Reflections on negotiating a contract 4: Royalties

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

My previous posts have been concerned with the large number of different issues in my contract as well as the general question of what ability I had to negotiate/renegotiate with my publisher who has a ton of leverage compared to me, a relative unknown. This post follows that basic theme, but looks specifically at the question of royalties.

One of the first things I’ll mention is the variety of different royalty clauses. To start, there were the basic book formats: hardback, paperback, and e-book. Following these were another dozen or so clauses, split into “rights and royalties” and “subsidiary rights and royalties,” which included things like international rights, audio and video rights, book club uses, use of excerpts and more. The list of different clauses was so long that I felt overwhelmed and did not research industry standards compared to the rates they were offering for the rest of these (perhaps a naive move—it was definitely not doing due diligence). I mostly focused on the three familiar formats—hardback, paperback, and e-book—even though it’s certainly possible that some other rights would have been worth the effort of negotiation—partial use of the work in course materials might be an area that matters to a book like mine. (Here’s hoping my book is successful enough for these other rights to amount to anything, even if I didn’t negotiate these clauses well!).

The first, obvious point of comparison for this contract was my previous Routledge contract from 2009, which, for the most part offered the same numbers. There were reductions to the hardback and paperback royalties and the rest was all the same. I interpret the reductions as a product of both my negotiating power (or lack thereof, as compared with the leverage held by the first author of my previous Routledge book, who was well known and a full professor), and as a reflection of the general health of the publishing industry. The reductions motived me to try to gather more information on the current state of publishing contracts (including watching the recent TAA on demand presentation “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”).

My next step was to ask a few people—two authors with recent publication experience and a publisher—about their knowledge with respect to royalties, at least with respect to the three basic ones (hardback, paperback, e-book; I didn’t ask for the complete detail of all the different types of rights and royalties).
First, I heard back from the publisher, who runs a small imprint that is subsidiary to a larger university press. The publisher suggested that I was getting lower rates on the e-book than industry standard (I was getting the same royalty rate for e-books I had received on my earlier contract). Because of that suggestion, I asked my editor about the e-book rates, and she responded that what I had was the standard Routledge contract, and they wouldn’t change that clause.

Next I heard back from the author of a scholarly book whom I had helped with his book proposal. Like me, this author has little prestige or leverage. He has the advantage of a university teaching position, and the disadvantage of writing a scholarly book with a very specific audience that would likely sell fewer copies than my more general textbook even if it did well for a book in its class. This author had submitted his book proposal at the same time as I had submitted mine, and he was offered a contract about one week before I was. His response to my query stunned me: he had been offered a flat fee for his book, no royalty percentages at all! And given the size of the flat fee, I felt a touch of anger for him. He told me that he was happy just to have received a contract and what was most important for him was getting published and the book helping his chance of moving into a tenure-track position, so I tried not to let it bother me. It certainly provided context that gave me greater appreciation for the offer I had received! If my book doesn’t sell, he’ll end up doing better than I, but if my book can sell more than about 500 copies, I’ll do better. (I haven’t explicitly asked my editor how many sales Routledge would consider a success, but one indication of Routledge’s expectations might be found in my contract’s paperback clause, which offered one rate for the first 2,000 copies and a higher rate for copies after that. If they’re willing to offer more after selling 2k copies, that’s a sign of their relative satisfaction with its performance.)

After exchanging e-mails with me, this author queried his editor/publisher, and he was told that his book would not be published individually, but rather would be published only as part of a larger electronic portfolio that his publisher sold as a package and that for this reason, they did not offer individual royalties. To what extent this is now an industry standard for specialized scholarly books, I don’t know, but it is somewhat disheartening, I think. I would certainly rather gamble that my book will sell a reasonable number of copies than settle for the flat fee that my acquaintance received.

Last, I heard from the third author, who will be publishing with Harvard University Press (American Sutraby Duncan Ryūken Williams, for which I provided some editing and the index), and who suggested that I ask for a higher rate on the hardback after reaching a certain number of sales. My paperback royalty clause already had such a limit: X% for the first 2,000 copies, and X+2% for all additional copies.  I asked my editor for a similar clause in my hardback royalties, and she responded that it was basically pointless, as they expected hardback sales to be, “very minimal – probably less than 100 copies.”
Although she did reject my request for a change in the hardback royalty, my editor and the publisher offered an improvement in the paperback royalty clause: they reduced the number of paperback copies I have to sell to get the improved rate from 2,000 to 1,000, meaning I’ll get an extra 2% on 1,000 copies (provided those copies sell). How much that change was motivated solely by my asking, and how much by my offering to make an accommodation by accepting the clause giving Routledge right of first refusal (which I mentioned in a previous post), I’m not sure, but I feel more empowered to ask, next time, even if I think I have little leverage.

To conclude this series of posts of my novice reflections, the process of reading, understanding, and negotiating my contract was moderately difficult, included lots and lots of details, and as far as I can tell, I got a basic industry standard contract. Even though I didn’t feel like I was in a very strong negotiating position, I went through the contract carefully, asked lots of questions (which my editor seemed happy to answer), and I think got some adjustments to the contract in my favor as a result. But, as I have said, I’m something of a novice at this, so my reflections may seem naive to those with more publication experience.

Reflections on negotiating a contract 2: Myriad details

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

In this, the second of my posts on the contract and negotiation process, I consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract. Not being a lawyer, contracts always seem long and intimidating to me.

As I said in my previous post, my contract was some 13 pages long, and like most legal documents, very detailed. It was not something I would like to handle from a place of ignorance, but it was also not something that I thought required hiring a lawyer to help me. Some research was needed. Because I can get overwhelmed with too much information, I didn’t scour the Internet for all possible information about the variety of industry-standard book contracts for a textbook. I did watch one TAA on demand presentation about contracts: “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”which was very helpful in covering many of the general issues that my contract covered.  I also had my previous contract with Routledge from 2009 as a point of comparison, which was quite similar to my new contract in most of the details.

In this post, I’m going to touch on a sort of grab-bag of different clauses to give a sense of the detail involved in a contract. Perhaps all of us should have seen enough contracts, generally speaking—terms of service on websites, for example—to know that contracts are never simple. Logically, speaking, I was aware that contracts are detailed, and that Routledge’s contracts were surely overseen by lawyers, and therefore, complicated, like all contracts—for that matter, I had already signed a contract with Routledge. But still, the detail was a bit overwhelming.

Many clauses state basic details that obviously need to be stated, but such obvious things can get taken for granted. The contract naturally states who is going to sign it, along with relevant addresses for communication. The contract also includes information about the book that is under consideration—its title, content, length, scope and such. There is a clause that states when I have to deliver the book to them, and the format in which I must deliver it. There are clauses stating Routledge’s responsibilities in the process, too. The list of my responsibilities was long.

Some of the basic clauses were the outdated remnants of the era of print manuscripts that were hard to duplicate and easy to lose or damage. For example, the clause concerning my submitting the manuscript stated “the author shall retain a duplicate of the work,” and a later clause about publisher’s responsibility stated, “the Publisher is not responsible for loss or damage to the work while it is in their possession.” These are certainly wise contractual precautions in an era of typescripts—physical copies that can be destroyed—but it’s not significant in an era where the submission is in electronic form and duplication is easy. I commented on these to the editor, but neither she nor I were significantly motivated to change the boilerplate language—they certainly don’t seem to be likely to be at issue.

The clause concerning the copyright had six subsections. The first stated that I retain the copyright, then some stated Routledge’s rights and responsibilities with respect to use of the work. A couple were regarding a point of UK/EU law—about the “moral right” to assert ownership of the work, which I don’t really understand, beyond recognizing that such clauses are negotiating the difficult logical/legal terrain of intellectual property. One final copyright clause limited my ability to re-use the work.

After the copyright, there were clauses that stated my claim to be author of the work, and indemnified Routledge from damages due to problems in the text. For example, the contract assigns me responsibility that the book is not libelous or obscene or unlawful, and that it does not negligently suggest actions that will lead to harm.

There were several clauses related to royalty accounting, and to my rights to inspect their accounts. I didn’t investigate these closely—I read them, but realistically, I can’t imagine using those clauses. I’m just going to take it for granted that Routledge is going to be honest until I’m faced with strong evidence suggesting otherwise. And, in that unpleasant eventuality, I will hope that the contract will provide sufficient protection for my interests.

One interesting clause was written in strikethrough text, so that it was a part of the contract text that I could read, but would not have been an active part of the contract. That clause gave Routledge right of first refusal on my next book, obligating me to offer it to Routledge before any other publisher. The right of first refusal clause was one I specifically remembered from my previous Routledge contract. In that contract, it had been included and I had specifically asked for it to be removed because it seemed like a big restriction with respect to the book I was writing at the time (my self-published book). This time, as I said, it was written in strikethrough text, and when I asked about it, my editor told me that most authors wanted that clause removed. This time around, I’m perfectly happy to give Routledge my next proposal first. I’m not enthusiastically looking forward to a new round of book proposals for my next book, and unless problems crop up in the process of publishing this book, I would just as soon continue to work with Routledge and the editor who took a chance on me. Indeed, as a result of this line of thinking, I offered to have this contract included as an incentive for Routledge to improve other clauses in my favor—which I will discuss in later posts.

This post is already about as long as I will go, and I’ve not even talked through all the variety of clauses. The many considerations of the contract were a bit overwhelming, especially trying to figure out the ones that weren’t clear. In this post, I’ve talked about some of the easier clauses to deal with. The next two posts consider issues that were more difficult because of the emotional reaction to the stakes—these include the royalty clauses (the subject of my final post) as well as a number of other clauses dealing with uncertain possibilities, such as, for example, future editions of my book, which I discuss in the next post,  “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 3: Emotionally Loaded Details”.


Reflections on negotiating a contract 1: Leverage and the power to negotiate

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

When I wrote my last series of posts, I was waiting to hear whether a publisher would offer me a contract for my book for graduate students. The publisher—Routledge—did make an offer, marking the pleasant culmination of the 10+ month proposal process, and I could begin to look forward to publication, most likely in 2020 of my book titled Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. Getting the offer was a great milestone, but it didn’t put an end to the larger process of getting published. The next phase began with the question of whether to accept the offered contract and whether and how to negotiate for changes. As with my previous series of posts, I offer the reflections of a relative novice, not the advice of an expert.

With the offer came the question of contractual terms and negotiating a contract. The initial offer came with basic terms—royalty rates and some other points. A few days later, it was followed by the formal contract which brought a large number of additional issues into play. The excitement of getting the contract offer was significant, but not so exciting that I would just accept any contract, either. Getting an offer increases my confidence in my book. Although I don’t want to look for a new publisher to make an offer, nor do I want to self-publish again, they’re real options rather than taking what I perceive to be a bad contract. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure what makes a good or bad contract.

Once before, I was involved in negotiating a publication contract, also with Routledge, when they published the scholarly book of which I was second author. With one contract already under my belt, I had  slightly more experience than none at all. I knew what a Routledge contract looked like ten years ago, and not much more. For that previous contract, I had simply followed the lead of my first author, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with details, so we basically accepted the contract they offered. But this time, I had no first author to follow; this time, I was in charge, with the corresponding privileges and responsibilities, and the anxieties, too. Being a careful and cautious person, dealing with the myriad specific issues covered in a contract was/is quite intimidating.

The contract I received was about 13 pages long, with about 25 main clauses, many of which had several subclauses. I read through it all carefully. Some of it was obvious, some less so. Some of it seemed totally reasonable, some less so. Not surprisingly, I suppose, it was not all exactly as I would have best liked it. But to what extent could I negotiate changes? Did I have any power to negotiate, or was I simply at the mercy of the publisher’s offer? I decided I had enough power to at least negotiate a little but not very aggressively.

Although I was not desperate to sign, I really didn’t want to get back into the process of sending out proposals. This was a strong incentive to accept their terms. The fact that I would prefer to work with Routledge (a preference that might be naive) was also incentive. Furthermore, I did not perceive myself has having a great deal of leverage: I am not already famous; I do not have any prestige stemming from institutional affiliation. These considerations weighed in favor of just accepting their terms without negotiation for fear of losing the contract.

Balanced against that was my confidence in the quality of my work, and in my ability to either find another publisher or self-publish. Essentially, as I saw it, I had only the leverage of the book itself, plus, perhaps, a little added because the editor had invested her effort in it. It is a strong book, I believe, and good enough that the editor had invested her time and budget to look at it, get reviews, and promote it for a contract—for that matter, she used the time of the publishers, too, when she presented it as a possible project. So, whatever general weakness in position I suffered as an unknown, I did have the book going for me. I focused on this bit of negotiating leverage for emotional support because it was better than having nothing.

For a large number of clauses, I had questions or concerns, including those that covered royalties, copyright infringement, right to future editions, permissions, and the book title. Many of these seemed to me like they favored the publisher more than I felt appropriate, but it seems to me that most contracts I sign or agree to are filled with unavoidable unpleasantness, and can’t be changed. (For example, the Terms of Service contracts that I accept on myriad websites don’t leave any room for negotiation, must be accepted to use the service, and contain all sorts of unpleasant clauses). For this contract, I felt like I did have the opportunity to negotiate because it was a contract written specifically for me. And so, I asked my editor lots of questions as a way of approaching possible negotiation.

If there is an overall theme to this series of posts, it would be that it doesn’t hurt to ask. I asked a lot of questions and in response, Routledge made a few changes in my favor.

Because of my appreciation of the value of the contract and the desire to avoid alienating Routledge, I asked with courtesy and without contention. Realistically, I was mostly ready to accept what they had offered, and didn’t expect that they would make changes in my favor. But, to protect my own interests, I asked. And it was a contract that I could actually negotiate. In this case, I did have the chance to negotiate; I decided I ought to use it.

On the general point of having negotiating leverage, it is worth keeping in mind that even if you have no leverage beyond that of your book, you do have that. You didn’t get a contract offer unless the publisher had some hopes it could sell; they may be willing to make some concessions to keep the rights.

In my second post in this series, “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 2: Myriad Details”, I will consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract.

Reflections on seeking a publisher 5: On giving sole consideration

Here’s the final post from my series on seeking a publisher, reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Some publishers ask for sole consideration of your proposal. In my process, I have mostly given sole consideration to the publishers to whom I have been proposing. This has been largely a product of my approach: as discussed in previous posts, I feel that it’s best to write a distinct proposal for each publisher, to better match their list. Because that’s a pretty big effort, I don’t send out a lot of proposals at once. In August, I sent out one proposal that never earned any response, so I suppose that I wasn’t quite offering sole consideration on the two proposals I sent after that. Because it takes time to move from one proposal version to the next, and because the responses I did receive were generally quick (on 3 out of 5, I received a response within a day or two), I was basically offering sole consideration: as soon as I got a positive response, I focused my energies on responding to that one publisher, and not one making a proposal for another.

But I do feel like giving sole consideration puts me in a much weaker position with respect to any future negotiations. This spring, an author I’ve worked with was negotiating his book with his publisher, and he had proposed to several publishers, and had offers from (at least) two. Thus, when his chosen publisher tried to get him to change his title and other aspects of the book, he had some firm ground from which to push back. There were plenty of changes that he was obliged to make that he didn’t love making (and that, in my opinion, did not improve the book—but, of course, having worked on it, I am biased), but he had some position of strength with respect to negotiations. If I were to be offered a contract, I would have little strength from which to negotiate: basically, the publisher could tell me to take it or leave it, and my options would be to either do what they wanted or to go back to the proposal stage. Now, I could go back to the proposal stage, and getting offered a contract would certainly strengthen my confidence that my book is good enough to get a contract, but that would certainly add even more delay to this process that has already gone on for a long time.

Abstractly, I would recommend proposing to several publishers at once. But I’m not sure that I would follow that recommendation myself, just based on my own personal energy available to manage the anxiety of the proposal process. Your mileage will vary, of course: If you find self-promotion easy, then multiple submissions is definitely the way to go because you can have the added benefit of better leverage in negotiations.

Pragmatically, however, when I next need to propose a book, I think I will return to the tactic of sending brief query letters, as I did with some success—in this process, both of my query letters received a rapid response, while only one of three full proposals received a response. The query letter skirts the issue of sole consideration by being less than a full proposal—if a full proposal is requested, then I can address the issue of sole consideration. Such a letter might put you in the position of needing to write a full proposal quickly to keep up the interest of the editor who sent you a response, but if you’re under pressure because someone showed interest in your query, that’s a pretty good problem to have.

Reflections on seeking a publisher 4: On writing proposals

Here’s another re-post in the series of posts I wrote about seeking a publisher…a little dated now that I have a contract!

In my experience, proposals are more difficult and nerve-wracking than writing the book. When I work on my book, I think about the strengths and about what I can offer to people through my writing. When I work on a proposal, it’s hard not to think about the possibility of acceptance and rejection, which is rather more stressful.

In writing, I find it crucial to hold on to my ideas as a foundation and focus first, before considering other people’s interests. But for a proposal, especially, I have to speak to someone else’s interests. It’s all well and good for me to believe that I have great ideas and that everyone could benefit from reading my book, but, realistically, the editor at a publishing house doesn’t much care about me; they care about their job and about finding books that will sell, and who knows what else?  If I want that editor to do something—like read my proposal, or offer me a contract—it’s important to know what they want, because that knowledge gives me a better chance of writing something that will suit that editor.

A proposal is an attempt to get someone to go along with an idea. It’s not just a description of the idea, it’s an offer of a bargain. A book proposal is a request for an exchange: the publisher gives an author the resources to turn a manuscript into a book that can be sold and their promotional and distributional recourses and abilities, and the author gives them a manuscript that can become a book. For both the publisher and the author, the hope is that the collaboration will lead to a something that sells enough to justify the effort. From a published book, an author immediately receives the prestige of having published, and may also receive some financial reward and exposure to a wider audience (I won’t go so far as to say “fame”, but certainly reputation). The publisher is unlikely to gain much prestige or fame for publishing most books (they are, of course, hoping to find those few rare big sellers, of course); their main hope is to make a profit.

Thinking about the proposal in this light focuses attention on the person who is going to receive the proposal: how are they going to benefit from engaging with the proposal’s author? That’s what the proposal is doing: beyond saying “my book is great!”, it says to an editor: “here’s how you/your company will benefit.”

If this seems obvious to you, I think you’re ahead of the game. My experience of helping other people with proposals for books and grants (and even research), is that people talk about what they are doing or who they are themselves without attempting to address the interests of the person to whom the proposal is ostensibly addressed.

Different Proposals for Each Publisher?

For me, this focus on the proposal’s intended audience makes me pay close attention to the details of how each proposal template frames its questions, as well as to considerations of what other factors I know about the specific publisher.

For me, the focus on the specific recipient strongly leads toward writing a separate distinct proposal for each different publisher. Even though I have, at times, engaged proposal writing with the intention of writing a general proposal that I could send to many publishers at once, every time I look at the specific proposal questions for a specific publisher, I want to revise my general proposal to meet the specific context provided by that publisher.

One such difference that influenced me in my recent process which related books that specific publisher had published. For the publisher with no direct competitor, I wrote about there being a market niche worth entering; for the publisher with several direct competitors, I wrote about why my book is different from the ones they already have.

Perhaps the biggest issue that forces the most revision from publisher to publisher is the order of material and how I present it. The opening of the proposal has to grab the attention of the reader, and so it’s a place where sensitivity to the reader’s interests is most crucial.  And everything that follows the introduction is shaped by that beginning and by my desire to avoid repetition.  For one publisher, I might start with a comparison to a specific book, but that would mean not discussing that book later. Or perhaps I open with a specific way of pitching my book that suits one publisher but not another. For a textbook publisher I might propose it in terms of its potential use in classes; for a more general publisher, I might propose it as more of a self-help book, and thus alter the order in which I discuss these two aspects. The differences play out through the whole proposal in terms of which points I mention first and which I mention later. Thus, even if I generally retain the same information, each proposal can be significantly different in order of presentation.

Whether or not this level of care is worth it in terms of the overall efficiency of finding a publisher is uncertain: perhaps it’s better to write one proposal and send it to many publishers. For a given period of time, do I increase my chance of getting accepted more by writing fewer proposals detailed to specific publishers, or do increase my chance more by sending out many proposals that may each have less chance of being accepted because they are not tailored to the audience, but increase my overall chance because I have more opportunities to get accepted? (I have a better chance of winning one coin toss than I do trying to roll a 1 on a normal six-sided die; but if I get to roll the six-sided die enough times, I have a better chance of getting a 1 than I do if only try to win only one coin flip.)

My sense of the importance of writing each proposal specifically for each publisher strongly influences my decision with respect to the question that I address in my next post: whether to give publishers sole consideration of your work.

My book has a publisher!

I just finished signing (e-signing) my contract with Routledge: My book has a publisher!

The book got its start years ago when I was still working on my first book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, which I self-published and released in August, 2015.  Between then and the beginning of last year, my main efforts were directed toward the book that just got a contract.  For most of the last year, my efforts have been focused on finding a publisher, and now that I have one, I have to get back to the book–or at least will soon, once the reviews of the full manuscript come back.

Some good hard work lies ahead: responding to the reviewers’ concerns, reviewing the copy-editor’s work, reading the page proofs, and writing an index. But a release date in 2020 doesn’t seem all that far away right now.

One task that remains is to settle on a title. My working title had been Getting the Best of What You Read: Practical Philosophy for Effective Use of Academic Literature.  That was trying to work with the title of my previous, obviously, which made better sense when I was thinking of self-publishing as a companion to my dissertation book. Routledge suggested a change, and I’m not thrilled with their suggestion, so I’m working on coming up with a new title that will suit the various people at Routledge, and me, too.

The book, as suggested by the title, is about the use of academic literature in  the process of research, and it is specifically aimed at graduate students who are developing their first independent research project (which is usually the dissertation).

Reflections on seeking a publisher 3: Write the proposal before the book?

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Before I started the proposal process for my book, I had written a complete draft (as well as two almost-complete early drafts), and also hired an editor to check that draft. I had, in short, a pretty mature draft. But the questions publishers ask about the completeness of the draft, led me to wonder whether that was the best plan for seeking publication.

Common proposal questions ask: “When do you plan to finish the book?”, and “When can you deliver the manuscript?”, which seem primarily relevant for proposals written by people who have not yet completed their book.
Given the length of the process of proposing (at least as I have gone about it), and given the desire of publishers to shape books to suit their publishing list, I wonder whether I might have been better off proposing the book before I wrote it.

Intellectually, I have been aware that one can propose a book before one writes it, and, indeed, that most projects are proposed before they are carried out, but this has never before felt like a real consideration to me; it feels wrong to propose a book before it’s written. That could reflect a lack of self-confidence, or maybe it reflects uncertainty caused by the exploratory nature of writing: I learn a lot as I write, and there is usually a pretty big difference between successive drafts, especially early ones. Or maybe it reflects my fear of committing to a large writing project, because writing under a deadline (which would occur if I had a contract but no book) is an added emotional burden.

In terms of writing productively, it’s valuable to know how different choices affect the process, including the emotional dimension. But it’s also hard to predict how all the factors will play out. In this case, perhaps the emotional difficulties associated with writing the proposal first would balance out the emotional difficulties related to the length of time the process takes. As I discussed in the previous post, my proposal process has taken over 9 months. If I had proposed the book at an earlier point, I might have saved time with respect to any ultimate publication date.

Aside from the question of saving time in the overall process, one idea that has occurred to me in these considerations is about the value of writing a proposal in helping guide a successful writing project. Thinking of my book through the publisher’s perspective provides additional ideas about how to write a good book. For me at least, although I generally make a point of thinking about the audience, when writing a proposal, the focus is much more explicitly directed towards considering my audience, and particularly towards the big concern of most publishers: who will buy the work? This forces forces me to be much more explicit about who that audience is and what their needs and interests are, and that can help me write a book that will serve my intended audience and also please a publisher.

Additionally, the proposal forces consideration of the books that compete with mine, and to be able to explain why mine is different (and better!). I do, of course, want my book to be delivering something that is original, so, in a very strict sense, there may be no direct competitor, but even so, there are many books in the general area. While no one may be writing quite the book that I am, there are plenty of books written for graduate students to support them in the general process of developing research. The process of comparing my book to potential competitors helps me refine what makes my message special, and thus helps me write my book better in terms of expressing my strengths.

Looking to the future, I suppose that I will spend more time writing book proposals as part of the larger process of writing books. Indeed, at present, I have shifted efforts from writing a draft of my next book, to writing a proposal for that book. As I already have a substantial draft (about 25,000 words), I can’t write a proposal before writing any draft, but I can write a proposal before I try to write the next draft.


Reflections on seeking a publisher 2: A lengthy process

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

The process of proposing and publishing takes a long time, so patience is important. I started the proposal process nine months ago, and there’s a chance I may be working on a new proposal soon. There are ways that I could have saved time in the process, but even if I had been maximally efficient, I would still have been looking at a process of several months.

In February, I sent my first proposal to an agent who specifically requested sole consideration, which was fine with me, given that part of why I was trying an agent was to avoid doing multiple proposals. (I will discuss the question of giving publisher sole consideration in a future post.) The agent’s website said if I hadn’t gotten a response within six weeks that I should assume that my proposal was rejected, so I waited (and avoided the difficult task of preparing another proposal).  When I hadn’t heard within five weeks, I started to work again, thinking about to whom to send my next proposal.

At that point, I decided to try sending query letters to gauge interest, rather than a full-blown proposal. I figured that a brief query letter would require less effort than a full proposal, and being only a brief query about possible interest, not a full proposal, it skirted the issue of sole consideration.

At the beginning of the seventh week after sending out my first proposal (early April), I sent out my first query letter. My plan was to send out one every day until I got some interest. I chose to do only one a day because I wanted to write a letter that was specific to each publisher, and writing a good cover letter can take a few hours.

The fortunate circumstance of receiving a positive same-day response to my very first query derailed my one-a-day-to-several-publishers plan. The quick response was thrilling, of course, but it meant I had to do a full proposal, which took me away from writing another query letter. It was a few days of work and then a week to hear back. All of this felt like things were moving quickly and couldn’t be better—the first publisher to whom I wrote, and one of the top publishers on my list! The editor expressed interest in sending the proposal to reviewers (again, great!), but suggested some revisions to the proposal first. That took me a week, but by early May I had submitted a revised proposal. The editor confirmed receipt, warning me that she was going to a conference and then on holiday and wouldn’t be able to get back to me for a week or two. And that was really the end of it. Over the next couple of months, I received first a few promises to get to my proposal right away, and then later no response to my emails.

I procrastinated, hoping that the editor would follow up, so it was not until early August that I sent out a new proposal (yes, a whole proposal, not just a query letter—my strategy was not entirely consistent). It got no immediate response (and none since), and ten days later, I sent out another proposal.  This one got a next-day response—a rejection. It was as positive and friendly a rejection as could be imagined—the editor encouraged my proposing to other publishers, and even took time to answer some follow-up questions I asked in response to his rejection—but a rejection all the same. It was, by this time, late August.

For my next step, I returned to the plan of sending multiple query letters. And again, my first query letter received a quick response: the editor to whom I had written was forwarding my query to a colleague. The next day I received an email from an editor (the third in the chain) who  identified herself as the editor of one of the books my query mentioned as a competitor, and who invited me to send my proposal. That took me a few days, but my delay was basically irrelevant, as she was about to leave for a conference and then holiday.

Two weeks later—end of the first week of September—she decided to send my proposal out to reviewers.  That would take about eight weeks, she warned—an accurate estimate, as the reviews were returned in late October. The reviews were positive enough that, pending my response to the reviewer’s concerns, she was interested in taking it to a publisher’s meeting with the intention of offering me a contract. My response only took a day, but it was Friday, and the editor is in the UK, so she didn’t get to it until the beginning of the next week, and, as the weekly publication meeting is held on Tuesdays, she didn’t have sufficient time to prepare the book for that week’s meeting, which brings the process up to date at the moment I write, over nine months since I started.

Maybe I could have cut a few months out of that process by acting more swiftly and aggressively, but even if we disregard my proposals that were rejected, by the time the publication meeting has been held, it will have been nearly three months just with one publisher, and everything moving relatively quickly (my editor warned that reviews don’t always come in in a timely fashion, for example, but mine did).

Publication is a long process, even when everything moves quickly. Finding a publisher takes a significant chunk of time.  It is one reason for writing a proposal before you finish your book, which is the subject of my next post.

Writing a Book Proposal for a Publisher

Recently, having worked on and sent off some proposals for a book, I’ve been thinking about these issues a good deal. So when faced with someone else’s book proposal to review, I definitely had suggestions.

No book, of course, is guaranteed acceptance, especially not at your first-choice publisher or agent. But a better proposal is going to get a better response.  So what makes a “better” proposal?

From a simplistic but pragmatic perspective, a “better” proposal is one that gets accepted, but, of course, you don’t know what will get accepted when you’re writing the proposal. But you can think about why proposals get accepted or rejected. There could be any number of characteristics that shape the decision on whether to accept or reject a proposal. Quality and content are obviously important. But, to be accepted, what matters is not just the proposal itself, but who is evaluating it. Beyond quality and content are specific factors that are important to the reviewer. In particular, people in the publishing industry want to know if a book will sell and to whom it will sell. It’s perfectly possible to have an editor think “This is good work, but I don’t want to try to sell it to my marketing department,” or “This is good work, but it’s not going to sell well.”

Understanding the audience for your proposal makes it easier to understand what they want, and understanding what they want improves your ability to give them what they want.  And that’s of crucial importance when proposing a book.

Writers—whether fiction or non-fiction—have stories that they want to tell and ideas that they want to share. An academic might have a theory to propound; a novelist might want to tell an exciting story, or explore the depths of the human psyche/spirit, but whatever they are trying to convey—whether entertainment or education—is central to what they’re doing, and they implicitly hope to reach readers who are interested in those same things. A scholar concerned with scholarly theory will hope to reach other scholars who are concerned with the same theoretical questions.  A writer who wants to write a vampire adventure will hope to find readers who care about vampire stories.  Reaching those readers and convincing them to read (and buy!) your book depends on describing the content in an enticing way. A scholar looking at a scholarly tome asks whether the content is good (i.e., whether the research and reasoning are sound). A vampire fan looking for entertainment asks whether the story is entertaining and exciting. Potential buyers of your book care about its contents and quality.

But people in the publishing industry will look at things rather differently.  When you send a book proposal to an acquisitions editor at an academic publisher (for academics) or to an agent (for fiction writers), you’re not necessarily sending the book to someone who cares about its content. The acquisitions editor may not be intimately interested in your theory. The agent may not necessarily care about, e.g., vampire stories. But that may not matter. The people in the publishing industry are crucially interested in whether they can sell a book at a profit. They look at a proposal wondering whether it’s worth their time and energy.  Could that book sell? Could it be produced at reasonable cost? Is it worth it to review that proposal and read the excerpts? Is it worth it (for the academic publisher, at least) to send those materials out to some expert reviewers (which costs the publisher money)?

Agents want to sell books, so they have to believe that they can sell the book to a publisher.  An agent may enjoy vampire stories, or whatever you’re writing, but you don’t your proposal to focus solely on how enjoyable it will be to read your vampire book. An agent wants to know why people might buy your book. So it’s useful to compare your book to others, to explain why your might replace or complement others. An acquisitions editor may be interested in your theory and may have the education to evaluate its theoretical importance, but even so, they’re going to have to be able to convince a marketing department that people will buy it. 

What really matters in a book proposal, I think, is talking about who would buy it, and why they would buy it.  If your story is the best story about vampires ever written for five reasons that you can enumerate, still, what really matters to a publisher is the question of whether or not lots of people want to buy vampire books.  If your theory completely revises an area of study and is incredibly powerful and groundbreaking, that’s awesome. But you’ll have to convince the publisher that many people are interested in that area of study.  The quality of your theory may be less important than whether or not a lot of books on the subject are sold and used. Is it better to have the reviewer to say: “Great content! Two people a year will absolutely need this excellent book,” or “I’ve read better, but lots of people will buy it”?  

It’s worth noting that expectations vary widely: publishers of academic monographs will look on sales of a few thousand as a success, while publishers of textbooks will be looking to sell ten times that. Fiction publishers are hoping for million-sellers, though obviously they don’t expect that of every book. (I don’t have a great idea of the volume that small-scale fiction and non-fiction publishers sell or hope to sell.) 

Every publisher is taking a gamble on each book: they hope for a big seller, and endure the duds.  At some level, a book proposal’s purpose is nothing more than to convince the publisher’s representative that there is a decent chance of having a big seller and small chance of having a dud.  Those two conditions are dependent on the size of audience: who is going to buy the book? How likely are they to buy it? If there is a huge potential audience (e.g., fans of vampire fiction), then only a small portion of that audience need buy to justify a book’s costs of production. If there is a small potential audience (e.g., scholars interested in some esoteric theory), then a lot of those people need to buy to justify costs.  These concerns should be central to your book proposal.

I imagine that most writers find it easier to describe the content of their books than to describe the audience who will buy it or the market to which it will be sold. But if you’re writing a proposal for an editor or agent, sales potential for a given audience is what they really want to know.  If your proposal doesn’t tell them that, the chance that they will accept your proposal decreases.