It’s been one crazy year for the Saffina Desforges team.
Last Christmas the brand was completely unknown. Two debut novelists (one a complete newbie, the other with background in TV and theatre, but that counts for little when writing a book) writing under a new name, Saffina Desforges. Their book, Sugar & Spice, was barely a month old on Amazon and had sold precisely nothing. We had hopes we might start moving with all the new Kindles in the UK market, but it was not to be. It wasn’t until February, three months after we launched, that we even made double figures!
It seemed the gatekeepers were right. Time and again they had turned us away, sometimes with encouraging words, more often not. At best we were told it was a great book but no publisher would touch it due to the sensitive subject matter.
In March, after endless months of rejection, we finally had an agent who seemed seriously interested, and took the book under exclusive consideration. Bear in mind the UK ebook market was still embryonic at this stage. Were there even enough people in the UK with e-readers to make ebooks viable?
We doubted it. So the latest agent seemed the answer to our dreams. At the time we would probably have signed anything she sent to us without even looking at it. But the agent was slow. Very slow. She loved the synopsis and openings and asked for the full script for her in-house reader. The in-house reader loved it. A glowing report came back. The agent asked for a further read.
Weeks became months. March became May. We became a lot more worldly-wise. When the final decision came, we realized just how crazy the old system was. The agent wanted us to take the ebook down so she could start touting to publishers. Three months earlier we would have done so. We were selling nothing. But this was three months later.
The week we sent our first rejection letter to an agent was the week Sugar & Spice broke the 50,000 sales barrier in the tiny UK market, and was the second biggest selling ebook in the country, competing – and beating – names we used to idolize.
Sugar & Spice went on to break the 100,000 sales barrier in late summer, and despite an Amazon glitch with the buying links that saw the book literally disappear from Amazon for almost a month, the book continues to sell well today, a year on.
And we continued to send out rejection letters, to both agents and publishers. Not because we had suddenly become anti-agent or anti-trad publisher, but because what they offered would have been a backward step.
When we hit #2 on Kindle UK with 50k sales the almighty Trident Media Group, one of the biggest agencies on the planet, came cold-calling. Months earlier we couldn’t get an agent to give us the time of day. Now New York’s finest were coming to us! Could this be our big break in the American market?
In fact their representative had not even read the book, and when they finally did she wanted so many changes (to a book that by now had sold 60,000 and was still topping the charts!) it would have been unrecognizable. And this just to get them to approach a publisher, let alone whatever changes the publisher might demand.
When the Trident agent then told us we had to withhold release of our new Rose Red crime thriller series until after they had approved it – this without us ever having signed a contract with TMG – we realized this and many other agents were living in some fantasy past world where writers were nothing more than an irritation in their all-important lives. When writers had no other options.
While all this was going on we were also being approached by overseas agents and publishers. We let slip the name of one Turkish agent in telephone conversation and the next day Trident – with whom we had no agreement whatsoever – had contacted them to tell them TMG were running the show. Six months on Trident have yet to tell the Turkish agency that TMG are not, and never have been, our representatives. Shame on you, Trident Media Group.
Other agency and publisher offers followed, with contracts ranging from merely unreasonable to downright despicable.
Then along came an offer from France that immediately captured our interest.
For starters, they had actually read the book! Nothing can be more instructive about an agent’s or publisher’s interest in you than they never having read the book they seek to represent / publish. Yet here was a French publisher interested in the Sugar & Spice story, not the Amazon ranking.
So we moved to the next stage, to discuss T&Cs. Here to stress how important it is for all writers to understand that the true value of any deal is not in how much you get out of it, but how much you lose in the detail.
Sure, that glitzy NY agency spiel or the big-dollar advance offered may be tempting. But at what cost to your integrity and future freedom as a writer?
Trident told us (from the very first phone conversation they were dictating terms like they owned us!) our projects list of future books was “just silly”. We could only write crime thrillers for “the next three years”. Our urban dark fantasy, trilogy? Not a chance. Our YA boarding school series, St. Mallory’s? Forget it. Our China Town chicklit mystery series? Go stand in the corner for using foul language. Chicklit doesn’t sell! As for non-fiction… Trident’s rep almost jumped down the phone and grabbed up by the neck to shake sense into us.
And as we looked at other publishers’ and agents’ contracts it became clear many were downright predatory. Non-compete conditions. Exclusivity. World rights despite they having no interest in anything outside the US/UK market. Loss of editorial control. Ridiculous advances and then a timetable to publication that made us wonder if we’d live long enough to see the first edition. Almost every clause was one-sided, and not in favour of the author.
So when we were approached by this publisher in France we were wary. We loved their enthusiasm and personal approach, but Trident, and many others before and since, have been enthusiastic and friendly, until the contract came up. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the contract.
So we went through it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, exchanged questions, asked for revisions, made suggestions, and discussed the whole deal on equal terms.
And when we were quite satisfied, we signed.
As is standard in such contracts there is a confidentiality clause which prohibits us giving the fine detail. But we’ll try to be as open as possible about what we gained, and more importantly about what we didn’t lose.
First off, these guys moved fast. Within a matter of weeks from first contact with this publisher we had negotiated terms, signed and received the advance.
I know you’re all dying to know how much, but we’re not at liberty to discuss that, or the royalty rates. Suffice to say we entered into this contract having weighed up every pro and con carefully, and we are delighted with the outcome.
The deal is for French language rights only. Yes, there’s now a Kindle France site sitting there, ripe for exploitation. So why not stay completely indie and go it alone we hear you cry?
Well, Sugar & Spice is a 120,000 word novel. The translation costs alone are exorbitant. Would we ever recover the costs of translation? If it took off big-time like in the UK, perhaps, but the French e-reader market is tiny by comparison with the UK. That will change, but when? 2012? 2015? We have no effective way of marketing in France anyway, and certainly no time to do so.
We pondered a percentage deal with a translator, like David Gaughran and Scott Nicholson have done, but it’s a huge amount of work and time to translate a novel of this length, then to see it only available as an ebook in a country where ebooks are so new, and with no effective marketing.
Now our French publisher MA will translate for us, get us into print on Paris book shelves and into hypermarkets, train stations and bookshelves all over France (Mark is ecstatic at that – it’s his favourite European country!), not to mention on amazon.fr. And as MA is widely distributed by a HUGE press over there we can expect a marketing campaign that may not match James Patterson’s, but will certainly be better than we could do on our own.
On top of that we got an advance which, when you consider the deal is for one language and has absolutely no limitations on us selling again and again elsewhere around the world, compares very favourably with what US and UK publishers are typically offering for world rights. And of course we’re not giving away 15% of the advance, or the royalties, to an agent who picked up the phone on our behalf. IP lawyers? No need. This was a straight-forward contract with no hidden clauses or ambiguous language.
Royalty numbers? Again, we’re not at liberty to discuss details, but MA were open to negotiation and we settled on a figure that compares very favourably with what’s being offered elsewhere.
Yes, we could theoretically get 70% from Amazon by going it alone. But that would be digital only. We have no way of getting into any other French ebook outlets, and we have sold precisely four English-language books in France since the Kindle store opened. Now we get to see our book in print in Paris and on Amazon Kindle and other French ebook sites professionally translated and marketed.
The math was simple. Seventy percent of nothing, or a smaller percentage of a very real something.
Throw into the ring the additional problems we’ve had recently with Amazon – where a glitch they admit was their fault just last month cost us literally thousands of sales with no hope of compensation – and it was really a no-brainer.
We lose absolutely nothing, and gain in almost every way. We’ve already banked the advance, and the translation for the print and ebook version of Sugar & Spice in France is on-going, with Paraphilia expected to hit the French market mid-2012. Yes, that soon!
Paraphilia? Just one more benefit of having a French outfit on board to sell in France.
Sugar & Spice translates easily enough, of course, but the traditional British nursery rhyme it draws upon (“sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of” – a reference to the story line of the hunt for a child-killer obsessed with little girls) is pretty much unknown in France, so the title was meaningless and potentially misleading. Something that would never have occurred to us as outsiders.
So are we still indie?
Of course we are!
We are very excited about our partnership for 2012 with this forward-thinking publisher and are currently also discussing other options with them.
But we built our brand up from nothing, with no help from any trad publisher or agent, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to release all our books as indie ebooks first, written how we want them written with covers we choose, published to a timetable that suits us, and priced as we see fit, for maximum royalties. Oh, and without paying 15% to an agent for doing so.
And once we’ve proven the market we can negotiate from strength if and when another agent or publisher comes up with an offer for partial rights to those books. Or indeed for Sugar & Spice itself, which is still open to offers from publishers and agents anywhere that doesn’t speak French!
But don’t even think of trying it on with your boilerplate contract for rookie writers like so many have recently! Take a lesson from MA on mutual respect.
We may not be selling in James Patterson’s numbers, but we think all writers, whatever their status, deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect. And we sure as hell think we’ve earned the right to some.
Saffi & Mark
- Bestselling Self-Published Novel Inexplicably Disappears From Amazon UK Causing Huge Lost Sales (davidgaughran.wordpress.com)
- Merry Kindle (*or insert the name of any other generic e-reader here) Christmas! (saffinadesforges.wordpress.com)