Lisa Abbate of Wordmountain.com has done a terrific interview about self-publishing with author-advocate and co-founder of Writer Beware, novelist Victoria Strauss. Ms. Strauss outlines some of the hows, whys, and best-practices writers should be aware of when they’re investigating self-publishing options, for Absolute Write’s readers.
Self-publishing is a perfectly viable model for a number of writers and a number of niches, but the various business models out there introduce a whole set of complications and dangers for any savvy writer to be aware of. In addition, it’s important that anyone planning to self-publish understands what they’re looking at, in terms of distribution and sales numbers:
Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.
Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write and editor at Coyote Wild. Her website is www.wordmountain.com. She is also the founder and executive director of an environmental organization, visionforsalem.org.
You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites:
For so many writers—fiction or nonfiction—the completion and publishing of a book is the fulfillment of a great dream. Completing a book is no small feat, and neither is getting it published. Some aspiring authors choose to seek out an agent and traditional publisher, while others opt to self-publish. Technology and competition has brought self-publishing to a new level and has offers some solid benefits—writers can get their books out sooner, have a bigger chunk of book sales, and participate in every step of the process. But you’ve got to do your due diligence and remember: Writers that approach publishing options more with their business mind and less with their emotions (even though it’s exciting to achieve your goals!) will ultimately be happier with the outcome.
To that end, I want to introduce you to Victoria Strauss.
An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Victoria is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Writing Scams, and co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a highly-respected publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers.
Abbate: There are so many self-publishing choices out there, with new companies emerging constantly. What are some key aspects that a writer must consider when shopping for a self-publisher?
Strauss: There are plenty! One is how long the company has been in business. Several years in business indicates stability (for example, the company is less likely to suddenly vanish without a trace—always a risk with a brand-new startup).
Another thing you want to see is a large catalog of books, and a steady output. Again, this indicates stability and experience. Look the company up on Amazon, and sort the search results by date. This will give you a sense of how many books the company has published, and you can check to see if there are any suspicious hiatuses. For instance, if the company has been producing books at an average rate of a several dozen a month, but the numbers suddenly dropped or stopped a few months ago, something might be wrong.
There’s also price and packages. These vary from company to company, which makes comparison shopping especially important. True DIY companies like Lulu and CreateSpace charge nothing upfront; more elaborate services, which include extras like custom cover design, can charge upwards of $20,000.
Make sure that what the company offers is a good fit for your budget and your goals.
Abbate: What about look and feel of the books?
Strauss: Physical and design quality matter too. Many self-publishing writers design their own covers—something they may not have the expertise to do—so there are nearly always poor-quality covers on a self-publishing company’s website. But the company’s cover templates should at least look professional (comparable to what you’d see in a physical bookstore). It’s also a good idea to order a couple of books from any company you’re considering, so you can assess paper, binding, and interior design. Print-on-demand books can be indistinguishable from their offset-printed counterparts, but some self-pub companies skimp on paper and cover stock.
Abbate: I know that there are some self-publishers out there that market themselves as the more traditional publishers, but are really in the market of selling books back to the author at an inflated price. What should people watch for?
Strauss: Book price is critical. POD-printed books are expensive to produce, so cover prices will generally be higher than for offset-printed books, especially at longer lengths. Some self-pub companies let you set your own price, but others don’t give you a choice. Make sure the cover prices are not unrealistically high, and be aware of what your own book is likely to cost. Visit Amazon and your local bookstore and compare prices in your book category.
Abbate: I always go by the guideline that you shouldn’t offer a deal or contract that you wouldn’t accept yourself, knowing all the variables. What should self-publishing writers be mindful of in contracts?
Strauss: Look for a nonexclusive contract that covers only digital
rights (POD and electronic) and can be terminated at will. Your share of the proceeds shouldn’t be less than 20% of net price, or 75% of profit. Beware of any self-pub company that demands exclusivity, or puts a claim on subsidiary rights.
Then there’s reputation. You can find complaints about just about any self-publishing company, if you Google it. But some companies are the focus of more complaints than others, and that can be a warning sign, especially if the complaints all mention similar problems. There are resources at Writer Beware to help you assess a company’s reputation. Don’t bother with the Better Business Bureau; writers rarely complain to the BBB.
Abbate: What are some of the emotional aspects that a writer can get caught up in when looking at self-publishing, or being “accepted” by a company? It seems that some companies present as having an application process, when the reality is that they just want the money and really aren’t discerning.
Strauss: Straightforward self-publishing services, such as Lulu or Infinity, may sometimes present an overly-rosy picture of the benefits of self-publishing, but they don’t pretend to provide any sort of vetting process or quality filter. Anyone who can pay will be published, and that’s made very clear.
The problem arises with the more deceptive companies, which present themselves as “mainline” or “traditional” publishers despite charging fees, or call themselves “subsidy publishers” rather than vanity publishers or self-publishing services and say they don’t accept just anyone. For writers who are frustrated by multiple rejections, or who can’t get publishers or literary agents to pay attention to their queries, or who’ve been searching for so long that they’ve begun to believe they’ll never succeed, a contract offer from a company that claims to be selective is a huge validation, and can be a major incentive to ignore warning signs.
Abbate: It’s that point where the business decision is driven by emotion, perhaps without seeing the facts clearly. Every writer wants the satisfaction of seeing their work in print.
Strauss: Absolutely. But any time you are required to lay down cash in order to be published—whether it’s an upfront fee or a purchase requirement of some sort—you must abandon the idea that you have been chosen on merit. Yes, some fee-based publishing companies are at least somewhat selective—focusing on a specific market or genre, excluding manuscripts that are too long or short, rejecting those that are egregiously ungrammatical or poorly-spelled. But the fact that their profit is built on authors’ fees means that they can’t afford to exclude too much. So even if a company isn’t lying about picking and choosing (and some do lie), whatever selection process you’ve been subjected to isn’t rigorous enough to provide true validation of your work. (Conversely, it doesn’t condemn your work, either. A fee-based company will as happily publish a good book as a bad one.)
Another emotional pitfall comes with not doing your research. Many writers who decide to self-publish make the decision based on incomplete or faulty information. Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.
Abbate: Many people think that they have distribution—that the fact that they self-publish a book means it’s easy to get a book into a bookstore or on Amazon—when nothing could be further from the truth.
Strauss: As noted above, there are two pieces to the book distribution picture. There are wholesalers (such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bertrams, and Brodart), which provide warehousing and fulfillment services for publishers and self-publishing companies. They keep publishers’ books on hand (in either physical or virtual form, depending on the publisher’s business model), fill orders as they come in, and accept returns. Distributors (such as PGW/Perseus, Independent Publishers Group, and Consortium) do everything a wholesaler does—plus, they maintain a sales force to sell publishers’ books directly into bookstores.
Self-publishing companies (and fee-based publishers in general) offer only the wholesale piece of this picture. That means that your book will be available at most online booksellers, and can be ordered in bookstores if someone asks for it. But it will not actually be stocked in stores, because without the direct sales component provided by a distributor, the stores won’t know it exists. For volume sales, you need a balance of online and offline presence—and for wide offline presence, you need a distributor. Many writers don’t realize this.
Abbate: If you were going to self-publish a book, what would you walk away from in a contract?
Strauss: Exclusivity. Any claim on subsidiary rights. Any contract that wasn’t terminable at will. A share of less than 20% of net price, or less than 75% of profit.
Victoria Strauss is the author of nune fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Passion Blue duology (Passion Blue and Color Song), the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City).
I get to read a lot of interviews with writers, editors, publishers, and other assorted interesting people. This interview posted on Tartitude is very fun. Not just because award-winning NYT best-selling author Laura Kinsale has a new book out, but Hope101’s interview questions aren’t just the same old standards, either, and Ms. Kinsale’s answers have humor, heart, and a sense of fun that’s a joy to read.
The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.
Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.
Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on www.dystel.com.
Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.
Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.
“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.
Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on dystel.com). “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”
JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.
Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.
Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.
“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.
Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.
After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.
When you become the author of a nonfiction book, you are also considered an expert in your field. People want to read what you write and hear what you have to say. You want to promote your book and get personal exposure by writing articles and speaking publicly. Author interviews are an important part of your publicity program.
Why not add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?
Add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?
Interviews and interviewers come in all shapes and flavors. Some interviewers want you to respond to questions via e-mail and they post your interview as is at their site or publish it in their magazine. Others prefer to conduct a telephone interview which they will paraphrase in their publication. But the most popular interview processes today are the real time podcast and the online radio show.
Not everyone is comfortable being interviewed. Yet, if you expect your book to reach a high level of popularity—if you hope to sell thousands of copies of your book—you really must learn to handle author interviews.
I have been interviewed numerous times in a variety of ways. Personally, I love the e-mail interview where I just respond at my leisure by typing my answers. I like having the time to think about my responses and to reread them before submitting. My worst interview experience occurred when the interviewer, in a real-time interview, began challenging my responses—playing the devil’s advocate. I’m not a debater and I don’t do well under that kind of pressure. I had to work hard so as not to come off sounding defensive. I hope I was able to carry that off. Book sales after that interview were up and that’s always a good indication of a good interview.
You truly never know what to expect from author interviews and maybe that’s one reason why the fear of the interview is so prevalent among authors. Recently, I was asked to participate in a podcast interview. I guess I misunderstood the original instructions because I was prepared to have the host ask me some questions. That’s generally what happens when someone interviews you. Just minutes before the show aired, I learned that I was supposed to speak for twenty minutes on my topic, “The Right Way to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Book.” There would be no questions. No one else would speak. I was expected to take charge of the airtime all by myself for the first twenty minutes of the show.
I quickly revised an hour-long speech I’d given recently on the subject and printed it out as a crutch. There’s nothing worse in radio than dead air, I’m told. And I did not want to be at a loss for words. I think it went well. Even though I was simply speaking over the telephone, I imagined myself looking out over the airwaves into the faces of a large audience eager for the information I was imparting. At the end of the 20 minutes, the host stepped in and asked me a few questions before the show ended. Again, book sales were up for a few days after that.
If you would like to be interviewed on the topic of your book, here are some tips and techniques that could help:
Author Interviews: Tips and Techniques
Locate interview opportunities through websites and publications related to your topic as well as those that feature general author interviews. If you spend some time exploring the site, you will soon discover whether or not they conduct interviews. If you see no indication of interview opportunities, post an e-mail asking for the opportunity.
Do a Google search to locate directories of websites and publications with general interview opportunities or those related to your expertise.
Create a succinct, but impressive bio to include with your inquiry. A potential interviewer will want to know that you are articulate (which should show through, at least to some degree, in your writing style), qualified, credible, knowledgeable, and interesting. A bio can help to portray this. A good interviewer who conducts live interviews will also want to hear your voice. So give your phone number, as well.
Handle yourself as a professional during any interview. Here are some tips:
Think like your target audience. What do they want/need to know about your subject? Even if your interviewer gets off track with his line of questions, you can bring the discussion back to the issue at hand. Always keep in mind “What information and resources can I offer my audience?”
Don’t be afraid to give. It’s highly unlikely that you could ever give away too much during a 30 or 60 minute interview. Besides, the more you give, the more the listener will want. And it’s that yearning for more that will sell copies of your book.
Keep it simple. Remember that your time is limited—there’s no room during author interviews to teach or share what took you several months to write. Concentrate on a few key points and, no matter what the interviewer asks you, try to bring it all back to the original points. My book, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book, covers writing and publishing a book from start to finish and beyond (including distribution, promotion and so forth). During an interview, however, I may focus on the importance of writing a book proposal or the process of self-publishing or some aspect of book promotion. Your book on baking healthy muffins from scratch would be aptly represented by revealing a few of the recipes and describing the health benefits of the ingredients. If your listeners like what you gave them, they’re going to want more.
Read and listen to other author interviews to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Of course, you want to keep your own style of speaking, but there are definite faux pas that you want to avoid. Eliminate filler words such as “ah,” “um,” “er,” and so forth. Banish habitual phrases from your vocabulary. This might include “Ya know what I mean?” and “Right on,”” and “You bet.”
Practice speaking off the cuff. You will definitely need this skill when doing a live interview.
Join a Toastmasters Club near you and participate often in order to improve your public speaking skills.
As an authority on the subject of your nonfiction book, you will be sought after as a speaker, writer, and interviewee. You’ll also want to seek out interview and speaking opportunities. Prepare yourself now for the challenges ahead.
William Shunn’s novella Inclination appears on the just-announced 2006 Preliminary Nebula Award Ballot. William Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer (cite>Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites)and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at via iTunes. William Shunn has a Website.
Is attendance at events like the World Fantasy Convention part of growing as a writer and expanding your network?
Oh sure. I go to maybe two or three, sometimes four, conventions a year and they’re just invaluable for meeting other writers and editors. I don’t even necessarily get as much out of attending panels and so forth than I do just hanging out and meeting all the people I can. I’m sort of introverted by nature, so I drag my wife along to these things and she makes sure that we always have something to do and someone to do it with.
Do you think it’s getting to the point where writers need to have a core competency in terms of technology and reaching out to their audiences?
I [don’t] think that it’s vital. It may be, in the future, ten, twenty years it’ll be more important even, but I think someone who is not necessarily good at computers, Web design, and what-have-you might waste an awful lot of time trying to get a Website going and learning all the ins and outs of that.
I do think it’s a good idea to use the web as a resource for learning more about the craft . . . different sorts of bulletin boards and newsgroups and so forth, but, I think you can get too caught up in the self-promotion and not focus enough on the writing.
I know in the early days of the Web, that happened to me and I spent way way too much time on my Website. Now . . . I post on my blog . . . during odd moments of free time at work. My podcast takes more time, but again, with a podcast, it’s helpful if you’ve got a bit of a reputation already and have something to build on. I don’t know that it’s going to help everybody right out of the box.
Do you think that readers of science fiction might be more willing to interact with authors through technology than other readers in general?
It has always seemed that way to me, yes. There are certainly exceptions, but it seems like science fiction fans and science fiction writers are among the early adopters of new technology.
I was interacting with science fiction writers online as far back as 1991 or 1992 back when it was just usenet and GEnie and Compuserve . . . and there was a really thriving community of science fiction writers on GEnie. There must have been at least one or two hundred folks I would see on the newsgroups thirteen or fifteen years ago. And it really does seem like they keep doing that; they’re the first ones doing podcasts. There are a lot of science fiction podcasts now and yeah, I think there’s a fascination with gadgets and with new technology that sort of goes hand in hand with being in that genre. I don’t think everyone else is that far behind, though.
The readers, and the writers, they’re interested in cool futuristic stuff and as it comes along, they want to grab a hold of it.
Science fiction and fantasy are so often lumped together, yet there are many readers and writers speak vehemently about the differences between them. Do you think the two of them really do have a genuinely close relationship?
The two genres are definitely very closely related, so closely related that a lot of authors write both. I can think of very few examples of science fiction writers who’ve never written a fantasy story or novel or vice versa. Myself, I’ve published maybe in equal measure science fiction and fantasy. Most people tend to fall more toward one end of the spectrum or the other but I think that the close relationship there is that these are the two really imaginative genres and there are a lot of storytelling elements that they have in common. And then, within that, a lot of people prefer one over the other, or prefer science over what they see as the softness of fantasy or people who can’t stand thinking about technology or science and things like that . . . you get closer in and it’ll break down more and there will be among readers people who will be really very adamant about the differences between the two . . .
I do prefer science fiction more in a lot of instances than I do fantasy but some of my favorite novels are fantasy novels. Tim Powers is one of my favorite writers and books like Last Call will always be on my top ten favorite novels list but I read more science fiction and lately I write more science fiction. They’re very closely related and you can’t talk about one without the other in most cases.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of science fiction that you’d like to share with other writers? Advice? Observations?
Once challenge that science fiction writers continually face is the increasing rate of technological change in the world. It’s like, you write a story and then if it’s near future or even not-so-near future, sometimes it turns out that just a few years later, there’s some kind of scientific development that makes your story look really old fashioned really fast. A challenge for science fiction writers has always been to try to stay ahead of the curve and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the world of science. But I really don’t think that that’s going to make science fiction obsolete at any point. I think that no matter how much that’s technologically exciting that’s going on the world, there’s always new things that we can imagine and new stories we can write about it. The technological change brings up ethical dilemmas and so forth and that’s the sort of thing that makes interesting science fiction. That’s the reason a lot of people read it, is for a sense of wonder that they get about the future, for a look at some of the dilemmas that changing technology present to us as humans. As long as we’re accelerating technologically, we’re going to keep thinking about what is it that comes next and how are we going to face that and how are we going to respond to it.
Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit her Website at http://www.amyba.com.
Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others.
You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?
Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.
And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.
What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?
I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels . . .
Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?
I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.
Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?
I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story
And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.
And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.
With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.
One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?
It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting idea . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.
Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?
In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.
Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.
How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?
I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.
After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.
In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.
As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?
While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.
On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.
Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).
However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.
Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?
There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:
Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.
In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.
Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?
The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.
I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”
Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.
You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?
This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.
Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:
Is the market really that big?
Can I do a better job than the publisher?
Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?
If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.
Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?
Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.
Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?
If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.
What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?
The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.
It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.
Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?
As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.
As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at www.squareonepublishers.com? And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?