Publishing means so many things today. There are blogs to read—free of charge—there are e-readers, there are blockbusters and bestsellers, there’s print on demand and e-publishers and publishers masquerading as independent but are really vanity presses. With all this confusion, what’s a struggling author to do? Today’s blog interview lays bare some of the ins and outs of independent publishers. Four brave indies were kind enough to give me the time of day. In no particular order, they are Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, Lynne Patrick, Managing Director of the UK’s Creme de la Crime, Kay Lacey of the UK’s newest Audely Square, and Francois von Hurter of Bitter Lemon Press.
According to an article on Bookwire.com, the 2005 U.S. publisher title output decreased by more than 18,000 titles, and the trend is believed to be continuing through 2006. New titles released by the largest general trade houses decreased 4.7 percent. The cost of paper was one of the reasons cited for decreasing their number of titles, but it is clear that all houses are choosing very carefully what will be on their lists. According to this Parapublishing there are 86,000 small publishers in the U.S.
Let’s see what they have to say.
What do you consider special about your publishing house? How do you distinguish yourselves?
Charles Ardai: With Hard Case Crime we've set out to revive a style of publishing, of storytelling, and of visual design that paradoxically both went out of fashion decades ago and has never gone out of style. The noir or pulp aesthetic is a vibrant and vital part of pulp culture -- this is certainly true at the movies and on television, in graphic novels and comics, and to some extent in prose fiction as well...but until we launched Hard Case Crime, no one had, for many years, published books that looked or read like the actual pulp paperbacks that inspired modern pulp culture. Our goal is to do pulp completely straight -- no postmodern games, no nods or winks or air quotes, no camping it up or dumbing it down. We want it to look as though Hard Case Crime started publishing a book a month the day World War II ended and somehow never stopped. No one else is doing anything like that. Our books are short, they feature gorgeous and sexy painted covers, they're done in the classic mass-market format rather than the more modern trade format, there's a certain impulse and propulsive quality to the plots, and the cover price is low -- what more could you want?
Lynne Patrick: Several things. We actively target previously unpublished authors. There’s a lot of talent out there, and the book trade will die without a constant supply of new blood. We specialise in crime and mystery fiction. And our covers are instantly distinguishable: a ‘family’ feel to the design, red, white and black, with red spines which stand out on the shelf.
Kay Lacey: We are a new publishing company and will be publishing novels from 2007. We are specializing in providing material in three main areas; historical novels, Jewish fiction, and lesbian and gay fiction. We will primarily publish reprints of historical novels which through their historical accuracy may have the potential to encourage people to study history in greater depth. We are a British company and publishing for the British market. We recognize that it is important to provide such material because as historians we were inspired to study history at University after reading historical novels by authors such as Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and Leon Garfield. The British school education system is currently teaching history in a very limited way and we believe that historical novels have an important role to play in education. British publishers have only just started to publish historical fiction after a long absence and it is a genre gaining in popularity. The British market has sophisticated readers and historical inaccuracies and anachronisms are certain to be spotted by readers, this is where our specialist skills as historians will be beneficial. We are able to advise our new authors about historical details and refer them to primary and secondary material. Authors would usually have to pay for such a service, but with us, this is free of charge. We are all medieval and early modern specialists and educated to postgraduate level. We will sell primarily though the Internet, through building up a direct mailing list and through specialist UK bookshops. This is a formula that has already worked well for other small independent UK publishers. We expect our readership to be primarily female. We have already chosen five historical novels to reprint.
Francois von Hurter: We are new, small, and independent and specialize in fiction from translation, in particular crime and noir fiction.
How much personal input do you have with each published work?
Charles Ardai: Roughly half our books are reprints of undeservedly forgotten titles that were first published decades ago, while the other half comprises new books written specifically for us. Clearly we have the opportunity for more input in the latter cases than the former, particularly given that the authors of our reprints are often dead. But that's not always the case -- we worked closely with Ed McBain, for instance, in the months before his death to prepare a revised version of a book that was originally published as I'M CANNON--FOR HIRE by "Curt Cannon" and that we reprinted, half a century later, as THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE by Ed McBain. Our new editions of work by Lawrence Block and John Lange have also incorporated some modest edits and revisions. When we're working on original novels, of course, we are active editors, providing writers with detailed line edits and working with them to produce the best possible final draft of their work. In the end, each author has the final say as to what his or her book should contain, but many of our original novels have changed quite a lot between the original draft that was submitted to us and the final draft we published. (Our most common revision: Shortening books to make them tighter. It's the rare book indeed that can't be improved by some judicious trimming of fat.) And for all our novels we have complete control over visual composition, both of the interior and exterior. Every cover features a new cover painting that we commission, from some of the finest painters working today, and we work closely with each painter to determine just what each book's cover should look like.
Lynne Patrick: The buck stops with me. I read every promising submission my editors pass to me, and the final selections for our list are all mine. I edit at least two books a year myself. I consult with the author and two designers about the cover of each book. I read the final edited version of every book we publish, and proofread when it’s typeset. I organise the launch publicity, and co-ordinate across-the-list publicity campaigns.
Kay Lacey: We read each book and if necessary suggest alterations to the author. Francois von Hurter: We only publish 6 to 8 titles a year so each title gets our full attention, from the selection of the text, to editing , to the jacketing and marketing of the novel.
Charles Ardai: You name the job, I do it. I founded Hard Case Crime with my friend Max Phillips, and while we were working together on the line he did the graphic design and I did all the editorial work (though to a large extent we worked together on everything). After our 27th title, Max handed the graphic design reins over to our current art director, Steve Cooley, who has been responsible for all our cover design ever since. I also work with an outside typesetter, and an excellent company called Dorchester Publishing handles all production and distribution, but everything else, I do. I select the books we publish, I edit them, I proofread them, I write the cover copy, I work with Steve on the design, I work with the painters on the art, I do a lot of promotion and marketing...and once in a while I also write a book for the line. This is what it means to be a small operation: one person gets to have his hand in everything.
Lynne Patrick: My label is managing director, which in American terms equates to president and CEO rolled into one. In practice, the company is so small that the job often encompasses filing clerk and coffee-fetcher as well as decision-maker. I described my job to someone the other day as part putter out of fires, part stuffer of envelopes, part creative genius (yeah, I wish!)
Kay Lacey: Jack of all trades!
Francois von Hurter: Small time publisher. But one who gets deeply involved with our writers, translators and designers.
How many submissions do you receive, and of that number, what percentage is published?
Charles Ardai: We get about 1,000 submissions per year, and we publish about 5-6 original novels each year, and that means that we have to say no to more than 99% of the books we see, including some very good ones (and more, of course, that are not good). What's more, most of the original novels we publish are ones we seek out, by professional writers we know -- which means there are even fewer "slots" available for over-the-transom submissions than might appear to be the case. That said, if a great book comes in, we'll buy it. It rarely happens, but I open each new submission hoping that this one will be the one.
Lynne Patrick: An interesting question. We started out nearly four years ago with a talent hunt - the Search for the Crème de la Crime. We received hundreds of submissions from all over the world, and have published eight of them, with a ninth coming up in 2007. So on that basis, we’ve published a little over one percent, which I’m told is quite a high proportion. After the first Search submissions began to arrive in the conventional manner; we’re a small company, so maybe a dozen a week. We only publish six titles a year, so we have to be very selective (detailed submission guidelines appear on our website, www.cremedelacrime.com), and so far just two titles have come to us down that route, both to be published in 2007. We’re about to run our second Search, looking ahead to our 2008 list. Full details are on our website, and entries are welcome from anywhere in the world. One of our early authors (and first Search finds) was Australian. (In case you were wondering, we don’t cast authors adrift after the first book; each book has to pay its way, and if it does we welcome follow-ups. Four of our authors have written follow-ups, and two of the four are developing series.)
Kay Lacey: Our first and only advert (on firstwriter.com) has brought over fifty initial submissions and we continue to receive submissions on a daily basis. We are still working our way though the first submissions.
Francois von Hurter: We deal mostly with books already published abroad and receive over 100 submissions a year. 6-8% publishing rate for translations. We also look at ‘agented’ submissions of manuscripts written in English. 5 a year received from agents, zero published so far. Unsollicited unagented submissions are not accepted.
What turns you off about a manuscript?
Charles Ardai: If it's badly written. That's the most common problem -- plain old bad writing, ranging from utter incompetence (spelling errors, terrible grammar, etc.) to more subtle but equally pernicious defects (overuse of familiar tropes, bad jokes, ham-handed exposition, etc.). Once you get past this level of problem you get into other issues: Does the plot feel fresh or clichéd? Have I seen ten other submissions in the past month set in the same milieu? Is there something about the plot or characters that engages my imagination? Is the voice one I'd choose to follow anywhere? In the end, it boils down to this: Can I put the book down, or do I feel compelled to keep reading? If I can put it down, I do put it down.
Lynne Patrick: Evidence that the author hasn’t read our submission guidelines, or thinks they don’t apply to him. (Regrettably it’s usually a him; I’m being factual, not sexist.) We’re quite specific about what we want, and so far we’ve received nothing special enough to tempt us to stray off our chosen path. Scruffy manuscripts that have clearly done the rounds. There’s no excuse for bad manners.
Kay Lacey: The quality of the writing. Whilst one would prefer to have a manuscript sent double spaced in 12 point courier with one inch margins and numbered pages, this is something that can be rectified. Fay Weldon, a creative writing tutor at a British University, said recently that "We can tell you what not to write but not what to write." It is also disheartening to receive works with poor punctuation and grammar. There are literary agencies and copy editors who can clean up a manuscript and make suggestions. Pay someone to do this before submission and it will enhance your chances of publication. Don't let friends read your manuscript, entrust it to a professional. Read books about how to write. Writing skills can be learned. Most literary agents say that they can tell by reading just one page of a manuscript whether it would be publishable. There are some golden rules to follow when writing - characterization, structure, dialogue, description. A literary agent will look for these and will want a synopsis of the novel. Short stories tend not to sell well and so publishers steer clear of these, unless you are an established author, it may be hard to get published. Don't send short stories or similar to an agent or publisher who specifically says that they don't handle this type of work.
Francois von Hurter: Crime writing has to grab you early, easy to say, not so easy to do.
What did you want out of publishing that you weren't seeing in the big houses?
Charles Ardai: I wanted to publish a type of book the big houses weren't publishing and weren't interested in publishing. I also wanted complete control over what I published. Starting my own line was a way to accomplish this.
Lynne Patrick: Opportunities for talented authors who weren’t getting a look in.
Kay Lacey: We want to encourage new writers who may find it hard to get published by the corporate publishers. We want to publish worthy works that are out of print. The major publishers rarely keep books in print beyond a two year period, thereafter they are sold at remainder fairs, and the titles lapse out of print. The reason for this is the high cost of warehousing. We would like to see works kept in print for longer.
Francois von Hurter: The recklessness it takes to publish edgy foreign novels. The ability to introduce new cultures and genre breaking fiction.
What were your expectations about starting an independent press?
Charles Ardai: I expected the work to be exhausting and never-ending, and this was true; I also expected it to be incredibly rewarding to look at a shelf full of books I'd created and that I was proud of, and this was true as well. I was not sure what to expect in terms of the public reaction to our books -- I thought there was a good chance no one buy Max and I would have any interest in them. We certainly didn't expect to receive raves from Time and Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times and USA Today. The response we've gotten has been a big surprise and, of course, a very gratifying one.
Lynne Patrick: I was going to get rich, of course, and be acclaimed as a starmaker and innovative saviour of the industry! What else? Seriously - I had no idea what to expect; I just had a dream. I’ve been a writer all my life, and my own novels kept falling at the final hurdle, for reasons I found depressing. It seemed you had to be published to become a well-known writer - but you had to be a well-known writer in order to get published! So I decided someone should do something to create some opportunities for people with lots of talent but no famous name. And then I decided I’d better do something, since no one else was. (Let me say at this point that at no time was Crème de la Crime intended as a means of getting my own work into print. I never have published a book I’ve written and I never will; that’s vanity publishing. Besides, I don’t even write crime.) Ironically, the year after Crème de la Crime was born a major TV show in the UK launched a hunt for new writing; and one of the top five publishing houses in the world launched a new imprint which targeted previously unpublished authors. Either there was something in the air or my house is bugged!
Kay Lacey: To be given a difficult time!
Francois von Hurter: Direct involvement with writers, editors, designers. A decent reception from the press. Some space on the tables in bookstores. Breaking even in three years.
What were some of the pitfalls you encountered while launching your new venture?
Charles Ardai: There is only so much time in the day, and with only one person dedicated to the line (and that person dedicated only part-time), it's hard to get everything done. Running a venture like this can be all-consuming, and I'm constantly fighting against this since there are other things I want to do as well. We've also had some hurdles to clear in terms of getting booksellers (and other retailers) to see our books as something of broad mainstream appeal rather than being cultish niche fare for aficionados. And, of course, it's always hard to find good material and to persuade authors and artists to work for us for the very modest amounts of money we can afford to pay. But so far we've managed to pull it off.
Lynne Patrick: How long have you got? Having experienced it from the other side of the fence I thought I had an inkling of how publishing worked - but I found myself learning a lot of new skills very quickly. When I started I didn’t know the difference between a wholesaler and a distributor. But I’m a quick study, and I knew where to go for help. I’m not completely fluent in the language yet, but I understand what goes on and people seem to accept me. Last year to my amazement I was shortlisted for a major award for women in publishing. And a few months ago a very senior person in a very big publishing house was kind enough to tell me I was doing remarkably well in difficult circumstances. Enough trumpet-blowing; answer the question, Lynne! The main problem, early and ongoing, has been convincing bookshops that our beautifully-produced, brilliantly-written, top-quality crime novels are worth their shelf space. Like big publishing houses, booksellers rely heavily on repeat business and famous names; we little guys get squeezed out and have to be imaginative to get our books out there.
Kay Lacey: The difficulty in tracing the holders of literary copyright. It would be helpful if authors or the current copyright holders would register their interest in works with the varied organizations who hold such information.
Francois von Hurter: No actual pitfalls but the chokepoint for independents is that infamous bookstore table. How do you get your books out there on the tables, face up, without paying exorbitant fees to the booksellers. Finding good books, getting them well produced, even decently reviewed is a piece of cake compared to the challenge posed by that ‘table’.
What were some of the hurdles you mastered and are particularly proud of?
Charles Ardai: As I mentioned above, one of the biggest hurdles has been to persuade outstanding authors and artists, who could surely get more money for their work from any big publisher, to work with us instead. Fortunately, we're producing some very appealing books and the people who work with us often do so for love as much as for money. Another hurdle has been putting out a new book every month with a total full-time staff of zero (and a shoestring budget). But somehow all the work gets done every month.
Lynne Patrick: I very quickly learned how to trim my up-front costs. A publisher - any publisher - has to lay out a substantial amount of money before there’s a single book to sell. I also learned to talk. Not literally; I’ve been stringing words together for decades. But these days I have to persuade printers to give me a good deal; I have to smooth down panicking authors - and occasionally stroppy ones; I have to stand up in front of a crowd and make them believe what I already know - that Crème de la Crime’s books are brilliant. I’m less comfortable in front of house than in the back room getting things done, but I get out there when I have to and sometimes it even gives me a buzz.
Kay Lacey: None so far...
Francois von Hurter: Not particularly proud of any hurdle jumping but glad to be alive and growing in a fascinating profession.
What has been your most successful book published and why did it succeed? Did it surprise you?
Charles Ardai: There are a variety of ways of measuring success, of course, but in terms solely of business metrics -- number of copies printed and sold, amount of revenue generated -- and in terms of profile and attention received, our most successful book was clearly Stephen King's THE COLORADO KID. It had a print run of more than one million copies; it became a national bestseller; and it was reviewed in numerous magazines and many, many newspapers. It also got reprinted in countries all over the world. Was this a surprise? No. Stephen King is a bestselling author, and for good reason: He's a fantastic writer. Because he has a passionate reader base eager to read each new book he writes, it was almost certain from the start that his book for us would vastly outsell any other we might do.
Lynne Patrick: Our best seller to date is No Peace for the Wicked by Adrian Magson. It became the first in a series about an investigative journalist and her ex-military cop sidekick; No Help for the Dying and No Sleep for the Dead are already available; No Tears for the Lost comes out next summer. If you’d asked me two years ago to predict which of our early titles would sell best, I probably wouldn’t have gone for this one, though I really couldn’t tell you why. But eighteen months ago I saw that it was going to do well, and by then I knew exactly why. Adrian Magson gets out there and charms people; he goes to festivals and events, sits on panels, and most important, he goes into bookshops. Every Saturday he visits a different one, and talks to crime fiction fans, and they buy his books. They love him to bits, and so do I. A pro-active author makes all the difference.
Kay Lacey: None published as yet...
Francois von Hurter: Our best seller so far is Havana Red by Leonardo Padura. It is one of our more literary titles, densely written, prone to riffing on all sorts of subjects with little rapport to the crime story so we were surprised by its success. Not so much with the press who loved it but readers have taken to it, in numbers, in the UK and in the US. It worked, I think, because it shows Cuba and the regime from the inside, warts and all, from a writer deeply in love with his country. The jacket is attractive it must be said; pretty important on that ‘table’.
What can an author expect when he/she goes with an independent? For example, what if any advances do you offer? What are the timeframes? How much input does the author have, etc?
Charles Ardai: Our advances our modest (a few thousand dollars) and royalties aren't phenomenal either; any author who works with us could probably get paid more selling his or her book to a bigger house. But our books look beautiful, they are widely reviewed and receive a lot of attention, and a lot if people love them. So there are reasons an author might choose to publish with us even if it means taking a short-term hit in terms of cash. As for timeframes, I sometimes respond to submissions the same day they arrive; sometimes it takes a few weeks or even a few months. All depends on what else I have on my plate at the time. And as for input, the author has enormous input -- obviously -- into the text of the book. Essentially no input into the cover or the sales and promotion, though if an author has specific suggestions or questions, I'm glad to hear what they are. (And of course I always welcome any promotion an author might want to do for his or her own book independent of us.)
Lynne Patrick: We don’t pay advances as a matter of policy. Every book we publish has to pay its way, and we have no way of predicting how well any book will sell. And if we don’t lay out our working capital in this way, we can use it to get more debut authors into print. Our authors get an annual royalty based on how much the book has earned - so they have a vested interest in persuading people to buy it by whatever means suit them best. We’re small, and our resources are slender. Each book gets the same level of launch publicity, and our authors are made aware from the start that after our initial media release/review copy push, they are the only marketing department their books have. We urge them to talk to readers, in bookshops, libraries, reading groups, the workplace, book festivals and events, anywhere people gather. And we supply them with leaflets, cover images, posters and the material to put on an event; we have a murder mystery puzzle script and a crime fiction quiz which they front at assorted venues on condition that their books are for sale - or, if it’s a bookshop or library, on the shelves. At the moment this is only possible in the UK, but who knows what the future may bring? All our authors work closely with their editors to produce as fine a novel as possible. They are consulted about the cover image. They proofread the typeset work. And - well, see above. What else did you ask? Ah, timeframes. I think the word is flexible. But we do work to a schedule, and from final acceptance to publication, our timespan is shorter than large publishers’. We publish six titles a year, of which three are usually follow-ups from our existing authors. (We may expand in the future, but at the moment I need 36-hour days and 10-day weeks to get everything done.) We accept submissions all year round, but only make final acceptance decisions on the other three in the summer before the year of publication - July/August. We believe this keeps us closer to the zeitgeist; if a manuscript blows us away and it’s very much of the moment, we can bring the book out less than a year after it is submitted to us.
Kay Lacey: We offer a similar contract as a corporate publisher. Ours is based on Faber and Fabers. They are one of the few publishing companies who have signed a publishing agreement with the Society of Authors. Royalties are 10-15% of the agreed sale price. If we thought that we had a great novel with potential we would offer an advance. In the UK most advances fall into the £1,000-£2,000 category. Each author will be treated according to what is required to sell the book. We want to sell as many as possible. An independent publisher may also be able to publish books faster. The downside is that they will probably find it harder to get their titles into bookshops. Independent publishers therefore need to sell their books in a more creative way. In Manchester (in the UK) this year independent publishers held a street fair where they sold their works. It was a success.
Francois von Hurter: Our author advances are modest given our size, expected print runs of 3-4000 and the fact that we have to pay big money to get things translated.
For authors, publishing is more difficult to break into than ever. Expectations are high at the bigger houses, and large advances to celebrities have all but crippled the chance for midlist authors (that is, those that aren't expected to produce blockbusters). Agents are now the first line of defense in the larger houses that won't even look at your work without the imprimatur of a literary house's envelope. What are large houses doing right? And conversely, what are the mistakes that you see the industry falling into, and what should change?
Charles Ardai: I don't know that I'm well enough informed to give a useful answer to this question. I continue to see some great books from big houses; I also see some awful ones. That's always been the case and always will be. I also see some great and some awful books from small presses. Are celebrities hogging the budgets? Maybe; this sounds plausible to me. But I don't know whether it's actually true or not. Should big houses read unagented submissions? Probably -- but I'm sympathetic, since I find it exhausting to deal with just 1000 submissions per year, and the big houses may get ten or a hundred times as many. And since the overwhelming majority of unagented submissions are not good enough to publish, there's a limit to how much any publisher could (or should) want to invest in reviewing this material. I know that's a harsh thing to say -- but I believe it's also a true thing to say. And is it more difficult to break into publishing now than in the past? Maybe; but I'm not sure. Hell, I read unsolicited submissions and if one were great, I'd buy it on the spot. It's not hard to sell us a book. All you have to do is write an oustanding one. That, of course, is hard -- but if you can do that, I assure you it won't be hard to sell it.
Lynne Patrick: We do receive agented submissions, and are publishing one in 2007; but as a rule agents don’t much like us because all our authors get a standard contract with no room for negotiation, and there’s no large advance on the table for an agent to take a 10% cut of. (The agents say they’re only looking after their clients’ interests, of course, but hey, they have a living to earn too.) We would love to publish a book which sold in hundreds of thousands, but we’re realistic enough to know that when it happens to a first-time novelist it takes everyone by surprise. Our initial print runs aren’t huge, and so far only one book has gone into reprint. We don’t publish celebrities; the closest we’ve come is a working actress with the kind of face you know you’ve seen somewhere but can’t quite think what in… The book is the same high quality as everything else on our list; the author is a marketing whizz, with media contacts other authors would kill for - but she entered the 2003 Search for the Crème de la Crime incognito. I’m not sure if that answers your point, but I don’t know what else to say. Large publishing houses get a lot of good work out into the marketplace - it just isn’t necessarily what gets on to the bookshops’ front tables. I do think it’s a mistake on their part to encourage the celebrity culture. It does everything you suggest above to skew the emphasis of the book trade, and results in a lot of not very good books. And recently they’ve been finding it’s not even necessarily very good business. I really believe the large houses should do a lot more to encourage and nurture new talent. That’s where the future lies, after all.
Kay Lacey: The industry on the whole does its job extremely well. It costs about £50,000 for a major press to bring a novel onto the British market. This is a huge investment. Many novels won't repay their cost. UK novels may only sell 2,000 copies. Academic publishers will usually only publish 400-450 copies of an academic book. They used to print more. Bookselling is difficult. It is often said that only about 20 UK novelists can make a living solely from writing novels. The publishing houses are realistic, it's authors who are often unrealistic. Making a living from writing is hard. Many authors also work as tutors, journalists, teachers, lecturers, publishers, editors, etc. The industry is probably too slow to respond to the digital age with downloaded books but the investment required for a large company is huge. Authors will come off much worse with digital publication from major publishing houses as the royalties tend to be significantly less.
Francois von Hurter: We also use agents as a first line of defense, as a filter as we just don’t have time to deal with a deluge of manuscripts, and after all our first mission is to introduce foreign writers of quality to English speaking readers. The big houses have to deal with fixed overheads and needy shareholders so reliance on the blockbusters is no surprise. So they give up some of the exploratory work to independents. Not unlike the film industry. There seems to be room for both approaches. The bittersweet moment must come when a big house poaches a successful author from you. Bitter because you’re not fully benefiting from all the blood and sweat you put in to get someone published, sweet because your author finally gets the marketing push that a wall of money can provide (and hopefully triggers some decent pull on your backlist).
In today's market, many authors with a successful series still cannot make a living at what they do best: writing. How do you address the problem of due compensation to authors?
Charles Ardai: This is a tough one. It's not necessarily the case that all authors can earn enough from their writing to cover their expenses. Those writers who can't need to find other sources of income. This sounds terrible -- and maybe it is terrible -- but what can you do? If you write books that only appeal to, say, 10,000 readers, and each reader spends $25 on your book, and you write one book per year, and you get a 10% royalty, well that's $2.50/book sold, or $25,000 per year. If you can't live on $25,000 per year, what's the solution? It's not for the publisher to pay you a 20% royalty -- if the publisher did that, it would promptly go out of business. You need to either write twice as many books (if you need twice as much money), or you need to write a type of book that will appeal to more readers, or you need to find a way to live on less money, or you need to supplement your income with money from some other source. That's life. It's lousy, but who ever said life isn't lousy? Certainly not a noir crime writer.
Lynne Patrick: The problem is there are so many authors all trying to make a living, and so many other leisure activities competing for time and money. I’m not sure what you mean by due compensation. If you visit writers’ chatrooms on the net, you discover that every wannabe writer thinks s/he has a right to be published. This is not the case; taking a few violin lessons doesn’t make you Nigel Kennedy. Also, bestsellers happen because they capture the public imagination, and that’s as fickle as the finger of fate; even six-figure marketing campaigns need a little help from Lady Luck. Maybe you’re talking about the apparently small percentage of cover price an author gets in royalties. One of the first things I learned about publishing is that the publisher’s profit amounts to about the same as the author’s share - and that’s on a good day. I’m not just talking about small houses like mine here; this is pretty well across the board. Here’s a rough breakdown: Printing costs: 10% Editing, cover design, other production costs on an average print run: 5% Publicity/marketing: 5% Author’s royalty: 7.5 % Booksellers’ discount: 40 - 60% - these days usually closer to 60. Add in overheads like warehousing and distribution, insurance, office upkeep and salaries to staff not directly involved in production but no less essential for that, and there’s not a lot left to stash away. Who was it said the way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large one? So you see, contrary to a lot of people’s perception, authors aren’t routinely screwed over by publishers.
Kay Lacey: If an author wants to make money I'd probably advise self-publishing and selling locally. Many UK self-publishers do sell 2,000 copies of their books. In the UK the distributors take nearly 10% and bookshops about 45%. After costs are taken into account the publishers do not make much profit. Publishers make most profit with textbooks not novels. The fiction market is in effect being subsidized by science/law etc. textbooks. The only way to compensate authors with higher royalties would be to increase purchase price and have fewer books published. Cover prices are rising in the UK and this can allow for discounting on cover price. In the UK the supermarkets have negotiated large discounts to sell books cheaply. This practice means that independent booksellers cannot compete. The authors however still receive 10% of the cover price not the sale price. In the UK the Macmillan New Authors series gives 20% but no advance. It does mean that a new author can get into print. If the book is a bestseller the author could do very well.
Francois von Hurter: I think royalty rates are generally fair and have no useful or innovative ideas to address the question.
At the 2006 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, panelist after panelist proclaimed the need for the author to have a "platform" with which to sell their books. How has this changed the nature of authors themselves over the years, and what do you see for the future? Will an author have to come to publishers with packages and publicists, for instance, before a manuscript is ever read?
Charles Ardai: No. A great book is a great book. However, having a "platform" will probably increase the number of copies of a book you can sell, and this in turn will enable the publisher to pay you more for it and invest more in promoting the book, since this greater investment is more likely to be repaid.
Lynne Patrick: If I’m interpreting the industry correctly, large publishers allocate a large publicity budget to a few books, and none at all to most; there’s not much between. Authors with a large budget are required to get out there and meet their public. Authors with no budget have to do everything they can to raise the profile of their work. (This is only my perception, and I could be wrong; running a small indie house leaves little time for swapping experiences with other publishers.) Thirty or forty years ago the business was quite different; authors sat in their garrets and wrote, and publishers took care of the rest. These days authors have to play an active role in persuading readers to choose their books from the thousands available. That said, publishing good work is still the main priority of most modern publishers; they went into it because they love books, and while they’re well aware of the realities of business, they’d far rather a book became a bestseller because of its quality rather than because of the high-profile name on the cover or a whizz-bang publicity campaign. It seems rather cynical to be talking about packages and publicists at the manuscript submission stage, and I don’t think it’s the editors and publishers at the sharp end who think cynically. The accountants and marketing men may think they get the final say in what gets published and what doesn’t, but an awful lot of ground is covered before those other guys get a chance to say their piece.
Kay Lacey: Well I hope not. Authors do need to be pro-active in self-publicizing their work. If you know the market for your work and what it is competing against, say this. Authors can be their own worst enemies. Publishers can only do so much. Readers like to meet their authors and talk to them. Learn to be a good public speaker. Take lessons if necessary. Make it clear that you are willing and able to do this. Many publishers I have spoken to have complained that their authors won't do any work helping to sell their books. Do book readings, talks, get your works into local bookstores, get people to review your books wherever they can. Make sure there are Amazon reviews. Try and get a video on MeetTheAuthor.com or MeetTheAuthor.co.UK.
Francois von Hurter: It is our job as publishers to provide the basic platform so I don’t think pre-packaging novels (like Hollywood agents pre-package films) will help getting attention. Having said that the willingness of an author to market, to take initiatives whether in the real or the virtual world to reach readers is very important.
Here's more statistics for you. According to http://www.JenkinsGroup.com, one-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Many do not even graduate from high school. 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school. 42% of college graduates never read another book. 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year. 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. 57% of new books are not read to completion. Is it the responsibility of the publisher to change those statistics, or is this merely a supply and demand industry?
Charles Ardai: Speaking as someone who reads constantly, I want to say these are horrifying statistics. But I don't believe publishers can do much to change them, other than publishing books that capture the public's imagination. I gather that more kids are reading for pleasure now than they were before the advent of Harry Potter -- that's great. A great book that becomes popular will spur reading. But I don't think there's any program publishers could put in place that will get non-readers to read more (or at all) in the absence of some specific book everyone's hearing about. The best thing publishers can do to spur reading is to find and publish really exciting, irresistible books.
Lynne Patrick: Reading is a leisure activity, and a form of entertainment; people have a right to choose how to be entertained and how to spend their leisure time. I’d be interested to see the same criteria applied to sports or cinema visits; and the death of live theatre has been predicted for decades, but it still seems to be breathing. We can’t force people to read. All a publisher can do is publish good work. If making reading an attractive way to spend time is anyone’s responsibility, surely it’s the bookshops’.
Kay Lacey: I believe that it is a supply and demand industry but that you can create a demand. A book is a product. It can be marketed. I doubt that the situation is so bad in the UK. 80% of UK novels are sold to women...some men never read novels. Gender is therefore important too.....
Francois von Hurter: I think it is our job to reach that untapped market, a small shift in any of those statistics has a huge effect, the web (on line retailing, reaching bloggers, crime sites, etc.) and specialized magazines provide some hope, the daily press less as the average age of newspaper readers is 60 they say, and traditional TV broadcasters can’t be happy with their stats either.
Will the industry ever abandon paper for electronic methods? And if so, how will that change the independent publisher?
Charles Ardai: Ever? Maybe; paper has some distinct advantages (no batteries needed, no obsolescence/compatibility issues), but if you try to imagine what life will be like in 100 or 1000 or 10000 years, well, sure, eventually you have to think that paper may go away. But in the next 5 or 10 or 20 years? Not a chance in hell. E-books have been over-hyped for more than a decade, and I see no signs that they will be a significant fraction of book sales any time soon.
Lynne Patrick: I sincerely hope not. There’s something special about holding a new book in your hands, and seeing your words on the printed page carries a buzz that simply doesn’t happen when they appear on a screen. I’m with Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek TNG! Technology may win the day, but you can’t beat a good book. And I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently well-versed in technology to offer a useful answer to the second part of your question. I’m also old enough for it probably not to be an issue I’ll have to face.
Kay Lacey: This is almost inevitable when digital readers become more sophisticated. I do not believe that paper books will disappear in entirety.
Francois von Hurter: Hard to beat the sturdiness, water resistance, put-in-your-pocketability, cheapness and packaging of a paperback. I don’t see books being downloaded to be read on PC’s or photocopied at prevailing paper and ink costs. However the new, read me in sunlight too, technology which allows you to store 20 novels in your E-Book has attractions. Probably at first for the academic field. In any event it should not present a barrier for small presses; on the contrary you may no longer need huge print runs to be profitable. I especially like the idea of vending machines that will print a paperback on demand at a reasonable cost. Also an opportunity rather than a problem for the small publishers.
Print on Demand has become an (erroneous) byword for vanity press. Is this the way to go for smaller runs, or is it still more economically feasible to go with a larger run/traditional press?
Charles Ardai: Economies of scale are real -- if you want to charge less per copy (which is one of the elements in getting people to buy lots of copies), you need to print in large volume. That said, there's a place for high-cover-price, low-print-run titles of special interest to smaller audiences. There's room for both.
Lynne Patrick: We’ve found POD is not economically feasible at all. Set-up costs mean the unit cost per copy is much higher than on even our modest traditional print runs, and that’s before you factor in all the other costs. Earlier this year I helped an elderly friend self-publish a hundred copies of his autobiography for family and friends; it cost him over £10 a copy for a slim paperback.
Kay Lacey: The large publishers are now also using Print on Demand for Academic books. Many publishers still prefer to produce a quality product which cannot be produced by this method. Print on Demand is usually always dearer but it does avoid having quantities of unsold stock. It would depend on the book and its potential market.
Francois von Hurter: POD doesn’t work for us economically for initial print runs but can be useful for modest reprints.
Ideally, what is you long term goal as a publisher? Charles Ardai: I'm a publisher because I love books and I love bringing books into existence that satisfy a need that's otherwise not being met. As long as other people aren't publishing the sort of books I want to read and I'm having fun doing what I'm doing, I plan to keep doing it. If I ever get tired or find the needs being met adequately elsewhere, I'll stop and do something else.
Lynne Patrick: To get rich, be acclaimed as a starmaker and innovative saviour of the industry, attend lots of awards ceremonies to see my authors pick up gongs… Yeah, right, in my dreams! I’m not greedy. What I really want is for Crème de la Crime to grow, along similar lines to its present modus operandi: to continue to publish well-written, tightly-plotted, high-quality crime fiction by talented debut authors, develop the careers of the ones who capture the public imagination, and gain enough respect in the industry to ensure our books are in every bookshop and library. That way my authors and I will all make a half-decent living, and we’ll go on being able to look at ourselves in the mirror!
Kay Lacey: To produce books that are read and give readers pleasure.
Francois von Hurter: To keep introducing new authors and cultures and to support our existing stable of writers with the publicity and marketing they deserve.
Is there anything you'd like to tell me that I didn't ask?
Lynne Patrick: Only that Crème de la Crime’s first thirteen titles will be available all over the USA and Canada from spring 2007. We recently signed an agreement with an American distributor who will supply libraries, major chains and independent bookshops on our behalf. And they can all already be bought through our website, www.cremedelacrime.com.
And I would like the thank these publishers again for taking the time for this email interview. Do check out their sites and support your independent publishers by buying books!