Nightmare or Sweet Dream?
The New York Times
ran a story
the other day about the dilemma facing Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, whose office is just an odiferous canoe ride down the Gowanus Canal from Lantern's own. Akashic is the publisher of the latest phenom, Go the F**k to Sleep
by Adam Mansbach. Akashic has presold 50,000 copies of the book, and has printed 300,000. The Times
Mr. Temple has already fended off major publishers who tried to muscle in on his sudden hit. After its Amazon ranking began to climb, “Go the ____ to Sleep” was in such demand that more than a half-dozen large publishers approached Akashic Books about licensing the rights to the book, vying in effect to take over the publishing duties, Mr. Temple said. Some of the bids approached the $1 million mark.
For me this story encapsulates the challenges facing small presses who suddenly produce a huge bestseller, and provides a teachable moment for authors and publishers alike.
First of all, cash-on-hand is very valuable in publishing, since so much of one's money is tied up in inventory and paying bills. To turn down a cool $1 million and forfeit the expenses of publishing the book is a very attractive proposition. You could use the money to bring in other authors, do a little advertising, and generally raise the profile (and perhaps) sales of all your other, equally worthy titles, on the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Temple, apparently, however, has turned down that option. His reasoning is—and this is the second point—that he "only" has to sell 200,000 of the copies to make that $1 million turn into chump change. His author is sticking by Temple—not only because Akashic made a commitment to him and he to Akashic, and (amazingly) honorable people still exist in publishing, but the author has a better deal with Akashic than with other publishers. Akashic doesn't pay large advances, and instead gives the author a bigger payout in royalties—a very sensible way of deferring a publisher's cash depletion until some money is coming in from sales. Although Mansbach would receive a good chunk of the $1 million that Akashic would get for selling the rights to the book, he still stands to gain much more from sales with Akashic than with another publisher—even though that publisher might be able to sell more units than a small outfit like Akashic.
And that leads to the third point, which is Akashic's success is a sign that the way books are sold is changing. Word-of-mouth and the Internet are the drivers of this particular book, rather than reviews, a celebrity author, literary eminences giving it their blessing, or an extensive author tour. It does my heart good to know that you don't need a swanky office and an enormous staff to handle a huge hit. If Akashic can do it, then so can we. We just need the book. . . .
That said, if Lantern found itself in the same situation, I'm pretty sure I'd take the money. It's not that I don't think we could handle "success so huge and wholly farcical," to quote Philip Larkin. But, socialist that I am, I'd rather spread the certain wealth among all our titles, and build up the sales of many of our titles over the long haul, than gamble on the one title in the hope that the riches of continued sales would offset the enormous costs associated with printing and distributing books. Aside from the immediate liquidity, hanging over Akashic and Lantern is the specter of books in huge numbers returning from Amazon and bookstores should sales drop precipitously—big gobs of unusable cash piled high in your warehouse.