Thursday, February 18, 2010

Talking with Kemble Scott about Publishing

Since I'll be looking for an agent and publisher later this year for my book Delux, I spoke with the writer Kemble Scott (aka Scott James) about the state of the publishing industry. Kemble has penned SoMa and The Sower. Here are some highlights of the publishing process for first time writers.
  • Only 1 in 20 published books are successful. Venture capitalists expect 1 in 10 investments to pay off. Publishing is twice as risky as start-ups.
  • You can't get published unless you submit to agents and publishers, and most will reject you. In fact, you can expect to get rejection letters written by people who have an opinion about your book even if they haven't read it. In one case, an author got a rejection letter from an agent who asked the author for a manuscript. That's how bad the submission process is.
  • If you don't get an agent or publisher, consider self-publishing, especially electronic versions of your book. At least for now, getting a publisher is still the best way to get sales. Publishers continue to keep the gates to retail book stores, New York Times best-seller list, etc. But the rules of gate-keeping and distribution are in flux, and you don't destroy your chances of a publishing deal anymore when you self-publish.
  • Publishers have sales forces whose job is to get retail bookstores to buy books. A publisher's sales force typically specializes in a genre, and publishers may make their "green light" decisions based on the opinion of their respective sales forces about marketability. Sometimes this means a publisher will categorize your book in a far-flung genre that its sales force understands how to sell.
The validation of a publishing deal still adds value to a title from an unknown author. However, with return rates hovering around 40% through the bookstore channel (those sales reps are good at getting bookstores to buy inventory they can't sell!), print-on-demand and electronic distribution, both of which have no returns, have a built-in profit advantage that will force the industry to new distribution models with new gate-keepers.

The biggest problem facing new authors, of course, is marketing. Kemble caught a lucky break when scribd included The Sower in its first online bookstore, one of those lucky breaks that happened because someone at scribd remembered talking to Kemble about SoMa at a cocktail party. The press frenzy covering scribd's innovative online store drove traffic to scribd which, in turn, drove sales of The Sower. Be the first to try a new marketing technique that the press can write a story about, and you may sell more copies of your book because of your marketing creativity than your writing creativity (this is not a negative comment about the literary merits of The Sower, by the way).

Getting a publishing deal creates a specific marketing problem for an author. If you self-publish, you will get nearly instantaneous reports on unit sales. If you work with a publisher, you probably will receive an annual sales report without much detail. With instantaneous reporting, you can determine which marketing effort paid off in sales. Did the review in The Daily Podunk drive sales of those last 20 units, or the talk at Podunk University a week later? Do you spend your marketing time getting more reviews, or interviews, or bookstore visits, or blog posts? If you can see timely sales reports, you can make better marketing decisions.

I'm reading up on literary agents and getting ready to submit. I know it's a long-shot. Maybe I'm crazy. It's just that I like writing and telling stories, and this business of finding a publisher seems like a small price to pay to get my work out there.

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