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Just like queries and cover letters and even manuscript submissions, everyone does book proposals a little bit differently, especially in the children's book industry. Since fiction children's book editors rarely see full out book proposals, we don't really have a hard and fast standard. So, like when you are querying or submitting to an editor, you should find out what their specific book proposal guidelines are. After all, some people might like to see a synopsis for each chapter of the book while others might be content with a one page summary.
However, on this blog we are going to discuss the most common, and in my opinion, most important parts of a book proposal. They are:
- Cover Letter
- One Page Overview
- Series Overview
- Chapter Summaries (or Outline)
- Potential Markets for the Book
- Author Biography
- Promotion/Marketing Plans/Opportunities
- First 3 Chapters (occasionally full MS)
- SASE (if physical submission)
Next week I'll do general overviews into each of these parts, and then the week after that, we'll get into the nitty-gritty or actually working on each individual part. (Instead of book proposals, tomorrow I'm posting a status update on the picture book submissions.)
And, if you would like to read ahead, so to speak, everything I learned about book proposals came from this fantastic book, Author 101 Best Selling Book Proposals
. A few years ago I needed to put together a nonfiction, adult book proposal for a freelance client, and this book was a wealth of knowledge.
Ah, it's March. And that makes me think of spring (it's firmly spring here), basketball, green beer, and book proposals.
Okay, so March doesn't inherently make me think of book proposals. I'm not sure any time of year particularly inspires that line of thought. And frankly as a children's book editor of fiction books, book proposals rarely cross my mind at all. After all, you will rarely need to write out a book proposal for a fiction book, and there are many well-established children's authors who have never written one at all.
And that, my friends, is a shame.
A book proposal is one of the best ways to get to know your book, I mean really get to know your book. An invite-your-book-back-to-your-place-for-a-drink kind of way to know your book. To "know" it in the "biblical" sense. By the time you have finished every section of a book proposal, there's not much about your book you haven't considered. And looking at your book in this kind of detail can only help you make it stronger.
Besides, a book proposal is the perfect project while waiting to hear back from critiquers with your first draft. It allows you to continue working on your current project without obsessively revising. (Remember what I said about over-revising yesterday?)
So, I propose that we spend this glorious month of March dedicated to all things book proposals. We will discuss every aspect of the proposal, we will practice proposals, and in the end we will have a grand contest (details of which I have not thought out yet, only just now having had this scathingly brilliant idea) with 5 Grand Prize winners recieving the chance to submit their book proposals to me for critiquing and to CBAY for official consideration. (In other words you'll submit to CBAY, and if I reject the project, I'll provide feedback.)
As you may have noticed, Buried in the Slush Pile has undergone yet another transformation over the past 24 hours. I have spend countless hours tinkering and moving widgets, columns, and various objects back and forth. The result? A blog that looks almost exactly the same as when I started it in 2006 with just a different color background, a graphic header (of stuff from my actual slush pile) and a wider spread.
Sigh. Sometimes there really is no point in messing with a good thing.
And this is a lesson that applies to revising, especially children and teen manuscripts. There is such as too much revision. Tinkering away at your manuscript can sometimes make it weaker instead of stronger. I've watched authors nit-pick at the things until the passages actually are choppier and more disjointed than they were 4 drafts before. Like everything, show some restraint and moderation when it comes to revising. And if you find yourself compulsively rewriting the same paragraph for the 45th time, it's time to take that manuscript or chapter to your critique group. Obviously you could use an outside opinion.
It has occurred to me that people might want to know the answers to those conference appropriate questions I posted. Since the only editor I have access to on such short notice is myself, I'm going to appear very self-centered and interview myself first. However, I have started putting out feelers to see if anyone else would be interested in answering these questions.
Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books, a small independent press in Texas. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter where she masquerades online as the semi-anonymous Buried Editor.
- What are your favorite books (either that you acquired or wished you had acquired)?
Well me, that is an excellent question. I find that I love all the books I acquired. Since I have full discretion, I only acquire the books that I'm willing to read a minimum of 5 times. However some other favorite books of mine are Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, Ally Carter's books, Diana Wynne Jones' books (especially the Chrestomancis and Archer's Goon), Robin McKinley's Hero & the Crown and her Sunshine, Paranormalcy, A Brief History of Montmaray, Datlow & Windling's anthologies, The Lost Conspiracy, Larklight, the new Death Cloud by Andrew Lane and so many others I can't event think of them.
- What kind of books do you enjoy?
I like a variety of midgrade and teen books. My favorites are the ones that are funny, with great characters, a compelling plot, and great world building. I also like ones that take on religion in a thoughtful, thought provoking way. A good example of reinterpreting Judeo/Christian myth would be David Slater's Sacred Books that we have published. Each one gets a little more controversial than the last with the 5th and 6th books (whose first drafts I just read) being inflammatory enough to probably make some people really upset. Not burn books upset (books 2-4 already do that). I'm thinking more like rocks through the window, DaVinci Code kind of upset.
- What are you looking for for your list?
Right now CBAY exclusively focuses on fantasy and science fiction for midgrade and teens although we are branching into fantasy and science fiction picture books. CBAY's goal is also to publish "the banned books of tomorrow" so I wouldn't mind considering a tastefully controversial teen book (like The Mockingbirds or the like) if it came my way.
- What kind of books do you really dislike?
Books that are supposed to be funny, but that I find condescending to the reader and to children in general. I really hate books like that. There's a very fine line between a charming, witty book and one that's actually just rude. I'm also not much into romance, including paranormal romance. I like paranormal books, but I've found (especially with so many right now) that the romance part bores me.
- What kind of book is your dream book to acquire?
A steam punk picture book. I've never even seen one.
- What kind of book would you like to acquire but the right manuscript has never come across your desk?
A controversial, thought provoking science fiction novel set in space. I'm a huge hard science fiction (as opposed to soft science fiction -- yes these classifi
Spending the week working on my CWIM article about editors has gotten me thinking about conferences. After all the main place new authors get to meet editors is at conferences. And what I think of as the conference season is upon us. (I have found that January through July culminating with the big SCBWI LA conference in early August is the busiest time for writing conferences. Conferences do happen in the fall, but there are fewer of them with all the holidays and all.) This year I find myself completely conference free since I have not been doing the proper pimping of myself as a speaker to the various local SCBWIs. This is good since it gives me more time to get ready for other stuff like TLA, but it's bad since I like conferences and they are a good source for slush.
However, I'm digressing. What I wanted to talk about are the kinds of things that are appropriate to ask editors either during a conference Q&A or even when you have the chance to talk to them one on one. Here are my top ten:
- What are your favorite books (either that you acquired or wished you had acquired)?
- What kind of books do you enjoy?
- What are you looking for for your list?
- What kind of books do you really dislike?
- What kind of book is your dream book to acquire?
- What kind of book would you like to acquire but the right manuscript has never come across your desk? (Every editor tends to have one of those at some point. Mine is currently a steam punk picture book.)
- Who are your favorite authors?
- What are some of the books you have acquired?
- Have you ever acquired something from the slush pile? (Not every editor can say yes to this. This can be instructive regarding your chances of getting acquired this way.)
- How many books do you usually acquire every year? (Again instructive for your chances. Obviously if the editor only acquires 2 books a year, both normally submitted by agents, you shouldn't pin all your hopes on this editor.)
All of these questions help you get to know the editor and will help you determine whether or not your manuscript is something that might interest the editor in question. For example, I interviewed an editor who automatically rejects all high fantasies that come his way simply because they do not fit with his list. He does fantasy, but only those grounded in our reality. So, if you've written a grand epic tale set in a world like Middle Earth there would be no point in submitting to this particular editor. It would merely waste your time and his.
We have a winner for our contest! Congratulations to BN Lippy for her "The Book of Yet to Come." It was a very close race with both stories in the lead at various times. However, Lippy ended up receiving 55% of the votes.
Congratulations to both of you for being finalists. I look forward to reading more entries from you both.
And thank you to the 67 people who voted. That was a great turnout.
I have a dilemma. When I went to judge the Drabble contest this morning, I found that there were two stories that I liked best, the ones by Estela and BN Lippy. That happens all the time in contest entries, but in this case I found that I didn't find myself leaning more to one than the other. In fact, I like them both equally, a rare occurrence. Normally, I would then just award 2 prizes and say, "Yeah!" But this weekend I truly only have time for one critique and to try to do 2 would either result in 2 lesser critiques or 1 just not getting done. So, I find I have to award only one winner.
And that's where you come in. I'm going to open the contest up to voting. I'm going to post both stories here, and then you, dear readers, will vote for the winner. Now, I've limited voting to once a computer (although if you have multiple computers I suppose you can pack the pot), and voting is only open through 11:45 Tuesday night.
Presenting my two contestants (in order of their posts):
I opened the carton and groaned. "One egg is not enough."
I prayed to Recipe, the Egyptian goddess of the kitchen. Just then, the doorbell rang. My neighbors. "We're leaving town. Could you use some eggs?"
Then I couldn't find chocolate chips. I prayed to Recipe again.
"Cool." yelled my brother a moment later. "A chocolate bar under the sofa cushions!"
"I need that."
I mixed, put everything in the oven, and turned on the TV.
"What's that burning smell?"
Suddenly, Recipe appeared. "You are hopeless, even for a mortal. Here's some money. Go buy yourself an ice cream."
THE BOOK OF YET TO COME
Ryan is drawn to a worn leather book with no publisher or author listed.
Under the title on the first page he reads the following, “Ryan opens the book and sees no publisher or author. Curious, he watches as each word appears.”
“Ryan, this book is not for you,” says the librarian quietly. “It’s mischievous and from a different time.”
Ryan looks up with glazed eyes.
She takes the book.
“Here’s a book about Omm Ali Cocoa you’ll enjoy.”
The spell is broken when the book leaves his hands
He won’t remember the mysterious book; until it finds him again.
To vote, click the button by your favorite below.
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This week I've been talking about short stories, and I think the time has come for us to practice them. So, I'm going to do a Drabble contest this week. A drabble is a short story of exactly 100 words (not including the title). That means your entry has to be exactly 100 words (plus title). Not 99, not 101, but exactly 100 words. Challenging, I know.
And just to make it more interesting, you have to use your #storystarts entries as well. The title of your story will be the #storystarts entry from this week, and you must at least mention your Egyptian God #storystarts from a couple of weeks ago.
Now, I realize not that many people entered the #storystarts this round, and for this one contest that is OK. Make up an Egyptian God and a title and go ahead and submit your story. However, from this point on, I plan to run a blog contest incorporating the #storystarts contest entries every few weeks. In order to enter those contests, you will have to have entered the related #storystarts. And the blog contests' prizes will always be something like critiques or a chance to query or submit even though submissions are closed.
And that leads me to the prize for this week: A free conference-style critique of the first three chapters of any children's manuscript you may want reviewed. (Or if you prefer, three picture book manuscripts.) This will be the same kind of critique you would get from me at a conference (without the in-person part) or if you had hired me to do the same. (Yes, I am a freelance editor although because I'm busy, I don't do a lot of outside work.)
To enter this contest, paste your title and 100 hundred word Drabble into the comments field below. This is not a critique board, so don't comment on other people's entries. Merely submit your own. You have until 11:59 CST Sunday night to get your entry up, and I will select the winner on Monday or Tuesday.
I know just how hard it is to write a full short story in 100 words, so I wish all of you the best of luck!
One of my favorite types of short story is the the microfiction or flash fiction style of short story. Although varying in length, these tales are told in extremely limited word counts -- often under 500 words. And unlike a picture book manuscript of a similar length, these stories are published unillustrated forcing the author to rely solely on words. Some good examples of children's microfiction include Aesop's Fables and some of the shorter fairy tales.
As with all short stories, these have at least one major character and a full plot with beginning , middle, and end. There is a conflict and some sort of obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. The story can be action-packed or quietly introspective, but one thing all of them have in common is their length. A micro-fiction is short.
And that brings me to this week's #storystarts Twitter contest. It is to think up a short story title. The winner of the Twitter contest will get an ARC copy of The Beastly Bride, a short story collection edited by Datlow & Windling. They do some really great teen anthologies that are themed around various folk, fairy tale, or mythological theme.
However, when you choose your title think carefully. On Friday I will be doing a blog contest that will be incorporating my #storystarts contests. I'm not going to tell you exactly what the contest is until Friday, but I will let you know that the prize will be a three chapter (or 3 PB manuscript) critique.
I like short stories. I like being able to read an entire plot arc in 15-20 minutes, to be able to pick up a story and read the whole thing at the doctor's office or while waiting in the car while someone runs an errand.
It's probably a good thing that I like short stories so much since I've been reading quite a few of them in my picture book submissions. Because word counts tend to be similar between a short story and a picture book manuscript, I can see how the two could be confused. In fact I talked about this recently in my Short Story MS vs Picture Book MS: There is a difference post. I'm not going to recap that discussion here. What I thought I would do instead is discuss some of the things that make a good short story.
Good short stories have:
- A complete story arc.
Yes, that's right. A good short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If it doesn't the tale is probably an anecdote or even just a scene from something longer.
- Compelling characters.
Just because you have fewer words doesn't mean your characters get to be types. If your character is an uninteresting stereotype, then I'm not any more inclined to read his/her 5 page story than I was to read his/her 500 page novel.
Since you are working in a smaller (word) space, a short story has to be more tightly focused than a novel. There often can't be any subplots, and there tend to be fewer supporting characters. Take as an example the difference between Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" and Ender's Game. The short story does not mention Ender's siblings and the politics of Earth. It also starts earlier and ends earlier in the novel's plot line.
- Judicious use of summary.
You can get away with more summary in a short story, but you still can't use it much. After all, scenes are so much more interesting to read.
This post falls under the "somewhat random" category; however, I have recently been thinking about pen names.
Pen names intrigue me. They can be powerful marketing tools for branding a series or even a particular style for an author. Think Lemony Snicket. They can allow an author famous for one type of book to publish in another genre without alienating existing fans. They can be clever characters in the novels themselves like Vordak the Incomprehensible or even allow a first person book to be "by" the character in question.
However, most of the time pen names are used by book packagers with ghost-writing teams to provide a cohesive author name for a series. (The most famous would be Dixon for the Hardy Boys or Keene for Nancy Drew. Neither of these people exist. Both series were developed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. A more modern example would be James Frey's new projects.) And this I understand as a logical marketing tool. It is confusing to read 14 books that all sound exactly the same but have 12 different authors. It also can be nightmarish from a shelving perspective since books tend to be alphabetical by author. (39 Clues was a real pain this way.)
What are your opinions of pen names?
The nice thing about writer's block is sometimes just writing about it can help it go away. It's like the old belief that knowing someone's name gives you power over that person. By naming my writer's block, I robbed it of its power, and thus it went away.
In other words, yesterday I powered through and finally managed to write my 300 word intro. I know. Impressive stats. And what's even better, the intro that yesterday I thought was possibly the worst thing I'd ever written, today reads as not so bad, and a decent base for a rewrite. So, the other moral of this story is to always let your writing sit for a bit before judging it. What was once brilliant may become more flawed and the direst muck may turn out to have some redeeming value. It's just to hard to tell when you are coming off the high (or low) of initial writing.
And thank everyone for your comments yesterday. I especially liked the "all editors were one step lower than God". I guess that would make me a literary angel. I like that.
I am currently working on an article about various small press editors for the next edition of the CWIM (Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market) guide for Writer's Digest. It's suppossed to be 1500 words. I have 117. I've had between 90 and 120 words for some time now, all in the first paragraph, all rewritten multiple times. The usual tricks for writer's block don't seem to be working. Things like:
- Never removing your fingers from the keyboard, just keep typing until your character starts doing something interesting or back in line with the plot.
(Not real applicable for nonfiction, and I don't think my editors would appreciate it if I started inventing plot lines for them.)
- Writing down everything that comes into your mind regardless of it's relevance.
(Although I'm sure my rather random passing thought about going back into time and trying to explain blood types to Sherlock Holmes & Watson and the relevance for forensic investigation is fascinating, it seems kind of inappropriate for my article.)
- Not rereading what you wrote but continuing writing.
(I tried this for the second go at my intro paragraph. For some reason every sentence except the first started with "After all,".)
So, I have instead opted for asking for help. I'm trying to describe what people who have never met them think of editors. Now, I realize that for many of you this might take you back a bit, but I would like everyone to pretend that you are once again an unpublished, unseasoned author at your very first writer's conference who has discovered that for some reason you've been seated next to an editor at the conference lunch. In a phrase or three separate words, describe how you feel. Then, describe again in a phrase or three separate words how the generic editor appears to you. (I don't mean physically, rather things like intimidating or approachable or evil incarnate or divine luck, that sort of thing.)
Since this was the first contest and since there were only 3 entries and since I liked them all and have plenty of Amulet of Amon-Ras to giveaway, I have made an executive decision and have made all three entries winners. Yeah!
The three winners are: @clothdragon, @bnlippy, and @brykateemma
If you three would email or direct message me your physical address, I will get those books out to you next week.
(Oh, my email is found on every page of the CBAY site.)
I have a lot of books at home. Some of them are CBAY Books that I set aside as giveaways that I then never gave away, and some of these books are readers (either for CBAY Books or other publishers). But the one thing all of these books have in common is that they are middle grade or teen books, and they all need to go away. And being the kind, generous person I am, I have decided to give them away to my blog/Twitter followers. However, to make this more fun, I have decided to have a weekly Twitter contest for them.
Here's how it will work. Every week at a random time, I will post a tweet that starts with #storystarts. Then I will give you a writing assignment that can be done in 140 characters. After that, I'll list the prize for that week. Example of a tweet could be:
#storystarts Spaceship haiku. Go. Prize: Necropolis ARC
To enter the contest, reply to the tweet with your answer to the writing assignment. So, to enter my sample contest above, you would reply tweet me your spaceship haiku. Each contest will be open for 24 hours at the end of which I'll pick the winner(s). At my discretion (and based on prize availability), I may pick more than one winner. I'll then contact you to get an address and mail you your book. Because I'm eating shipping, at this point, this contest is only open to folks in the United States. That may change in the future, but for now, I'm having to stick to it.
Finally, the #storystarts I provide may be silly, serious, or downright strange, but hopefully they will motivate and inspire your writing. None of these should take more than a few moments to do, and hopefully, they'll be a good diversion from your writing projects. For the first contest tweet, head on over to me Twitter feed now.
(Note: Sometimes I post writing prompts. Those are not part of the contest. Only tweets that start with #storystart are contests right now.)
So, I must say, this seemed like quite a successful submission period. We had over 200 submissions (211 to be exact) and some good potential CBAY books. I haven't gotten to look at all of them yet, but I am looking forward to it. Just so everyone knows, with this number I'll be able to look at each one personally. Im about 2/3 through, and I hope to finish by next weekend. We definitely should be able to get back to everyone in 6 weeks -- half what I was expecting.
And once again I'd like to thank everyone for the professional submissions. I didn't have a singl blog worthy example in the whole bunch.
Remember, today is the absolute last day to submit your picture book to CBAY Books. After today, we are going to close submissions again for a little while (specifically until we've responded to all of these.)
If you are planning to submit, be sure to read the submission guidelines, and then drop your manuscripts our way.
I know it seems a little bit like I've been knocking Barnes & Noble all week. In reality I've been railing against the returns system prevalent in our industry and Barnes & Noble happens to be a part of it. For better or worse, Barnes & Noble is the most visible retailer out there right now, and so its name factored into my discussion more than it would have otherwise.
But when it comes to Barnes & Noble in other respects, I am quite fond of them. They are, by far, my favorite chain and one of my preferred booksellers in general. I would not have put in 20-32 hour weeks when I worked there if it was otherwise. (In fact I wouldn't have worked for them in the first place if I hadn't liked them. The picture is of me with some of the author and illustrators and contest winners when I edited Summer Shorts. We are at, yes, Barnes & Noble.)
And let's face it, Barnes & Noble is CBAY's bookselling best friend. With the exception of BookPeople and Powells, no other bookstore has carried CBAY books on their shelves as consistently as Barnes & Noble. And although I love my indies, B&N has a greater nation-wide reach.
So, I thought I'd throw a little love Barnes & Nobles way, and they have made it so very easy. When I was perusing all the different bookstore sites to check the information on CBAY's upcoming debut teen novel, Dry Souls, I discovered that B&N already has the book discounted when no one else does. I would like to encourage you to head on over there and pre-order now while it's 10% off. I have no idea how long that will last. They've never done it for one of my pre-orders before.
And just so you'll be tempted, I have a pdf of the first 5 chapters (nearly 20% of the book!) for you to whet your appetite on. I've read it in iBooks and Kobo on my iPad, and it should work on the Kindle and Nook, and of course on any computer. To download this free teaser, click here.
Let the countdown officially begin. Tomorrow at midnight exactly, CBAY will briefly open submissions again for the first time in three years. Three years! I know accepting submissions is a commonplace thing at other publishers, but it's been so long for us that this has turned into a pivotal, logistics-meeting inspiring kind of event. We're excited and nervous and upbeat about the coming avalanche. Personally, I have goose bumps.
For the first time in quite sometime, I will once again be covered in slush even if it is all of the electronic variety.
So, I want to wish all of you submitters luck, and to tell you not to be to stressed about the whole thing. Take a deep breath and hit send. We'll be eagerly waiting to look at it over here.
Although CBAY is still accepting picture book submissions through the end of the month, we will begin contacting the people whose submissions we've already read starting tomorrow.
That means that starting tomorrow, some people will begin to receive rejection letters.
Yes, the dreaded rejection letter.
Unfortunately, the reality is that most submissions will have to be rejected. We're looking for 1, maybe 2, manuscripts at this time, and we've already received 20 or 30 times that. And submissions have only been open for 2 days.
With that having been said, please keep the following in mind. (And this is true of any rejection letter you may ever receive either from me or anyone else):
- Do not take it personal.
Form letters, especially, are the most impersonal thing you can get. However, most of the time what they say on them -- that "Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time" -- is literally what they mean. I've personally read every submissions so far, and I can tell you that not a single one of them is irredeemable. In fact there are several good stories out there that will still be receiving form rejections simply because they either do not fit in with our list or was a short story manuscript instead of a picture book manuscript. There was nothing wrong with the writing or style. They just literally don't "meet our needs at this time."
- Do not be insulted by a form rejection.
I did the math the other day. A form rejection takes 2-3 minutes to do. A short personal rejection can take 15 minutes or more. So, let's say pick a number and say I (well, Intern) have 100 rejections to do. Even with a form rejection, that's going to take us 300 minutes or 5 hours to get out. Personal rejections would take at a minimum 25 hours. We don't have 3 work days to dedicate to rejection letters. It's just not feasible. So, as depressing and soul-sucking as form rejections are for both us and you, it's a necessary evil. Pretty much all publishing houses eventually have to succumb to them.
- Do not let them deter you from writing.
Like I said above, a rejection letter does not mean you can't write or will never get published. It just means that that particular work is not right for that editor or agent. Keep looking for that perfect match. Do not give up. (Personally, I don't know a single author who has never received a single rejection for something. I know I have.)
I know rejections are a miserable occasion, and although you might not believe it, we dislike them just as much as you. No one likes to disappoint others. However, it's one of the reasons we are going to try to start getting them out so quickly. We don't want you sitting around waiting on us when you could be submitting your work to someone else.
Last week I asked for your opinion concerning a couple of different cover options for The Book of All Things. I had hoped I would get maybe 10 responses. Much to my surprise, I had 45. Since I had never planned on making the results secret (I didn't realize the poll wouldn't show results), here is the clear winner:
With 34 votes (76%):
The other covers received 5 votes (11%) and 6 votes (13%) for the Rainbow and other cover, respectively.
So, thank you in helping us out. Also to those 7 of you who went above and beyond to post your actual comments, I'm very appreciative for the feedback.
Normally submissions are great inspiration for the blog. I get all sorts of weird and wacky things when submissions are open, like that time the person submitted his/her entire manuscript on purple paper (because purple was a Blooming Tree color?) or the individual that packaged his/her submission with a handful of glitter.
But this submission round I so far find myself curiously lacking instructive submissions. Every one I've seen has been professional with well written cover letters and a decided lack of quirkiness.
So, I had planned on doing a long detailed rant on why returns were killing publishers (specifically me) that was filled with glorious numbers and might help authors and aspiring authors better understand a less well-known aspect of the book business. However, before I started, I ran across this charming post about Bookseller Math. I decided to put off the returns post until tomorrow and instead write a companion post called Publisher Math. I present it now:
Like booksellers, publishers are inundated by numbers all day long -- and I'm not talking about sales or returns figures or that number on the bottom of a P&L that determines whether or not a book should be published. (And yes, all books no matter how brilliant, all come down to that single number in the end.) I mean that we also have our own mathematical way of looking at the world. If life were a university, then all the people in the publishing field would have to take a year long comprehensive course entitled Publishers' Math 101. The units would include:
- Statistics (Law of Averages) -- As you learn in statistics everything tends to trend to the middle of the pack. (Hence the infamous bell curve in grading.) You may have a few bestsellers and a few real duds, but most books fall somewhere in the middle. And for publishers this means you always have to remember the Law of Averages. What would the "average" reader like? What does the "average" kid prefer? What will the "average" sales be every month? What are the books "average" shelf life? Is it any wonder that many books in the marketplace are what we consider to be average?
- Trigonometry -- When I take my sales numbers and have Excel make fancy graphs, they always create pretty little sines and cosines. Like waves, sales have troughs and peaks. Have a particularly successful marketing push? Get a peak. However, it's always followed by a trough. Always.
- Negative numbers -- The amount a publisher makes after returns come back. See tomorrow.
- Fractals -- Put simply, a fractal is something that when broken into smaller pieces, those smaller pieces look remarkably like the whole. Because of this, fractals are considered "infinitely complex." Is there a better way to describe what an outsider sees when they look at the publishing industry than infinitely complex?
- Chaos Theory -- Although most evident during large trade shows like BEA or ALA, chaos can invade at any point in the publishing process. And sometimes even the smallest things (an extra dash in the ISBN of an ARC) can grind everything into a screeching halt.
- Zero-sum -- What a publisher feels like at the end of a book's life (especially with a book with high sales but high returns). You haven't really lost much but it doesn't feel like you've gained much either.
Publisher Math can be a hard thing to sit down and face. Like Bookseller Math, it can be full of low percentages and negative numbers. It's actually a wonder, after running the numbers, that there are any publishers at all.
If I was a paranoid person, I might think Barnes & Noble had it out for me. Now in reality, the powers that be at B&N haven't the faintest idea who I am. I am just one or two pages in the NBN catalog -- pretty much indistinguishable from every other publisher in there. And from Barnes & Noble's perspective, they actually probably like me. After all, for the two books I put out in 2010 (Book of Maps & The Necropolis), they purchased nearly the entire print run of each. (In fact for Book of Maps, they originally ordered 3x the print run before I pointed out to NBN how unrealistic that was.) And in any other industry, that would be it. I'd pay my authors their royalties and take my remaining money to the bank.
But this is the book industry, and unlike literally every other industry on the planet, we allow returns.
And this is why I become paranoid about Barnes & Noble's intentions. Because although they bought nearly the whole print run of Book 3 of both The Sacred Books and the The Forgotten Worlds Series, they didn't buy any of 1 or 2. You can probably guess how many casual shoppers randomly buy the third book in a series. And since I know my sales numbers for book 2 (a reasonable forecast of sales for book 3), I can tell returns are going to be somewhere in the 85% range. If I'm lucky.
Large scale returns for me are, to put it bluntly, devastating. It would be cheaper for me to print books and toss them directly into a recycle bin or a bonfire or use them to build furniture than it is for me to sell a book and have it returned. Let's do the math:
Say I have a book that retails for $1.00.
That book sells to a bookstore at a discount that we'll say is 50%. (Discounts to people who buy from NBN vary from 47-60%, but 50 is the easiest number to use.) From there it goes to the store shelves. Yeah! On my end I've gotten $0.50. My distributor takes its cut of (this is not the actual number since I legally can't disclose that but an approximate that again is easier to do the math with) of 20% or $0.10 and my author (again this varies but we'll average for ease) gets 10% of that $0.50 or $0.05. I'm now down to $0.35 which after factoring in the cost of printing the book drops to $0.10. I then spend half of that in marketing, and finally I'm left with 5 cents.
(You may have noticed that the author and publisher make the same amount. This is intentional. Authors are considered an equal partner in each book.)
So far everything is looking good for all involved. The bookstore is getting to sell at a 100% markup, the distributor is getting its cut for its hard working sales force, and the author and I are equally sharing the profits. Great.
But then 90 days pass and the bookstore can return any unsold stock. The bookstore employee pulls the book from the shelf and returns it to NBN. Since they get a full credit, I have to give the bookstore back $0.50 for that book. But wait! I only actually got $0.35 for that book. I had to give $0.10 to my distributor and $0.05 to my author. Well, my author isn't going to get to keep that money. We're partners so if the book doesn't sell, neither of us gets anything. That royalty gets credited back to me. (However, if a royalty check has been paid, the author does not send me money back. That check just acts like another advance that has to be earned out. An author never, ever sends me money except for books that he/she buys directly from me.) However, my distributor keeps the money I paid it.
So, to make a long story short, instead of making 5 cents on that book, I have lost 10. If we were talking
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Yesterday I talked about how returns can be not so good for the publisher (any publisher, not just me). Today we'll talk about how returns are not always so good for the bookseller either.
Don't get me wrong. There are some serious pros from a bookseller's perspective for keeping the returns model. And since in my other line of work I am a bookseller, I can tell you what those are. (And I can even sympathize and agree with them.)
- Reduction of Risk -- this is a biggie, and it's going to be a hard one to convince booksellers to give up. When a bookseller orders a book knowing that he/she will be able to send back unsold copies, it pretty much eliminates the risk. Yes, there are costs for the bookseller to doing returns (I'll talk about them below), but in general they vastly outweigh the risks of being left with stock you just can't get rid of (even with sales).
- Allows Optimism -- Say you're a bookseller who has read the ARC of a book and doesn't particularly like it. You think it might do okay at your store, so you order a copy or two for the shelf. Then the publisher's sales rep comes in all bubbly about that book. You may not like it but they are expecting x number of star reviews and they're going to do y number of marketing things and be on z number of talk shows, and in the end the rep convinces you to take a 12 book dump. Because of your reduced risk above you can buy this dump even if you don't think that book will do all that great. And if your gut turns out to be right, you just return those extra 10 books back. (All right, this pretty much has never happened at our store because I work for some astute buyers. However if there is a doubt in their mind, they do err on the side of over rather than under ordering because they know they can return.)
- Allows Events to Have Enough Books -- And this is the only part of the returns system where the bookseller and the publisher in me agree. Books ordered specifically for an event should be returnable. Period. You never, ever want an event with too few books. I've worked events like that as both a bookseller and once as a publisher, and it is just a nightmare for all involved. You end up with missed sales, unhappy customers, unhappy authors, and stressed out bookstore and publisher staff. In this case returning the books is worth any loss on both sides.
- Take Orders without Prepayment -- Right now you can place an order at most bookstores for a book they don't have in stock without prepaying as long as the book is returnable. Why can't you do this for nonreturnable books? Because a majority of books that are special ordered for customers are never picked up or are rejected when the book arrives. Of course, I have a pretty simple solution for that dilemma, but it would probably reduce the number of people placing special orders to those who actually want the book.
Those pros I just listed are pretty powerful, but don't think that bookstores are in the returns system cost free. There are:
- Shipping costs -- most bookstores pay their own shipping to return books. (I don't know about B&N. When I worked there I was not in receiving but on the floor. I pulled returns, but didn't box them up.) Shipping books ain't cheap.
- Labor costs -- employees have to physically get the books off the shelf to return. At B&N we were expected to spend a minimum of 25% of our week "zoning" which meant going through bookshelves with a scanner listening for the little ding that told us a book was marked for return. We were also supposed to be alphabetizing and making sure the book belonged on that shelf, but nearly all of us just ended up in a zone that glazed over and listened for the return. At the indie I'm at, we have an employee solely dedicated to returns.
- Loss of profit -- This is the biggest drawback for a bookstore especially the independents. (Barnes & Noble buys differently.