right away (either once or twice a year, depending on the author’s contract/publisher’s policies).

Another advantage to working with a small publisher is that the turn-around time can be shorter. With many big publishers, the time between when the author turns in a completed manuscript, and when the book is actually in book stores can be as much as 12 to even 18 months. That’s a long time to wait for your book to come out. Of course, if you’re a serious author, you start writing a new one as soon as the last one is done, but still, waiting a year or more to see the finished product is a long time. Large publishers can turn them out faster – there are exceptions to every rule – but only when they decide it is in their financial interest to do so. That’s not often. Small publishers, on the other hand, can usually turn a book around in considerably less time, so that makes working with them attractive in cases where timing is a factor.

Which brings us to our little work-in-progress, How To Write Magical Words

The group went back and forth for several days on whether to go large or small, ending up on the side of small, and I’m pleased to announce that we’ll be publishing HTWMW through Bella Rosa books. I was on the phone this week with Bella Rosa books, and they’ll be sending a contract for HTWM W shortly.

The primary reasons we went with Bella Rosa are threefold. First, we’ve seen other titles they’ve done, and they produce a quality product. Second, they have the access we want to distribution. And third – and possibly most importantly – they can get our book published before the end of this year. I don’t have an exact date to report yet, but it’s going to be a bang bang job, (at least by publishing industry standards). In order to have the book by ready by early December of this year, we’ve got to get our completed manuscript to them by early to mid September, which gives us maybe ten to twelve weeks to get it all together. If the how-to book was the only project each member of Magical Words was working on, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But given that each and every one of us are working on multiple other projects… well, let’s just say it’s going to be an interesting summer.

Signing off for now. Sorry if this is an abrupt ending, but I have to run; I just realized I have a lot of work to do.



7 comments to Editing Magical Words: Week III

  • That’s awesome that you’ve got a press for the book now! Cool beans! I’m amazed that it will be out before the end of the year! That blows my mind. And yeah, my head hurts from the whole advance/royalty convo. But the stuff about the business part of the business of writing I find interesting, even though I can only take it in small doses. If I tried to read and understand more I’d get overwhelmed and possibly throw up my hands about the whole thing. So now I focus on the writing side of the business of writing with small forays into the business side like this post and Lucienne’s post on writing for (or not writing for) the market. Good luck with the mountain of work. (I sympathize, empathize, and recently drew jury duty for next week. Ack.)

  • Enjoy jury duty, Pea Fairie; make sure you bring a book.

    The business stuff isn’t that bad. Like many other things, taken in small doses it eventually becomes second nature.

  • Edmund, excellent overview of the process — and the last week, which was interesting. Book-by-committee! Thank God for an editor (you) who made the process easier and kept us all moving forward. It is so easy to get discouraged in this business, or tied up in knots, or take a wrong turn and end up with something wrong/ugly/unusable/poorly designed/unsaleable/etc..

    I had the *death cover* once. It ended the AKA’s career, though the death throes took several years. Another problem with big houses is that the covers are sometimes designed by a harried art dept. (See ugly/poorly designed, above.)

    And yet another is that publishing houses sometimes decide that an author is doomed and stop putting in time, effort, or print runs. And the author has no idea why they feel this way or why that decision is made. It is doom, as well. Only two things can change that:
    1) Starting with a reputable, royalty-paying small press in the first place.
    2) An energetic, determined NYC editor, one with power, can reverse that, thought not a junior first-decade editor. There are so few of those around now.

    Been there too, during the aformentioned death throes. Sigh. This business is not for people with soft shells or delicate sensibilities.

  • I’m still agog at how you so offhandedly say that you are in a position to choose which publisher to go with, the way one might, say, choose which restaurant to have dinner at.

  • Wolf – I hope I’m not bursting a bubble here, but we were debating which publisher to approach, nothing more. In a perfect world a writer approaches multiple publishers, finds out several of them are interested in the book, and then watch the publishers bid on the book in what amounts to an auction.

    Faith – You’re right about the advantages of starting with a reputable, royalty paying small press. I also know that numerous authors who usually work with big publishers are using small presses to release short story collections so that the lower sales numbers that usually come with short story collections don’t hurt their status with the big houses that publsh their novels. It’s a screwy business.

  • This is a terrific overview, Ed. In the pro column for big presses I would add that most big houses put out advanced reviewer copies. These are sent to journals, magazines and newspapers that review books so that the reviews can begin to generate what industry folks like to call “buzz” about the title. It is a crucial and yet often overlooked aspect of book promotion that sometimes is left out of the equation.

    All that said, I am delighted that we’ll be working with BellaRosa. Their books are beautiful, and I feel that it’s a terrific match for this project.

  • Excellent point about the advance review copies, David. Big houses are considerably more liberal/aggressive about handing those out.