Are Debut Authors Getting Publishing Deals?

 I found this question in a thread in one of my writing groups. (I love this group–they really hit on the pertinent subjects). There were a lot of answers, but I noticed that the majority of them answered by saying that there were big six and seven-figure deals that had currently been made, and they cited the names of the authors. I think I saw a total of three. Obviously, these posters and the OP were thinking about the Big-5 houses since you rarely see any advances in the small and independent presses. I know that my agent has had to go after my small press deals with a knife in one hand and a money bag in the other. Most small presses won’t bend for an advance, but some will, depending upon how badly they want your book. If the agent doesn’t get the amount they’re looking for they usually write-in much higher royalty rates and retain more rights. My agent is a magician when it comes to amending or rewriting contracts in our favor.

I only have the free addition of Publisher’s Market Place, which does list recent deals, and some of them include debut authors. Yet I continually see the deals announced as “New Your Times Best Seller List” and “USA Best-Selling Author” inks deal with so and so for this much, repped by big-name agent. I do not see that many debut deals announced. I sure haven’t seen tons in the past three years or so, or especially recently in the past six months as a result of this pandemic. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, and the posters were correct in answering in the positive. But I know for sure it’s happening less and less. 

This was my answer:

I just know that all my small press and independent publishers are suffering. Many authors are without sales or reviews–they’re not even on the boards. Myself and a few others are doing better but we’re in poor shape compared to what we used to do. Really poor shape. Yet I will support my small press publishers with my last dying breath. Their task is a labor of love, with a wish that they can stay alive and profitable so they can bring new talent and great books to the masses. 

I still believe the Big-5 are ambulance chasers when they seek out and buy debut authors. Wool, Twilight, 50 Shades had huge appeal and readers before the big houses woke up and smelt the coffee. New authors might be grabbing the golden tickets, but you have to admit that they are far, few and in between. More than ever, I’m researching these huge author deals and discovering the histories of these authors and these books. In one form or another, they have appeal with some kind of track record or platform behind them. Suzy ala The Hunger Games, was already connected up in the industry before she hit it big–and yes, admittedly a great book/series. Look at the story behind The Martian.

It’s not the editors or CEO of the publishing house who determines a purchase. It’s the marketing department, and they nearly, singularly run the entire show. The exception would be a totally breakout novel sold by an A-list agent, where the author had no credits, no fan base, virtually no footprint or platform in the industry. A book that gets six and seven figure deals without that type of support is an extreme outlier. Or all the galaxies are inline in their favor!

My agent is having difficulty getting responses from the Big 5, and it’s been one of her, and her fellow agents, biggest complaints. A-list and celebrity authors are dominating and filling the slots, especially with on-going series that seem to have no end. Those are marketing department decisions–strictly business. Admittedly, there are a hell of a lot of goofs with lofty advances and tepid sales, but the vast majority of the “in-house” best-sellers keep the lights on. Again, marketing. Again, business. Which  =  math and numbers, sell-through, production costs, advertising and distribution. 

These debut block-busting authors MUST appeal in some way (other than a great tome)–they have something else going for them, because the authors themselves are a selling point. That’s why name branding is so important. Age, gender, race, religion, topical/political stance and such things, all play into the package. Case in point–Eragon. Heavens! Christopher was More marketable than the book! If that book had NO campaign (launched by the help of his parents BTW) do you think that book would have ever had a chance or gotten the deal that it did? Marketing saw that one coming like a freight train. Kid writes epic fantasy, dresses up the part and visits schools to do readings! The AP wires caught on fire. Marketing (of big name publishing house) realized that half of their job had already been done. It was only necessary to shove the kid and his book to the moon–he was already in the stratosphere.

The (cited) article mentions an uptick in reading and increased sales. Oh yeah? Maybe for Random House, and maybe for certain categories and genres, but how about a huge poll that involves all other publishers great and small? Lets include all trad publishers other than the monsters and see how they stand on that issue. She (CEO Random House) says that people are tiring of Netflix and resorting to books, whereas I see the opposite across the wider spectrum. Huge movie and game-streaming. Are people really reading more now?

Not to be a Danny Downer here; just saying that there is so, so much more in bringing a book to break-out/best-seller status than just exceptional words on a page. Whenever I hear the old adage, “Write a great book that everyone will want to read and it will sell”, I cringe. And I believe  this forum knows what I’m talking about more than any other. Our true masterpieces, our hard-gained brilliance, even, has been squashed so many times it’s a wonder we haven’t all had massive strokes from elevated blood pressure. When they say that this business is 99.999% rejection, they had us in mind.

That was my contribution to the discussion. That was my take on what I was seeing. I really hadn’t said anything new. 

Slots are also filled seasonally. Although there are no strict adherence guidelines, you can just about guess which season a debut author who writes like King or Cartland might end up in.

Fall: August or September through November.
Winter: December through March.
Spring/Summer: April through July or August.

Liz S, Editor-in-Chief at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, states:

“The Obvious (with a few caveats): This is all about promotional opportunities surrounding holidays and other special events. Books about Back to School and Halloween should pub in the Fall season, right? Not so fast – most retailers want those books to ship in July, so they’re in stock for promotions that now begin in August (school) and September (Halloween). Books about Christmas can pub in the Fall months, but no later than October so they are in-store and on promotion early in the season. Black History Month and Presidents Day should pub no later than December (Winter season); ditto Valentine’s Day.”

There is also the difficulty in pushing a new/debut author into and under the limelight. Whereas a standard brand-name author has a solid fan base already installed, a newbie is going to need a publicity campaign bordering on the size of a presidential election. This can make the PR people run for the Tums and anti-depressant meds.It is no small task: literally making somebody out of nobody. I know that for my first major TV appearances, I had to be groomed, tailored and tutored by a Disney PR person, no less. 

So is there any wonder why there are not as many debut authors as we’d like to think? The ones we see are huge media grabbers, and they are meant to appear that way. And just between you and me, nearly all claims of these huge dollar figure advances are over-inflated or outright bogus. The true declarations will pan out–read about King, Rowling and Rice for some accurate advances and deals. 

So how do you up your chances to become one of the elite authors who make the big time? A couple of suggestions: if you are a self-published author, write terrific books and develop a huge fan base. Get viral. The ambulance chasers will come skidding up to your door. For the traditional or “legacy” route, get yourself a top-gun agent that has more pull than a locomotive. It doesn’t hurt if your galaxies are aligned, either.

Red-shifting outta here…

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