At a publishers’ gathering recently, somebody asked me how long I have been in the business. I replied that this is my 17th year with Epicenter Press, a regional trade publisher based in Kenmore, WA, publishing nonfiction about Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Then I was asked, What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about book publishing? The question stumped me at the time, but it did make me think. And the result are these 10 lessons that apply to our company and perhaps to other publishers as well, especially those that rely on trade markets.
Put the author to work.
The best authors are those who are strongly committed to the success of their books and who willingly and energetically promote them. I know this is not breaking news in our industry, but perhaps it should be stressed. I find myself increasingly reluctant to work with authors who believe their work is done when the manuscript has been completed. I understand that self-promotion is difficult for some people. But this business is so competitive that it makes no sense for us to acquire a title that will not realize its full potential without the author’s help. I confess that I have no problem working with an author who wants to make a contribution to the promotion budget, although we rarely suggest this and never require it. (For guidance on getting the best from your authors, see “Successful Author Promotions” in this issue.)
Procrastination is not always bad. For example, we wait until the last possible moment to decide on the quantity of a first printing. Likewise, we try to keep an open mind as to the list price for a title about to be announced. The longer we put off making these decisions, the longer we are in research mode, collecting information and sizing up the market, and the better the decisions will be.
Agonize over the title. This is another decision that need not be made quickly. Go with a working title and look for inspiration. The marketplace is overflowing with clever, attention-getting titles. But there are many weak ones, too, and it is painful to see a book with an ambiguous, incomplete, or inappropriate title created by someone who put in a lot of time and money but too little creative and critical thought. A title must position and help sell the book. At Epicenter Press, if the wording falls short of this standard, it won’t be for lack of trying. Our process for crafting a title and subtitle is open, often including one or two editors, the authors, and occasionally an agent. At times we have agonized endlessly and become sick of the discussion, but everyone seems to recognize the breakout title when it comes, often from the material itself–and usually right on the catalog deadline.
Hire freelancers carefully. Make sure they’re people who know books. Be certain about their skills and experience. Understand the different requirements of acquisition and developmental editing and line and copy editing, and how to work creatively and efficiently with a book designer. Be clear about what you need. You may need more than one editor. The same can be said for proofreaders. Check everyone out. Unless you take the time to chose the right person–using references and referrals, and perhaps an editing or proofreading test–you may not know until you have a schedule problem that a freelancer isn’t up to the job. This advice can apply to publicists too.
Do not economize on design. I feel strongly that the cover or jacket design should be first class, especially if you rely on trade markets. Don’t try to save a few hundred dollars by accepting a blah or cookie-cutter cover that is out of sync with the market and may hurt sales because it does not do its part to convey to the potential buyer–quickly–what the book is about and what benefits it offers the reader.
Advance comments are important. Gathering advance comments is a pain, frankly, what with having to create bound galleys and identify and contact authors and experts whose comments you seek. Don’t send galleys unsolicited. I’ve heard a lot of publishers dismiss the importance of advance comments, but my own book-buying habits and our experience at Epicenter suggests that believable blurbs help sell books.
The best printer may not be the least expensive one. How will your printer react when finished books arrive and you find to your horror that the work has been botched and the author’s signing schedule is about to start? Other issues to consider are turnaround time and credit terms. Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount if you are printing more than one title at a time, or if you can commit to printing several new releases and/or reprints in a season. The worst thing that can happen is that the printer will say no. Incidentally, I suspect that many problems with print jobs are the fault of the publisher, and I am not suggesting that a printer should bear responsibility if the errors are yours.
Use the cash from a bestseller wisely. If you see a spike in profits from a bestseller, wait six to twelve months before deciding what to do with the cash. There is a good reason for offering the panel called “Surviving Your Success” that’s often on the schedule at PMA-U.
Have fun negotiating. It’s amazing how many people don’t like to negotiate. Personally I enjoy it. I try to get the other party to make the first offer. More often than you might think, that offer will meet or exceed your own expectations. Always make sure you understand what the other party hopes to accomplish in the negotiation. Often you can sweeten a deal in nonmonetary ways.
Have an exit plan. Many of you have heard this before. Consider what business structure is best for you, and make the effort early on to set up a tight bookkeeping/accounting system and reliable inventory controls, especially if you intend to grow and might one day want to sell your company. You won’t always be able to run the company out of a checkbook, so why start doing it that way? Likewise, when you form subsidiaries, organize them so that they can be split off easily if and when you want to do that.
I welcome your comments on these observations and on all PMA initiatives and issues. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.