Aug 082006

Re my last entry, Beat Deadline, Faster Publication? Chris Webb asked “I’d be interested to hear your advice on the more common occurrence – when an author misses the deadline. As you know, this can really complicate matters with our bookstore partners – monthly open to buy dollars, promotions, etc.”

The answer is worth its own entry. I blogged about some of this last year, You’ve Signed a book contract, now what?.

Let me say up front that this is a more critical issue with tech books because we’re dealing with tighter schedules all around (in both writing and production), and often dealing with software that’s in a state of flux itself, not to mention a crowded market of competitors.

With most non-tech titles the writing cycle is usually longer, the pub date is further removed from the manuscript deadline, and there’s generally more room for correction throughout the process, which either gives an author enough room to deal with problems or enough rope to hang himself.

Tech publishers and writers are underappreciated for being the sprinters they are.

If a client is struggling with deadlines, my advice is to take the bull by the horns. Tell your publisher and agent what’s up. Be honest and proactive, and ask for help if you need it. Suggest an alternate, more realistic schedule, and if it doesn’t work for your publisher, by all means find help — otherwise that’s likely to be your last book with that publisher.

If you can be proactive and find a solution, you’re ahead of the game. And if you can find good help, and you’re a capable collaborator (i.e. play well with others, some don’t) it’s better for your cause if you can manage the co-authorship yourself (or with your agent) than to rely on the publisher. You may earn a rep as a great administrator, which in itself can earn you some future books (or series).

The only way some authors can pick up as many books as they do is because they think are able to delegate quickly and efficiently when it’s needed.

Underpromise and overdeliver. If you feel an advance is too small to carry you through a project and that the deadline is unrealistic, say so at the start, not two months in. Saying no is often healthier than saying yes. And it’s much easier to push back at a deadline before you have a signed contract.

At bottom, if you’re late and you lose your promised ship date you always lose orders, you waste co-op money, you waste everything that your sales and marketing folks may have made possible for you. Now, if your publisher hasn’t promised books to the stores, you may have a publisher who’s content to wait for your book, but once you’re in the catalog there’s a certain amount of pressure.

And with a book that’s time-sensitive, any sales you lose on the first edition are sales you will lose on all subsequent editions because the bookseller buy-in will be smaller as a simple matter of course (we sold “x” last time, we’ll order “x” this time)

I represent a number of writers who are great at helping others in this predicament. So, for them it’s an opportunity and they always have work if they want it.

Late deliveries are certainly a bigger problem with new authors, one reason it’s often easier to work with professionals.

Publishers can also help this in some instances by being more realistic about the dates themselves, by paying proven high quality authors high quality advances, or by signing books further ahead of time, and not over-committing to customers based on bad data (see any recent blog entry on Vista or MS Office). In most cases I think quality trumps timeliness, but that only helps you when you haven’t already promised books to the retailer based on a flawed or missed schedule.

  4 Responses to “Miss Deadline, lose sales?”

  1. Hi Matt. Good subject. The one thing I don’t see in your post is the answer to “what will an agent do to help everyone through this process?” You might want to let folks know what steps you usually take when one of your clients run into scheduling issues. Do you offer to help find a co-author? If so, are the candidates typically limited to your existing client base? How will the financials work in this situation? I’ve got to believe that there are two primary reasons why authors don’t want to admit when they’re behind: pride and money. The first has to be swallowed, but many might be surprised to hear that the second doesn’t have to be a significant loss. You’ve been through plenty of situations like this. How do you typically handle it?

  2. Yes, I try to find co-authors myself, and I’ll look both inside and outside of my client base. The bigger challenge is that I can push clients to sign help but I can’t force them. That usually comes at the behest of the publisher (find help or else).

    I often handle the sub-agrements, or I develop them with the publisher.

    The cost to the author can be anywhere from a relatively modest per-page work-for-hire fee (for either a short bit of work or for someone who’s still breaking into the business) to a full blown co-authorship deal commensurate with the amount of work contracted for (i.e., half the book equals half the royalties and advance).

    Pride and false expectations both play a part with deadline problems. I’ve worked with writers who are certain they will catch up and nothing I can say will sway them.

    The bigger point is that at the end of the project it’s always better to have 50% of a book and a solid reputation rather than 0% and a blown rep.

    Nothing is more valuable to me than a writer who knows he can do exactly X pages a day and can keep to that schedule for 90 or 120 days.

  3. Matt: I think there’s some very good constructive advice here. Thanks for sharing it. One statement I would take issue with though is “The only way some authors can pick up as many books as they do is because they think are able to delegate quickly and efficiently when it’s needed.”
    At least for me, there’s no substitute for an author not putting themselves into a position to have to delegate in the first place. When I sign a contract with an author, it’s for their unique knowledge and ability. When I enter into negotiations I ask what other projects they have going and I’m careful not to get into an over-commit situation with them. If they subsequently take on additional work that interferes with their deadlines on their book with me, that’s a real breach of trust at a minimum. While I definitely appreciate authors who help get the project back on track once we’re in that situation, the real winners in my list are the ones who don’t overcommit.

  4. Hi Jim, that’s a good point about not over-committing, and I agree in principle, but authors are not necessarily in control of software schedules (or publishing schedules) and may find themselves over-committed quite unintentionally. The folks who can deal with that effectively can become extremely successful. There are numerous examples of authors who were probably over-committed who, because of their ability to delegate and manage others, have become even more successful (notable in this instance is maybe David Pogue). It’s an ongoing challenge to manage work-flow and ensure that my clients are using every possible work hour available without putting themselves in a jam over schedule.

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