Category Archives: Publishing

Why We Require Queries…

This weekend was spent getting caught up on queries, going back and reading the ones I had placed on my review list. For those who are curious, that means I reviewed close to 150 manuscripts. The reply I received from one author about his rejection letter was interesting. His comments were that 1) queries, in general, lack merit, 2) a better method would be for authors to discuss their platform rather than discuss their book because that would identify serious authors up front and reduce the number of queries a publisher needs to read, and 3) publishers and agents are wrong for not sending critiques with rejections.

Why we require queries

I feel the author was not correct that queries lack merit for two reasons:

  • A query letter tell me if you can express an idea in a way that will make me interested. An uninteresting query letter usually means an uninteresting manuscript. It also tells me if you can write – a query letter with a lot of grammatical errors will usually mean a manuscript with the same lack of attention to detail. As a small press with limited resources, I will pass on a manuscript that need a lot of work even if it is a great idea for a book.
  • A query tells me what you will be like to work with. Authors often send full manuscripts with no other information, saying the manuscript will “speak for itself” if I just read it . What they fail to understand is the book won’t speak for itself because I will never start reading. Asking me to read a full manuscript only to find out it’s in a subject area I don’t publish is showing no respect for my time, and a person with this attitude is showing me they will be difficult to work with.

Each element of a query has a purpose. The query letter introduces me to both the author and their manuscript. I can tell from a query letter if a manuscript is something I would consider publishing. I can also tell something about the author’s professionalism and attention to detail. The synopsis tells me about the book in more detail. No one will buy a book if they don’t know what it’s about, unless they are family or friends, which is why all published books have a blurb on the back cover. Your synopsis is your blurb, showing me why I should be interested in your manuscript. Finally, the sample chapters give me a first look at the manuscript itself and an author’s writing style. Here I’m a bit more flexible; I do not automatically reject a query if it includes the full manuscript.

Platforms do not matter

The author has made two incorrect assumptions regarding why sending an author’s platform in lieu of a query letter would be more useful:

  • An author’s platform does not matter if their manuscript is something I would not publish because of the subject. I’ve received memoirs from former stars, and I’ve rejected them even though the person has a built-in platform because we do not publish memoirs. I would much rather read a manuscript, decide if I like it enough to publish it, and then help an author create a platform. In fact, I never discuss an author’s platform with them until after they are under contract.
  • Having authors send their platform first would not reduce the number of queries I need to read. Authors would just create “platforms” before they query me, which still tells me nothing about the book. This means I would need to request the same material I’m requesting now to see if the book is something of interest, so I’ve just added a step to the query process. In short, I’ve just created more work for myself.
Sending critiques

When I started Divertir Publishing, I would reply to every query with a critique of the manuscript, feeling this would help authors. These good intentions were rewarded by authors sending me emails telling me how I “lack the vision to realize their genius” and calling me a “tool of the publishing elite”. For those who would argue I let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, I assure you it was not a few emails – at the end of the day people don’t want to hear that their children, or their books, are not perfect. Given the large number of less-than-charitable emails we received in reply to these good intentions, we no longer give critiques.

In short, the query system does work. It gives authors a means to tell me about their books while allowing me to quickly evaluate the large number of queries I receive every year and quickly find the ones I’m interested in. Having to read the full manuscript for every query I receive would guarantee one thing – I would never have time to actually publish a book…

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Profit and Loss Statements…

People who visit our website know that we do not publish children’s books, yet every now and then we get one submitted. Recently, we received one my middle grade reviewer (and 11-year-old daughter) really liked. But calculating the production costs made it clear that we were not the right publisher because we could not produce the book at a profit. In publishing, this type of analysis is called creating a profit and loss statement. I want to walk everyone through this analysis, in that whether you are a publisher or about to self-publish your first book this is a useful tool. I will use a children’s book as my example.

Step 1 – What format should be used? Cookbooks are usually hardcover books for a reason; they stay open easier when on a countertop. Similarly, children’s books are usually hardcover books because they will withstand more “gentle reading” than a paperback. Figuring out what format your book should be in is the first step, because your printing costs will be determined by the format. Also consider how large the book should be: 6 by 9 inches is a standard format, but books in your genre may require a special size.

Step 2 – What will the book cost to print? A children’s book with color illustrations will need to be printed in full color, and an 80-page full color book will cost $11.88 per book if produced using POD technology on 70# paper (which is what most self-publishers have access to).

Step 3 – What can you sell the book for? The research I did suggested that on average an 80-page hardcover full-color children’s book will retail for about $14-$15, unless it’s a large (8 1/2 by 11 or larger) format.

Step 4 – Taking the discount into account, can you cover the printing costs? The discount to a retailer is usually 40%, meaning you get 60% of the list price. Thus, to figure out what the list price needs to be to cover your printing costs, divide the printing costs by 60% (0.60). For a book that costs $11.88 to print, the list price would need to be $19.80 to break even on the printing.

If the list price needed to cover the printing costs from step 4 is greater than what you can sell the book for STOP. You cannot produce the book at a profit. I know most people are thinking “Just charge $22.00 for the book.” Over-pricing a book for a given market (charging more than similar books) is a common mistake, and will result in very few sales.

If the above analysis shows you can cover the printing costs, the next step is to determine if you can cover your fixed costs (editing, illustrations, and cover art). I’ll cover computing these costs in my next blog.

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How Long Will it Take…

When we were designing our new website, I visited several publishers’ sites for ideas on what to include. One site stood out not because of the design but because of the number of books the company had published. In its first two years in business they had published fifty books – a book every two weeks.

I often get asked by authors how long it will take their books to come to market, and my answer is always the same; there is a reason it takes larger publishers as long as eighteen months to bring a book to market. The steps to turning out a quality product include:

Editing. This is probably the longest step in the publishing process. On average, one of our manuscripts goes through four rounds of edits before the author and editor agree on the final version used for interior design. We had one book go through ten rounds of edits. This process can take anywhere from six to nine months depending on how extensive the required edits are.

Interior design. I often refer to this as typesetting when talking with authors (showing my age). In reality this is done with a desktop publishing program. The process includes adjusting lines of text in the final manuscript to eliminate widows and orphans and to minimize the excessive whitespace in lines of text which can occur when text is justified. This means examining every line of text in the manuscript, and to do this correctly is very labor intensive.

Cover design. Author A.J. Capper wrote a blog discussing the process of designing the cover for A Bother of Bodies. It often takes several designs before finding a final cover that both we and the author agree on, and each design takes time to produce. I believe our record is that we designed nine covers for one book before we found one everyone agreed on.

To bring a quality book to market is a long process with many steps requiring feedback from authors. While it is certainly possible for a small press to produce fifty books in two years while also turning out a quality product, it would require a large number of books in the queue and working on several books at once. More likely, editing was minimal, desktop publishing was limited to converting a Word document to a PDF file, and cover design was finding a single image on a stock photo site with no additional design considerations. Authors should always ask publishers who turn out large numbers of books in a short time about their process, because the quality of your published book could depend on the answer.

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The Taxman Cometh…

No, this is not a blog about the fact that I am going to spend this weekend finishing royalty statements and doing my 2013 income taxes. Rather, it is a blog about another annoying set of forms I apparently now need to fill out – applications for state reseller identifications.

I live in a state (New Hampshire) that does not have an income or sales tax, but many of you live in states that have both (and I do feel for you). I found out last week that for me to ship you books (even complimentary author or review copies), my printer is now going to charge me sales tax based on the state you live in. Their reason? Because the states are coming to them and demanding that they charge sales tax on any books they ship that are not for resale. Further, most states will only consider a shipment not for resale if the publisher has a reseller’s permit on file with them. Last time I checked there were 45 states that have a sales tax, so I am not looking forward to all the applications.

I contacted my printer and informed them that none of the books I ship are the result of retail sales – they are either copies authors have ordered to give away or for signings (in the second case they would in fact be for resale), or they are complimentary copies of the book. Thus, none of them are subject to sales tax. It would actually be as easy as the printer adding a checkbox on the order form saying “complimentary copies” and not collecting sales tax on those orders. I was informed that, in order to make things easier for the printer, they have adopted a “one-size-fits-all” approach to this problem. Thus, unless I file paperwork with all of the states requiring reseller IDs and then file those IDs with the printer, I will be charged sales tax even on the free books I ship.

I know the states are claiming that they are just doing this to “level the playing field” so that stores can compete with online retailers. However, when you consider shipping, online purchases are often just as expensive as in-store purchases, even with the sales tax. The truth is this is all about state revenues – when you are a government it’s always easier to find new sources of income than to control your spending.

While I could have books shipped to my home and then reship them (avoiding the sales tax that way), I would now be incurring twice the shipping costs for each order. Thus, I really only have three options. The first is to pay the tax. The second is to file paperwork with every state that has a sales tax affirming that nothing I ship to their state is subject to sales tax. The third is to find a new printer that is not implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem.

I suspect most people who have known me for a while can guess which option I am looking into…

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Size Does Matter…

About 13 years ago, when we bought our current home, my wife and I decided it was time for a big screen TV. Off we went in search of the perfect home theater system. People who are old like me will recall that 13 years ago rear-projection TVs (there were no LCDs back then) cost several thousand dollars. In fact, the difference in price between the 55 and 60 inch units was over $500. While I was in the middle of making the argument for saving $500 and asking if we really needed the extra 5 inches of viewing space, my wife suddenly turned to me and yelled loud enough for everyone in the store to hear “Contrary to what you men believe, size does matter!”

For the record, back then they also did not make washing machines large enough for a human being to hide in.

So what does this have to do with publishing? The answer is that a few weeks ago we received a manuscript that was approximately 12,000 words long about coping with fibromyalgia. The author explained that the reason for the short length of the manuscript was that people with these types of diseases don’t want to read long books looking for help – they want quick answers. While I can appreciate why a book of this length would be perfect for the target audience, some of the realities of publishing make it difficult to bring this book to market:

  • For books shorter than 108 pages we pay a fixed price for each copy which is printed. That means we pay the same amount to print a 50 page book as we do for a 100 page book. The issue is that we can’t charge the same price for a 50 page book as for a larger book, so the profit margin on a 12,000 word book (which is about 50 pages) is too low to cover the cost of editing, cover design, typesetting, and press fees (which are what we are charged by our printer to review the digital images of a book for printing).
  • The obvious question is why not come out with the book as just an eBook? The answer is there are two ways one can publish an eBook. The first is to do a quick spelling and grammar check, find a single stock photo for the cover, and upload the Word document and cover for conversion to an eBook format by the vendor who will sell the book (for example, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords). While this is a quick and inexpensive way to publish a book, it often does not result in a quality product – there is only so much spelling and grammar checks catch, and the programs that automatically covert Word documents to eBooks can sometimes result in poor formatting. To ensure a quality product requires the same level of editing, consideration for the cover design, and “typesetting” (in this case creating the HTML files that will be converted into an eBook) as coming out with a paperback. In truth the only thing we would save by coming out with eBook-only versions of our titles would be the press fees the printer charges. Given that we also could not charge much for an eBook of this length, again we would probably not cover our publication costs.

In the past I’ve spoken about why we rarely publish books over 100,000 words, both because of the associated costs and what readers expect. In the case of manuscripts below 45,000 words, the reason we don’t publish them really come down to cost – the cost required to produce a quality book of this length would probably not be recovered due to the low retail price a book of this length would require. In instances like this, my recommendation is often that authors find a reputable editor (more on this in a future blog) and self-publish the manuscript.

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