Numbers The Entertainment Business

Publishing is a business. I was part of it for ten years before I really understood what I was part of: the entertainment business.

That's a term that most people don't stop to examine. But sort of the way the term 'military intelligence' is considered an oxymoron; I think 'entertainment business' has some built in paradoxes that need to be understood.

To me, it means that there is a joining of emotion and logic to produce a product. I think that too often people focus on one side or the other of this problematic equation without realizing that the two have to exist hand in hand.

I talked early in this book about your manuscript having to appeal to both the intellect and the emotion of the reader. If it were just the former, we could reduce everything to a science, but because the latter comes into play, it becomes something of a guessing game.

How come Hollywood can't accurately predict the next blockbuster? How come publishers cannot accurately predict the next bestseller?

It is theory of mine that publishers throw a hundred books against the wall and hope one or two stick and sell well. I just read that 35 of 40 new TV series from the past season have been canceled, so it's not just the publishing industry that plays this game.

It is a game driven by numbers. When all is said and done, success or failure is determined by number of copies sold. And it is an up or out business.

The first number is how many copies of your book the publisher is going to print. There is absolutely no way you are going to make the NY Times bestseller's list with only 2,500 hardcover copies printed, even if every single one sells.

There are two general ways a publisher determines the print run. For a new author, what I have seen is that your advance will give you a very good idea of how many copies will be printed. (Many editors deny this, but this is my experience)

If you get a $10,000 advance and you're being published in paperback original here's the math:

To earn out a 10K advance, given that you get 8% of the cover price of $5.99 (which comes out to $0.4729 per book), 11,630 copies of your paperback have to sell. Given that the average sell through is about 50% right now on paperbacks, they have to print 23,260 copies of the book. Guess what your print run will approximately be?

For a new author in hardcover, you usually make not a percentage of the cover price, but a percentage of the wholesale price. The average rate is 15%. So if your publisher is giving a 40% discount to the book chain, you make 15% of 60% of the cover price, which usually comes out to about $1.40 a book.

(Don't forget your agent is taking 15% of any of that, but don't worry, only 1 out of 10 books printed sees royalties anyway—i.e. earns out the advance.)

So, you get a 10K advance for your hardcover, then you're looking at $10,000 divided by $1.40 equals 7,142 books have to sell. Given a 50% sell through again, they'd have to print about 14,284 books.

Now that's for a new author. If you are an established author, the numbers are determined by previous sales.

Let me give you a personal example of how to fail in this business and how numbers work:

My first book to be published was a hardcover. The advance was $7,500. The print run was 10,000 copies, which is pretty good for a new author. It sold about 7,500, which is a 75% sell-through. That percentage becomes critical, as you will see.

So, the sales reps for my publisher go out the following year to the bookbuyers and say: "Hey, we've got Bob Mayer's second book. How many do you want to order?"

The bookbuyer looks in his computer. He finds that he ordered 10 per store of the first book, sold an average of 7.5. So how many does he order per store? You guessed it. 7.5.

So my print run for my second hardcover was 7,500. It sold about 6,000 copies. An even better sell through percentage but less copies. The third book had a print run of 6,000, sold higher percentage but less copies, etc. etc. etc. By my sixth book with that publisher, I had failed.

Now how do you succeed?

Another personal example: My first paperback original with another publisher was under a new name, thus I was a "new" author. (A good reason for pen names in this business.).

My advance was $12,500. The print run was roughly 55,000 copies. It sold slightly over 30,000 by the end of the first year. Not a bad sell through but nothing to write home to mom about.

So the sales reps went out with the cover of the next book. What should have happened was the chains looked in their computer and ordered slightly less. But here's where something different came into play. The title on this new book, AREA 51, was catchy. The cover design was intriguing. No one went overboard, but the orders came back strong. The initial print run for the second book has been scheduled for 55,000. With the strong orders, it got bumped in the weeks prior to printing. Until it finally settled at 80,000. They shipped 77,000 in the first week.

Within a couple of weeks they had to go back to print for 15,000 more. Then 20,000 more. Then 10,000, then 20,000 more. Totaling 135,000 printed in the first year.

Guess what the print run for the next Area 51 book was? 135,000.

Numbers rule.

People always ask about royalties but the fact is less than ten percent of books published earn royalties. First you have to 'earn back' your advance. Enough books have to sell so that at the royalty rate you have, you make enough money equal to the advance you were given. Once you are past that, then you begin to earn royalties.

A common ploy by publishers is something called 'joint accounting.' When you sign a two-book deal, the publisher stipulates that you will not earn royalties on the first book until you earn out the total advance for both books.

Publishers are loath to pay out any quicker than they have to, but it is a two way street. While they tend to hold onto money for a long time after it is earned, they also pay advances long before they publish a book and earn any money. In the long run the two sort of balance out, although in this age of computers, one would think they could account faster than they currently do. Typically publishers do semiannual accounting. The end of December accounting is credited at the earliest two-month later, and in some case three and a half months later. So technically, a publisher can hold onto money for six months, then an additional three and a half months which is getting pretty close to a year. Also, if you have subrights money coming, it can get bounced another royalty period quite easily.

Another numbers is subrights. My first publisher was strictly a hardcover one. Which meant when they sold paperback rights to my books to another publisher, they got to keep 50% of advances and royalties. You also have to see what the percentage breakdown is for foreign rights between yourself and your US Publisher. Those percentages add up after a while.

If I was a new writer and had a choice—which is highly unlikely—unless my advance was six figures, I would prefer to get published paperback first rather than hardcover. When was the last time you bought a hardcover book from a new author you never heard of?

32. MARKETING & SELF-PROMOTION

Your first book is finally published. You breathe a sigh of relief, lean back from your keyboard and eagerly wait for the author's copies to arrive in the mail, while taking a long awaited break from work. Right? Only if you answer yes to one of the two following questions:

1. You received a large enough advance (that you won't have to pay back if your book does poorly) so that you won't have to ever write again for money.

2. You really don't care how many copies of your book sell, and you don't particularly want to make a living as a writer.

If you don't say yes to either of the above questions, then I regret to inform you that your work has only just begun.

The greatest failure of most new authors is their lack of marketing their first book. It took me four years to realize that the marketing side of being an author was just as important as the writing side and it was only with my third novel that I finally got into the marketing side of the business.

Marketing yourself: I will only briefly mention (mainly because it was one of my major failures as a novice author) that almost a quarter of a published author's work time has to be spent on marketing yourself. From going to book signings, to workshops, to doing publicity work, whatever. There are several books on the market that give good tips on how to do it.

Remember something very important if you ever do get published: your work has just begun. If you want to make writing your career, you have your foot on the first rung and it's a hard climb up.

Target your market: Unless you are fortunate and skilled enough to have a bestseller, you are fighting for shelf space and time. You may not have noticed it before, but most books stay on the shelf a very short time. The person who cares the most about your book is not your editor or the marketing person (if there is one) at your publisher. It's you.

Book signings: Most new authors tend to overestimate how many books they will sell at a signing. Unless you have a best-seller, or have a book that is of particular interest to the clientele of that particular bookstore, I would say you will be lucky to sell a couple of copies of a hard-cover ($19.95) book. I've sat at signings and sold zero copies of a book.

Because of that simple fact of life, you have to consider very carefully when and where to do signings. Not only is it very boring (and somewhat discouraging.) to sit for six hours and only sell four books, it also takes valuable time away from your writing. When I wrote military techno-thrillers, I feel reasonably comfortable doing book-signings at military post exchanges. Even then though, with a military population of almost 40,000 and twice that many dependents and retirees at a post, I consider a good day, twenty books sold in ten hours.

There are things you can do to help yourself. One is a press release (described below). Another is a professionally done banner (don't expect the bookstore to strain itself by printing up posters and fliers, although many will. If you sell even fifty hardcover books, the bookstore's profit margin is not that great). You can also print up your own fliers (in appendix 7). I've also done my own bookmarks by using a Xerox machine, overhead transparencies, and scissors. They're quite durable. You can also get postcards, fliers, and bookmarks done up professionally.

You should also keep the bookstore manager in mind when deciding whether or not to try and do a signing. I just recently tried setting up a book signing at the Pentagon bookstore. After talking to the people involved though, and being informed that the best signing they ever had was former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and he sold about a hundred books, I decided it would be a waste not only of my time, but of the store's time to do a signing there. By making that decision I hope I stayed in the good graces of the manager and can now bombard the store with press releases and fliers in the hopes that they will at least order more copies of my next book than they would have.

On the more amusing side, I've found there are basically several types of people you meet at a book signing. One interesting thing I've noted is that the longer someone talks to me, the less likely they are to buy a book. There is also the person who wants to get from me the 'secret' of how to get published. Usually I answer questions for a while, and then tell them about this Toolkit. Since this would cost money they usually depart. There is also the person who wants to make a deal—they have a great idea and if I would only write it for them, they'd give me a certain percentage of the profits.

The biggest advantage of doing a signing is not so much to sell books, though, it is to meet people. Although I sounded negative in the above paragraph, you do meet some interesting people at signings. It's a form of marketing networking.

Press Releases: You need to do your own press releases. The best way to do one is to talk to someone who works at a newspaper and enlist their aid. Another way is to go to the local university and talk to a faculty member in the journalism department.

Basically, a press release is a way to give a newspaper the information you want them to print in a format that they can use almost word for word (thus making it easier for them— and easy makes it more likely you will get printed).

I have three basic press release boilerplates I work off of:

1. A release for a book signing.

2. A release for a new book coming out.

3. A release for my writing seminars.

Some basic rules:

1. Consider who you send it to. Why would they want to run it? A newspaper reports news—it doesn't give away free advertising space. For your local papers, emphasize the local angle. For book signings, often that is a local angle if the store is in the area. Keep in mind the editor who makes the decision on what to run. Give him or her a reason to put it in the paper.

2. Put in a picture or two.

3. Make the actual release very short, but include a full-page copy of your bio, fliers on books released (include reviews), and clips from your previous magazine publications (if you have any).

4. Address it by name to the appropriate editor. Many papers have special Sunday or even daily sections. Call the paper and ask who would be the best person to address the release to.

5. Get it there in plenty of time before you would like it to be printed.

6. Follow up with a phone call about two or three days before the time it should go to print (newspapers, even small ones, receive hundreds of releases. Your phone call may make the difference between it getting printed and not getting printed. Also it might help your release to get found out of the slush pile.)

A Marketing Binder is a very useful thing to have: I have a binder that I use to keep most of my marketing resources close at hand. It contains:

1. Fliers for all my books (separate ones for each, and one covering all).

2. Mail order form for my books (sometimes at book signings, people will ask if there is any way they get the books). I also use the same form as an ad in trade publications.

3. A one-page bio sheet. (As noted above, it is very useful in conjunction with press releases. I also use it when interviewed—it answers most of the interviewer's questions up front and allows him to concentrate on the interview rather than writing down basic information. As a bonus, it also makes the interviewer's job easier and everyone I've dealt with appreciates that.)

4. A one page flier for my "How to Write Novels" seminar. (This has come in useful at book fairs and signings—you'd be surprised who walks up to you.)

5. A one page flier for my "How to Get Published" seminar.

6. Clippings of articles I've had published.

7. Advertising fliers for my next book to be published (I give these out with every book I sell, even though the next book might be 8 months away from being published).

8. One page synopsis (sound familiar?) of every published book and every manuscript I have written.

9. Press clippings (articles written about me or my books).

10. Copies of my generic press releases.

11. A master listing of all points of contact.

12. Copies of reviews of all my published books.

13. 8.5 by 11 business card inserts (holds 10 business cards on each side, so you can see them. You'd be surprised at the number of business cards you collect at workshops and signings. That's why it also pays to have your own to exchange.)

As you can see this binder contains quite a bit, but I've found it to be very helpful to have all that material on hand whenever I go anywhere. Indeed, it's quite handy to simply have it all in one place even when I'm working at my desk.

Another place that marketing comes in is the Internet. I have only just begun to do this. That brings up the first point: You can get a free web site when you sign on at America Online and some of those sites are quite well done. The problem is that America Online gives a website to every customer which is now in the millions. So it doesn't do any advertising of your site. Someone either has to know the exact site address or stumble across it by pushing the wrong keys. Also, the URL for that web site will be quite long and not exactly something that people can remember. You also have to design the site yourself and while doing basic text will be easy, adding in scanned photos and covers is another story.

I wimped out and paid for mine to be done. I sell copies of my books off my web site and have managed to pretty much break even in the process. I averaged about 150 hits a week the first year, which isn't bad.

You have to be polite but aggressive when marketing yourself. No one else cares as much about your book as you do.

What about hiring a publicist? I've asked quite a few people about this and the consensus for fiction is: don't bother. Why? Because it's extremely hard to market fiction, which seems to contradict my telling you to market yourself. Let me clarify.

There really are no demographics for readers. I get e-mail from children and from grandparents. I have no clue who is really reading my books. Therefore a publicist has a heck of a time doing one of the most important things they have to do before they can even start a publicity campaign: target your market. Therefore a legitimate publicity firm probably would not even take you on as a client if you have fiction.

But that doesn't mean you don't make the effort yourself. I found doing this very frustrating because you never know what's working or not. And it's a very long-term process. To really succeed in this business lightning has to strike you. Marketing is a form of raising a rod. It's not a guarantee you'll get hit, but it makes the odds better.

Now, to further muddy an already murky picture, let me talk about something I've learned late in my writing career:

Take the following survey:

1. Why did you buy the last novel you bought?

a. I had read the author before and liked him/her.

b. Someone recommended the book to me.

c. Never read this author before but I noticed the title/jacket, and read the cover blurb, first couple of pages and thought I might like it.

d. I read a review of the book.

e. The author was doing a book signing locally and I bought it.

f. The author received a six-figure advance.

g. The publisher placed an ad in Publisher's Weekly.

The answers are listed in this order for a specific reason.

Surveys have shown that this is the order in which the majority of readers buy books. Most buy books by author name. Then by recommendation.

This survey was put out at a conference by an agent to make a point—authors who get wrapped up in the size of their advance, the 'publicity' effort made by their publisher, etc. etc. oftentimes miss the boat. I know I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to get publishers to allocate money and time to 'publicity' for my books. Much of that was wasted time. That's not to say you shouldn't try to get as much publicity and support as possible, but it is to say that ultimately the book has to sell. The #1 thing a publisher does for a book after it's printed is to get it out to the stores. Once you are on the rack or bookshelf, then readers determine your career.

I used to get very frustrated talking to my editor or publicist because basically what they would say was: "We put the majority of our publishing time and money behind our best-selling books." And my angry reply would be: "How am I going to become one of your best-selling authors if you don't give me any publicity?" That has a certain ring of logic to it, but I've changed that tune. Because publicity is not going to make you a best seller by itself. And many times, much more than most people imagine, most best selling authors work their way into that status by selling a little more of each book, year after year.

There is a thin line that a writer has to follow in terms of making a book a success. The most important factor is to write an interesting, good book. You must do your own publicity work as I've noted before, but you must also be very cognizant of how much time and resources you are going to put into it against the returns you will get. You also have to be careful of crossing the line from being aggressive to being obnoxious. Always, always and always try to be polite in your dealings with people.

There was one radio talk show I tried to get on that took me over three years before I got a call from the host. The day after being on the show my book was an Amazon.com Hot 100. So that worked.

Again, another contradiction, but you never exactly know how effective your efforts are. I've done call-in radio shows where no one calls in. Makes you wonder if you are speaking out to the ethos and no one is listening.

In my first ten years I never met anyone from my publishing companies and I have met my two agents only once each face to face. Writing is a lonely business and it is conducted over the phone and through the mail. Because of that, it is important to keep good records and also to be very aware of what is said and written.

One important thing to remember is that, like any business, be professional with everyone you deal with. That includes agents, publishers, booksellers, bookstore owners, writers groups, etc. Networking is very, very important for authors and you will be surprised at what benefits you will reap if you deal courteously and professionally with all you meet.

Just today I received a letter from a man I met at one of my PX book signings—turns out he had his own book in print and also wrote a column in a local paper and he kindly reviewed my book. Every little bit helps.

Keep good records of all your correspondence. Keep a copy of everything and maintain accurate files so you can find documents when needed. Also keep good track of your suspenses and try to beat them when at all possible.

I often get e-mail or letters from people who want help. Some want me to ghostwrite a great idea they have. There are very few writers who would be willing to do this. Most have their own work to do and the odds of such a book getting published are usually slim. Remember one thing from both sides—whether you are trying to get published or you are published—time is money. There is a tendency for people who are self-employed to forget this, but authors have to value their time. Be careful of approaching people cold. Also, if you do make a contact, don't be too aggressive. I told a fellow one time to send me a one-page synopsis and he shipped me the entire manuscript. That was a fast turn-off. Another thing that can be irritating is people who send things like that certified requiring you to go down to the post office and sign for it.

Always remember to thank any contacts you make and remain positive.

The bottom line is to maintain the golden rule in this business, regardless of how others ignore it.

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