Critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills

As I was trying to figure out what to blog about this morning, I came across several sites that linked to comments made by Penguin Random House’s CEO Markus Dohle about how Randy Penguin has done this year. Then there was a post telling publishers what they shouldn’t do in the upcoming year. Both had enough head shaking I couldn’t choose just one. So, here goes.

It didn’t surprise me to see Dohle trying to put the best spin possible on the year for his employees and shareholders. Note I don’t say for his authors. Writers always come very far down the line where too many publishers are concerned because they see us as interchangeable widgets. 

In his annual year-end letter to staff, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle cited the success of Michele Obama’s Becoming, a long list of literary awards, and best book citations and the continued global growth of audiobook sales has 2018 highlights, writes Calvin Reid.

Now, I don’t know about you, but of the four factors listed in the above quote, only one rings true to me, at least as a money-making factor–the growth of audiobook sales. For the rest of it, those are feel good factors and have little to no impact on the bottom line.

Sure, Obama’s book might have given the house a brief influx of cash but did it really make enough to off-set the advance and subsequent payments they will owe the former First Lady? Does it pay for the loss of sales they might have had because the house, not to mention Obama herself, is pushing her traveling book tour? (Tickets are running from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of books that could have been bought.) Does it make up for the books by other authors, authors Randy Penguin wouldn’t have had to pay so much money upfront, could have sold had only the house bought the rights to those books?

And don’t get me started on just how little awards and critical acclaim mean when it comes to the bottom line. The majority of readers don’t give a flying fuck whether or not a book has won some award or been touted in some stuffy book review. What they want is a book that will engage them and keep them interested from beginning to end.

I’d remind Dohle what happened after the Twilight series came to an end or 50 Shades of Grey. Those publishers saw their income streams drying up to a trickle because there was no longer a cash cow with new books coming out. This is what happens when you peg everything on one title or one series. Which is exactly what Randy Penguin has done with the Obama book.

Publishers, at least not the Big 5, seem incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past. How long will it be before one of them finally god belly up?

How long before their employees get so fed up they start whistleblowing not only about how publishers don’t really worry about what readers want but are more concerned about “educating” the public. And Heaven forfend they start talking about the morass that is a publisher’s accounting department. The small ripples we see from time to time when an author finally screws up the courage to demand an accounting of their royalties would become a tsunami.

“Worldwide, our books are being selected in abundance for the critics’ ‘year’s best’ lists,” Dohle writes, pointing to 40 books named notable titles

That is all well and good but how did that translate into not only sales but into profits? With the publishing industry still swimming upstream against changes in reader demands, this should be the only factor that matters. All the awards in the world won’t matter if the house goes bankrupt.

So, what should publishers do or not do in the next year? Richard Charkin has a list of Don’ts. I’ll  hit some of the high points of his article.

The first thing we see is something I had to reread three times because I kept misreading it. Charkin says not to underprice your book. I read it as overprice.

Now, if we’re talking traditional publishers, you should understand why I misread the “don’t”. Trad publishers might be guilty of many things, underpricing their books isn’t one of them. That’s especially true for e-books. However, if we’re talking about indie and small press publishers, he might be right. But we have to be aware of what the market is willing to pay and, to be honest, we seem more in tune with what readers will pay than the trads are, especially when it comes to e-books.

Don’t take on a new book simply to fill a perceived revenue gap.

Invariably gap fillers eat up overhead, underperform, and add nothing to profit, cash, or asset value of a business.

I’ll refer back to my comments about Michelle Obama’s book or even Clinton’s “What Happened”. Yes, they made a big splash when they first came out. Yes, the publishers put a huge push effort behind the books. It quickly became clear that, despite the numbers the publisher kept claiming, Clinton’s book wasn’t selling as well as they wanted us to believe. If it had been, it wouldn’t have been on the discount racks at bookstores and other retailers as quickly as it was. I predict we will be seeing the same with Obama’s book–not that the publisher will ever admit it.

Don’t restructure the business for a year (at least).

This is where I’d argue with him. Publishing, especially Big 5 publishers and some of the mid-sized houses, need dramatic restructuring. They haven’t done it leading up to this year. They haven’t had a breakout year in, well, years. They have failed to find continuing solid income streams because they put all their eggs into the basket of a single title or single series and have nothing in line to follow that the readers want to read. Something needs to change and it should start with developing a new business plan and restructuring the house.

Don’t print as many copies as you think you can sell, print as many as you know you will sell and don’t underprice your books—they’re all great value.

Pardon me while I laugh hysterically at the “all great value” bit. Nope, $15 for an e-book, especially a 300 page novel, is not necessarily a great value. As for printing copies, any publisher printing based on expected sales is behind the times–and I’m being kind. You print based on the number of pre-orders and then a small percentage above that. With printing today, POD technology makes it easy as pie to order and print new copies as needed. Now as a writer, this can be a very bad thing because these micro-runs could mean a book doesn’t go out of print ever. That is why it is so very important you not only know what your contract says when it comes to a title being “in print” but that you have an IP attorney review the contract. If the publisher isn’t willing to negotiate, you need to take a long, hard look at if it is worth it to sign with them.

That is especially true if your contract also gives the publisher–or the agent–the title for the length of copyright unless onerous hoops are jumped through. Remember, they are writing contracts to benefit themselves, not you. It is up to you to make sure your rights are protected. And remember too, it isn’t just your rights but the rights of your heirs since copyright can outlive the author.

Okay, now for the obligatory promotion. I have a new short story out. Christmas Magic is set in the Eerie Side of the Tracks universe. If you want a quick read (about 50 pages or so) with a little “Christmas magic” and family, check it out. It’s available now on Amazon and, as with all my titles, there is no DRM.

Christmas is a magical time, especially in Mossy Creek, TX. Quinn O’Donnell can’t wait to share such a special time with her six-year-old daughter, Ali. But this being Mossy Creek, nothing is ever as it seems and the holiday season promises to be the most magical ever.

Join Quinn and Ali as they enjoy Ali’s first Christmas in Mossy Creek where dreams can come true if you believe and are willing to fight for them and for the people you love.

Until later!


    1. Some do. Others try to alleviate the problem by working with different publishers. The real problem is there are still some publishers out there who try to prevent their authors from doing any indie work. They aren’t blatant about it but that is exactly what right of first refusal clauses do. The way a lot of those clauses are written, a publisher can sit on a proposal for months or even years without getting back to the writer with a yes or no.

      1. I didn’t realize that. Not that I’d ever get a contract from those guys, but it’s good to know. I guess what it means is that anything written in secret would have to remain secret. My first thought was that they might later republish with their famous name “as by” their less famous name. But that’s out the window.

      2. I’ve NEVER had a first refusal within the window allowed on the contract. Not once (and that includes when they bought the book). Basically, this – along with with all the other clauses are usually ‘dog-in-the-manger’ clauses. They’re never going to sell your foreign rights or movie rights or any of the other rights. If – by some fluke or your hard work, marketing – the book sells exceptionally and someone comes asking, if they don’t screw it up they may sell it. Hasn’t happened to me yet. It’s keep you on the plantation stuff.

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