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Nothing beats a great pair of legs, until they’re on the cover of your book

September 16th, 2011 · No Comments · Writing

It's a Man's World by Polly CourtneyA deal with one of the “big six” publishers is what most writers dream of. Accepted by the gatekeepers and destined for prominent placement in every major bookstore (okay, every Barnes & Noble now that no one else is left), yeah, sign me up. This is what all those query letters were all about.

But what if it weren’t all you dreamed it would be?

British novelist Polly Courtney “fired” HarperCollins as her publisher this month in protest over their marketing of her latest book. Courtney objected to being painted with the chick lit brush and being stuck with “condescending and fluffy” covers that didn’t match the content of her work.

A former investment banker, Courtney self-published her first novel, Golden Handcuffs, loosely based on her experiences as a female banker in The Square Mile of London. Its success prompted HarperCollins to offer her a three-book deal. Her most recent release It’s a Man’s World, came out this week. To say she wasn’t thrilled with the cover would be an understatement.

“They dressed up my book as something frivolous, light and racy, which is the complete opposite of what’s inside my books. It is degrading to the writing and ultimately degrading to women. It’s sexist. A lot of chick lit patronises women. There’s intelligent writing out there and I don’t know why it has to be sold in such a fluffy package. The reason I left the City was to tell the story of how it really was and that there was sexism. Now my message is in danger of being lost.”

Courtney is planning to go back to self-publishing to regain full creative control of her next release.

There are any number of reasons authors might prefer the autonomy of publishing their own work. More typically one hears such things as the freedom to write what they want without an editing house altering their text, the ability to market and price their book however they best see fit, a shorter cycle that can shave as much as two years off a book’s release schedule, and the right to collect a larger royalty for each unit sold (the biggie for many). But I can certainly imagine Courtney’s disappointment in finding her publisher had, in her opinion, misrepresented what her book was all about.

HarperCollins undoubtedly marketed this title the way they thought it would sell best. Whether they’re correct, who knows? Judging by the sales for many “chick lit” titles, they’re probably onto something. Regardless, this difference of opinion set the company at odds with its author.

Disagreements arise more frequently over pricing. In my role as a reviewer of baseball books for Baseball America magazine, I see quite an array of books and price points. McFarland, a small publisher specializing in baseball titles, sets most of its new releases at $29.95. That’s for a trade paperback. From where I sit, they’d sell a hell of a lot more books if they cut that in half. But they must have their reasons for sitting at that price point. And any author who signs on must be willing to live with that.

The bigger battleground on pricing these days is in e-books. Some publishers seem to be afraid of cutting in on their print sales, and set their e-book prices very close to the paperback, or even hardbound, rates. This makes zero sense to me, and this is where self-published authors have a huge opportunity to gain ground. Self-pubbers typically set their price anywhere from 99 cents on up, with $2.99 being a particular sweet spot as it’s the basement to earn a 70 percent royalty from Amazon and others.

To be sure, price isn’t the sole consideration when readers purchase books. But it’s a significant factor, particularly when they are trying out a new author. Dropping three bucks on an unknown quantity is a gamble most readers are willing to take. $14.95? Eh, not so much.

One of the best books I reviewed last year, Home, Away, by Jeff Gillenkirk, came from a small publisher called Chin Music Press. They set the cover price of the trade paperback at $15, which to me is right in the ballpark of what I’d expect for a new novel. However, they set the Kindle price at $14.95, which seems insanely high. Just recently they dropped it to $2.99, a price which ought to move significantly more books. But there’s no real marketing push now, more than a year after the book came out, and its sales rank on Amazon this afternoon was #423,542 among Kindle offerings.

I read another baseball novel this summer called Broken Laces by Rodney Walther. This self-published offering was set at $2.99 from the start. He told me earlier this summer he was on pace to sell 10,000 copies by the end of August. His sales rank this afternoon: 1,665.

The sad thing is, in the locker-room vernacular of sports, Broken Laces couldn’t carry Home, Away’s jock. It’s like comparing a schlocky after school special to an Oscar-winning art-house film. Home, Away is a better story, better written. By a degree of about 10. It’s not close.

Yet Broken Laces is running laps around it in the sales department.

This is why I decided to quit querying small presses and move forward with my book on my own. I had a few nibbles from the little guys. I was on the fence myself when my manuscript was out, however, because with many of the smaller houses, the only place to find their books is online, someplace like Amazon. Which is where I could get it myself, while listing it for a lower cover price and raking in a much higher royalty.

Was self-publishing my first choice? No. But it’s not my last choice, either, because as someone who has a hard time ceding control, I’m willing to take on the responsibility of marketing for the right to do what makes sense to me.

Of course, if someone wants to offer me a six-figure deal for the next one I’m all ears–as long as they don’t slap a pair of sexy legs on the front cover.

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