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Productive Author/Publisher Relationships, Part 1: Tactics for Building Effective Teams

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

No publisher would deny the importance of authors—without them, there would be no products, no inventory, and no sales. Managing smaller lists than the Big Five houses, independent publishers are well-positioned to add value to their businesses by building mutually satisfying relationships with the people who write the books they sell. It’s a win-win all around: By choosing wisely, communicating effectively, and maximizing the small-is-strong advantage, both publishers and their authors benefit from the enduring relationships they forge.

What follows focuses on creating effective author-publisher relationships. Next month, Part 2 of this series will cover tools for empowering authors.

In a conference program titled “What Comes After ‘I Do,’” Duke Pennell and his partner at Pen-L Publishing liken the author-publisher relationship to a marriage. Like a marriage, a healthy author-publisher relationship begins with prioritizing the partnership.

“Our authors are paramount,” says Lawrence Knorr, president and CEO of Sunbury Publishing. “We value these relationships and have built many close friendships over the years.”

For Gene D. Robinson, publisher at Moonshine Cove, author relationships are a significant part of his company’s branding. “We work hard at establishing a friendly, collegial connection with each of our authors,” Robinson explains. “We advise them, try to answer any questions they might have, and communicate with them as equals. When they e-mail us, they know they will receive an answer right away.”

While authors at the largest publishing companies may complain that their suggestions about the production and marketing of their titles are disregarded, Robinson notes the importance of involving authors in key decisions. “We want their input on helping to plan the cover,” he says. “If they want to change something on the cover, we’ll do it. We want them to be happy with their books. It helps us as much as it helps them, because if we force something on them, they won’t work at promoting and marketing. We both lose then.”

Essential Partnership Ingredients
Photo of Steve Carlson

Steve Carlson

The best relationships are those in which author and publisher work in tandem, something Robinson aims to ensure by making clear on the company’s website that he expects his authors to be involved with marketing and promoting their books.

For most publishers, the ideal author comes to the relationship with both a strong manuscript and a strong platform. “It has to be a good book and I have to believe that I can sell at least 5,000 copies,” explains Steve Carlson, publisher at Upper Access Books. “If the author is well known and has a great platform, that certainly helps me conclude that I can sell enough books to make it worthwhile for me to publish. But if an unknown author who lacks any particular platform writes a great book that fills a need, I certainly won’t automatically reject that author.”

While content and platform are important, there are other factors to consider. Carlson’s assessment of the potential for a positive working relationship plays strongly into his acquisition decisions. “If we can’t start with a really good relationship, then I don’t publish the book,” he says. “I accept maybe two titles out of every 5,000 queries, so I have a lot of power to choose only authors I feel sure will work well with me.”

Laura Stanfill_3

Laura Stanfill

At Forest Avenue Press, publisher Laura Stanfill favors the quality of the submission over the author’s platform. “If a novel is right for our catalog, we’ll accept it regardless of the author’s bio,” Stanfill explains, adding that she also likes to see “some sort of literary community involvement—a regular writing group, or a graduate program, or even posts about books and authors on social media—because of our philosophy of building community around books.”

By scheduling her lists well in advance, Stanfill notes, she’s able to take time to help authors build their platforms. “We accept manuscripts more than a year ahead of publication, sometimes even two years ahead, so we can work with the author to build relationships, to grow social media presence, and to accrue other publication credits before the crucial release date,” she explains. “One of our authors polished up an old essay and submitted it to the New York Times, and it was accepted—instant buzz for the book! And it gave the title extra credibility with our sales reps, even before they read it.”

Expressing Expectations

Communication is vital to the health of relationships, and the author-publisher relationship is no exception. In particular, publishers benefit from making sure expectations are clearly articulated.

Robert Rosenwald

Robert Rosenwald

Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press says that while he doesn’t consider author platform when acquiring titles, he does specify within the contract that authors are expected to help market their work. Like Rosenwald, Knorr expects his authors to promote themselves and their work in whatever ways they can, and his Sunbury Press has several ways to help them fulfill this expectation.

“We hold seminars for our authors where we convey lots of information about what authors can do to be more successful,” Knorr reports. “We also publish a quarterly newsletter and hold one-on-one meetings with authors.”

With regard to expectations, Knorr points to the importance of considering each author’s talents and preferences. “Every situation is different,” he says. “Like most publishers, I encourage authors to participate in social media, for example. But a lot of people really dislike most social media. Those who participate just because they feel they have to usually fail to sell books that way, so I don’t encourage them to keep banging their heads against the wall.

“It’s the same with other promotions, such as signings. The authors who love to do signings sell a lot of books that way, but the ones who don’t will fail miserably.”

Because relationships with her authors are one of her top priorities, Stanfill places a strong emphasis on responsive and open communication. “I work really hard to answer e-mails, texts, and even tweets, as soon as possible, to keep authors informed every step of the way and to continue sharing my passion for their words,” she says. “I think that’s especially important with first-time authors. To be there for them. To answer questions, calm fears, celebrate successes, and work through any issues together.”

Along with articulating her expectations, Stanfill notes that it’s important to address both the stated and the unstated expectations of each author. “Sometimes authors enter an agreement with an independent press with a skewed sense of the industry, or of what might be possible for their particular book,” she explains. “I’m very up front about what I expect for a book, and about what my press does to maximize attention for each title, but with an eye toward understanding any expectations the author might have and toward gently correcting the false ones.

“It’s not fair to overpromise. I’m very clear in explaining what I expect will happen, and how certain variables will impact the number of ARCs we print, or the eventual print run.”

At Upper Access, Carlson also makes a point of communicating consistently and openly with his authors. “Most of them appreciate being consulted about editing changes, cover design, layout, and promotional plans,” he notes. “And since I pay royalties monthly during the periods when a book is actively selling, we have regular conversations about how we can work together to sell more books.”

For Carlson, the most difficult aspect of author-publisher relationships comes when a title isn’t selling as well as expected or when he has to turn down an author’s next proposal. Still, he maintains a policy of total transparency. “I always let a new author know that although I am doing a first printing of 5,000 and hope for many reprintings, sometimes a good book just fails to take off, so we are partners in a gamble,” Carlson explains. “The openness is generally much appreciated.”

Making Special Treatment Standard

Like everyone else, authors want to feel that they matter. At Poisoned Pen, Rosenwald works toward this end by interacting with authors both individually and as a group. With regard to their contracts, he makes a point of offering virtually the same terms to all, a practice that helps ensure authors feel equally valued.

Even small efforts can go a long way toward adding value by strengthening author relationships. “From time to time we do something unexpected—above and beyond—that makes authors feel appreciated, like providing some free posters or postcards or a few extra free copies,” Knorr reports. “We also invite them to events, even if they are far away and not likely to make it.”

Knorr sees value in individualizing his approach to Sunbury authors and their titles. “I like creative solutions,” he says. “One of my successful authors is house-and-home expert Henri de Marne. In addition to his books, I am publishing his blog, About the House with Henri de Marne (henridemarne.com). We monetize it with advertising, and it also helps us sell a lot of books. Henri provides the content and I handle the publishing, ad sales, and everything else—the same as with his books.”

Recognizing the benefits in facilitating dialogue among his authors, Robinson set up a Moonshine Cove Authors Group through the Group Spaces platform (groupspaces.com/MSCAuthors). “Each of our authors can join the group, but there is no requirement that they do so,” Robinson explains. “Those who choose to join can interact with all the other members, exchanging ideas and learning what works and what doesn’t work.”

Overarching Objectives

To build strong and enduring author relationships, independent publishers draw on the strengths inherent to their way of doing business. In evaluating potential acquisitions, they look beyond sales projections. They use the advantages of being small to develop and sustain effective communication. And in creative ways, they add value to their relationships to ensure that authors know how much they’re appreciated.

In relationships, small investments can have big payoffs. “There are a lot of ‘used and abused’ authors out there,” says Knorr. “Many have spent thousands on vanity presses and services and have been deeply disappointed. Others have tried self-publishing but can’t break through. Some have had contracts terminated by other publishers and bring emotional baggage with them. Many are new to the business and know very little. Regardless, we are always honest about their prospects and as transparent as possible about our process and what they should expect. Trust is at the core of any good business relationship.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded the 49 Alaska Writing Center and founded the author coop Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are WRITE YOUR BEST BOOK, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; and WHAT EVERY AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; along with COLD SPELL, a novel set in her home state of Alaska. To learn more: debvanasse.com.

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