Promises Made, but Not Kept

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 05 2007

I was directed to this recent post on C. S. Harris’s blog, When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, and asked to comment.

In the story C. S. Harris shared, an author was wooed over to a new publishing house and promised the world—promotion, marketing, and co-op money (money the publisher spends for special placement in bookstores). When push came to shove, however, the publisher did not follow through on its promises and the author did not see the sales she needed to earn out her advance. Needless to say, once the contract was complete the publisher bailed. An author who doesn’t earn out rarely gets a new contract.

The questions I was asked were: If a publisher promises promotion, marketing, and co-op money, why wouldn’t it be written into the contract, and what can an author do to protect herself? Should or could this be something that’s written into the contract, and how often do publishers break such promises?

Let’s start with the obvious. Rarely do such promises get written into the contract. Why? Because the publisher does not want to commit to how they are planning to spend their marketing and promotion budget one, two, or even three years in advance. And from a business perspective this is understandable. What if the market changes? What if the book you sold them is really hot now, but the market drops considerably a year from now? And from an author’s perspective, I’m not sure you would want such a commitment in writing either. What if they only commit to ads and suddenly would consider changing their mind, but don’t have to. They’ve got ads and only ads in writing. Or, what if the publisher has committed heavy promotion to three other authors pubbing at the same time as your book. While your book might now, given new market trends, be the hot new book, they don’t have the money to give you.

I’m not sure exactly how the situation C. S. Harris described played out and what was said. My experience is that publishers rarely “promise” marketing and co-op when they offer. Often what they’ll do is suggest they might go that route, but I always caution my writers that while they are saying these things now, we will have to wait and see and hit them again when we’re getting closer to the pub date. Did the author and agent call to remind the publisher they were promised these things or just assume they would happen? And were promises really made or just suggestions?

I truly doubt the lack of paid co-op and marketing were the sole reason for this author’s failed sales numbers. It’s very likely the books she had out from the other publisher started to fall off. In other words, her numbers slipped well before publisher #2 got to publication and that, probably more than anything, was the reason the promised marketing never happened.


5 responses to “Promises Made, but Not Kept”

  1. Avatar tessa says:

    What a tragic story! Wouldn’t you, as an agent, go to the original publisher and ask them to match or counter the offer? It’s very flattering to be wanted, but a bird in hand….(especially if that bird has a terrific history with building careers.)

  2. Avatar moonrat says:

    Also temperatures change–maybe when the author sold her big book on, say, elephants, elephants were all the rage. By the time she delivers an editable manuscript, maybe elephants are out and now everyone only wants to read about hippos. If elephants are totally out at Barnes & Noble, no amount of money spent on co-op is going to get the book placed well, since these days there is so much competition even for co-op space that BNN, Borders, and the other biggies need only take money on books they like.

    And even the sleaziest of publishing companies doesn’t want a a book that doesn’t earn out–that’s just wasted advance money. But you do want to do your own best by your own book. Bottom line… know your editor and make sure you can trust her. She’s your best ally, since your success helps her career along. Before you sign your contract, believe that SHE means it when she makes you a promise and that she’ll do her best to realize it in spite of market pressures.

  3. Avatar bran fan says:

    Is there anything a writer can do in this situation? Do more promotion herself? Stay home and write better books? Change genres? Change pseudonyms? In the future, go for single-title contracts only?

  4. Avatar jfaust says:

    Tessa: Presumably the agent did negotiate what was thought at the time to be the best deal. I would imagine the original publisher was involved in the first negotiations.

    bran fan: It’s hard to say what really happend and as moonrat said, and as I stated in my post, it’s very possible the market changed from the time the book was bought until the time it was published. At that point no amount of publicity would necessarily do the trick. This is a tough business and sometimes, not always, but sometimes the best defense is just to move on and write a book that’s different, better and maybe with a new name.

    Again, I don’t know the intimate details of this particular story. I’m just answering the questions one reader asked based on this story.


  5. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question! All the horror stories dished about get a little overwhelming at times. I’m grateful to hear some calm reason applied to it!