Hybrid Author Sylvia Day: ‘The World Cannot survive Without the Publishing Industry’

Sylvia Day hi resWhen it came to getting a book published and distributed to a wide audience, it used to be that publishing houses with editorial, production, marketing and distribution operations were in the driver’s seat. All but a select few authors could dictate where the relationship went, how fast and under what terms.

With the emergence of self-publishing as a viable option for wide distribution of books, things have changed. The number of authors who can plan their own route has increased and many authors who may have been at the mercy of agents and publishers had they been working decades ago are now selling hundreds of thousands of books on their own and making headlines with unprecedented publishing deals.

These hybrid authors bounce freely between self-publishing works to signing deals with publishers, depending on where they think they can get more money or creative control or whatever they’re after. They sometimes work with agents and sometimes don’t. Many of them have started their own small publishing operations to help bring other authors’ work to market.

One of these hybrids is Sylvia Day, the best-selling author of 22 novels and 20 novellas. Day gained reader and media attention in 2012 with her blockbuster hit Crossfire series, which started out as self-published and then was sold to Penguin. Earlier this year, Day made headlines again with a seven-figure ebook deal with Harlequin and Cosmopolitan magazine for two titles.

Day joined the military when she was 22 as a Russian linguist. She left the military in 1998 and got married. In 2002, after having two children, she went back to college, getting an associate of arts degree in general studies from Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, Calif. She started writing in 2003 and sold her first book in 2004. Day is the current president of the Romance Writers of America.

We spoke with Day about how readers are in control like never before when it comes to publishing, where publishing companies get it wrong when it comes to self-published authors, and how the world can’t survive without the publishing industry.

Coming to IDPF’s Digital Book 2013? Come see me interview Sylvia Day on stage at the conference at 2:20 PM on May 29 in the special events hall at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. We’ll be joined by hybrid author Jennifer Armentrout. If you’re not already attending the conference, you can register here

From the DBW Store: What Authors Want — Understanding Authors and Hybrid Authors in the Era of Self-Publishing


Jeremy Greenfield: Can you take me through your first publishing deal?

Sylvia Day: I sat down to start writing in October of 2003 and I finished my first book by the middle part of November. And then I started a new book and finished that and started a new book and finished that.

I was submitting them to agents but also directly to publishing houses. In June or July of 2004 it was announced that Lori Foster – New York Times best-selling author – was doing a contest with Kensington Publishing where she was reading the first few pages of author submissions to choose one to publish. She weaned them down to 20 choices and then they had reader vote and her editor looked at the final submissions for the possibility of publication.

I sent in a part of a story I had written and it won and it was picked up by Kensington to be published. The contest was for novellas so they asked if I had two more stories so they could publish it in paperback as a single author anthology. I had one extra. I had to write another one. They bought all three and published it as my first book. I got $7,500 for that first contract.

Sales were average or a little less than average for a first book because it had a horrible title and a horrible cover that they ended up apologizing for. So, I turned in that third novella in January of 2005 and the book was published in 2006. But between 2005 when I turned the book in and 2006 when it was published, Kensington bought five other novels from me.


JG: That’s a fast introduction to the industry. So, when did you start self-publishing?

SD: I started self-publishing when I got the rights back to two stories that had previously been sold to Ellora’s Cave and Amber Quill Press. Those were seven year grants of contracts. I repackaged them [the ebooks] and put them up. I also had done shorter stories that had been part of larger collections that didn’t have exclusive rights granted. I started out by reissuing published works. I did that for a few years and found that to be very lucrative.

Then I wrote Bared to You [the first book in the Crossfire series] which was my first work of original full-length fiction that I self-published.

I was pretty disenchanted with New York [shorthand for the publishing industry writ large] when I started self-publishing – getting paid every six months and the antiquated returns and consignment system that they have going from the great depression. All of my books have earned out and still it’s a shell game as to how many returns there are going to be on this particular statement versus the last statement.

With self-publishing, I’m getting paid every 30 days. I can live off of my self-publishing income quite comfortably. Living off my royalty statements every six months was impossible. It’s ridiculous to be getting paid twice a year.


JG: And what have been the sales results – self-publishing versus traditional publishing?

SD: I’ve sold a lot more books self-publishing*. And some of it is a head-scratcher to me. I sold a contemporary Christmas story to Ellora’s Cave in 2005. It had a seven-year grant of rights on it. They had the book for sale non-stop all the way from 2005 to 2012. It was everywhere, never unavailable. I had my edition ready to go when the grant of rights expired. I sent a note to them and they took their edition down and mine went up. As soon as mine went up, it became a New York Times best-seller for weeks. It became Kobo’s best-selling [self-published] book.

Why? It was there the whole time. It had a different cover, yes, but the title was the same, I didn’t change the story. I didn’t expand it or anything. The other crazy thing about the Christmas story is that the price went up and it sold like it had never had been available before.

That is typical for my self-published works. The minute I put it up myself, it sold phenomenally well. It’s a head-scratcher for me on how something goes from obscurity to a meteoric rise overnight for no reason.

That’s been my typical experience with self-publishing. I sell a lot of digital books – period. When the second book of the Crossfire series came out, I sold 289,000 ebooks the first week and 100,000 paperbacks the first week.**

* Note: As of now, Day has sold more units through Penguin’s acquisition of Crossfire than through self-publishing. Entwined With You, the latest in the series, comes out June 4 and has already sold one million units. The series as a whole is up to nearly nine million units

** The paperback came out three weeks after the ebook, at which point the ebook had sold 450,000 copies. 


JG: Let’s talk about the Crossfire series and how that went from self-published sensation to Penguin tent-pole.

SD: Penguin was already my publishing house. I sent an email Kim [Whalen, at Trident] to my agent, who was at the time not my agent, and said I have a question to ask you if you have time. We ended up touching base the following Monday and I explained the situation and said, “at this point, I don’t really have an incentive to sell it to a publisher.”

It was already a huge hit, came out of the gate strong – because it had been available on NetGalley a month previous to the release. So, it was already generating a strong income in less than a week and the sales were continuing to climb. The velocity was there. I knew it was going to be hitting the major lists in a few days. So there was no incentive for me to sell it to a publisher. I told her that if she was willing to step into this and take over the discussions with the understanding that I might not sell the book, then I’m happy to dump this in her lap and we’ll see where it goes. (I didn’t have time to deal with it because I’m contracted with other publishers and had other works I needed to work on and turn in. I wrote the book, published it and moved on to the next project on my list.)

At the same time, we already started having foreign publishers contacting us, so this kind of opened up this international rush of publishers and a lot of their concern is that they want to buy the books and it’s really helpful for us to have our territory, so one of the questions was, ‘would it be beneficial for foreign sales if it was published by a New York publisher?’

There was a whole strategic discussion going on between me and Kim. Berkley [Penguin] had a hard time wrapping their head around that they were not competing with another publisher or my past experience with them; what they were competing with was me as a self-publisher. It took them close to a month to wrap their head around the idea that they would have to come up with the right amount of money to have me stop selling it myself.

So, the negotiations went on for about a month and during that time we had a lot of discussions with them about it. I knew that the traditional model for them when they did pick up a book that was self-published was to jack the price up which killed sales. I told them that they would have to revamp their whole digital strategy for books, that they couldn’t jack up the price.

I wanted to make sure that in addition to the advance and royalty terms that the strategy in publication for the book was going to be worthwhile. They had to throw out everything they did before and take my advice. I told them that I was not going to throw it over to them and have it die. They’re learning, but at the time I wasn’t willing to be a guinea pig and I’m glad I wasn’t. They were very good at following our turnover plan which was very helpful in keeping the book successful.


JG: What was the plan?

SD: My price for the ebook was $4.99. First things first was [when I first self-published it] I had the book professionally edited by a New York editor who worked at a big house. It had already been copy edited by a freelancer for Random House. I told them that they have to re-copy-edit the book; that’s the expectation for the reader.

They just wanted to take over the book with everything the way it was and they’d eventually get around to repackaging. I said, ‘No. why would I just turn over the book to you that I created when that’s your job as a publisher? You have to repackage and edit the book as your commitment to the reader. I’m selling the book for $4.99. You have to start at $5.99 and then move to $7.99 and keep it at $7.99 for as long as you can possibly tolerate it and then move it to $9.99.’ I told them they couldn’t go from $4.99 to $9.99 overnight, that they have to do a staggered price increase to give readers a chance to buy the book for what they expect.

As far as how the paperback was going to go, the file that I had done for my paperback was beautifully designed. It was very beautiful packaging and I said you’re going to have to recreate that experience. You can’t just throw it out as a plain text book.

It was just like, as much of a rush as it is for them to take over this book and start taking over the income, they’re going to have to slow it down so that the transition is as seamless as possible for the reader and they’re not losing quality.

In the end, we signed. The deal was for three books. It was a “major deal” [in the parlance of Publishers Lunch, at least in the high six-figures].


JG: You mentioned that Kim Whalen helped you with the process. Can you talk about your relationship with agents and their value to a hybrid author like yourself?

SD: I’m on my fifth agent. I’ve had an agent with every one of my contracts. I started out when I won that contest. I had previously submitted one of my stories to a writing contest run by a Romance Writers of America chapter and one of the judges was a literary agent who selected my entry as the best. I contacted him because he already liked my work. I already had a contract on the table. He stepped in and negotiated my contract for me. He negotiated the next few contracts for me.

I had a back-log of books by that point that I wanted to sell in all sorts of genres, but the agent was of the mind that I had to sell well in one genre to establish my name. But having seen what happened to authors who wrote in one genre, I didn’t want to do that. So I fired him.

Then I hired my second agent. I went to them and said, ‘Here’s the problem: I’ve been with this other agent for nine months. He brokered deals that I already achieved on my own and now I want to turn over the solicitation process to somebody else and have an agent that goes out and shops work.’ And they did what I hired them to do. They went out and sold a tremendous amount of work for me in a short period of time.

My next question was, now that we have alleviated the back-list that I had to sell, what about strategy? Are we selling smart? Are we planning ahead? Are we being proactive? Are we selling the right books at the right time to the right publishers or are we in the process of selling books just to get advances. Are we thinking whether or not these things will help my career in the long term or is this just a short term infusion of cash?

I never wanted to be someone who just sits down and writes just for the hell of it. This is my career. Being a long-term writer is so tremendously about strategizing and constantly switching your game and being proactive. And your agent is supposed to be a sounding board for that to hit the pavement. That’s their job. I didn’t think I was getting that. Their strategy was to sell as many books as they could while ‘She’s hot.’ They just said, ‘Crank out as many books as you can and you’ll get there.’

So I fired that agent and hired another. That agent came on board and saw everything I had on my plate and said, ‘I don’t even know what to do with this.’

That ended and my next agent came in and tried to clean some of this up. She talked about ‘let’s just clean this up and then talk about moving forward.’ This was not a viable option for me*. You can’t expect me to sit around for three or four years without a strategy. So that relationship didn’t work out either.

I had previously over time been courted by agents and some of them I kept in the back of my mind. I self-published Bared to You. It was scheduled for release on April 3 but had already been circulating via NetGalley for the month prior and early reviewers had posted on Goodreads and my existing editor at Berkley was going through Goodreads and saw it had great reviews and sent me an email and asked why I didn’t shop it to her and wanted me to send it to her. I sent to her on Friday; book released the following Tuesday and we connected on the following Friday and said she’d like to publish the book. At which point I called one of those agents that had previously talked around me before and she had a strategy and a plan and I brought her on board and I’ve been with Kim Whalen ever since. That was March/April 2012.

* Day later added during fact-checking that this agent “objected to my self-publishing while I was still under contract with NY pubs.” 


JG: What do you think publishers do well in the ebook era?

SD: I’m going to have to divide this up between paperbacks and ebooks. I don’t think publishers have any advantage whatsoever for ebooks. They’re at a huge disadvantage. They overcharge. They have complicated distribution agreements which limit them for offering ebooks in sertain areas. We have issues with ebooks being available to libraries. I honestly cannot say that it would be a wise decision for an author to sell a digital edition to a publisher unless they have some different terms in the contract to limit the disadvantages.

On the print side, publishers have a tremendous advantage. The print marketplace has not accepted self-published books. They don’t like books that are not returnable. They still go out in the system as a print-on-demand book. Distribution for self-published authors for print is abysmal. That said, it’s up to publishers to get print distribution which can be problematic. Simon & Schuster is having tremendous problems with Barnes & Noble right now.


JG: What should they be doing?

SD: They have to promote the book.

Publishers should use the paperback side to leverage the ebook side. They have to do a better job at distribution, marketing and promotion. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing that happen. This is still a learning curve for publishers. Some of them understand that they have to make themselves viable and relevant. Some are not.

But the world cannot survive without the publishing industry so I’m sure they’ll pull it together.


JG: Not to disagree with you, but why does the world need the publishing industry?

SD: The publishing industry provides a viable channel which enables a wide distribution of books that we’re not seeing in any other way. Unfortunately, self-publishing doesn’t have that. We’re talking about a future of digital books. I only read on digital. I only could get my 11-year-old daughter to start reading when I put books on the iPad; now I can’t get her to stop. But the paper book is still alive and well. It’s still there but getting to that requires a distribution network that we don’t have yet for independent. Some of the gatekeeper functions that we have in New York are also important.

And because of foreign sales – they are still dependent on how books perform in the U.S. As the foreign market opens – and it is opening – a lot of publishers need to have a U.S.-based partner in order for them to adequately market titles in their territory.

I’ve worked with 12 different publishers and have worked with some of the best people in the industry. These people are repositories of information about books and the industry, likes and dislikes, and you need that vibrant community. Booksellers tie into this of course. There’s a network that’s in place that serves a purpose and I think that reading and the types of books would be available and the quality of the books available would be dramatically changed by the loss of the publishing industry.


JG: What advice would you give other writers that want to have the success you’ve had?

SD: I’m president of the Romance Writers of America for a reason. Where it really starts is having a well-educated writer. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of quick successes with writers who could use a little more seasoning – they need more education to make the right moves. I’m seeing some self-published deals and saying, ‘That wasn’t smart; you didn’t plan that well.’

Smart decisions by some writers affect all writers. You want it to set a good precedent overall. With self-publishing platforms, writers need to pay attention to the terms of service. It’s not a contract. It’s a living, breathing document. It changes all the time. Are you aware of that?

We talked a little bit about the gatekeeper process from New York. Unfortunately the booksellers have become so reliant on the process that they are unwittingly that they’re censoring what’s available to the public by not carrying books created by self-published authors.

What I love about self-publishing is that the readers are entirely in control when it comes digital books and digital best-sellers. These are not what a publisher said you are going to like. The publishing industry doesn’t poll its consumers. Publishers never ask readers what they want to read and when you ask editors and publishers why, they say, ‘It’s because they don’t know until you give it to them.’ It’s funny because you see a lot of books that are selling well are books that the author tried to shop for so long and the publisher said there wasn’t an audience and there was.

So, readers are in the driver’s seat and I find that hugely exciting. And publishers are coming in the back door with the whole, ‘how do we poll consumers’ thing by saying, ‘we’ll just look at what’s hot on the [self-published best-seller] list and just buy it from the author.’ That would be less attractive if Createspace and LightiningSource were able to leverage self-publishing correctly.


JG: What are you reading and on what platform?

SD: I read on a Kindle Fire. I am reading Captive by A.D. Robertson, which is not out yet. I have an advance copy of the book.


Coming to IDPF’s Digital Book 2013? Come see me interview Sylvia Day on stage at the conference at 2:20 PM on May 29 in the special events hall at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. We’ll be joined by hybrid author Jennifer Armentrout. If you’re not already attending the conference, you can register here

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