Last week, we began an interview series with Jeff Gerke, who is launching a small publishing house that will attempt the impossible: Marketing Christian science fiction, fantasy, and other “weird stuff” that the Big Boys can’t seem to sell. Today, we’ll continue that, but I want to quickly deal with a couple of other questions that were posted here as comments after my last blog entry:
You state that an author should begin marketing their book long before they write it… Sounds good if you are an already published author because you have a base to stand on, but what if you are working on your first? Seems to me it’s not marketing in that case, but just bombast about something does not yet exist, and statistically speaking, will never exist. It seems to me a slightly different technique is needed to market a first time novelist -how does one get traffic to the website? How does one get an audience with an editor or publisher…etc. In my case I intend to use the resources I have at my disposal which is my brother, who just happens to be a compositor… but those without these resources need to be more create. I have an ulterior motive for asking this, of course, I am a copywriter looking for new accounts!
Randy sez: If one believes that “marketing your book” means “marketing a paper-based product with ink on it” then yes, marketing such a thing before it comes out would be bombast. HOWEVER, “marketing your book” actually means “marketing you”. And you can begin marketing yourself now. This takes us far off topic, but I’ve discussed this often in my e-zine and in recent lectures at writing conferences. I hope to produce some lectures that y’all can buy, but that won’t happen for a few months yet.
Let’s talk about creating that website.
You’re way ahead of the game as a programmer.
For those of us all thumbs on the keyboard, do you recommend taking a web design courses at the local JC? Getting books and teaching self? Paying someone to do most of the work? Hiring an off shore company?
How does a writer keep all this stuff from swallowing one whole?
Randy sez: Again, I must be brief, because this is taking us in a direction I don’t want to go right now. We’ll talk about this in coming months, I expect. The best tool a novelist can have for self-promotion, in my opinion, is a blog. You can create one in less than five minutes at blogspot.com. I would recommend taking slightly longer and hosting it on your own domain (sorry, I can’t go into details on this now). I chose the latter approach, which is why this blog is hosted on www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com, not Blogspot. That pays big dividends with the search engines, since my site gets all the credit for the many hundreds of readers who tune into this blog every day. But more of that anon. (I’ve always wanted to use “anon” in a sentence. I can now die happy.)
OK, on to Jeff Gerke. The next question I posed to him was this, and it gets down to the hard issues:
Q: Tell us more about the economics of your publishing model at Marcher Lord Press. How will you edit, produce, and distribute books? What advances and royalties will you pay your authors?
A: You can read all about the publishing model here at the Marcher Lord Press web site.
Marcher Lord press books will be acquired, edited, and produced in a way that, to the author, will be indistinguishable from how it would be done at a typical Christian publishing company.
When I worked at NavPress, for instance, I read tons of proposals, contacted authors or agents when I was interested in one, requested and read the full ms., and then sometimes proceeded to champion the book in-house, hopefully leading to a contract.
At Marcher Lord Press I’m reading tons of proposals, contacting authors when I’m interested, requesting and reading the full ms., and then sometimes proceeding to a contract.
The editing phase will be the same, too. At NavPress I would read the rough draft and send the author back for revisions. Then I’d do my main editorial pass and send it back to the author for last-minute tweaks. Then I’d do a final polish pass and turn it over to the copyeditors. At Marcher Lord Press I’ll do it exactly the same way. I’ll be doing all the editing myself, incidentally. That’s my forte in this process.
(By the way, you can read about the editorial process and the complete path to publication in my article here on my site.
The copyediting process will be the same at MLP as it is elsewhere. A professional copyeditor who loves fiction will help us with punctuation and also look for stylistic inconsistencies, etc.
The typesetting process will be the same, too. The copyedited ms. will be flowed into a typesetting template designed by a professional typesetter, and then sent to the printer.
The cover process will be the same. A professional freelance graphic designer (the same ones used by regular CBA publishers) will design the cover and furnish the finished files. Only with MLP I’m going to be setting these guys loose to come up with incredible covers, free of the silly restrictions put on them by typical publishers. So expect Marcher Lord covers to be better than what you’ll see elsewhere.
The printing process will be different between Marcher Lord Press and traditional CBA publishers. They all use the brick-and-mortar offset presses that ML Eqatin spoke about in her comments on Thursday. Publishers get per-unit discounts for printing lots of books, so these publishers produce a minimum of 5,000 copies per title. They ship all these books to a warehouse, where they are then shipped to distributors or directly to bookstores in fulfillment of orders.
Marcher Lord Press, in contrast, will use a printing outfit that specializes in very short runs, even as few as 1 unit per printing. Because so many people have gotten a wrong idea about this, I hesitate to tell you what this process is called, but here goes. It’s called print-on-demand. POD. People have gotten the notion that POD means self-publishing. Or else they think it means scam. I don’t know why. Perhaps because POD technology is sometimes used by vanity presses or scam artists. But that’s not what POD is.
Print-on-demand is simply technology that allows you to print as many or as few books as you want. Think of it as a smaller printing press (the printing mechanism itself, not the company). Think of it as the difference between a massive Xerox machine down the hall and the inkjet printer on your desk. One is designed for large jobs and jillions of copies, while the other takes care of smaller tasks. So it is with traditional offset printing vs. POD.
Marcher Lord Press is not a vanity press, subsidy press, or self-publishing outlet. Say it with me: Marcher Lord Press is not a vanity press, subsidy press, or self-publishing outlet. I put up all the money for MLP books. The author receives money. Whew, glad we got that straight.
The returns process for Marcher Lord Press will not be the same as it is with traditional Christian publishers. That’s because I’m not trying to get into bookstores, which, as ML Eqatin also pointed out, are dying, and anyway don’t reach the right market for MLP titles.
When a bookstore orders 3 copies of Novel X, it waits about 6 weeks for those 3 to sell. If they don’t, they pluck some or all of those books off the shelf and return them to the publisher, demanding a refund. Returns are brutal in Christian publishing (secular publishing, too, I’m sure). Your sales staff might’ve successfully placed 10,000 units of a new novel into bookstores across America. They’re feeling all proud of themselves. But after two months, the returns start coming back in. You can get slammed with returns. In some cases, bookstores tear the covers off the books they return so they can’t be sold again. I think that’s mainly in secular publishing, though.
In the MLP model, I’m not trying to get into bookstores (so I need no sales staff, no warehousing, etc.), which means I won’t have massive returns. Now, if an individual receives a MLP novel and it’s been damaged or was whacked in the printing process, of course I’ll replace it. But I’m having none of this “If it doesn’t sell in 6 weeks I’m returning it to you with my angry face” nonsense from bookstores.
As I say clearly on the Marcher Lord Press site, I pay my authors no advance. Well, what is an advance? (For a full explanation, see my article on my web site here. An advance is just that: an advance. It’s a loan against expected profits. When you get a cash advance from your boss it’s not free money; it’s money he’ll withhold from your future paychecks until it’s paid off. Same with advances in publishing: it’s a loan against the expectation of future earnings. You don’t receive royalty payments until your share of those royalties has paid off that advance.
I pay no advance. However, neither does the author pay anything. I’m putting up all the money to publish this book. I’m paying for the cover and the copyediting and the production and everything else. And then there’s the generous royalty rate I pay.
All the CBA publishing companies you’ve heard of pay a royalty rate starting at either 16% or 18%. (That’s about double compared to secular publishers’ rates, btw.) If you’re lucky, a CBA publisher will offer you a sliding scale of royalty rates that tops out at around 22%, based on number of units sold.
Marcher Lord Press authors receive a royalty rate of 50%.
You get no advance, but you receive fully half the profits from the sale of the books (after I recoup the expenses I incurred to produce the book, of course). And remember, MLP books break even after only around 350 units sold. So after that, it’s 50/50 all the way. You won’t get a deal like that at Thomas Nelson, I promise.
So you see this is a new model. I’m bypassing CBA publishers and bookstores entirely. I’m selling only online, dispensing with a sales force, and trying to stay small and loyal to the fantastically creative fans who love Christian speculative fiction. But it’s not altogether new. I’m acquiring, developing, and producing these novels using the best practices of traditional publishing. It’s the best of both.
Randy sez: Let me make one comment about those royalty rates. Christian publishers pay a royalty as a percentage of the wholesale cost (to the retailer, who typically pays half the cover cost). In the general market, publishers pay a royalty as a percentage of the retail price. This is why Christian publishers pay a higher percentage–because it’s a higher percentage of a smaller number. It works out about the same with either model. But Jeff is offering what I would consider an excellent deal–50% of the wholesale cost. He can do that because he has minimized risk by not offering an advance.
Let’s talk about those advances. We hear all the time about $500,000 advances from big publishers, so it’s easy to think that being a novelist is life on Easy Street. OK, there are a few big advances, but let’s be honest. A typical advance for a first-time novelist with one of the big-shot publishers is going to be in the range of $5k to $10k. That’s because the publishers know good and well that most of the first novels they publish are going to sell around 5000 copies. If their author makes a buck per book in royalties, then those 5000 copies translate into $5000. Of course, many novels do worse. In recent years, I’ve heard of finalists for the Book of the Year that had sold only 500 copies. Yes, really!
The publisher is in fact going to LOSE MONEY if the book only sells 5000 copies. The economics is a little fuzzy and varies from one house to the next, but my information from a guy who knows the hard data is that the big-shot publishers in New York expect that if they publish 15 first novels, most of those are going to lose money, a couple will break even, and 1 will make a lot of money. That 1 big winner will pay for all the rest, and then some, but it’s a high-risk game.
What Jeff is doing is saying, “No, I won’t play that game. I’ll minimize the risk by minimizing all upfront costs, including the advance. I only have to sell 350 copies to break even, and I think I can sell a lot more than that, so I’ll take that risk. Then I’ll share the reward with the author on the back-end.”
In my view, this is fair. There are all sorts of vanity presses that will pay you no advance and charge you big bucks to print copies of your book with lousy covers and no editing. Then they’ll charge you for copies of your book, but will give you no help marketing them, so you end up with a garage full of books.
Jeff’s model is completely different. He makes sure the books he publishes will have excellent covers and editing. He charges the author NOTHING. And he works hard on the back-end to market the books, because Jeff doesn’t get paid unless his authors do. Then he shares the profits out equally. This is essentially the same model I’ve used in creating the products I sell on this site. I do the work myself, outsource the production, and then I share out the money equally with my partners (in cases where I have a partner).
OK, go ahead folks! Post a comment and ask some questions to Jeff. We’ll keep asking him until we run out of steam.