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2 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™, 11 Years Apart

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by Maggie Anton, Talmud Scholar and Writer

Maggie Anton

A self-published author examines how the world of publishing has changed in the past decade.

It was spring 2004 when I was finally forced to admit that my literary agent was unlikely to find a buyer for my historical novel, Rashi’s Daughters, in time for it be published by July 2005, the 900th year since Rashi’s death. Determined to take advantage of the hoopla this anniversary would surely generate in the Jewish community, I decided to self-publish. After some research, it became clear that my choices were to go with a vanity publisher or start my own small press—which was no choice at all, but it wasn’t going to be cheap or easy.

At my freelance editor’s urging, I hired a book shepherd, and Banot Press was born. By July 2005, I had sold the initial 3,000 copy printing that my son-in-law was sure would still be in my garage 10 years later. By July 2006, Rashi’s Daughters had won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ for Best New Voice − Fiction, sold 26,000 copies, and had been picked up by Penguin Books.

Fast-forward 10 years. I’d written five more historical novels for my traditional publisher and was researching a sixth when I decided to draw upon my expertise on sexuality in the Talmud to pen a short, lighthearted nonfiction work on the subject. My contract with Penguin gave them rights to new fiction I wrote, but I never considered submitting Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What to another publisher. After all, Banot Press wasn’t moribund; it was merely in hibernation.

This time, my learning curve wasn’t so steep. I’d remained a member of IBPA and kept abreast of publishing news, my book shepherd was still in business, and Banot Press retained its original account with the US Copyright Office as well as its unused ISBNs. Not needing the years of research it took for my historical novels, I wrote Fifty Shades of Talmud in three months. The first printing came out to positive reviews in spring 2016, and by November 2016 it needed a third printing. To top things off, when the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™ were announced, my new book was the Gold winner in the Religion category.

However, in the 11 years between my two IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards™, and certainly in the 20 years since I started writing my first book, the publishing world has undergone enormous changes.

Companies like CreateSpace and Lulu have supplanted old-fashioned vanity presses. At the same time, digital and POD printing have challenged offset’s dominance and, incidentally, made it impossible for my novels to go out of print since Penguin can (and does) use POD to produce a small number of copies when the big initial print runs sell out. Also, there are fewer distribution options for indie presses. But the change that upended the book world is the rise, and ultimately omnipresence, of the internet.

In 1997, when I started writing Rashi’s Daughters, I didn’t know anyone who had e-mail, and nobody had heard of e-books. I got my first e-mail account through Compuserve in 1999 to communicate with my daughter at college, and the following year Stephen King astonished publishers and readers alike by releasing his new horror novel only as an e-book. In 2006, when my new literary agent negotiated my contract with Penguin, e-books were so rare that the publisher either didn’t notice or didn’t care that we had a clause where I would receive a giant 33 percent of list price for e-book sales. Fortunately, that was the year before Amazon introduced the Kindle. Unfortunately, Penguin did notice and significantly reduced the percentage when we inserted that clause in the 2011 contract for my next historical series.

Today, print and e-versions of my novels sell close to equal numbers, which is about the ratio of print and e-book sales for fiction in general. However, print nonfiction outsells e-books five to one, which is what I’m seeing with my new book.

In 2004, when my daughter needed a website for her master’s thesis, she practiced by creating one for Rashi’s Daughters. Now she manages the dozens of interlinked websites, including the blog I started in 2007, that promotes my books and my business. I got onto Facebook and Goodreads in 2009, the first year Amazon sold more e-books than physical ones. Back then, my “friends” regularly responded to my updates and event invitations, but as Facebook has continued to become more monetized, I’ve learned, to my dismay, that my posts won’t show up on friends’ newsfeeds unless I pay to promote them.

The challenge in the internet age is getting a book noticed at all. In 2008, for the first time in history, more books were self-published than those published traditionally. By 2009, 76 percent of all books released were self-published, with the majority receiving little or no professional editing. The increasing number of books, along with their decreasing quality, made it nearly impossible for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It didn’t help that print media slashed the number of book reviews or eliminated them entirely. When I won my first IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™, every big city newspaper ran a separate book review section on Sunday; now only the New York Times does. When I won my first IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™, most national Jewish organizations put out their own magazine, and each issue had book reviews. Now those that came out monthly have become quarterlies, and the old quarterlies have ceased to exist, drastically cut their content, or moved to websites that few of their previous print readers visit. Online book reviewers and bloggers have somewhat compensated for these losses, but it remains a challenge, for publishers and readers alike, to find those that cater to their tastes.

So how does a small press sell books today?

I’ve found that no matter how pervasive my internet presence, nothing beats old-fashioned word-of-mouth buzz. People continue to read, and buy, a book because someone they know recommended it. My most effective sales tool is the same one that sold so many copies of my first book, the one that keeps my novels selling well: speaking to my niche audience of Jewish women at the venues where their organizations meet, and then selling copies at the back of the room. Then these women tell their friends, who tell their friends, who tell their book clubs, etc. It has made no difference who publishes my books—me or Penguin—I still do the bulk of promotion myself. And it is still hard work.

Oh, by the way, remember that hoopla I expected in July 2005 that drove me to self-publish? It turned out that I was the only hoopla; the US Jewish community preferred to observe the 350th anniversary of Jews settling in America rather than the 900th anniversary of a French Talmud scholar’s death. But it does go to show how much a deadline concentrates one’s mind.

>>> The annual IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ program accepts entries through December 15th of each year. Click here for details. <<<

Maggie Anton is a Talmud scholar and award-winning author of historical fiction trilogy Rashi’s Daughters and new series Rav Hisda’s Daughter. A Los Angeles native, Anton worked for 33 years as a clinical chemist for Kaiser Permanente before becoming an author. Her most recent effort is Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, a look at our sages’ views on sexuality.

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