Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.

Responses

How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!


Expecting colour in your book?

3 February 2010

Go on, admit it: you are not a monochrome type of author. You want colour in your life and inside your book; a bright, fancy cover is not enough.

Sadly, you shouldn’t assume that your publisher is willing to print anything in your book in colour (apart from the cover). Ask first!

With recent developments in printing technology, the cost of colour printing has dropped dramatically, but printing a book in colour still costs almost twice as much as printing in black and white only. Given the tight margins of academic publishing, most presses are willing to include halftones and other grayscale illustrations but nothing in colour.

As such, unless you have agreed with your publisher that some or all of your illustrations are to be printed in colour, any colour illustrations you submit will be converted to monochrome (often without consultation). Make sure, then, that they will still be meaningful in black and white. A ‘quick and dirty’ quality check can be made by photocopying any illustration you are in doubt about.

Remember that bar chart in Chapter 3, the one with the dramatic before-and-after effects in black and red? Looks like you better convert the red bars to hollow white or a B/W pattern. But what about your action shot of Michelle Obama, the one where she’s wearing that gorgeous yellow dress? After all, the whole point of the picture is in the colour; gray just doesn’t work. Will it help to throw a little money at the problem?

Maybe.

Publisher attitudes to colour do change with a substantial subvention on the table, of course, but even here – if (say) you have several such images scattered though your book – all that you might be offered is having all of the colour illustrations grouped together in a colour section.

Time perhaps to get a little assertive? Or maybe ‘realistic’ instead?

Unfortunately, this may be not the only dashed expectation; there are several other things to get steamed up about yet (more about these here).

(This is a preliminary post regarding use of colour in your book, a post where the emphasis is on typesetting issues. But colour is a bigger story, one I’ll return to another day.)

(Post #15 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Why selling isn’t cheap

2 November 2008

The other day I finally sent off a budget calculation to help one of our authors apply for funding. There were several things in the funding agency’s Excel spreadsheet that confused and irritated me. But what really got up my nose was being asked to state what the likely warehousing and distribution costs were and then finding out that the spreadsheet’s ‘Total Expenditure’ figure ignored these costs.

Perhaps the omission was an error, perhaps not. Whatever, I plead guilty. I changed the formula in their spreadsheet to include the missing costs. And I told them I’d done it, so I won’t be surprised to get a snooty response any day now.

This experience got me thinking about what it costs us to sell our books and how most people haven’t a clue just how much this is. They probably don’t care, either, and nor may you. However, if you are an author earning royalties on sales of your book, then it does matter. And if you are a reader keen to continue getting access to high-quality, peer-reviewed research results, then it matters that academic publishers can afford to produce them. In short, go figure.

So let’s take a wee tour of the economics of warehousing and distribution.

Warehousing? Distribution?

Of course, I’m assuming you know what I mean by warehousing and distribution. Here’s a quick explanation for those who don’t.

Occasionally, someone turns up at NIAS Press and asks to buy a book. We try to oblige but frankly the hassle of processing such sales through the university accounts isn’t worth it. More to the point, we don’t have a lot of space at the Press and certainly not enough to store all of the books that we print. And can you imagine the added cost of posting all of these sales copies round the world? Danish postal rates are not cheap, I assure you.

No, 99% or more of our sales are handled by external agents and in one way or another they want to get paid.

For our European sales, we have a warehouse just south of Oxford (actually there are two warehouses, each the size of a football field, and we don’t own them; a company specializing in warehousing does). Our books fill a tiny corner of all of this space; the books of many other publishers, some of them big, well-known academic presses, fill the rest of the space.

The warehouse stores our books and holds all sorts of inventory details on its system. If an order comes in for a book that isn’t available, its staff will record this order. But if a copy is in stock, it will be picked, packed and sent to the customer, who will be invoiced at the same time. (Let’s not get into details about which customers pay up front and who only has to pay after 30 or more days.)

The warehouse does much more than this, too, but what it doesn’t do is market and promote our books. This is done by the Press itself.

Outside of Europe, we use distributors. Not only do they have their own warehouses (handling the storage and sales described above) but also they market and promote our books in their territory.

Fees and commissions

For all of their good work, our warehouse and distributors are paid. Just how they are paid is a bit complicated but the main thing is that we pay a percentage on each sale. Just how much is none of your business (however, you’ll get an indication of the all-up cost down below).

For our distributors outside of Europe, there is one (large) commission on every sale, and that’s about it. This covers all of the many costs incurred by the distributor all the way from warehousing through to payments to the sales reps who go round visiting all of the bookshops.

Our warehouse charges a far smaller commission because it isn’t paying for sales reps let alone all of the other ways in which a book is marketed and promoted (catalogues, advance information sheets, flyers, adverts and bibliographic registration to name a few – more about this another day). But in addition there is one or another processing fee on each sale plus various other administration fees calculated monthly and (let’s not forget them) charges for storage.

And that’s not all.

Bookseller discounts

Obviously, the bookshops don’t buy their books at the price they sell them to you. They get a discount. Typically, in Europe this is about 25% for a normal bookshop and 30–35% for major customers. Then there is Amazon who usually won’t accept less than a 40% discount – and publishers give them this. Who can afford to be invisible on Amazon?

In North America, the discounts are a little higher, in some parts of Asia higher again. And if you want your book in an airport bookstore, the discount demanded is usually higher than 50% (not least because the rents charged these bookstores at a place like Heathrow are astronomical).

These are typical discount rates for academic books. Those for ‘trade’ books (sold to the general public) are much higher, often more than 50%. At times the discounts get suicidally high.

Sending back the pizzas

On top of these discounts is the cost of returns.

Think for a moment about your local supermarket. On its shelves and in its fridges and freezers are thousands of products with a limited sell-by date. Stocking such a supermarket requires the flair and instincts of a gambler. You need enough but not too much stock. And every few days, if you are round the back entrance at the right time, you might see the result of all those failed gambles: big rubbish bins being wheeled out to the garbage truck. Amongst all the stuff being thrown out will be loads of old frozen pizzas.

Imagine instead if your supermarket could send all those pizzas back to the pizza factory and be credited their value against any new pizzas ordered. Your supermarket might be pleased with such a scheme but I doubt the factory would be, especially if even those pizzas whose boxes have been knocked about a bit (and frankly are not saleable as a result) also qualify for a full credit.

This is the bizarre situation experienced by all publishers. Booksellers have a right to return stock within a certain period for a full credit. And they do so, typically a few days before they must pay for these books.

The rate of return for trade books is horrendous, from memory it being about 50% in the United States where the situation is worst but not a whole lot better elsewhere. This is not because bookshops are greedy or ripping off their publishers but is due to the pressures of competition and the difficulty for most booksellers to make a profit. Essentially, then, if a trade title doesn’t take off and sell lots of copies within six weeks, chances are that most copies will be returned to the publisher.

Many small publishers have gone bust as a consequence. Their initial print run has sold out, sales look brilliant, a second bigger printing is ordered and – just as this is delivered – thousands of returns come flooding in. Crunch!

Thankfully, return rates for academic titles are much lower (the main culprit again the US booksellers). Nonetheless, several times a year I see our US monthly sales figures hammered by credits for returns. It hurts, and it costs.

Reality check

Let’s work all of this through with an example. Here, the book published is a $30 paperback.

750 copies printed in China at $5 per copy $3,750
Shipping to 3 warehouses $1,600
Total printing/shipping costs $5,350

500 copies sold (75 free copies, 175 unsold) $15,000
Average bookseller discount 33% $5,000
50 copies returned (including discount) $1,000
Distributor’s commission 50% $4,500
Net receipts (residual income to publisher) $4,500
Author royalty (5% of net receipts) $225

Loss (prior to inclusion of editing, etc.) $1,075

Note: A huge amount of expenditure prior to printing is not included in this equation. Peer-review, editing, typesetting and marketing are just the big-ticket items.

The bottom line

What does this mean? Several things, actually.

  1. It costs to sell a book, quite a bit actually. At worst (as in the example above), it costs more to sell a book than is earned on the sale. Too many sales like this, of course, and a publisher will be toast unless income can be earned in other ways, too.
  2. The profit margin on books is pathetic. Until a few weeks ago, I’d have said that publishers would make more money investing in the share market. Maybe not now, but I hope you get my point. In short, publishing is a mug’s game (though one that many mugs like me willingly devote their lives to).
  3. It is also a mug’s game for authors, or at least for those expecting to earn not just fame but also fortune. Receiving a royalty of $225 on $15,000 of sales (as in the above example) looks utterly unfair but it is the going rate. Normally, author royalties are paid on net receipts (the publisher’s residual income) not on the retail price. Here, the going rate for academic presses is only 5–10% and often a royalty is only payable after (say) 500 copies have been sold.
  4. Everyone bitches about prices with certain commercial academic publishers like Routledge and Brill attracting particular criticism. But it is also clear that publishing a $30 paperback and selling only hundreds of copies is a suicidal strategy unless income can be earned elsewhere than sales.

Which brings me back to the funding agency. Their support is vital if the book we have in mind is to be feasible. So maybe I shouldn’t be p*ssing them off by altering the formula in their spreadsheet.

But what really irked me with the people at this research council was not so much that they failed to account for warehousing and distribution costs in their expenditure analysis; rather it was that they were oblivious to the realities of academic publishing today and indeed commented that our book looked quite profitable and seemed hardly in need of a grant.

Time to give them a reality check perhaps, if I dare.