Monthly Archives: February 2012

Middleworld — Where the Publishers are Neither Too Big Nor Too Small

Miniature Story Book -- photo by alphadeltago's photostream, Flickr

Okay, so here’s the situation. You’re a therapist writer. You’ve decided to write a book. Maybe it’s on a mental health topic; maybe it’s on something else. You’ve done your homework. You know your subject matter, your genre, your angle, your goals, your audience. You may even have completed a few chapters. That’s all good.

Then somebody comes along and throws you a curve by asking you a simple question: “How many actual books are you going to be able to sell to your primary audience?” Gee. I didn’t expect that question.  In my case, I know that the primary audience for the book I’m writing (The Therapist Writer) is mental health professionals who want to write. But exact numbers?  I realized I needed to get my numbers act together.  As my GPS says…

Calculating… Calculating…

After a lot of Googling (which wasn’t helpful), and some phone calls to mental health organizations (many refuse to disclose membership numbers), I finally consulted a copy of the Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011 (the new edition covering 2012 is due out soon), and I came up with a total of “700,000” mental health professionals in the U.S. with an expected growth rate of 15% by 2018, bringing the total number of therapists to 805,000 by 2018. And since I’ve always heard that in the fund-raising world a 1% response to a fund-raising letter is average, I threw that number into the mix…

Calculating… Calculating…

The number I came up with (1% of 805,000 mental health professionals) was 8,500 potential book sales over the next couple of years. (Anyone with a better set of numbers please let me know!)  In my world, 8,500 sales isn’t bad.  But in the world of traditional publishing (think New York), 8,500 is lousy. It’s small potatoes. Without at least 25,000 fans panting to buy my book, my chances of getting a New York agent to broker a book deal with a big time trade publisher are slim to none. So forgetaboutit. It’s just never going to happen. My book is far “too nichy” for that world. Now what?

As a therapist writer, this could happen to you. Not to be mean, but I’m afraid that book you’re working on about Sandtray Therapy just isn’t going to be a hot item at Random House. Then, is your only alternative self-publishing? That’s certainly an option, maybe even a good one in some cases, but don’t throw in the towel just yet. There’s a whole middleworld of publishing houses out there known as “the independents,” or “small presses,” or “academic publishers” or “university presses” that are still considered traditional publishers, same business model, and they might be just perfect for you.

According to Los Angeles literary agent Paul S. Levine, the publishing world is roughly divided into two parts. Half of the book business is controlled by the “Big Six” global publishing conglomerates (Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Hachette (and a slew of imprints under the umbrella of each). The other half, Levine states, is made up of some 56,000 smaller publishers or “independents” which he defines as “those who publish three or more books in one calendar year.”

Also mixed in here are the academic/university presses, some 100 of them that publish anywhere from a few book to 100 books a year, many on specialty topics (archeology, history, music, biographies, politics, music, theater, dance, art, baseball, gardening, health, sports, travel, school texts, nature, interior design, pop culture, writing —  and many areas of  psychology.) Because everything is topsy-turvy in the publishing world these days, some of the university and academic presses have had to go mainstream and put out commercial books, so they’re not just printers for stuffy books anymore. If you’re afraid your book isn’t stuffy enough for them, this should come as good news. You may have a shot.

Why Are the Independent Presses Worth Looking Into?

For today’s writers, one of the best things about the small, independent presses is that many of them don’t insist that you have an agent, which is rare in the “Big Six” world. That’s one huge gatekeeper out of the way! You can send in material (such as a book proposal) unsolicited, without prior permission. These publishers are more open to niche topics and if you do hook up with one of them, they’ll give you more personal attention and help you make your book “perfect.” On the downside is time and money. This all takes time and there’s not much money for advances or marketing. If you’re in a big hurry to get your book out there for upcoming workshops, seminars and conventions, then self-publishing, using print-on-demand technology, might work better for you.

Best Resources

The two best resources for finding out about the independents, small presses, academic publishers and university presses are these annuals: 1) the 2012 Writer’s Market (check out their “Family Tree” chart showing the conglomerates and their imprints), and, 2) Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2012. Writer’s Market refers to these houses as “small publishers” and defines them as those publishing ten books or less a year; Herman calls his list of 500 or so presses the “independents” and defines them as publishing one book a year on up. He has a separate section for “university presses,” whereas Writer’s Market mixes the academic and university presses in along with other publishers, but has a separate section for the “ten and under” small presses. There’s a lot of cross-over so it can be confusing. Writer’s Market also highlights “new listings” which might be worth looking into because they may be less inundated with material from other writers — so far.

What to do in Middleworld

If your book is “too nichy” for an agent and the “Big Six,” but you’re not up to self-publishing (which is exciting but a lot of work), look at the publishers in Middleworld:

  • Look through the two directories mentioned above;
  • Read the sections for “small,” “independent” and “university/academic” presses;
  • Put checks by the publishers that don’t require agents (Basic Books and WW Norton do require agents; Adams Media and Guilford don’t);
  • Come up with a list of about 15 publishers that appeal to you and seem to have a strong presence in your subject area;
  • Check out each pick with http://www.writerbeware.com and http://www.preditorsandeditors.com just to be safe and make sure they’re not flakes;
  • Go on each of the 15 web sites and see what their writer guidelines say. You may have to hunt for them — try “Contact Us” or “Submission Guidelines” or “Authors” or “Writer Guidelines;” or “Submissions;”
  • Don’t deal with any so-called “publishers” (vanity presses in disguise) that use words like “subsidy,” “co-publishing,” “joint venture.”  That’s the dark side of  self-publishing which is another conversation;
  • Send off whatever the publisher asks for — and don’t wait by the mailbox. They’ll answer eventually. In the meantime, keep educating yourself about publishing; keep networking with other writers, and keep writing.
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A Panel of One: Dan Poynter Updates Writers on Latest Publishing Changes & Opportunities

Self-Publishing Guru, Dan Poynter, Updates a Southern California Writers Group on the Latest Publishing Industry Changes -- Photo: Sylvia Cary

Whether you’re a therapist writer or any other kind of writer, you know it’s important to  keep up with what’s going on in the ever-changing publishing industry.  Since we can’t all be at every writing-related event in our area, I thought I’d share some things I learned at the latest meeting of IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) in my own area.

Now usually on the last Monday night of the month, IWOSC presents a panel of four to six experts on topics related to writing and publishing, but this time things were different. This time it was a panel of only one — that one being Dan Poynter, a man who probably knows more about the publishing game than anyone else on earth. He flies 6000 miles a week, speaking to book-writing hopefuls and conversing with publishing experts in every nook and cranny of the globe. He spends 40% of his time in the air, at airports, and in other countries. It’s no wonder that whenever he opens his mouth to speak about publishing, writers listen.

Poynter opened his talk with a catchy little definition of self-publishing that you might want to put up on your fridge to inspire you:  “Self-publishing, when you’re doing it right, is when your passion center meets your profit center.”

But publishing wasn’t originally Dan Poynter’s primary passion. Sky-diving was his first love. One day in 1972 somebody took him for his first sky dive “and I was hooked,” he says. If he hadn’t been taken on that jaunt, he never would have known how much he liked it — and he might never have ended up in the publishing field. Today, he advises parents to “do something new every weekend with your kids; open them up to different kinds of experiences and eventually they’ll find something they want to pursue.”

After Poynter got into sky-diving (including a  jump into the north pole), he realized that there were no parachute manuals. He wrote one, became a publisher, published it and sold it through parachute schools, parachute shops, parachute catalogs, and parachute magazines — but not through bookstores. Even back then he realized, “Sell to your own tribe. You have to go where your audience hangs out.” Marketing a book was harder in those days.  “Today, because of the Internet and search engines, we can find our customers and our customers can find us.”

In 1973, Poynter discovered hang gliding. He fell in love again. And again, when he realized that there were no manuals on the subject, he spent four months researching it and came out with the first book on hang gliding. The book took off. “It was the right book at the right time, just when everybody was crazy about hang gliding and there were articles on it in every magazine.” He marketed this book the same way he’d marketed his parachuting book — he sold them in hang gliding stores, hang gliding schools, hang gliding magazines and hang gliding catalogs. “Your book has to be the first one,” he says. “If you have the second book you’re out of luck.” Initially, when he left copies in stores on consignment, management was skeptical. Then, when the books sold out, he started to get calls for more: “You have to show them there’s a market.”  Also, thanks to his naïveté at the time, he sent a copy of his hang-gliding book to the Library Journal and asked them to review it.  He had no idea that getting a book reviewed in the Library Journal is a feat the equivalent of parachuting into the North Pole. But the Library Journal actually did review the book and as a result of that review he sold copies to 1200 libraries.

By 1974 Poynter had earned enough money to move back to California from a colder clime (he’d come to hate cold) to a big house on a hill in Santa Barbara. He has since authored over one hundred additional books.

Publishing is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. The large publishers are downsizing, the traditional brick and mortar stores are going out of business, readers have fallen in love with ebooks, “and we’ve been losing three independent bookstores a week for the last twenty years.” Publishing industry professionals who are still resisting all these changes are, in Poynter’s words,  “in denial,” And the changes are having a huge impact on every facet of book publishing — literary agents,  distributors, book printers, book reviewers — just about everyone that the industry touches. Even the area of “foreign rights” is changing. Someday, authors will have their books translated into other languages on their own and sell them on Amazon or on their own Web sites. “Tolerate books stores, but don’t pursue them,” Poynter says. “Bookstores are lousy places to sell books. New York publishing still thinks it’s all about bookstores, but they’re wrong. The winners are going to be authors and small publishers who go with the flow and adapt to what’s inevitable and embrace the changes. In the past, everyone followed the Big Six publishing conglomerates. Now, the Big Six are following us!”

Poynter predicts that the abandonment of the “New York” publishers and gatekeepers will continue, and magazines (and along with them book review space) will continue to disappear. “1989 was the peak year for the magazine industry. Magazines were thick with ads. Now they’re getting skinnier and skinnier. Look at Newsweek. It’s losing millions. Most newspapers will disappear in five years. The only four likely to survive are the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Most book reviews will be done online by book bloggers.”

While these changes are opening up all kinds of exciting opportunities for writers, Poynter warns that writers also need to be wary of scammers. “Avoid Vanity presses. Do your due diligence. And if you are about to do business with a company, first go online and type in Google + the name of the company + scam (or rip-off) and see what comes up.

Poynter ended his presentation with a reminder: “87% of people don’t like their job. One million people call in sick every day. But we, as authors and publishers, are respected and have a passion for what we do. There will be a growing need for entertainment (fiction) and information (non-fiction)…” – and that means work we love! So for the hundreds of  writers, publishers and guests sitting in the audience listening to this most impressive “panel of one,” the future is looking pretty good.