Selling Your Book to a Trade Publisher

Selling Your Book to a Trade Publisher

(Part one of a two-part article)

Anyone can write a book. The trick is to write a book people want to buy. Here, Barbara shares her personal experiences in working with trade book publishers over the years.

IF YOU’RE DREAMING about being published by a trade book publisher instead of one of the new breed of POD publishers on the web, you first need an understanding of how trade book publishers work with authors.

The reality is that today’s publishers are extremely cost-conscious, and they can no longer afford to work with rank beginners whose writing might need a lot of content editing. They want well-written manuscripts that can simply be copy edited, not authors who need help in refining a manuscript. (For perspective on this topic, check my Book Manuscript Critiques service below.) 

 My Experience. I worked with seven trade book publishers between 1979 and 2006. In those years it was standard practice for publishers to assume all costs of production, pay authors a royalty on sales (based on retail price or net sales, depending on the publisher), and also pay at least a small advance on those royalties.

Since much has changed in the book publishing industry since 2006, my advice should be taken as a general guideline for how today’s trade book publishers are working with authors since I am currently familiar only with book contracts from online publishers offering self-publishing services. What has affected all book publishing contracts more than anything in recent years is print-on-demand (POD) publishing, which changed how book royalties were calculated and made it impossible for a book to ever go out of print without a publisher releasing it to the author. This naturally pushed many first-time authors into the world of self-publishing.

 The Advance. The size of the advance may be determined (1) by the size of the publisher’s purse; (2) how well the book is likely to sell; and (3) how soon the publisher can expect to get the advance money back in the form of sales. The author’s name, reputation, and ability to promote the book also play a role in determining the size of the advance.

An advance may be paid up front when the contract is signed, or divided according to the publisher’s whim. Sometimes half is paid when the contract is signed with the balance paid on receipt of the finished manuscript (an incentive to insure that authors meet the stipulated deadline date). It may also be paid in thirds, with the final payment made when the book is published. If for any reason the publisher defaults and does not publish the book according to the terms of the author’s contract, all rights to the book should be returned to the author, who also gets to keep the advance money.

Production Costs. These costs include all editing, typesetting and book design costs, plus proofreading, cover design, and copywriting of cover content. Once the book has been typeset, a copy is normally sent to the author for checking, and any mistakes previously overlooked by the author or editor in this first go-round, or those generated during the typesetting process, may be made without cost to the author. Changes after this point, however, are likely to be charged to the author, along with costs related to the index (unless the author is capable of doing this job to the publisher’s satisfaction).

When the book is published, the publisher assumes the responsibility for getting it into bookstores and libraries, may offer it to book clubs and other special markets, and, depending on the publisher’s policies, may also sell copies by mail or sell the book at wholesale prices to mail order dealers. The publisher lists the book in its catalog and acquaints its sales reps with the new title to facilitate sales to bookstores and libraries. The publisher also writes and distributes at least one news release, sends review copies to its PR list (to which author can contribute names). After that, a new book published by a trade publisher gets little else in the way of promotion unless the author is a big name that warrants paid advertisements.

Bottom line: A new book will survive or die depending on how hard the author works to promote it to prospective buyers.

Nontraditional Trade Book Publishers

SOME DISCUSSION needs to be given to a different breed of trade book publisher I first encountered the day an author sent me a copy of his book contract and asked for my opinion of it. Frankly, it stunk. This particular publisher (one in the garden industry) had offered the author a contract that required him to do work normally done by traditional trade publishers. This publisher was calling himself a trade book publisher because he regularly sold to bookstores and libraries, but that’s where the similarity ended.

This author had no concept of how a good book publishing contract should read, or all the special clauses an author needs in a book publishing contract to realize maximum profits and protect his rights. By then, I’d learned a great deal through the years simply by observing how my agent had negotiated with each of my publishers to get revised clauses that benefited me financially and protected my rights to a greater extent. (See below for a link to the second part of this article, which offers tips on some specific clauses that should be in every book-publishing contract.)

Getting an agent is the best way to insure that you receive a fair deal from a publisher, but if you are unable to find an agent to represent you or you don’t have (or cannot afford) a literary attorney who is familiar with book publishing contracts, you need to consult with a literary attorney. (A regular attorney unfamiliar with the book publishing industry is not recommended for this kind of contract.)

The Secret to Getting Published

THE MOST SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS keep one ear to the marketplace while their fingers are flitting around on the keyboard. They consistently deliver books that offer real benefits to the reader—whether it’s nonfiction that addresses specific business or consumer interests and problems, or exciting fiction that merely provides entertainment.

Understand, however, that trade book publishers have never been interested in merely publishing “good books.” They have always wanted titles that will sell—books in keeping with the times and books the general reading public (or at least an identifiable chunk of the population) can relate to and will be eager to buy. Whereas in years past many capable writers with salable books could easily find a publisher, today’s trade publishing industry is not as accessible to new authors as it used to be, and those who don’t have an agent are unlikely to get interest from any of the major trade book publishers. (Part II of this article includes a discussion of what a literary agent can do for you and how to find one that’s reputable.) 

Searching for a Publisher. If you think you have a book with broad market appeal, you might begin your search for a trade publisher by checking the library for Literary Market Place (LMP) and/or the latest edition of Writer’s Market, an annual directory published by Writer’s Digest Books. Don’t waste time reading older editions because there are many changes in the publishing field each year, not only in names of editors, addresses, and phone numbers, but the type of material wanted by each publishing house.

Publishers listed in the LMP directory give details on the kind of books they’re looking for. Once you’ve found a few prospects, you will need to write a sensational book proposal, a topic beyond the scope of this article, but one that has been covered in countless articles and books for writers. Check the library or Amazon for books for writers that tell you how to do this, or read Writer’s Digest magazine for information on the many how-to books available to writers through its book club.

The Importance of a Good Title and Subtitle

Title. A good book title makes all the difference when it comes to getting publicity. When I was asked in 1977 to write the book I titled Creative Cash, there were at least a dozen other books in print on the general theme of how to make money with an art or craft. By giving my book a unique and memorable title of two words I’d coined, it not only stood out from the crowd but outlived dozens of competitive books in this field. This book became a hundred-thousand copy best seller, not only because I promoted it constantly for twenty-five years, but because I gave it a great title that readers loved. This book achieved the age of thirty-two before it was declared out of print in mid-2011.

When I wrote my first general home-business book in 1984, I chose Homemade Money as the title because I figured the media would love the idea of “making money at home,” and I was right. I also reasoned that if “cash” was a good word in a title, “money” should work well, too. In 2003, after achieving sales of more than a hundred thousand copies, this book was updated for the sixth time and published as a two-volume edition. Someone also tried to steal this title from me, a story told in “About Common Law Trademarks” (see below).

While cover design is important in selling books at the bookstore level, a catchy title will increase sales from book reviews and other publicity mentions. That title has to grab the reader by the throat and say, “Buy me! I’m just what you’ve been looking for.” In a bookstore, the cover design, coupled with the title, has to make buyers reach for their wallet or purse. In an article or review, a great title will motivate them to tear out the article and track down the book even when there is no picture of the book itself. In trying to find the perfect title for your book, try this little exercise:

Write down every single word or phrase that comes to mind when you think of your book, including words that spell out the book’s benefits or purpose. Read through the list daily, trying first one combination of words, then another. After awhile, your subconscious will begin to work for you. I named both of my best-selling books at 4 a.m. in the morning when my subconscious woke me up screaming, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” Sure enough.

Subtitle. In addition to a crisp two- or three-word main title, every book needs an explanatory subtitle that immediately tells buyers what they’re going to get. Longer titles and subtitles are currently in vogue, but because they are hard to remember, it’s all the more important to keep the main title of your book short and memorable and let the longer subtitle do part of the selling job for you. As books are reprinted and go into new editions, subtitles are often changed to increase sales or reach a new audience of readers.

Longest Book Title (and subtitle) in the World?

Check this financial book on Amazon, which is surely the longest book title in the world—104 words. The first three words of the title are RESCUE YOUR MONEY, but instead of a separate sub-title, the title sentence just keeps going with the word “from” and runs to the bottom of the cover. I found this a very interesting way to tell readers up front exactly what they were going to get in a book. (Enlarge the picture to read it all, but you can see that this is a mini brochure for the book, done in a way to entice readers to keep reading right to the bottom.)

For more guidance on working with a trade book publisher, consider a telephone consultation with me. For help in refining the content of your book, consider using my Book Manuscript Critiquing service.

Related Articles:

The discussion begun in this article continues in “Author-Publisher Book Contract Tips.” Advice and tips from Barbara on specific clauses authors should try to get in a contract with a trade book publisher.

About Common-Law Trademarks. Should you trademark your book title? Barbara shares her experience with having the titles of her two best-selling books “lifted” by others, and how the phrase, “Homemade Money,” acquired trademark status and why it may not be used by others for profit.)

The Changing World of Book Publishing. Past and present perspective for today’s book lovers and self-publishers. Includes contract changes book publishers have made since 2012.

Success Tips for Aspiring Writers and Would-be Authors. How Barbara moved from beginning to professional writer and the reading and self-study she had to do to achieve success.

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