Especially frustrated novelists like me who are sick and tired of playing ring around-the-rosey with bottom line-driven zombie literary agencies. There's a new sheriff in town and it's called Cambridge House Books.
Now, my regular readers no doubt recall a two part series I'd posted last week giving both 10 gauge barrels to the literary representation business. Perhaps it's a coincidence and perhaps it isn't, but I got a rare fascinating email that made a pitch I had to pay attention to. I don't want to sound like a paid shill because I'm not. But when you hear what they said in their introductory email, it's going to make those of you who've been in the sink-or-swim writing business realize how much things are changing.
Reflecting concerns and complaints I've been yelling about for close to two decades, Cambridge House had developed a progressive strategy that was first pioneered by Stephen King and his new publisher after he'd left Simon and Schuster in the 90's:
The deal King and his publisher had set was ingenious in its simplicity and one is amazed it took this long to spread and solidify into an actual corporate strategy: Instead of King getting seven figure advances that he plainly didn't need by that time, he and his publisher decided to split the risk. In lieu of a huge advance that in all likelihood wouldn't be earned out, they would split the royalties 50/50. By doing that, King was not only taking in half the profits, he was also assuming half the risk. If he failed, his publisher failed.
This is what Cambridge House Books is now doing with their growing author list.
Hopefully, this will catch on and we won't be seeing many more $7-$10 million deals given to Bible-thumping dorks like Sarah fucking Palin and Joel Osteen.
To be fair, Harper Collins was the first major publisher to tentatively stick its cloven hoof in the water over two years ago with their Writers Initiative but here's the drawback: They, like all major publishers, largely extend this deal to their biggest-selling authors and nothing's really changed for their firsttime and midlist authors. All those corporate clowns at Harper are doing is just hedging their bets and going with proven cash cows like King's publisher did with him. It simply wouldn't be worth the while for major publishers to extend such a risky deal to a midlist author even if they're the ones responsible for keeping him/her at midlist!
And while this created hardly a ripple in the industry (few if any other big publishing houses have followed suit), it's equally true that even the trogs who run these publishing houses are gradually coming to the same conclusions that I and many writers had reached 15-20 years ago: That there's incredible short-sightedness and waste that goes hand in hand with the book business.
A top publisher with an annual catalog of, say, 1500 titles just understands and accepts as business as usual that about all but five of those books will fail. More often than not, we see that those five books a year, the equivalent of a tent pole movie from a major studio, had benefited from the lion's share of the publisher's publicity and advertising budget.
Even in the digital age, in which the latest by Stephen King or Ann Coulter will be pre-publicized for pennies on Amazon and sold months in advance of publication, publishers still earmark most of their advertising budget for guys who already have national and in some cases, international household name recognition. They still get the full page ads in the NY Times Book Review, dozens of advance copies sent to top reviewers, writeups in trade journals, radio spots and in some cases, trailers that get TV spots.
The rest of their stable of authors don't get that.
Cambridge House amplified and expanded the idea that authors should take on more risk if not assume half of it and this could have a great upside. In the business, it's a given that the publisher, which typically will spend $100,000 (not including printing costs) over a year and a half to bring out a single title, assumes 100% of the financial risk. But what even Cambridge House doesn't mention (to be fair, neither does anyone else) is that while the publisher assumes 100% of the financial risk, they still get to keep 90% of the royalties and the reputational risk is assumed by the author.
An ugly reality in the publishing biz: If your book doesn't hit the ground running and start selling 3-4 weeks after arrival, heartless corporate booksellers like Borders, Inc. and Barnes and Noble can and will pull it off their shelves to make way for the next victim. Where do these remaindered books get sent? Back to the publishers' shredders. Three to four weeks after publication.
That's enough to make any tree hugger go on a ten state shooting spree. Same with a lot of authors.
The unfortunate author, not their publisher, gets stuck with the stigma of failure even though it's almost entirely the publisher's fault for underpublicizing his/her title because they were too busy drumming up publicity for bestselling authors who are already more visible and recognizable than 99% of our elected officials.
Cambridge House seeks to curb that waste and even established publishers are finally waking and realizing, if not how many trees they're needlessly killing, the insanity of such waste. If the publisher fails, the author fails with them. If the author succeeds, everyone's happy.
What Cambridge will do for you, considering they take on your project, is to actually work with you even to the point of editing your ms, a practice that's all but a boutique service afforded only bestselling authors. Not a vanity or subsidy press by any means, they'll also assume a real role in publicizing your book and will negotiate with the biggest distributors such as Ingram and even Book of the Month clubs.
In other words, everything a publisher is supposed to do in the interests of their success but making the author more of a partner than an underpaid resource. Far from being a radical concept, this is what publishers did in the old days and is bringing back Old School publishing. The only difference is, authors are no longer capped at 15% royalties for hard cover and 7-8% for paperback sales but are made full partners.
They print the book, do the editing, if needed, the cover art, the advertising, provide aid in the distribution, etc. They actually invite you to submit manuscripts whether you're multiply-published or an unknown, whether your book is finished or still in the planning stages. And the best part:
If this catches on, it will do one of two things: Make greedy, self-absorbed literary agents go the way of the Dodo Bird, CCRs and rewrite editors or force them to recognize that we no longer need them in their current capacity as second-string gate keepers and that they'd better think twice before sending newly-empowered writers form rejection letters and the blatant disrespect many of us talented writers are getting on a daily basis.
I already wrote to them asking for exact submission guidelines and will send them American Zen. If you're a writer and you've produced a quality ms, I'd suggest you click on this link and try them, too.