Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting Published--Part 2

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.
Cheers—Laura Crum


mugwump said...

OK. I'm scared.I appreciate the input a bunch. Also your honesty and lack of ego.
This hasn't put me off from wanting to write. I'm not surprised to learn about the lack of money available, simply resigned. After all my chosen career path has been horse trainer, illustrator and now writer. None of them money makers, just compulsion. Sigh.
I write because I need to. So I'll try to see the writing itself as the gift and the possibility of publication as the ribbon on the box.

Anonymous said...

This may sound corny, but its true for me. The writing is the gift. You are so right. Its what matters. This can be harder to see before you are published, but you seem to understand. I have gotten the "ribbon" of publication and I can speak to this. If no one wants to publish book #12 in my series, and I feel that I want to tell that story, I'll write it anyway. And after publishing eleven, I can say with some conviction, that whether twelve gets published or not is not the big deal. The big deal will be that I wrote it. I admire your perception.
And yeah, horse training and writing...what were we thinking? No money there, except for the very few who become huge stars. Don't think its gonna be me (!)

Anonymous said...

Apparently, I'm not interested in anything that makes money, either.

I am interested in the possibilities of the Internet, though. It's become a home for webcasts of equestrian events. I'm not sure how well those things are doing, but at least the material is available now.

Anonymous said...

That was me in the above post. I got a chill, stuttered the button and it posted.

Before I forget, have y'all heard of this guide/directory for horse bloggers?

Heidi the Hick said...

yeah what am I thinking... Writer and riding instructor. Not huge money makers. I've always said as long as I make enough to avoid the old cash register job I'll be happy. OH, did I mention that my husband is in the music biz? I'd love to take the "starving" out of "artist" some day!

I"m not sure what'll happen first: Make enough teaching lessons to keep me in the house the rest of the time writing, or make enough from writing to feed the horses and kids.

Neither one is looking very lucrative!

Thanks, Laura, for the honest look at your path. I'm not surprised, because I've done a lot of reading about the truths of publishing. I'm still looking into agents, but my next look will be small presses. I think it might be the way to go for me, especially being Canadian. Our small presses are actually quite good.

Nagonmom said...

Laura, thank you for explaining why some of my favorite books have idiot cover art. For example, a slight brunette heroine is depicted as a blond buxom ravish-worthy vixen. The wrong saddle thing would have driven me nuts. On the other hand, as equine writers go, there is Sara Gruen. She wrote two equine themed novels, and then moved on to elephants, and hit the best seller list with "Like Water for Elephants". But I'll bet she doesn't have perfect control either.... This confirmed many of my suspicions. Thank you!

trracki said...


Thank you for putting your insights down into a very thoughful essay on the "state of the industry". As a first time writer in progress I was aware of the difficulties but thought they could be overcome with enough perseverance. A year ago I read in Harper's Weekly that equine fiction was in high in demand yet few wrote for it, and that gave me some hope that when my manuscript was completed that all would work out. But blogs such as this say otherwise. I figure that such is the case. Seabiscuit was some rarity that will never again occur. Other "Seabiscuit" like books have been published since and haven't even come close in popularity. The truth is that no one really knows why one book makes it and another one doesn't, though the "Oprah factor" really helps.

I do realize that writers should write for the sake of writing alone, but to go though a fifth or sixth editing of a chapter makes little sense if there's no reward at the end. The reward is the book getting printed and people wanting to read it. I'm also keeping my goal of financial success at being able to break even after paying for the book's marketing out of pocket.

Fortunately I made a very important decision a long time ago to pursue higher education and give up writing. It looks like I made the right choice financially. But still I would like to see at least one book make it to the light of day. The question is how. Places like BookSurge prey upon our hopes and could care less about selling books or our being successful. They make their money selling you services to get published such as copy editing. You read the testimonials of others off site and shudder. Why is it that there is no longer cooperation in the business? Is it that authors are not loyal? Is it that publishers think books as just sentaces to sell and that authors are machines that create those sentances?

A first timer eventually decides then that self publishing is the way to go. They are willing to put the money up because they believe in themselves. However I read that self published fiction gets no respect and to take a fiction book and self publish it is to kill any chances of its success. So what is a first time writer supposed to do? It seems like a catch-22. No one will publish a first timer, so how do they get a first publishing?

I've picked up some books before, even bought some at full cover price, get through two chapters, and give up. There is some bad product out there being published by major houses. How did they make it?

In summary it would make writing easier if there was some hope at the end of the road. But the more I look ahead, the less I see.


Jami Davenport said...

Tracki, You don't have to go the self-pubishing route. You can go the small press route like I did. I'm with a small press that is primarily an epublisher. They also do print, but not print runs. Their books are print on demand. I don't make a lot of money, but I am building a readership, and I'm really enjoying the freedom of writing what I want to write.

It's really important to select the right small press, too.

I have a deadline for my next book at the end of the month. Once I finish, I'll continue my series on small presses on my personal blog. You also might want to check out my previous post here. BTW, if you're one of those people who has to write no matter what then a small epress might be the way to go.

trracki said...


With a small press, who is in charge of the editing? Its important to have a good quality editor who knows what works and what doesn't work. I'm willing to bend on things if it makes the manuscript stronger. Say the editor thinks a car chase would really be effective at such and such a juncture, and would impress better upon readers, then I'm for it. I assume with small press you're on your own for publicity. Probably if you pay all the marketing fees you can get significantly more royalties because you are taking the captial risk verses someone else? Good luck with your next book.

Jami Davenport said...


Good small presses have their own editors. You have to be careful when you choose a small press so you get good editing. I've had both good editing and not so good editing.

As far as publicity, small presses do some publicity. Both of my books have been featured in full-page ads (with other books) in Romantic Times magazine at no cost to me. Mostly, it is up to the publisher. I know authors with NY publishers who haven't gotten that type of publicity. Some small presse also have a marketing department to assist you with marketing.

My current press also sends my books out to about 20 review sites, which is a plus.

Anyway, if you want to email me privately, I can tell you more.

There is also a bigger market for romance with epubs/small presses than other types of fiction.