Much has been written about the death of traditional publishing, the rise of self-publishing, and the steep road ahead for the Big Six-Five-Whatever the Number is Now (Are We Down To Two Yet? Amazon v. Everyoneelse?). There is much talk of the finances of self-publishing, and whether authors can be more successful holding out for a traditional contract with an advance or publishing themselves with no advance but much higher royalties. One thing that isn’t talked about is the emotional aspect of this–specifically, how the advance system can be devastating to the soul (and career) of young writers.
A few days ago, young adult author Jessica Spotswood wrote a heartfelt and emotional post about managing expectations and rising above the feeling of failure when you don’t meet a publisher’s expectations. In short, Jessica got a major deal for her debut series. The books did well, but not well enough to meet her publisher’s HUGE expectations (which were reflected in the big advance she was given). Jessica saw her promotional opportunities set up by her publisher decline, even as she went through rebranding and efforts to bump up sales. She then had to struggle with the feeling of failure for not living up to her publisher’s expectations, and the sad reality of not getting the same level of promotion for future books.
What she hasn’t yet experienced is what will happen with her next series. Several authors in comments mentioned moving publishers or self-publishing after a similar experience. The reality is that bookstores stock books according to prior sales. If you didn’t sell according to expectations, the numbers follow you. Jessica is a top-notch writer and will have a long and successful career, I have no doubt. But the legacy of the overshot expectations will follow her, and her writing will have to carry her over an additional (and entirely unfair) obstacle in the future. From the comments, it’s clear Jessica isn’t the only one to have faced this. Add me to that list. My Delcroix Academy series (now The Talents–rebranding anyone?) went through a similar (heartbreaking) series of events.
But here’s what makes me angry about Jessica’s story: the current publishing system makes it inevitable. Traditional publishers don’t know which books will be huge hits, which will be moderate sized hits, and which will flop. They really don’t. No one does. They have good, educated guesses, which turn out to be wrong 70% of the time. So the system works this way: as a publisher, you identify a handful of books that might be big hits and throw the authors big money to get them to sign with you (aka, gambling). You know most won’t meet your expectations: 7 out of 10 books don’t earn out advances. It’s part of the game.
The system continues because every now and then publishers get it right and someone makes it big. This is how they survive. They give the other, less successful books a good old college try, and then quietly disentangle themselves from the authors.
It’s all well and good for the publisher, who writes off the losses and starts gambling on the next crop of debut authors. But the emotional legacy for the author is huge. How can an author not feel like a failure when her book fails to earn out that advance? When, despite all the promotion, it doesn’t hit a list? When she is faced with the uphill climb of finding a new publisher and a new deal, after not earning out the last one?
The really sad thing is, this experience isn’t limited to authors who get major advances. It’s heightened for those authors who get the big advance and attention paid to them, but there are hundreds of authors getting smaller advances who experience the same failure to meet expectations, the same loss of confidence and crushing doubt. As a lawyer, I can’t help but wonder if we should include a new clause in the publishing contract boilerplate:
DISCLAIMER: In accepting this advance, I acknowledge that my book has a 70% chance of not meeting expectations. I acknowledge that this may result in significant emotional turmoil and distress (for me). I acknowledge that my publisher has the right to drop me like a hot potato if a new and shiny debut author comes along who has a similar 70% chance of failing, but a 30% chance of being the Next Big Thing.
Is it fun to be on the right side of the publishing gamble? Well, duh…of course it is. If you think staying at the Four Seasons, being jetted around the country on a rock star book tour, and seeing your book front and center at a bookstore is fun. But that’s not really a fair question. I’m sure meth is fun too, until you get ulcers on your face.
But here’s the thing–there are ways to avoid the advance-expectation-failure trap. Writing for a boutique publisher is one, where advances are low and quality and artistic expression are high. Self-publishing is another. Taking a lower advance with a guarantee of on-going promotion is another. And of course, 30% of writers will actually earn out those advances. So there’s always that route!
The publisher I write for now, Entangled Publishing, doesn’t give rock star advances. They give higher royalties instead. Promotion is lesser, but more equivalent across authors. Though no one would claim all books are treated equally, no one (as far as I know!) is staying at the Four Seasons. Of course, this is still a business, and we all want to earn our living. But these days when I write a book I can ask myself–did I write the best book I could write? Did I love the process of writing it? Did I make some readers happy? Did I give them the take-me-away experience that we all need?
If so, then hell yes, it was a success.
Are there things you miss by turning away from the Big Advance? Yes, absolutely. See above. But can we please start telling debut authors that chances are they’re walking into a trap when they accept that big advance? That they’re taking a huge gamble that will most likely result in heartache and disappointment, and possibly do long term damage to their careers? Can we (established) authors start telling everyone that there are other ways to success, and start seeing it in our own careers?
Publishing is a hard, hard business. My husband often shakes his head in wonder that anyone makes it through the gauntlet of negative reviews, rejection, and uneven or non-existent paychecks. My advice to young writers: do this because you love it. For all that is good and holy don’t do this for the money. Find joy in the process. When the bad reviews come (and they will!) focus on the good ones. And most of all, don’t live by someone else’s expectations.