Thursday, May 29, 2008

Publisher Summit -- Part II

Sisters in Crime publishers summit team members Roberta Isleib, Judy Clemens, Jim Huang, and Nancy Martin visited publishing professionals in New York on May 14 and 15.

Second Installment, 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.


Joe Moore said...

Thank you for posting this valuable info. It's rare that writers get a glimpse inside the industry, especially inside other pubs from their own. Well done.

nancy said...

Great report, Judy. One of my favorite things about being on the summit tame was visiting the very different offices of our interviewees. Going from the sleek corporate offices of Putnam to the loft-like open space of Soho where everyone works in the same room---what a surprise!

nancy said...

That's "team," not "tame." Sorry. I'm going back to bed.

Judy Clemens said...

Thank, Joe. I think I speak for the whole summit team when we say we felt privileged to be able to do this.

julie kramer said...

Publishing is a new world for me. My first book, STALKING SUSAN, debuts this summer. The tough love talk from NY that you're sharing with us, helps me better understand what I can control and what I can't. I've been riveted by what I've read and can hardly wait for the next installment.

When they say an author needs a strong internet presence,did they have any suggestions of how to attain that, other than a website?
And when they say an author willing to tour, they mean author foot bill, right? I keep hearing conflicting things on how useful that actually Soho, at least, thinks it's useful?

Judy Clemens said...

As for an Internet presence, they're talking about, first and foremost, a great web site. Then they're talking about blogging, guest blogging, MySpace, FaceBook, all that stuff. The hard part is...when do you have time to write a book if you're doing all that? Simon Lipskar, the agent Nancy wrote about yesterday, really doesn't believe all of those things help all that incredibly much. He says it's much more important to write a great book.

That said, the publishers seem to want you to do more.

As for touring, Neil Nyren reminded us different times in our interview that publishers have a finite amount of money and energy to spend on each author. If they feel that touring is the best use of their money, they'll spend it that way. But if they don't think that...then yes, it's all on the author to pay for it. I think for most of us, the bill comes down to our own wallets.

Soho says they will help where they can. If they ask an author to go somewhere, they will foot the bill. If the author suggests something, they might help with some of it, if they think it is a good use of their money.

You're right -- there are a lot of conflicting messages. Part of the business -- and of human nature!

julie kramer said...

Thanks, Judy...
You anticipated my follow up question, if you do all that internet, interactive a good author...when do you have time to write the now THREE books a year they'd like?
Some questions have no answer. Can hardly wait to see what you sisters have for us tomorrow.

Vicki Lane said...

This is all fascinating. Thanks so much to all of you!

Kathryn Lilley said...

Great information in every post of the Publisher Summit series. We authors are often hankering for real info about the "biz", and insights like these are worth their weight in gold to us. Thank you!