The Preorder Revolution

What would Marx say?

I am a huge fan of Mike Duncan, whose Revolutions podcast I’ve listened to for years. I recently yelled excitedly to my similarly-Duncan-obsessed son, “it’s finally February 1917!!! Lenin is headed to the station!” What a COVID balm has been the endless lead up to this moment.

For months now, Duncan has been orchestrating a charming preorder campaign for his just-released book, The Hero of Two Worlds. He has asked listeners to preorder, and then send in receipts if they did so at indie bookstores, in an effort to get all the American indies covered. Duncan, who does little in the way of podcast-related ‘monetization’ hawking (years ago I had to search for a while to find some way to send him money), has a soft sell, but it’s every effective. I have been rooting for his book for months now.

At the top of a recent episode, he read us listeners an email report he had received from the marketing team at his publishers, lauding him for being such an effective promoter, and extolling the huge number of preorders that he has generated. The hope is that all these sales, which all count as first day sales, would boost the book onto the bestseller list. “Duncan is the best!” was the general gist of the marketing report.

I wish only success for Duncan, but part of me is bothered by this campaign, because it exemplifies a problem with corporate publishing’s increasing reliance on authors to sell books—and, related—its increasing reliance on offering contracts to authors with large social media or other (podcast, newsletter) followings. Mustn’t it become increasingly easy for the houses to trim or cut marketing and publicity costs for authors who are good at promotion? But if the author is doing so much of this work, shouldn’t they be paid accordingly? Perhaps Duncan’s advance figured in his ability to bring in those preorders. But if not, I hope Duncan receives a higher royalty rate, based on the number of preorders that come in, or at least some nice bonus.

Duncan, and people like him who are particularly adept at drawing in listeners, or readers, or followers, should be taking more control over their publishing contracts. As long as books are going to continue to be a goal for so many ‘creators’ —and getting a book deal remains a somewhat strange, consistent goal for so many old-school celebrities and young social media stars—then book deals should be structured accordingly. Or at least people might start asking for them to be so.

I recently had a chat with someone who I have long courted as a possible Belt author. They have a large social media following. They could potentially get a big five deal and a mid-five figure advance. We cannot match that, but what we can offer is a lot more control over everything involved in the book than a big five publisher. They would not have to worry about the project devolving into something very different from what they want it to be. Even better (I think, for them), they could ask for a larger stake in the book. I floated the idea of us entering into a sort of co-publishing arrangement. For instance, they put up the same amount of money as we do towards producing the book, and we split the proceeds accordingly. Instead of a 5% royalty, they would get a 50% one. We share in the risks, and they would receive more of the rewards than a traditional contract. (As I’ve written about in previous newsletters, his is the kind of deal Harriet Beecher Stowe was offered and declined, in favor of a traditional deal, and thus she lost a fortune; Jane Austen also underwrote the costs for her books’ production) Basically, structure a publishing deal more like a start-up in which all players have equal equity. (Newsletters, by the way, could also work this way. Instead of Substack taking 10%, or Substack Pro writers getting an advance, if both parties are in it 50/50, the writer comes out better.)

Of course, Duncan may have received an advance that will never earn out, no matter how many preorders—and orders—his book receives. Thus such a deal would not benefit him. But then again, if that’s the case, his amazing preorder campaign will not result in more money for him, either, than simply writing the book and handing it over to the publishing house would (though it might indirectly, through a bigger advance for the next book, prestige-that-leads-to-money from hitting the bestseller lists, etc.)

I guess my point here is that authors who are proficient enough to make their living on revenue from newsletters, podcasts, social media and the like should consider publishing deals that pay them directly for these skills, and not just in higher advances that bake in these skills. Don’t let publishers coast on the coattails of their ability to promote books: demand more of a stake, or cut. After all, all these folks are already publishers themselves—of podcasts, newsletters, etc. As they are about to do on next week’s episode of Revolutions, why not take control of the all means of production.

(cue the Hyden)