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Q: My Book Has Not Sold Many Copies. Can I Get Rights Reverted Based on Poor Sales?

Q: My book has not sold many copies. Can I get rights reverted based on poor sales?

A. If that is not stipulated in the contract (and it rarely is), then not without some help. Take a look at your publishing agreement to see if there are sales performance requirements written into the terms. But if you don’t find a suitable condition, you can still ask your publisher nicely.

How can I get publishing rights to my book back?

My book didn’t sell many copies – and it’s going downhill from there!

Most publishing agreements have several provisions that allow you to get your publishing rights back.

For example, most agreements have a time frame within which the publisher must publish your work after acquiring it. Eighteen months is not atypical. In other words, a publisher can’t buy your book and just sit on it. Now, if you turned in your manuscript late or it has not yet been made acceptable through the editing process or there are some other extenuating circumstances, they (the publisher) are probably protected from surrendering rights back to you.

Another example of a rights reversion clause is most agreements have an in-print provision. If your book is not available for purchase and you bring it to the publisher’s attention – in writing – with a specific request to rectify this by reprinting the book, the publisher must send the book back to press within a defined period of time or return publishing rights to you. Just to repeat, the onus is usually on you to initiate the process in writing.

This has increasingly become a point of contention between authors and publishers in the digital age. Why? In many agreements, offering a book in a downloadable e-book form is all that is needed for a book to be considered in-print. And further, digital publishing means that the publisher can economically transition from offset printing to print on demand. In other words, your book will technically never be out of print even if nothing much is currently happening in the area of sales and marketing.

Third, a few agreements have qualifiers like a set time period for publishing rights or a minimum number of annualized sales or the requirement that it be included in a printed catalog. If you don’t remember this coming up when you were negotiating a contract, then this probably doesn’t apply to your agreement!

My book was printed on time and is still in print. It just isn’t selling like I thought it would. This is so disappointing.

Even if none of the conditions apply, go ahead and ask to have your publishing rights reverted, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Or if the publisher encourages you to do some marketing activities that will help rekindle demand for your book in the marketplace.

Now, if sales of your book have steadily waned to next to nothing, if you have earned out your advance against royalties (or you are willing to pay back unearned advances against royalties), if inventory levels are low (and especially if you’re willing to buy the remaining copies in stock), and if there isn’t sufficient demand to warrant an offset print run (let’s say about 1,500 copies), then your publisher just might shrug his or her shoulders and say sure, you can have your publishing rights back. Often, the publishing agreement specifies that in such cases the publisher will let you have any plates, films, and files free or at publisher’s actual cost to retrieve them. With plates and films basically being obsolete there is usually no or little cost associated with retrieving the electronic files. (Though that doesn’t mean anyone can easily put their hands on the most up-to-date print-ready iteration.)

But again, even if all the circumstances of the previous paragraph are present, many publishers (self included) are loathe to return rights. Why? They (we) have invested a lot of money into publishing your work and as distribution technology changes and morphs into podcasts, e-books, print-on-demand solutions, and more, they don’t want to lose opportunities to recoup their investment through new means of exploiting your work.

And one final question for you to ask yourself. What can you do to promote sales that the publisher hasn’t done or won’t do? If the answer is “a whole lot more” then get busy and drive sales without the manufacturing and inventory hassles. Or, if you have an iron-clad way to sell your own books directly, like a speaking schedule, ask nicely for your rights to be reverted and hope for a yes answer.

Q: How Well Do Publishers and Booksellers Work Together?

A: Publishers and retailers work together well in some areas – but there is a huge disconnect based on competing self-interests that make it difficult to help each other succeed.

What makes for a successful retailer? More revenue than expenses, of course, but not just a simple profit and loss reckoning, but profitability within a biz model that includes a positive monthly cash flow. Healthy cash flow is achieved through healthy inventory turns. What are turns? For a bookstore that mean ordering copies of a title on payment terms (often 60- and more often 90-days to pay) and then hopefully selling those copies and getting money for them at the cash register before writing a check to the publisher.

How likely is that to happen if you are stocking 200 thousand inventory items in a big box national chain? Not likely. But hot selling titles will hopefully push overall performance numbers up. But what happens if there’s no new Harry Potter or vampire title to average in with the laggers (and even help them move more briskly because of increased consumer traffic) on the aggregate? What if you are a retailer and your inventory piles up to the point that you don’t have the funds to buy new books (referred to as ‘open to buy dollars’)? Simple. You return slow-moving titles, of course.

Store buyers place their orders with publishers (and/or distributors) based on projections of how many copies of a book his or her stores will sell in the first four to six weeks. How does the buyer come up with those projections? He listens to the publisher’s sales rep give the key selling points, comparable titles, and publicity plans. He then combines the sales rep’s projections with what his reports on the comps and his own gut tells him, and then places his order a couple weeks or months later. With the large chains the buyer will get a personal report card based on how well his titles met those projections. He has the further accountability of a finite dollar number in his corporate check book. Once that number nears zero without being replenished, his ‘open to buy dollars’ are done. So not only will he return books if they are not coming close to meeting forecasts, but he may be forced to return some borderline performing titles in order to have more dollars available to purchase a hot-selling title. To the publisher this feels like the retailer is paying his bills with returns.

The preceding paragraph sums up what is in a book retailer’s best interests – and what their challenges are. What about the publisher?

A publisher feels like she will do well on a single title when she adds up pre-press expenses (cover and interior design and editing), manufacturing expenses, direct marketing expense, overhead, a return reserve (usually an aggregate percentage applied to each title that assumes not every copy printed will actually sell and will have to be disposed of as an overstock or remainer), and royalty expenses (including advance against royalties), and then subtracts that number from sales projections – usually three-month, six-month, and 12-month projections. How does she come up with those projections? She reviews the performance of comparable titles and considers the author’s ability to help promote sales of the title to come up with her own number. She then shares her thinking with sales and marketing teams who will listen and agree or disagree in some measure and come up with their own projections. Different companies settle those differences in different ways. The publisher will do well on a single title in reality when the retail buyer brings in the number of titles projected (sell-in) and consumers buy enough copies of that title off the shelf (sell-through) to generate reorders. The publisher will get her report card on the basis of meeting or exceeding the original projections. She will do particularly well when overall sales pay off any advance against royalties and re-orders are frequent enough to keep inventory levels down (books sitting in a warehouse are like bananas – they can go bad overnite!).

The common success denominator for retailers and publishers is managing inventory levels. The retailer tries not to over order in the first place and is quick to return laggers. Both dynamics hurt the publisher who saves money on higher press runs and gets killed by returns. When publisher and retailer both get too conservative in order to combat this, another negative occurs. Stock outs. What happens when a customer comes to the store and the book he is looking for isn’t there? He forgets about it – or if he is persistent, he orders it online and waits for it. That kills brick and mortar retailers. Another less obvious impact of conservative buying patterns is the lack of merchandising. There was a day when you would walk into a bookstore and there would be numerous titles stacked high to capture attention and send the message that this was a book that just had to be purchased. With a few notable exceptions, like the afore-mentioned Harry Potter example, title emphasis is more subtle – and much easier to miss (or ignore).

Two relatively recent technological developments that are helping publishers more than brick and mortar retailers are print-on-demand and the e-book. Print-on-demand vendors provide a pretty high quality book (and the print quality is getting better all the time) – though without bells and whistles like foil and embossing – overnight and at a reasonable price. Not as good a price as printing 100 thousand books on an offset press, but a good enough price that beats the heck out of an excess inventory fall bonfire! An e-book is never out of print. Add those two dynamics together and any book is technically available within 24-hours to a retailer or individual consumer without the risk of large print runs.

But back to the publisher-retailer relationship. Even print-on-demand can’t totally mitigate the damage to performance numbers that occurs because the two parties have conflicting interests when it comes to inventory management.
Is there a solution? If you follow the financial reports of major publishers and retailers, neither side of the equation is doing well enough to give much in the give and take of business.

The solution for the author who wonders why his or her book isn’t selling like it should is to look in the mirror and ask him or herself what he or she can do to build demand. The book publishing and selling environment isn’t currently emulating the Fields of Dreams. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it will sell.

Sales Continue to Drop for Print Books

Publisher’s Weekly just reported:

The total unit sales of print books sold through the outlets whose sales are captured by Nielsen BookScan dropped 10.2% in the six month period ended July 3, falling to 307.1 million. Among categories, the biggest decline came in adult fiction with units off 25.7%, while mass market paperback had the steepest decline among formats with units down 26.6% in the period. BookScan totals cover about 75% of the outlets where print books are sold.

Is this yet another signal that the book is dead or should at least be placed on the endangered species list?

As someone who makes a living in the book publishing industry I continue to maintain an optimistic position on the future of the book, in part, because I don’t define the book as a physical object.

I see no reason for hand wringing. Publishers need to keep their focus on what they can control and what matters most: great content. The distribution medium matters but is not paramount. The music industry fought Napster (rightfully) and electronic distribution (wrongly) for most of a decade – and lost control of its own packaging and pricing. I think the book publishing industry has maintained a much healthier point of view toward electronic formats from day one.

I like physical books – actually, love is the better word for it – but I’m not going to lose sleep if we sell more books as electronic editions and kill fewer trees in the process. One of the biggest benefits of selling e-books for publishers is fewer dollars tied up in paper and ink with all the inventory management issues surrounding that. The amount of time it takes to recoup a dollar of the investment that goes into publishing a book is long enough without making the irreversible commitment to a print quantity that may not dovetail with real demand.

Of course many publishers have long built financial models around a certain percentage of their unit sales coming from higher priced hard cover releases. As e-books continue to eat into the number of hardcovers sold, particularly with adult fiction, it changes the proforma dramatically, so I’m not saying this change makes things easier in all ways. Change is hard.

I’m strictly describing what I think is – not proscribing what should be. And no matter how strong Amazon is as a bookseller, I still hope the market will support a robust brick and mortar retail environment. (Borders might not agree that is possible – but we should know if their reorganization is Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 within days – or even hours.)

My personal prediction – more gut than numbers at this point – is that five years from now 35-40% of all books sold will be e-books (digitally distributed), which would mean the majority of books consumed would still be on the ink and paper medium. I also think that projection would leave space for a strong brick and mortar presence for at least Barnes and Noble and some exceptional independents that incorporate an e-book strategy into their overall sales mix.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” said Mark Twain after hearing his obituary had been printed in the New York Journal.

The same can be said by and of the book.

Q: Why Won’t a Publisher Read My Manuscript in a Timely Fashion?!

Q: Why won’t a publisher read my manuscript in a timely fashion?!

A: A better question might be this: Why should he or she give two or three hours in his or busy schedule to pore over what you’ve written in the first place?

Let’s start with the simple reality that most of the publishing world is situated in a low demand, high supply section of the supply-demand curve. That means publishers must deal with the fact that we publish more books than there are interested readers. You, the writer, are likewise part of a supply group that is sending more manuscripts than a publisher has demand for in his or her world of limited open slots.


Note that the third variable in the SD Curve is Price. High supply + low demand = low price. Price, for you the aspiring author, is the publisher’s motivation to read your manuscript. Don’t get mad that the price you can charge is low, just understand it and do what you can to change something on the graph. Incidentally, I know a lot of publishers and acquisitions editors who are very nice people and would love nothing more than to encourage and help you. Those who spend a lot of time doing this, however, tend to be ex-publishers and ex-acquisitions editors. It doesn’t pay the bills nor justify the salary.

Publishers aren’t looking for more manuscripts to review but we’ve got to publish something, so unless we have a strong cadre of proven authors signed to long term deals we do want to read the right ones. (See my blog on whether you need an agent to round this discussion out.) What makes a manuscript the right manuscript? Bottom line: It offers something unique and compelling to a well defined audience. If you can’t articulate in a sentence or two what makes your book special for a group of readers that the publisher has some history or means of reaching, then an acquisition specialist probably won’t sort through your material to help develop your “elevator speech” with you. Let’s break down the components of the sentence that is set in bold face.

1. Articulate: Is your sales pitch as well articulated as your manuscript? (Both are well written, right?)

2. In a sentence or two: When you skim book shelves or magazine contents or advertisements or any other message, how long do you give it to catch your attention? Five seconds? I doubt it. Why would you expect a publisher to be any different than you, particularly since he or she knows that the finished book will have the same requirement to nab attention in a second or two put on it by consumers. Hint: There’s something that goes on the cover of a book that serves as the best sales pitch available. (I’ll address titling and subtitling in a future blog.)

3. What makes your book special: If you have quoted someone else’s work in every chapter, there’s a good chance your book is not needed. If you haven’t created something with a new angle, a new discovery, a new application, a new character, a new anything that is important and compelling – why bother?

4. For a group of readers: Chances are your book idea will not appeal to everybody. So bold assertions that millions will want to pick up this book is a real turn off and indication you haven’t thought through who will actually take the time to look your book over and purchase it. Better to be honest about the size of the group that your book appeals to.

5. That the publisher has some history or means of reaching: Textbook publishers don’t effectively market to fiction readers and fiction publishers don’t do a good job of marketing to preachers and ministry publishers don’t tend to reach romance enthusiasts and so on! When you determine who to send your manuscript to, make sure that the publisher has published comparable titles.

This Q/A is as philosophical as it is practical. It’s about helping you measure your expectations and understand why the process is frustrating without getting to frustrated. I’ll come back to the major points of a good book publishing proposal (because whether or not you hire an agent, you’re going to be the one who has to write it!), which will have significant overlap.

Okay, back on topic. Why won’t a publisher just read your manuscript and proposal? Don’t blame him or her. You haven’t yet articulated a concise and compelling reason to do so.

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