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What I Learned as a Publishing Intern

Guest Post by Anna L. Davis

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What I Learned as a Publishing Intern

Ten years of writing from home, querying and plugging away at word count while breaking up sibling fights, can wear on the nerves. I wanted to learn more about the writing industry. I wanted to get out of the house, but still have time for my family. So with some hunting I found the perfect job: a part-time creative writing internship for Henery Press, a local mystery and suspense publisher.

The catch? It was unpaid.

After a conversation with my tolerant (and steadily employed) husband, I agreed to the job. Thus began my semi-formal instruction in book publishing. Oh, I knew a bit about publishing before I took the internship. I worked as an editor for the college paper, blogged regularly, even self-published a nonfiction book a while back. But much has changed since then, and this hip new publisher taught me what it takes to create and market novels in today’s volatile market.

I worked with some cool people out of a loft-style office in an artsy urban environment. We read through submissions and talked books while drinking coffee and jamming to Pandora (or sometimes the strains of hip-hop drifting up from the street below). We went to writer’s conferences and told people we worked in publishing. It was terribly exciting stuff for this write-from-home mom.

I learned more about publishing in six months interning, than in the previous ten years of trying to make it on my own as a writer. But I didn’t earn a dime. And this is perhaps the most important lesson gained: money should not be a writer’s goal.

Don’t get me wrong. Publishing is a business – a risky one. There are costs involved, and if you get a book published in today’s market, you better be out there doing everything possible to get that book moving off the shelves, not just for your own career, but also for the publisher who took a chance on your writing.

Creative writing should be about something deeper than money, though. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said, “Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no… I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

When we as writers come to the blank page, we must set aside concerns about sales rankings and reviews. As writers we must focus on the words, not the money. We should sit at the keyboard and ponder the push and pull of sentences, the cadence of lines that spark emotion.

Yes, publishing is a business. This I know well. But writing?

Writing is for pleasure.

About the Author:

Anna L. Davis is a Dallas-area novelist who writes about flawed people, brain implants, and bio-surveillance. Read more about her internship at Henery Press on her blog, Invisible Ink.

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Publishing Spotlight: Interview with John Pitts

Writing has a lot of facets, and one of them is the brand you build as you look to find an audience for your work. The publishing landscape is shifting, and can be confusing. I’m glad to be able to share an interview with one of the best and brightest names in publishing: John Pitts.

Martin Ott

How did you first begin your career in publishing?

They used to call publishing the “accidental profession” and there’s some truth to that in my case.  I joined the Peace Corps right out of college and taught high school level EFL in Niger.  When that ended after two years, I moved to Boston with half an eye to getting a job at one of the publishers there.  It took nearly two years but I got my foot in the door at Houghton Mifflin as a publicist and then moved to Doubleday two years later, eventually making the switch to marketing.  It’s a very rewarding career that I highly recommend to anyone who likes the company of books.

What is the biggest challenge facing the publishing industry today?

I would say eBooks are challenging in a number of ways.  The downward pressure on price threatens the profitability of publishing for both traditional houses and for authors.  Just as journalism as a career is being threatened by the expectation that news and similar content be basically free, so are author/publishers threatened by the expectation that eBooks be very inexpensive.  Also, for obvious reasons, self-publishing an eBook, or publishing directly with a retailer such as Amazon, is a much more viable option for writers these days.  I still firmly believe that publishing houses offer a tremendous amount to authors in the form of editorial, sales, marketing and publicity value.  A lot of resources and “man hours” go into the successful publication of a book in a very competitive market.  All that said, we are selling a lot of eBooks.

What attributes are most helpful and least helpful in an author when you are working with them to market a book?

These days, authors have to do more than just write the book and turn it in.  It helps tremendously if they understand and embrace social media, if they have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, etc.  Plenty of the older authors don’t have any interest in playing this game, and that’s fine, they’re established.  But up and coming writers can really benefit from being a player.  It really enhances the marketing process if we feel that the author is our partner in the effort, working with us to solve the problem of reaching the right audience.  Least helpful?  Some writers come with the pre-conceived notion that publishers don’t know what they’re doing and I can sense that right off.  Not at all helpful.

How do major publishing houses look to capitalize on eBooks?

We publish eBooks right alongside print books and we’re selling a growing number.  One of the great things from the author/publisher perspective is that readers of eBooks read more books, in part because they’re less expensive but also because they’re so easy to acquire.  So we welcome the challenge, and it appears that, at least for the moment, we have risen to it.

How has the decline of the brick and mortar bookstore affected publishing and marketing trends?

The #1 problem is “discoverability.”  The common assumption is that as much as 1/3 of book sales have traditionally come from people browsing through a bookstore and making unplanned-for purchases.  So as the number of physical stores declines (for example, Borders went bankrupt a few years ago and, poof, 500+ stores disappeared, and nearly 20,000 people lost their jobs) the opportunities for serendipitous purchases also declines.  We spend much less these days on point of sale material, for obvious reasons.  Additionally, much of marketing and publicity takes place in the digital space because that’s where the audience is. We still take out ads in newspapers and magazines, run TV spots and send authors on book tours, though less and less.

How has the popularity of young adult titles with mainstream audiences affected the book industry?

I don’t handle young adult titles, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I have seen anecdotal evidence of this sort of cross over.  For example, I market John Grisham’s adult titles, but not his Theodore Boone books, which are aimed at the YA audience.  Many of his adult fans also enjoy the YA novels and they’re quite vocal about it on Facebook.  I’m so impressed by the quality of YA literature these days and my assumption is that it nurtures good readers who will continue the habit as adults.

Any advice to writers looking to publish their book?

Persevere. Believe in yourself. Write every day. Work on your craft.  Get an agent.

Bio

John Pitts photo

John Pitts is Vice President, Director of Marketing for Doubleday, a division of Random House. Inc.  He has being plying his trade for more than 25 years, marketing the works of John Grisham, Walter Mosley, Gore Vidal, Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Cahill, and Margaret Atwood, among many others.  He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

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It’s a Small Press World

Guest Post by R. Scott McCoy

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It is a very small world. I’d like to start with a bit of backstory. In short fiction, backstory is to be avoided, but this is real life and a certain context is required.

I met Martin Ott in basic training at Ft Leonardwood, Missouri. We didn’t become instant friends on day one; rather we grew into it because of our common path and mutual interests. We were both going to Fort Huachuca for Interrogator school and afterwards on to the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey.

There were actually three of us, the third being Eric Costlow, or Cos. We went through challenging times together at a point in our lives when we were trying to figure out who we were and who we wanted to be. Marty is a part of who I was and after more than 25 years, I reconnected with him on Facebook because he had done an interview about his latest book. I should have known he’d become a writer.

Marty started writing much sooner than I did. I’d decided in 2005 that I was going to finally lay it all on the line and see if I had what it took. I didn’t have lofty goals like being the next Stephen King or even being good enough to scrape out a living with my writing. No, my goal was more basic. I wanted to know if I could write a story that someone would want to read. I wanted to find out if I could learn the craft well enough that I could touch another person with my words and make them glad they had spent the time. This was my quest. I’d tried and quit several times starting when I was eighteen and in the Army. The reason I failed so often is irrelevant to this post, but finally in 2005, something clicked and I started down the path of becoming a writer.

In 2007, my father became ill and was hospitalized. He suffered several complications and eleven months later, he died. During those eleven months, I spent a lot of time with him in hospitals, much of it while he was asleep or unconscious.  It gave me time to reflect.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are somewhere on the path. You have or will find out that working on your craft is only part of it. You also need to know how to market your writing so it can escape the confines of your computer and be read. I was frustrated with a lot of what I discovered when I tried to get published. Sitting in a waiting room, doing what the room was designed to do, I wrote down all of the things that frustrated me about getting published. The top two items on my list were long turn around times and form rejections. Most magazines or anthologies I was interested in didn’t allow simultaneous submissions. The average response time in 2005 was ninety days, with some lasting over a year. The response, if it was a rejection, was usually a short paragraph with no indication if your story had missed the mark by an inch or a mile. I was taught that if I was going to complain about a situation, I should also take the time to come up with a solution. But what could I do, I was a writer not a publisher.

Light bulb.

I’d only written short stories up to that point and all of them were horror. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write horror stories; it’s just what came out. I enjoy the genre because I feel it allows the exploration of the human condition  in the most concise manner. I don’t need to build a world or explain technology.

When I decided to start a short fiction magazine, it made sense to make it horror because I knew it better than other genres. I read voraciously and with the exception of romance, I don’t discriminate. I know SciFi, Fantasy, and Thriller, having cut my teeth on the classics in my youth. But what I wrote was horror, so

I had a better feel for what would make a good short horror story. While I was in one of those waiting rooms, a doctor came in to tell me about my father’s latest complication. One of my many theories is that doctors use Latin when speaking to patients or family members as a coping mechanism. It gives them some distance as well as a position of superiority. He informed me that my father’s colon was now “Necrotic Tissue,” and needed be removed.

At that point in my life, I needed a distraction from the pain. I took some solace from my writing, but I needed something more. I needed a quest. It all came together as these things do, and I decided to start a horror magazine called Necrotic Tissue. I got a friend to create my website and format the magazine. He also did all the layout and art. I got some other friends to help me with reading submissions. The magazine had a few simple goals:

– Fast turnaround averaging fourteen days

–  Personal rejections, even if it was only one sentence, give a reason for the rejection and, if possible, advice on how to improve

– Pay on time

– Always pick the best story

The last goal may seem obvious, but many magazines wouldn’t give a new writer a chance, regardless of how good the story was. They sought known names because known names sell magazines. Eventually, I solicited known writers and paid pro rates to help sales, but I never took a slot away from another writer, I just made the magazine longer by one story.

The one mistake I made was assuming I could break even. After three years, it became clear that I would run with a loss for at least two more years, possibly longer. The IRS allows you to declare a loss in only three of five years for a small business venture before they consider it a hobby. I pushed it to four years, risking an audit because I wanted NT to survive.

In the end, I couldn’t turn the corner and had to close shop, but not before I put out fourteen issues, one novel, one play collection and two anthologies as well as being the first publishing credit for dozens of writers. I would like to try again using a non-profit model. With margins so thin, a publisher has to worry about every single penny.

It’s easy to put editors and publishers (often the same thing in small press) in the role of the antagonist. They are often faceless villains that just don’t understand our art. The reality is that most of them are also writers and the time they take to run a small press is time that takes away from their writing. Some of them use it as a venue for their own writing and some use it as a way to trade publishing credits, a practice I find despicable. Still others jump in and out of ventures, most trying to network with well-known writers. But the majority of small press publishers just want to put out a good product.

Small press is not one thing. It varies as much as the varied people that own them and they change over time. You need to put in the time and effort on market research. It will save you a lot of heartache and pain. Beware of scammers and don’t be afraid to ask other writers what their experience with a given publisher has been. You can’t submit what you never write down and you can get a publishing credit if you never submit. Finally, thicken your skin, because if your goal is to be showered with complements and accolades, you need another line of work.

One last thing and I will step off my soapbox. Support the publishers that support you. Most writers are broke most of the time, but that doesn’t stop you from reposting news from your publishers on Facebook. You need reviews for your work, but you can also help out other writers by reading their work and posting review on Amazon. I’m not talking about anything unseemly. The fact is that even a bad review on Amazon helps. It’s a numbers game. Take the time to read some of your peers and post reviews. They may or may not reciprocate, but that’s not really the point. Regardless of whether you are selfless or selfish, helping your publisher can only help you in the long run.

Despite the fact that there are thousands of writers out there at various stages of their careers, it is a relatively small community. When I first met Marty and Cos, I was trying to escape who I had been. I saw the Army as a chance to be a better person and went about remaking myself in that image. It was a lofty goal and I would like to think that I’ve made progress towards it. I chose my friends carefully, wanting to surround myself with good people that would help me in my transformation. I’m glad to finally reconnect with Marty and share a mutual passion for writing. It is a very small and wonderful world.

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From the Big House to the Small Press

A Guest Blog Post by JoeAnn Hart

JoeAnn Hart photo

In 2004, while still writing my first book, Addled, a novel that pits animal rights against a country club, I won the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction. That led to an agent, which led to Addled’s sale to a New York publishing house in 2005. The book business has changed so much since then, it might as well be a different geologic era instead of just a few years, so making comparisons between my experience with a Big House then and at a Small Press now isn’t quite fair. But I’m going to do it anyway.

A Big House has prestige, pull, and distribution – fantastic attributes ­­– but it can be as impersonal as factory farming. Except for some general editorial notes from the editor who bought my book, I was so distanced from Addled’s production that I showed up at the Big House office with my revised manuscript in hand, only to find out it had been delayed a year. No one had told me. During the ensuing wait, my Big House was bought out by a Foreign Big House, so that the week Addled finally launched in 2007, the reorganized company was moving to new offices a few blocks away. Cases of my book held the doors open for them.

Bad timing, but the Big House had already done its due diligence when it came to sending out review copies, including to the few online reviewers operating at the time. Addled had many lovely words said about it, but the best thing they did for Addled, (which has a great cover), was put it on the front of their spring catalog, which might have been the last of their paper catalogs. Unfortunately, a pretty face couldn’t help sales. It was in and out of bookstores in a matter of weeks and it was all over in three months. Addled didn’t do well enough for the Big House to justify buying my next book, a story collection based on real estate ads, even though the editor said she wanted it. Oh well. I had another novel in me and I wrote it. My agent loved Float, which confronts the dangers of  plastics in the ocean while still managing to be a comedy, and sent it out. And she sent it out again, and again, then threw in the towel. There was interest, but no one would touch it because of Addled’s sales history. It was over, once again.

I asked my agent if I could send it out to contests, and she said sure (or more precisely, her associate did, into whose care I had been transferred). In the same breath, I also did a regular submission to Ashland Creek, a small press in Oregon that specializes in environmental literature, and they took it. Unlike the Big House, there was no advance, which is usually the case with small presses, but writers get a bigger share of royalties. And more attention. If a Big House is a factory farm, a small press is a petting zoo. The editing was specific and went right to the point, making me think deeply about the interaction between detail and theme. There’s no money to speak of for marketing at a small press, but there wasn’t at the Big House either. I supplied my own jacket photo for both. I wasn’t expecting, nor did I get, a book tour at the Big House, but it was a surprise to find out that the sales reps had to clear readings (they don’t want a lesser author to compete with their best-selling authors), and the answer was either “no” or too late in coming. I’ve been told that Big Houses don’t have sales reps anymore, but readings are still controlled. With Float, I am free to book as many readings or events that will have me. The philosophy about the lifespan of a book is also different at Ashland Creek, and I suspect at other small presses. They expect to sell Float over a period of years, not a single season, and not dismiss it if it doesn’t catch fire right away (read: does not get a NYTBR, which can only happen within three months after release).

As for social media circa 2007, everyone knew potential readers existed out in cyber-land, but no one knew yet quite how to reach them. Now every author, whether with a big house, small press, or self-published, is expected to be fluent in Facebook, Twitter, and Mail Chimp, as well as WordPress for blogging. I have my own website blog which is issues-based, where I write about plastics in the ocean. I also do a more meditative blog for Newfound Journal, an Inquiry of Place, where once a month I ponder on my place here on the coast. Then there is guest blogging, as I am doing right now, and these blogs usually concern the writing life.

Would I have sought out a small press if a Big House had taken me? No. Haven’t I just mentioned prestige, pull, and distribution? Having said that, the lesson I’ve learned is that those fine credentials mean little if there is no enthusiasm behind the book, and enthusiasm is such a delicate thing. Without a hard-core marketing campaign, it could not stay alive during Addled’s long publication delay. Now that I’m with a small press, I know what it’s like to feel that enthusiasm. It does not seem like a lesser option, just a different one. I feel as if we are in it together, and that Ashland Creek loves my book as much as I do. What else but love of the written word could make someone start a book press in this day and age? It’s like taking up falconry. But they, and all the other amazing small presses of the world, might just keep the book industry afloat in these stormy times.

About the Author

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled, and her short fiction and essays have been widely published. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but she can be easily found on Facebook, Twitter and joeannhart.com.

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Amazon on the Brain

This week, I have had Amazon on the brain for a number of reasons. I have had conversations with a book editor discussing the merits of listing a new poetry book exclusively on Amazon vs. other methods. Then, the next day I had a similar conversation with my manager, who is trying to convince me to give Amazon exclusive one-year rights to my forthcoming novel Interrogator’s Notebook.

Of course, I feel like a hypocrite. I swore off using Amazon for almost a year, and even trumpeted the merits of local bookstores in this very blog. And now as an author looking at his first three books coming out this fall, in each case Amazon has become the most important distributor for my work.

To make matters more complicated, Amazon is now planning for the future with more warehouses and quicker delivery. Is Amazon helping the lesser-known writer with a more even playing field for the digital distribution and ownership of their work? Or are they in the middle of creating a book churning and chucking apparatus that will later flex its muscles in ways we cannot imagine? Or both?

Martin Ott

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Are Publishers in Their Own Hunger Games?

Yesterday I went to see The Hunger Games with my daughter in a packed theater on opening day. She had read the book, one of our rules for seeing a movie based on a novel. Because I am also currently working of my own young adult novel, I’d also read all three of Suzanne Collins’ books in the Hunger Games series as research.

Yes, and even though some of the audience did hoot for the next Twilight movie trailer I found myself enjoying the movie, just as I had the books. I remembered my own love of science fiction and literature at my daughter’s age, and it is clear to me that The Hunger Games has more in common with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or even William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, than most young adult novels, teenage love triangle aside.

Of course, one could argue that this is nothing new as many books in the 19thvCentury such as The Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Jungle Book had already begun a trend that appealed to young readers.

The fact is that the young adult genre continues to grow, and the line is blurring across genres not just for the readers, but the writers as well. Kristen-Paige Madonia, in a panel on debut novelists at the 2012 AWP conference, confided that she had thought she had written an adult novel, but her agent had convinced her to pitch it as a young adult novel instead.

We also now see novelist as varied as Michael Chabon to Clive Barker writing in this genre. One agent that I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation about representing my novel “Interrogator’s Notebook” finally told me that she (and her agency) weren’t taking on literary novels right now to focus on young adult titles.

Many publishers are focusing efforts on this genre as well, along with bookstores, to survive in their own hunger games vs. television, video games and smart phones. And those angry birds can be fierce!

Ultimately, I believe that anything that provides thoughtful material and well-written prose to young readers – and their parents – will ultimately help fiction writers of all genres as the love of reading (in my case and for most writers) becomes a lifetime passion.

Martin Ott

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