I Don’t Buy Penelope Trunk’s Story

Print Friendly

This week, Penelope Trunk made a splash in the publishing industry with this blog post about how she was so fed up with her traditional publishing company’s inability to market her book effectively that she decided to leave the company and take her advance with her.

I don’t deny that publishers need to become better at marketing. As traditional modes of discovery continue to erode, book publishers need to become better at online marketing, e-book marketing and finding new ways to engage with more readers. (Shameless plug, check out our new conference!)

Still, Trunk’s post is full of things that just sound plain untrue. Let’s investigate.

The first and most glaring problem is about the advance.

“I wrote my book, and they paid me my advance, in full,” she writes.

I’ve spoken to a number of publishing folks about this issue — all of whom want to remain anonymous because of the radioactive nature of this topic — and they all said that it was basically unheard of for an author to be paid an advance in full before publication. That doesn’t indicate to me that it definitely didn’t happen; it just probably didn’t happen.

Also, if an author absconded with an advance like that after selling the book, wouldn’t she be in breach of contract and face some sort of legal action? Yes, said publishing sources I spoke with who, again, didn’t want to be named. Now, she didn’t say she wasn’t being sued, but I think it’s implied that she outsmarted a publisher and got away with it.

UPDATE: A comment from Stephen Power, who has been a senior editor at Wiley for a dozen years sheds some light on the questions surrounding the advance. Power claims that being paid a full advance before publication is not “unheard of” and also that Trunk might have found a loophole in publishing contracts that could leave her with the advance. Read his full comment at the bottom of the story. Here is an edited version:

What you call \unheard of\ is hardly unheard of. The standard payout for most books is half on signing, half on delivery and acceptance of the ms. For books will large advances, and I believe Penelope got a substantial advance, the payout is broken up further to limit the publisher’s exposure and kick some of the money further down the fiscal calendar, perhaps 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on d&a, 1/3 on pub.

I think Penelope has discovered an enormous loophole in publishers’ contracts. If an author cancels a contract or doesn’t fulfill its demands for deliverables, she has to pay back the money the publisher paid her. (Note: if the money isn’t that much, publishers usually just write it off because it’s bad business to sue authors, the money’s probably already been accounted for in a previous fiscal year, and authors are unlikely to have the money to pay the advance back anyway. In this case, though, her publisher is probably out a huge chunk of change worth trying to recover.) Many contracts have first proceeds language, which gives the author time, usually a year, to sell the book, then pay the many back from her new advance. But these clauses don’t address self-publishing. There were no first proceeds from her book. She got no advance. So conceivably she could argue that she doesn’t have to give back her advance until after the first proceeds window is closed, a year. It’s a gamble worth taking that anyone remembers to go after her in a year. Publishers are lousy at tracking things like this. That said, she’s made such a big deal out of it, in her case I imagine someone’s put a note in their tickler filer to go after her in a year.

Next, Trunk writes this exchange that happens between her and the marketing department of her publisher:

When I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups.”

I assumed I was misunderstanding. I said, “You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Those newsgroups? USENET?”

“Yes.”

As many of you may know, book publicists and marketers are generally fairly young. USENET and newsgroups are part of the old days of the Internet. When I read this, I was first like, “what are newsgroups?” And then when I Googled and remembered the early days of the Internet, it struck me as really weird that any book marketer would suggest such a thing. I mean, why not say, “social media” or “Twitter,” even. That would make more sense to me and ring more true — but probably wouldn’t make the publisher seem as stupid for Trunk’s blog post.

One book marketer I know at a major publishing company said of this and of the post, “I found her post — and her lumping of an entire industry into one dysfunctional unit — completely infuriating.”

I cannot in a million years see this person even say the word “newsgroups.”

Next.

She writes, “More than 85% of books sales are online, mostly at Amazon.”

This “fact” I think stuck out more than anything else for publishing industry folk who read it. Where is this coming from?

Let’s do some back-of-napkin math. It’s gonna get really fuzzy, so stay with me.

Based on the latest AAP numbers, the trade publishing industry had a shade under $2 billion in revenue in the first quarter. If only 15% of book sales happen in stores, that means that for the first quarter, only about $300 million in book sales happened in stores.

Here’s just one reason why I don’t think this makes any sense. Just look at Barnes & Noble alone. According to its latest quarterly report for its quarter ending January 28, 2012, its retail stores alone had nearly $1.5 billion in revenue. Two things: that’s the Christmas quarter and that’s also accounting for selling more than books.

But B&N is averaging about $1.1 billion per quarter in revenue for its retail stores for the first three quarters of the year (not counting its college stores where a lot of books are sold, too). If B&N made only 25% of its money from retail from selling books in its stores, it’s still only $25 million shy of the paltry $300 million that Trunk suggests are sold in stores. That’s $25 million in revenue for the 1,600 independent bookstores in the U.S., plus all the supermarkets and Wal-Marts and Books-A-Million and Hudson News…etc. etc.

Now, this math is fuzzy as anything I’ve ever seen, but I just don’t know how she can be right. Moreover, where did she get this 85% number?

All that said, we have here the case of an author who claims she is upset at her publisher because her publisher wasn’t going to market her book the way she wanted. While many of the statements in the post reek of inaccuracy, I think there’s a lesson here: Publishers need to satisfy their authors’ when it comes to how they will market their books.

I can imagine that if I’m with a publisher and they don’t convince me when we meet that they will be able to add value to the marketing efforts of my book, I might begin to question our relationship (a relationship that obviously extends far beyond marketing).

Related: Self-Publishing Vendors Race to Court Authors | Digital Book World Discoverability and Marketing Conference

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

Related Posts:

20 thoughts on “I Don’t Buy Penelope Trunk’s Story

  1. I with you on this one Jeremy. I thought her article read like a pastiche of every nasty thing that anyone has said about a book publisher. It just doesn’t add up. Are traditional book publishers challenged in their marketing efforts? Sure they are. But I don’t know of any workaday author who has found the Holy Grail of marketing. Film makers, photographers, authors, performing artists, music publishers and musicians — EVERYONE is challenged by marketing today. I no longer buy into the false divide between supposedly neanderthal publishers and digitally-astute self-publishers. Can’t we all get along? These are days of opportunity and excitement. Let’s cut the negativity. It’s counter-productive.

      • Completely agree. I think we’re going to see the heat under this grow until we get either a retraction or a correction. There are just too many overstatements, simplifications, and outright falsehoods in terms of the stats and likely scenarios. The question of the breach of contract is the biggest one, I think, and will be the issue that may undo the argument once people start digging.

    • I too think Penelope Trunk is a vile, angry little thing. I read her Blog for a while, and even sat in with a friend who subscribed to one of her webinars. What stunned me is that she continually told subscribers (who had paid $150 a head to listen to her dribble) to “Fuck off” of to “Go and fuck yourself” when they asked a question she didn’t want to answer. The funniest of which was a person who asked if she should use her real name when she blogs. Penelope repeatedly told her to “Get fucked you idiot”, which was so hypocritical, given Penelope Trunk, isn’t Penelop Trunk’s real name! The blog remains vile: if she has sex with her husband, she posts about his abilities the next day (in not flattering ways), diagnoses herself with mental health issues, and just writes plain rot. I avoid the site studiously now, and tell everyone to avoid her blog and her new webinar company Quistic, unless you have a burning need to be told to go an fuck yourself.

  2. Finally! It’s clear that her tale of woe/rage is SO full of holes. I’ve been hoping someone would tackle its inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and exaggerations. Thanks!

  3. In many instances, I think, it would be impossible for publishers to “satisfy their authors’ when it comes to how they will market their books.” Today, too many authors have unrealistic expectations about their book’s potential and too many think a shotgun approach to marketing, rather than a laser-beam approach, is the only “good” way to market. Success stories of indie authors who sell millions of ebooks lead many authors to believe that all they need to do to be equally successful is market in the same manner that the successful indie author has done. That, unfortunately, doesn’t work.

    One other thing to consider. The publisher, especially the publisher who pays an advance, has an incentive to market a book in a manner that actually sells the book. That is why they have dedicated marketers, people who have a lot of experience in marketing books like the book in question. How much experience does the author have? Or knowledge of the marketplace and its divisions?

    I don’t think a publisher needs to “satisfy” an author’s marketing whims; I think a publisher simply needs to do the best markteting job it can do for the book.

  4. Jeremy

    As a senior editor at Wiley, I’d like to dispute some of your disputes:

    1. \I’ve spoken to a number of publishing folks about this issue — all of whom want to remain anonymous because of the radioactive nature of this topic — and they all said that it was basically unheard of for an author to be paid an advance in full before publication.\

    What you call \unheard of\ is hardly unheard of. The standard payout for most books is half on signing, half on delivery and acceptance of the ms. For books will large advances, and I believe Penelope got a substantial advance, the payout is broken up further to limit the publisher’s exposure and kick some of the money further down the fiscal calendar, perhaps 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on d&a, 1/3 on pub.

    2. \Also, if an author absconded with an advance like that after selling the book, wouldn’t she be in breach of contract and face some sort of legal action? Yes, said publishing sources I spoke with who, again, didn’t want to be named.\

    I think Penelope has discovered an enormous loophole in publishers’ contracts. If an author cancels a contract or doesn’t fulfill its demands for deliverables, she has to pay back the money the publisher paid her. (Note: if the money isn’t that much, publishers usually just write it off because it’s bad business to sue authors, the money’s probably already been accounted for in a previous fiscal year, and authors are unlikely to have the money to pay the advance back anyway. In this case, though, her publisher is probably out a huge chunk of change worth trying to recover.) Many contracts have first proceeds language, which gives the author time, usually a year, to sell the book, then pay the many back from her new advance. But these clauses don’t address self-publishing. There were no first proceeds from her book. She got no advance. So conceivably she could argue that she doesn’t have to give back her advance until after the first proceeds window is closed, a year. It’s a gamble worth taking that anyone remembers to go after her in a year. Publishers are lousy at tracking things like this. That said, she’s made such a big deal out of it, in her case I imagine someone’s put a note in their tickler filer to go after her in a year.

    3. \As many of you may know, book publicists and marketers are generally fairly young. USENET and newsgroups are part of the old days of the Internet.\

    The most striking thing in Penelope’s article was that the publisher flew her in for a meeting. Think about that. I’ve been in publishing for 20 years and I’ve never heard of an article being flown anywhere unless it was to do a major event. And she’s flown in for a lousy meeting in a world of video conference calls? If that’s the case, there’s no way any young publicist or marketer was in that meeting. It was all brass. Old tarnished brass. And one of them, probably not an actual marketer, made the USENET comment. She just lumped that person in with the marketing VP, who was probably silently aghast.

    4. \85%.\

    You’re right, totally, and great way of proving your argument. The 85% figure is nonsense.

    What’s interesting about her post and your conclusion is how contracts and marketing should change in the future. I think the way payouts are done now is a relic of a lost world. Contracts needs to include marketing achievements as part of the author’s deliverables so that advance money, not bonuses or additional advance money, is paid out when the author does them, seeing as they would create the sales that earn the advance money back. For instance, instead of a celebrity author committing to three days of publicity, the publisher might pay out $2500 for each major signing he does, giving the author a greater incentive to do these things.

    This would also force publishers to create a more specific marketing plan from the start and get the author’s buy–in. Contracts should also penalize publishers for not achieving what they laid out in this plan. For instance, maybe $1000 is knocked of an author’s unearned advance for the publisher not achieving a goal, say, an NPR interview. The plan would have to be flexible of course because, for instance, breaking news or illness could kill the publicity lined up at pub. But it would start publicity for a book at acquisition, not six months before pub, which could only help the book, even it disrupted the way publishers normally handle books.

    Stephen S. Power

  5. Maybe I am alone in this, but I really thing that her inflammatory blog was probably part of her own self-publishing marketing efforts for her latest book. And it worked, everyone is talking about it and some people will buy the book merely because of all the controversy surrounding it/her.

  6. Thanks. And my mistake for not going back to the original article, which I also responded to, I should mention. She does make several valid points.

  7. Your back-of-the-napkin math is seriously flawed: The numbers you cited were AAP, which does not include Amazon sales or other independent publishers. (Check their membership roles at http://publishers.org/members/).

    Amazon does not report sales of books separately from it’s $51 Billion in revenue but one could reasonably expect it to dwarf B&N’s $7.1B total revenue and AAP’s reports on $8B combined. (Keep in mind, AAP is reporting wholesale revenue, and not all publishers participate.) No one knows for sure, but Ms. Trunk is closer to reality than you are on this score.

    • Thanks for your comment, james, but I believe you’re wrong on this one. The AAp numbers are total sales– from amazon and everyone else — as reported by 1200 publishers representing the lion’s share of the market.

      Still, I will double check with the AAp.

    • I just conferred with the AAP and the numbers are publisher reported, so, if a publisher includes its revenue from Amazon (which they probably all do — why wouldn’t they?) as it would with any other retailer, then Amazon is counted.

      The math I did was indeed fuzzy but was not flawed in the way you allege.

      I hope this clears up your confusion.

  8. I was googling this just to see if anyone else thought her post was strange. Here’s the thing I don’t understand — it was 90 days before publication and the book is only 50 pages long? They were going to publish THAT as a hard copy book? I wrote about it here: blogbrilliantly.com/penelope-trunk-has-lost-her-mind/

    I think she’s covering up the fact that she didn’t finish the book and using this “publisher incompetence” as a cover.

  9. You read PT’s stuff because, firstly, it’s amusing. Then, as an added bonus, you hope you gain something from it. But, it’s because it’s written so definitively, it’s funny. She really does have all of the answers to life’s many unanswered questions!!! But, I’ll continue to read her, cause she’s a great story-teller, BS may it be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>