November 16, 2010

Advance bubble bursting at big houses, indies and authors set to benefit


Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winner, midlist refugee

Back in September we linked to a story in the Wall Street Journal by Jeffrey Trachtenberg about the reduced margins authors are getting paid thanks to e-books. The story began with Kirsten Kaschock failing to sell her debut novel Sleight to one of the big six, and it seemed to suggest that eventually selling to Coffee House Press for $3,500 was a great loss to Kaschock. With authors like Kashchock signing to indies, the new paradigm of reduced advances indicates a losing proposition for authors, and that the changing dynamics of publishing are creating many losers out of debut and midlist authors.

But that’s just one way to look at it.

In a story by Rachel Deahl for Publishers Weekly last week, she reported on the trend of formerly midlist and debut authors moving to indies–a trend that may be creating a more sustainable and economically healthy scenario. The challenge that the big six have had to face in recent years is that the goal posts for a midlist author keeps shifting. It used to be that 20,000 in hardcover sales was a respectable number for the midlist, and it was enough to justify continuing support for an author. But now–with the pressure for larger advances in turn creating pressure for bigger sales–that number is beginning to look more like 50,000. Authors once considered solid ballasts for these great ships are becoming little more than vanity projects.

And so now, with the disrupting force of e-books partially to thank, these authors are either being cut loose or have decided it’s in their interest to look elsewhere–and they’re looking to indies. As Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, told Deahl, the advance bubble is finally bursting. “These big companies, every book they do they’re trying to knock it out of the park, and they don’t have the flexibility to publish books at different levels. The flip side, though, is authors and agents like to have big advances and don’t like to think about what the fiscal reality of that is…some agents and authors got a little soft, and too comfy, being overpaid.”

This has created some pretty perverse incentives for everyone:

Temple also believed that a number of authors are to their detriment shielded from their own sales figures. Their agents, and their publisher, he said, don’t always tell them that their book isn’t earning out its advance; instead their calls stop getting returned. “What, some 80% to 90% of the books published are not profitable?” Temple asked rhetorically. “Almost every author I talk to [who’s at] a big house feels neglected by their publisher. If they were making money for that publisher, they would be getting calls back.”

While indies can’t but pay lower advances, the authors get a larger share of the royalties and publishers have the incentive–and resources–to put more effort into actually publishing all of the books on their list.

“We don’t believe in midlist,” Corinna Barsan of Other Press told Deahl. “Every book on our list is important in its own right.”

Here’s a detailed list of notable moves from the story: