I remember meeting two years ago with an internationally published author who came to me with this perspective: “If I could find a major publisher in the U.S., I wouldn’t even require a book advance.”
When I asked writers if they would take a “free” book deal on Facebook, I got several immediate “Yes! Yes!” responses. The logic makes sense: if you have already written a book just lying on a shelf somewhere or in an agent’s slush pile and you’ve spent years writing this thing, would the offer to see your book to market, in print and in stores, not be somewhat compelling?
E-book publishers like Amazon, Diversion, Vook, Thought Catalog and many others are already offering writers the opportunity to publish using their resources – different from the go-at-it-alone approach of self-publishing – and given demand, these publishers are getting more selective. But when the author I spoke with prompted me to look into print publishers who might consider a free book deal, I found only a few paperback romance and/or smaller vanity publishers, none of which I’d heard of before.
In publishing, like other industries governed by people, not products, herd mentality still reigns. Just consider the premise of book auctions, perhaps spurred more by competitive interest than merit, often placing false value on books that more often than not lose money. And yet, even while low-cost equations like Amazon and smaller startups like Storyville or Wattpad push us toward Anderson’s prediction of “economic gravity,” print publishing remains the celebrated, curated system in which only those books deemed promising have a shot. And the fee paid for the material symbolizes that internal enthusiasm and support.
There are plenty of writers who couldn’t, or shouldn’t, in today’s publishing landscape, make the free book deal. If you need an advance to travel and research your book, how could you? If you have a competitive offer, why would you? But for the vast majority, the benefits are worth considering: the advance may be zilch, but the royalties and creative control are more advantageous than any standard book contract. (You can find a short overview of e-publishing options and pros and cons here.)
Forward-thinking authors like the person I spoke with also realize that nothing in this world is actually free. You, too, will be “charged” with promoting your book—that’s after the uncompensated work you’ve already done writing it. And your publisher will theoretically be investing in your book’s production, design, marketing and distribution — with or without the added book advance.
I am not arguing that publishers become the sort of “anyone and everyone” aggregator model established by Amazon. What I’m suggesting is that there are many proposals and manuscripts that come so close to making the cut…so what if there were more leeway in making “buying” decisions? With allowances for greater risk-taking, open-mindedness and creativity, the realization that successful marketing lies in both the estimable (promotional costs) and the inestimable (word of mouth), traditional print publishers like their e-counterparts, may soon find value in the model of the free book deal.
*A version of this essay was originally published May 30th, 2012. Since then, several of the bigger publishers are experimenting with new digital imprints that offer no or near-to-nothing advances. Slowly, perception may be shifting…