Improved User-Testing: A Better Way to Publish Books


AdvanceCheck In my previous post about slush piles, I started out with a daunting statistic. And I’m not trying to be a downer here, but I have another one: according to publishing expert Shira Boss and literary agent Kristin Nelson, an estimated 70-80% of trade books don’t earn out their advance.

That means the author never sees a royalty check after getting that initial payment, and the publisher loses money, probably.

This begs the question: how do publishers make a living if the majority of titles aren’t earning their spot on bookshelves? 

Answer: Most major publishing houses rely on a small percentage of bestsellers to “pay for” the rest of the books they produce. For example, six books may have lost a combined $60,000 for HarperCollins in 2005, but Marley & Me sold over 1 million copies and was made into a movie, so HarperCollins still made a profit. 

Why don’t publishers only publish the bestsellers? Because it’s very, very hard to know what’s going to sell and what isn’t—especially with new authors. The Help received almost 60 rejections from literary agents, and slow-rolled its way onto the NYT bestseller list. It’s now picking up the slack for less successful Penguin titles, but I suspect very few people (if any) predicted this result. If publishers only pay attention to established bestsellers like Steven King or James Patterson, they risk missing out on the next big thing. 

Is there a better way to publish books? Some innovative approaches have been tried out—for example, Hachette’s imprint, Twelve, only publishes one book a month. Instead of taking a shotgun approach, they market the daylights out of a single book each month and try to connect with as many readers as possible. Their current record is 37 titles published, 19 NYT bestsellers. That means not only did 50% of their books not fail, but they took home some serious bacon. That’s way above the publishing norm.

With PageToFame, we’re trying another approach: better user-testing for unpublished books. Before getting the “green light,” a book typically gets approval from 2-6 people at a literary agency (assuming most agents confer with at least one intern, assistant, or colleague before offering representation), an editorial team, and a publishing board. So as a rough total, let’s say between 15-20 people are intimately involved in choosing a published book. 

What if it were 200? 300? 500? What if these people were the target audience of book buyers? PageToFame makes this possible—one of the writers who has made it to Round 3 of PageToFame has received 326 ratings! This boost in readers allows agents and publishers to get a more accurate feel for a book’s market potential before they buy. 

Traditionally, publishing has been a business of gut feelings and guess work. But, the creative use of crowd-sourcing is changing that. With services like PageToFame gaining prominence, I think we can turn that percentage of earned out advances on its head.

—Ardy Khazaei, President of WEbook  

AK headshotArdy is a veteran of the digital media world—both as an entrepreneur and a corporate executive, including six years at HarperCollins Publishers where he was the SVP of Electronic Media. Learn more about him.

Curious about PageToFame? Want to test out your writing? Submit to PageToFame or sign up for WEbook.  

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  1. The first page challenge was an excellent test run for me as a writer. We all know the first page is paramount when we send our manuscripts to perspective Agents and publishers. Thank you WeBook for providing this service, truly a great “proving ground”!

  2. "An estimated 70-80% of trade books don't earn out there advance. Learn why on the blog."
    Hardly surprising if they contain grammar and spelling of the above calibre.

  3. And how's that working out for everyone? My round 2 sub hasn't gotten a vote in well over a week. And my short hasn't been read in a month. I think the consensus of most writers here would be: this site is dying.
    I don't want to be a downer, either...

  4. First Click: An estimated 70-80% of trade books don't earn out there advance. Learn why on the blog.


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