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Fall 2007 Publishers Summit Report
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by Roberta Isleib

   For two days in early September, a Sisters in Crime entourage consisting of Rochelle Krich, SJ Rozan, Jim Huang, and Roberta Isleib buzzed around New York talking with staff at six major publishers, in addition to other mystery world professionals. The SinC team defined a three-part mission: (1) raise the profile of Sisters in Crime; (2) learn more about the state of today's publishing market; (3) solicit suggestions about how SinC can work with the professionals to increase members' visibility and book sales. Before the summit, many SinC members submitted questions and suggestions that helped focus our questions and sharpen our approach.

At each of our ten stops, the SinC entourage was warmly welcomed. We presented the professionals with packets that contained SinC membership details, statistics from our review monitoring project, the September newsletter, information on the 20th anniversary activities, the New England chapter's criminal calendar, an authors by location brochure, and the "SinC into a Good Mystery" bumper sticker.

Everyone we met acknowledges that today's market is extremely competitive. Below are some details describing the facts and/or philosophy of the publishers we visited:

  • St. Martin's Minotaur publishes 130 hardcover books/year, feeling that mass market books are getting harder to sell. Their sales base is libraries and mystery bookstores. They break authors into the chain stores slowly, believing that an author pushed too fast can get marked by returns. They make acquisitions based on quality and commercial appeal.

     

  • At Ballantine Books, publicity budgets are determined by print runs. (It also helps if your editor and the staff at sales and publicity fall in love with your book.) Eighty-five percent of Ballantine's business is done with chains and they tour authors less and less. They mail galleys to a large list of newspapers, but don't have time to track "of the moment" blogs. They will exploit good news and reviews if authors send them in.

     

  • Most of the business done at Kensington Books is with chains, rather than smaller independent bookstores. Kensington books are produced in a paperback/hardcover cycle. The publisher is very interested in author input for their website and is seeking information about online sites where mystery readers congregate. Spy thrillers, romantic suspense, and sexy romantic suspense are selling well, chick lit mysteries not so much.

     

  • Berkley Prime Crime has an identity with booksellers and readers as a producer of cozy mysteries. They publish 7 mass market and 2-3 hardcover books/month, and find that trade paperbacks are not very successful. Advice for authors: don't get caught up in how to break out. Get established in the mid-list where you can make a decent living. Selling mysteries is basically word of mouth. If a book sells well, the author's next book will be moved up in their list.

     

  • Obsidian, a new NAL imprint, publishes 2 paperback originals/month, usually chick-lit and cozies. They also produce 6-7 hardcovers/year, along with movie and TV tie-ins. They are no longer grouped in with NAL titles, and are doing promotion for the "Obsidian" line.

     

  • The staff at Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group considers itself very marketing and publicity driven. They support women writers, have an active online department, and love doing regional books. They always start with hardcover and move to mass market. They also advise writers to be less focused on breaking out. As far as job security, it may not be the age for that!
  
Straight from the horses' mouths: What our experts suggest authors can do for themselves
  1. Focus on the book at hand. How can you get the most out of its potential?
  2. Be proactive with your publicist, without overwhelming him or her. (Hard to imagine the volume of their work.) Suggest publicity angles they might not have considered. Fill out your author questionnaire thoroughly. Provide them leads for publications that cover your niche. If you hire an outside publicist, keep everyone in the loop.
  3. When looking for an agent, do your research. There's no such thing as a "dream agent" who will make your career.
  4. You must have a professional-looking website. Look it over every 3 months or so, asking the question: does this reflect my books—and me, now? Post a "dream interview" that may be picked up by publications and websites, along with Frequently Asked Questions about your new book, and links to your agent and publicist. Maintain a mailing list.
  5. Make connections on your own with booksellers through drop-in signings—call ahead to see if you can sign stock. Arrange speaking engagements with built-in audiences. Be polite to everyone!
  6. Your book needs to have PLOT VELOCITY! You sell books by making the reader curious.
  7. Sisters in Crime members should support each other by buying books, supporting authors on the road, and providing blurbs for new authors when possible. Encourage people to pre-order on Amazon—sales departments listen to these numbers.
  8. Network, don't hector!


Potential projects for Sisters in Crime brainstormed during the summit.
  1. Consider producing SinC shelf talkers: "SinC into a Good Mystery"
  2. Encourage members to support each other's new books through a regular e-blast of new releases.
  3. Showcase authors at ALA/PLA with panels or breakfasts.
  4. Meet with Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon, Costco, and Walmart to talk about how to sell more SinC books.
  5. Encourage chapter presidents to do media outreach.
  6. Produce a SinC authors' questionnaire available as a website download.
  7. On the SinC website, provide a list of authors with websites, indicating those that are interested in speaking to book clubs.
  8. Help new authors and all members learn the etiquette of promotion.
  9. Consider doing SinC group events at conferences, bookstores, and libraries.
  10. Pitch ideas to Publishers Weekly on mystery features.
  

Along with visiting these publishers, we met with four different sets of professionals who review, comment on, or sell mysteries, rather than publish them.

  • Publishers Weekly/Library Journal explained how serious the level of competition is for review space. The Library Journal sends 100 galleys every 2 weeks to their mystery reviewer, from which 15 are selected. PW places 8 mystery reviews/week in the magazine and more online—they attempt to cover everything from the major publishers. They are interested in having the lead titles identified and receiving interesting information about the authors and the books' backstory. They seldom include subsidy and vanity presses due to problems with gate-keeping (no pre-screening by agents and editors) and distribution.
  • Sarah Weinman, reviewer and author of the blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, receives 50 to 100 books a week. She suggests that although the market is confused, we shouldn't panic! Writers should study the market to see what works, which is not the same as writing to the market.
  • Carol Fitzgerald, founder of the Bookreporter.com, reviews 16 books/week, plus special features. Books selected for free reviews are chosen by Bookreporter staff. She also has a series of paid promotions available to authors. She feels that Amazon Prime is changing the bookselling business, as buyers can now obtain any book within 2 days. She also emphasized how much competition there is for readers from other entertainment choices.
  • Editor Jane Dentinger pilots the Mystery Guild, an approximately 400,000-member book club. She described her readership as mature women. They prefer female PI's and cozies—they don't want to read about sex, chick lit, older protagonists, "mommy" mysteries, or the "hip and edgy." The person in charge of sub-rights at your publisher will be the one pitching your book (or not!) to Mystery Guild.

As always, we're happy to get your suggestions and feedback!

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