Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who Do I Have to Sleep with to Get My Manuscript Read? by Jess Lourey

Midnight Ink, the Minnesota-based mystery imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide, hosted an MWMWA meeting  at their Woodbury offices on November 15. A delicious catered meal and the promise of having their burning publishing questions answered drew a crowd of over 30.  publishAt the meeting, Midnight Ink publicity director Alison Aten and publicist Brian Farrey answered the audience’s top ten publishing questions:

10. Does Midnight Ink (MI) ever take on a series begun at another publisher? Yes, but this is not necessarily true at other publishing houses. Midnight Ink, which shipped out its first books in the fall of 2005, produces 20-25 books a year. Initially, to build credibility, they took on authors whose series were started elsewhere, such as Richard Schwartz and Elena Santangelo.

9. What mystery genres does MI plan on publishing? MI publishes a little bit of everything, but with some notable exceptions, cozies have been their best sellers.

8. Do you recommend being represented by an agent for manuscript submissions? Yes. Agents are good for getting through dizzingly complicated business contracts and allow writer to focus on the creative aspect while the agent focuses on the business aspect. MI accepts both agented and unagented authors, but as their reputation grows, they’re getting and signing on more agented authors. If you do submit your manuscript without an agent, make sure to read and follow the publisher’s submission guidelines.

7. What is the publication process a book goes through at MI? If the book is on an extra fast track, it will go from the contract stage to being on the shelves in a year. But fast tracks are very rare. First, if the acquisitions editor likes it (and it takes 3-6 months to decide this), she takes it to the weekly editorial meeting. If they also like it, the book goes to sales and marketing, where they discuss whether there is a market for the book. If it’s okayed, it goes to a vision and launch program, where they discuss the best release date, maybe do preliminary cover art, and discuss title, series potential, etc. Next, the book hits the cover designers (who are in-house at MI, which is a rarity) and the product editor for copy-editing (also in-house at MI, and copy editor sometimes does developmental/substantive editing as well).

Shortly after, galleys are made (MI makes galleys for every title, which is also unusual). Sales reps take the galleys to face-to-face meetings with buyers at Baker, Ingram and Taylor, Borders, Amazon, independent mystery sellers, and Barnes and Noble. Also, publicity sends galleys to reviewers and the foreign rights rep shops them abroad. This stage is done 3-5 months before the book’s release date.

Also, once an author signs a contract with MI, s/he receives the agreed-upon advance, which ranges from $500-$5000. MI has an average first print run of about 5000 books. They are pleased with any book that sells through that initial print run in its first year, and thrilled if it sells through 10,000 in its first year. In 2004, Llewellyn Worldwide, which includes MI, had $15 million revenue.

6. How many books are part of a typical contract for a mystery writer? If the writer is unknown, a one-book contract is standard, though there are exceptions. MI has signed two- and three-book contracts. It’s important for authors to understand that contracts are not the same from publisher to publisher, and they’re all negotiable.

5. What is the acceptable length of a synopsis? Always follow the submissions guidelines. If they’re not clear, probably two pages max, and three is pushing it. “Ms. Snark’s now-retired blog has a wealth of great information on crafting query letters, writing hooks, and composing synopses, among other things. One specific hint offered by Ms. Aten, head of publicity: “Don’t use the word ‘unique.’ Everyone is using that word. If you call your work ‘unique,’ it isn’t.”

4. Who do I have to sleep with in order to get my manuscript read? That guy. He's the acquisitions editor at Random House. No, really, despite mystery author Pat Dennis’ sleazyguy assertion that sleeping with people would reduce her chance of getting published, the presenters made clear that sexual favors do not usually play into publishing decisions. Pre-published writers are better off composing a solid query letter (view Ms. Snark’s blog for info on what that entails), and/or crafting a two-sentence pitch for their book and shopping it at conferences were acquisitions editors and agents are there for just that purpose (MWA and Sisters in Crime are two great sources for mystery conference listings; for other genres, check out RWA, SFWA, and SCBWI). With either option, writers should research the agent/publishing house beforehand to find out what they represent. Publishers Marketplace and Literary Market Place are good places to start. Be prepared to hear “no” a lot, and always be professional.

3. How are foreign rights deals made? Foreign rights reps at MI go to international conventions at London and Frankfurt, among other places, and sell the rights. These deals are often lucrative for authors, who can get 50% of the advance and royalties, as opposed to the 5-15% royalties they usually get with their initial publisher. The contract MI signs with the foreign publisher is similar to a publisher-to-author contract, except it is a publisher-to-publisher contract. The more regional a book is, the less likely it will have appeal overseas. But books the feature international plots often sell well in terms of foreign rights.

2. What is the future of publishing, taking into account advances on the Internet and self-publishing? The publishing industry is in a state of flux. Different models being discussed include going digital, and currently, academic publishers are selling some chapters of books digitally.

  • Self-publishing exists, but if an author chooses this route, s/he must know it’s a full-time job—you are not only the writer, but the publisher, marketer, publicist, etc.
  • Co-op publishing, for example AuthorHouse and iUniverse, is a step up in that you’re buying into publishing your book instead of doing it all yourself. However, authors should still be leery of this route. The books are not necessarily on shelves, and you are still your own salesperson/marketer. Also, if you self- or co-op publish your first novel, it makes it difficult to sell your second novel to a traditional publisher.
  • Custom publishing is another option that may be more readily available in the future. Currently, there is a prototype device called the Espresso Machine, similar to a bionic Kinko’s printer. Consumers type in the title they’re looking for, and the Espresso prints it and binds it while the person grabs a cup of coffee. The book box stores are considering putting them in all their stores to save on distribution and warehousing costs.
  • The idea of the paper-based book is still popular in the U.S., but in Asia, people are reading books digitally. Innovations in the U.S., such as’s newly released Kindle, 8-trackmay change that.

Basically, the publishing industry is in the same phase the video industry was when deciding between  BetaMax and VHS. The music and newspaper industries are going through similar growing pains, but publishing is further behind.

1. Why is it so darn hard to get published? Every year, 190,000 new books are published. According to a 2004 report, Nielsen Bookscan, the go-to source for book sales info, tracked the sales of 1.2 million books and found that:

  • 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1000 copies
  • Only 25,000 sold more than 5000 copies
  • Few than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies
  • 10 books sold more than 1 million copies
  • The average book sold 500 copies.

Thank you to Midnight Ink for sharing their time, space, and invaluable insight!


G.M. Malliet said...

What a fantastic and thorough report, Jess. Thanks so much...this will be invaluable to a lot of people.

Mark Terry said...

I really wish somebody would get updated figures from Nielsen Bookscan. Those are almost 4 years old. They probably haven't changed, but...

Yes, nice report. Thanks.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great report, Jess.

And I agree with Mark. It would be nice to have updated figures on that Bookscan report, though I fear the numbers would be even more dismal.

Nina Wright said...

You did every InkSpot reader (and writer) a service with this post, Jess.



Felicia Donovan said...

Wow, I learned an awful lot, Jess. Great reporting.

Realistic Writer said...

This is the standard publishing model: "Here's a few bucks to shut you up and some copy editing. Now go spend your own money to promote your book while we ignore you and give all our marketing money to the three people we've chosen at random to lead in our next catalog. Our sales force will refer to your book as a 'skipper,' if they mention it at all, and we won't make any effort to get it into distribution, but when it doesn't earn out its advance, it'll be your fault because you didn't work hard enough on the thing you're least qualified to do: promote. What? You're upset? Your existential need to see your name in print has been fulfilled, and furthermore your appearance in our catalog has helped us buff our P.R. image as a publisher who cares about writing. You should be happy. Never call here again."