‘Market’ is a six-letter word

21 May 2009

As ‘everyone’ knows, there is no money in academic publishing, especially for authors. (True? Not always.) Indeed, a lot of authors find the whole issue of money rather distasteful (for them, it’s all about the scholarship, not money). Others have no objection to fame and fortune – and preferably great dollops of both – but the grubby mechanics of attaining these is something they’d rather leave to the creatures in Sales and Marketing; editorial staff are the publishing people with whom they feel most comfortable.

What success requires

But even if getting rich is not your purpose in getting published, almost certainly you are interested in seeing your book succeed. Unfortunately, this is your responsibility, too; achieving success cannot be totally delegated to others.

Why? Because in most cases, the ultimate success of any book is far less affected by its promotion before and after publication than people imagine. What has much greater effect is that the book’s inner qualities and its suitability, its attraction to readers – in other words, its market fundamentals (genre, readership, level, etc.) – are thought through and implemented right from the start. This is something that only authors (if they know their field and subject) can do successfully.

In short, there is a direct and vital link between the success of a book and thinking its market. And you (with all other authors) stand squarely in the middle.

(By the way, this is not to say that marketing, the active promotion of a book, doesn’t matter. It does, and this is something that authors should also concern themselves with. I’ll return to this in later posts.)

Failure to think market, think reader, can have unfortunate consequences, as was the case with Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.

A cautionary tale

Alexander McCall Smith is famous for his series of books centred on Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (If you haven’t read them, they are worth investigation.) However, far less well known is his trilogy of comic novels exploring the insane and rarefied world of Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology. Von Igelfeld’s greatest achievement is his beautifully leather-bound monograph, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which everyone in his field (all 100 of them) say is the definitive work on the subject. Needless to say, few if any buy the book and, in an effort to recoup some of their investment, Von Igelfeld’s publishers propose selling off the stock as shelf filler to a home decorating company. Sadly, it is also proposed that the book’s title as it appears on the spine be changed to Portuguese Irregular Herbs, thereby attracting customers with a gardening interest …

Why thinking about the market/readers is important

Von Igelfeld is not unique in the academic world for having a narrow interest – and few readers for his books. Nor, I suspect, would he (or the many others like him) easily be persuaded to broaden his offering. But what has changed in recent years is the willingness and ability of academic libraries to buy such specialized books. Library sales have been declining for years and one thing you can be certain of: the current economic recession/depression will not make things easier here.

Nor is it simply a matter of falling library sales. As Alan Thomas from the University of Chicago Press has noted, sales to individual scholars have also collapsed.

The collapse of the library market for monographs is easy to identify and explain. We have been less willing to explain the decline in the market for monographs among individual scholars. It is commonly observed in many fields [that] scholars do not buy the kind of books they write. Nor, incidentally, do they assign those books in courses.
– Alan Thomas, contribution to ‘Outlooks in University Press Publishing: The Crises, the Opportunities’, Asian Studies Newsletter, 2005.

The implication here is obvious, I think.

Nor is it simply a matter of authors finding that sales of their published books are disappointing; it may be that they cannot in fact get published at all. Certainly, academic publishers have reacted to the crisis by getting much more tough and ‘commercial’ in their decision-making. Today, their likely response to the assertion that ‘Market is a six-letter word’ would be to retort, ‘So is “author”.’

In other words, if you want to be a (published) author, then thinking about the market/readers is unavoidable. Just how you go about this will be explored in posts over the next few weeks.

Alternatively, you can jump to the head of the queue by reading our book. It’s available just about anywhere.

Word count and book length

11 May 2009

One of my biggest problems as a publisher is having authors deliver more than was agreed to. However sometimes, like today, the reverse happens. Does this matter? Yes, actually.

There are in fact two issues here: book length and contracted extent. Let’s look at these in turn.

Book Length

A book’s extent depends on the type of work that it is. You are unlikely to encounter a brief Encyclopedia of World History, nor should you meet a 1,000-page Introduction to the Works of Jane Austen (though sadly this sort of thing does happen).

If you analyse the contents of a typical bookshelf in an academic library, you will notice that many of the books are between 272 and 320 pages in length. The golden extent for many publishers is 288 pages (about 90–100,000 words without tables or figures). Why is 288 pages a golden extent? Because this length is sufficient for the author to develop their argument fully. It is also perceived as a full-sized book hence it is quite acceptable for the publisher to charge the full normal price. For the publisher, it is an economic size – 18 printed sheets (books tend to be printed on 16-page sheets) give a nice balance between the costs of cover and inside pages.

(See my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length.)

Books falling outside the standard range of 272–320 pages can be problematic. Under-length books are often regarded with suspicion by scholars: perhaps they have not covered their subject properly. On the other hand, over-length books may be tolerated by scholars but are the bane of publishers’ lives. They cost more to produce in almost every area (editing, typesetting, proofing, indexing, printing and binding) but rarely can the price be commensurately higher without losing sales. Because of their greater weight, they also cost more to send (in shipping costs for the publisher and later in delivery charges for the customer).

Keeping to the extent agreed in your contract

For these reasons especially, a key clause in most author contracts specifies the extent that the author should deliver. (Usually, this will be a word count – including notes and references – and perhaps an agreed number of illustrations.) It is on the basis of this agreed length that the publisher costs the book and sets a price. Both length and price are clearly stated when the book is announced, and this information is one of the things that people (especially librarians) take into account when deciding if they will purchase the book.

As such, once the book has been announced, at the very least the publisher will be seriously embarrassed if the author then delivers a final ms that is significantly over- or under-length. What was announced (and maybe ordered) is not what is being delivered on publication. Embarrassment is cheap; money is not. Obviously, over-length mss are especially problematic. Costs will be much higher and normally these cannot be recovered with a price rise (or not immediately, at least). The result may be that a book that promised to be marginally profitable is suddenly a financial burden – hardly something any publisher wants.

Not all publishers accept such nasty surprises. Some throw the ms back to the author, demanding cuts and more cuts. In the increasingly tough economic times that we are going through, you should expect that publishers will be less tolerant of any over- or under-length mss delivered than they were in the past.

So, how important is it to stick to the word count stated in your contract? I think that’s obvious: very.

That said, there is at least one exception. If your contract is for a book that hasn’t yet been announced, then perhaps the change in length won’t be an issue. Perhaps. Don’t assume; ask your editor.

Multiple submissions

6 May 2009

An author has just asked me:

I know from your most helpful website that you suggest authors do NOT make multiple submissions.  [A certain commissioning editor] at [a well-known press] has asked to see my book proposal, and I just need to confirm to her that you would not be amenable to this.

What can I say? Well, this in part is how I replied:

Of course, publishers aren’t wild about multiple submissions because of the threat to the time and energy they invest in a project. However, until an actual ms is submitted for peer review, the financial investment is not that big; thereafter, when we start paying money for peer reviews, we resent seeing this wasted.

As such, I’m not wild about [the rival editor] getting her hands on your proposal but there’s nothing I can really complain about, especially since you are so up front about this issue. There are risks in taking this course of action, of course. For instance, I might well put your project on hold until its status is clarified. On the other hand, there are potential benefits.

I then invited the author to read this blog post. Here are my fuller thoughts.

Let’s face it, all too often authors are left dangling, waiting on a publisher to respond to a book proposal. It is thus tempting to submit your proposal to several publishers at once in the hope that one (at least) is interested enough to want to go further and review the ms. Unfortunately, there are certain pitfalls here, especially if not all of the publishers contacted are of equal interest to you:

  • Should you be honest and tell all these publishers that you have submitted multiple proposals? Their reaction may be to treat your approach as a form of spam and ignore it.
  • What will you do if the least-interesting publisher likes your proposal and quickly asks for a full manuscript to assess? In this situation, doors will slam whichever way you jump.
  • If in fact two or more publishers respond and (very properly) you choose one of them, there is a danger that the chosen publisher may not be gratified but rather feels ‘just another publisher’ and loses enthusiasm for your project.

Whatever you do, do not submit multiple manuscripts for peer review. Remember that there are only so many good external reviewers in a given field and that the same reviewers may well be approached by different publishers. The danger is, then, that you’ll get caught out and, if not, you’ll be faced with informing one publisher that you are withdrawing your manuscript. This will get all publishers affected seriously annoyed. The net result could see you being blacklisted.

As such, while I appreciate the attractions of multiple submissions, I suggest you think things through very carefully here. My own advice would be to do the following:

  • Make a short list of your preferred publishers.
  • Rank these publishers in order of preference.
  • Contact the first publisher with a short query, asking if they would be interested to receive a book proposal on XYZ.
  • If yes, send them the proposal and gently press for a fairly quick response (say, chasing if you haven’t had an acknowledgement within a week and a response within a month).
  • If not, move on to the next preferred publisher.

Here, identifying and ranking your preferred publishers is crucial. More about that in another post soon – or, to read it all in detail, you could wander down to your local bookstore or visit Amazon and buy our book.

Future of the book – #2

5 May 2009

A couple of weeks ago I attended the London Book Fair. There was a lot to absorb, especially on the vexed issues of digitalization and the future of the (printed) book but much about this I’ll explore in later posts.

For starters, however, here is my reaction to the Book Expresso machine, which is often touted as the way that bookshops are heading – to become the equivalent of photo kiosks.

The machine on display is now back home at Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road bookshop. The site they have created for it looks plush so it may be an attractive addition to the bookshop. However, naked and plonked in an aisle at the book fair, it looked an ugly beast.

Expresso Book Machine - from terminal Expresso side view

More to the point, the what came out of the beast wasn’t that pretty. The demo copy was cut wrong (or it had been printed out of registration) and – worse – the cover was sticky, not nice to touch; it needed a spray coating of lacquer. Otherwise, the print quality was so-so, maybe a bit better than a photocopy but I didn’t get to see any pictures to see how they were reproduced.

My overall assessment, then, was that such machines may end up transforming the traditional bookshop but there’s a way to go yet.