Book packagers

[February 2009] Recently, a representative of a book packager contacted me with a proposal for a project they wanted me to consider.

Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. That’s the sound of my brakes squealing across the pavement. Book packagers? What’s that? Sounds kind of dodgy. Some sort of scam, mayhaps?

Before committing to anything—or indeed, even responding to the unsolicited e-mail—I had to educate myself on what this book-packaging thing was all about. Book packagers are exactly like publishers. They produce books. They have researchers and editors and marketers and foreign rights departments, and all the other things that you might expect a publisher to have. They have artists and illustrators, book designers, the whole nine yards. They even have their own organization: The American Book Producers Association.

What they do is bring together all these creative people to assemble a “package,” which is just another word for a book. This book idea either originates with another publisher—perhaps even one of the big, famous, New York publishers—or the proposal is shopped around. That’s right—the book packager also acts as a literary agent for the project.

Why do they exist? Because publishers don’t always have all the resources necessary to produce labor-intensive books—ones that have a lot of photographs or illustrations, require a lot of research or involve the acquisition of rights and licensing. That’s the stock-in-trade for a book packager. The volumes they produce would look right at home on your coffee table. Big, lavish volumes with photographs. Every page illustrated and intricately designed. Book packagers (also known as independent book producers) make complicated books easy for a publisher to publish.

As was the case with the project I was offered, another publisher often comes up with a concept, perhaps prepares an outline or some guidelines, and then hires the book packager to produce the finished volume.

So, what’s the deal? As with any other publishing relationship, the sky is the limit. It’s difficult to generalize. The conventional wisdom is that the writer’s end of the deal with a book packager is much like “work for hire.” That means, you get a flat fee for your words—which, after all, are just part of the package—no royalties. And, sometimes, not even name credit on the book or a transfer of copyright to the book packager. It’s like being a ghostwriter. Those terms may be deal breakers for some people.

However, everything is negotiable, and not all deals are the same. The book packager in this instance offered both royalties and name credit. Though the boilerplate contract stipulated a transfer of copyright, my agent successfully negotiated copyright in my name. During negotiations, he told me he enjoyed working on this deal because it was a different type of contract from the usual ones he was used to seeing. Different kinds of clauses and concerns.

There was something else to consider—though I will get a royalty on every copy sold, the royalty is based on the sale price to the publisher who initiated the project, not on the cover price. That’s not the way things normally work—it’s more like the terms of a normal contract for “deeply discounted” copies, except in this case, every copy is deeply discounted

On the other side of the equation, though, the books are sold to the publisher on a no-return basis. I will get a royalty for every copy printed. None of that nasty “reserve against returns” that appears on typical royalty statements—money held back by the publisher in anticipation of a certain percentage of returned books from stores around the country.

There’s another dimension to this project: I’m essentially a servant to two masters. I have an editor I’m working with at the book packagers, and another editor downstream with the publisher who solicited the project whose name I don’t even know. It is possible that I will “finalize” the manuscript with one editor only to find out that more work will be required at the behest of the second editor. So far, the second editor has been agreeable with everything we’ve done, but it’s something to keep in mind should you find yourself considering a deal with a book packager.

Things tend to move very fast in this world. The editor first contacted me at the end of November 2008. After a few rounds of discussion, both by e-mail and phone, I was intrigued enough to get my agent involved. He went off and did his thing with them while I continued working on an outline for the project, which I submitted about a month later.

After the outline was approved, I got straight to work. Because of the accelerated timeframe, I had 1/3 and 2/3 point deliverable deadlines—both to keep me on track and to provide the photo researchers with material to work from.

The editor has been a delight to work with, as enthusiastic about the project as I am and very supportive of the work I’ve done to date. Exactly the kind of environment every writer hopes to have while working on a book.

Now, less than three months after the initial contact, I have an executed contract and . . . ta da! A complete manuscript. Because these books are so lavishly illustrated, the word count tends to be fairly low. In this case, 20-30,000 words was the contracted text.

In parallel, the photo researcher and documents experts have been gathering material for the book. I don’t have any involvement in that, though I have been able to facilitate access to certain materials. The book will be published this fall—less than a year after initial contact. It’s hard to match that in “mainstream” publishing.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to during 2009 to date. I had the first draft finished at the end of January (though my deadline was the end of February). I spent the first couple of weeks of February revising and polishing the manuscript and I turned it in last week—two weeks early.

The advance is nice money—probably more than I would get for a first novel from a paperback house and for much less work—and there’s the possibility of significant further revenue if the book is popular, or if side deals are executed for subsidiary rights. All in all, a very pleasant process. Especially in this economic climate, and with the fairly dire state of affairs in publishing, it was a welcome surprise to have something like this drop into my lap.

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