What Do You Want?

Here’s a serious question for you.

A Publisher Sample

What do you – as a reader – want from a publisher?

Do you even notice who has published your favorite books? Here I’m talking about the original publisher, not reprints of classics.

This is becoming a serious question in my field as publishers are forced to face that whereas once upon a time they were the sole way for readers to get books, this is no longer the case. With self-publishing losing its stigma, with writers racing to put their backlist up as electronic downloads, the role of the publisher may be becoming less central.

(Backlist is industry slang for books an author has written but are no longer new. Often a “backlist” book is also out of print and therefore unavailable except from the author or used book sellers).

As someone who has worked as a writer within the publishing industry for over fifteen years (my first novel came out December of 1994; my first short stories were published longer ago than that), I’m seeing a lot of uncertainty on the part of publishers.

For one, they seem unwilling to take a gamble. Over and over, I hear from writers that they’re being asked what “market” their book is meant to target. Or they’re being asked to write something that will fit into what is perceived as the latest “hot” thing. Or an established writer is told – not asked – to write a book set in a specific series. This goes hand-in-hand with an implied, “and don’t bother to try to sell us anything else.”

Experimentation or stretching the limits does not seem welcome.

Never mind that many of the most notable bestsellers of the last decade or so were rejected by those with a safe mind set. I’m thinking of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books, which were widely turned down as either containing too much romance to be time travel or containing too much time travel to be romance. I’m thinking of Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight” books. I’m sure you folks can think of others.

I’m not denying that this is a trend that has been around long enough to spawn a host of legend lore about famous books that were repeatedly rejected. Hunt up a copy of Rotten Rejectionsif you want to read what those “in the know” said about books that have become cultural icons, such as Moby Dick.

Tony Hillerman never grew tired of telling how the first of his best-selling mystery novels featuring Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn was rejected because it had too much of that “Indian stuff” in it. Now there’s practically a sub-genre of mysteries featuring Native American protagonists.

Hmm… But I’m getting away from my main question. Do you look for books from a specific publisher? Does a publisher with a strong focus (an example would be Baen Books, which does mostly SF, often with a strong military element) register with you?

You see, the reason I’m asking is that I’ve been considering that the only way for publishers to survive is for them to make an impact on their readership. The one drawback of all this self-publishing and electronic publishing is that soon it will be hard for readers to figure out what suits their tastes.

However, my feeling is that as long as publishers play it safe – hunting for the next Harry Potter or “Twilight” or whatever – they’re going to “safe” themselves right out of business. What they need is to make themselves (or even sub-groups within their publishing house) places where readers can go to find that next great read.

They need an identity other than “SF/F” publishing house.

What do you think?

16 Responses to “What Do You Want?”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Gee, as an aspiring author, what I really want is for publishers to figure out how to answer this question: “How can I help the author make more money than he or she would by publishing in electric form on Amazon or other formats (which is NOT the same as publishing it for free on their own), or by publishing it POD through LULU, Createspace, or similar?”

    They’ve already got the paper part figured out, as it’s more expensive to publish a book through lulu and sell it to a store than it is to get someone to publish it for you and wholesale it to that store.

    But seriously, getting nasty on authors is counterproductive, because when established authors gets frustrated enough to walk away and take their readers with them, what is the publisher going to do? And personally, I think it’s a great idea for authors to retain the ability to walk away, simply because it is the ultimate bargaining chip.

    Anyway, this recipe sounds greedy, but it isn’t, for two reasons:
    A) People successfully self-publishing electronically keep a lot more of the price of each book than do people publishing traditionally.
    B) Publishers are really good at wide-scale marketing.
    Publishers and some writers can therefore have a good working relationship, because some writers will benefit more by working with a publisher than they would by doing it themselves. Others won’t: they have a small, specialized audience, and the author can probably find that audience faster than the publisher could.

    So I guess what I want from a publisher is good marketing and a good read. Some ideas:
    –Publishers should stop leaving the marketing to Amazon, B&N, and Borders (and the other mega-chains), and start figuring out how to get their readers to interact with them directly. Amazon’s already in the ePublishing business, and they’re going to destroy most of the publishers if the publishers don’t really get moving. Having seen Amazon’s publishing contract, I’m not thrilled about this. Publishers should find ways to market directly to readers. I get bombarded by daily emails from Amazon, Borders, and B&N. But I go to Jane’s website (or similar spots) to find out when their books are coming out. The publishers are AWOL from this equation, and that’s stupid, especially if they’re selling their marketing services to authors.
    –Good read: One service publishers can offer is editing books to make them more readable and more accessible. This is the editor’s job, but it looks like editors are now sales managers and publishers are expecting agents to be editors, with predictably chaotic consequences. I value good editing, because it brings out the best in someone’s words. Unfortunately, this job seems to be falling through the publishing cracks. I’d suggest that publishers retain this role, rather than farming it out. Otherwise, we’ll see the rise of ad-hoc teams of writers, editors, book-makers, and marketeers selling their products straight through Amazon, and that will be the end of the publishers.

    As a reader, my tastes are all over the place, and mostly what I want to be able to do is to keep reading.

    One word on safe strategies. The Harry Potter strategy isn’t safe at all, and I strongly suggest that authors should read Taleb’s Black Swan to realize how unsafe the “Harry Potter” strategy is. Sleeper hits are totally unpredictable, and depending on the next Harry Potter is like being in the business of consistently winning the lottery. Publishers would do much better by putting most of their day-to-day buying and publishing efforts into the mid-list and consistent best-sellers, and leaving about 10 or 20% to looking for the next Harry Potter. If they can afford to work this way, they’ll stay in business forever. Most of their money will come from the rare Harry Potters, but the midlist will keep them in business when (for most of the time) they don’t have a mega bestseller.

    Long post, but those are my thoughts. Hope it helps.

  2. Patrick Doris Says:

    I do not really follow publisher. I mainly follow authors via their websites or Amazon recommendations. That said I am getting e-mail updates from Harper- Collins and I follow Carina and Samhainpub on Twitter but in those two cases not so much to buy as to learn what they are buying in case i decide to change my status from failed author back to aspiring

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    As a reader and not an author, I have to say that I have not given much thought to what I want from a publisher. That having been said, I believe that the publisher should have good editors, publicists and contacts that get books out so that I can find them without having to do searches.

    Personally I have seen too many self published books that only come out because the author has the money to get them on the shelves So another function for me of publishers would be to help me sort the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

  4. Jane Says:

    With movies, I generally don’t care about the studio…most people don’t – except for the few studios that make a name for themselves – like Pixar or HBO. Most people go to see a film because of a particular director or star.

    While I know people who will see a movie BECAUSE Pixar or HBO made it, I don’t know anyone that buys a book because it’s from a particular publisher. I know lots of people that follow particular authors or read a series.

    I agree that publishers may have more success if they had a strong identity. You know what to expect from a Pixar movie or an HBO movie or series. The content isn’t always the same and it’s not just a sequel factory, but there is a level of quality expected from these creators. I never have that feel from a publisher.

    The industry is definitely changing. I don’t think the traditional publishers will continue to survive in the long term. My fear is that it will make it harder and harder to find new authors and quality books. For movies, Netflix makes it easy to find quality stories that suit your taste – even movies that have no promotion at all. Their algoritym amazingly tells me what I’ll like. (And they are right an incredible amount of time!) Facebook lets me tell my friends about them and hear about movies I didn’t know about.

    We need a “Netflix” for books and authors. Wonder who can make that happen?

  5. wyoarmadillo Says:

    I want a publisher who can give me a good read. I tend to look for books by my favorite authors first. Most of my favorite Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors are published by either Baen or Tor, which might be why I relate to these publishers and have become somewhat familiar with their websites. So in a sense they do have an impact on what I read, or at least am willing to try.

    I love the Baen free library and the fact that they place a good number of chapters of books on-line to try free of charge to see if you like it. I have even liked the free DC give aways of e-books. I have tried many Baen authors as a result. I know what to expect from a Baen book and that’s what I like. I think they are at least trying to get people to interact with them, are they doing a good enough job? I don’t know the answer to that.

    Tor’s site is not as friendly, What I think makes them stand out to me more is the artwork on the Covers. Thats why I picked up the first Firekeeper novel and fell in love with your work. Over the years I have come to try many Sci-Fi & Fantasy authors as a result of Tor Covers after browsing through the library or bookstore. I think Tor through the blog website is also trying to get people to interact with them and build “brand loyalty”. Once again I don’t know if it is enough.

    I associate my Louis L’Amor collection with Bantam (I love the little rooster). I like Dover books for cheap verisons of classics for myself and my kids. I also have a fondness for Signet Classics — when give the choice of a classic I pick the litte S over other versions.

    The other things I read (history, historical fiction, biographies, orninthology, poetry, childrens books), I care even less about publisher and more about author or subject.

  6. Paul Says:

    heteromeles is spot on about what publishers *should* be doing. Unfortunately, that’s not what they are doing. Baen may come closest to having a particular brand (military SF), although, even within that category, there are books I do and don’t like. So that’s no assurance, either. I also agree with the comments on lack of editing, or even proofreading, by many publishers. If publishers don’t get back to basics and if it becomes easier to publish/market/print one’s own book, the outcome becomes obvious.

  7. AT Says:

    Jane,

    I do tend appreciate the smaller, more focused publishers. I have a good idea of what I’m getting from Baen (military sf and classic sf reprints), Ace (one of the few mostly-sf publishers), and Golden Gryphon (beautifully designed short fiction collections). In fact, I have a standing order with my local bookseller for everything from Golden Gryphon and Hard Case Crime, a publisher of noir-style mysteries.

    Recently I’ve had good experiences with Nightshade and Orbit, and I’m really curious about this new line called Angry Robot that publishes mostly new authors.

    Another publisher, Roc, seems largely focused on a specific type of urban fantasy. I know a lot of people who love this stuff and read all of it, but I know it’s not what I like and to simply avoid it.

    The larger publishers like Tor publish too varied a lineup of material for me to decide whether I want to read a book or not based on their imprint. I do like certain Tor authors (you and Jay Lake, for example) and tend to generally like books edited by David Hartwell.

    Certainly publishers still fill a “gatekeeper” role in that you can assume any book that’s printed and on the shelves of a major bookstore must have been written and published with some level of competence.

    I like publishers who try to build a community among their readers. I first appreciated it as a young comics reader when Stan Lee wrote his editorials and bullpen bulletins in Marvel Comics. The websites and blogs of Baen, Nightshade, and Angry Robot appear to be trying to build community. Tor’s dual websites (tor-forge.com and tor.com) seem ambitious but mostly make me confused. The almost nonexistent web presence of the Penguin imprints (Roc, Ace, DAW) are a detriment.

    I’m in a book group with several members who own Kindles, and I just acquired one myself. I’ve noticed that the Kindle owners are often recommending books published by small presses that aren’t regularly available in bookstores. It appears that e-books are generating publicity through different channels. As I gain experience in the Kindle world, I’ll keep you posted.

  8. heteromeles Says:

    Following up on AT’s comments, I have a small insight into the Kindle readers. My first novel (Scion of the Zodiac) is bouncing around in slush piles, and I decided to create some print editions for family and friends, as a way of learning about all this new-fangled print on demand (POD) and eReader stuff. So I created versions of the book in Lulu (POD), CreateSpace (POD, and Smashwords (electronic), and put them up for sale. I figured I’d get some useful feedback, even if I didn’t make any money.

    I’ll point out that the cover is the hardest part. Otherwise, I used a Word file, and just spent perhaps a day reformatting for all the different versions (print and online). It’s actually faster to put something up for sale online than it is to print it out in standard industry format (12 point Courier double spaced) and mail it to New York. Of course, you make more money selling it to a publisher, but it takes more work.

    You can check out the prices for yourself. Heck, feel free to buy it and tell me what you think. My major disappointment is that it’s not economically viable for me to sell this book on consignment through the local independents. Lulu and CreateSpace print their books at too high a price for me to sell anywhere but online.

    Thus, I think Kindle and other eReaders will be the domain of the small presses for a while. The costs certainly favor it for now. That is the advantage that publishers have: they can print more cheaply than an author can, and they have the connections to get a book widely distributed. Otherwise, online is easier.

  9. CBI Says:

    Summarizing my understanding of the comments, (1) niche publishers using direct electronic marketing and publishing (and perhaps paper as well) will continue to have customers; (2) large, generic, publishing labels will have a more difficult time; (3) amazon.com will continue to increase its market share at the expense of other retailers.

  10. janelindskold Says:

    CBI provided a great summary of the comments. Thank you so much!

    I really am impressed and grateful for the amount of energy you folks put into your assessments. I think this will be of help to me in creating a balanced assessment of what publishers have to offer.

    Any additional comments, by the way, are Very Welcome.

    After I wrote this, I found myself thinking about the experience of getting a book from the library. Hard cover fiction is shelved by author’s surname. Therefore, to find anything there, I pretty much need to know what I’m looking for.

    Paperback is shelved by genre. That’s where I’ll go and do a quick skim when I’m looking for something to “jump out at me” and I’m in the mood for a specific type of reading material.

    Big publishers like Tor are putting themselves in the position of the general fiction shelves. People will go to them when they have something the reader is already looking for. Maybe, as was noted above, a great cover will grab someone.

    Smaller publishers are like those “by genre” shelves. Someone might scan and find something or, like AT, say “I like everything you do — or at least am willing to take the gamble to find out why that one didn’t work for me.”

    Fascinating…

  11. Chad Cloman Says:

    I know this may sound weird, but what I want from a publisher are RSS feeds that clearly list new publications in specific genres. I also want to be able to track new releases from a specific author (typically via email, but I would prefer RSS).

    I believe that if specific publishers are becoming too rigid in what they publish, then smaller (and hungrier) publishers will fill the gap.

    I do like publishers or imprints that focus on specific types of books, because that means they have people who do nothing but those specific genres.

  12. Ryan Green Says:

    As a young adult interested almost entirely in fantasy and science fiction I choose which books to buy in one of two ways.

    First I will see if any authors I particularly enjoyed have any interesting stories on the shelves I might like.

    Secondly I just browse the bookstore (if I can even find one anymore, it is starting to frustrate me how few bookstores are staying in business by me) looking for books that catch my eye, then I read the back cover.

    Honestly I put very little thought into the publisher of the book. I find it odd that such things are ever really considered, but then I do not ever really talk about buying books with people!

  13. CBI Says:

    Ryan, if I understand what you and Jane have written, the small publishers’ online websites are becoming the browsing shelves.

    Perhaps some good web designers will find a way to more-or-less replicate the ability to browse the online “bookshelves” in a manner similar to that of scanning the shelves at a bookstore. Or, perhaps a better method — but by what mensuration? — may arise.

    I also like bookstores and libraries. But bookstores are going away: neither you nor I nor, collectively, enough of our friends and neighbors, are willing to pay enough to keep them around, unless some natural or man-made disaster eliminates the ubiquity of current technology and the ability to use it. It’s very difficult to find a good store for buggy whips, either. :-)

  14. Eva Says:

    Well, I Just like stories that are told -well-. It does not matter to me whom the publisher is – I don’t even care. What I look for in books is something unique. I usually read the first chapter or so before either checking them out from the library or buying the book. It takes me hours of scouring to find a good, decent book. More and more I find almost cut-and-paste story lines that are just piggy-backing off big best sellers. This upsets me, as a consumer, as it seems that Genre is being made to be a certain way or it’s not to be sold.

    I don’t care for genres. As it so happens that magic, swords, and dragons tend to be in the books I like, this does not mean I will ONLY buy fantasy. I like it when stories stretch genres, and almost blur the lines between however many genres it fits. I would think that genres should fit the book, not the book fitting the genre. For me that is like trying to contain an ocean in pea-pod. Doesn’t. Work.

    But this is me. I live in my own world, I have to tell myself stories so that I am able to sleep. And I completely believe with all my heart that it is stories that sustain me and keep me living. If I really had to decide on a specific genre so that I was marketable, I would chose “unique”, I guess. But, alas, I was always doomed to be different. Even my sexuality only happens to about 1% of humans. Wow, I never get straight to the point, do I? ._.

  15. janelindskold Says:

    Ms. Eva —

    It sounds as if you treasure any well-told story. That’s a realy gift.

    Many people never let themselves out of the bos.

    Thanks for your thoughts — and may your stories take you to the best sort of dreamland.

  16. janelindskold Says:

    Ms Eva —

    Apologies for the typos above… I had a cat walking over my hands and she “posted comment” before I proofed!

    Oops!

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