The Certainty Trap

23 Nov

As I wait to hear back from Publisher Z, the Toronto imprint currently ‘considering’ the manuscript of my recently completed second novel, part of me fears the embarrassment and the ensuing uncertainty that being turned down would bring (see the previous post).  There is comfort in having things settled, a certain peace of mind in knowing how things will be.  The publisher with whom I technically have a book contract is prestigious and, potentially anyway, there is some money to be made from this deal, should it go through.

But certainty can be nothing more than a conspiracy of self-deception, and prestige is a notoriously amorphous, shifting mirage.  Experience has taught me that there can be downsides to what looks like, from the outside, success.

Signing with a prestigious publisher immediately brushes the writer and his or her book with a light sprinkling of that house’s prestige.  But because there are typically established, bigger name, less risky authors on that publisher’s  roster of writers, an up-and-comer, or a relatively established writer of middling public profile (ahem) can get lost in the skirts of his or her publisher’s glory.  Your name appears in their catalogue, they mention you in a press release, but the attention and resources of the place get poured into the Name People and their books.

Advance money can be a similarly double-edged sword.  Editorial decisions (whose book a publisher wants, and what they are willing to promise to get it) are often the job of a different group of people than those assigned to promote the book.  More importantly, the money people at a publishing house, those who decide which projects and promotions to bankroll, are a different group again.  This can turn a relatively large advance (a monetary enticement  given to an author before sales are made, but which has to be paid out of sales before a writer gets any further money) into a detriment.  If a publisher has paid a large advance to a writer, and initial sales or interest  seem weak, the money people can decide to cut their losses, and instead of pouring more money into promoting the book, can essentially decide to pull the plug, spend no more money, and put resources elsewhere.

My agent is going to clobber me if she reads this, but these pitfalls of apparent success: getting lost in the roster of a bigger publisher, or being bought off and forgotten by a large advance, these have me half-hoping to be turned down by the big houses.

The chances of getting anything like a worthwhile amount of money for an advance are very small outside the big houses.  But no big advance also means less pressure to sell outrageous numbers of books in a short period of time, and perhaps a more willing attitude on the part of a small publisher to be patient with a book and let it find its audience.

Recently, I’ve done quite a bit of DIY self-promotion in connection with CBC Radio’s Canada Reads format (see VIDEOS section of this website).  And although self-promotion is exhausting work and takes away from actual creative output (at least of the sort that I thought I was letting myself in for when I decided to write), once I decided to give up the idea that my publisher or anyone else was going to take responsibility for promoting my work,  I felt a great surge of positive energy.  I had the reins in my hands, and if the wagon failed to move, I’d have to take at least part of the blame myself.

So part of me is looking forward to ostensible failure and rejection.  It’s hard to know what writers get from publishers now, anyway.  Publishers take 85% of cover price and expect writers to do their own promotion.  Being cut free may be just the kick in the pants I need to get me out of the passive, wait-for-the-world-to-discover-me mode that traditional publishing has engendered in me.   Getting dumped might push me in the direction of getting my own message out about my work.

I’m already bubbling over with ideas.

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6 Responses to “The Certainty Trap”

  1. Bon November 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    i’m curious to see what happens as the industry shifts further and people who have launched solid social media platforms and networks – not as bloggers, which is my world, but as published authors building promotional/reputation platforms – get small contracts from the big houses. i wonder if being able to say “i have this audience, this network” and being able to do your own selling out here will make a difference.

    i hope so. 🙂

    i came via ChristyAnn. i’ve been liking your videos for a month now.

    • Leo McKay Jr. November 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

      Well, I do know that not having a web presence is considered a pretty major detriment. I’ve been told that.

  2. Diane Faulkner November 24, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I happen to know a smaller publisher with a fairly new fiction imprint—with quite a fine track record, including bestsellers and award nominations—that would be thrilled to have you. Something to explore anyway…

  3. bushidoka November 24, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I think that given the success you had at self-promotion, along with the pittance of a percentage a publishing house gives to the author, you ought to consider self-publishing especially if your new website takes off. Speaking of which, you ought to get google analytics installed on here to give you excruciating detail on who is visiting.

  4. Chad November 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    This is why I started my own record label.

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