A Call for More Transparency From Publishers
One of my resolutions for 2019 was to turn my Instagram account into a more open, honest, and transparent place. Many of my followers are aspiring authors, and I wanted to share not just the highlights of being a published writer, but some of the low points, too. The reality of the business. The things I wished someone had shared with me when I was starting out.
I’ve talked about money via my Instagram posts and the challenges that unpredictable author earnings pose for personal budgets. I’ve discussed the amount of marketing I do on my own dime, how I’ve sent myself on tours, how I design my own bookmarks and promotional goods—and how this is the norm for ninety percent of the authors I know. (I write YA and am published traditionally. Norms surely vary in adult, non-fiction, self-pub, etc.)
Above all, what I’ve tried to stress to aspiring writers is how little of this industry is in your control. I can’t control how many copies of my book sell. I can’t control how it is received or if it gets starred reviews or if it gets optioned for film. I can only control the writing. But I would love to have some control over my expectations, too.
I typically have little to no expectations for my books. I don’t count on a marketing budget, sales investing in cop-op (placement in stores), publicity/media outreach, or being sent on a tour or to festivals. This is mainly because if I set the bar low, I’m pleasantly surprised if/when things falls into place.
But another part of the reason I do this is because I’m not in a position to form realistic expectations. I can’t, because a lack of transparency prevents it. A lot of information is held on the other side of the metaphorical desk, so much so, that authors often don’t know the reality of what is going into their book on the publisher’s end.
I would always rather know the true state of my book’s marketing budget and publicity plans, even if that answer is a depressing, “There is no budget, and we have no plans.” I recently ran a poll on Instagram, and found that 87% of published authors felt the same. We just want to know what’s happening so we can adjust our expectations accordingly—and so we can decide how much of our own time and money to dump into our books.
Surely there are reasons publishers withhold certain information. Maybe they don’t want to disappoint authors or make us feel bad. Perhaps the budget isn’t set yet, or they’re still looking into publicity opportunities. It’s possible the person we’re asking doesn’t have the answer due to internal structuring at the publishing house. It’s also very likely that this person has had to deal with a few diva authors and has decided it’s less of a headache to not share information with authors unless absolutely necessary.
Regardless of the reason, I don’t think a lack of honest communication is doing authors any favors. We can’t set or adjust expectations without the facts. And those facts are important from pre-release through post. It feels almost criminal that many authors don’t know how their book is performing outside of royalty statements (which are sent twice a year) or BookScan numbers (which only capture a portion of all sales).
Some publishers now have online portals that allow authors to see sales numbers whenever they please. This is a wonderful, much needed resource, in my opinion. If an author sees incredible and steady sales numbers from week to week, they and their agent can use that information to negotiate future sales. If the author sees disappointing numbers, they won’t be as surprised to learn that their sequel won’t have fancy specs on the jacket, or that their editor doesn’t want another book from them in that same genre.
Granted, the number of sales necessary for a book to be deemed a success depends on how much the publisher spent on the book. This includes book advance, marketing costs, and even how many copies were printed.
But in my experience, the first print run number announced in a publisher’s seasonal catalog isn’t accurate. Example: My debut was announced to have a first print run of 75,000 hardcover copies. I haven’t sold anywhere near that number, but my debut went into a fifth reprint in hardcover. Clearly it did better than the publisher had hoped or anticipated, but when I got my first royalty statement, I was devastated. I saw the number of copies shipped and, because of my announced first print run, assumed my book had tanked. (My agent talked me down. Thank goodness for agents!)
But this begs the question: why are first print run numbers often inflated? And is there a reason I was never told the actual number? Why aren’t authors and publishers having a two-way dialog about the goals, expectations, and marketing plans for a book? Having authors look up info on their own (or having their agents chase down answers) isn’t leading to a sense camaraderie. It’s doing the opposite, making authors feel like they’re not on the publisher’s team, but on another team—and that they don’t even know the rules of the game being played.
I know that most of my Instagram followers are mature adults who can take the hard truths about a writing career. I wish publishers would do the same for authors when it came to their books. We’re professionals. We can handle it. We just want to be able to form realistic expectations as we send our books into the world and make informed decisions about how much of our own time and money to invest in them.
So here’s to more transparency in the publishing world, running in all directions. Publisher to author, and vice versa. Author to aspiring writer. Author to author! We’re all in this together, so let’s quit holding our cards so close to our chests.