Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Conversation with Jessica Tribble of Poisoned Pen Press,

by Randall Munroe of (via Kate Eltham’s and Thad McIlroy's blogs)

I’m speaking to our local Sisters in Crime chapter tonight, and members have requested that I regale them with tales about being a published author. Since that would last about five minutes, I figured I’d better talk to someone who really knows the publishing field, and Jessica Tribble of Poisoned Pen Press kindly shared her time and thoughts. Thanks, Jessica!

Naturally, electronic publishing is on everyone’s minds and Poisoned Pen Press is moving to make more books available for eBooks. Though many fiction readers like the tactility of a handheld book, more and more people are using eReaders. Jessica told me that Borders plans to carry fourteen different kinds of eReaders in the near future. Kindle is going to be carried by Target and Best Buy is planning to stock Nooks. Though DRM, Digital Rights Management, a proprietary format, is used by certain eReaders (Kindle and iPad come to mind), ePub files are a free and open digital format used by Sony, Nook, and everyday computers. Jessica herself looks at DRM as a merely a nerd-challenge to break the code.

Though readers don’t look upon eBooks as being worth as much as print books, all publishers are moving that direction. Jessica looks at eBooks as more of a replacement for mass-market paperbacks than for collectable hard backs. Think airplane books. In addition, more and more professional journals, texts, and news sources are using electronic formats.

I was curious about print runs, too. Jessica told me that 95% of all books published sell less than 1000 copies. This average includes obscure books like theses, coffee table books, and so on. Craig Johnson, a well-known mystery writer, once made a comment to me about 25,000 being the “magic” number. Jessica hadn’t heard that number exactly, but she thinks that the New York publishers may use it to separate their mid-list authors from their “front list.” It’s probably where a book starts making enough profit that a publisher can invest some marketing and publicity in the author. It may also be the point where the author can live on her earnings. 25, 000. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Which got us to discussing New York publishers. More and more are dropping their mid-list authors. Even if the mid-list author is still published by a big house, there’s probably no publicity budget for him. Unless you’re Stephen King or Diana Gabaldon, forget the paid book tour. And the publishing budget is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, though Jessica and I both question whether all the publicity budgets pay out.

Jessica compared setting a print run to horse racing. A publisher can look at previous writing and sales, what marketing tours the author does on her own, what his on-line promotion consists of, and it’s still hard to predict how many books to print, especially for a new author. It’s part hunch, part science.

When asked about what publishing channels a new writer should pursue, Jessica leaned toward the small press for a first experience. Many small presses have excellent reputations among the big publishing houses, and the support a new writer gets at a small press will be more likely to lead to a bigger publishing contract down the road. She recommends avoiding the self-pub route because it still bears a second-class stigma. New York publishers almost (never say never) never pick up a self-published author, and many smaller presses also avoid them, Poisoned Pen Press among them.

The problems of self-publicizing and promoting are amplified for a self-pub author. Bookstores, particularly the chains, won’t carry self-published books unless it’s the writer’s neighborhood store. Traditional reviews and author blurbs are critical to sales, and much more difficult when the book is self-published.

This vein of thought makes me wonder about bypassing print publishers and going straight to ePub, as J.A. Konrath recently did when his latest book was turned down by his regular publisher. Personally, I’m looking for more and improved editing, not less. I find critical readers a necessity.

I’m going to see Craig Johnson at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference next week. I’m going to ask him about the 25,000 number. I’ll let you know what happens.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Jessica, this post is great! It's mind-boggling to learn that 95% of the books published sell less than 1000 copies. Shows how hard we have to hustle to gain market share.

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