This post is going to get updated about a million times today (2/7/2013). I'm answering questions from Twitter in realtime. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, even if it's "for a friend," send it to @tyrusbooks and I'll do my best.
Let's get started!
(1) “How much of a book submission do you read before you decide whether it's worth considering or destined for the garbage pile?” (@seanmay)
This is a multiple answer question. I’ll cover all of the possible avenues. Partly because you asked, partly because it might be of interest to others. Partly because I rarely pass on an opportunity to drone on pedantically on the internet.
Situation One – the query letter
The first thing I’m looking for when I open a query letter is whether or not I think the author has actually looked at our submission guidelines/is familiar with our line, or if they’re applying the “shotgun” method of query where they spray it out to every address they can find for anybody who has ever published a book.
As soon as I see evidence of the shotgun (querying for a “high stakes thriller!” or “an innovative chipmunk/sci-fi/steampunk genre bender”) I quit reading. It’s not for us and I know it. Doesn’t matter if the book is attached (it shouldn’t be), I won’t read the first sentence.
Sometimes the title of the book is in bold, 32 pt. font, and if that catches my eye first, I will develop an opinion before reading another word of the query. If I see something like EXTREME FINAL JUSTICE, I know, for sure, I will not be publishing. I’m more of an AMBIGUOUS TRAGEDY GRAY AREA EXPLORATION type dude. Have I unfairly dismissed a book that I might have loved in my ten years of publishing based on the title? I doubt it.
Situation Two – sample pages
After a query letter makes it into my “I should request some of this pile” I anxiously await getting the first thirty pages. Something in the query letter has intrigued me. Usually, you can tell just by the writing in the query letter whether or not the author has a voice right for our line (I assume this same, subjective process, is applied everywhere).
Pages show up, I set aside some time to read them, let’s go!
Well, that was unfortunate. Turns out I’ve been duped. The thing I was so excited for wasn’t the thing I thought it was.
I can know this as soon as I’ve read the first sentence in some cases. Other times I might read the whole thirty pages, get to the end, and be all, “meh.” If I’m not super jazzed about those thirty pages, I have to write the, “Hey, it’s not you (but really it is), it’s me...” email.
Here’s a point I want to stress on behalf of all my agent and publisher brethren—there is no “yeah, but wait until chapter six! Then the book really takes off!” It either takes off right away or it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean it has to start with a big ass car chase and explosions and some dude in a Lucha Libre mask robbing a bank. It simply means I have to care about the people on the page and what’s going on. That’s your job as a writer. At least where I’m from it is.
Situation Three – the whole manuscript
There are few things as frustrating as getting to the homestretch of a really great book only to see the author paint him/herself into a corner, ending the book with an unsatisfactory ending because the literary dexterity wasn’t present. Maybe it was too tricky of a spot to navigate, maybe it was laziness, maybe it was a poor artistic choice. Whatever the case may be, it hurts. It hurts because—all of my smartass posturing aside—I love good books. They kinda give my life meaning. I want to find things that are absolutely brilliant with the power to really move people.
So make sure your book wraps up the right way. That doesn’t mean all loose ends need to be connected. It doesn’t mean it needs to be drawn tight with a pretty bow. Life rarely is. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things and I need you to do the right thing.
(2) “Being an indy publisher, do you make 2 book deals? What goes into your thought process for that decision?” (@zbarnes)
I certainly have done multiple book deals. Without thinking too hard about it, I’d say that in all of those cases it was for ongoing work in a series. There are authors who do not work in a series that I would totally trust to turn in multiple non-related novels, knowing they’d be awesome. Here’s what goes into the thought process in some variation.
- Does the author have a demonstrable track record of good sales?
- If the series is new, do I have faith that the protagonist in book one will be able to carry multiple books?
- Am I sure I want to work with this person for years? There are times when I meet an author and I think—you are either awesome or you will be the death of me. If I’m unsure which camp a particular author falls into, I’d be less likely to sign a multiple book deal.
- How much cash is this going to cost me? Paying out advances (even in part) for books that aren’t going to come out until a year or two down the road raises some liquidity of capital issues that I can’t ignore. Is it worth it to know the books are locked up?
(3) “Seems almost impossible to get past Zuul the gatekeeper. Besides tenacity and a lot brandy what else?” (@Mcvladie)
If you write a great book, act like a real human being (instead of a cutout from a “How to” book), query projects that fit the agent/publishers niche, and interact with others (gatekeepers included) in a respectful way, it goes a long way towards getting past the fence. That said, I’m not going to pretend that the system is flawless. I know for a fact that many great books and authors don’t get the attention they deserve. Sometimes that’s the result of bad behaviors from others that end up poisoning the well. I’d like to say following the guidelines above, mixed with tenacity, will get the job done. But I also know that’s at least a little bit bullshit, because we are flawed humans working a flawed industry. Mistakes and oversights happen.
(4) “Should a publisher have their own ebook store? Why? Why not?” (@komavary)
Good question. What I say today will probably be irrelevant tomorrow, but I’ll go on the record anyway.
Historically, publishers have not been in the business of selling books directly to consumers. It was one more challenge, and one that was not in the direct line of work that publishers were doing (creating books). So the responsibility of bookselling landed with distributors and bookstores. Along the way, publishers gave up somewhere in the ballpark of 50% off the cover price. Seems like a lot of money.
It seems like a no-brainer that publishers would set up ebook stores. Right?
Here are some of the challenges that go with it.
- readers shop by title and by author, but much more rarely by publisher. There are logos that should be indicative of quality (you’d recognize them when you saw them), but I’m willing to bet they are interchangeable in the mind of most consumers. Some independent publishers (and by that I mean independent publishing houses, not authors who are “indie publishing,” a phrase that had a totally different meaning until about three years ago) might enjoy more support by their brand name, but that is likely because the volume of books is more manageable and specific, plus, everybody likes to support the underdog. Counting on readers to track down the publisher’s website to buy books might not be a good bet...
- ...ok, fine, so most people wouldn’t shop at the publisher’s website, why not set up the store anyway? Some people will inevitably show up, won’t they? Maybe. But here’s another issue—online retailers that actually sell the majority of ebooks want special terms when working with the publisher. In many cases that means restricting competition for who can sell the books in exchange for better discount rates. If the predominant online retailers see the publishers as competition as opposed to partner in the bookselling business, the terms extended to publishers could rapidly deteriorate or cease to exist at all. (There are egos involved in these types of business decisions).
It’s not hard for me to imagine a landscape where the middleman is cut out of the equation, but I’ve got a vivid imagination. How fast consumer habits could shift and what happens in the evolutionary period are variables that people hoping to make billions of dollars aren’t willing to gamble on without being the house.
The standoff continues.
(5) “How does an advance work? Ie: what’s its purpose? When does it get paid off? If a book doesn’t make enough, do you pay it back? (@hcmarks)
An advance is a good faith payment towards a book’s expected earnings. It’s the publisher’s way of saying, “Hey, we believe in this project. We know you’ve worked hard on it, and we want to totally help you buy some groceries this week.”
To make for some SUPER SIMPLE MATH that is in NO WAY industry standard, here’s the process/math of it all.
If an author was getting a 10% royalty payment on the cover price of a $10 book, he/she would make $1 every time a copy of My Heart Bleeds Angst sells.
Before the book is published, the publisher has to fill out a profit and loss spreadsheet that accounts for all of the costs associated with the production of the book – page count, printing, design, editorial, etc. and then, using a mixture of witchcraft and hope, has to guess how many copies could expect to be sold in a limited time after release (we’ll say a year in this case). The advance will then be based on (pulling a percentage out of a hat) 50% of the sales.
If the publisher thinks the book will sell 2000 copies (netting the author $2000), the publisher might pay a $1000 advance, because shit happens and sometimes you don’t sell 2000 copies and it’s better not to have overpaid an advance that the author doesn’t earn out.
So, in the case above, if the author is given a $1000 advance, as soon as that book sells its 1000th copy, the advance is paid off. The author will make $1 for each copy sold after that. If the book only sells 800 copies, meaning the author has only netted $800 for his/her account, the advance will not have been earned out, but the author is not expected to pay back the $200 short. It’s part of the risk that a publisher takes.
However, when an author doesn’t earn out his/her advance on a book, it makes the likelihood of future books with that same publisher pretty unlikely. Sometimes that’s a less fair than other times.
(6) “How much say does an author have in how his book is marketed? Ie: cover design, back cover copy, etc?” (@hcmarks)
This varies from publisher to publisher. I’ve heard stories from authors who don’t know what their cover is going to look like until they’re holding a finished copy in their hands. So, I guess I’d say some people have none.
For me, I try to take a holistic and organic approach to those issues. Typically, I’ll have a conference call with an agent and author to discuss strategy for marketing the book, asking about willingness to travel, social media usage, relationships with bookstores, media connections, etc.
A separate conversation will be about how the author “sees” the book cover. Sometimes that’s a concrete image, sometimes it’s a series of keywords, sometimes it’s a vague concept. I listen to it all, and then incorporate some/most/all of it into my notes that I pass on to the production department.
It’s important to note that although many authors have already whipped up something in MS Paint that they’ve become attached to, most authors aren’t designers and the covers are...not so good. Design—good design—is a real skillset that super talented people spend years developing. You aren’t a designer because you own a bootlegged copy of Photoshop.
As far as back cover copy goes, most of the time we end up using a variation of the agent’s initial pitch materials. That was most likely honed by the author and agent much earlier in the process.
So that’s how much I let authors get involved. Like I said earlier, your mileage may vary elsewhere. At the end of the day, it’s important to me that everybody associated with the book feels happy and excited about the product heading to the marketplace.
(7) “Why does it take so long to go from ms to distributed book, sir?” (@lovingshiva)
Lead time, lead time, lead time. Everybody always needs more lead time.
Firstly, the book has to be edited. Even when a publisher likes something enough to acquire it, there are always modifications, fixes, tweaks, twists, etc. that need to be done. Once notes have been handed to author, author reads notes and has conversation with editor, then author makes changes and editor re-reads, then it gets handed over to the production department who lays it out, then it gets sent to the ARC/galley printer.
All of that needs to happen AT LEAST five months before the release of a book for us. The important trade reviewers like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist request books 3-4 months in advance of a release date.
During that same window, the sales and marketing folks are hard at work trying to generate buzz with retailers, readers, librarians, etc., all of whom have to order books way in advance to make sure they get copies when the book is released.
You can, and people do, skip these processes or speed them up, but it’s been my experience that it hurts sales for us if that happens. We need every second before release.
(8) “How important is the cover letter when you are considering a submission? Do you prefer a synopsis or just a few sample chapters?” (@mszola)
For me, a cover letter isn’t all that important. I don’t want a very detailed synopsis or sample chapters to begin. I want to get a sense of YOU, the author. I can learn a lot from your cover/query letter writing and wish that you’d allow yourself to be yourself and that you’d tell me the slightest bit about your book.
That said, other people are going to have different requests for a synopsis or sample chapters, and you’d be doing yourself a favor to adhere to them. They might also have gone to a different school of cover letter expectations. You should not assume that all cover letters will be read the same way.
Important takeaway from this question—follow the guidelines for each person you send materials to and do not assume the generic, one-size-fits-all letter will do the trick.
It’s at this point—inevitably, all the time—that some dude in the back of the room stands up. Typically, he’s wearing black Chuck Taylor’s and a jean jacket with a patch on the back for some band you’ve never heard of and he says, “If you follow the rules, you’re a chump! I do it my own way, with my own style, and blah blah blah.”
Yes, Angsty Teenage Boy Wearing Adult Sizes, you’re totally right, Maverick. You did it your own way and your Rebel Force is strong and everybody bows down to your quasi-literary anarchist tendencies and all the chicks at the pizza parlor think you’re handsome...but nobody has gotten rejected for following the rules. Plenty of people have for not following the rules. Why make an already tough proposition tougher?
(9) Would you recommend selfpublishing or going with a publisher? (@elfhybrid)
It all depends on your goals and skillset.
If you think you want total control—cover, editorial, time it takes to get the book to market, etc. then you’re going to want to self-publish. Because you’ll get that control, and you’d absolutely drive a publisher batshit insane with your level of meddling.
You’re going to want to pay freelancers for editing, cover design, ebook formatting, etc. if you decide to self-publish. You should not make the mistake of thinking that because you have software that is capable of doing something, that you actually know how to do it. All of those skills take time to learn (even on the most perfunctory level) and if you want to be taken seriously in the marketplace, your book is going to need to keep up with industry standards. If it doesn’t, and nobody buys it, that’s on you. That’s your fault. Don’t point the finger and blame others as though we were conspiring against you. We weren’t. I promise. But understand that if you’re counting on people to buy your book because “it’s good enough” or “there are worse” you’re going to be hopelessly disappointed.
Lecture out of the way—if you can make a serious go of it with your self-produced ebooks (and maybe print), your share of the $$$ pie will be so much greater than if you went with a publisher. Rough math on a $5 ebook. Through a publisher, you’re going to make $.63 per sale (25% on net of what publisher receives from vendor, usually about a 50% discount), whereas, if you’re at the right place selling your ebook by yourself, you might be able to get 70% of list price--$3.50 per!
Now it becomes a question of—will the lower royalty rate be made up in more copies sold with a traditional publisher? If the answer is “no,” then you should really look at doing it yourself.
But remember, you have to pay all of those freelancers we talked about above, so you’ll need to make at least that much $$ before you start making the down payment on your BMW. Some folks have the extra scratch sitting around to finance those things and not miss a beat. For others, that’s gas and grocery money. You’ll want to make sure nobody is going to go hungry if things don’t work out the way you want them to.
So what can a publisher provide? Well, assuming it’s a reputable one with the right infrastructure—it will be taking care of editing, cover design, sales and marketing, warehousing, order fulfillment, and all of the publicity efforts that are 100 bajillion times more difficult for a self-published author. Existing publishers with track records can reach out to media, retail buyers, etc. and have their communications returned. They’re a known quantity. That’s a huge part of the equation, and all of those things listed above—especially the publicity and marketing—is how books end up getting sold to readers, how readers even know the books exist.
Cash flow on a per book sale basis will be much less than if you do it yourself, but that’s a limited perspective from which to judge.
As Black Sheep rapped back in ’91—The Choice is Yours.
(10) “How many different 'layers' of approval does an accepted project go thru?ie; slush, bumped up to someone, bumped to the next one” (@josiejo127)
This is another one of those questions that has a bunch of different answers depending on the publishing company. If it’s a one or two person operation, likely it can go from slush to published only passing through one person’s inky hands.
At its most layered, I’ve had something go from an intern, to an editor, to me, to a boss above me before I knew for sure something was going to get published. I’ve had some awesome interns over the years, but I’ve also had some that were better suited to selling Orange Julius, so I’m sure a whole gang of totally awesome books never made it to my desk because the initial reader didn’t see the brilliance. Flawed system, but it’s all that we had.
A typical experience at a larger house might involve an initial reader digging something, passing it onto an editor, the editor then takes it to a Pub Board where he/she presents it to a bunch of people, including a marketing department (who may or may not ever read the book) that will assess the book’s viability in the marketplace based on how much it mirrors Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray. At this point, things like “literary quality” and “emotional resonance” are quaint relics of a bygone era. If marketing isn’t on board, well, it was a nice try kid.
This makes Publishing Bear sad.
Basically, everybody who aspires to publisher/editor status wants to be able to wield a “This Will be Published” sword that he/she can swing whenever he/she wants. But very few people have pulled that sword from the stone and anyway, even if they did, the marketing people would probably criticize the technique.
(11) “Is there any way to efficiently distribute books to indie book stores without major distributors?” (@genesisoflegend)
If there is, I never found it. As a guy who started two independent publishing companies that garnered a little credibility in the publishing world, the biggest challenge was to get bookstores to know that you existed, believed you published a good book, and ordered accordingly. It was easy enough to target individual bookstores and approach them if the author or the story matter had a local connection. But trying to reach a wide section with the ultimate goal of a legitimate business relationship (consistent ordering)? That was a tough cookie to crack. We attended Book Expo America and regional tradeshows, met a few booksellers, developed a few relationships, but not enough to sustain a publishing company.
It was until we started Tyrus in 2009 that we saw the power of good distribution (we were partnered with Consortium) and what could happen if you had a bunch of sales reps who had existing relationships with buyers.
(12) "How does one find the right editor out of the myriads there are? How to avoid being scammed?" (@elfhybrid)
Get a client list/references. Because there is absolutely ZERO certification needed to call oneself an “editor,” a whole bunch of people wake up regularly and say, “Yeah, I’m an editor.”
And they’re not.
Not good ones at least.
Editing, like design, like playing shortstop, like playing drums, is a learned skillset. Just because somebody has read a bunch of books or took a creative writing class in college, it doesn’t mean shit as far as how good of an editor he/she will be.
Did the editor used to work for a legit publishing house (as opposed to some hobbyist’s garage publishing company)? Are the books edited by that editor available from real publishing companies? If you get a client list and every book on it has been self-published or came out from some small press that nobody has ever heard of, it’s probably a fair play to raise an eyebrow at the editor’s “credentials.”
(13) "How important is it to be previously published in some fashion prior to submitting a novel-length work?" (@mark_a_tucker)
To me, it isn’t very important at all.
It might have meant something thirty years ago when there were only like three or four literary journals and a couple of magazines that published fiction. But now, every website is a front for a ‘zine, and I’m pretty sure that even people who had no intention of being published have a half-dozen credits to their names.
What I’m trying to say is that what was once one way for figuring out how legit somebody was as a writer became meaningless with the proliferation of the web. I get all sorts of bios in query letters that list things like church newsletters, personal blogs, and fancy sounding web ‘zines like “Emerald Cottage Review” that make me say, “Wait, have I ever heard of that? Is that important?” And then it turns out I haven’t (and maybe nobody else has either), so I quit trying to keep up to date with all of that stuff and I deal with the material at hand. Obviously if I see something like “The New Yorker” in a query, I’ll pay a little bit more attention, but I’m definitely not trying to suss out the hierarchal structure of the online ‘zine world.
Also, not really related to anything above, but something else of note—at one point, just about every other submission we got, the author had been a “Pushcart Prize nominee.” That ceased meaning anything to me. Along with all of the made up awards “Bensonville Achievement Award for Written Excellence,” etc.