The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: How to Lose While Winning
Okay, this story here has me shaking my head in disbelief. And no, before anyone starts getting snarky with my snark, no…I’m not jealous, or even envious. But I will note that leaving money on the table is almost never, ever, a good idea. So using a little-known Sergio Leone film title as my presentation template–sans bullets and some guy named Eastwood–here we go.
This summer, Darcie Chan’s debut novel became an unexpected hit. It has sold more than 400,000 copies and landed on the best-seller lists alongside brand-name authors like Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Kathryn Stockett.
It’s been a success by any measure, save one. Ms. Chan still hasn’t found a publisher.
Five years ago, Ms. Chan’s novel, “The Mill River Recluse,” which tells the story of a wealthy Vermont widow who bestows her fortune on town residents who barely knew her, would have languished in a drawer. A dozen publishers and more than 100 literary agents rejected it.
“Nobody was willing to take a chance,” says Ms. Chan, a 37-year-old lawyer who drafts environmental legislation for the U.S. Senate. “It was too much of a publishing risk.”
Sales kept climbing. In July, it sold more than 14,000 copies. That month, it was featured on two of the biggest sites for e-book readers, generating a surge of new sales. In August, it sold more than 77,000 copies and hit the New York Times and USA Today e-book best-seller lists; it later landed on the Wall Street Journal list. In September, it sold more than 159,000 copies. To date, she has sold around 413,000 copies.
This is just a fantastic run. Even at 99¢, that’s just plum phenomenal. 99 x 413,000 x 35% = $143,104.50. I love that shit Drill Sergeant, sign me up!
Ms. Chan and her agent decided to resubmit the novel to all the major imprints, citing robust sales figures and rave online reviews. Some publishers have responded warily. A representative of one publishing house feared the book had “run its course,” Ms. Liss recalls. Others worried about the novel’s bargain basement price, arguing that an e-book that sells for 99 cents likely won’t command a typical hardcover price of around $26.
A few major publishers made offers, but none matched the digital royalty rates of 35% to 40% that Ms. Chan makes on her own through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Typically, most publishers offer print royalties of 10% to 15% and digital royalties of 25%. Simon & Schuster offered to act as a distributor, but Ms. Chan wants the book to be professionally edited and marketed.
Ms. Liss says that the offers from U.S. publishers so far don’t improve much on what Ms. Chan is making on her own. She’s made around $130,000 before taxes—substantially more than a standard advance for the average debut novelist—and she’s getting a steady stream of royalties every month. “I told Darcie, at this point you’re printing money. They’re not. Go with God, we’ll sell the second book,” Ms. Liss says.
So wait a minute–my “What the Fuck?” meter just hit 10.5, on a few different points.
One, publishers can’t recognize a freaking success when they see one? 413,000 paid downloads, and they think that property has “run its course”? Am I the only person sober here, or am I the one who’s been chowing down on Timothy Leary-endorsed mushrooms without even knowing it? That right there, my friends, is a huge reason why traditional publishing is finding its collective back has been pressed against the wall–the automatic answer to a great find is still “no”. (And I should add, the agent didn’t exactly add a lot of value here.)
Two, Ms. Chan wants the book professionally edited and marketed. For the money she’s making, she can hire people to do that for her–and guess what? Almost all of them used to work in the industry! Publishing’s been laying off people left and right, and all those people still remember what they used to do two weeks ago! We’re talking people who know how to arrange English so it looks good and people who know how to mount a marketing campaign. She could hire them direct–and still keep control of what happens with the property!
Three–and this is kind of like a slap in the face–the agent who is supposed to be her advocate tells her they’ll sell the second book? Yeah, no fucking kidding, now that all the heavy lifting has been done and everyone gets to make money off this woman’s work starting with dollar one. No one’s stepping up right now on the first one because they’re afraid the money train is coming to a stop, but believe me, they’ll line right up for #2 with one hand out and the other in Ms. Chan’s purse.
The logic is truly dizzying.
In the meantime, there’s interest from other corners of the industry. Multiple audio-book publishers have made offers. Six film studios have inquired about movie rights. Two foreign publishers bid on the book. Ms. Chan is holding off on such deals, for fear they might sabotage a potential contract with a domestic publisher.
Ms. Chan still wants to see her book in print. Several librarians have contacted her seeking print copies after patrons requested her book. “I have people writing me begging me for a hard copy, book clubs and libraries calling me, and I don’t have a hard copy to provide for them,” she says.
Ms. Liss advised her to work on a sequel set in the same town, with some of the same characters. Ms. Chan has written two chapters. While she would love to write full time, for now, she still sees writing as more of a hobby. When people ask her what she does for a living, she says she’s a lawyer. But she’s still holding out hope that a publisher will buy “The Mill River Recluse,” edit it and sell it in brick-and-mortar stores.
“The hardest part for me is uncertainty,” she says. “I deal better with rejection than uncertainty.”
So…let me get this straight…
There’s money on the table. There is serious interest from Hollywood. Foreign publication deals and audio deals await right offstage. That’s…that’s like the stuff from which dreams are made.
And Ms. Chan is holding out. For a traditional publishing deal. So she can pay her agent (who hasn’t done very much) 15% of everything for the rest of the property’s life. And the publishers can dole out really shitty royalties six months late and never, ever truly provide an actual accounting, unless Ms. Chan still retains enough lawyerly sense to insist on a forensic accounting clause. She’ll have no control over the marketing. She’ll have no control over the cover. She’ll have no real clue who is holding on to her money. And when those other rights come into play–film, audio, foreign–she’ll have to pay a bunch of other people a percentage for the lifetimes of the deals.
Absofuckinglutely amazing what some people will give up, just so they can feel validation from an industry that pretty much despises them. It’s not enough that almost half a million people bought and read her book. She needs…a publisher to tell her she’s good.
I need a drink.
Kudos to that suave and utterly debonair Passive Guy for breaking this one out a few days ago, even though I’ve been too awash in my own issues to catch it until now.
Interested peeps can check the assuredly short-lived WSJ piece here.
Final words: Congratulations, Ms. Chan, you’ve hit this one out of the park. I hope more fame and fortune is heaped upon you…but would urge you to take another look around, assess the current conditions visiting the publishing industry, and get some talking point numbers from those offering to buy your product rights. Because you won’t see those numbers again once you sign away your life.