You could call them secret shoppers. Like the plainclothes informants who check out department stores for a lapse in customer service, publishers who slip on authors’ shoes return from their writing experience armed with anecdotes and tips that market research can’t devine. What many intelligencers see shocks them. Even thirty-year publishing veterans see their industry in a new light after sitting on the other side of the desk. Adrian Zackheim, Publisher of Portfolio and Sentinel, said, “I was used to looking down the other end of the telescope, and writing [Getting Your Book Published for Dummies] made me understand why authors ‘don’t get it.’” And Bill Rosen, one time Executive Editor of Free Press and author of the forthcoming Justinian’s Flea (Viking), said “I learned how painful the process can be when you’re not part of it. It’s frustrating to think you know what’s going on and then wonder how they got from there to here.”
Though people in every department guide the author through the publishing process (and some, such as Penguin, even provide a nuts-and-bolts pre-pub booklet), many publisher-authors are still surprised at how unnerving it can be. “[The process gave me] a deeper empathy when working with authors on our list. I could much better understand their anxieties, especially when being reviewed,” said Jacqueline Deval, EVP and Publisher at Hearst as well as author of Publicize Your Book (Perigee) and the novel Reckless Appetites (Ecco). “Until it is your own work on the line, it is hard to appreciate what a blood sport publishing is,” confirmed Star Lawrence, Editor-in-Chief of Norton and author of The Lightning Keeper (HarperCollins). “I might once have made the analogy between a devastating review and losing at paint-ball: it’s messy, it stings, but tomorrow is another day. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that now, either to myself or to an author.”
For John Glusman, VP and Executive Editor of Harmony, however, his turn as an author taught him that the job can, and should, be done on time. “It has made me more sympathetic, but also more demanding as an editor,” he said. With three growing children and taking no more than vacation time off from his demanding editorial position, Glusman carved time to write whenever he could “on weekends, in elevators, waiting in line at the grocery store” to deliver Conduct Under Fire (Viking) just two months past deadline.
On the other hand, no amount of self-discipline or dedication could help Amanda Vaill, former Executive Editor at Viking, when writing both her books Everybody Was So Young (Houghton Mifflin) and Somewhere (Broadway). During her editorial tenure, backloading payment to incentivize manuscript delivery from authors was standard, but, as an author, it backfired and she found herself having to take time out from writing her books to write magazine articles just to pay the bills. And she commented, “the cost of money is not huge and there are production savings that never get passed on to the author,” she said. Publishers, en garde!
Despite the pitfalls and pains of the writer’s life, for those accustomed to working behind the scenes in one of the most complicated and arguably thankless industries, suddenly being center stage has got to feel pretty good. When Diane Gedymin, publishing veteran now at iUniverse, saw her first book Get Published! (iUniverse) displayed at Barnes & Noble, the primeval rush of ownership compelled her to pick it up, just to hold it. After a fellow browser struck up a conversation, Gedymin found herself humbly signing her first autograph.
Herewith an articulated primer for you and your authors of ten things you think they know but probably don’t (and that you should remind them, ahem, along with yourself):
1) Get to know the business. Zackheim put it this way: you wouldn’t go to London without booking a flight or a hotel or reading a guidebook, so you can’t expect to enter the world of publishing without preparation. Deval concurred, “authors have to understand the business they’re in–the business of publishing. They can’t wait for the publisher to tell them how to get involved. They need to be proactive early on. I knew that before becoming an author, but becoming one absolutely reinforced that knowledge.” Help your authors help themselves. For a general guide of what to expect and where to begin asking questions, have your authors consult our annotated list of resources on the PT website.
2) Master your own domain. John Glusman’s “newly minted author ego was damaged” when Viking declined to share the cost of a website. But after seeing how conductunderfire.com extends the reach of his book and facilitates feedback from readers, he knows the initial outlay of the author is rewarded later on. “A website is absolutely essential to certain books and the author must be involved in keeping the site up-to-date,” he said. When Glusman was about to go on the air for a radio interview, the interviewer confessed the book hadn’t arrived in time for him to read. After a quick look at excerpts and reviews on the website, the interviewer got a good feel for what the book was about and they had one of his best interviews to date. (Policies differ: Doubleday built and subsidized Jane Isay’s site–see below.)
3) The power of the podcast. Literary agent and former HarperCollins editor Craig Nelson was skeptical about podcasting, but at Viking’s urging, he participated in one when his biography, Thomas Paine, came out last year. “As it turns out,” said Nelson, “they were right and I was wrong, since Thomas Paine in fact triggered a lot of blogger attention, going on for months and months after pub, to the point where I had to set up Google Alerts to keep track of them all.”
4)“Ride the Big River.” Amazon is not just a force to be reckoned with, but one to be harnessed, and authors can explore and exploit it with little to no help from publishers. Steve Weber, online bookseller and author of Plug Your Book (forthcoming from his eponymous press), confirms that “the balance of power is shifting to book readers, and away from gatekeepers like professional critics. Online book reviews by ‘amateurs’ are crucial now, especially for new authors.” In his book, Weber lauds the new Amazon ad network Clickriver which is geared exclusively toward Amazon shoppers. Weber said, “The keyword suggestion tool is its strongest feature. For example, if you were compiling keywords to advertise a book about ‘bread baking,’ Clickriver would suggest author names, title phrases, and other words and phrases that customers have used to search for books about bread. You can be fairly sure that the objective of the search was to find a book, very possibly with the intention of making a purchase.” Just as the recent Wall Street Journal article cautioned, Weber warned against the Amazon Bestseller Campaign. The outlay is big and the benefits mostly minimal.
5) Blog til you can blog no more. Blogging isn’t the time-intensive, all-consuming activity many publishers fear it is. Gedymin pointed out that it’s in fact one of the most flexible marketing tools out there for authors. Updateable at all hours of the day and night, blogging keeps your name, your book, and your expertise in search engines. Weber gives tips to aspiring author-bloggers in his book, one of them being to set up a Google Alert to deliver topical news on your book’s subject, giving you fodder for blogging.
6) Mark your calendar. After several years of receiving calls from radio stations around the country in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, editorial consultant and writer Michele Slung and author of Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say (Ballantine) hired her own PR agency to book phoners to promote her book, which was a mass market (and now a trade) paperback. Twenty years and more than a million copies later, Momilies is still in print. “Books are like boats on a calm sea” said Slung, “they can get launched with a puff of wind, but they need a steady breeze to keep going.” This fall, Slung will help re-promote her latest book, A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories (Carroll & Graf), which was published last year.
7) Target the right audience. Tom Woll thought his book, Publishing for Profit (Chicago Review Press, revised ed. 2006) had a clearly defined target audience: small to mid-size publishers, presumably American. But Woll was surprised by the wide reach of the title. Aspiring publishers from all over the world got in touch with him and he parlayed the enthusiasm into seven foreign language editions.
8) Give publishers a run for their money. Ostensibly, the writer’s job is to write and the publisher’s job is to publish, but in reality, for a title to do well these days, all sides have to do substantially more than what’s expected. Years of dealing with the “my publisher should have done this for me” attitude from authors didn’t make Glusman immune to the sentiment himself. Most publishers-cum-authors admitted the amount of time and effort that goes into publishing a single book shocked them and the effort required of the author even more. “Authors who adopt the view that publishers are going to publish their book without a great deal of care and supervision [from the author] are gravely mistaken,” said Zackheim.
9) It’s not who you know, it’s who you know who knows your book. If the successful salesperson’s mantra is “always be closing,” the author’s can be “always be talking about your book.” When Roxanne Coady, founder of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT, mentioned her book The Book that Changed My Life (Gotham) to bookselling compatriots at Powell’s, they invited her to be a guest blogger at their website. The cyber exposure led to more stints at other bookstore blogs. Likewise, Diane Gedymin uses every chance she gets to tell willing listeners about Get Published! and even hands out free copies at speaking engagements. And if the thought of real life networking sends your reclusive authors running back to the safety of their garrets, they can now do it virtually on (all together now!) MySpace. It’s working for Josh Kilmer-Purcell and The Memoirists Collective who have carefully and successfully cultivated a group of engaged friends. On March 20, Barry Eisler, as a guest editor on Buzz, Balls, and Hype (see Ink Slingers chart), wrote a particularly insightful thread about MySpace as a business tool.
10) Be relentless, but not obnoxious. “It’s important to be aggressive, but respectful of people’s time.You’re not alone as an author,” said Gedymin. As our publisher-authors discovered, even the most seasoned vet has to ask a few questions when put in the bewildering position of the author. Jane Isay, former Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt, said that before writing Walking on Eggshells, she “didn’t realize how narcissistic and weird and needy you become. The whole world revolves around your book.” If she’d learned this earlier in her career, she would have spoken to her authors differently, she said. “Maybe I would have told them to take up tai chi or some other meditative practice.”