Interview by Jenna Glatzer
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?