Choosing the Right Publisher, Part I: It’s all about the Money…or Not?

For the purpose of this posting, and the ones that will follow next week, we will assume that you have written an amazing business book proposal on a very timely topic and as a result, no fewer than five publishers are interested in your book. If you did indeed receive five offers for your book, the first thing you should do is break out the champagne. That’s a rare feat, indeed. The very next thing to do is figure out which publisher to go with. That’s what we will cover here and in the posts next week.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is money. Cold hard cash. If you have a literary agent, the chances are quite strong that they he or she will recommend that you take the highest $$ offer. That makes sense. That’s how they get paid. They traditionally get ten or fifteen percent of what you get. However, as in any industry, there are some exceptional agents that will look past the money (as long as the other offer is in the same $$ ballpark), to other factors, such as editorial fit, marketing muscle, quality of the publishing house, etc. Those non-cash factors are what we will deal with next week. Today we stick with money.

What if you have no agent…should you go with the highest cash offer? Maybe. Maybe not. Remember, the money you get up front is the advance, meaning an advance against future royalties. If the book does really well, depending on the size of your advance and the royalty rate, your book will probably earn  more than the original advance. And as an author, I can tell you that it feels great to get a five-figure royalty check one or two years after your book is published.       

There is one situation, however, in which money almost always rules the day. And that’s when an agent, who has multiple parties intersted in a project, auctions it off to the highest bidder. In 26 years as editor and publisher, I have been involved with many book auctions. I have won some and I have lost some.

Of the latter, I have lost 99 percent of those because I was outbid (on $$$). I have tried to follow the progress of those books a year or so later when they are published. A few became national bestsellers.  Some came out great because there are some great business book editors in the industry. But as often as not, the books appeared to be hastily put together, published with little editorial input, and…then…nothing. The book was either dead on arrival—because of a poor package or insufficient distribution—or lived a short life for a couple of months and then died. 

Given my travel patterns, I see most of these books at O’Hare Airport.  When I look at some of these, I think to myself how different the book would have turned out had I had a chance to publish it. Title, subtitle, jacket design, approach, table of contents, organization—all of these things determine the fate of a book (not to mention whether there is a market for the book in the first place, but we are assuming here that there is). It all comes down to execution. And don’t get me wrong. I can’t do half of these things myself. It’s having a really strong team around you to come up with world class ideas, titles, jackets, etc. that’s most important.         

Your relationship with a publisher is something like a marriage, so it is important that you know what you are getting yourself into before signing on the bottom line. In a marriage, you would certainly meet your partner first, as well as other members of the family (even in an arranged marriage!).  But in business book publishing, there are instances in which the author never meets—or even talks to—the editor on the phone (not to mention other people in the company, in marketing, publicity, etc.). Keeping with the analogy, even though it may seem like a bit of a stretch, the advance might be viewed like the money agreed to in a prenuptial agreement. If the book (marriage) does not work out, that’s the (least amount of) money you are guaranteed. What’s more important? The money, or the choice of the partner you will work with to produce your work? 

More on choosing a publisher next week!

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