Finding New Authors Publishing Unknowns

My regular readers will have noticed that I'm finding it difficult to write new posts lately. It's less a question of ideas at this point than time. I'm getting ready to move for the first time in eight years, plus I'll be traveling all winter, so my posting frequency is likely to be very limited until spring. My last post about buying a publishing company has brought about a very interesting correspondence with another small publisher who's interested in working with me. I'm not going to rush into anything because my dance card is already full this winter, but that won't stop me from thinking and talking about it.

The main challenge for any publisher is marketing books and selling them at a profit, but that doesn't mean that you can find new authors in the gutter and turn them into gold. Success in publishing starts with the manuscript, and authors who have proven their marketability are usually too expensive for small presses, or unwilling to work with them for fear that the small press won't have the marketing muscle of a large trade. It's a legitimate concern in the sense that a large trade will be able send a book they believe in on a honeymoon on bookstore shelves, even if they have to pay co-op advertising to get it.

The same options are available to small presses publishing unknown authors, but for very plain economic reasons, it rarely makes sense. Keep in mind that large trade presses can play a numbers game. With hundreds, or even thousands of new titles a year, they can be confident that a number will do well enough to offset some bad bets. A small press with limited resources who puts all their eggs in one basket is likely to end up with an omelet.

This makes finding new authors more of a challenge for small presses than for large trades. Don't get me wrong here, all a publisher has to do to get swamped in manuscripts from unknowns is to whisper it into the wind in an empty parking lot, and the next day they'll be deluged in e-mails and fat envelopes. The challenge is that the small press will be the last stop for most undiscovered authors, meaning the manuscripts or queries have already been rejected by every large trade in NYC.

Authoring is like any other profession in that few of us burst from college fully developed. Very few authors have bothered doing any market research before writing their first book, much less studying up on the publishing business. They see all of that as the job of the publisher they choose to honor with their genius. However, if you surveyed publishers both great and small and asked them what was the one quality they would most like to see in a new author, it wouldn't be genius, sanity, or even willingness to work for peanuts. Publishers want authors who can promote their own books. Effective book marketing doesn't start with showmanship, it starts with the author writing a book that matches their marketing strengths.

All of this makes the job of publishing unknown authors a leap of faith - faith in your ability not just to identify a winning manuscript but to recognize whether an author with unproven book marketing skills will be an asset or a liability. Until this point, my experience in discovering unknown authors has been limited to putting a few new authors together with acquisitions editors I knew at the large trades. Now that I'm thinking again of doing it myself, with partners, I'm beginning to wonder if I should be developing some checklist that I can use to narrow the field before evaluating authors and manuscripts turns into a full time job.

Buying a Book Publisher

I just spent some time searching the web for a listing of publishing companies for sale. I don't know if I phrasing the search queries wrong or if there's just no good central listing of publishers for sale because all I can come up with is single offers and questionable directories. When the descriptions don't include the date the ad was posted, or even a website to visit, I can't imagine why anybody would invest the time to follow-up. I certainly didn't. If anybody knows of a site or broker dealing with small publishing companies, even self publishers who are giving up the business, please drop me an e-mail.

Growing a business through acquisitions is hardly a new idea, it's probably the easiest way in the world to increase your topline and your industry footprint. It's not something I've been thinking about for a long time, but I'm moving soon, and I'm looking for a house or a mixed zoning building (like a store and an apartment) up in New Hampshire for this winter. Talking to a friend, I mentioned that if I don't buy a house, I might put the money into buying a business instead, though I was thinking of a bookstore when I said it. Looking at the options from the standpoint of a businessman, I could add more value to a publishing business than to a bookstore, which one of the main goals of being an entrepreneur.

There's also the fact that I've moved towards publishing other authors and then backed off several times, even went so far once as advertising for manuscripts and drawing up a contract. The problem, then and now, was I realized that I didn't want to take on the overhead of dealing with new authors, some with unrealistic expectations and all with their share of eccentricities:-) However, I've had pretty good luck over the past few years outsourcing jobs I couldn't or wouldn't do to contractors, and I know a couple of reliable, intelligent candidates who think I could hire as part-time managers to deal with the facets of the publishing business I'm not good at.

Since my main strength is in Internet based book marketing, I'd really like to find a small publishing company with some titles that are good and an existing web site that's really, really bad. It's always easiest to pick the low hanging fruit, and I'm not going out of my way to risk money on something that proves a greater challenge than I can handle. But I'm also a believer in comparison shopping, and it's frustrating not being able to find a list of publishers looking to sell their businesses. You'd think that hundreds of small publishers would come up for sale every year just by way of estate sales, or maybe their families just close the business down and forget about it. That would be a shame.

There may not be any value in a storeroom full of books that never sold, inventory is death, but there's always value in content and intellectual property, now that we live in the age of Google. A publishing business that didn't work ten years ago might very well be made to work today, with print-on-demand, Amazon, and the Internet. I'm going to put some more thought into it and do some more research, maybe I'm missing something obvious. In the meantime, I developed a painful case of heartburn writing this, so maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

Dummy or Complete Idiot?

Self publishing has been around as long as the printing press, and how-to books have always been amongst the most marketable titles. The leading series for how to do just about everything are Dummies (Wiley) and Complete Idiots Guides (Alpha). The acquisitions editors at these two presses are neither dummies nor complete idiots, so it was only a matter of time before they realized there was a real market for books about self publishing. Titling being one of their strongest points, they recently gave us The Compete Idiot's Guide to Self-Publishing by Mark Victor Hansen (October, 2005) and Self-Publishing for Dummies by Jason R. Rich (August, 2006).

Amazon lists the Dummies book as a second edition, but try as I will, I can't find any evidence anywhere that a first edition ever existed. It's either an error or a clever new marketing ploy, though I suppose it's also possible I'm too big a dummy to find it. Neither of the books are challenging the old leaders on Amazon, such as The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter, currently in it's 15th edition (for real:-) or Complete Guide to Self Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross.The Idiot's and Dummies books obviously aren't self published, and the Ross book is by Writer's Digest Press. If I were in the market for a book about self publishing, I'd be much more inclined to buy one from a self publisher than from a large trade publisher.

Fortunately, I wrote my own book, Print-on-Demand Book Publishing, so I don't need to buy one, and I know several other successful self publishers who have written publishing books of their own. There's Aiming at Amazon by Aaron Shepard, How to Start and Run a Small Book Publishing Company by Peter Hupalo, and the pending book from Steve Weber that I blogged about a few weeks ago. None of us are getting rich writing about publishing, but we all had publishing experiences we wanted to share, and writing a book on the subject seemed the most logical way to do it. The Dummy and Complete Idiot books probably dominate sales in the bookstores where they have excellent shelving and a trusted brand name, but on Amazon, we all compete heads-up.

Strange to say, I don't remember ever reading a Dummies title, though one of the smartest people I know was a big fan, at least in their early days. It seems to me that my old business partner once gave me an Idiot's book about finding an agent, or getting a trade publisher, something along those lines. My memory is that I couldn't take the formatting, lots of little boxes pointing out what somebody thought was important in the preceding text. I just prefer to make those decisions for myself.

New Self Publisher Asks an Honest Question

Yesterday I got a question that really annoyed me when I opened the e-mail, and not just because it falls outside the scope of my guidelines:-) The question was:

Can you really make money in self-publishing or is it all hype?

The reason it annoyed me is because there's an implication in there that I'm hyping self publishing myself. I'm not going to paste in my whole answer, but the gist of it was:

It isn't easy, the main job is marketing. It doesn't matter if you write a great book and have a great cover, if you can't get enough people to buy it, there's no word of mouth, no demand. Just keep in mind I'm talking about self publishing as a business, setting up your own publishing company. Most writers who contact me don't really want to take that chance, so they just sign up with a subsidy publisher, spend a couple hundred dollars to get their book published, and forget about it. I'd estimate that only 1% of subsidy published authors make enough money to be worth mentioning in the "living" context, but in the end, that's not why they're doing it. If you aren't writing commercial books, there's not much point setting up a publishing business, and if you are writing commercial books, you can get a trade deal if you work at it hard enough - self publishing is just an option.

While my blog readers will recognize there's nothing new in my answer, it did get me thinking about how all the websites and blogs about self publishing must look to a new self publisher. I'd be skeptical myself, especially because most of them are hype. But think about it, publishers and authors who want to succeed have to market themselves, and the chasm between information in the form of an encyclopedia entry and information you can actually use is pretty wide. A definition of self publishing may be useful to a kid writing a high school paper, but my approach is to go heavy on my personal experiences in self publishing, and sanitized versions of events I know to be true but where I don't want to stray over legal boundaries.

If you're new to self publishing, or just thinking about it as an option, don't stop with reading the articles on my site. There must be thousands of pages worth of information written by real self publishers kicking around the web, so take the time to track some down and read them. Don't start shooting off questions to the first self publisher with an e-mail address you encounter, keep reading, and recognize that all of us have different backgrounds and experiences.
Anybody who tells you it's "fun and easy" is full of something, it's hard work and nothing is sure. Only a very small percentage of the new self publishers I've corresponded with were essentially instant successes, and I'd attribute a good chunk of their good fortune to luck. So, it was an honest question, but not one I'm particularly thrilled about finding in my in-box:-)

The Book Publishing Industry

Every year I update my industry book sales page that combines the financial statements of the Big Three (Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon) with some government and trade statistics to give a thumbnail picture of retail book sales. An interesting facet of the book industry is that the only numbers anybody really trusts are from a third party, Nielson, who simply counts books at the point of sale. None of the industry organizations are sufficiently comprehensive in membership to produce trustworthy numbers through internal surveys, and some may have an ingrained prejudice against bean counting.

There's no particular reason for self publishers to fixate on the size of the book market, which is in the low tens of billions of dollars, because the most successful of us isn't even a blip on the radar in that context. It would be interesting to know if all of us added up together amount to something on the order of a major trade, or if our sum total doesn't come to a hill of beans. Unfortunately, I don't have any ideas for a methodology to determine this, even if I had the resources.

One interesting measure would be to learn how many individuals earn their primary income through self publishing, and then to compare that number to the number of employees at a large trade. I don't think it's possible to extract that information from the IRS statistics (I've tried), and a survey by way of the Internet would be as self selecting as anything attempted by a small publishers organization. It's easy for me to say that I know a dozen or so individuals who earn a living self publishing, but maybe that's everybody!

OK, that would be an exaggeration, but I can't help wondering how many self publishing authors have figured out the industry to the extent that they turn down offers from the big trades on a regular basis. What got me thinking about it was a recent correspondence with an ex-editor of mine from a big trade in which I mentioned that self publishing authors aren't likely to put them out of business any time soon. I'm not really sure why that's the case, except that most authors, even veterans with a firm understanding of the book trade, would rather work for royalties and advances than on spec.

Most work-a-day nonfiction authors could afford to at least experiment with judicious self publishing, but the big trades hold the lure of bestsellers with a largely illusory marketing advantage, and a book contract with an advance is a bird in the hand. It might be an honest recognition on the part of many authors that they just don't want to be in business for themselves with all that entails, including a slow ramp-up time. Still, it seems to me that the best time to launch a new business is when you're already earning a living in a related field, as in working as a trade author. If you wait until you need the money, it's probably going to be too late to figure it out the business in time to pay your bills and remain independent.