By Mary Gillgannon
I just contracted for the sale of my twelfth book. (I’ve published three independently.) The experience was very different from when I sold my first book over twenty years ago. Including the “signing”, which consisted of creating an electronic signature with a password.
How have things changed?
Submission: Back then, I didn’t yet have a computer, so when an editor at the Colorado Gold (yay, RMFW) asked me to send her “the whole manuscript”, I had to print it out, which involved inserting 400+ individual sheets of paper in my word processor, basically a typewriter with a memory, and then patiently waiting as the machine typed it out page by page. I then boxed it up, took it to the post office and paid a substantial chunk to mail it.
This time I sent my manuscript as an email attachment, not quite a one-click process but pretty close.
Response: Back then, I got a letter with an offer in six months. That actually wasn’t an atypical response time. I once got a rejection letter for a manuscript I’d submitted eighteen months earlier.
This time, an editor responded to my query within a week, and two weeks later I got the offer.
The money: When I sold my first book, my editor had just started acquiring for a new line and I had a tough, hard-nosed agent who knew how to negotiate. She managed to get me an advance just barely in the five figures. Given that the first offer was for $2,500, I was over the moon.
This time the advance is… nothing. These days, lots of small publishers don’t offer advances. Instead, I get 40% of the download price of ebooks and 7% of print. So, unless I’m very lucky (and suspect I used up all my luck on my first sale), it will take me years (or never) to make as much on this book as I did twenty-some years ago.
Distribution: My publisher back then printed about 70,000 copies. That sounds very impressive, but be aware that my book was only readily available in stores for about five weeks (“The shelf-life of a banana,” my editor used to say.) For another year or so it was available to order, but after that the only copies anyone can buy are used copies, for which I get no royalties.
Today, my book will be available until… who knows. Unless there’s some internet catastrophe and/or the world ends, my story will be out there indefinitely. On the other hand, every ebook is like that, so in a few years, there will be millions and millions of them available. How do you stand out or get noticed in those circumstances?
Sales: I sold about half of my print-run back then. Not enough to earn out my advance, which did not endear me to my publisher.
This time, I can keep earning money for years and years. Even so, unless the book really catches on, it will take me a long while to earn as much as I did with my first book twenty years ago.
Marketing: My first publisher didn’t do a lot of marketing and promotion for new authors, other than sending out ARC’s to the two romance magazines around at the time. But they did give me great covers, and because they had good relationships with dozens of small distributors all over the country, my books were available at supermarkets and discounts stores as well as most bookstores.
Today, most smaller publishers expect authors to do much of their own marketing. Since I suck at social media, my only hope is that because I have thirteen other ebooks available, all under the same name, some readers will stumble onto this one. Sheer quantity does seem to help sales.
The joy: Back then, I really thought I’d made it. Now I know that unless you’re a top bestseller, there’s no way you can ever feel secure about your career. Fads and trends move quickly and what’s popular one month may not be the next. But after twenty-plus years, I appreciate more than ever how fortunate I am to make money doing something I love and having my stories read by readers.