Author Seeks Publisher: A Not-So-Happy Ending

“We are deeply saddened to report Booktrope is ceasing business effective May 31, 2016. We are not accepting submissions and production is complete.

Booktrope has helped hundreds of authors get over 4 million copies of their books into the hands of readers. We are proud our creative teams have produced almost 1000 books using our platform. Thank you to all readers, authors, investors, partners, and creative team members who were a part of this journey with us.”

After 5:30 p.m. EST on Friday, April 29, 2016, Booktrope announced to its authors and creatives that it was closing its doors. The scramble to find out what that means has been hard to watch, especially for those of who saw this coming some time ago.

We’ve both been on creative teams as editors and proofreaders for Booktrope projects and established friendships professionally and personally with our authors and co-team members. While working on these projects, we came to the conclusion — first, independently, and then together — that all was not right in the Promised Land.

Neither of us have said a word publicly against Booktrope largely because we felt foolish for getting involved with them in the first place. But now, watching the flames rise from what was, at best, a foolish venture, and at worst, designed to fail, some truths should be noted, if for no other reason than to warn fellow authors and creative types.

Profit-sharing models in publishing don’t work

Despite the warm-fuzzy feelings they generate, profit-sharing fails more often than not.

  1. Not everyone involved has the same goals. As a professional editor, cover designer, or proofreader, you expect to be paid for your time. In the same way that you go to work every day and look forward to a paycheck, so freelancers expect the same. Some authors, though, weren’t interested in selling a lot of books. They only wished to see their work in print — understandable, but not very effective for the rest of their team.
  2. First books don’t sell. It takes time to build an audience. Your first couple of books are unlikely to turn any profit — renown literary agent Donald Maass calls it the “five book threshold.” So when your creative team signs up for a share in the profits and they don’t make anything — neither do you, of course — they probably won’t want to work with you on several more manuscripts over the next five years. It’s just not feasible.
  3. Professionals expect to be paid. Professionals who freelance are dependent on that income, in part or as a whole. Asking them to work again and again for free, with some idea that “down the road” or as a “five year plan,” they’ll see some sort of payment? Not realistic. Not to mention, you are asking them to use a honed expertise for your benefit. Do you consider yourself an expert in your field? Would you labor for weeks for free simply because I have a desire to see my work on the world’s stage?
  4. We respect the things we pay for. Reality is, our likelihood to value the time and efforts we’re given is often in direct proportion to how much we pay for them. Mind you, often, kindness is greatly appreciated. But when the expectation is that we get something for nothing, we lose sight of its true value.

When things look too good to be true, well…

Books are expensive to publish, and they aren’t big money-makers, on the whole. Sure, some books do amazingly well. But that’s why we can remember their titles — because there aren’t too many of them.

If someone presents the idea that they’ll publish your book for free and you don’t see a clear line to how your professional services are being paid for, run in the opposite direction. See, it’s not just about your wallet; it’s also about not using other creatives for your gain.

Imagine if someone asked you to agree to two weeks of work for them, from which they stood to make the lion’s share of the profit and you would receive a tiny percentage in exchange (in Booktrope’s case, authors were paid an average of 33% on royalties and their editors/graphic designers/proofreaders were paid an average of 7/4/2%). You’d probably be less than thrilled with the arrangement.

Us too.

Publishers should have a business mindset

“We’ve based our business model on exactly what you’re talking about — not having bestsellers….The business succeeds if we can average 200 copies per month for one year for the front list titles…We developed a very specific marketing technique that’s much more closely aligned with best practices in the Internet marketing space rather than traditional book marketing, which is antiquated at this point,” said Katherine Sears, co-founder and CMO of Booktrope and author of How to Market a Book.

Businesses, as a general rule, should have a mindset for success. Of course, most books probably won’t be best sellers. But does that mean the expectation for your novel should be less? Why would anyone’s goal for publishing a book be mediocre at best?

What’s worse — it failed phenomenally. “Almost 1,000 books” published, yet they couldn’t make their go-for-the-bottom-of-the-pile book marketing plan work.

Why is that?

Because Booktrope never placed a priority on qualifications when hiring. The people at the top had little-to-no book publishing or editing experience, yet those same people were their acquisitions team.

“‘I really feel like literary snobbery is not what the public needs,’ Sears said…Booktrope’s approach is all about letting readers, rather than editors, provide that filter.” Somehow, expecting and producing a high quality, well-written, and polished book became defined as “snobbery,” and releasing books that often received substandard services was the grassroots approach.

Booktrope had no editing or graphic design test in place for bringing on new talent. They didn’t ask, didn’t check backgrounds, didn’t require their book marketing managers to have any previous marketing experience. When Ally was brought on, she received a cursory interview by a woman who was gone from Booktrope’s population the next week. As editors, our preference for proper grammar was called “archaic” and unnecessary, and our suggestions for authors’ stories were deemed optional. An author could completely disregard our advice with no quibble from Booktrope, yet our names were printed inside the those books. Mind you, plenty regarded their editor’s feedback with respect, but others didn’t — and there was no requirement to. There wasn’t even a requirement within the regulations or contracts that defined an editor’s role and contribution to the work. We were supposed to talk amongst ourselves and work it out.

Beyond that, the reason these are called “professional services” is because they require skill and experience. While lots of folks want to learn graphic design and editing, we’re guessing you don’t want them learning on your book — anymore than you'd want your heart surgeon practicing on your next procedure.

Do you write romantic thriller? Young adult? Historical romance? They would move you to the front of the line for their parade of Bookbubs and social media ads. Anything else? No promotion for you!

Beyond that, Booktrope did little to nothing to inject life into books that had stalled out after publication. Their partnerships with Bookbub, Facebook, and Midlist offered no benefit for the majority of authors, while others received approval after approval from the Holy Grail of book advertisers.

And what’s worse? It was obvious. Those who didn’t fall under the golden light of Booktrope’s elite languished in the shadows and often sold less than a hundred copies despite their team’s attempts at marketing.

How did folks get taken in by this? Wasn’t it obvious from the outset?

Yes and no. Creative types are, by nature, curious and willing to try new things. Many are intimidated by the business aspect of their craft as it’s an artform, too. And honestly, the pitch sounded good: publish a quality book with no upfront costs or hidden fees, and work with a team of professionals focused on your success. What’s not to fall in love with?

And Booktrope had a unique, friendly community that welcomed new members with graciousness and openness. In large part, that was due to the community organizers who were often volunteers or paid small stipends — and that’s the atmosphere you find in most creative ventures.

When so many shiny, happy people greet you with open arms, it can’t be all a dream, can it?

Unfortunately, it can. And one of the downsides to the current publishing model, both self-publishing and indie, is that the reality of what it takes to create a quality book is not fully understood. Editing, cover design, marketing — they are expensive investments with no guarantee of a profit.

Did Booktrope publish some great books? Hell, yes. Are there great editors, graphic designers, and authors amid the pack? Of course. But what we saw often was authors who were either very talented and rushed through the publishing process or too green and not quite ready to be published. Neither yields the best book it can be. And that’s sad.

So are we all fools for getting sucked into the too-good-to-be-true vortex?

When someone looks you in the eyes, says your most prized work is worthy of being stood upon a grand stage and admired, and then says, “welcome home,” are you going to start the background checks? Or are you going to step into the warm rays of acceptance?

Moving on

The good news: the questionable startup that was Booktrope is soon to be closed. However, in the wake of their hasty departure from the literary world, they left the authors and their teams holding a bag of contractual obligations and mushy legalese. Creative teams and authors are trying to figure out who deserves to be compensated for what and how that compensation will occur.

None of it’s fun. No one signed up for this and none of them signed on for suddenly having to self-publish their books or finding a new publisher in a short time-frame. Worse yet, several authors just released — or are about to release — their books, and a month later, their books will be removed from retailers. They’ll have to figure out other methods of releasing their novels. Not the book launch any author dreams of, eh?

What lessons did we learn?

Quality costs. For some reason, we think the cheaper path is the better one, but reality has a nasty way of teaching us the golden rule. Painful as it can be to afford the services necessary for a polished book, expecting others to put in effort for your vision and dream in exchange for little-to-no pay would be insulting if you were asked the same. Many authors are keenly aware of this, even as they try to figure out how to create fair arrangements with their teams. But some are rebelling under the expectation — another problem caused when you don’t pay for services up front.

Education is desperately needed. So many people don’t understand the basics of book contracts and how royalties are paid. Where publishers make their profits and why some books hit it big and others don’t. We need to be better informed…but that also means we need more transparent business practices so scams like this one don’t happen again.

We need to be better connected as a community. Things like this wouldn’t happen if we knew what to expect. We came in through different channels: Patricia joined the publishing community as an indie author, and Ally came in through traditional and literary publishing, having spent years in the writing community. The difference in what we knew about publishing and the business is part of why we became friends — we could help each other fill in the missing pieces.

After a few months with Booktrope, reality revealed itself, but as we both tend to do, we’d delved into the waters quickly at the beginning and made lifelong friends we couldn’t turn our backs on. We recognized the lack of business sense attached to Booktrope’s approach, and a few pay cycles revealed the truth.

Booktrope was never going to pay off.

What they preached was a “five year plan” of making $20/month on a book and building a portfolio of work. As though one book will always make the same amount every month. As though authors who stop writing or books that aren’t marketed properly will continue to roll over low profits month after month.

Truth is, the whole fiasco is a reminder that we need to know our field. “Legacy” publishing is mocked as antiquated, and it certainly has its shortcomings. But to ignore the tried-and-true aspects that still work is foolhardy. Traditional publishing brought us the books we fell in love with, that inspired us to explore our imaginations, and eventually, to pick up our pens and follow suit.

Be wary of any publisher that promises you “free” services without a standard business plan showing how they make a profit. Always expect to pay for quality services, and if your publisher doesn’t provide them fairly or at all, obtain them on your own. Know how to read your contracts, and if you don’t, get legal expertise.

So many authors and creative team members were promised the world and received only a small clump of dirt ill-suited for planting. Lessons were learned on all sides, we daresay, and hopefully in the end, we’ll all come away from this a little wiser.

Ally Bishop & Patricia Eddy, editors