The Art of Fielding: How to Publish a Great Novel and Still Lose Money

Last week in the Gazette, I read a story about some local authors who have discovered self publishing, and are now proud to be offering their printed words without the familiar middle men of agent, publisher and bookstores. Yet the truth is, these authors, no matter how esteemed, will be lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their work. It’s just that simple—if there were a huge number of people who wanted to spend money on literary criticism, publishers would be offering huge advances for the work.

Today a story in the WSJ was titled “In Book Business, a Rewrite.” It chronicled what everyone already knows…as a friend of mine who works as an agent says, “it’s in freefall. The industry “barely looks like it did just six months ago.”

Today, the story said, it’s about hits, and the zeros on the end of the advance checks have been diminishing fast. Six figures? Rare. Now even the amount of books that big publishers will print has been cut by about 25% An example is the new book, his first novel, by Char Harbach. It’s called The Art of Fielding, and is about a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college.

Harbach has been the upaid editor of n+1, a Brooklyn based literary magazine that gives him a great bio story. His book has been praised by none other than Little Brown’s head honcho, Michael Pietsch, who said reading the book was a “deeply emotional experience.” Hence his bid that the writer took despite it being a bit lower than the others, because he liked the editor who would work on the book with him

But the numbers don’t look that good even for Chad, an unemployed copy editor who scored a $675,000 advance after his book was auctioned to eight different publishers. Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg broke down the numbers that even a potential big seller has to make work.

“If all 30,000 hardcovers in print are sold, it will generate about $390,000 for the publisher, based on a retail price of $25.00. If, as some other novels did this year, it sells 42% of total sales in ebook format, that will add another $197,500, of revenue, based on $12.99 cost. Total $587,500. Paperbacks and audiobooks offer a more revenue. But since the book has a shorter print run, running more will cost about double.

I wonder if they could have gotten the book if they offered Chad $100K and then found five other writers with great ideas for books and given them the same $100K. Wouldn’t they make more money that way?