Monday, September 20, 2010

Finding the Publisher You Want—for Richer or Poorer

This blog originally appeared on the wonderful GLBT romance review site, Reviews by Jessewave. But because I wrote it and because I think it contains some hard-learned lessons about publishing I've accrued along the way, I'm sharing it with you here.
I get e-mails all the time asking me for suggestions for publishers. I greet this question with the same degree of befuddlement as I greet the ones that ask me which of my books is my favorite, or which one they should read first. Both questions have one thing in common—they’re difficult if not impossible to answer without knowing something about the person who’s asking the question.



Usually, though I give an answer of some sort, either referring the one group to my website where they can browse my titles and decide which one best suits them, or to author Lori L. Lake’s excellent list of GLBT publishers, which can be found here. Lori keeps the list updated regularly and I doubt there’s a better overall list in one place on the web.

Anyway, this is my roundabout way of getting to answering the question: how do I decide which publisher is best for me?

The answer of course, lies in your own goals, your own way of working, and what you expect to get out of the relationship. It’s kind of like a marriage, without the sex (or should I just say a long-term marriage?). Kidding aside, getting into a relationship with a publisher can be like a marriage—easy to get into and much more difficult to get out of if you’re not careful. So choose your publisher as wisely as choosing a mate.

I am writing this column assuming that you, dear reader (and potential author), have certain basic skills and talents. You’re a good writer, you have a story to tell, one that people want to read, and you have a strong command of the English language. In other words, you’re a desirable author mate for a publisher.

Okay, so you’ve written your masterpiece, your magnum opus, your culmination of all your literary hopes and dreams, and you’re ready to send it out. You consult Lori Lake’s list of publishers and you send it to every one, figuring the odds are in your favor if you up the number of times you enter the lottery.

Wrong.

The first thing you should do with Lori’s list or any list you compile is cull it. Winnow it down to only those publishers with whom you’d think you’d have a match. These could be publishers whose work you love to read, publishers you’ve heard good buzz about, publishers whom you’ve just seen again and again, or publishers who simply appear to be professional in every way. Whatever your criteria are, start by sticking to what you want and then going out and getting it.

But how do I know what I want? I just want to get published! We’ve all been there and there comes a point when it seems like anyone who will put your name on the cover of a book is a dream come true. But don’t jump into those arms so fast, sister (or brother). Again, a reminder worth repeating: connecting with a publisher can be like a marriage. A good one can make your life heaven on earth. A bad one…well, you know.

I can’t tell you exactly what you want, but below are some questions I myself look at when I consider entrusting my literary output into the hands of a publisher. Note that these questions apply to the field we’re working in: small press m/m romance, mainly.

1. Does the publisher have a web store? These days, most do and if they don’t, I would think twice about joining forces with them. Why? For one, having a web store on the publisher’s site facilitates purchase of your work and it aligns you with the other authors in their stable, upon whose coattails you may be able to ride. For another, a publisher who offers the option to buy books directly from their website tells me that this is a business who is serious about getting the word out about their work…and getting it into the hands of readers. Which leads me to:
2. What kind of marketing will your publisher do for you? First caveat, you should plan on doing the bulk of promotional work yourself, no matter how tireless a promoter your publisher is. No one knows that book better than you and no one cares about it more. But a publisher who is a strong ally in marketing your work can make the difference between bestseller and “never heard of (your name here)”. Ask things like if they have discount programs, or frequent customer rewards. Do they have a presence in social media networking? Do they have a regular way to communicate with readers via vehicles such as mailing lists or Yahoo or Google groups? Do they have a list of reviewers ready to send your work out to? I have worked with publishers who continually push my work in all the above ways (and love them for it) to ones who get the book set up for publication, plop it down on their website, and then sit and wait, thinking “If I publish it, they will come” which seldom works, not with so many millions of options out there for the reading public. Make sure you’re willing to do a lot of the marketing legwork, but also make sure your publisher is a partner in those efforts.
3. How are those covers lookin’? Like it or not, readers can and do judge a book by its cover. If you go to a publisher website and peruse their covers, ask yourself if they look professional—are they eye-catching? Do they make you want to read the books? Do most of them look like something you’d be proud to have as the face of your work? Do they reflect a strong brand? Do they look artful while at the same time enticing to a reader? Lastly, ask up front how much input you’ll have into the cover process. This varies from place to place. Some will present you with a finished cover without any—or very little—input from you; some will work closely with you. You shouldn’t automatically assume, though, that having a lot of say (if not final approval) of your cover is a good thing. Authors and cover artists are often different animals and sometimes you are better off working with a cover artist to whom you can toss the germ of an idea to and then let him or her have his or her way with it. Again: look at the publisher’s covers as a whole, a brand, and see whether you’re impressed or not.
4. What about the company you’ll keep? Aside from looking at covers, take a look at the other authors in the publisher’s stable. Talk to some of them if you can; it’s not hard to do these days. But look to see if you’ve heard of many of them, what their sales rankings are on Amazon, if they have multiple books with the same publisher. These kind of things will help you get a clearer picture of how happy current authors are with the publisher and will also give you an idea of the quality of the publisher. If (insert favorite author name here) works with XYZ, they must be pretty good. It’s not a bad thing to consider—the company one keeps says a lot about a publisher—and an author.
5. To print or not to print? These days e-books are getting all the print. You know what I mean, it’s hard to go very far and not find another news story (in places as august as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, even) about the “e-book revolution.” But one thing you should ask yourself is this: does my potential publisher offer the option of print publication of my work as well as electronic? To me, it’s important that my readers have access to my work in just about every format possible, so it’s vital to me that a publisher these days produce full-length work in both electronic and print. It’s simply covering all the bases. I have heard publishers say they’ll take a work to print if e-book sales are strong enough which seems shortsighted, since they’re different markets. Or they’ll bring out the print version a year or some other time frame after the e-book. That also seems kind of self-defeating. But this is one you have to decide. There are many excellent e-book publishers out there and having your work in that market may be enough to satisfy you and your readers. But with print on demand, it seems so easy (and affordable) these days to also offer your work in a printed edition.
6. The one contract clause to avoid. I could write a whole blog on contracts, but I will limit this discussion to one I think any new writer should avoid because it’s the most likely to get them into long-term hot water. And that clause goes by the name of “Rights of First Refusal”. This is when a publisher asks to have the first option on any future work you do. At first, you might be thrilled they’re so happy with you they want everything else you’ll write, but think twice. And run the other way. Unless you’re contracting with a Knopf or Simon and Schuster, you don’t want this shackle around your future creative output. You don’t know how things will go in the future. None of us do. In the honeymoon stage of manuscript acceptance, everything may seem blissful. But what if, down the road, things sour? Do you really want to be stuck with someone you don’t get along with for years? Contracts are negotiable. My advice to new writers is to ask that this requirement, if it’s in your contract, be stricken. And if they won’t, walk away.

There are probably a bunch of other things to consider, like your gut feeling, how much editing you can expect, how often they pay royalties. It’s probably enough for a book—if I could only find the right publisher.

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