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When Publishing Trophies Become Meaningless

7 March 2016

From agent Janet Kobobel Grant:

Publishing trophies come in three forms: signed contracts, making a best-seller list, and winning a writing award. But, with all the changes in the publishing industry, these trophies are beginning to look like kids’ sports trophies–if you were on the team, you receive a trophy. That way everyone wins; but that also means trophies lose meaning. Here are some hints to figure out what’s what:

Signed contracts. Scrolling through posts on Facebook, I see plenty of pics of writers turning into authors as they sign their first book contract. It is a heady moment, and the writers have worked diligently and probably for years to arrive there. But a contract with a tiny indie publisher that includes little or no advance is not the same as a contract with a long-established and revered publishing venue–let alone a contract with one of the Big Five.

. . . .

[T]he difference between signing with a publisher who will sell a couple hundred copies of your book and signing with a publisher who can bring in thousands, tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of copies sold is like the difference between riding a tricycle and revving the engines of a Harley.

. . . .

Making a best-seller list. You may have read about marketer Brent Underwood’s hoax in which he created a #1 Amazon best-seller with $3 and in five minutes. He recounts how he created a wordless book and sold three copies to make his book a best-seller.

. . . .

Underwood set out to reach best-sellerdom to make a point: If you become an Amazon #1 best-seller, that might be akin to the kid who showed up for every grade school baseball game wearing a uniform. If you understand what you need to do to win the trophy, it’s not all that hard to achieve.

Now, legitimately winning a spot on the New York Times list, Publishers Weekly list, USA Today list, ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers) list  is not so easily achieved and holds real meaning.

Even managing #1 best-selling status on Amazon can mean significant sales have occurred. The caveat with Amazon is that fame can be fleeting (capture a screen shot of that #1 status because it can be gone in the next hour). And the book must achieve that status in highly-competitive categories (parenting, historical fiction, cookbooks, etc.).

Link to the rest at Books & Such and thanks to David for the tip.

PG says the best trophies are monthly direct deposits from Amazon with no deductions.


26 Comments to “When Publishing Trophies Become Meaningless”

  1. Barbara Morgenroth

    The trophies that are not meaningless are when a reader says you changed their life.

    • That was startling when it happened.

      Writing changed MY life; it hadn’t occurred to me that some one might say, “Pride’s Children has helped me to look inside myself and see many things I need to see and deal with. I have never read a work of fiction that has touched me so powerfully!” about something that I wrote.

    • Yep–when a reader says you changed how they think or you moved them to tears–that’s the only kind of validation that matters to me… Trad Pub validation comes with way too many strings, and way too high a price tag.

      • Yeah, when they bother to write(email) you to tell you you made them laugh or cry (or stayed up all night reading instead of sleeping because they couldn’t put it down), you know you’ve done good.

        (Like a Purple Heart recipient I knew. The PH didn’t mean that much to him, but the heartfelt thanks of those his actions saved/protected stayed with him the rest of his life.)

  2. So basically trophies only count when they are given to the right sort of person by the right sort of person.

    Must be why trophies don’t impress me. I’ve never been the right sort of people.

    p.s. Love the phrase “legitimately winning a spot on the New York Times list”. Is that possible?

    • Sure it is, the qig5 have been buying up those slots for years! 😛

    • “Must be why trophies don’t impress me. I’ve never been the right sort of people.”

      You and me both. Except Olympic and military medals, because I know the people who receive those have usually trained, sacrificed, and generally worked their butts off.

  3. Sorry, nothing like a blog post to make you feel inferior and an underachiever if you haven’t been picked up by the Big 5, won the Pulitzer Prize, or legitimately made the NYT best seller list. I suppose I should write a big “L” on my forehead for my achievements to date.

    • Yeah, I should have just stopped reading at the word “agent” in the byline.

      A contract is not what turns a writer into an author. A finished ms and one click of a KDP button can do that.

      There are no “revered’ publishers. They exist only in the imagination of literary agents.

      Also nauseated by the way she repeatedly compares authors to children. Stop infantalizing writers and try treating them as business partners.

      She’s actually performing a valuable public service here: reminding authors why signing with an agent is a colossal waste of time and resources.

      • Yep. Must be painful for the agents right now, watching their influence and relevance evaporate. Leads to more patronizing missives about tricycles and participation awards.

        Of course, when she said ‘tricycle’ I pictured this:

        Which I am — coincidentally — planning to someday enjoy with my accumulated writing earnings. Fast, fun, and fuel efficient. Perhaps it should be the official indie writer vehicle.

  4. Like others have said, my trophies are money in the bank and those wonderful emails from readers. And I did it my way, all by my little self, without spending much money. 🙂

  5. Melinda Clayton

    Well, she’s an agent, so of course this is what she’d say. Aside from that, I struggle to see what the point of her post is. I wonder if she also goes around popping kids’ balloons for fun.

  6. This article is teh awesomeness.

    Remember those trophies? Best seller lists riddled by graft and gamerigging? Multi-tens-of-thousands print contracts that were only ever available to a handful of people thought the entire history of modern publishing? A writing award that you can’t eat or use to pay the electric bill?

    Oh, those heady days!

    Those days of yore!

    When men were men and a writing award could totally impress the 1000 people who knew it existed in the first place!

    Take me back to those days!

    I mean, just look! One guy totally gamed the system with his 3 copies of a book in a super obscure category and set of subcategories, so that means Amazon rankings are all bunk, right? Sure, so your book ranks #1 in Fantasy, d00d, and there’s only like a million or so books in that category on Amazon, so it doesn’t count. That New York Times bestseller list obviously takes stock of the buying habits of every one of the 350 million US citizens to determine what’s really the best seller, right?

    It’s been said here before, but holy cow, the worshipping of the good old day of publishing and what it all meant comes across as very silly indeed.

  7. I checked out the rest of the article. This right here made me roll my eyes:

    “Writers often are befuddled by the possibilities and unsure what’s what. Even established authors have difficulty knowing which trophy is worthy of holding triumphantly over their heads and which is a nice pat on the back for showing up.”

    Honestly, we really aren’t that stupid. We can figure this stuff pretty easily too. No need to hold our hands, pat us on the head and tell us not to strain our intelligence quotient.

  8. Upon further reflection, I’ve decided that traditional publishing contracts are trophies I can live without.

    I don’t think this agent has any idea how hard it can be to reach the Top 100 in certain genres (on Amazon), or stay in them for days/weeks, either.

    • Believe me, I was thrilled to jump high and tap the ceiling in my sub-category, even if I didn’t get to cling there. Yeah, I know what it’s worth, but still… there’s a first time for everything, and you might as well enjoy it.

    • Believe me, I love awards! My favorite award ever is the George Washington Award, deposited monthly by direct deposit into the bank account.

      Then there’s the “We made the Hot New Releases List!” which is wonderful not because I have another tchotchke to dust, but because it means readers are finding the latest book, and we are earning the George Washington Award one royalty at a time.

  9. We don’t need Ms. Grant and her ilk to educate writers coming up behind us. We’re doing our level best to accomplish that ourselves. Better to say, “Don’t worry about tradpub’s trophies. They’re basically meaningless. Here’s what to worry about: length of term, e- and print-book royalty rate, reversion clause…”

    Ms. Grant with her agent cap on serves the Christian fic market (publishers, that is); a market that is rapidly thinning due to consolidation of many independent publishers into two or three, and due to its wholesale abandonment by authors who have had it to here with the restrictions and the MickMouse. The more clueless newbies she can rope in with her “real” trophies, the more income she makes.

    • “The more clueless newbies she can rope in with her “real” trophies, the more income she makes.”

      Real trophies used to include real money with them.

      Not much real these days …

  10. Seems to me “ALL” trophies are meaningless – if you don’t think much of what it takes to earn them.

    If you hate American football, the Superbowl Trophy is meaningless…. hate ‘rest of the world’ football, the World Cup is meaningless to you…

    So if validation from a huge conglomerate that happens to include a publishing arm that is going to take your right forever and throw you pennies as they rake in dollars sounds like something ‘meaningful’ to you… hold your trophy high I guess….

  11. Given our times, I think most deserve awards, trophies for… endurance, willingness to be masticated by the Muse, caring for family and elders, hitting the writing deck every day near. There was definitely a time when ‘best selling’ in the national pubs meant volume sold quickly at indie stores for the most part [long before big box stores] and yes, we’ve received a few emails over the last few years from pistol-braggerts who want us to help them game the AMZ bestseller list by all buying x on a given day at a given time, and blah blah.

    There are so many kinds of rewards/ awards. One of the best, and I hope someday the author/writers/ readers from tpv can meet together, wouldnt that be cool? Talk about world making. One of the best is to sit around at expos and other gatherings, just the kids, meaning no agents, no publishers, no editors, just the writers/ readers and we just trade ‘fish caught’ and ‘died ten times’ stories about books. And have tequila grapefruit hatch chili, sugar-salt margaritas, virgin and otherwise.

    Everyone is entitled to dream. It’s birth right. The article posted above reminds me of a kind of apartheid.

  12. I’d be more interested to find out what advances those authors are getting. The best trophies are 1. lotsa moolah and 2. reader positive feedback. Contracts, to me, just mean you are giving away your rights for life. I”d like to know how much they are giving them away for.

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