Monthly Archives: March 2012

On Memoirs…

In any given week, Divertir Publishing receives 25-40 queries. Lately I’ve noticed that 2-5 of these weekly queries are for memoirs. I suspect this is in part because one of our more successful books, Tears for the Mountain, is the account of an author’s trip to Haiti after the earthquake to deliver medical supplies (the book hit #1 for the Social Policy category on Amazon when it first came out). I also suspect it’s in part because authors are advised to “write what they know,” so more authors have turned to writing memoirs.

Because of the number of memoirs we receive each week, I tend to be very selective regarding what I will forward to others for review. When considering memoirs I look for the following:

  • Have I heard the story before? I know that everyone thinks their life story is unique, but the truth is there are a lot of people who overcome addiction (and who don’t), who graduate from college and move back in with their parents because of the economic climate, who see ghosts and UFOs, who think they’re vampires (seriously), and who think a “universal force” has guided them to be where they are in life. If there isn’t something unique about a memoir, chances are I will not make it past reading the synopsis.
  • Is the story engaging? I hate to admit this, but I have pretty boring life – there are nights my life makes CSPAN look exciting. If your story makes a reader long to watch parliamentary proceedings, you’ll lose the reader and never get them back; there are too many other forms of entertainment out there. I recently received two memoirs where, because of all the back story at the beginning of the manuscripts, I never made it to what was supposed to be the interesting part – and most readers won’t either.
  • Does the author whine? The sad truth is that sometimes people find themselves in less-than-perfect situations. It’s how they react to these situations that says something about who they are. Did the author act as an inspiration to others, or did they pitch a tent in Dewey Square and protest how unfair the world is? In case it’s not obvious, I’m much more likely to publish the manuscript by the person whose words inspire others.
  • Is it well written? Because of the large number of people writing memoirs, a manuscript is going to stand out only if it’s very well written and polished.

I recently asked an author I know to review a query for a memoir. While I won’t go into the details of her review, one of her comments was “What makes the author stand out?” It’s a fair question, and unless an authors tells a story I haven’t heard a hundred times before in an engaging way with a well written manuscript, chances are the author won’t stand out. That is, unless they pitch a tent in Dewey Square and protest how unfair Tools of the Publishing Elite can be – in which case they’ll be “unique” for all the wrong reasons.

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A Public Service Announcement…

The story you are about to read is true. Some names have been changed to protect the less-than-innocent…

In May, 2011, Victoria Strauss at Writer’s Beware wrote an excellent blog about how a certain “traditional publisher” had started a fee-charging literary agency. I’ve recently started to receive queries from this agency (along with other fee-charging agencies), and I thought it was important to write this blog and share my views on the quality of the queries from the fee-charging agencies that contact us.

In the case of the publisher-turned-agency, we received a query that contained a list of 22 manuscripts (none in genres we publish) that included nothing more than the title, author’s name, and a links to the product pages for each book. I sent a reply noting how unprofessional the query was and suggesting that no publisher would take the time to click through a list of 22 links to find out what each book in a query letter was about. The next query we received from the agency included 5 manuscripts with a 1-2 sentence description of each title (taken directly from the product page) in addition to the product page link.

That’s right. For the $199 fee you’re being charged, the links to your manuscript’s product page and the pages for 5 to 20 of its “closest book friends” are being sent like spam to publishers, with inadequate descriptions of the titles and no discussion of the merits of the individual works or why they would be a good fit for the publisher. The publisher-turned-agency couldn’t even be bothered to send separate query letters for each manuscript.

In general I’ve noticed three common trends for queries from fee-charging agencies. First, it is usually apparent that the agent has not taken the time to learn much about Divertir Publishing and what we publish. Second, not one of the queries has followed our submissions guidelines – which is an automatic rejection. Finally, the query letters are much like the one from the agency above, with no discussion of the merit of the manuscript or why I should even be interested in reviewing it.

The simple truth is that most fee-charging agencies make their money off the authors they represent, selling everything from representation to critiques to editing services; selling the rights to your book is often an afterthought. If you decide to consider this type of agency (which I do not recommend), ask the agent a simple question before sending your first payment: Where has the agency placed works for the authors they represented in the past? If the only answer they can give is that they have placed manuscripts with a “sister company” of the agency, you might be better off investing your money elsewhere. Because the real question you need to ask as a writer is simple – is a query letter containing 22 manuscripts with no descriptions really the best representation for your manuscript, and should you be paying for this type of representation.

Caveat Emptor.

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Amazon Never Forgets…

Once your self-published book is successful, you can negotiate with a larger publisher from a position of experience and strength.

The above quote is from a self-publishing web site, and lately this seems to be a common theme for companies selling these types of services: the best way to land a publisher is to self-publish your book to “show publishers how it will do.” It may surprise you to hear this, but I’m a big fan of self-publishing and think that any author with the business know-how to self-publish should. What I’m not a big fan of is blanket statement like the one above that fail to disclose the potential risks of this strategy.

First, as I have blogged previously, only one-in-ten books is successful, meaning it sells over 5,000 copies. The average book only sells 500 copies (Publisher’s Weekly, July 17, 2006). Once you have self-published, a potential publisher will always looks at your sales figures as part of the review process; a publisher is not likely to pick up a book with poor sales regardless of why a book didn’t do well. Second, you can spend a lot of money with a self-publishing services (some charge thousands of dollars) that you may never recover based on these average sales. But, in my opinion, the third reason is the most overlooked reason for why a publisher might not pick up your self-published book:

Elephants never forget, and neither does Amazon…

Even if you remove your self-published book from circulation, there will always be an Amazon listing for that version of the book. The reason is that there is a potential secondary (used book) market for the book, and people using Amazon Advantage can always relist the book to sell a used copy even if you ask Amazon to remove the old listing. You can’t fault Amazon for this; in fact, there will be listings for your book in several places (like Books in Print) in order to service the secondary market. This means that, unless you change the name of the book, everything from the original cover to the reviews will follow your book wherever it goes, even if it goes to a new publisher. When you ask a publisher to reissue your self-published book, in essence you are asking them to carry this potential baggage and to possibly lose sales to the secondary market for the previous version.

So the simple solution is to change the title so that the new version will show up on Amazon as a completely new work, right? No. What this strategy doesn’t take into account is that an author has probably built a fan-base, however small, for their work. How would you feel if an author you followed came out with a “new” book and you were to purchase it only to find out you’ve already read it under a different title? My guess is that this is a good way to lose fans and get a bad reputation.

If your goal is to publish your own work and never to approach a publisher, and if you have a basic understanding of the publishing business, then there is no reason you shouldn’t self-publish. But if your goal is to one day land a publisher, then that should be your strategy and you should avoid self-publishing. The history you create for you book will follow it wherever your book goes, because Amazon never forgets…

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eBook Sales

In my last blog, I mentioned that 60% of our sales of Hurricane, by Jenna-Lynne Duncan, are eBook sales. In this blog I’d like to compare this to eBook sales in general. I then want to discuss what this means for publishers and authors.

Before I begin, a word about how I computed the percentage of sales used in the last blog. Quite simply, I counted the total number of eBooks sold and divided by the total number of books sold in all formats – in short, I computed the percent units sold. While this seems pretty obvious, it’s not how most people compute eBooks sales. Most numbers you find on the internet are based on percent revenue – the total revenues for eBooks sales divided by total revenues for all formats. Does this matter? In the case of Hurricane, because of the large price difference between the eBook ($3.95) and the paperback ($9.99), using percent revenue gives 41% of sales attributed to the eBook. In short, using revenues to compute the percent sales makes it seems like we are selling more paperback copies of Hurricane than eBook copies, which is not the case.

This bring us to an important observation. Even when using revenues to compute the percent of eBook sales, our sales for Hurricane are still much higher than the industry average, which predicts eBook sales to currently be between 8% and 22% of total sales revenues. I suspect the reason for the difference is the eBook price for Hurricane is at such a discount relative to the paperback that it is resulting in far more eBooks sales than we would have if the book were priced more comparably.

So what does this mean for publishers? As eBooks sales are becoming more prevalent, the days of treating them as “extra sales” is over. In the case of Hurricane, 60% of our unit sales only account for 40% of our revenues. If 60% of your unit sales are going to be eBooks, then those sales need to help cover your production (editing and cover design) costs. Pricing the book too low to try and generate higher unit sales is a recipe for failure, and one that you should avoid. While it is true that eBooks should cost less than their print counterparts, our printing costs are only 25-35% of the list price for the paperback; there’s no reason for the eBook price to be 60% less than the paperback.

What does this mean for authors? It means you should not be surprised when your publisher doesn’t price your eBook for $0.99 on Amazon. Quite simply, a publisher will never cover their costs that way. One lesson we’ve learned is that we need to price our eBooks in such a way that both our revenues and an author’s royalties are comparable regardless of formats. It is important for authors to work with their publishers as they try to achieve this goal.

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