Interview with Bob Skilnik

You've been around the publishing block a few times, working with trade publishers, subsidy presses, and an agent. What's got you looking at self publishing for your tenth title?


Like it or not, once you sign a contract with a trade publisher, you lose control of your own work. Authors-to-be will often naively ask how that can happen; after all, it's your book. Publishers, however, go through the mechanics of getting a book published and will typically have a better idea of what needs to be done in getting the book from manuscript to publication. That's why, at least for your first book, I'd subscribe to the idea of NOT self-publishing. With one book under your belt, and with the publisher sort of holding your hand during the entire process, you have a better idea of what to expect with your subsequent efforts. For a new author, it's a learning experience. Take the disadvantage of not being as savvy as a trade publisher and turn their experiences into a positive publishing event, a learning experience for you.

If you have a couple of books in you and you're still uncomfortable with striking out on your own with book two, I'd hesitantly suggest that you try a subsidy press, something that's usually described incorrectly as a POD publisher...1st Books, something like that. There comes a point however, where you'll begin to see what it really takes to sell a book, whether its through a trade publisher or a subsidy publisher. It's really the efforts of the author---especially aggresive marketing--- that makes the difference. At that point, true self-publication, going through someone like Lightning Source, is the next logical step. You've given up control of your earlier efforts; now it's time to regain control of your efforts and use the learning experiences of your initial fling(s) with a trade publisher or a subsidy press. You could jump right into self-publishing, but if you don't know what you're doing, your not helping yourself by trying to be independent, to have control. You might even hurt your book sales by blindly plodding through the process of getting your book to market.

I think some seasoned authors will never try self-publishing because they get too comfortable with having a literary agent shop their manuscript and become content with the agent getting them a nice little negotiated advance. From then on, the publisher still makes most of the decisions on the book, not the author. If the authors are lucky, they'll also enjoy a brief window of marketing efforts by their publisher and then realize that the acquisition editor or the marketing contact isn't calling like she/he used to. You're on your own.

With self-publication, how-to guide books written by people like Morris Rosenthal, and companies like Lightning Source, experienced authors have the opportunity to make the next logical step in doing a self-publishing approach and regaining control of their efforts.

Did you have a career in brewing before moving to journalism, or did you jump into writing immediately after studying brewing technology?

I studied brewing in order to build a background for the opening of a brewpub. I knew I also needed restaurant experience. After completing my studies and establishing a small deli in Chicago, dealing with 70 hour work weeks, meeting payroll and trying to pay vendor bills on time, I came to the conclusion that it might be cheaper to write about beer rather than making it on a professional level. I had already established industry contacts during my "beer school" tenure so starting out my writing profession, centered around the themes of beer and brewing, seemed to be a logical step.

Your websites, and magazine journalism give you great head start a platform for self publishing, but you've also been successful at getting TV and radio exposure. Have you been able to work out which of these has done the most to help sales of your previous books?

I'm a firm believer in using well-written news releases in generating interest in what I do. I say "news releases" because too many people use press releases to blatantly promote their efforts rather than truly offer the media what they really want---news. I also like to piggyback one book on another work. If customers like one of your books, they might be willing to invest their time and money in something else you've done.

Do you actively seek to opportunities to do interviews or offer expert commentary in broadcast media, or do you just respond to media requests? If you do market yourself to media, do you pay for a listing in one of the subscription resources for speakers and experts, or do you work your contact directly?

I've never paid for publicity. My first book was about Chicago's old brewing industry, taking a wide historical approach of how the brewing industry influenced Chicago's economic, political and social developments. That approach gave me crossover with people interested in Chicago's early history. Since my Chicago history approach was so unique, and because I'm the only one to have written about the brewing industry, I've got a list of future speaking engagements at local libraries, historical societies---including a stint with a traveling program by the Smithsonian---that broadens my appeal beyond people simply interested in the old Chicago brewing industry. I've also done consulting and organized focus groups for advertising agencies that work with breweries that are trying to stimulate sales in the Chicagoland area. Because I also took a historical look at past beer advertising and marketing efforts in Chicago, I was the person to turn to for a historical analysis of what has worked---and not worked---in beer advertising in Chicago. I did a follow-up edition called "BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago" that has solidified my reputation as the "Chicago beer history guy" and this book is my ticket to local lectures---paid lectures---where I also sell my books.

I also did two books a few years ago that had widespread commercial appeal. These were deliberate attempts on my part to go beyond the niche of Chicago beer history or Chicago history in general. I broadened these two efforts towards the then hot low-carbohydrate trend, and using my brewing industry contacts, gathered the carbohydrate content on more than 1,000 beers, 400 wines and scores of liquors and liqueurs. Along with a strong news release campaign and a lot of follow-up e-mails and telephone calls, I found myself on ABC's "The View," ESPN2 and the FOX News Channel as the "beer guy" or the "Low-Carb Bartender," reflecting a title of one of my books. I must have done 100 radio interviews in a peiod of about three months, many of them national, some with Canadian programs and even a few in Europe. I even received a call from brewer Anheuser-Busch to fly out to St. Louis. They were about to go public and correct the misleading assumptions about beer, promoted by a famous diet book author, and wanted my input on beer, carbohydrates and how to work the moderate consumption of beer into a low-carbohydrate diet.

I used this momentum at the time to become a columnist for a glossy-page national magazine, adding this job to my pile of freelance writing jobs for the "Chicago Tribune" and national magazines like "Draft." When you're "hot," one thing leads to another. I still get calls or e-mails a few times a month for one-on-one interviews about beer or booze in general, or as a contributor in a boozy story that utilizes input from a number of people. I recently was asked to comment on a story for, for instance.

During the research of my last book, "Beer & Food: An American History," I sent an e-mail out to The Boston Beer Company for some beer-related food recipes and wound up with brewery owner Jim Koch doing a book intro for me. It's amazing what can happen if you simply ask for some help.

I've tried trade publishers, subsidy presses, and publishing with an agent and without one. I now have the kind of established platform that has encouraged me to put the finishing touches on another book with nationwide commercial appeal. I've kept a record of all my media contacts, and when I release this new book in the fall, the news releases and upcoming Internet efforts will pave the way in creating buzz about the book.

I also have a blog, that links back to other websites that I've let fall into disarray, but their presence on the Internet still keeps my name out there. In preparation for the new book, I'll be spinning off another website that will be heavy on instructional video presentations (vlogs) and podcasts.

I just wish that I had begun my writing career twenty-five years instead of getting started with an article in the "Chicago Tribune" back in 1997. It was this 1,000-word piece that gave me the impetus to jump full time into writing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's not surprising that a guy from Bridgeport would be an expert on beer, and even the guy across the street from where I grew up. I find it amusing and from what I have read, very interesting.
Andrea Kotowske