Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Give that Piece a Second Chance

In the past, I have advocated for fewer imprints. Allow me to reverse course as I suggest a new imprint idea that should be added at every major publisher. Call it Resurrection or Second Chance or Renewal. The idea is simple: Publishers are sitting on piles of quality material that they paid good money for. Some of those investments didn’t pay off. But it may not have been the fault of the text. Give that piece a second chance.

Self-published authors do this all the time (though probably not as often as they should). If a digital book isn’t selling well, there’s minimal cost and zero risk in repackaging the work and giving it a second go. Every editor has a list of books a mile long that they truly believed in, loved to death, but didn’t quite make a splash. Too often, this is blamed on the book or on consumers. Nearly as often, it is the wrong cover art, the wrong metadata, the wrong blurb, the wrong title, or simply the wrong time.

For the cost of cover art and an upload, a piece of valuable property can be brought out of the vault and sent out to customers. I imagine a spirited meeting once a month over coffee and scones, where editors can make their case for a book at least two years old that didn’t sell as expected. Perhaps they would want to look primarily at books for which they paid large advances, as the earnings are already in the red (so more of what is made would be kept in-house). These are probably the books they cared dearly about when they first saw them. Another $5,000 for a digital-only release is a drop in the bucket.

I would make these releases (and this imprint) LOUD. I wouldn’t shy away from the notion of giving a work a second chance. Implicit in this act is a belief in and an appreciation of this work. Shout to the book world that people missed something great. If the title is changed, make sure people know what the old title was. This isn’t an attempt to dupe or deceive. It’s just about taking great works, already owned, and seeing if a few tweaks and a new climate will help them prosper.

For the publisher brave enough to make this a real focus, the advantages would be extraordinary. Imagine saying to agents and authors during the negotiation process that you are the only publisher (or the first publisher) who will never give up on a work they believe in. What other publisher will tell you that? Think of the PR of such an imprint at minimal cost. A huge gain would be made to hear from publishers that sometimes, when a book doesn’t do well, it isn’t the text’s fault.

I would aim for twelve books a year from an imprint like this. There’s no editing to perform. No printing costs. No distribution costs. Edit that metadata, digitally re-shelve the e-book, and slap a new cover on it. Let the author know the book is being given new life, so their marketing efforts can be kicked up. And then, if a book shows promise in e-form, get the sales force behind the work. Maybe it’s time to dust off the printers.

17 replies to “Give that Piece a Second Chance”

Headline summer 2014 – “The Penguin Group announces the addition of a new imprint: Pheonix.”

I love it, too, though it’s “Phoenix” (not “Pheonix”). On the other hand, the way that the big publishers have been goofing up everything else lately, they probably would spell even their own imprint wrong.

Don’t give them any ideas, please. Most authors these days would rather have the rights back than give the publisher who failed the first time another crack at it. There’s that whole 70% of cover vs. 25% of net thing to consider, you know.

I have to disagree with Jenna. I think this is a great idea. They aren’t going to give up the rights anyway (unless contract language changes) so why not make another go at it? Even if they just rebranded the eBook version and didn’t offer a print distribution (except maybe a POD) this could breath life into so many decent books who missed out on their first attempt.

I love this idea as a reader! I always have great intentions of reading certain books (and seeing certain movies), but then writing, and reading other books, and LIFE, get in the way, and those books drop off my radar. There must be a whole file in my brain (sadly inaccessible) full of titles I wanted to read but will never remember. I’m sure some of those would be part of this Second Chance imprint and I’d “find” them again!

The coolest thing ever is that I was actually standing next to you when you were pitching this concept to the Random House dude! But yes, scones and coffee, now that’s an idea worth reviving….

Amen Hugh! Not only do you bring up valid points, but you offer practical advice and solutions. I just self-published my first children’s book via Createspace and can’t tell you how many books I have voraciously sought out for my reluctant readers (did I mention I am a K-12 Literacy Specialist?) I just recommended Molly Fyde and Wool to two of my reluctant readers and am looking forward to what has just been set in motion.
I thank goodness my father tipped me off about you a couple of months ago. He and my mom are fellow ‘Jupiterians.’ I have been coming down from Philly to Jupiter for the last 20+ years. Learning your story and watching a few of your candid self-made interviews nudged me to investigate Createspace and take the plunge! Thanks for helping set The Peppermints movement into action. Would love to catch up with you sometime when I am down in Jupiter.

Another fantastic idea from a nimble brain. I’m in the process of doing this with some short stories I published at the beginning of my indie career — now I know better about covers, categories, blurbs, etc.

And I still believe in those stories!

Thanks, Hugh.

Totally agree that all is not lost on a novel that didn’t have success the first go. It may be an astounding read, but cover art and lettering are very important brand images of the book. The mind identifies symbols, patterns, and balance in an instant. A book’s cover and title reveals the presentation knowledge, care and tastes of it’s designer/ packager. This exhibits a value (or undervalue) of what is inside.

I’ve always thought something like this was a good idea. There are a lot of good out-of-print stories that would probably still do well if brought out of the dusty vaults and given a second chance at life.

I’ve always figured the average shelf life of a book is about three years. By the end of that period, the next hot title comes along and pushes the earlier book off to the side. But as long as humans keep on breeding, every few years there will be an opportunity to catch a new audience for a good story.

But then there is a part of me that disagrees with this. If a publishing house has left a title languish, doesn’t that say they no longer see value in that book? Why don’t they just cancel the contract and return the rights to the author? This way, the author can either self-publish the title, or try with another publisher who might do better marketing it than the first.

It brings me to my personal position that publishing contracts should have a term limit. If they can’t get my title to sell after six years, then they should release the rights back to me. If the title does well and they want to renew, then we can renegotiate the terms of a new contract (e.g. pay increase). It could be that a publisher DOES see value in that title, but at the time they had another book by A-List Author X to release and my title got set aside and forgotten. Of course, that brings to light that perhaps my title didn’t have enough value for them to put any effort into it. In that case, I want my rights back.

Hugh, I think you’re making a really interesting suggestion. As someone that worked in the media for years as a magazine editor and editor-in-chief, I am all too familiar with the pressure to produce things that are “of the moment” and “fresh.” In reality, this pressure often forces editors to pass up things they think are fantastic simply because they may seem “old.” Sometimes those “old” things gracefully make it into the “timeless” category (and so are published anyhow). Sometimes it just takes a very independent-minded editor to push aside the pressure and publish something regardless of whether it comes with a publicist’s press release. The truth is that what readers want — what real people want — often isn’t so much “trends” as quality and originality.

In terms of books, I think that if a publishing company has no intention of investing its attention in a book that it has bought (once the initial romance phase at the beginning has passed — for example, by doing the necessary updating in order to keep the book viable on the market), then it should give the author back the publishing rights. When books are out of date but need updating, they can actually hurt an author’s overall ratings on sites like Goodreads (because out-of-date books annoy readers and therefore garner lower ratings).

But the BEST thing would be for the publishers to do what you are saying: reinvigorate their own enthusiasm and spiritedly reinvest their publishing house’s time and money into keeping those very books alive. After all, the ideal situation for authors, editors and publishers would be to develop loyal, long-term relationships in which all parties benefit equally. True team work. I think there are a lot of people in the publishing world that are primarily concerned about money, not loyalty (well, duh, right?). But for those of us who have longed most for a place to call home within a publishing house, loyalty matters more.

I, for one, have recently opted to self-publish my novels because I got turned off by the mainstream system. I had a novel that two editorial boards at major houses wanted to buy, but the publishers (money guys) said no. I couldn’t understand how publishers could make those editorial decisions for editors — except that I was an editor, so I knew the pressure they were up against. That pressure is the bottom line. But, as you have said Hugh, “it’s all about the readers!” If great texts are languishing on the desks of book editors in this day and age, I can’t think of any good excuse for it. They can create a fantastic new cover for under $500 and re-release it as a digital book, plus make it POD (print on demand). Ultimately the goal should be to get the great stories to the hungry readers out there. But of course, this also means that authors have to be willing to settle for low (or, in the case of self-publishing, no) advances. It’s really a chicken-and-egg situation in some ways.

This is a great idea, Hugh, and publishers have a back list of books that should have done better. I also think that as others have said that if a publisher isn’t going to do anything, they should return the rights to the author. With limited investment, a book could be updated with a new cover and released again.

Only last week I was considering a bit of cosmetic surgery for one one my books. It doesn’t sell well, but most reviews as positive, so something doesn’t pull the readers in. I think it’s the naff cover. This has just spurred me on to contact my designer and get something changed. Thanks for the push

I think this is a great idea. Kind of a last ditch effort or a second run up the flagpole. There have been many cases where authors have injected new life and sales into previously published books that flopped or had tepid sales. They changed the titles, blurbs, cover art and did a little revising. I know of one gal who re-published a non-fiction self-help book that was years old, which ended up on the best sellers lists.

chris

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