Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Told You There Would Be a Quiz

Pop quiz, hotshot. A literary agent calls you up and tells you that you have been offered an absurdly high advance of $11,000 for your first novel. What is your response? Yes or no?

Well, what is your alternative? Sleeping soundly at night, confident in the knowledge that you were once offered five figures for a work of your fiction? Going on to self-publish your own work on your terms, never earning quite that amount of money over the course of fifteen years? Something in between? None of the above?

The truth is that it could go in a lot of different directions. And, while it is important to look at the what-ifs for a negative response, it is just as important to look at what happens when you say “yes.”

So you are paid $11,000. First, your agent gets 15%. She’s the one that sealed the deal, she gets her cut. Standard business practice.

Second, hold on to the rest of that money. It’s going to have to last you for a while. Investing in something practical, like credit card debt, would probably be a good thing right about now.

You probably have no audience or prior sales figures, so the advance you earned was pretty much just a guess. It was based on some thumbnail comparisons – looking at which books yours is like and figuring out how many copies of those books sold. So it was an educated guess, but still… well, a guess.

The truth is that nobody in the publishing house or literary agency really knows for sure how many of your books will sell. The market is simply too idiosyncratic to gauge effectively. Marketing research is done, if you mean “checking to see which books sold last year and comparing the numbers of copies sold over time.”

(Yes, industry professionals are aware that this method of market research is akin to imputing Viet Cong casualties from complex formulas that include number of bombs dropped, time of day and estimated traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. No, actual readers are rarely surveyed directly. That would be so… conventional.)

But anyway. Your novel. Someone guessed and figured that you would just about hit the over/under at 13,000 copies sold. And because the average return rate is about 40%, the initial print run of your novel will be say 20,000 copies. Maybe 18,000. No, 20,000 is a nicer, rounder number. 20,000 copies of your novel are printed.

Somebody didn’t do the math right. It’s okay – they’re still learning. Your agent assures you that you will be fine as long as you earn out your advance. You only need to sell 11,000 copies of your novel. To an audience that doesn’t know who you are. Your name may be on the cover of your book, but that doesn't save you from anonymity.

To be honest, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how to get out of that situation with your publishing career intact. But you can take consolation in two things: 1. you were a real writer – professionally published and everything 2. that guy who made the mathematical mistake? He’ll learn from that and go on to have a thriving career. Don’t worry about him because he certainly won’t be worried about you.

So it’s pop quiz time, hotshot. Do you take that $11,000 check and gamble that the industry professionals know what they’re doing?

What do you do?

What do you do?