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Three Cardinal Rules of the Book Business

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Cardinal Rule #1: Respect requests of publishers who assume the financial risk of your book.

Why do so many intelligent authors court disaster by making emotional decisions instead of business decisions? Among local fellow fiction authors, two recently had “15 minutes of fame” similar to my ’88 experience. For privacy, I refer to these authors as “A” and “B.”

A, getting a fine boost from coverage in The New York Times, rocketed into the rarefied air of a medium six-figure advance with a cleverly penned first novel. This advance covered republication of the first novel, and the publishing of A’s next two manuscripts.

(Keep in mind as you read this that I cannot know with absolute certainty the conclusions drawn concerning New York editors/publishers. I can only surmise my conclusions, since I was not physically present and listening in their offices when they began, altered and sometimes surreptitiously and subtlety concluded contractual obligations with their authors).

Author A finished his second novel, and again received rave reviews. This book also sold well, but may have sold better had it received royal treatment at the publicity department. With his third novel, A ran into roadblocks. His reaction: “I told the folks at (_____) to go to hell. I had completed a third full-length novel that they liked, but they wanted to make a major plot change, one that undercut the entire theme of the story . . .” I winced as I read this reaction. I’ve seen this disaster befall other authors, including myself.

Back in 1989, I, being a thick-skulled, half-Norwegian, refused to make requested changes to plot for Morrow, convinced these changes would be viewed as unrealistic by my own readers. (This occurred after I had earlier received a comfortable six-figure contract for this book, my own third novel, titled Peacemaker.) My publisher then declined to publish the manuscript.

I’ve often wondered whether their decision was due to the arrival of Glasnost in the fall of 1989, which chilled the wide high-tech thrillers. Now, eight years later, I realize my reasoning in 1989 was irrelevant. I had violated Cardinal Rule #1. When push came to shove, I should’ve backed off, churned some brain cells, and compromised. Now I’ll never know what might have happened had I made a more concerted intelligent effort to get Peacemaker into print in the US. I must live with that burning question in my mind.

My British publisher did put Peacemaker into print, and virtually sold out. In 1991, I purchased their remaining stock, 408 books, for local autograph sessions.

I also believe a prudent author should think twice before doing anything that deflates a publisher’s enthusiasm to promote a contracted book. Bestsellers by new authors are more often made than written. NAL (a division of Penguin) informed me, well in advance, that they intended to make my second novel a New York Times Bestseller. And they did, by spending big bucks for super-publicity and distributing 800,000 copies into 35,000 retail outlets. Don’t kill enthusiasm like that!

Author B, who writes exceptionally well-reviewed books, has one helluva time getting New York publishers to promote these books. From lengthy conversations with B, I suspect B has violated Cardinal Rules 2 and 3.

Cardinal Rule #2: Don’t change horses in midstream.

Cardinal Rule #2 means don’t change publishers without damn good reason, and a damn good reason is not a minor amount of additional advance. B has changed publishers frequently. When a fickle author changes publishers too often, one publisher may never get a chance to develop a strong commitment. Cumulative book sales may never total enough to generate enthusiasm for The Big Push the next time.

I’ve broken Cardinal Rule #2 myself. In 1988, I followed the advice of a hot agent at W. M. Morris and sold my third novel to Morrow for $25,000 more (only 7%) than NAL offered. Not a smart move, I now believe. At Morrow, my new editor had never worked in fiction, lost his eyesight all summer, then had to concentrate on a Bettie Davis autobiography (she’d inconveniently died in August) when his sight returned in fall, and then Glasnost came along. With 20/20 hindsight, I would’ve been a helluva lot better off staying with the editor at NAL (who had recommended no changes at all with my second novel.)

Cardinal Rule #3: Butter the popcorn.

This rule is so basic it’s amazing. I see so many people ignoring it. If you want an agreeable editor, you must do something positive to generate that attitude. Three of my four fiction editors have been great, with excellent results. Get to know them on a personal basis, get totally into their minds, do everything but sleep with them. And gift them! Works in the business world as well as it works in the political world.

Reality Check: People often do business with us solely because they like us. Send a box of candy to the accountants at your distributor (to get your bills paid first, or at all). I also stay on top of the financial conditions within these outfits through their employees. Author B can be argumentative for its own sake. And he wonders why, in business dealings in the trade, others act equally obstinate. Better to butter the popcorn, than pour pepper on it!


Robert Holt is the President of the San Diego Publicity Association. His books include How to Publish, Promote, and Sell Your Own Book, and the novels, Good Friday, Havana Heat, and Peacemaker.

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