The Sisters in Crime Publishers Summit team members Roberta Isleib, JudyClemens, 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.