Friday, May 15, 2009

My co-publisher and severest critic takes center stage this week:

Bridge Works for the past 17 years has taken risks introducing promising new authors, Tom Perrotta among them. What is unique about the current economic circumstances is that most booksellers and print reviewers have lost the resources they once had to lend even limited support to such small-publisher literary offerings.
Booksellers, fighting to stay alive as customers cut spending, have to cut inventories, and as they buy fewer copies of fewer titles the unknown authors are the first to be eliminated. Book stores feel safer with known names and/or purchases from big publishers with big promotion budgets to spend.
It is the same with the once-supportive book editors at newspapers and magazines, as their publications' declining ad revenues have brought cuts of 50% or more in space available for book reviews. With such triage taking place everywhere,, new authors and small publishers are the first to feel the pain.
Agent Robert Brown is right, in his earlier comment on your blog, when he says that it is reader word-of-mouth recommendations to friends, not book advertising, that is most effective in creating demand for particular books of merit. Large publishers have an advantage here, too, as they can afford to flood booksellers and book clubs with advance galley copies to try to create word-of-mouth.
But hats off to those book clubs, web sites, online reviewers and other discriminating readers still willing to seek out the gems still coming from small publishers who are dedicated to discovering and investing in the author stars of tomorrow. Though the economy and book business are tough, let's be thankful we are not car dealers, stock brokers or investment bankers these days. They are even more familiar with what glut on a market can bring. -- Warren Phillips

On to more comments about small publishers: I do have some small knowledge about publishing and small publishers as my partner and I decided, about four years ago, to make the plunge. We were tired of seeing great books good un-published, so we mounted our chargers did battle--for about a year. We found two writers who were willing to fight the battle with us, even though it was a huge risk for all concerned. One thing I'd suggest to anyone who wants to do this is--DON'T. Don't do it unless you want to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week and wish there were eight days a week. Also, make sure you have lots of money that you want to risk--(read that throw away). We put out two titles that actually did fairly well--combined the did well I should say. And we even sold reprint rights on one, which helped us break even. "Break even you say, what about that year's work? Surely breaking even was after wages, right?" Wrong. No wages. We broke even by getting our initial investment back is what I mean by break even. But what an education! The education alone was worth all the effort. What did we learn? Everything. We took a book from a raw manuscript, edited it, ordered revisions, edited again, copy edited, set the book up, made galleys, printed, bound and shipped our own review copies (actually printed and folded pages and bound them with covers--all by hand). Arranged for printing, hired a cover artist, designed a cover, wrote cover copy, found distribution, warehoused books, and did shipping and handing. That's publishing, baby!! That's what it's all about. I've probably left out a few steps because it has been a few years. Was it a waste of time? Definitely not. We actually loved every moment of it. Got printers ink under our fingernails and in our blood and loved the whole process. There's nothing like opening a box of books, smelling the fresh ink and realizing that this is something you and your writers put together--gave birth to--created. A book is a treasure and in this form it can be held and read and enjoyed. "So if you loved it, why aren't you still in it? I'd say the biggest deterrent was distribution. Finding a way into bookstores is the biggest roadblock that anyone ever tried to get over, get past, or around. Major distributors, the ones who move book books out of the warehouse, have to have a great sales force to get a small publisher's books into bookstores and they don't want to even try unless you've published at least ten titles. Even at small volumes, publishing ten titles would cost at least $50,000 dollars, and that's probably a very conservative estimate of what it would cost. Even at that, there's still no guarantee that any major will accept your books--and you have to get a major because places like Biblio want 70% of cover price. And they all want a guarantee that you'll accept and reimburse them for all returns--all of them, because that's what bookstores accept. On top of that, you pay shipping and that alone, in small volumes can kill your business.. If you publish under ten titles, you're stuck with Amazon and Baker and Taylor who order a few books here and there. B & T used to pay ever 90 days but I think it's now 180 days. Amazon pays monthly and is much easier to with with. Baker and Taylor is not worth the effort--believe me. So after two titles, because of the lack of distribution, we gave it up. But I'd do it again. Anyone have a few thousand dollars that they don't need? This is why shared cost between the publisher and writer is very appealing. You and your writers become the publisher and you share the risks inherent in this business. However, another thing I've noticed the many writers shy away from is marketing. Writer people, you have to market your books. Readers don't want to kibitz with the publisher--they want the author. So marketing becomes something authors must do to make their book a success. Publishers, after all, put in the sweat to get that manuscript between two nice covers, the writer must also do his or her part to make the venture a success. R. Brown, Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency

What are you doing next Monday? L.P.
O.K. That's it for today. See you next week. Barbara Phillips

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

COMMENTS: This is in response to your blog. First, I think it's wonderful that you've started a dialogue among smaller publishers. I'm the acquisition editor for Oceanview Publishing. We started in 2006 with 5 titles and are now up to 12 per year, mostly in the mystery, suspense, thriller genre. Of course, we hate the "return" policy as you have highlighted, but what can we do. If we want our books out there, we have to go with the flow. Before starting Oceanview Publishing, the three partners, of which I am one, all had "big" jobs at Johnson and Johnson. Yes, healthcare. And now we have transitioned to fiction. So we have gone from big influence to not so well known. Yet we are trying to work toward a break-out book that will cover all those titles that don't quite cover the gross profit margin let alone the contribution margin. Your ideas on author financial interaction and splitting profits and shifting the financial burden are surely interesting, but as a very new, and very small publisher, we don't feel that we can be in a leadership role, maybe a fast-follower if this trend proves feasible. But in the meantime, we're concentrating on finding the best of the thriller genre -- out of thousands of submissions. Patricia Gussin, Oceanview Publishing

Okay you want comments. Sounds like you want them in the negative, but how can I do that when I agree with ALL of what you say? The reason I agree is that I'm part of a small agency and much of what effects you as a publisher also effect me as an agent. Where Bridge Works is affected because you cannot pay huge advance, Wylie-Merrick is affected because it's considered more prestigious to be represented by a large NYC agency--even though we all deal with the same publishers. I'm also sure prestige has loads to do with the level of writers who come to your press too. Also a high six advance goes beyond money and into bragging rights these days--for everyone in the deal. I agree that it makes more sense for writers to share the expense of publication and to be part of the process than to get a big advance and be outside of it. But first large publishers have to stop paying large advances and this isn't going to happen until pigs fly backward. Then you have us agents who depend on large advances to stay in business. Can a NYC agency afford office space on $1000 advances? One hundred and fifty dollars is what it costs for a nice lunch in NYC. About the only agencies who can afford to sell to small publisher as small agencies--our lunch at McAlister's runs around $18. It's also been our experience that even small publishers like to be courted by larger agencies even if it does cost them a bigger advance. Bragging rights are not size dependent it seems. One area of slight disagreement would be that promotion via advertisement sells books. It has been proven time and time again that more books are sold through by readers telling their friends what a great read such and such was. Of course getting a book on Oprah, Colbert, Larry King or The Daily Show doesn't hurt either. Also, book reviews via newspapers and magazines are going because the review section is always the first cut made when these publishers feel the pinch. So the online reviewer recently has tried to take up the slack. I wonder how long before PW, Kirkus, and Library Journal begin feeling the squeeze? Robert (Pronounce Ro-bear) Brown

Lady! I love it that an old gal woman of a different era like you has joined the digerati digitalia and is jumping into the fray and using the internet to promote your own ideas and agenda. But hey! The internet is about immediacy, the here and now, being ahead of everyone else, of instantaneousness. Update your blog! not every post has to be a well reasoned treatise. Blog about the book you are reading, the books being reviewed, the books that don’t get written, the crazy authors you know. vite vite. L.P.

May I suggest two marketing ideas (from the outside world). Find atalk show host (not Oprah) who would specifically have a 'book club'geared to unknown authors who would be published by small publishingcompanies. Also set up book tours with three or four authorsparticipating at one time. This small group might get more publicityand a larger crowd than just one author would. B.T.
I thought you'd like to hear what some other professionals think about the book business. I haven't heard Word One from Marty Shepard, of Permanent Press, whom I lauded in Blog No. 2). I hope that means he's too busy publishing and raking in the shekels to comment. And Pat Gussin from Ocean View Publishing seems to be more content with her small publishing life than I am.
Robert Brown sees the issues as I do, and comments from a lifetime of being a literary agent. And he is certainly right that no one can live on the royalties and advances paid by small publishers to his clients. I'm not sure just how many writers can live on the LARGE royalties the big publishers pay. According to some, after a writer has had to pay bills during research time, writing time and waiting for print, plus paying off her agent, a $100,000 advance ends up somewhere in the thirty thousands. That's one reason small publishers seek non-agented material. Most of those writers have a day job, don't have to pay an agent's commission and are willing to accept a smaller royalty just to get their first work published. The down side is that the majority of first-time writers need heavy editing, and the old-timers are too tired and the youngsters don't know from editing, even though that's their job title. I loved Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS, published by FSG,but, as an editor, I gagged at the 566 pages. Way too long. The story just about disappeared in the welter of details of affairs, cooking, drug taking, medicine cabinet supplies, Lithuanian conspiracies, etc. Bridge Works titles rarely run over 300 pages. That's enough for even a bookworm to tackle.
And thanks, B.T., for your specific answers to selling those books (see above). CSpan, are you listening?
Next blog, more recommendatios. Go to for comments. Talk to you soon again. Barbara Phillips