by Nancy Martin, Judy Clemens, Jim Huang, & Roberta Isleib
The Sisters in Crime Publishers Summit team members Roberta Isleib, Judy Clemens, Jim Huang, and Nancy Martin visited publishing professionals in NewYork on May 14 and 15. The report on the publishing summit will run all week. Your comments and discussion are encouraged. The summit team is available to field your questions.
by Nancy Martin
Our Sisters in Crime Publisher's Summit was a terrific experience for me, personally. In all my years as a writer, I've never had such access to such bigwigs who were so kindly willing to chat. (On Thursday evening when all our official appointments were over, my own agent asked with some astonishment, “How did you get in to all these people? Why would they see you?") I'm still amazed by how candid everyone was with us. If you are ever asked to join the summit team, grab the opportunity.
Our purpose in visiting the various insiders was to take the current temperature of the mystery business—particularly in regard to our organization’s membership and our mission. Some of our findings were disappointing, but we weren’t surprised, and we’re grateful that everyone felt they could be honest with us. We heard plenty of encouraging news, too, and some good suggestions worth passing along to you
This year, our first stop was HarperCollins, ( http://www.harpercollins.com/ ) We sat down to a very friendly (and delicious) lunch and talked about the state of mysteries today. The HC contingent (several editors and publicists) got right to the good news which was that they were very pleased with the sales of paranormal books, including urban fantasy. And thrillers are hot, hot, hot—especially the “edgier, sexier” thrillers. They are also doing well with cross-genre books, such as historical suspense, which they’re actively seeking.
The bad news? Books are selling better in the fiction section of the big chains, but not so well in the mystery section. Without sugarcoating, our hosts said that from their perspective, the wholesale support for traditional mysteries was drying up. They are taking on fewer cozies because the market has gotten to be difficult. On the other hand, they do have some cozy authors that aren’t just working, they’re thriving. Although they were quick to say that most books have a thread of mystery in the story, editors now avoid putting the stamp of “mystery” on the cover or use it in discussions with booksellers. Why? It limits the audience.
Mind you, our travels took us to none of the publishers that are currently publishing traditional mysteries or “cozies,” so our findings are definitely skewed. To read the report of last fall’s summit, which included calls paid on female-centric (my phrase, so don’t blame anyone else) mystery houses such as Berkley and Kensington, go here.
To our team, it seemed as if any books that are selling well these days are automatically called "thrillers" by the industry. Even mysteries that are clearly mysteries are given the label of thriller if good sales are anticipated. Which may sound ridiculous and frustrating, but it's indicative of how the whole industry is trying to position books for the public.
That word came up over and over: "positioning." Trying to communicate to the sales staff and the public what a book is, is vital. The process begins when the author conceptualizes her book at the beginning of the writing process or perhaps as late as a query letter. Can you define your story in a high concept way? If you can, you’re helping your publisher position your book. If you can’t . . . well, for godsake, try.
The folks at HarperCollins said they can do a lot for authors who write more than a book a year. (This was a common theme among the publishers.) Pubbing authors more frequently helps to brand them better. And that’s the goal--to establish every author as a distinct “brand.” We also talked about sales velocity--the speed with which large numbers of books should be sold in the early weeks of a title's release. The old publishing model was to keep books in print for the long haul. But now all the publishers want books sold fast, upon release. Good sales velocity encourages keeping books in print. Confusing? Yes, but it’s the current wisdom.
Many HarperCollins publicists lunched with us and shared these thoughts:
Mystery writers have the best websites in the industry. (Yay, us!) All authors are encouraged to have a website and keep them up to date and fresh with podcasts and book trailers, if possible. The publisher can build on what you’ve created. For example, take a look at what they’re doing for Tasha Alexander. Lots of ‘Author Extras”--newsletters to sign up for, an ad you can place on your own website or MySpace page, plenty of what I’d call publisher support: here.
(Although not part of our summit report, go check out Meg Cabot’s video on this Amazon page. It has nothing to do with her book, but it very cleverly helps establish her brand. Here.)
Also: Blogs seem to be helping sales. (Perhaps because they engage readers who appreciate the frequent updating?) Build and maintain your mailing list. Having a platform—“writing what you know”—helps to get the aspiring author noticed by a publisher and later helps the publicist promote the published book.
One of the hottest booksellers today, in the view of HarperCollins, is Target. If you’ve strolled through your local Target store lately, I’m sure you’ve seen all the trade-sized paperbacks, all displayed face-out. The success of selling the trade size at Target triggered a discussion about the decision to put certain authors in hardcover vs. trade size paper vs. mass market paperback. The format depends upon the anticipated audience and the anticipated accounts to which the book will be distributed, so that’s a discussion worth having with your editor. We can talk about it today in the comments section, too, but this post is already too long.
I also appreciated the HarperCollins take on the "when should an author realize it's time to move on?" question. Rather than trying to read the handwriting on the wall, HC encouraged authors to ask your editor for sales numbers so you don’t get blindsided. You can get out your pencil, estimate a cover price and figure what kind of sales you need to make to pay the mortgage. Can you survive on a small press print run? Should you keep your day job?
Our next stop was Simon Lipskar, a friendly and forthright agent at Writers House.
So far, I’ve been totally professional, right? Can I take a minute to tell you what really happened when we arrived at the hallowed halls of Writers House? It was a warm day, and we’d walked a long way and…well, I’m a woman of a certain age. As soon as we arrived in his lovely office, I had the most gawdawful hot flash of my entire life. Purple-faced, sweating so hard my hair began to drip, I had a long, horrific hormonal meltdown on his Danish modern sofa. I took notes while mopping myself with a crumpled cocktail napkin dragged up from the bottom of my handbag. So everything I heard in this interview was clouded by a fog of estrogen.
Mr. Lipskar confirmed the general view that thrillers are the success stories of the moment. Any book you can call a thriller, he said, you should. Advice we heard many times during our travels.
He also talked a lot about the "franchise" authors--like James Patterson. I think every agent and publisher is looking for authors they can turn into franchises.
He talked a bit about the importance of blurbs, particularly among the sales reps. (It also spoke to our discussion about positioning authors.) He cited flap copy as another important positioning tool. And covers are extremely important to consumers and sales staff alike these days---a mantra we heard nearly everywhere we went.
Mr. Lipskar did say the midlist was on the verge of dying. He felt the current US economy is contributing to the midlist demise, but I think this subject worth discussing. What role do we all play in this situation?
Of all the people we met with in New York, Simon Lipskar was the only person to voice the opinion that the author can’t do much, PR-wise, to help his career. Except write a great book. In an era when some desperate publishers are asking authors to be bloggers, filmmakers, graphic designers, sales managers and marketing whizzes, it’s nice to hear somebody actually say that our time is better spent what we do well—the writing of a book.
Preferably a thriller, I suppose.
As I wiped hormonal sweat from my brow, we thanked him for his honesty, said good-bye and headed down the stairs.
Tomorrow, we’ll post the next installment of our trip to New York. But for today, do you have questions to ask the team? Is there anything here that sparks your need to vent?---Er, discuss? We’re here, so fire away.
by Judy Clemens
On Thursday morning our little group tromped across town to Penguin to visit with Neil Nyren (Putnam Senior Vice President, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief), Christine Pepe (Putnam Vice President and Executive Editor), and Summer Smith (Putnam Senior Publicist), who were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to meet with us.
We met in a cozy conference room, which was furnished with snacks and bookshelves displaying their very impressive line of books. By just perusing the bookshelves, we could see that Putnam is a division of The Penguin Group not held to one genre. They told us flat-out that whatever kind of book it is, if they like it, they will publish it. However, they are the publisher of several very large names in the mystery industry (Robert B. Parker, Patricia Cornwell, Dick Francis), and are willing to publish new authors. They are not as prolific as some other publishers when it comes to first-time people, because they like to work hard at growing a new name. It’s important to them to work with someone long-term, aiming for steady growth and name-building, which sometimes translates into a parent-child partnership, such as they have with Dick Francis and his son.
As far as the label of “mystery,” they really don’t care about what they call books. When it comes down to it, they said, every book is basically a mystery or a romance. They do acknowledge that the term “thriller” is running much hotter these days, and spy novels seem to be back (which was really interesting to me). Noir is still big, but probably not growing anymore. But no matter what kind of book it is, readers love continuing characters, which is great – if the author can produce.
This was one thing they really pushed – if an author wants to be successful, she (or he) has got to do the work. You can’t be lazy! Robert Parker is publishing at least three books a year. He is a fast writer, and people continue to buy his books. He has become a franchise unto himself. People see his name and know it. An author cannot do this if they are only producing one book every year and a half. Consumers need to see your name on a new book once a year if you are to keep your place in publishing.
They were very big on an author’s need to secure their own niche, and that an author needs to do everything they can to survive in the present publishing climate. To them this meant working with your publisher to expand your market however you can do it: store by store, an intense Internet presence, postcards, libraries. Collaboration with your publisher and publicist is key in how you attack promotion, but as an author you must remember you are the CEO of your own “business,” and you must invest in yourself. Be a goodwill ambassador for your book wherever you go. Your publisher has finite financial and promotional resources, so you need to augment what they can do.
After bidding farewell to the Penguin folks, our little group marched back across town (note to self: next year wear better shoes) to Soho Press, where we met with the publisher, Laura Hruska, and Sarah Reidy, the Director of Publicity. We sat around a table in their warm, friendly office, where we were surrounded by books and the other members of the Soho team. (As an unexpected bonus we also got to meet Herman Graf, one of the original publishers of Carroll and Graf!)
Soho Crime is a 14-year-old business begun by Ms. Hruska because of her desire to publish upmarket mystery writing. She looks for books with a literary feel – atmosphere, setting, and character are of utmost importance. Soho publishes books set in international settings with a desire to educate their audience about the social and cultural context in which the story takes place. They want the reader to go away from their books having had an experience that will change them in some way.
Ms. Hruska thinks mystery is the most exciting field of writing these days, with wonderful literary writers having joined the genre. Mystery is a place where the form is satisfactory and reassuring to readers every time – there is a problem and it is solved with some semblance of justice. This justice may not be the same in the different countries Soho writes about as it is in the United States, but some form of justice will prevail. Ms. Hruska, in a philosophy opposite of the majority of people we visited, sees mysteries as bigger now than they every were – that people are yearning for the justice mysteries provide. Granted, the English Country House type of book may be old, but that is a reflection of today’s world – the stakes have been raised and people need more in our increasingly violent world.
Soho does whatever it can to help their writers succeed and survive. One original way they do this is to produce two runs of galleys. Their first run goes to reviewers and to people who have agreed to blurb the book. The second run, which will publish quotes from these reviewers, will go out to booksellers and others. Soho also makes a “Soho Sampler” which includes chapters from several upcoming books and looks as sharp as the books themselves.
Soho loves for authors to help with the promotion, and joins every other publisher we’ve talked with in saying that a strong Internet presence is very important. They also encourage networking with other authors and filling out the publisher’s author questionnaire with detail (if your publisher does not have one, SinC members can access one here). But…they say there is very little substitute for an author who knows their audience and is friendly and willing to tour. And don’t go just to bookstores – hit festivals and conferences, too!
When asked if the gender of an author mattered in getting a book sold, Ms. Hruska was firmly of the belief that it didn’t – as long as the book is written well. She also believes strongly that an author should keep working to get his or her book published by a traditional publishing house; if an author self-publishes – unless it is a non-fiction book with a strong platform – a publisher will not want to pick it up later. So persevere, even though it is difficult.
Thank you to Putnam and Soho for speaking with us. We learned new things from each team and were very glad to hear from everyone.
Any questions so far? Perhaps something that’s been bubbling up since Nancy started us off at the beginning of the week? We’re here to answer questions or discuss whatever you’re wondering about.
by Jim Huang
Barnes & Noble’s offices are at the corner of 5th Avenue and 18th Street, a location that’s full of nostalgia for me: it’s the location of the original B&N store that my family and I shopped in when I was growing up in New York and New Jersey, back when B&N was just an incredibly wonderful independent before transforming into the force it is today.
I was really looking forward to our visit, not just out of nostalgia, but for the opportunity to learn more about B&N, which accounts for about $5 billion in annual sales (in stores and on the web). We hear so much rumor and speculation about chain booksellers; we were grateful that mystery buyer Dan Mayer agreed to meet with us.
We told Dan about the message that we’d been hearing: thrillers are hot, mysteries are not. Dan introduced himself as a lover of mysteries, and more or less right away we got a very different, much more upbeat take on the mystery genre.
While not disagreeing that thrillers are hot, Dan said that cozies are not a hard sell for him, adding that agents and editors need to see the sales reports that he’s seeing. He agrees with everyone else we met that paranormal is huge right now, and said that historicals are also big. Craft cozies are still selling.
He believes that the genre will continue to grow before it shrinks, noting that readers are getting older, retiring and having more time to read and have fun. Minneapolis is his biggest market for mysteries, which are also strong in Naples, Florida, Texas and California. He does not believe that most writers sell only regionally. He wishes there were more mysteries for younger readers, saying that the demand is there.
Dan is committed to series, saying that it’s crucial to keep all the books in a series in print. If the continuity is broken, it’s hard to keep the series alive. He said that it’s especially hard to keep a series going if the author jumps houses. He is invested in keeping authors in print, and tries to carry a whole series, not just parts of it – which is difficult when there are two houses involved. He also noted that it takes a long time for an author to make it big, so the backlist needs to stay available.
He’s disappointed that the publishing world seems to think that a bestseller should be in fiction rather than being categorized in genre. We discussed an example of a writer whose first two books were packaged as thrillers and sold ok. The publisher re-did the packaging when the third book was published, identifying the book as “A XXXX Mystery.” The first and second books were also relabeled as “XXXX Mysteries,” and all three books were moved out of fiction into the mystery section. Sales went up.
The packaging of a book is crucial to him: it’s all in the cover. He’s tired of fuzzy, black and white, shadowy noir covers, saying that these are not original at all. A cover should make it clear what kind of book it is, and it needs to be professional – a problem for some small presses. He can suggest to a publisher that if it changes a cover, he’ll buy more copies, but he said that the perception of B&N’s power is overstated and that publishers often do not listen to him.
Times are hard for hardcovers. Trade paperbacks are doing well. In fact, he would prefer to see a trade paperback follow a hardcover, rather than a mass market paperback reprint, and he also spoken approvingly of the move to repackage select backlist mass market titles into trade paperback editions. He does not like to see titles go from hardcover to trade paperback to mass market, noting that if a title is selling well as a trade paperback, he prefers to keep selling it at that price point. He still thinks that authors can be successfully launched in paperback originals. He added that some format decisions are determined by Wal-Mart, which will dictate how it wants a book published.
He believes there’s a fine line between customers knowing what kind of book they like and originality. He notes that there are a lot of “table shoppers” in Barnes & Noble stores, folks who are browsing tables but not looking at the stacks. (Mass market paperbacks are not displayed on tables, but trade paperbacks are.) He says that mystery customers are voracious, echoing something we heard in more than one office about the loyalty and devotion of genre fans.
Barnes & Noble is often a scapegoat for practically anything that goes wrong in this business; Dan is aware of this and understands it. But over the course of our hour with him, it became clear how unfairly the chain is painted. We were impressed with his own devotion to the genre, and his earnest and thoughtful approach to his job.
After our meeting with Dan Mayer, we returned to the Princeton Club for drinks with Kate Stine and Brian Skupin of Mystery Scene. This was more of a casual get-together, in a setting that does not allow business to be conducted. Kate did offer an especially interesting and useful bit of advice for writers, saying that “sometimes PR is about what you can do for the other guy.” In other words, the author who does favors and makes an effort to stay in touch with people in the business is likely to be remembered and kept in the loop.
Don't miss the wrap-up tomorrow!
by Roberta Isleib
Simply finding our way to Mira Books (a division of Harlequin Enterprises) helped build our anticipation. We took the subway to Chinatown for a quick lunch, wandered through a gorgeous little park full of Chinese folks sunning their children and playing board games, and stumped the remaining blocks to City Hall. (I assured the team it would be two blocks—it was closer to ten. Note to selves: wear better shoes!)
Mira is located in the stunning, historical Woolworth building in the southern tip of the city. We piled onto the elevator to the tenth floor, admiring the ornate neo gothic/art deco design. The office, where we were met by editorial director Tara Gavin and executive editor Margaret Marbury, is papered by posters of top-selling Harlequin books.
Margaret and Tara were happy to talk about their view of our genre. They agreed with other companies’ opinions that mysteries are “smaller” than suspense novels, meaning that print runs will be smaller for mysteries. It is harder for a book to reach a top-selling level if it’s a mystery rather than suspense or thriller. On the other hand, romance readers are very open to mystery and a number of Harlequin’s lines tend to include a thread of mystery (e.g., Intrigue, Nocturne, Silhouette.) Our hosts see a healthy future in mysteries, as they are selling mysteries in the romance aisles. Print runs for thrillers may be larger, but this kind of reader tends not to be as loyal as mystery fans. Good news for SinC writers: Mystery fans are heavy and loyal readers who return to read a favorite author’s next books.
Mira Books is the Harlequin line with the fewest restrictions and guidelines about plot and character. Their mysteries need to have commercial appeal, dropping clues but not necessarily told in a linear fashion. At Harlequin, they will label a book where they feel it has the biggest play—whether that be historical, mystery, or other.
The format in which the book will be published depends on where it will be distributed. Hardcover releases require a high level of quality, an established audience, and great promotion.
Our hosts reported excellent success with big box stores such as Target and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart will decline titles that are too sexy, including covers and flap copy. Mira is about to have one of their titles made into a big promotion by Target.
Although agreeing that publishing is a gamble in these uncertain economic times, these editors expressed enthusiasm and optimism about the future. Mira focuses on commercial fiction. They see opportunities in many of the Harlequin lines, including paranormal, romantic fantasy, inspirational, mystery, and young adult. They feel that Harry Potter readers are open to new possibilities. The digital future is coming, and Harlequin is embracing it, selling both short stories and all their releases online. See http://www.eharlequin.com
Margaret and Tara had a number of suggestions for how authors can work with their publishers:
· Network and obtain blurbs from other writers
· Develop a website; include contests
· Make guest blog appearances
· Be flexible and fluid—don’t allow labels to affect you negatively. Take advantage of what the marketplace is offering and doing
· Ask your publisher to excerpt your next book at the end of your newest, but it’s got to be a humdinger of an excerpt to pull readers in.
If a mid-list author is not growing, she needs to reinvent herself. Taking a new name is not the only way. Start something new and stronger in order to give the publisher and sales department ammunition for a second chance. Basically, write a great book and follow it up with another—at least once a year. Some of their romance authors produce three per year.
We left Margaret Marbury and Tara Gavin with a spring in our steps, and headed uptown to Folio Literary Management. At the Folio agency, Ami Grecko works as the marketing director, assisting the agency’s clients with promotion and public relations.
In Ami’s experience, mysteries are often being sold today under different names (sometimes literary fiction), even though at heart, the books are mysteries. On the plus side, the mystery genre allows for growth of sales in a way that literary fiction does not. She emphasized how important a good cover is for attracting potential buyers. She feels that mysteries could easily make the move to e-books because of their loyal fans and encourages authors and publishers to embrace the future.
Ami was pleased to share her suggestions for what authors can be doing to help promote their own books.
* Make one-on-one connections with writers, readers, and booksellers.
* Use on-line resources: FaceBook, MySpace, Shelfari, BookTour. Meet your market on-line!
If your publisher supports a book tour, try to hit indies/committed stores in less-saturated cities.
* Go to stores, sign books, be polite! Signed copy stickers will make book stand out.
Find your hook/brand.
* Social networking is key. BUT…people really expect the networking on these websites. You must be present and active, not simply post a page and disappear.
For more of Ami’s thoughts and suggestions on publicity go here.
And that’s it for this year’s summit. We were so grateful for the opportunity to talk with the publishing professionals, and hope you’ve found these reports useful.