Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

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:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. 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?

Interview: Lois Duncan

Interview by RoseEtta Stone

Lois Duncan is a multiple award-winning author of more than forty books, most of which are YA (young adult) metaphysical/ paranormal-themed suspense novels. She’s received fifteen international young readers’ awards.

There are so many questions to ask you; why don’t we begin with your banned books? You knew that Killing Mr. Griffin had been banned or censored, but were surprised that Don’t Look Behind You also was, and “[couldn’t] think of a single thing that anyone might object to about that book.” If I told you it was challenged for its immorality, as well as for its graphic and sexual references, would you consider these valid reasons for challenging the novel?

I can only assume there was a mix-up. Don’t Look Behind You is about a family forced into the Federal Witness Protection program because the father helped the FBI expose a drug ring. It’s an adventure story. The closest we get to a sex scene is when the 17-year-old daughter goes to a party where the punch has been spiked, and her date starts kissing her. She shoves him away and makes him take her home.

Authors have stated before that they were unaware of objections or protests lodged against their books. How significant or insignificant an issue, then — and to whom, is the censorship of childrens’ and young adult literature?

I am almost never informed when a book of mine has been challenged. I learn about it only if a reporter contacts me for a comment and then, since I don’t know the specifics of the problem, I don’t know how to respond. It doesn’t seem to affect book sales.

Daughters of Eve was also banned or censored. Were any of your other books, and do you know why?

Killing Mr. Griffin has been censored in some school districts. The reason cited most often (at least, to me) is that one of the characters says “shit.” I’m sure others of my books have been censored as well, but, as I said above, I am almost never informed when that happens.

You’ve been writing for teenagers for more than twenty years . . .

Much longer than that. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was ten and made my first sale at thirteen. Throughout my high school years I wrote regularly for youth publications, particularly Seventeen Magazine. My first YA novel, a romance titled Debutante Hill, was published in 1957

Has, or how has censorship, in relation to books for this age group, changed over the last four decades?

The reasons for censorship reflect the social climate of the times. The publisher of Debutante Hill asked me to revise the manuscript because I had a 19-year-old boy (the “bad guy”) drink a beer. When I changed the beer to a Coke, the book was published and won the “Seventeenth Summer Literary Award.” In 1974, I was asked to revise Down a Dark Hall (a ghost story), to keep from offending members of the Women’s Movement. The ghosts in that story were originally all male; when I changed the ghost of a male poet to Emily Bronte, the book was considered politically acceptable. In 1984, I wrote a book of religious verse for children titled From Spring to Spring. That sweet little book was ready to go to press when the publisher suddenly got cold feet about offending feminists by referring to God as “He.” Of course, God couldn’t be called “She” either, so I had to go back and re-word all the rhymed verse to get rid of the pronouns, while maintaining the rhythm and naturalness of the wording. What a challenge that was!

Although you’ve no doubt been asked numerous times before, you wrote Killing Mr. Griffin because . . .

I started thinking about charismatic psychopaths like Charles Manson and wondering what they were like as teenagers? They didn’t just spring full-blown from oyster shells — they had to hone the “people skills” that allowed them to become so manipulative as adults. Kids like that are growing up within our school systems and can exert tremendous control over their fellow students. I consider Griffin a cautionary tale about the danger of peer pressure.

I found it interesting and wondered how and why the novel’s high school kids were so obliviously and fatally “taken in” by a charismatic psychopath?

For the same reason adults are seduced by charismatic religious leaders and politicians. Such people have a magnetism about them.

I also wanted to ask if there was an unstated, read-between-the-lines message in that, for kids? Or if I was being overly analytical? But you already discussed that.

Without my consciously intending to insert it, all my YA novels seem to contain an “unstated, read-between-the-lines message” about the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions.

The book didn’t definitively spell out whether Mr. Griffin was or wasn’t David’s father, thereby leaving the question of patricide unresolved. What did your readers make of that?

All the clues needed to answer that question are in the story. Does Mr. G’s age correspond with Mr. Ruggles? His personality — (over serious Griffin and free spirited Ruggles)? His career choice? His dedication to perfection? His huge feeling of responsibility toward his wife, unborn child, and students? The answer, obviously is NO. So why does David react emotionally to the class ring on Mr. Griffin’s hand? The book contains the information that both men attended Stanford University so, of course, they wore identical school rings. I like to think my readers are intelligent enough to figure that out for themselves.

Would the bloodshed at Columbine and other high schools, and escalating violence in schools Nation-wide make you censor yourself and think twice about writing Killing Mr. Griffin today?

Killing Mr. Griffin doesn’t encourage violence in schools any more than the story of Cain and Able encourages children to kill their younger brothers. Seldom does the small group of parents who want to protect their children from any knowledge that violence exists in today’s society have a problem with their children reading the Bible. The occurrence of an event in a work of literature is not a mandate that the reader should go forth and do likewise. In most cases it’s just the opposite. The devastating consequences of the “senior prank” that inadvertently led to the death of a fine man should make readers of Killing Mr. Griffin think twice before allowing themselves to be led down a dangerous path where there’s no turning back.

What I, personally, have a problem with are the stories (usually on television where action takes the place of introspection) where violence is sensationalized and made to seem thrilling rather than terrible. I was appalled when my book, I Know What You Did Last Summer, was made into a slasher film. As the mother of a murdered child, I don’t find violent death something to squeal and giggle about.

The one thing we’re absolutely sure of in our own minds is that this was not a random shooting — Kait was assassinated.

Kaitlyn, your then eighteen-year-old daughter, was murdered in July of 1989. Would it be too painful or uncomfortable for you to tell us a bit of her story?

Kait was shot to death in her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 16, 1989. Albuquerque police dubbed the shooting a “random drive-by” and refused to investigate any other possibility, despite strong evidence that Kait was murdered because she was preparing to blow the whistle on organized crime involving her estranged Vietnamese boyfriend, Dung Nguyen, and his friends. Those criminal activities were apparently protected by certain police officers.

Were there other reasons, beside telling Kait’s story, that you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?

When the police dropped off the unsolved case in 1991, I wrote Who Killed My Daughter? to motivate informants and to prevent the facts of the case from becoming buried.

Despite its publication, your own personal two-year investigation, FBI involvement, an investigative journalist and private detectives uncovering evidence, repeated re-enactments on Unsolved Mysteries, nation-wide reportage by newscasters, and your appeals for help and information on TV and radio programs across the U.S., Kait’s murder is still unsolved — her case still open?

Technically any unsolved case is classified as “open,” even if the investigation is permanently inactive. APD has stated, however, that they consider Kait’s case “closed” and will not follow up on any information that indicates that the shooting was not “random.”

Was Dung ever indicted or deported for his involvement in Kait’s murder, or for the other crimes he committed?

No.

Did the mysterious “Good Man Who Is Afraid” who you mentioned in Who Killed My Daughter? ever again come forward with information? Or the “old” boyfriend whom Kait was seeing clandestinely, that took her to the “Desert Castle?”

Not the mystery man. But other people have. And, yes, “Rod” has contacted us and provided us with interesting information.

In the late 90’s you wrote Psychic Connections: A Journey Into The Mysterious World Of PSI. This book, by virtue of the material it discusses, must raise more questions than answers, as did Who Killed My Daughter? Did you find researching and writing the book as therapeutic or cathartic as you did writing Kait’s book?

It was educational rather than therapeutic. My co-author, William Roll, Ph.D., is a respected parapsychologist — a former research associate at the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University and past president of the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research. Working with Bill on this project was like taking a cram course in parapsychology.

Although you haven’t written any since Kait’s death, the majority of the forty best selling novels you’ve written were young adult paranormal mysteries. Did you believe in the paranormal when you wrote them?

Actually, I have written others since Kait’s death. At the time of her death I was under contract with Dell to write three YA suspense novels. The first two books, The Twisted Window and Don’t Look Behind You had been completed. At first I thought it would be impossible to write another fiction story about a teenage girl in a life threatening situation, when my whole heart and mind were focused upon our real one, but eventually I forced myself to fulfill the contract. Gallows Hill was published in 1997.

No, I didn’t believe in the paranormal. I thought I was writing a form of fantasy.

The Psychic Connection

Your daughter Robin manipulated you into something that wasn’t “your thing” —consulting a psychic medium. Through her, and other psychics, Kait communicated with you from the “Other Side.” And during the first two years following her death, you were both also able to communicate with each other without psychic intervention. Can you give us some idea of what those experiences were like?

Psychics work in various ways. The most common method used by psychic detectives is psychometry (obtaining information from the energy stored in inanimate objects). The psychic, Noreen Renier, who helped us with Kait’s case, held the earrings and necklace Kait was wearing at the time she was shot and got impressions of what Kait experienced in the last moments of her life. The psychic, Betty Muench, gets her information through automatic writing, as if taking dictation from voices that only she can hear. She uses an electric typewriter.

In my own case, I’m not a psychic and can’t do either of those things. But I am Kait’s mother, and the connection between us was a strong one in life and apparently continued to be so after her death. I received information about the case in dreams or by hearing Kait’s voice hearing Kait’s voice when I was in that twilight state between waking and sleeping, which private investigators were later able to document. I’ve been told this happens with many mothers of murdered children.

So that we fully understand — private investigators were able to document or substantiate the information you received from Kait after her death, about her case. They weren’t, of course, able to document (or substantiate), as fact, that Kait actually communicated with you while you were sleeping or in that (in-between) twilight state.

They were able to verify that the information I received in that manner was accurate. Examples: The R&J Car Leasing dream message that I describe in Who Killed My Daughter? — an insurance fraud investigator in Costa Mesa verified that a business called R&J Car Leasing was located directly across the street from the motel Kait and Dung stayed in when Dung staged his fake car wreck in March, 1989. Every time Kait stepped out of that motel, she was looking at a sign that said “R&J Car Leasing.”

You’ll find another account of a message-dream that was documented in an excerpt from The Tally Keeper linked to Kait’s web site (http://www.arquettes.com). That message pertains to a woman named Jane with a heart tattoo on her upper arm who had important information to give us. Without that dream, we would never have known that Jane existed.

A portion of Who Killed My Daughter’s? prologue reads:

But the third young man1)The third young man (in that lifetime) was Kait. She was one of Lois’ male students. was a rebel who would not be intimidated. He considered himself invincible, but his judgment was poor, and he trusted all the wrong people. His actions brought disaster to himself and his teacher.

The psychic who told you about your own previous life as a male “robed” teacher concurred and added that Kait “came very near in this other time to a fate similar to her fate in this time. . .&nvsp;. Knowing whom to trust was the lesson she had to learn throughout this lifetime.”

But your “life’s purpose” (not “lesson”), in this incarnation, as the same psychic told you, “is to give out [your] ‘truths’ through the media.” Which you began doing by writing Who Killed My Daughter? And telling her story/your truths nationally, via the media?

I believe my purpose also involved learning patience. It’s been a long twelve years since Kait’s death, and we are still fighting the System to try to get somebody in authority to follow up on the evidence. Yes.

One of Kait’s messages to you, shortly before Who Killed My Daughter?’s publication, was: “I wanted to leave a note to tell you good-bye. I’m sorry things turned out like they did. I never told you how much I liked you. You were my favorite teacher.” Could her message be interpreted as an awareness on her part, or her acknowledgment that she remembered the past life you (the teacher), (and the students) — Kait and her siblings, shared together?

It could be interpreted that way.

You modeled April, the heroine of your novel, Don’t Look Behind You, after Kait. April was chased by a hitman in a Camaro. Don’t Look was published in June of 1989. One month later, in July, 1989, Kait was chased down and shot to death. And a witness reported seeing her chased by a Camaro. Please share with us the other astounding parallels or “coincidences” between the circumstances surrounding Kait’s assassination and fictitious details in Don’t Look.

That’s too hard to do in this short a space. All that information is in Who Killed My Daughter?.

Another remarkable “coincidence” you cited was related to the kidnapping in Ransom, your novel, published just prior to an actual kidnapping that took place (I think) in LA, which replicated the fictional one in your book.

You explained all of these extraordinary occurrences with an intriguing, thought-provoking theory which you defined as the “foreshadowing of future events” — your belief being that the fictitious characters and episodes had been “Written by someone whose mind had been touched by a memory of the future.” Now, that’s not precognition, with which I guess we’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, familiar.

For all we know, it may be the same thing.

Let’s end this portion of our discussion with one final question: In regard to our soul (or life) “scripts” which we ourselves, perhaps with some divine assistance, write between each physical death and the following incarnation — you, the entity now known as Lois, are, always were, always will, and were meant to be, a teacher. That’s who and what “Lois” is. In fact, you’ve lectured and taught writing and journalism classes, courses, seminars, etc., during your entire writing career, in your present life

And as far as your children are concerned, the psychic who spoke about your former “robed” teacher incarnation, informed you that you “will continue to be their teacher in all realms.” Does all of the above accurately reflect your beliefs as well?

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I don’t find the concept unacceptable.2)Lois Duncan’s interview concluded in the January 18th, 2002 issue of the X – Rated Childrens’ Books Newsletter.

Lois Duncan died at her home June 15, 2016. She wrote more than fifty novels, several children’s picture books, and two volumes of poetry. Best known for her YA novels, among Lois Duncan’s awards are the ALA’s Margaret A. Edwards Award and the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

References   [ + ]

1. The third young man (in that lifetime) was Kait. She was one of Lois’ male students.
2. Lois Duncan’s interview concluded in the January 18th, 2002 issue of the X – Rated Childrens’ Books Newsletter.
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