Sunday, March 18, 2012

Are We Seeing the Demise of the Advance?

Are we headed for a No-advance publishing Industry? I'm talking about all these print-on-demand (POD) companies that are masquerading as traditional publishers. With the advent of POD, we've seen a proliferation of amateur printers hanging out their shingles, crafting attractive websites, writing glowing mission statements, and proclaiming that they are "traditional" royalty paying publishing houses. We've had about what, 10 to 15 years of this? 

These POD printers often convey lofty ideals that appeal to dreamers, the rejected, the hopeful or newbie writers. Without doubt, most of these pub outfits are run as hobbies in garages or spare bedrooms, with limited staff and resources. Many of them went through Lulu or iUniverse to publish their own tomes and decided they liked the idea and had enough business savvy to open their doors to fledgling writers. They enlisted their friends and family members to help out with book cover art, editing, shipping and mailing.  Or they hired professionals and provided a commission-sharing royalty agreement.

Presto, we have a publisher!

Not.  Many of these people usually have little or no experience in the commercial trade and don't belong there. They offer higher royalty percentages (they claim), but what they don't tell you is that those percentages are often based on net sales, or the profit they actually receive. No advance means a very low start-up cost. If they request that an author supply them with a large list of friends and relatives, you can bet that they know purchases from THAT source will compensate them for their initial print order, typically moving about 75 to 100 books. What's their initial print order? However many free copies they promised the author, usually 2-5 copies, and rarely more than a dozen to satisfy online vendors.  There will be no large print runs with a POD operation. Unless...they have procured dozens of advance-purchase orders.

First-time authors are so enamored with their books that they'll gladly lay down hundreds of dollars for crates of their own product. They can commission them off to book stores, sell them at conventions, speaking engagements and out of the car trunk. And those that do make these large outlays? congratulations! You have just become that publisher's unpaid sales force. Now they're raking in profits from the sale of your book back to you, less their printing cost. The game plan for these micro-PODs is to print as many authors as possible in a given month or year--quantity over quality--the K-mart mentality. And this is serious "author mill" territory.

Where is their incentive to offer you an advance now?

Look folks, an advance is a publisher's faith and conviction in a book that they expect to sell to the general reading public. They determine potential sales by mapping out extensive, complicated profit and loss spreadsheets. They fully expect to see their books shelved in brick and mortar bookstores, and can deliver them because they use off-set technology, allowing them to deliver warehoused inventory at a moments notice. They send out dozens or hundreds of review copies to legitimate trade reviewers. This is the way it's handled in the big leagues. 

An advance also confirms to the writer that they are being professionally dealt with, and this money offers the author a little leeway and time for them to write their next book. It's also validation--trust. An advance-paying publisher almost always uses an offset print run. Offset is much cheaper to produce thousands of copies. An advance-paying publisher employs/utilizes hard-mail color catalogs, has a trade show presence, retail and advertising budget, a publicity manager (bet you didn't know that), radio, TV and newspaper sources, and a real sales force that bangs on the doors of distributors, wholesalers and book stores. They rarely, if ever, ask for any list of friends and relatives. Author copies number in the dozens and the author discount is always up in the 40% bracket or better.

I can't think of more than 20 to 30 major publishers in my genre that provide an industry standard advance, starting at about $5,000. There are a few dozen (maybe) who offer a few hundred dollars to a couple grand. But there are thousands who are offering zero. The Zero people, I like to call them, think that they are revolutionizing the industry, fixing something they believe is inherently broken, saving money by lowering production runs, and leading the way into the next millennium. They are quick to proclaim that they are ready to get behind a book that proves itself. The trouble is, none of the books reach this milestone. Why? Because there was no advance and promotion/marketing budget.  Remember the Zero people rely on quantity.  An author might sell 100 copies in six months, but 100, 200, or 300 authors who sell 100 books can rake in some serious cash for the publisher. 

A meaningful advance means a publisher is serious about entering the book trade business. It means they have enough clout, prestige, and confidence in their ability to MOVE product.   It means libraries and bookstores will take them seriously, because they will receive the best discounts and quality books. It means the publisher has a real address, is working full time, and houses enough professionals to get the job done. An advance-paying publisher BELIEVES in you, the author and your book.

The Zero people have vision problems, as well as financial ones. They claim that once they are solvent things will change. The problem is, things never have to change when the profit is so good. Things can't change, really. It all goes back to that money thing again, the same reason why they didn't offer an advance in the first place--too much investment. It's just too easy to take the financial risk from the publisher and slap the author with it. It's much safer that way.

So the next time you receive a contract from a publisher who does not pay an advance, has no marketing or distribution, pays on net, asks you for a friends and relatives list, doesn't do offset or even qualify for Ingrams, all you have to ask them is, "Are you serious?"
But you'll already know the answer to that, won't you? Well, won't you?


Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated) by Chris Stevenson and Toni Zhang (Kindle Edition - Jan 7, 2011)Kindle eBook

Buy: $1.99

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