Should I Kill This Project?
by Marion Gropen
If you’re in this business long enough, it will happen to you. You commit to publishing a manuscript, perhaps before it is finished, and then you realize that you have made a horrible error. The book is either bad in itself, or the market has changed radically, and the chance of breaking even with the material as it stands is nil.
Now that the mistake has been made, what’s important is minimizing the total harm done. Many more people than the author and the publisher are affected by these decisions, including the owners of a company that is not owned by the publisher. But before you consider obligations to others, you need to evaluate the situation and your options.
These are the steps to take:
• Examine any changes in the market.
• Sort the elements of this project into those you can still change and those that are fixed. Look at the
impact of each change that seems feasible.
• Compare the likely bottom lines for the project if you kill it, if you revamp it in any of several ways,
and if you simply publish as is.
Responding to Conditions; Making Changes
If changes in the book’s market have made it less viable, look hard at them now. Which potential readers can you reach today and tomorrow? What relevant needs do they seem to feel? What other books or media are available to satisfy those needs? How do these products satisfy those readers, and what aren’t those products doing well? Can your book be altered to deliver what people want more effectively? If so, how?
The items that can still be changed can be divided into three basic categories: the book (text and graphics), the marketing (publicity, cover design, and so on), and the costs (kill fees, for example).
Assess the manuscript first. Can it be rewritten to increase the benefits that the book’s reachable readers seem to value? Will the author rewrite, and can the author rewrite well enough? How much editorial time will this require? And what will that time cost, in dollars and/or in terms of projects that won’t get as much editorial attention as they would have?
Look at the cover. Can it be made more powerful? Can it be made less expensive (to design and/or to print) without hampering sales? Look again at covers of competing books. Check to see how your current cover works in comparison with the packaging of other products now meeting similar needs in the book’s demographic. If you see ways to make changes, estimate the financial impacts on sales and on costs.
Consider your readers. What are these readers involved in that you didn’t include in your marketing plan? Where else can you find large numbers of them? Think blogs, churches, traditional media, sports venues; the list is nearly infinite. Also think about whether you should abandon some types of sales and/or add others and whether the author’s outreach to readers could be improved.
Make a list of all new options, noting how many potential readers each one will reach and what it will cost you in time and money. Then estimate how many additional sales will come from each possible change. I often estimate that 1 percent of the people reached will buy the book if it is in very wide distribution, and I reduce that number considerably if the book is available only online or only as an e-book.
Compute kill fees and flexible costs. If you do kill a book, you will probably owe some money to the author and some to various freelancers. Reread contracts to make sure you know all details. Obviously, you won’t have any sales to offset expenses if you don’t publish. But if you have not yet committed to all production and marketing costs, killing it may still be the least expensive option.
Alternatively, perhaps you can switch from offset printing to POD to get some revenue without large upfront costs, or perhaps you can issue only an e-book edition and recoup some costs with it—bearing in mind that both these options will entail lower sales estimates, and that you may damage your reputation in the industry if you cancel a title you have announced.
Compare Probable Results
The best tool for comparing the probable results of each possible choice is the Single Title Profit and Loss spreadsheet (for examples, see “The Single Title P&L” via the “Independent Articles” button at ibpa-online.org). Do not try to do this much number-crunching by hand. Use MS Excel, or the equivalent. You will be glad you did.
Many companies include overhead measurements in their P&L calculations, but I do not see that as useful here since, by definition, overhead expenses are independent of any particular title. The bottom line of this P&L should be the contribution that this particular book can make to covering overhead and to making a profit (i.e., the contribution margin).
If you have a P&L for this title, update it to reflect the new conditions, and then use it to examine your options. If you don’t have one yet, build one now. Your sales projections, and projections of costs such as distribution commissions and royalties, will be estimates. Look at a range of possibilities for those numbers, and consider looking only at the most likely and worst ones. Examine all the implications of every change you’re considering. Some can be easy to miss.
For example, if you cut the budget for the cover, sales usually decline, and if sales decline then so will your distribution commissions and royalty expenses (once any advance has earned out).
Some (but not all) such related changes can be handled by the way you set up the formulas in your spreadsheet. Use a column for each different scenario. For instance, have one column showing the result for killing the book, another for the most likely case when the book is reedited and the marketing and cover are improved, and other columns for every other combination.
Since you may have lots of different scenarios to analyze, based on what options you are considering applying in each one, you may want to try analyzing them in groups. It can be easier, for instance, to look first at all the different ways you could try to pump up the sales, and then look at all the different ways you could get the author to rework the book, and at all the different ways you could try to cut costs.
Each time you run a P&L, you should have a part of it that lays out your assumptions, so that you will know which scenario is which when you are comparing them. By using a highlighter to pick out the key ones on a printout, you can help tame the confusion.
In the end, you will see one option with a “most likely” result that is better than the most likely results of other options. At that point, you need to assess whether you can survive the damage that might be done by the “worst” case associated with that one option. If the risk is too high, look at the next-best option, and continue down the list until the best option, overall, becomes obvious.
If the best option is killing the book, and you decide to exercise your contractual rights to cancel the publication process, you may feel compelled to consider the damage this might wreak on the author and any freelancers involved in the book. But remember also to consider the damage that might be done—to your firm, to the people who depend on it, and to its owners if you don’t own it—by throwing more resources into a project that is unlikely to repay the effort.
Maybe the difference between killing the title and your next-best option is not all that large, and/or you know that other people involved will be devastated if you do kill the book. In that case, if you own the company or if the owners concur, go ahead with publication.
Avoiding Future Problems
Mistakes happen. Everyone makes them. This one may not have been avoidable. But it is worth looking over the past in the light of what you now know.
Were there any clues that the author might not be able to complete the manuscript to the standard you expected? Or that the author would be unable to assist with the marketing? Or did you use an editor who wasn’t familiar with this type of book?
Could you have known that the market for the book was about to change? Did you use and keep updating all the applicable sales estimation techniques—especially the ones involving sales of comparable titles (defined not only as the books directly competitive with yours but also as the books distributed similarly and given similar marketing resources)?
Did you fail to make sure the distribution channels you use would be cost-effective for this particular book?
In short, look for the root causes of the problem, and then for the kinds of clues you may have missed, so that you will be alert to them in the future.
The Silver Lining
Any significant mistake can lay bare opportunities for the future that might otherwise remain hidden. While you would never choose to make such an error, take full advantage of what it can teach you.
The ability to adjust your plans, and to make the best possible use of the lemons life hands you, is a skill that never goes to waste. Make the most of this chance to hone that talent.
Last and not least, forgive yourself for being no more than human. Don’t waste your energy on futile regrets. You have better uses for it.
Marion Gropen, the author of The Profitable Publisher, offers advice, tools, and classes to publishers. She bases her offerings on more than 20 years of experience in the book business, in publishing companies large and small, and as a consultant. You can find her at GropenAssoc.com.