Monday 29 October 2012

How to speak publisher: F is for Flat fee

Everyone knows how books work. You have a great idea, write a synopsis and a couple of chapters (or all of it), send it off to a publisher (or twenty), sign a contract, get the first chunk of the massive (or tiny) advance, sit down to write the book, get the next chunk of advance, argue about a few changes, get the last chunk of advance, and watch your book walk (or crawl) off the shelves while you wait for your first royalty cheque (after it earns out, of course).


Sit at home looking at your email until a publisher asks you to write a book. Send in a synopsis, get first chunk of small (or large - not unheard of) fee, write book, get second chunk of fee, argue about changes to keep it in line with rest of series, get the last chunk of fee and expunge book from your memory totally while waiting for the next email from a publisher. It's more like a series of one-night-stands than a proper relationship; writing whore rather than the kept mistress of RandomPenguin (or wherever).

Lots of books are written for a flat fee, especially in children's publishing. Typically, you might be offered a flat fee for children's non-fiction (any market from textbook to mass market); reading scheme books for the schools market; licensed character books (those about established characters such as Wallace and Gromit or Disney mice); and character-led fiction that's part of a series written by many authors and published under a pseudonym that reflects the genre (eg Carnivorous d'Vil or Tinsel Rosebottom). You could can get a royalty deal on all these from some publishers - but a flat fee is fairly typical.

There are obvious advantages for publishers in paying a flat fee: they know how much they have to pay; there is none of that complicated looking at the spreadsheet to see how much to pay you in royalties; if your book is a mega-hit, they keep all the profit; it makes their budgeting easy.

There are less obvious disadvantages for publishers: it makes no material difference to you whether the book sells, so you won't do much publicity; they certainly can't expect you to do any visits or signings or anything for free as increasing the sales of the book does you no good (except for BookScan figures, but they don't really count for much in these particular markets). If a book is really successful, the writer won't want to write for you again on a flat fee basis as they will suppose (or imagine) they can earn more writing for another publisher who will pay a royalty.

There are obvious disadvantages for the writer: if your book sells 100,000+ copies you still don't get any more than the flat fee (been there). You won't know what the sales figures are - this might sound unimportant, but it's not. If you want to pitch an idea to another publisher, it can be very useful to be able to say a previous title sold 100,000 copies. Of course, the publisher can check that figure, but you can't! (Unless you pay Neilsen for the info.) And because you can't, you won't know which book to list as your mega-seller.

But there are also less obvious advantages for the writer: you don't need to keep checking sales rank on Amazon, look for reviews or worry about whether the book is in the shops; you don't have to do visits and signings (unless you like that sort of thing); your mind is free to work on the next book; you can do your budgeting with confidence; the flat fee is likely to be more than the advance you would have got for the same book.  A book with a small advance that doesn't earn out will generally pay you less than the same book for a flat fee. If you want money now to pay to feed your children and pay the broadband bill, flat fee is often the more attractive option. It's not selling out, it's pragmatism.

Often, but not always, a flat fee is offered when the book is the publisher's idea. There is a certain fairness to this - the book would be written whether you wrote it or not. Maybe not as well, but frankly it's not going to sell on quality, is it? If a kid wants the next Vampire ballerinas book, they'll buy it anyway. As long as the flat fee is fixed with a realistic and fair assessment of the likely sales, it is usually a reasonable way to operate. The author should get as much as they would get in total royalties if it were a royalty deal.

Of course, there are rogue publishers who try to get away with flat fee offers of £200 or some such. Good, professional writers turn them down, but probably somewhere an aspiring writer will take the deal. And it takes guts to turn down anything when you don't have the next mortgage payment in the bank. (If the publisher is small and can't afford a decent fee, that's no excuse for offering £200 - they should at least make the £200 an advance and give a decent royalty; then it's up to the writer whether they trust their work and the publishers' distribution enough to give it a go.)

Flat fee is often 'work for hire' in legal terms. The publisher frequently wants to buy out the copyright and will often try to get you to waive your moral rights as well. The general advice is never to sell copyright, only to licence it. Whether you will get that through depends on the type of book and the publisher. (And how much you are prepared to dig your heels in.)

Imagine a publisher has a series of books about vegetables. They have asked you to write the Potatoes title. You want to keep the copyright. They will find someone else. Any competent writer can write about potatoes. Maybe some won't do it quite as well as you will, but the book will still be done and the editor can make it good enough. The publisher doesn't need to give way on the copyright issue.

Now imagine a publisher has a series of early reader fiction for sale into schools. They have asked you to write some animal stories. The plot and characters are up to you, they just have to be about animals, be 500 words long and divide into 12 spreads. You want to keep the copyright. This is a harder thing to do well, so the publishers might well agree. There is no end of people who will claim they can write animal stories 500 words long, but most of those stories will be rubbish. It's not like potatoes. (By the way, I have done both of these, and so feel quite free to diss the potato-writing aspect. Although actually I didn't do the potato title, so maybe that one was harder than carrots.)

If you can keep copyright, do so. For one thing, if the publisher goes bust you should be able to claim your title back and publish it elsewhere [hollow laughter] or make an ebook [unless it's illustrated, not by you]. I always cross out moral rights waiver if my name will be on the book (if your name's not going to be on it anyway - as in licensed character work - the moral rights are of no value to you).

As for the one real injustice - the 100,000+ sales because you did the book so well - my solution to that one was to negotiate with the publisher to add a royalty clause to all future contracts that kicks in if sales go over 100,000. They are content with that - if the book sells that many copies, they can afford the royalty, and if it doesn't they've not lost anything.

Monday 22 October 2012

How are we doing? Or, reasons to be cheerful...

There is a lot of doom and gloom amongst British children's authors at the moment - and with good cause. But an interesting bestsellers list in (of all places) the Daily Mail offers some solace. It lists the fifty best-selling authors. Number one is JK Rowling (no surprise there); then come Jamie Oliver, James Patterson, Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson. So four of the top five are UK writers, and half are children's writers (I'm putting Pratchett in both camps).

Thirty-five out of fifty are British. Fourteen (thirteen and two halves) of those write for children - fifteen if we include the one who writes GCSE guides. So of all the books in all the world (well, probably the English-speaking world), 15 out of 50 bestselling writers write for children and are British. (There is also Stephanie Meyer, and possibly some foreign ones whose names I don't recognise, if we want to include all children's writers.) I know some of you don't like maths, so I'll do it for you. Fifteen out of 50 is 30%. That's not bad, is it?

I know - there are a few bestselling authors and the rest of us struggle to get contracts with deteriorating terms, and there's no space in the dwindling number of bookshops for our titles. The cheering message  is that the public is still spending a lot of money on children's books. We might have to struggle to get our share of the pie, but at least the pie is still there. Given that a person reads children's books for perhaps 13 years of their life, and lives 6 or 7 times that long, having 30% of book sales go on children's books is a pretty good-sized pie.

The children's writers in the list are: JK Rowling, (Terry Pratchett), Jacqueline Wilson, Richard Parsons, Julia Donaldson, [Stephanie Meyer], JRR Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon, Philip Pullman, Enid Blyton, Roger Hargreaves, Daisy Meadows, Anthony Horowitz, (Katie Price), Michael Murporgo.

Saturday 6 October 2012

How to speak publisher: F is for Facebook

Has your publisher told you to have a Facebook page? Lots of writers say their publishers push them towards using Facebook/twitter/blogs/Pinterest/twatface/whatever to publicise their books. (Actually, I've not heard of a publisher who knows what Pinterest is, so we'll leave that one out.)

The demon that stops us getting to Mars
When (if) a publisher tells you to get a Facebook page, they don't mean invite all your cousins to be your friends and share pictures of funny kittens with you. That is not going to sell books. In fact, it will turn your mind to mush and waste your time so you write (and therefore sell) fewer books. I hate pictures of funny kittens. I can't believe so much of the world's resources are devoted to letting people laugh at photos of cats. And the time! We could cure cancer and colonise Mars if we used the time spent on funny-kitten-viewing more productively. Sorry. Anti-kitten rant over.

A publisher means you should have a page for your book/professional life, not a normal Facebook account. So - you join Facebook, you friend your friends and your family and some randomer you met on a train and your plumber, bla bla. And you post your holiday photos and links to (damnit) stupid kitten photos. But you don't friend your readers.

Please, please, don't friend your readers, especially if you write for children/young people. Because then you have to be even more careful about what you put on FB, and set up groups to keep the young readers separate from your posts about how you went on a disastrous date or you accidentally dyed your hair blue, or were sick after having too many cocktails. And don't friend your editors or your agent or your publicist (dream on) and a load of librarians and booksellers unless you are going to put time into managing lists so that you can control who sees what.

Make sure you manage your security settings so that all your private exploits are not visible to the public. It's not hard, and it's the online equivalent of not leaving your door open when you go out. And watch out for other people tagging you in photos of disreputable behaviour. Not that you engage in disreputable behaviour, of course. But if you did, untag yourself.

Once you have an account, create a page - this is the professional bit. You can create a page for you-as-author or for one of your books/series/characters. Scroll right down to the bottom of your Facebook screen and there is a link 'Create a Page'. Follow it; do as it says - I'm not doing a tutorial on creating pages (unless you really want one). On your page you can share stuff that is relevant to your book or writing life, such as links to reviews, info on events you are doing, web pages that might be interesting to your readers and so on.

People who like your work can find your page if they search for you on Facebook and can 'Like' it. You can control what they can do on your page, but it's nice to let them leave comments. Think carefully about how you are going to use your page. Are you just going to put news on it (new books, events, etc)? Or are you going to be more chatty, and put updates on your writing, projects, thoughts, blog posts, etc? Decide on your strategy and stick to it. The news approach is less work for you - but less interesting for your readers.

Your publisher will hope you will get lots of people liking your page and looking on it for information so that they can rush out and buy your next book. It's tempting to try to get lots of Likes to endorse yourself and make you feel as though you weren't wasting your time making the page. Even so, I hope you won't spam all your friends asking them to 'Like' your page. I have a strong dislike of being asked to 'like' pages for things I've not read. If you want to say you have a page, that's OK, but please don't ask me to like it. That's rather like saying - 'tomorrow is my birthday. Please buy me a present.'

From your author/book page, you can like other pages. Do it thoughtfully. If your books are for 9-year-olds, don't 'like' a page for gin or serial-killer fiction. So if you write undersea adventures, you might like pages such as 'shipwrecks' or 'sea mysteries' (I have no idea if those exist, but you get the idea). You can pretend. You could even pretend to like pages about silly kitten photos if that would appeal to your readers and fit in with your books. You can like bookshops and libraries from here with no danger of the manager of the local Waterstone[']s turning against you because you have slated their favourite holiday destination or had a row with their cousin - they can't see your personal page (as long as it's not public).

Get your publisher to 'Like' your page - it's their job to promote you. There is an important distinction here. Don't ask your friends to 'like' your page - they are your personal contacts. Do ask your professional partners to 'like' your page - your publisher/agent/local bookstore. Not other writers. We are not your publicists; we will like your page if we want to. Those of us who write reviews will probably not like your page, even if we like your work, as we might see it as a public compromise of our impartiality.

Put a link to your page in your email signature, put it on your website, your blog, your twitter profile page, your business cards (if you still have those), bookmarks and other freebies, and get the publisher to put the link on the imprint page of your books and on their publicity. After all, if they want you to do this stuff, they should support it.

If you don't want to do the kitten-sharing, cousin-hugging bit of Facebook, you can create an account and then ignore it, though you will have to collect a few friends before you are allowed to make an author page. [Purple bit changed - thanks to Mary Hoffman for the correction.] To stop people trying to friend you (they will find you, sooner or later), you can make yourself undiscoverable. Which is perhaps the ideal - you can be a as private as you like, and have the digital equivalent of a cardboard cut-out you that trollops around Facebook.