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Why this Author Walked Away from a $25,000 Advance to Publish His Novel Independently

29 September 2015

From author Elliott Garber via Write on the River:

I wrote the final words of my first full-length novel just over one year ago, closing my laptop with a dramatic flourish and breathing a deep sigh of relief. It was done. A major life goal complete.

I could already picture hardcover stacks of The Chimera Sequence—a bioterrorism thriller that one reader described as Michael Crichton meets Tom Clancy—lining front tables of Barnes & Noble bookstores around the country. Who knows, maybe my name would even make an appearance among the lower ranks of a coveted New York Times bestseller list?

That was the dream, at least, even though I already had a very realistic understanding of the rapidly evolving publishing industry. Alongside my novel writing, I had spent the previous couple of years reading everything I could find about the publishing process.

I even conducted a little experiment of my own with a short story. Much to my surprise, No Dog Left Behind has already earned me a few thousand dollars in its two years of life on Amazon. That represents a lot more money and readers than I ever would have found through almost any traditional route for a short story.

So I began the post-book writing phase with my eyes wide open, knowing all along that I would be okay doing things on my own if I didn’t find the right traditional publisher to work with through the process.

. . . .

I was fortunate to hear back from about half of these agents within a few days, and almost all of them requested that I send the full manuscript for their review. Woohoo! First hurdle, complete. I attribute this initial success to the fact that I developed a catchy blurb, but probably even more to my own online platform and unique professional background. The agents were intrigued enough to find out if I could actually write.

Within a few days, I received a phone call from one of my top choices. It was actually a voicemail—due to the secure environment of my workplace I’m not able to use a personal cellphone inside. The message was short and sweet: “Loved the book. Give me a call when you can.”

Needless to say, I called the agent right back and received my first offer of representation.

. . . .

The next step was submission of the manuscript to editors at all the big traditional publishers. This was tough for me, as I was really at the complete mercy of my agent’s previous relationships and professional connections. I was expecting to get responses from these editors within a week or two, but instead it stretched into a month, then two months.

I felt as though the whole process had lost momentum. I knew in my head that this was normal—that the traditional publishing process takes time—but in my heart, I still wanted to be one of those lucky few authors who get so much immediate interest that a competitive auction is held within days. Sadly, it was not to be.

The rejections slowly began trickling in. “Sorry, loved the story, but just don’t see where it would fit in today’s market.” Huh?

“If I had gotten this book last year we totally would have gone for it, but the virus threat has been done too often already.” Not what I wanted to hear.

. . . .

We finally got some bites after moving on to the next tier of editors just outside the “Big 5” publishing houses. At this point, I was already disappointed in myself, the book, and the process, but I wasn’t ready to close the door on a traditional option yet.

After several weeks of negotiating, my agent was able to present two final offers. Two books for $25,000—take it or leave it. This works out to $12.5k for each book, of course, and those payments would be split and stretched out over about three years. The contracts were pretty much boilerplate for a new midlister like me, with no special provisions that would make them more author-friendly in today’s rapidly changing publishing environment.

The publishers could not guarantee anything in the way of initial print run numbers or marketing budget, and my first book would not be released until sometime in 2016. Not exactly a proposal to get very excited about.

. . . .

Based on everything I had learned, I knew that this level of advance did not represent a very significant investment on the part of the publishers. I was confident that I could do almost everything they could with the book, on a tighter schedule and with more long-term potential for success.

It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I decided to walk away from these $25,000 offers and continue with the back-up plan to publish my thriller independently.

Fast forward six months, and here I am! The Chimera Sequence has been on the market for almost a month already, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have some affirmation of my choice. No New York Times bestseller lists yet, but I’ve already sold a few thousand copies of the book. More importantly, I’m steadily gaining readers and fans who are asking about my next book.

Link to the rest at Write on the River

Here’s a link to Elliott Garber’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Self-Publishing

26 Comments to “Why this Author Walked Away from a $25,000 Advance to Publish His Novel Independently”

  1. This tale not only has a plot and bad guys — but a happy ending! 😉

    (Why no, I haven’t seen the book? Why? 😛 )

  2. Good for him! From what I’m hearing about these new contracts, he did himself and his readers a huge favor.

  3. Lovely story about an indie’s experience. Elliott Garber’s got a clear head on his shoulders.

  4. Newcomers are listening.
    Good.
    Now, if only the AG listened and passed on the word.
    Going without a contract *is* better than signing the “standard contract”.

  5. Elliott made exactly the right decision

    25k split over three years is not enough for rent. That would be 25k minus 15% actually.

    • I didn’t go to the source, but I wonder if he signed with the agent, and now has to pay them 15% of his SP earlings?

      • I’d be very surprised if that was included in any sort of contract with his agent. She/He didn’t sell the book for terms the author could agree to. They don’t make anything when that happens, and most understand they have no stake in self-pub earnings unless they are involved in self-publishing the book on the author’s behalf. This seems like a smart author. I doubt he’d sign away a percentage of future self-pub earnings to an agent.

      • Good question, but no, we parted ways after I decided not to accept either offer. He was understandably not very happy with my decision, and I don’t blame him for that. He did not offer any assistance in the indie publishing realm, and I probably would not have taken it anyway.

    • $25K for two books, at that.

  6. Nice. The Chimera Sequence is listed on Amazon.com at $4.99. Assuming that was the price over the month in question (Probably not a safe assumption, but lets roll with it anyway), then he made $3.84 per sale. A few thousand copies? Lets call it 2000. That’s $7680 the first month.

    Which is more than his first check from the publisher would have been.

    • That is in line with the reports coming in from other authors who have rejected “industry standard” contracts. Their selfpub launch net alone exceeds the contract net return.

      Basically, if you’re good enough to get a basic tradpub offer, you’re good enough to do better without tradpub. It is only when they ante up the “non-standard” terms that they become even mildly interesting.

      Big disconnect between how tradpub values newcomers and how the market values them.

    • Unfortunately I’m not quite there yet! About half of my sales so far have been from a five-day Kindle Countdown Deal at $0.99, so I made a lot less on each of those. I also have to factor in the money I spent on the cover and interior design and the audiobook. I’m in the black now, so I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I meet the numbers of those advances.

      • Odds are that you will hit those numbers, Elliott, and do so pretty quickly. 🙂
        And then, everything after that is pure relative upside, compared to the trad contract you turned down.

        One word of advice: set aside $2,000-$3,000 and get a narrator and do an audio edition. 🙂

  7. My other thought when I read this:

    ——-

    The rejections slowly began trickling in. “Sorry, loved the story, but just don’t see where it would fit in today’s market.” Huh?

    “If I had gotten this book last year we totally would have gone for it, but the virus threat has been done too often already.” Not what I wanted to hear.

    ——-

    I get that, since cash flow is king, hitting trends, and perhaps, more importantly, getting off the boat in time, is a really big factor in traditional publishing.

    However, for a self-published author, the timeliness of a topic is less important than the inevitability that the topic will come around again. In this case, does anyone think there won’t be another round of Avian Flu, or Ebola, or SOMETHING in the next 15 months? Having a book available the day the next crisis hits is far better than publishing it 14 months after the crisis is over.

    • Regarding the timeliness, if that was the hot theme of manuscripts last year, then by indie publishing it now, he may actually beat the trad published books to the market. Maybe not too late at all!

      • This. I thought the same thing. He’s probably out in front of trad.

      • Hope you’re right! As a public health professional, I’m very glad that the Ebola outbreak has calmed down. But as a debut author, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if some new virus came out of Africa soon…

        • Well, there has been a media-storm level outbreak every 18-24 months since the advent of the 24-hr news cycle. So, here’s hoping?

          That sounds so wrong to say!

  8. It’s funny to me, but for a lot of writers, it still sounds like rejecting an offer from a traditional publisher is some kind of big, agonizing life decision. I don’t want to make light of something that’s a big deal for others, but it still strikes me as overblown.

    I know that once upon a time, getting an offer from a traditional publisher was the only shot a writer had at finding an audience, and otherwise you were basically SOL. But times have changed.

    I mean, I’ve rejected unsolicited publisher offers on my books — even from big-name imprints that top the charts in my genres — without batting an eye. I have multiple agent solicitations sitting in my email inbox, unread. I know I should at least follow up on those, because I just might learn something, about foreign sales or whatever. But it’s a when-I-get-around-to-it thing, not any kind priority. And I’m not some multimillion-earning indie rock star — I’m a midlister. Maybe a high-midlister, but still a midlister. You’ve never heard of me. I haven’t even cracked 100,000 sales yet on my two books (but I’m getting close).

    I guess new writers like me, who came into the industry after the query/agent/publisher route became obsolete, don’t ascribe any particular significance to a trad contract other than the business terms being offered. And if they aren’t good enough, we say so, tell the publisher what terms we want, and if they won’t meet our terms, we move on.

    As I said, times have changed. Writer psychology is still catching up to the new normal, where writers are in charge of the industry. (Well, readers are, actually, but if they like your stuff, you don’t need anyone else).

    I wish every writer all the success in the world, and I’m genuinely happy for them. But I swear, sometimes reading these OMG-I-actually-said-no-to-a-publisher stories has me rolling my eyes. 🙂

    • Thanks for your perspective here. It sounds like you’re doing quite well so far, and I hope that continues.

      Based on what I’ve heard and read from other successful independent authors, almost all of them would jump at the opportunity for a high value traditional contract. They realize that there are still many advantages that come with this, and that it can complement their continued indie efforts. That’s what I was going for, and I would still love that opportunity if it presents itself.

      • Hi Elliott,

        Success is always relative. I know some highly successful indies who have turned down six- and seven-figure trad contracts from Big Five publishers. I know others who have signed them and been happy, and still others who signed six- and seven-figure trad deals, found the resulting outcome pretty disappointing relative to their indie sales, and wouldn’t do it again. Instead, they wish they had their rights back.

        Generally speaking, a business deal is a business deal, in publishing or any other industry. If the terms make sense when weighed dispassionately against the alternatives, the right trad contract might make sense to sign.

        But a lot of those theoretical trad advantages can turn out to be pretty overstated when it comes to today’s marketplace reality.

        Caveat emptor. 🙂

        • This, it would take a damn different kind of contract to make me want to sign with a legacy publisher again. If Lee Child needs lawyers and accountants to keep tabs on what his publishers are doing with his rights, books and earnings, (as noted in his comments in this blog a while back) then we all need that kind of oversee when legacy published or we are being screwed someway which we could never have thought of, CF Dean Wesley Smith today http://www.thepassivevoice.com/09/2015/a-noticed-new-scam/
          Signing with a BPH is NOT a Disney Princess tale, it can degenerate into Aladdin starving to death in a cave. Once you sign that contract there’s no going back. (with a few exceptions)

          • Working with legacy publishers is also about timing. If you come to them with some cache, you get better terms across the board. My philosophy these days is to get ALL the money that I can up front so if I never make another dime on the book, I’m satisfied with what I got at the outset. Keeps the bitterness out of the equation. But that takes time and a lot of books, in most cases, to be able to negotiate those sorts of terms.

      • very smart, very honest Elliott.

        I’d agree that many an indie in their right mind would hope for at last one book to have a high value trad contract. The advantages are many if one has more than one book already indie pub’d

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