Category Archives: self-publishing

The best of all possible worlds

Last night I walked a couple of blocks down Fifth Avenue to the brownstone home of the Salmagundi Art Club for a panel discussion of “Publishing in the Digital Age” hosted by the Deadline Club.  It was a miserable evening, weather-wise (as soon as I walked out the door of 1 Union Square West, the heavens opened, cabs splashed water as I waited for the lights to change, and my hair took on the proportions of Diana Ross’ favorite wig), but the panel discussion was lively and informative.

The question on everyone’s mind seemed to be “Should we panic about the state of the book business in the wake of the digital revolution or do we dare be optimistic.”  Our job on the panel was to illuminate the big issues preoccupying publishers and authors while attempting not to freak anyone out.  Overall, my fellow panelists and I were quite optimistic about the opportunities digital publishing affords while still admitting to twinges of regret over the passing of the traditional, wood paneled, musty smelling industry we all came of age in.

The optimism on our end came down to “choice.”  Authors have more choices now than they ever did.  They can self-publish easily and relatively economically if they choose or they can go through the traditional channels and, if that doesn’t pan out, go back to the idea of self-publishing.  Before e-books, if an author was rejected by enough agents and publishers, the idea of printing and distributing his or her own work was a daunting one.  Now, it’s a relatively painless process.

So, how is this good news to us inside the industry?  Well, what empowers authors usually empowers agents and, perhaps to a lesser degree, publishers.  Publishers and agents still provide an invaluable service in terms of curating literary material.  We still bring experience, love of craft, and critical acumen to bear on the process of book making and we’re pretty good at it.  And, authors and readers know this.  While self-publishing is now a thriving business, traditional publishing continues to publish more (digital and print) books every year.   And readers continue to buy these curated products.   Despite the perception of the business as the Titanic wildly trying to skirt the iceberg, publishers are making real efforts to keep up with the changing times so that they can bring their traditional talents to bear on the work authors are producing today.

Not to get all Panglossian about it, but isn’t this the best of all possible worlds?

8

The self-published author—what does an agent look for?

Last week, Laura Howard, an Indie author, asked whether I would write about what an agent looks for when offering representation to someone who is in the self-published community.  Since we represent a significant number of authors who originally were/are self-published, I was delighted to accept her request.

The first thing I look for in any author, self-published or not, is the quality of the writing.  If the work is poorly written, then we cannot represent it no matter how strong the sales are initially (substandard writing will not sustain high sales in my opinion).

An author’s sales numbers and how they build over time are also very important.  Unit sales are critical but so is the author’s position on the lists of the various e-tailers—Amazon.com; BN.com, etc.  A prolific author will often see each subsequent book in a series build up the sales of the previous books.

The author must be very active on social media—having an effective, accessible website and/or blog is important, as is a solid presence on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and other networking sites.  Positive reviews of the author’s self-published books by the target readership are critical as is a willingness to interact with and be supportive of other writers in his/her category.

Finally, I always like to talk with prospective self-published clients to make sure that what we think we can offer them matches their expectations; we try never to over-promise although we do assure all of our clients that we will do our very best to help them build their careers and have a positive experience doing so.

The goal is to sign up writers who have a solid future in Indie and traditional publishing, or a mixture of both.  So far, it’s working out very well for us and we’ve learned a tremendous amount.  I am happy to answer any questions regarding this subject which is becoming an important one in our business.  Let me hear from you.

Book Discovery

When I’m talking about eBooks with authors, something that always comes up is the idea of discoverability– how to get readers to actually find and purchase one of your titles. With so many titles out there, which is especially true on sites like Amazon, how do you get a reader to find your book?

So I was particularly interested in this survey posted by Digital Book World earlier in the week. What is fascinating about the findings is that people are using more and more ways to discover new works. According to Kelly Gallagher, who presented the results, readers use 44 different techniques to discover new titles. That’s a lot of ground to cover for an author.

The author of the DBW article puts it best when he says, “Imagine the complexity: a 27-year-old female romance reader from suburban Indianapolis who reads on a tablet computer but spends most of her time browsing the Web on her laptop versus a 43-year-old female romance reader living in Los Angeles who reads and buys exclusively on her e-reader. They’re both romance readers and female, but couldn’t be more different otherwise when it comes to how they discover and read books — and reaching them takes different marketing tactics.”

Something that also caught my eye: the #1 way people discover books, no matter what kind of reader they are? Either in person or through personal recommendations.

So where does an author begin? And do you find yourself discovering books in new ways?

 

Support systems

We’ve lately had the good fortune to represent some lovely women, like Tracey Garvis Graves and Colleen Hoover, who started out self-publishing their fiction and for whom we’ve now been able to make some significant deals with “legacy” publishers (have I mentioned that I really dislike that term?).  These women are very smart and committed about their work, but they are also incredibly generous in their support of other writers who are embarking on the same kind of venture.  They belong to online support groups where they critique each other’s works, give each other tips on how to market their books, and serve as cheerleaders to each other on their public platforms.  As Jane mentioned in her blog post last week, authors mentoring and supporting other authors should not be a surprising phenomenon, but, in fact, it often is.  It’s also wonderful and important and we hope that other authors are taking note and emulating this kind of esprit de corps.

But, as I mull over this interesting development, it occurred to me that I don’t see this kind of “community” among male writers.  Sure, people like our own David Morrell are tireless in speaking at conferences, sharing  insights with up and coming writers, and offering priceless advice (in David’s case like the professor he once was).  And I know that  Joe Konrath, whom we’ve represented for many years, has a huge online following for his often controversial but always provocative views about the publishing process.  But, I have not seen the kind of small  influential online writing groups among male writers that seem to be flowering in the women’s fiction world.

Why is this, do you suppose?  Is it a XX/XY thing?  Is it because of category?  Is it because men are more naturally competitive and women more nurturing (to apply the most pervasive stereotypes)?  Or do these groups exist and thrive and I’m just not hip to them?

Penguin’s Big Buy

You may have heard the news that Penguin Group has bought Author Solutions—one of the larger self-publishing platforms—for $116m. Not only is that a lot of money to invest in a company, it also speaks quite a bit about how traditional publishers have started to view self-publishing.

 

There’s no doubt that the current eBook market has seen a number of self-publishers find a great deal of success and notoriety. With this investment, it looks like Penguin is betting that self-published authors are a big part of publishing’s future. It is also a step in lending credibility to the self-publishing marketplace and its authors, who were once viewed as writers as who just couldn’t hack it as professional authors. Now, with the potential backing of a Big 6 publisher, that stigma may disappear.

 

It is still unclear how Author Solutions will be integrated into Penguin, though. Will Author Solutions replace Penguin’s Book Country platform? Or, more interestingly, will Penguin open up its own self-publishng arm (like Amazon’s KDP or Barnes and Nobles PubIt!)?

 

What do you think of Penguin’s big buy? Do you think we’re likely to see similar purchases in the future?

3

Longevity

One of the things I like about e-books is the fact that they have longer “shelf” lives than print books.  I like that I can think of an obscure title that I read and loved back in the Dark Ages—when Reagan was president and I still thought a flat iron was a good idea on my hair—and have it in my e-reader within seconds.  As much as I love physical books, I relish the convenience of accessing information or pleasure reading without waiting for half an hour while a surly bookstore clerk goes digging in his computer to see on what shelf there might or might not be a copy to be found.

Personally, if I love an e-book, I’ll more than likely find a way to buy a physical copy.  But, what my own e-buying trends (and those of my friends and colleagues) tell me is that digital books can sell more and longer than print copies that have to fight for shelf space, if marketed correctly, and can tap into ever-renewing markets with ease.

This Galleycat piece about how to re-energize sales of old titles is worth checking out by authors thinking of self-publishing, or digitizing their backlist, or helping their publishers promote their titles.

Case in point: Through DGLM’s e-book program (which we’ve blogged about here) we recently put up the late John Comer’s Combat Crew, a gripping memoir of the 25 combat missions Comer flew over Europe during WWII.  The book had been out of print for some time and Jim Comer, John’s son wanted to get it back out there for a new generation of readers and for the veterans and military personnel who would doubtlessly be fascinated by his father’s stories.  Reaching these specific markets and having hit the pricing sweet spot, the e-book has been an unqualified success.  And, indeed, a new generation of readers is discovering this classic narrative.

So, before you e-publish think about what markets you want to reach and how, think about pricing and don’t over- or under-price, and read as much as you can about internet marketing.  It will pay dividends and give your work an extra-long life.

 

Necessary losses

Most of us who work in publishing are passionate about books.  Duh.

We are also passionate about the written word in its myriad forms and about the primacy of the creative process.  Even when working with prima donna “authors,” celebrities who are barely literate, and writers of all stripes whose work should probably be hurled across the room in homage to the great Dorothy Parker, many of us are easily star struck.  All it takes is a brilliant turn of phrase, a well crafted, ambitious novel, a surprising and daring narrative gambit and we’re in love.

But, most of us in the business know with utter certainty that there are books that should be shelved, put in a drawer, sent through the shredder or, in the case of the truly great writers, consigned to footnotes in fawning biographies.  In this era of e-books and the voracious need for content, whatever its worth, it’s hard to defend the position that some books just should not be published.  And yet, some books should not be published.

Reading this short piece in the HuffPost about “lost” early efforts by renowned authors, later found and brought out under the guise of offering additional glimpses into those authors’ psyches, reinforces my opinion that not everything deserves to be in print.  My contention that someone should have told Shakespeare to put aside Titus Andronicus and turn his talents to somewhat less bloody family dramas has gotten me in trouble in literature classes as well as cocktail parties but really, would that have been such a loss?

I think all of us need to recognize, especially now when it’s so easy to self-publish, when something is not ready for public consumption and be able to move on to the next project with an eye to applying the lessons learned and producing something stronger, better…publishable.  What do you think?  As writers, can you make the call on your own work?  Can you make the call on other peoples’?  Should everything be published, the good, the bad, and the badly written?

 

1

The Unsold

Apropos of Stacey’s post about knowing when to say when, I’m squaring off with the unwelcome possibility that a book I love is on the verge of not selling. I can tell you that we came quite close at several houses, that there were editors who loved it, that all parties agreed that the author was prodigiously talented, that revisions were made and made again. And yet.  We’re now discussing the possibility of e-publishing, this author and I, and so it seemed thematically appropriate that Edan Lepucki should publish her follow up post to Do it Yourself: Self-Published Authors Take Matters Into Their Own Hands in The Millions.

My client is still mulling it over, but Lepucki has decided not to self publish for the reasons she lays out here. I’m with her on most of these: I too read books released by major houses; I’m part of the publishing establishment (and hence about as far from a “hater” as one can be); I work with literary fiction and I am a thorough-going champion of the small press.  But unlike Lepucki, I am perhaps less concerned with the validation that a contract confers. True, I am not an author, so my stake in this is different. I am certainly ambitious for the people and projects I represent, but I don’t set much store by what a client calls “the fantasy” in which book deal, stellar reviews and robust sales are the inevitable outcome of hard work, attention to craft, and talent.  Indeed, it is because I am not an author that I can attest that the system by which books are acquired and sold is an imperfect one, and there are good books, very good books, that go wanting. Like this one.

So, whether or not my client will decide to e-publish is still up in the air, but in the meantime, he is administering himself a crash course in the uses of social media, which will help him whatever transpires. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I am curious to hear what you think of Lepucki’s decision.

Moneyball, Amazon and the end of publishing as we know it

In this week’s death watch, the publishing business is going the way of the Edsel.  E-books have won.  Traditional publishers don’t know what to do with themselves or their lists.  Agents are unnecessary.  Anarchy reigns among authors.   And, oh, yeah, Amazon is getting closer to world domination (tricky bastards).  There is no leadership.  The darkness is encroaching.  The center cannot hold!

Let’s see, that about covers it, I think.  Except, does it?

The afore-linked-to New York Times article contains a quote from Russ Grandinetti (whom we’ve met a few times at Amazon seminars we’ve attended and whom the Times refers to as “one of Amazon’s top executives,” leading me to believe they don’t know exactly what he does) which I actually loved: “It’s always the end of the world. You could set your watch on it arriving.”  It also mentions some other shady (unnamed) Amazon characters twirling their mustaches while claiming that “publishers [are] in love with their own demise.”  As wary as  my colleagues and I are about Amazon and their plans to expand into publishing, I tend to agree with their assessment that traditional publishers can come across as a self-indulgent, hand wringing bunch who’d rather blame the big bad corporate entity for poaching their authors and re-drawing the battle lines than take effective steps to compete and prosper.

Enough, already.  If the model is broken or the times have changed and there’s a new model out there, then learn it, adapt your systems, and make it work for you.  Publishers are sitting on gold mines of backlists.  They seem to be unable or unwilling to competitively price and promote the e-books  they are putting out.  They’re still paying too much for that “sure thing” Jane was talking about earlier this week.  Most of all, they are loath to innovate at the speed the new paradigm requires.

Gerry Howard writes movingly in this week’s PW about how you really can’t apply the principles of Moneyball to publishing because you’d be ripping out its heart and doing away with all that wonderful serendipity that made The Bridges of Madison County, Tuesdays with Morrie, The DaVinci Code and countless other “small” buys into huge bestsellers.  I agree.  But, the thing I take away from Moneyball (the book and the film) is that you’ve got to look at your game differently if you are up against a rich behemoth who outpitches, outhits, and outfields you because they can buy all the talent out there.  Whether you’re talking about the Yankees or Amazon, I think the lesson is the same:  you can win playing smart small ball too.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Angry rebuttals?

10

It must be important

Jessica and I have been blogging on the same day for well over a year now, and this has never once happened: we both wrote on the same thing. It would be more surprising if it weren’t for the inspiration: Edan Lepucki’s excellent piece for The Millions about what happens when a book doesn’t sell. It’s clear that this piece has struck a chord, and I have a feeling ours won’t be the last blog posts about it.

Normally, I’d have suggested that one of us write something new, especially because there isn’t much that Jessica and I disagree about here. But I think it’s worth hearing the anecdotes we both have to share, and I hope our experiences (along with Edan’s) serve as inspiration.

- M.

From Jessica:

Last week I met with a client whose move from west coast to east finally afforded us an opportunity to sit down face to face. He is a prodigiously talented writer whose historical novel I submitted to more than thirty houses. Although a few of the editors to whom I sent it tried to make a case for acquisition, the novel did not sell. I know literary fiction is always difficult to place, and I am acquainted with the challenges of the present market, but this novel was so gloriously written, so seamlessly researched, so peopled with terrific characters (not least a sympathetic, intelligent and interestingly flawed narrator) that its quiet-ish plot seemed a non-issue. The houses to which I submitted, however, did not agree, and while all editors were profligate in their praise, we came away with no offers. Inasmuch as rejection is something I am trained to take in stride, I still wanted to storm the meeting rooms, kick down the doors, rail against naysayers (see Miriam’s post re: poisonous  invective) and ideally, have the phrase “we just don’t know how to sell this” stricken from the language.  Needless to say, my recent meeting with my client was bittersweet, and we spent much of our time talking about his next book. Which is why I found Edan Lepucki’s piece in the Millions so affecting.

If you have had a book that has not sold, or even found representation, at what point do you, like Lepucki, consign it to a drawer? True, we live in an era in which self-publishing is on the rise, but both Lepucki and this particular client decided that for assorted reasons, this route is not for them. So although I tend to share clients’ Churchillian inclination to never, never, never give in, an approach that has served me well with literary novels and works in translation, sanity, pragmatism and big picture considerations of an author’s career can mean it’s time to move on.

From Michael:

In the past, we’ve blogged a bit about books we weren’t able to sell, and how much that frustrates us.  It does.  When I sign something up, I’m in love with it.  The kind of getting-married-lifetime-commitment-love that one usually saves for spouses or cats.  So if something doesn’t sell, I’m wounded.  Being the agent, I figure I experience about 15% of the wound, with the author holding on to the other 85%.  Though authors can be notorious over-sharers, I sometimes feel like they shut down when their book doesn’t sell, and I often don’t know what’s going on inside their heads.  So I was eager to read this piece over on The Millions by Edan Lepucki.

Her reaction, after dealing with the hurt and disappointment, is exactly the way I’d hope my clients would react: move right on to the next thing.  But move on with the knowledge gained from the process submitting the first book, learning from whatever helpful comments might have been offered.  I have an author who is now working on his second book.  The first didn’t sell.  We were bummed, to say the least, but he jumped into the second one having synthesized what all of the editors had to say (lucky for him, editors liked his book enough to provide lots of thoughts–rare these days).  Not only was he eager to get back to work, but he was eager to implement what he’d learned.  And though we haven’t gotten to the submission part of things yet, I know that we’re much better positioned to succeed this time around, all because he was able to both accept the rejection and embrace the criticism.  That combination is going to serve him very well.