By Laura Crum
So, I left off last post somewhere in the mid 1990’s. I have (finally) achieved my goal of becoming a published author. Not only that but my books are being published by a major New York publisher (St Martin’s Press). They are coming out in hardcover and paperback. I am getting mostly good reviews. I am invited to do book signings and go on book tours. I get inquiries about films. I make more with each contract. Sounds great doesn’t it? Why don’t we see your books on the bestseller lists, you ask. Yes, indeed. You might well ask that.
Now we get down to the difference between my fantasy vision of what its like to be a published author and real life. In my fantasy, once I’m published, its all gravy. I grow rapidly richer and more famous as my books catch on with all those folks out there who enjoy horse-oriented mysteries. Dick Francis and I are running neck and neck on the bestseller lists. Right.
What actually happened is pretty much typical. Many, many mystery series featuring female protagonists got their start just about when I did. Very few of them are still being published today. I count myself lucky to have a contract for book #11 in my series. But I am by no means rich and famous. I had a great deal to learn about the publishing biz, and not all of it was positive.
The first thing I learned was that these big publishing houses have a “revolving door” approach to employees. Very few people stay in the same position for more than two years. This is almost an axiom in the publishing world. My editor, a mainstay at that house, was there the whole time I was with St Martin’s (or I wouldn’t have lasted for eight books), but every other single person I worked with came and went with great regularity.
Why is this a big deal? Let me give you an example. My first two books came out in hardcover and paperback. (Cutter and Hoofprints). But by the time my third book (Roughstock) was released, the paperback editor had moved on and a new one came on board. He promptly ditched all the midlist (not best sellers) authors in the line and picked out some new midlist authors of his own. My editor lobbied to get my books back in the paperback line. To no avail. By the time my fourth book came out, the company had folded that paperback imprint. Never again did my books appear in paperback (from St Martin’s).
The art directors came and went. Sometimes I got a great cover, sometimes an awful cover (an English saddle on my western cutting horse, for instance). I very rarely had anything to say about it. Just about the time I would achieve a friendly relationship with the current art director and begin to feel we were on the same page regarding the look my covers ought to have, said art director would be gone and a new and often stiff necked critter would take his place. I would have to start over with the explanations of the difference between Western and English horse gear and was often reduced to begging for a cover artist I liked. Sometimes to no avail. It was frustrating.
The publicity people came and went. The assistant editors came and went. Other than my editor, I was unable to form a long standing working relationship with any one in the company, because they were always leaving. It was frustrating. Very little publicity was done for my books. They still got good reviews, but by book #5, Slickrock (which got excellent reviews), it was obvious to me that my series was dropping into the black hole called “midlist”, and that nobody at St Martin’s was going to make any effort to change this situation.
By this point I was getting a little jaded. I no longer had much interest in book tours or book signings. They hadn’t made me rich and famous and I begrudged the time they took from my real life (by which I mean my family, horses, garden…etc). The ego gratification I had imagined I would feel at having this minor version of fame hadn’t turned out quite as I’d pictured it. I was still the same person I had been pre-publication. I was not the somehow better, more glorious creature that I’d envisioned. Yes, I was now a published author. People occasionally recognized me at the grocery store (which is not all that great when you’re wearing horse manure stained jeans and sporting unbrushed hair, I might add). Yes, I could still walk into a bookstore and see my name on the spine of one of those books. I could still do a booksigning and find a crowd of people eager to hear me speak and buy my latest mystery, but somehow this wasn’t the be all and end all that I had imagined it would be.
I had never liked the endless mystery conventions, or cared for the required shmoozing with other authors, editors and agents. (I’m an introvert. I like being home with my family and critters.) Popularity in the mystery field is judged (somewhat) by winning various awards, and these awards are usually (not always) won by authors who attend the conventions and hang out with “in” people in the mystery field. (Lets face it, panels of these convention-going authors are the ones who nominate the award winners.) I was rapidly becoming an “outsider” in the mystery world, that rare author who doesn’t go on book tours or to conventions, who hopes and expects that her work stands for itself. Unfortunately, the business doesn’t operate that way. Just like showing horses, whether your work is good or lousy is not always the bottom line. Its who you know, how you play the game. I wasn’t playing.
Above and beyond my own idiosyncrasies as an author, the climate in publishing was changing as my sixth book came out. The NY publishing houses were merging and being bought out. Soon half a dozen big entities owned all of the formerly independent publishing companies. St Martin’s was bought by the German company that owned Henry Holt. But my editor was still there and she still liked my mystery series. I continued to get a contract for each new book, while many authors I knew (and who were at least as successful as I was) were dropped.
Things continued to change. The trend was for big, dark, stand-alone thrillers, not amateur sleuth series. I still got a contract, yes, but the last two books I did with St Martin’s, I was offered less money, not more. I took it. I knew good and well that it would be very unlikely that another big house would pick up my series. Such series were no longer the “happening thing”. I could see the writing on the wall.
In the end, I decided to leave while I was still on good terms with St Martin’s. I knew the editor of a small press that specialized in mysteries. She’d been my copyeditor for years and we worked well together. She had said that she’d like to publish my books if ever I wasn't with St Martin's. I decided the time was right to make the move. I thanked my editor at St Martin’s for her long time support and we wished each other well. And Perseverance Press published my ninth and tenth novels in trade paperback.
So, at this point I have been for fifteen years and ten books a published mystery author. I am now published by a small California press as opposed to a big New York house. The differences? I make less money. But I have much more control over my books. Perseverance Press makes a huge effort to turn out beautiful well crafted books. Everyone involved really cares. They are a stable group; it’s the same people from one book to the next. They let me have lots of input on my covers. They work at publicity. They are very happy with my “numbers” (how many of my books they are able to sell). I find the whole process much more enjoyable. Between foreign contracts, large print contracts and royalties, I still make almost as much as I did the last few books with St Martin’s. I'm grateful. I still consider myself lucky. As I said, I know many authors who do not have a contract right now, due to no fault of their own.
The climate in publishing is very different from the mid 90’s, when I “broke in”. Most people would say that the big New York houses are all struggling. Well known authors who have been on the best seller lists are out of a contract. A woman I know who has a very respected New York agent was told recently that there was absolutely no point in submitting a first time author’s work to any New York house right now. They just weren’t buying. Other authors on this site have pointed out that New York currently thinks horses don’t sell. So, I would say that if I were trying to break in today with my mystery series, I’d probably have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published. At least by a big New York publisher.
What would I do? If I wanted to write a horse related mystery series and get published these days? Look at the small presses, probably. Though its not that easy to break in with some of them either, especially the more traditional ones. Perseverance Press specializes in publishing established mystery authors who are no longer with New York publishers (and there are more and more of us to choose among). Look at internet publishing options. It seems to be the way many authors are going. To be honest, I don’t know what I’d do. I offer my story just to give you an idea of some of the ins and outs of publishing. I truly don’t mean to discourage any one. And just as fashions have changed dramatically in the publishing world in the fifteen years that I’ve been involved, it is certain that they will continue to change. In time, perhaps, the climate will once again be favorable for aspiring authors of horse related fiction to “break in”.
Here’s to that change coming soon.