I Don’t Buy Penelope Trunk’s Story
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?”
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.”
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).