When I got the news that Booktrope is closing, I was on day 3 of a vacation in Europe. I had just awoken to my first full day in Prague, and, as is my custom, I took a quick look at my emails. Don’t ask me how I knew, but when I saw the “new blog post” email from Booktrope, I did know. Booktrope will be no more.
Since I was on vacation, and since there was little I could do from Prague I decided to put the matter out of my mind until vacation was over. I also heaved a sigh of relief that I was going to have one of the least troublesome separations because I had used only a cover designer and book manager for the re-publish of “Raising John.”
So, I wasn’t going to be on the hook for editing and proofreading and project managing expenses AND since I had already indie published Raising John, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the prospect of indie publishing it again, and/or indie publishing my next book. Also, having worked at a large software company, I was completely familiar with the Friday afternoon reorganization/layoff announcement and wasn’t shocked to see it done that way (though they might have put together an FAQ before the announcement, IMO).
A couple of days later I received an email from the cover designer saying that he would like to discuss a flat fee for his cover, which would release me from paying him any future royalties. I love the cover he did and was happy to pay him a flat fee; we quickly agreed on a price and I paypalled him the money. I also want to compensate my book manager even though Booktrope doesn’t seem to think we need to (and yes, I know I am legally obligating myself here by saying this, and I’m OK with that).
So, from my end, while this is a frustrating setback, it’s not the end of the world. That said, I have thought more about how others have reacted, and about how the closure has affected different stakeholders in different ways. Here’s my armchair analysis of how it affects the different groups and what caused Booktrope to fail.
So, first, to understand the Booktrope model. Booktrope was a hybrid publisher. A traditional publisher takes on a very small percentage of hopeful writers, then pays all of the editing and production expenses, with the hopes they’ll recoup the expense and make a profit. An indie takes on all those expenses themselves (as I did when I indie published Raising John) and hopes to make that money back and then make a profit.
Booktrope was different in that they didn’t pay editors, cover designers, proofreaders and managers an upfront fee. Instead, they asked them to work for no money upfront, but instead promised them a share of the royalties. This is a great way for authors to get their books into print, because they didn’t have to cough up the cash the way they would have to in order to indie publish, nor did they have to persuade a traditional published to take them on.
For authors, this was a great opportunity. I spent about $3000 on production costs alone to indie publish Raising John. I could afford it, but for a writer who doesn’t have extra cash lying around, Booktrope offered an opportunity to get their books out there into the world.
What Booktrope asked in return was that authors put in the work to market their books. This is fair, because even authors who hit it big with traditional publishing contracts have to work hard to market their books. There is no free ride in this industry.
I think a lot of authors did the work. I think some did a lot of work, but didn’t get a lot of guidance about where to focus. I think some resisted doing the work because they were uncomfortable with it, or believed they shouldn’t need to, or just would rather spend their time writing. I don’t have numbers on how many authors did each thing, but I’m assuming there was a mix.
The problem faced by authors now is that the editors, cover designers and proofreaders who did work for them want compensation, either in a lump sum up front, or as a share of royalties for the duration of the original contract, which for everyone was 5 years.
This is fair, but it puts those authors who chose Booktrope because of the lack of upfront costs into a tight spot – I think some of them truly don’t have the money to pay their editors, designers and proofreaders a lump sum. But, those who can’t pay upfront can still pay a share of royalties in the future. It will be annoying for them to figure out how to do this themselves instead of having Booktrope do it for them, but it’s not impossible.
For editors, cover designers, and proofreaders, Booktrope was a gamble. For them to make any money for their work their authors would need to sell a lot of books. A well-edited book is more likely to sell, in most cases (for counterpoint see “Fifty Shades” books. See also: “Twilight”). But, good editing isn’t everything. The book also needs a great cover, strong promotion and no typos. Each member of the team has some influence over whether the book succeeds but not much control. They’re at the mercy of book sales to make any money.
And then there is Booktrope, the corporate entity. For Booktrope to make any money they needed their authors to sell books. Lots of books. Booktrope did receive some investment money, which, I assume, went to pay the salaries of the principles and staff, and to pay for what looked like a pretty robust online infrastructure. These are reasonable expenses, and anyone who believes that Booktrope nefariously took the money and ran doesn’t know how business operates. A couple million dollars just doesn’t go that far these days.
Booktrope collapsed because they weren’t selling enough books to cover operating expenses. That is how a business works. Absent investment funds (see previous paragraph) a business needs to generate revenue in order to keep going. In the end, Booktrope wasn’t selling enough books to keep the infrastructure up and running, despite the infusion of cash from investors.
There has been a lot of speculation about why they weren’t able to sell enough books. I think it’s largely a problem of saturation. There are just a lot more books on the market now than there were 10 years ago. It used to be that you got published by a traditional publisher (large, small, or academic) or you paid a vanity publisher to put your book in print. Publishers took a limited number of new titles per year, and vanity presses mostly just printed enough for an author to give to family and friends.
Now we have e-books which cost less to produce, creating a lower barrier for entry, especially if an author doesn’t hire an editor, proofer, etc., and we have print-on-demand, which enables anyone who can set up a CreateSpace or Ingram Spark account to offer a printed book. There are just SO many books out there. So many that sometimes I despair that mine will get more than cursory attention.
So, what will I do now? I have come too far to give up my dream of making at least some of my living as a writer. And, I have a lot of stories to tell. So, I’ll keep going. I’m more than halfway through the sequel to “Raising John.”
Once that’s published, I have a couple more novels in very preliminary draft form. And I have an idea for a series about a veterinarian who specializes in exotic large animals and her goofy new-age sidekick. I’m not sure if all my future work will be indie published, but I do plan to indie publish the “Raising John” sequel, if only because I have made people wait too long for it already. (I was busy becoming an airplane mechanic – sorry!)