Co-publishing agreements are where you share expenses. What expenses? Aren't publishers supposed to pay you royalties for handing over the copyright, perhaps not very handsome amounts, but some recognition of the talent and hard work that's gone into the manuscript?
In most instances, yes. If you're writing popular fiction, or some steady earner like travel or cookery books, then assuredly so. Your work should sell in tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, earning a good profit for the publisher and a respectable income for author and agent. But co-publishing is more common with literary novels, experimental fiction and poetry, where publishers can find themselves facing a loss, however optimistically they do their sums. Yes, it might just make a modest profit, but almost certainly will not. Poetry not on teaching syllabuses is particularly difficult to sell, and the average first novel, well-reviewed in leading periodicals, sells two thousand copies, eventually.
Matters are not much better in the academic presses, and a specialist work, say, on the Hebrew literature of Muslim Spain, needs support, often in the form of grants, or subsidies from better-selling lines, but sometimes from the author's own pocket. These are the hard facts of the publishing trade, which professionals understand.
Publishers offer co-publishing arrangements for two reasons:
to help defray costs, and
to demonstrate commitment.
You're going to do much of the marketing anyway, but only if you have your own funds tied up in the project will you go that extra mile, give yet another talk to an over-sixties club or travel to some off-the-map settlement for a ill-attended reading, neither of which is likely to produce more than three sales apiece. The enthusiasm of the contract signing soon wanes, and the publisher understands the marketing maxim: a good rep is a hungry rep.
Respectable agents, say the authorities, do not charge a reading fee: that's part of the job. They carefully log their telephone and stationary expenses for reimbursement, but otherwise live off their 15% commission, toiling ceaselessly on your behalf.
So they may if their 20-odd clients earn $50,000 annually in royalties. But the average 'serious' writer earns only a fraction of that, supporting himself very largely with a day-job or fill-in occupation. 15% of $1000/year is not a large sum, even multiplied by 100 clients. For that reason alone, agents cannot take on poets, and tend to limit numbers of 'promising' new novelists, hoping for distant fame and glory rather than instant cash.
All this is obvious when seen through the eyes of others in the publishing trade. You may mortgage your future to a dream, but publishers and agents have more pressing needs. Co-publishing arrangements need to be scrutinized as any other other book publishing contract, but do offer a sensible way of balancing expenses and rewards in risky areas. Negotiate if you're unhappy with the concept. Perhaps the publisher will let you keep the copyright, or allow it to revert to you after a short period. If you meet him half way, you may be on to a mutually helpful relationship that will serve you well in the years ahead
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