Sunday, August 30, 2009

Will being published by a small press help my career?

"I'm curious how small-press published books are viewed by industry professionals. My book was repped by a top agent but didn't sell. Now I'm at a crossroads: seek out a small/mid-size press or scrap the book. I've heard from more than one source that publishers and bookstores will look only at the number of books sold without taking into consideration the size of the press. I guess the larger question is, is a small/mid-size press really a good stepping stone? My goal is to have a thriving career as a mystery author. Thank you.

The first thing you must know is that the term “small press” can mean anything, and that there is a world of difference between one small press and another. Anyone can launch a “small press” from their living room by publishing one or two titles, giving them tiny print runs, and sending them out into the world with little or no distribution or review coverage. With a fancy website, a nice logo, and some key listings in small press directories, this “small press” can appear, at first glance, to be as much of a small press as one that has genuinely published dozens of titles over many years.

If you are talking about one of the legitimate and prestigious small/mid-size presses, such as Algonquin, Overlook, Coffee House, Graywolf, Soho, or Pegasus (to name a few), then yes, being published by them can certainly make a major difference in your career—indeed, a publication with any of these can lead to more review coverage, better distribution and better sales than with a major publisher. The excellent small/mid-size presses tend to put a lot of time and attention into each and every title, and sometimes this can pay off. I recall a situation about ten years ago when I represented an author who had two books published at nearly the same time, one with a prestigious small press, the other with a major publisher. The small press publication sold triple the copies and garnered far more review attention.

That said, I have encountered many authors who have a fantasy that, if their book does not find a major publisher, they can always turn to a small press. Not true. While there are hundreds if not thousands of “small presses” out there, there are actually very few prestigious and influential small/mid-size presses. These few small presses tend to receive as many submissions as the major publishers, and it has been my experience that they are at least as selective as the major publishers, and sometimes even more so. I recall many submissions where a prestigious small press rejected a book, only to have a major publisher acquire it.

If you are considering being published by a small press, and it is not one of the few prestigious small presses, then in most cases I would say, don’t do it. Instead, put your manuscript in a drawer and write another book. If you sell subsequent books to major houses, then your unpublished manuscripts can be valuable, as your new publisher may want to acquire them all at some point down the road. I recall an instance where an author I represented could not land several novels, and his three unpublished novels sat in his drawer for ten years. When I finally got him his big break with a major house, that house wanted to take all of his novels, and he suddenly found himself with four advances and four books coming out in quick succession. In this case, it was better for him to have these rights free when the time came than to have had them tied up by an ineffectual press.

Finally, keep in mind that many of the prestigious small presses won’t consider your manuscript unless it is submitted by an agent—or at the very least, they won’t take it as seriously. So it is really best to focus your energy on writing the best book you can, and then finding an agent. A good agent will know which small presses to keep in mind, and when to include them in a submission.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Can self-publishing damage your career?

“More than a few writers are turning to POD publishing after their agent cannot sell their book, or after they can't get an agent to rep their book. When they go to sell the next book, will this POD or self publishing work against them if they end up selling only a few thousand books? Is it better to do an ebook or think of another way to get their material before their readers that doesn't generate an ISBN number?”

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California.

Understandably, authors worry that self-publishing their book with a print on demand (POD) service could end up hurting them in the long run. They worry that an assigned ISBN could track their book’s sales, and that if sales are weak, a future publisher will reject future books based on their track record.

But there is nothing to fear. Publishers are sophisticated enough to differentiate whether an author’s prior books sold poorly as a result of being published in a POD format or as a result of being published by a major publisher. If an author’s books were published by a major publisher and sold poorly, then yes, this would be a major problem for a future acquiring editor. But if the poor sales were the result of a POD edition, then all is forgiven, and the author is treated as if he had never been published at all. And if the sales were strong, the POD edition can become an asset.

This has been my experience as a literary agent. I also discussed this question with an editor at a major publishing house, and he concurred.

This topic also begs the broader question: whether to self-publish at all. Keep in mind that the majority of authors who self-publish will find that just because they “published” their book and perhaps even built a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean the masses have shown up to buy it, or that they’ve been able to draw review attention. I would guess that most self-published books sell but a few dozen copies to family and friends, and sadly, never lead to a book deal.

If you want to self-publish merely for personal satisfaction, or to share your book with family and friends, then by all means, do it. But if you are embarking on this path solely for commercial reasons—as a way to land a book deal with a major publisher—then I would say only do it if you realize that 1) the chances of this happening are remote; and 2) you are going to have to put a huge amount of time and effort into bringing traffic, attention and publicity to your book online. If you have 100,000 followers of Twitter, or a video with 500,000 views on youtube, or an e-zine with 100,000 subscribers, then you may be a good candidate for self-publishing. If you can manage to sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies on your own, if you can manage to land one or two major reviews in established venues, you may be able to defy the odds and land an agent or publisher. Online, it’s all about what you bring to the table and how hard you are willing to work. Which is, in fact, good training for being published by a major publisher. Successful traditionally-published books also have in common authors who bring their own resources to the table, and who push their own books relentlessly over extended periods of time.

Ultimately, the same factors that affect a traditionally-published book’s success will also affect the success of a self-published book: does your book have a unique concept? Does it have competition? Is there a large market for the genre? Do you have the means to reach out effectively to the market that needs to know about it? How strong are your writing skills, and how well-written is your book?

If you have something important to say and say it well, your book will eventually find its audience. If not, technology can never replace quality.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is there a market for literary fiction set in a country outside of the United States?

Question: Is there a market for literary fiction set in a country outside of the United States (for example, India)?

There is always a market for great fiction (and great books, in general), regardless of whether they are set in or outside of the United States (as has been proved by many recent bestsellers set in other countries). There is no reason why your novel’s being set in another country (for example, India) should be a deterrent to its sale, or should make it harder for you to land a literary agent.

As an agent, I myself was never biased against a particular work because of its being set in another country. Of much greater importance to me was the strength of the writing, the depth of the characters, the richness of the plot, the authenticity of the dialogue. If all of these (and other) elements were there, then the country was of no consequence. What is important, however, is that, artistically, the country (or the setting, in general) be authentically inherent to the other elements, and not forced onto the work simply for the sake of it.

That said, there have certainly been times in my career when I’ve heard back from an editor that he or she felt that a particular manuscript was too inherent to a particular country to be successful in the U.S., or heard back from a European publisher that a particular manuscript was too inherent to the U.S. to be successful in Europe. So there may be exceptions, depending of course on the work. But overall, I believe that universal truths will be recognized across countries and across continents: love, revenge, ambition, resolution, conflict…if an author taps into the essence of humanity in any given work, it will surely be embraced worldwide.

So my advice is to write what you know, and to focus on creating the best possible work. Once you achieve that, the setting should not be an issue.