The Green-eyed MONSTER

Is it worth a cat fight?

A recent discussion on a popular list for mystery fans has centered around jealousy among authors.  Some (a minority) feel mystery authors, whether aspiring or published, are competing for limited publishing slots and therefore must always be in competition.

Others say no, as we open up to and help others, we, too are blessed.

I’m with the second group.

I’ve been a published author for about 25 years now, and my first book (hardcover, NY pub) came out 14 years ago.  My first  mystery novel (from a small, mid-USA press offering an advance and royalty) appeared in 2002.  Since then five of my series novels have been published by that press, and now number six is slated for appearance in 2010 from a new publisher who also pays royalties, is extremely environmentally conscious in many ways, including printing books on demand as they sell (P.O.D.) rather than printing thousands to be warehoused somewhere and–eventually–face the possibility  they will be dumped in a landfill while few mourn the trees it cost to create them.

Am I someone who’s name has appeared at the top of the New York Times bestseller list?  Nope.

Do my books sell tens of thousands?   Nope.

Am I a contented author who does sell quite a few books ?   You betcha!

Even before I sold my first book to a publisher, I understood the importance of professional friendships and cooperation.  In my previous roll as a journalist I had made friends in the media.  I soon joined several writers’ organizations and began to add many authors, whether NY bestsellers or those with one book from a mini-press, to my list of friends.  I began sharing opportunities and ideas with them.  I eventually formed a group in my home state called “Writers Roadshow” and invited author friends to join me in group signings and discussions.  We prospered.  And…and…my author friends began sharing ideas and opportunities with me.  Green-eyed monster?  No way!  We were a professional group, working together to sell books in an amazing variety of ways.

Though it seems many authors are competing for few and decreasing publishing slots today, folks who grieve over that are usually limiting their publishing aspirations by a desire to connect only with an imprint of one of the six (or seven, depending on your point of view)  New York conglomerates.  They worry about snagging an agent, then pray that agent will find them a publisher.  And no wonder there is anxiety.  A top NY agent recently told me that, whereas she used to find twenty or more editors she could submit her clients’ books to, now she’s lucky to find six.   WHEW!

That does seem to be a recipe for cat fights and jealousy.

My suggestion (as well as my own publishing experience) says aspiring authors need to turn outward, even if that’s only after months and sometimes even years of turn-downs in New York.  Filling the void left by decreased activity among the biggies,  small presses are popping up all over.  Sure, finding them takes diligent research.  Sure some are bloodsuckers who, feeding on an author’s desire to be published, take money (often a lot of it), produce an inferior product (badly edited, hard-to-read books with, often, unappealing covers), have few follow-up promotion activities, and usually no general distribution avenues.  For most, that’s a bad choice.

But for every one of those, there are (I’m guessing, based on what I see on the Internet and hear from many other authors) at least twenty small presses who offer many of the same services authors get in New York, though sometimes avenues of distribution are more limited.  That’s partly because of a continuing prejudice against print on demand books.  Why?  Sometimes those books can’t be returned to the distributor or publisher, and sometimes it takes longer to get orders in.  It isn’t that booksellers can’t adapt to this, it’s that they haven’t had to, so are holding to the old ways.  I can’t exactly blame them.

But the times, they are a changing.  My home state, Arkansas, had, at last count, 499 independent publishers.  (Numbers cover those who have purchased ISBN numbers–source, Bowker.)  Texas and California had several thousand each.  Sure, some are “Granny’s Garage Cookbook Press” or they were formed to create books for special niches like memoirs, museums,  and religious texts.  But, there are still a bunch of them out there waiting for you.

Can small press authors get around the no return policy problem?  My own experiences may be helpful.  Once, at a Barnes & Noble booksigning, I was horrified to see three cases of about 40 books each stacked near the signing table.  These did come from a publisher who accepted returns, but, because of damage, really couldn’t afford that burden and eventually went out of business.

Okay, so I do sell a nice amount of books at signings (35 or so being an average)  but I’m not a big name except in Arkansas.  A reality check told me that B&N had over-ordered, and many of those books would be returned.  Also, in another B&N,  I saw a costly book I wanted for research.  They had two copies on their shelves.  One pristine, the other shop worn.  I asked about buying the shop worn one at a discount.  “No, not our policy,” the clerk said. “We can return that for a full refund.”    URK!  Poor publisher who would have to eat the cost of that expensive book.

Now, when preparing for any signing event, I usually suggest the top number of books to be ordered or, in some cases, take books myself and, on a 60/40 or similar deal, supply them for the event and for bookstore  stock following that.   Also, these days, many small presses will make special arrangements for a limited amount of returns of books in good condition within a certain time frame.   (Old rules allow bookstores to keep books for several months before returning them.)

It all boils down to knowing yourself and finding your niche.  Interested only in NY?  Have at it!  Otherwise, look around you.  Talk to fellow authors.  Find out who publishes them.  Ask about their satisfaction with that publisher.  When I was between publishers recently, several authors offered contact information for their own publishers/editors for my submission benefit.  And, when a novel of mine  recently took first in a contest, a judge suggested I submit to her publisher.

Like I said, friendship counts, not cat fights.




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