Why does the fate of the applicants on Dragons’ Den, (or Shark Tank if you are in the
US or The
Tigers of Money if you are in Japan, where the show was first
conceived) seem so familiar?
Because that programme’s format is what every professional writer’s life is like from the day we complete our first manuscript and go looking for a publisher to the day we finally give up the struggle.
Just like the Dragons’ Den hopefuls we start with our brilliant ideas, which always seem to us like the most original things ever. We believe they are guaranteed to be bestsellers because if we didn’t we would have trouble getting through the work needed to bring them to life. They are our babies and we pour months and years of toil into their creation.
Then we realise that we need someone else to see the potential that we see, someone with money and, hopefully, expertise in the design, marketing and selling of books, someone who will take our precious ideas, package them beautifully and get them out into the shops and into the hands of readers.
I don’t know how many people write in to Dragons’ Den and never even get seen, but I am willing to bet it’s a lot, probably the equivalent of the millions of “pitch letters” and the hundreds of thousands of “slush pile” manuscripts which used to circulate around publishers’ offices in corporeal form and now fly around in cyberspace as email attachments. In both cases the majority of these brilliant ideas sink at this point and you are left with the few which the dragons’ gatekeepers think look promising enough to be considered.
I guess now we have reached the equivalent stage in the writer’s life cycle as that moment when you get to actually speak to an agent, who thinks there is a slight possibility that they will be able to find a willing dragon to back you. There will then be a few exploratory conversations, maybe even meetings, where everyone and his wife/her husband gives an opinion on how you could improve your product and your pitch to make it more appealing.
Finally you have got over all the hurdles and you are wheeled in to the room with the Dragons themselves.
In a writer’s world these are the commissioning editors from the major publishers who have track records in making money out of books. They have flashy great glass offices to prove how good they are at this, but they are also hungry for new products which they can package and develop just like the ones they have been successful with before. They are willing to listen to your pitch before they decide whether to swallow you whole or spit you back out into the street.
You enter their flashy glass towers shaking with nerves, (just like those poor people you see rising in the lift on the show), and walk out in front of people who seem to hold all the cards. They are publishing professionals, insiders with salaries and pensions and access to the capital and the expertise that you need. You are just a writer, an outsider, with an idea for a book or a manuscript.
You now have to convince these fire breathers that your book, (which in most cases they will understandably not have had time to read in full), has the potential to be like the books they have produced before. Or you have to convince them that you have identified a whole new market of potential readers who no-one else knows about, who they will be able to target with their big budgets and marketing skills.
They, on the other hand, want you to tell them about your social media platform, your previous track record, the genre that your book falls into, and how many more books of a similar type you will be able to churn out in the future if they invest the money to make this one a success. They want to see how they can brand you and scale your book up into a business which will keep bringing in money for years ahead.
If you manage to convince them that your product has this potential for “scalability” then they might be willing to make you an offer. But they know there are many others like you waiting to come up in the same lift, so that offer probably doesn’t have to be that generous, and they can also be sure that you will agree to them keeping the lions’ share of the profit that results from whatever they agree to invest; a reward for their generosity in offering to make your dreams come true.
In exchange for doing you this favour they will also want to have complete control over what the book looks like, when it will come out, how many copies will be printed, and when it will be withdrawn from the market. They will also want to own the copyright and it is unlikely they will ever sell it back to you as long as there is even the slightest chance that the book might earn anything in the future.
Just occasionally a pitching author is lucky and manages to convince these dragons that they have the potential to be the next J.K. Rowling or E.L. James and the dragons will then start squabbling amongst themselves, offering better and better terms to try to tempt the author to choose them and not their rivals. It is knowing that these scenarios do sometimes happen that keeps new writers working and making it a buyers’ market.
Often on the television programme the Dragons inform the applicants that they have “nice little businesses” going and that they should keep it at that level, not trying to run with the “big boys” (them, obviously). In the analogous writer’s life that is where the small independent publishers, the hybrid publishers and the self publishers come in. If you can afford to print up your own book, hire your own editor and cover designer and, in an ideal situation, your own PR person, then you actually don’t need the help of the Dragons at all. You can stay out of the Shark Tank, remaining safe on dry land, keeping control of how your beloved book is presented to the world and keeping the bulk of any profit that might follow.
There is always a possibility that if you act as your own dragon you will lose the money that you invest in becoming or hiring a publisher, but at least you have given it a go and at least you have avoided the degrading process of having to convince a bunch of rich business people that you can make them a lot more money.