I know it’s every author’s dream to get an agent and have his book accepted by a NY House, the bigger the better; and we all dream of Advances large enough to pay off our houses (or, at least, our cars), quit our day-jobs, and live happily ever after as full-time writers.
Yeah, I know ’cause I been there. Many, many times.
I was so excited when I got my first agent that I cried. She was a good agent. She loved my work and sold my first novel to HarperCollins. I was in shock. When my editor told me my name “wouldn’t fit on the cover of the book” and that she wanted an “easy” first name to go with my “hard” last name, I was so stunned, naive, and disappointed (and my agent said nothing when I complained) that I thought it wouldn’t matter too much in the long run. I mean, it was HarperCollins (which I grew up knowing as Harper & Row), for heaven’s sakes.
When my next agent sold my second and third books, and I requested that my real name be put on, the agent, editors, and publishers were all, literally, horrified. It seems they didn’t want to “lose the name recognition of THE KOMMANDANT’S MISTRESS.” Though I understood that intellectually, I still felt annoyed and extremely unhappy. It wasn’t my name. (It wasn’t even my birth name.) Why did I have to be stuck with it? Why couldn’t I have the name I’d chosen after reading Lawrence Durrell’s THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET at 17, and deciding that “Alexandria” was the only name for me?
Being published by NY is not all you imagine. Oh, sure, the first editor treated me as if I could walk on water right after she bought the book (and I’d driven from Ohio to NY to meet her and my agent), but she didn’t even take me out to lunch (though my agent did, several times, once to DeNiro’s restaurant, located beneath his film production office, in a warehouse in TriBeCa, where he sometimes came down and mingled with the guests (he didn’t the day we were there: I would’ve had a heart-attack, I’m sure) and where there were no prices on the menu. We each had one glass of champagne to celebrate the sale of the book, and a soft-shell-crab sandwich (delish, by the way) with thick fries. (I sneaked a peek at the bill when she signed: with tip, over $143. Good thing I didn’t have to pay. I’d only brought $150 for all my meals for the entire week.)
When the book was within a few months of publication, a publicist called and introduced herself. She became a lifelong friend. Unfortunately, she told me, I “wasn’t important enough” for HC to pay for publicity for me: could I manage to pay for a book-tour to a few cities that I couldn’t drive to? I’d have to let her set it up, but she’d put me on the cheapest flights, in Holiday Inns, and I’d take my own money for food. Would that be okay with me?
I didn’t think I had a choice. 20 years ago, that’s how authors got in touch with their readers: at bookstores. So I saved every penny I could from my three jobs for 9 months to pay for a short booktour. I was glad I did. It was wonderful meeting all the readers and fans. They were all happy that I was so down-to-earth. Especially when they caught me eating a salad at a nearby fast-food joint after the “show”.
Despite the good reviews, US sales, and foreign sales on the first novel (for which I never received any monies over the initial Advance, which “earned out”, as they say, meaning HC got back the money it originally gave me), when my second novel got sold, I was told, once again, though by a different NY House, that I still wasn’t important enough for them to pay for a tour: could I pay for one myself? I realized then that “being important enough” for a NY House to pay for publicity meant either that they’d paid you such a tremendously large amount as an Advance that they had to spend more on advertising in an attempt to make it back, or that you were already a bestseller whom they paid such a tremendously large amount as an Advance… You get the picture.
My third book, non-fiction on creative writing (Mastering POV) was written after an editor contacted my agent and asked if I could write the book for them because they’d read my novels and thought I was just the right person for them. They never even asked me to do a tour, despite the fact that the book, which was originally intended only as a university textbook, crossed over into the mainstream market during its first month of publication. Since I only lived an hour away from their main offices in Cincinnati, however, they did set up some readings in Cincinnati and ask me to drive down (I was never reimbursed for traveling expenses, though the editor always came to every reading and bought me a soda-pop or iced tea before the performance).
The world is changing fast, and the NY-publishing-monolith is slipping away quickly as Indie authors, many with NY street creds and backlists of out-of-print books – who’ve always had to do their own publicity and promotion anyway, not being “important enough” to have had the publishers do it for them – are hitting the ebook market. Brick & mortar bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes&Noble drove the Independents out of business long ago; now Borders is gone, and B&N is struggling so much that Microsoft just invested $30M (?) into their Nook ereader. Not into B&N itself, just into its ereader. Hmmm…
Bookstores have stopped doing readings because, even if they have cafes, like B&Ns usually do, they “lose” money (and bookstores make anywhere from 35-55% of the cover price on each book they sell, depending on their size and their agreement with the major distributor, Ingram).
No, authors do not make the entire cover price of their book as so many people assume. 99.99% of authors always work day-jobs to support their writing. I never started writing full-time till after I retired from teaching (and I’d paid off all my debt so I could live on my greatly reduced income). If authors are lucky and have a really tough, experienced agent, they make 10% of the cover price. Out of that 10%, they have to pay their agent 20% of the whole amount of monies made, as well as Federal, State, Local, and Social Security Self-Employment tax (around 20%). No one ever told me that until I sold my first book. You see, I, too, dreamed the dream…
Now, however, with ebooks, Indie publishing, and NY’s steady disavowal of ebooks, I believe that, though paper books will never disappear completely, the world of authors and readers has, dramatically and irrevocably, changed. Now more readers than ever can get books without brick&mortar bookstores (the closest one to me is over an hour’s drive away, one way), they can be in touch with the authors by sending an email, reading their blogs, visiting their websites, etc. And, as far as I know, most authors want to be in touch with their readers. We like them. (At least, most of us do.) We like to hear their interpretations of our books and our characters’ actions because not all the creative process is conscious, and each reader brings his own life experience to the book. Some of the interpretations of my books have amazed and thrilled me, especially when readers pointed out patterns I didn’t even know were there.
It’s a glorious time for readers and authors. Yes, the authors have to do even more of the work than they did before, like designing the inside of the book itself, unless they pay someone else to do it. But even 20 years ago, when my first novel was purchased by publishing-mogul HC, I was the one ultimately responsible for all the proofreading: after the copyeditor, again after the production editor, again after the design editor, after the foreign language editor, after the style editor. I proofread my own novel twice before I submitted it to HC for design, and then seven times AFTER that. (God, I hated that book for the longest time…)
So, authors have always been responsible for the final proofing, the publicity and promotions, the readings, and staying in contact with their audience. The only thing that’s gotten easier in the last couple of years is staying in contact with your audience. For me, that’s the most fun.
After writing the book itself, of course.
As an added bonus, since we authors who Indie- or self-publish can check our own sales figures, maybe, just maybe, that dream of actually making money will also come true.
It’s a brave new world, for Indie authors, self-published authors, and for readers. I’m embracing it with open arms in the big hug that all readers and authors of all genres deserve.
Originally published on Goodreads, 2 May 2012.