Last year, after crafting and writing about hair bows and ribbon and other accessories for six years, I landed a contract to write a book about my craft.
I had pitched the book a twice before and was rejected (one was a quick “no” and the other went through the process with a publisher, but was eventually passed on as well).
So when I received an e-mail out of the blue from a publisher asking me if I wanted to write a book a few months after I had received the second rejection … I didn’t know if it was “real….”
…and when I realized it was, I didn’t know if, as a new author, I was being treated fairly or not.
(turns out I was, thankfully!)
My book about ribbon crafting came out in September, and since signing the contract in 2013 I’ve talked to industry professionals and read articles like this recent one by Diane Gilleland about writing a craft book and whether it’s “worth it.”
More authors are sharing their thoughts on the process and its value to their career, and this new wave of openness is something we didn’t have just a few years ago.
But I also wanted to take a different peek behind the curtain – from the publisher’s perspective – as part of “You’re Paying me What?” A series examining income in non-technical creative fields.
I’ve divided this portion of the series – behind the scenes in the craft book publishing industry – into two parts. I wanted to share the words from the industry leaders themselves in a question-and-answer format, because these women had a lot to say! And I found it all valuable, but too long for a single blog post.
So pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee and pull up a chair today for Part 1. I’m introducing you to Kate McKean, a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, (we met at a conference in September 2013 and she gave a great talk to aspiring authors!), Amy Marson, publisher at C&T Publishing, and Susanne Woods, who started Lucky Spool Media in 2013.
Today I’ll introduce you to the three women and talk about landing contracts and author pay. In Part 2 they’ll discuss book budgets, marketing, and the future of craft book publishing.
Behind the scenes in the craft book publishing industry
Me: Could you share a little about yourself and your career/company?
Kate McKean: I’ve been with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency for 8 and a half years, and in publishing for over 10, including my time as an assistant. A rite of passage for us all. And for all but one of those years, I’ve worked at literary agencies.
Literary agents are advocates for authors. It’s our jobs to find good projects, help authors polish and focus them (to varying degrees depending on the agent and project), find great deals for those authors, whether that’s the most money, the best editor, or both. Then, agents are an author’s touchstone for their publishing career. Editors move around, leave one job or another, but more likely than not, an agent is there for the long haul. We don’t just negotiate the contract and drift away. We’re there every step of the way.
Amy Marson: I have been in publishing for over 25 years. I started at C&T as their Director of Production in 2000 and was promoted to Publisher two years later. I have always been a sewist and became a quilter when I joined C&T. C&T is deeply enmeshed in the quilting and sewing industry. We have staff members who participate on boards, we go to all events and are a platinum and founding sponsor of the Modern Quilt Guild’s Quiltcon. Were in the industry because we love it and want what is best for it. We want to make sure everyone is happy and successful from quilters and sewists who use our books, to the authors and to the shops that sell them.
We have continuously evolved over 30 years adapting to the constant changes in publishing and in quilting and sewing. We have been relevant for 30 years and will continue to be for another 30 years. The reason why answering questions like this is important to us is we operate with integrity and transparency. We still publish books with our first author and we still employ our first employee.
Susanne Woods: Hi Deanna! Thanks for inviting me to your blog today. I’ve been in illustrated book publishing my whole career (from sales to editorial) and a quilter since college. I went from California, to Manhattan, to London, to Colorado and now back to California. In the sewing world, I joined C&T Publishing in 2008 as their Acquisitions Editor and within months of joining, I submitted a proposal to create Stash Books, which I believe was really successful for them. I went on to become the Editorial Director at Interweave but left to work for Craftsy (an online education site in the crafting space) soon after Interweave was acquired by F+W Media.
It was at Craftsy that Lucky Spool was born. I had so many folks ask me for honest advice about where to publish since I was now out of the book-publishing arena. I didn’t know what to say. I was pretty disillusioned with book publishing. It just seemed so broken. I had been lucky enough to work with some fantastic authors and some crazy-talented creative teams, but so often there was frustration and disconnect. I wanted to find a solution.
Me to Susanne and Amy: How is your publishing company different from others?
Susanne: Lucky Spool is different. We are what I call a hybrid publisher. We pay for all the origination (cost to make a book) like a traditional publisher would, but the author has as a ton of creative control (which is a tremendous amount of work—no joke!) so we are between self-publishing and traditional publishing. This is the perfect model for authors who want to have a really large hand in their book creation process but don’t have the freelance connections, distribution and/or financing to self-publish effectively. Our authors usually either take their own pictures, or work with a photographer local to them, they review every step of the design, and I always build creative teams to match the aesthetic and temperament of the author… but there is more. Lucky Spool also has very limited contractual rights, much bigger royalties, and a customized approach to marketing. We also work on a short production schedule to be sure we are on-trend, and usually print domestically for a whole host of reasons. We distribute our titles through a traditional publisher, so we have all of those benefits, but we act a lot differently in just about every other regard.
Amy: We have been publishing fabric arts books for over 30 years and instilled in our culture is the fact that the author is part of the C&T family, we always try to do right by our authors. There are two main things that differentiate us from other publishers. First, the author gives feedback and is involved in the process until the book goes to print –from cover design to final pages. Second, we spend more time making sure our books are technically accurate than any other publisher.
Landing the book deal – what does it really mean? And how do you land the contract in the first place?
Me: Most bloggers and pattern designers view “getting a book deal” as the apex of a career, but landing a book contract seems to be more like another facet of their business…like a really cool business card….a means to an end rather than an end by itself. Is this a correct assessment? Would you care to elaborate a little?
Amy: I think it’s different for different people and the type of book. If your creative life revolves around one look or technique, sharing that in a book might be the apex. But if you have a more broadly successful or multifaceted crafting career then a book may be one of your many successes. Either way is great, it just depends on what you want to get out of your book. Also, many authors see a book as a way to grow their brand and elevate themselves to the next level. Being a published author does create a sense of celebrity and opens door to other industry opportunities.
Susanne: Getting a book deal is actually pretty easy in the craft world. Really. it isn’t as mysterious as many think. You only need to look at a few traditional publishing catalogues to see that most craft publishers are pushing out 40-50 titles a year…almost a book a week! At Lucky Spool, we publish about 10 books a year. Regarding your comment ‘a means to an end’….maybe. It depends what you want out of your book. I can only speak for Lucky Spool by saying I am looking for authors who will say to me in the first 5 minutes of conversation: ‘I don’t want to publish a book just to publish a book.’ There is so much free information, so many other books, so much available online. The volume is cranked up pretty high (information-wise).
I think that publishing a true standout requires a different approach than what you describe. It means combining a great author with a concept true to them, published within a process that is a creatively rich and as collaborative as possible, get knock-out distribution and then think of creative ways to get the word out that resonates with the author’s unique audience.
I remember chatting with someone very ‘high up’ in the quilting/media world and she said about someone: ‘She doesn’t deserve a book deal yet.’ Really? Not that the piecing was poorly done, or that the color work was off, or that the designs lacked clear composition. How pompous are publishers if they think that they are putting their stamp of authority/approval on an author? It’s just not like that anymore. In fact, it is the reverse. Overall, I think that we (publishers and authors) have to be more thoughtful about what we are putting into the marketplace rather than ‘’getting a book deal’’ and saturating the marketplace with marginal content.
Kate: You’re right–landing a book deal is not the end-all, be-all of anyone’s career, especially in craft. It’s usually not reason enough to quit your day job. But it is a physical, lasting, established, and well-respected milestone in a crafter’s career that could lead to more opportunities. It could lead to more book deals or fabric lines or pattern sales or speaking gigs, or who knows what. People love books, and it’s a huge accomplishment for anyone to write one and get one published, but–and this is coming from someone whose livelihood is books–a craft book is not the only weapon in a crafter’s arsenal. It’s just an awesome one.
Me to Kate: If someone wants to write a craft book, what qualifications should they have before querying an agent or going directly to the publisher? For instance – a blog with X-number of visitors per month, previous magazine experience, etc., ability to shoot their own step-outs? And how concrete should their idea be (i.e., should they have an outline, a list of projects, etc.)?
Kate: For authors looking to query agents or publishers, I like to offer these completely not mandatory standards. More like benchmarks. And note, these change over time.
It used to be that lots of blog traffic (+100,000 average unique visitors a month and even more than that average pageviews) was all it took, but as readers move away from blogs and read their news or see their internet friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, those metrics alone aren’t enough. I’m looking for evidence of an engaged readership. Do you get lots of likes or comments (more than 100?) on your posts on blog or Facebook? Do you have thousands of likes per post on Instagram? Do you have 25,000 newsletter subscribers and do a high percentage of them open and read the email? It’s things like I’m looking for, and in turn what publishers are looking for. Passive stats (like total Twitter followers–who knows if they’re all even looking at Twitter anymore?) aren’t enough.
Great photos and/or the ability to create stellar looking posts or a beautiful book proposal are always a plus. We are a visual industry after all! And, that book proposal has to be completely fleshed out with a full, and illustrated, project list. And it can’t just be all posts from the author’s blog!
Me to Kate: I know that you can’t discuss specific details about advances and royalties, but in general, for a craft book, what could a first-time author expect – a ballpark figure? And would you be able to describe the relationship between advances and royalties? How often do craft book authors actually collect royalties?
Kate: In general, I usually say a craft book author can expect anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for a craft book, but the overwhelming majority of those deals are on the lower end of that scale. Sometimes that includes the author paying for the photography and/or illustrations, and in some deals the publisher pays for that. It depends on the subject matter, the publisher and the skills/connections the author has. An agent can help an author decide if an offer is fair and industry standard or not feasible for her business. Moreover, craft publishers are not out to squeeze authors for every little penny, but that also doesn’t mean that every first offer is their best offer.
Across publishing, the advance is just that, a true advance. It’s money that the publisher expects you to use to make the book. It comes in several payments over time (often up to 3 or 4 separate payments from when you sign the contract to when the book is published), so sometimes the money coming in doesn’t always line up with what money the crafter needs. It takes some juggling. And when the publisher has earned back the amount of the advance (called “earning out”) in sales, then the author earns royalties. Royalties are calculated as a percentage of what the book earns per sale, in general, and vary from publisher to publisher. The truth is, across publishing and not just in craft, most books do not earn out. If you don’t earn out, you don’t owe back the advance. The huge best sellers cover the costs of the other books that don’t earn out, which is why A: publishers don’t want to throw buckets of cash at every author and B: each book they do take on is a true financial risk. That’s how publishing works in general, though some publishers are taking a no-advance-much-higher- royalties approach, which I think is both exciting, and just the ticket for some authors/projects.
Me: What kinds of expectations do aspiring authors have when they contact you? For instance – do they expect a $20,000 advance? Or do you think that people expect far less – maybe less than they should be making? Do authors realize how long it takes from initial idea to having that book in their hands (at least a year and often two, is that correct)?
Susanne: Great question. Less so more recently, but I often hear: ‘I’m not publishing for the money’. I think that is crazy! Why aren’t you in it for the money? You can bet that the publishers are sure as heck in it for the money, and it is a ton of work, so why not? Please. Be in it for the money too.
The timelines you suggest aren’t what Lucky Spool work toward (our production time is about 6-8 months from receipt of the manuscript to finished book in hand), but I think the timeline you list above is in line with traditional publication schedules. Probably longer, like 12-18 months after receipt of the finished projects, not after the initial concept is presented. So ‘normal’ publication could be 2-3 years after the projects were completed. It means your work will look either timeless or stale. In my experience, authors generally take what they are given and don’t ask enough questions. What is normal? Why not ask: what could become normal? It’s a system and process, true, but that doesn’t make it the best timeline for you as aspiring author.
Amy: We rarely have people asking for advances. We are happy to tell people what they can expect to earn, but that really depends on the imprint, page count and sales expectations. And it also depends on what work the author wants to do and what we are expected to do. And yes it can take up to two years to get a book done, however that time period includes our working with the author up front and how long they need. We can get a book done in less than a year if that is what the market demands.
Kate: Aspiring authors always want the most cash possible. Or, that’s mostly true. Crafters are sometimes disappointed when they learn that craft-book-advances vary widely and aren’t as high as they might like them to be, but a lot of things go into a craft book deal that isn’t just the advance. I advise crafters to NEVER calculate their per-hour earnings when they look at their advance, because A: it’s depressing and B: there are other forms of income (direct, like royalties and indirect, like new opportunities) that are part of book earnings. One of my goals with crafters and their book deals is to make sure they don’t go into debt writing a craft book. We’ve had to say no to deals because a client couldn’t afford to do a book.
Another surprise to crafters, especially those used to the quick turnaround of the internet, is that it can take up to 2 years for your book to be on the shelf. I know, it’s crazy! But it takes a lot to build a craft book, not just on the author’s end, and we all want the finished product to be both correct and beautiful. It takes what time it takes. Also, authors are surprised/mad that they can’t design their own craft book and layout the pages. The publisher has people on staff to to do that, so they don’t need the author to (you won’t be saving them any money if you offer to do it) and also, designing a craft book is MUCH different than many other types of graphic design. It’s hard for artists to relinquish that much control, but you have to when you’re working in traditional publishing, and trust me, you want to. The publisher wants a beautiful book as much as the author does.
In Part 2, I talk with the three industry leaders about book budgets, marketing, and where they expect the book publishing industry to go in the next five years….so please read on! And, if you’d like to read more about my book publishing experience, I share the details in this post.
Have you published a book? Or do you want to? I’d love to hear your experiences!
Deanna McCool writes for sewmccool.com. To make sure you don’t miss future posts in this series, please follow SewMcCool by e-mail (the link is at the top of the right-hand column) or join me on BlogLovin’ – the button is just below the e-mail feed box! 🙂