Author Power: Profit Before You Publish
By Lynn Isenberg
Lynn Isenberg reached out to me earlier this month. Although she lives in LA, she is planning on moving to Austin, so she was spending a few weeks here to check out the city, and coincidentally talked to a mutual acquaintance about being an entrepreneurial author. He suggested that she talk to me, and a few days later, we met at Caffe Medici.
Lynn has authored a trilogy of novels about a funeral planner who solves mysteries, but she has also sold nonfiction books on grief and writes scripts in LA. She is friendly, energetic, enthusiastic, hard-charging, and focused. And the problem on which she is focused is this: how do authors make a living? It wasn't that long ago that an author could expect to write novels, sell them to publishers, receive a decent advance, and live on it and royalties while writing the next novel. To be sure, it was an uncertain living, but it could be done.
But that's no longer true, she says. One, the market is flooded with books already, so those advances have steadily shrunk and shelf space—which is vital to selling mass-market books—is both in smaller supply and available during much shorter time windows. Two, the resale market means that authors lose out on sales, and with electronic marketplaces for connecting buyers and sellers, it's easier than ever before to sell used copies to buyers. Three, digital publishing (such as Amazon's Kindle versions) has taken a bite out of profits, since books sell for less. Four, digital publishing in particular has allowed authors to post their novels for little or nothing, meaning that the market is even more flooded and readers are even less willing to pay for books.
Publishing, she is essentially saying, is no longer a way for authors to be fairly recompensed for their labor. And this fact hits fiction authors hard. When she received her BA in Literature and Film Studies at the University of Michigan, Lynn says, she looked back and realized that her education had not given her the tools to be entrepreneurial in her writing; career services were almost nonexistent for creative writers (and she compares this sorry state of affairs to how engineers enjoyed career fairs); and consequently, fiction writers were more or less at the mercy of publishers. This, she says, is not a recipe for author empowerment.
So how does an author become an entrepreneur? Lynn provides one path, which I'll describe and then discuss.
First, Lynn says, "it makes no sense to go with a traditional publisher unless there is a significant advance. This is because with a traditional publisher your backend royalties are in the 10-15% range. Independently or in tandem with a next-generation publisher you're looking at 25%-100% of the royalty depending on third party distribution channel fees and e-book or print book" (p.10). Self-publishing and hybrid publishing models are far easier to use than before, they provide higher royalties, and they allow the author much more control (all things to which I can attest).
Of those three reasons, the third—author control—is the most important for Lynn. She sketches out the "I AM" principle: Impresario, Author, Marketer. For true author power, she says, the author must embrace all three of these roles.
Impresario. As an impresario, the author must create a platform, explore options, embrace innovation, understand transmedia, act as an engine, be a connector, and behave originally and fearlessly (p.22). Specifically, the impresario focuses on building a personal brand in which the books, social media, and one's fan base are the bricks and PR, marketing and distribution are the mortar. "The scope of the book," she says at this point, "is focused on integrated branding opportunities and pre-release income for authors" (p.23). That is, to be liberated from the control of publishing firms, the author must act like a publishing firm, relentlessly tying her or his efforts to those of others who can provide income streams. "With technology stripping off the gatekeepers of distribution, it's now possible to build your own media company and your own ad sales team" (p.32). And "In summary, Impresario means understanding the landscape you're operating in so that you can connect people with ideas" (p.33, her emphasis).
Author. An author, in Lynn's sense, must also be "an architect, creating the blueprint for partnerships and Transmedia content... [and] a proud ambassador of your work." This author must write personal/universal stories, do in-depth research, rewrite with an awareness of your brand and current markets, brand content, and "pave a new path with words, media, technology, and brands" (p.37). She emphasizes that "the premise for this book is all about molding and blending opportunities that fit into what you are creating or have already created. If you start going in the other direction, you risk compromising the integrity of the work" (p.41). But with that caveat, she encourages authors to consider how they can rewrite parts of their work to incorporate product placement—and, as Marketers, to get paid for that product placement even before the book hits the shelves.
Marketer. "To be a successful Author Power author, it takes ... confidence, open-mindedness, flexibility, vision, follow-through, pleasant phone manners, compelling e-mails, sleuthing, and creativity. It takes creativity to see and connect dots of opportunity and then follow through to implement them" (p.49).
Throughout the rest of the book, she provides various strategies to approach authorship in these terms, illustrating them with case studies and providing scripts to help authors through marketing calls. "Adapt or fade away," she tells us crisply (p.78). We learn how to incorporate product placement, how to brand versions of the same book for different audiences, how to use the research for a novel to generate nonfiction companion titles, and how to get industry conventions to buy branded copies of a book. I can't emphasize how impressive this system is.
So there's the summary. Now the evaluation.
We tenured and tenure-track professors are relatively protected from the shocks of the market. (Granted, things are tight in the university right now, and granted, the growing ranks of contingent faculty are far more vulnerable than the shrinking ranks of TT faculty.) Similarly, many of the students in our humanities programs are protected by such shocks due to family support and background. So it's easy for us to feel what some of you may be feeling right now: revulsion. You might be thinking: We are not marketers! We want to write—and teach our students to write—about the human condition, without compromises and certainly without integrated branding opportunities. Imagine the violence that this kind of approach would do to the integrity of the great authors!
True, I think. But Lynn is not talking about training the next Pablo Neruda. She is specifically focused on genre fiction, in which legions of authors write—that is, produce their labor—with the express purpose of making a profit. Those people have traditionally relied on publishing, but the publishing industry has entered a dark cul-de-sac. In publishing's current situation, how do authors secure fair wages for their labor? How do they avoid being systematically exploited, their labor devalued?
One way, the I AM approach, is for the author to take on the functions of the publisher, but more nimbly and ruthlessly, with fewer restrictions and less institutional propriety. The author, to quote Schumpeter, must carry out new combinations, ones that make an end run around the calcified publishing system. The I AM approach is not for everyone, but reading about it tells us volumes about the publishing system to which it reacts.
And understanding that system can help authors to sketch out alternate approaches, ones that address the same system but in ways that may be more palatable to authors who do not want to employ the I AM strategies.
And for that reason, authors, even if you find the idea of product placement unbearable, I recommend that you take a look at Author Power.
(updated 2/1/15 to clarify one sentence in paragraph 13)