By Shawn Coyne | Published: September 30, 2011
There are four words that book agents long to hear. An editor can wax on and on about how much she adores the novel or proposal you’ve sent her and about how well she would publish the book, but until an agent hears “We’re running our numbers,” he doesn’t dare tell his client that the house has moved from “interested” to “on the brink of an offer.”
“Running the Numbers” is code for, “I’ve been authorized by the editorial board to submit a request for an acquisition profit and loss report from the house’s business manager.” Because it is pure speculation, an acquisition P&L is much different than an “actual” P&L, which is based on the actual performance of a book. The acquisition P&L is a matter of infinite hope. The actual P&L is reality…and usually disappointing as only two out of five books published return any money to the publisher. But, there is a science to the acquisition P&L too.
For example, when I was at Doubleday longing to acquire Steve’s second novel, I did quite a bit of work before I recommended we publish it. I already had about eight years of success and failure as an editor—like most…more failure than success—and had reached a high level of competent incompetence. All editors are essentially incompetent when it comes to guaranteeing the performance of a book, but like a good handicapper at Belmont Park with hundreds of thousands of dollars won and lost at the track, they learn how to pick the right horse for the right race more often than not.
Through years of trial and error pitching people like Tom McCormack, I’d figured out how to best position a project for a publisher in the shortest amount of time. Like high concept Hollywood, it’s a good idea for an editor to compare her project to previous successful titles that are in the novel’s genre and/or nonfiction category to pitch. Not too overtly schlocky, though. “It’s The Silence of the Lambs meets The Hangover!” will just get a lot of eyes rolling.
So when I went into the editorial meeting to pitch Gates of Fire, it went something like this:
“I have in a remarkable thriller (notice I didn’t say historical novel) about the crucial battle between Sparta and Persia that saved western civilization. It reminded me of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Patrick O’Brian’s AUBREY/MATURIN series in its “you are there” details, but it also has the narrative drive of a bestselling writer like Stephen Hunter.”
While you’ll notice that there is not one “number” in my description, the business manager, publisher, marketing director, and head of publicity would be thinking something like this when they heard this pitch:
–A Thriller! It’s commercial, not literary, phew!
—The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel about the battle of Gettysburg that has sold millions of copies since its first release in 1974, if we can convincingly package and sell this book as akin to Shaara, we’ll have a sizable target market.
–Patrick O’Brian’s AUBREY/MATURIN books have also sold millions of copies since 1970, and they are about war at sea in the 1800s. So it doesn’t have to be Civil War to sell. Maybe an ancient battle is just the right kind of fresh to appeal to this genre?
–Stephen Hunter is a wonderful thriller writer who features a sniper (Bob Lee Swagger) as his lead protagonist and his sales numbers are very healthy…obviously there is a constant demand for military themed works.
A pitch like this can fast track a project at a publishing house because it communicates the range of potential sales the book could generate. And throwing in an in-house author (Doubleday was Hunter’s publisher at the time) tells the decision makers that they’ve published this kind of book before and have had success doing so.
So when the time came to “run the numbers,” I didn’t have to pull them out of thin air. The business manager checked on the sales figures of the books I mentioned and came up with a very healthy anticipated first print number on her own. So when I submitted the request to her with a number in the range she had already calculated, there was little questioning of the first print run I anticipated, the net sale, etc.
If on the other hand, I had characterized Gates of Fire like this:
“I have in a fascinating historical novel about an ancient battle called Thermopylae. In 480 B.C. King Leonidas of Sparta was concerned about the rapidly advancing approach of Persia’s Immortal army, which led to a mobilization of three hundred Spartan soldiers…”
You get what I mean? There is no way to adequately describe the experience of reading Gates of Fire and the last place to try and do that is when you are begging to get some doubloons out of the company coffers. What usually happens when an editor pitches a project without giving definitive comparison titles that have numeric subtexts is sort of an editorial Bataan death march.
The editor in chief will say something like “that sounds terrific, who wants to read?” And then some of the editor’s dutiful colleagues will raise their hands, agreeing to do backup reads on the book. Then the project will be on the agenda for the next editorial meeting. A week later, a discussion will ensue about the commercial viability of the project. If the consensus is that it’s a worthy book to publish, the conversation will inevitable lead back to finding comparison titles to use to estimate an acquisition P and L. In the highly competitive commercial fiction marketplace, an editor who loses ten to fourteen days going through this drudgery will have little chance of acquiring many “big” books.
Okay, so based on the pitch at the editorial meeting, but after the publisher and editor in chief agreed with my editorial assessment (you don’t have to read much of Gates of Fire before knowing you are in the hands of a master), the business manager ran an acquisition P and L within a few days of the novel being submitted. A group of us (Publisher, Editor in Chief, Business Manager) analyzed the P and L. I was then authorized to offer a compelling enough advance to secure Gates of Fire and another book by Steve for the Doubleday list.
So what does a P and L look like and how do you “read” it? Each publishing house has its own version, but they are fundamentally alike. Here’s an approximation of one that I’ve put together.
Next week, I’ll go line by line and explain what each item and number means and how it is calculated.