Monthly Archives: April 2011

Zero-sum Games…

In gaming theory, a zero-sum game is one where for someone to gain something someone must lose something. Think combat – there is a winner and a loser. A non-zero-sum game is one in which both both sides can gain and where the sum of gains and losses does not equal zero. Think trading with other civilizations where both have excess resources – both sides win.

What does this have to do with the price of books in bookstores?

We were recently approached by the UMass Boston bookstore about doing signings at their store. We scheduled one for this past Thursday for Beth Harvey’s new short story collection Damn Faeries. The signing was scheduled for 1 PM. Boston is a good hour drive from where we live and work, so it was basically an entire day committed to this signing. To our disappointment, the only people who came into the store during the time we were there were a student selling back books and a campus police officer who thought Beth was flirting with him…

Normally this type of setback wouldn’t bother me, but before we left the assistant manager came over and confided to me that in fact the store never gets any customers at that time of day and the manager was hoping we would bring a large crowd to buy the book at the store. Really?

First a bit about what bookstores ask for in return for your book residing on their shelves for 4 months (if that long) before it is replaced by something else. Most major brick-and-mortar bookstores expect a 40% discount and to sell on consignment. This means that, unlike other retail outlets, they can return anything they don’t sell in any condition (meaning it probably can’t be sold to anyone else). The promise from the bookstore is that, in return for this arrangement, they will make your book available to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear about it. This would be an example of a non-zero-sum game: The bookstore gets an author signing books where they get 40% of the list price and the publisher gets to sell books to people that might not find the book otherwise.

In the case of the signing at UMass, there was never an intention of making the book available to people who hadn’t heard about it. In fact, they were expecting us to pack their store with people we had already identified as potential buyers and give them 40% of the sales. Let me be honest about something. I don’t need to be in a bookstore to sell books to people I can already identify as potential buyers. That’s what the internet is for. In fact, I save myself the 40% that bookstores receive by selling to those people directly through my website and not selling through a bookstore.

One needs to look no further than the fact that in 2009 almost 50% of all book sales were through Amazon and BN.com to know that brick-and-mortar bookstores are no longer the gatekeepers who decide which books flourish and which perish by not getting shelf space. Direct sales through websites and the rise of social networking have changed all of that. But many bookstore still have not changed their attitudes, and it is this reason that many small publishers do not accept returns and in general won’t deal with them.

This is not to say we have had bad experiences at all of our signings. We do all of our local book launches at Well Read Books in Plaistow, NH. In return for a nice place to do a book launch and the possibility to sell to people we wouldn’t reach otherwise, we invite people we have identified as potential buyers to buy the books at the store. This is an example of a non-zero-sum game – we get a nice place to do a launch (and have sold 29 books at the two events we held there) and the owner gets people into the store who wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s been a great relationship that I look forward to continuing.

But for bookstores that treat this like a zero-sum game, the sad truth is that publishers large and small no longer need you. Because in the internet age there are just too many other places to sell books…

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A Tale of Two Queries…

I was originally going to talk about books sales this week, but then I was sent these two links and couldn’t help but talk about them. The first is a very funny commentary on why proofreading is important. The second was a blog entitled “Why Your Novel Won’t Get Published”.

As people in the publishing industry, we’ve all reviewed submissions that read a lot like the video, except that the errors weren’t in places where it made them particularly funny. I believe this would be one example of what the blogger refers to as “Them Brownies Ain’t Done Baking”. We’ve also received queries from people who view themselves as the “Special Snowflakes”, whose writing was so incredible that little things like submissions guidelines could be overlooked by them. With that, I would like to share the outcomes from two recent queries we received.

Let’s call the first author ‘Brownie Baker’, or Baker for short. Baker sent a query that more or less followed the submissions guidelines. The query letter was not stellar but did convey the required information. The synopsis outlined an interesting plot in the genre paranormal young adult (with no vampires, which for me was a plus) that had commercial viability. Yes, even as a small press we consider the commercial viability of a manuscript, although we are still more likely to publish a manuscript that will do total sales of only a few thousand copies than a larger publisher. Then I got to reading the sample chapters. I was 10% into the manuscript before I met the main characters, and almost 1/3 of the way in before I got my first hint as to the nature of the conflict in the book. In short, the book had some real pacing issues and needed a lot of work.

Let’s call the second author ‘Special Snowflake’, or ‘Snowie’ for short. Snowie sent an email  that basically said “I’ve been writing and editing for many years, and I’m a star. Please log into my website where you can download the first five pages of my manuscript for your review. This is the only information I am willing to provide until you send me a contract.” We sent back a very nice email pointing out that if he’s been editing for many years then he knows the importance of submission guidelines and that we would be happy to review his work when we receive a complete query. What happened next always surprises me, although by now it probably shouldn’t because it happens far too often – we received a very nasty email pointing out that it was our loss that we would not jump through his hoops and that he would be looking down at us when he’s on the New York Times bestsellers list. In case you’re curious, we’ve received two emails this month from authors who responded to our suggestion that they follow our submission guidelines with nasty emails saying they would be seeing us from the NYT bestsellers list – I’m beginning to think that must be the standard ‘special snowflake’ reply to a rejection letter.

So what happened to the two queries. Baker received a very nice email saying that, in my opinion, her book had potential but needed some work, and I would be happy to discuss the details concerning the pacing issues I saw. In fact, I’m on IM chatting with her about her book right now as I type this. I’m expected a resubmission of her complete manuscript sometime in the next month.

And Snowie? Because I won’t tolerate nasty emails from authors, his email address has been blocked.

Update 5/13/2011: I’m pleased to announce that we have signed a contract to publish “Baker’s” first book. Congratulations to Jenna-Lynne Duncan, the author of Hurricane on the acceptance of her manuscript.

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Freedom of Speech and Civility…

I have to admit that at first I didn’t get the punch line.

Some time ago I had received a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s book “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37)” as a gift. After reading the book I just didn’t get the whole bit about Al Franken ranting about people being liars. I guess I need to get out more. I relayed my confusion to a coworker, and the next day a copy of Al Franken’s book “Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” had mysteriously appeared on my desk. Chapter six of his book was “I Bitch-Slap Bernie Goldberg”. Suddenly I got the punch line…

To this day I’m not sure what I’m more amused by–the fact that two grown men have been sticking out their tongues at one another in their books like children on a playground, or the fact that their publishers let this nonsense occur.

What made me think of these books was the recent burning of the Quran in Florida, and more importantly the reaction to it. I’m not referring to the bloodshed in Afghanistan, but rather the reaction of our own political leaders that perhaps it’s time to examine whether this type of free speech should be limited. Senator Harry Reid suggested that Congress might consider some type of investigation into the Quran burning, while Senator Lindsay Graham said “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.”

Free speech is a great idea, which is why the Founding Fathers thought it was so important to include it in the Bill of Rights. Regardless of how heinous an act burning the flag or Quran might be, the last thing we want is our government deciding there are instances where that right should be taken away. Because it will only be a matter of time before publishers are told that some of the things we publish should be censored because the possibility exists that the words we publish might offend. Political correctness is never a good reason for censorship.

But the fact that we have the right to speak freely doesn’t mean that we should. Even when you disagree with the views of another person, contrary to recent media trends it is possible to express those differences without dramatic, over-the-top actions and inflammatory words. It is also possible to write a book where you disagree with another person or point of view with civility and without resorting to name calling. One has to wonder if the real reason for these types of “shock and awe” moments in the media is that, at a time when being on a reality TV show constitutes being a celebrity, these are merely attempts at grabbing 15 minutes of fame by creating controversy. This lack of civility certainly serves no useful purpose, and as publishers we should be striving to publish works which demonstrates that we can disagree while still being respectful.

One way to start doing this would be to stop publishing books where people are sticking their tongues out at one another, because our readers deserve better than that.

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Rainbow Cupcakes…

A few weeks ago my 7-year-old daughter (with the help of my wife) made rainbow cupcakes. Of course, the first thing that went through my mind was “What a great book cover that would be!” I know, I need to work less…

In January we put out a call for submissions for our first multi-author poetry anthology (we published our first single-author poetry collection in October of last year). We decided the theme for the collection would be “Colours” (I like the British spelling), and the submissions deadline would be March 15th. So when I saw the cupcake, it was obvious what the cover for the collection should be and I quickly secured the rights to the cupcake from my daughter.

On March 16th, we had 84 poems from 41 authors. Unfortunately, by the time we finished reviewing the submissions, we had accepted less than 30 of the poems for the collection.

A bit about the economics of book publishing. For a book of under 108 pages, we pay a flat fee of $2.30 per book for printing. A book with 30 poems would probably be about 40-50 pages, depending on whether we insert images into the book to break up the poems (which we did rather successfully with our first poetry collection). My research has suggested that trade paperback books generally are priced between $0.065 and $0.085 per page, so we aim for $0.075 per page when pricing out books. This means we would price a 50 page book at $3.75. Assuming a 40% discount to retailers, we would receive $2.25 per book, which is less than the cost of printing. As a general rule, to make a 20% margin on a book your printing costs should be no more than 40% of your list price. Working backwards, this means that a book printed for $2.30 would need to have a list price of $5.75 or be about 77 pages (assuming you price your book at $0.075 per page). In short, we needed twice the number of poems than we had accepted.

The two options we had were to cancel the collection or to accept some of the poems that were “on the fence” to get the page count up. I’ve blogged about my opinion regarding accepting work which is on the fence in the past. In short, I don’t think it’s a very good business decision – when you settle you are no longer turning out the best product possible. This is not fair to your readers, and it is also not fair to the authors in your collections. Authors must feel confident when they submit work to you that your editorial policies are such that their work will always be contained in the best book possible. When you “adjust” your editorial review policies to allow less than the best to be published, you become the next publisher of books like Atlanta Nights.

It is always a difficult decision to cancel a book project, and I must admit I was really looking forward to having that cupcake on the cover – with proper credit to my daughter on the copyright page. But as I mention elsewhere, while writing is an art, publishing is a business. As a publisher, sometimes you need to make difficult business decisions to ensure that your company will be around to publish that next great book idea, complete with a rainbow cupcake cover.

I would like to thank all of the poets who submitted work for this collection both for their efforts and their understanding.

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