In this episode of The Story Grid Podcast, Tim and I discuss our publishing origins. How we got where we are etc. Believe it or not, this kind of exercise isn’t a bad way of structuring a specific kind of story…one called the “origin story.” This is the narrative that tells how a person or a company or a movement came to be. Learning how to tell your own origin story is a crucial skill today…one that will either make people understand and trust your point of view…or one that can turn people off to whatever it is you’re doing or selling.
The idea behind the next series of three podcast episodes is to give you two different perspectives on the state of the book publishing business. Mine is the grumpy old-Big Five editor point of view, while Tim’s is the brand new digital world point of view.
To listen click the play button below or read the transcript that follows:
[0:00:00.6] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Shawn Coyne is an editor with over 25 years’ experience, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me figure out how all of this writing stuff works.
Now in this episode, this is a special episode, we are doing a polishing 101 series, we touched on a few publishing things a couple of months ago and it seemed to get really good feedback, so we wanted to spend a few episodes walking through how all of this publishing stuff works, answering your questions and in this episode in particular, we talk through Shawn’s background in publishing and how I’ve worked in publishing as well so that you know where we’re coming from and Shawn’s background alone is a fascinating look into how publishing works.
Then towards the end of the episode, we talk specifically about the question of whether or not you should traditionally publish your book or indie publish your book. Both Shawn and I give our perspectives on that. Again, this is a multipart series around publishing, we’re calling it Publishing 101, this is the very first part. I think you’re really going to enjoy it and it’s going to help you have an insight into publishing that you probably don’t have.
We’re going to jump in and get started.
[0:01:25.6] TG: Shawn and I have decided we’re going to do a couple of this episodes talking about the publishing world. We’ve gotten a lot of questions about how publishing works, we’ve kind of brushed against this topic a few times but we wanted to just do a couple of episodes to kind of pull back from the intense editorial process that I’ve been going through, which is kind of nice and spend a couple episodes just talking about how the publishing industry works and trying to answer as many common questions as we possibly can.
So to kick us off, Shawn and I are both kind of give our background of how we work in publishing just so you know where we’re coming from and then we’re going to start diving in to the giant world that is publishing. So Shawn, I’m going to let you go first.
[0:02:19.6] SC: Okay, I’ll try to make this fast but I think it’s important that everybody understand the long hard road I’ve traveled, and I don’t get many opportunities to just really spill on people the many, many roads I’ve been on.
[0:02:35.1] TG: Well I’ve got plenty of space on my hard drive, so you just keep on going.
[0:02:38.7] SC: Okay. I started in book publishing back in 1991 and I had graduated from college in 1986 and for about five years there, I was fiddling around to figure out what it is I wanted to do and I was an actor for a while, I worked for the university of Chicago for a while, I did everything but really what I wanted to do from the beginning, which was get involved in books and reading.
I had met my wife by that point and I decided one of us had to get a real job because she was an actor too and she was so far better at acting than I was that it was obvious that I had to be the one to get the job. This was back before there was really the internet, so the way it would work is that you would send your resume to the head of human resources at the major publishing houses and hope to god that an opening would open for the editorial department, because I wanted to be one of those people who got to read all the time and get paid for it.
There are several different tracks to go in book publishing and there’s editorial which is the classic editor’s track where you acquire books for publication, you edit them, you help with the marketing plans and then you put them out there. The other track is sales department and that’s where you work within sales and you learn how to position books for the retail marketplace. What you do is you go to a lot of sales conferences, you listen to editors talk about their titles, you get a handle on it and then you go out into the field and you meet people in Chicago or Illinois or New England and you pitch this books according to the priorities of the publisher.
Then there’s also the production side. Now the production side is people who oversee the design of the books, to make sure that the art department is delivering their materials on time, they coordinate with printers, et cetera. Then there’s also marketing and publicity. Marketing is a separate department, publicity is a separate department. Marketing is all about coming up with plans to get the name of the book and the author out there so that they sell. Publicity is really all about getting media to pay attention to a particular book or an author, so they’re responsible for getting the books to reviewers, to Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, New York Times, all of those things.
I knew deep down, what I love to do was to read and I love storytelling and the way for me to be able to pursue that dream was to get in to the editorial department. The editorial department is a very difficult place to get in to and get your foot in the door because a lot of people want to be editors, and a lot of people love to read and a lot of people want to be a gatekeeper. They want their opinions to go out to the rest of the public so that people will read the books that they love and maybe, if they’re lucky, they can have bestselling titles and rise within the corporate structure.
So back in 1991, I needed a job, I wrote down my resume and I send it to all the major publishing houses. One publishing house was a division called Bantam Doubleday Dell and they called me in, I had an interview with them and I got pretty fortunate in that they had just had a promotion and somebody was being named editor in chief of Delacorte Press, which was a hard cover division of a big paperback house called Dell Publishing. They needed an assistant to start immediately.
So I went in and I interviewed with a named Brian DeFiore who became the editor and chief of Delacorte and he hired me. I worked at Dell Publishing for about three years and I was extremely ambitious and I put myself on the line a lot and made a lot of big bad horrifying mistakes that caused a lot of humiliation but what it also did was it got the attention of the publisher of Dell Publishing, a woman named Carole Baron. Carole Baron is a legend in the industry, she edits Danielle Steel, she now is an editor at Knopf, she’s a big deal, really smart, really on all cylinders, she knows exactly what she’s doing. So Carole noticed that I was making an idiot of myself all the time and she promoted me to…
[0:07:02.8] TG: Is that how you get a promotion in publishing?
[0:07:05.1] SC: Well the thing is, this is the thing Tim, is that a lot of people are afraid and the way you get a promotion as an editor is to have some opinions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right because everybody in publishing understands that it takes a while to get your feet wet. To understand really how books are required and how they work and all that stuff. A lot of editors, people want to be editors, they get these jobs as editorial assistance and they’re so afraid of speaking out and voicing an opinion in a big meeting with all the big shot editors that when they actually get an opportunity and they do give you opportunities to speak, they just never go for it.
I figured, I was kind of old to be an editorial assistant at that time, I was 25 and usually you start on this track when you’re 21 right out of college. These are people with degrees in English literature, who have always dreamed of working in big publishing and I was the direct opposite, I think this is probably one of the reasons why I got the job and I had a background in biochemistry. So I loved to read but also had outside interests, so the publisher thought, “Hey, this is somebody who might be able to bring a new perspective into the house, you seems kind of smart, he’s got opinions, let’s give him a chance.”
After about three years, there was an opening in the department, somebody had left to another publishing house and this is the only way to really get a big promotion and a big raise is if another publishing house wants to hire you. It still rings true today. There was an opening and it was the crime mystery editor. It was their job to supply the house with two mystery books a month. Now, what that meant was, they had to scan the industry to find mysteries that would be appropriate for Dell Publishing to publish in paperback. Back then, there were hardcover houses and paperback houses. The editor would read hard cover, houses books and see if they had mysteries that could work for them and then they would acquire the rights to publish them in paperback.
The other thing that they would do is sign up with what you call paperback originals. So they would get submissions from agents and they would publish books in their first edition in paperback. This was the genre, pulp fiction era, the tail end of it. I was responsible, when I got this job, I really didn’t know anything about mysteries but it was the only opening. So of course I loved them, I immediately said, “This is what I want to do. Oh Carole, you’re not going to believe how much I love mysteries.” She’s like, “Okay, I’ll give you a chance, go ahead.” So that put me on a track of having to learn how to be an editor and how to learn specifically how to edit and acquire mystery crime thrillers and fiction that had crime as its central genre.
So I worked at Dell Publishing for three years, I became a full editor, I got my own assistant now, I was all of 29 and my assistant was 21 and another opportunity happened where St. Martin’s Press had just started up their own mass market paperback division and they needed somebody to come over and start a paperback division just for crime. So I interviewed for that job and I didn’t get the job. I later learned that one of the reasons why I didn’t get the job was that I had a big piece of blueberry stuck in my teeth the entire interview. Eventually, I was so depressed I didn’t get that job because it was a big bump in pay, it was a big deal.
The publisher finally called me after weeks of not being able to find anyone who wanted this job except me, he’s like, “Okay, I’ll give you a chance,” and I became very friendly with him, his name is Roger Cooper, it still is. Roger, one day we went out for a beer and I’m like, “You know, why didn’t you hire me in that first interview?” He’s like, “I’ll tell you, you had a big thing of blueberry stuck in your teeth. I thought a guy who isn’t even checking to see before an interview must not really have his head together.”
[0:11:32.3] TG: From what I can tell, people that love books as much as you do, they usually don’t have themselves put together. They spend too much time alone.
[0:11:40.3] SC: Kind of true. So at St. Martin’s Press, I worked there for three years too and St. Martin’s Press was just a great experience, it’s one of the most fun places to work, it’s like a big dysfunctional family where you have these grumpy senior editors who have been in the house since 1972, they’ve seen it all, nothing surprises them and then you have these ambitious little puppies like I was at the time who are just dying for any kind of attention from the hierarchy of a big time editors in the house.
It was a great experience and the other great thing about St. Martin’s Press at the time, and I think it’s still true, is that they take a lot of shots meaning they believe that an editor gets good when you give them a lot of opportunities to fail. You’re not going to believe the number of titles I published when I was at St. Martin’s Press. I was there for three years, I was doing three books a month in paperback, in the crime fiction line. So that’s 36 books a year right there, okay? Then, I was so ambitious, I was doing hardcover books too. So I would go to the hard cover editorial meetings and make a fool of myself and I was doing maybe four hard cover books a season. So that’s another 12 and then, we had about a 14 book paperback list per month that there were only three of us editors filling it out and Roger was one of the — he was the publisher and an acquiring editor.
So he was pumping out a lot of projects too and Jenifer Enderlin who was my colleague, she’s now like a huge figure in the industry, she’s a genius, she’s a sweetheart, she knows so much about publishing. Anyway, it was the three of us and we had to pump out 14 books a month and we had the time of our lives doing it. I was doing 50 to 60 books a year over three years, I probably published a hundred and fifty books at St. Martin’s press.
[0:13:51.4] TG: How many hours a week were you working?
[0:13:53.7] SC: Oh forget it. Forget it.
[0:13:56.0] TG: It just seems enormous. I don’t think I could read that many books.
[0:14:00.5] SC: Oh well you learn how to speed read very quickly and you learn how and when a book is working and when it’s not working. If the book doesn’t work, you throw that thing away as fast as you can. I was getting submissions because I was acquiring so much. Now I also have to say, I wasn’t paying anybody any money at all. So my advances that I was — I was given a budget and they don’t do this anymore but back then it was great.
They said, “Shawn, anything under $5,000 bucks, you can buy. So if you can get the agent to agree to a deal, for under $5,000, we’ll approve your acquisition memo. But anything over $5,000, you have to come and you have to pitch and you have to bend over backwards to convince people in the editorial board that it’s a worthy project.” So guess what I did? I figured I would literally say to people, “Hey, that’s above my threshold, I can make this deal today for four grand, if you want five then all bets are off.”
So that gave me a tremendous amount of power and a tremendous amount of freedom to fail. I don’t think they do that anymore and I was probably the last person that they let do that, who knows?
[0:15:20.4] TG: You ruined it for everybody else.
[0:15:22.1] SC: I could have. But you know, I was profitable and that was the other great thing at St. Martin’s press is that every year, they would give you what they called an editor’s P&L, profit and loss report and they walk you through all the projects that you published that year and they would show you all the blood on the highway. They would show you all those books that you were so convinced were going to work and they’d show you how it bled the company and they lost $10, $15,000 on a project that you thought was going to make $10 or $15,000.
What you would discover very quickly is that it’s easy to make bone headed mistakes because you think that you’re a master of the universe and you know what the market wants. Well guess what, you really don’t and you have to figure out a method for yourself that’s going to work, a method that is going to put you in the black every year so you don’t get fired. So I’d figure out a method and it’s kind of funny because we were talking about this last week in the editing session we did. I figured out writing to market and instead of writing to market, I was publishing to market.
What I was doing, I was taking a survey of all the mysteries and all of the crime novels that were being published and I was saying to myself, “Okay, there’s 82 cozy mysteries, there’s 82 private eye mysteries but there’s only four cat mysteries being published this year. I’m going hard on cat mysteries this year, because there’s a market for a cat mystery,” and when I say a cat mystery, I’m talking about a really soft mystery where the cat is either the protagonist who solves the crime or is integral to the solving of the crime.
[0:17:12.4] TG: That’s a thing?
[0:17:13.5] SC: Oh it’s such a thing. It was such a thing back then. What I was doing is, the other thing about publishing is a lot of public information because publishers do things called catalogs. They put them out there nine months before the book even hits the press. So if you collect all of your competitor’s catalogs and you survey all the books that they’re doing and you categorize them in genre. You can see what genres are being exploited and oversaturated and what aren’t. Because a lot of people aren’t paying attention to that and they’re just convincing themselves that the latest, greatest thing is the new thing and as long as they follow that new thing, their book will be successful. So we’re going to see, like after Gone Girl was such a huge success, you won’t believe how many catalogs now say, “As good as Gone Girl. If you thought Gone Girl was great, wait till you read this one,” right?
[0:18:13.9] TG: Well I’ve already seen that popping up in like descriptions of books and stuff.
[0:18:18.3] SC: of course because what they’re appealing to is people who have read Gone Girl who want another reading experience like that. That’s a good idea, if you’re two weeks out, if you’ve published a book four months after Gone Girl, there was a book like this, it was called the husband’s secret I think and it had a similar idea and it had published four months after Gone Girl. I’m sure it’s a very good book in and of itself but because it was in the same milieu as Gone Girl, it exploded, it was a huge best seller.
Then other people started chasing it, they’re like, “See, they repeated the thing and now…,” — anyway, I came up with my own system and this is also the time when I’m reading deeply into story structure. I’m trying to figure out how I can figure out whether or not a story works, how I can make that decision very quickly because you’re right, I don’t have as many hours in the day as I’d hope. At this time, I was fortunate and unfortunate in the fact that my wife was very active in pursuing her acting career. She was as monomaniacal about her career as I was.
She spent a lot of time in Los Angeles at this time so I was all alone for five days a week and then we’d fly back and forth between New York and LA to see each other. But in those five days, I would just take home 20 manuscripts and read because that’s all I had to do. This is like that Malcolm Gadwall 10,000 hour thing, doing something that you love and giving full energy to it really paid a lot of dividends for me.
Also the fact that I had bosses who had let me fail, they were like, “Coyne wants to do that, ah man, he wants to do that book, there’s no way it’s going to work. He paid for grand for, let’s let him learn from it and the next time he brings it up, we’ll go, hey, that’s just like that book you bought for four grand and lost 20. You still want to do that again?”
That was like my indoctrination into this beautiful, wonderful publishing world and then — so six years into the game, a huge job at Doubleday Publishing had opened up. The editor who had acquired John Grisham’s The Firm, a really nice guy named David Gernert decided that being an editor was great and everything but being John Grisham’s agent would be even better. David left and started his own company called The Gernert Company and Grisham was his first client and David’s gone on to tremendous success outside of John Grisham.
But anyway, when he left Doubleday, there was a primo job for somebody who did big thrillers and big books that would be best sellers opened up. It was kind of a leap for me because I was doing a lot of genre stuff and they wanted somebody who would come in and hit six home runs a year out of 12 that he published.I lobbied hard and I also got a little bit fortunate in that there was another publishing house, I won’t name it, who was interested in me at the same time so I kind of leveraged the two publishers against each other and got my dream job, which was to be a senior editor at Doubleday, in charge with the sports department, I’m a sports fanatic for nonfiction, and to do their big six to eight titles a year in crime thrillers.
So I went over to the Doubleday, I think this is around 1996 or 97, something like that. At Doubleday I faced a whole new can of problems because I’d be like, “Hey, I can get this book for four grand and they’re like, that’s nice, we want you to spend a million. We don’t want to…”
[0:22:26.5] TG: Yeah, it sounded like they weren’t interested in how many books it was more just get the right books.
[0:22:31.8] SC: Exactly, they wanted to build a farm team, of bestselling authors that would write a book a year and we hit the bestseller list year after year after year. Now, that’s not easy to do. One of the things that they were attracted about me was the very first title that I was allowed to acquire at Dell Publishing was a three book series by a relatively unknown writer who is writing this crime series about a sports agent named Myron Bolatar and Carole Baron at the time to her great credit said, “I don’t know anything about sports, the kid seems to think the books are good, let’s let him try.”
So she approved the deal which was for Penny’s and it was a Harlan Coben’s first three books. Harlan of course now is a multimillion copy bestselling sensation and by the time I had gone six years, he was on bestseller lists and Doubleday said, “Hey, he found this guy when he was just starting out, maybe he’ll find us some new people too.”
So my directive at double day was to find bestselling writers and to spend whatever it took to get them as long as that they were profitable and that they became house authors. I worked at Doubleday for four years doing that. I worked with people like Robert Crais, James Lee Burke and Steven Pressfield of course and I also had a lot of success doing sports titles. I worked with Bret Farve, I did a book with Bill Murray, I did some golf instructional stuff, all in all it was a great experience, I met a lot of really nice people but it was very, very different than the sort of boiler room, it wasn’t boiler room but very heady, “Hey, let’s take a chance.”
It wasn’t like, “Let’s take a chance on four grand,” it was like, “Dude, you got to deliver,” and I didn’t mind the pressure but what I did find was that I missed the development part. I missed the place where you discover new people and help them become better writers book after book because at Doubleday, it wasn’t like, “No, we don’t really want you to start with book one from Harlan Coben, we want you to go steal Harlan Coben away after it’s already a best seller. Do you get it? So we need you to be such a kick ass editor that you are attractive to agents to bring their disgruntled bestselling writers to us and then you make them happy and then they make a lot of money and we make a lot of money and everybody’s happy.”
That’s a tall order. It really is, and it got to the point where I wasn’t sleeping very well and I was saying, “Jeez, I don’t know if I can do this much longer. I wonder if there is an alternative way for me to do what I love and also go for the best sellers too?” During this time, in the back of my mind, I started to think about my own publishing house. So I talked to some people about it, I got some people involved in putting up the money, it was a very different era where you could not start a publishing company with less than seven figures in the bank to begin with. So I had to get a lot of people to trust me that I was going to return their investment.
But I did convince enough people and in 2000 I started my own publishing house called Rugged Land Books. Rugged Land Books required back then, you needed to get a big five, back then it was big seven or big eight at the time, you had to get one of those companies to sort of green light you and take you on as what they call a distribution client. What a distribution client is, it’s somebody that they take on sort of in a way where they warehouse your books and they fulfill them to the market place and then you use their sales people to sell your books for you. Then they take a piece of your pie as the money comes in.
So it’s sort of like in an organized crime thing. You’ve got the Don and the don will let you sell your drugs on his street corner as long as he gets a piece. It’s not too far from that, being a distribution client basically means you’ve got to keep feeding the machine and if you don’t keep bringing in a lot of product that sells a lot of copies that’s bringing in dollar volume, the chances are that the big publisher that’s paying your distribution partner could drop you.
Once you get dropped then you’re effectively — it’s difficult to get your book into a Barnes & Noble. I went to my friends in the industry and I worked with St. Martin’s Press, Holtzbrinck. They were my distribution partner for the first couple of years of Rugged Land then Random House started up at distribution business and they lured me to them with incredible terms, they were great to me, and I had Rugged Land from 2000 to 2007, we published 45 books, only 45 books in seven years and we had seven New York times best sellers, I did another book with Bret Favre, which was a huge best seller.
I worked with the national football league, I did a book with Nellie Connally who was the sole survivor of the Kennedy assassination, which was a best seller. I did a book with Colonel David Hackworth, which was about his experience turning around a really bad platoon in Vietnam into the most prolific killing machine in Vietnam. A lot of bestselling titles but massive amount of stress. Because there was no such thing as Ebooks, there was no such thing as electronic sales.
Electronic sales are wonderful because you don’t have to produce anything, you don’t have to worry about distribution, you can sell directly to your customer, the customer can buy directly from you, the money goes over a wire, it goes into your bank account, it’s done. Back then, you had to wait 180 days to get paid by Barnes & Noble. Cash flow was a mother.
[0:29:26.7] TG: Yeah, my gosh, I can’t imagine.
[0:29:30.1] SC: At one point, I had a book number four on the New York times hard cover best seller list that was a $35 book. So it’s bringing in tons of revenue but I’m not seeing that revenue for ages. I got to tip my hat to Random House because they called me and they said, “How are you doing?” I’m like — they really helped me out at a really difficult time. They were really above and beyond helpful, when I decide to shut down the company too.
Even though I’m the first guy that jumped all over the big five and say, “There’s no heart and there’s no soul in the business and these people are, they’re autocrats and they’re ruining the business,” it’s really not true. There are wonderful great people and at one point, I was on the verge of madness, absolutely because I wasn’t sleeping, I was working like a dog and I lost my head in a meeting with a wonderful guy named Jeff Abraham who was the head of the distribution services at Random House and he just kind of looked at me and was like, “Dude, look, I can’t help you, what’s going on here?”
Anyways, so I had a lot of wonderful experiences with Rugged Land but it was also just psychically and emotionally draining to the point where I was done, I was toast. At that point, in 2007, I just had kids, I had little babies and my wife had decided to put her acting career on hold to take care of our kids and I’m having an emotional meltdown and I had to say, “I can’t do this anymore, it’s not good for my family, it’s not good for myself.”
So I shut down the house and I started to work as an agent and I started to work for a wonderful company called the Endeavor Agency. The Endeavor Agency was this really kind of hot agency that broke off from International Creative Management, ICM back in the — around the same time that I broke off with Random House and it was started by four agents who started their own thing, Ari Emanuel, Tom Strickler, David Greenblatt and I’m sorry, I forgot the last guy’s name, he’s going to kill me, he’s a great agent. He’s a legend in television.
Anyway, these four guys started the endeavor and they had built it out to the point where it was really running on all cylinders and they wanted to start a book division. So they hired a great guy named Richard Abate who was an agent at ICM, really smart, really aggressive and when Richard heard from my mutual friends that I was leaving the editorial side and I was in a pit, he called me and said, “Hey look, I’m starting up this division for books at Endeavor, why don’t you come on over here and start being an agent?”
I’m like, “I don’t know what an agent does,” and he’s like, “Yes you do because I’ve negotiated with you, you know exactly what an agent does and all you have to do is use all that dark knowledge you already know against the editors that you used to work with.” I was like, “Oh, that sounds like fun!”
I worked at Endeavor from 2007 to 2009 an then endeavor became so hot that they made a takeover bid for William Morris and they ended up emerging with the William Morris agency and now it’s called William Morris endeavor. At the time, William Morris agency has the best book division in all of book publishing as agents, it’s forget about it, they’re great.
They didn’t really need me and what they needed to do was to shed some personal. I called the CFO and I said, “Hey look, are you looking for people to fire?” He said, “Oh my god, that would be wonderful.” I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’m ready to move on, you guys don’t really need me, you’ve got great agents who do what I do so put me on the list and let’s figure out some way that it makes sense for me to leave and you guys win and everybody’s taken care of.”
So we worked out a deal that was great, they let me take all of my clients and they gave me such an attractive package to leave that I was able to start my own agency called Genre Management. I really have to thank Richard Abate and Ari Emanuel who approved that to let me go. Now Richard now works for Three Arts Entertainment, he runs their book division, he’s a powerhouse there, he’s doing amazing work. So it was a situation that could have really turned ugly that once you get older, everybody can talk to each other without so much ego attached.
That everybody figured out a way to keep working, keep making a living and doing right by other people. So that’s 2009 and one of my first clients was Steve Pressfield because Steve is a guy that I worked with from 1996 on a lot of his books, I published him at Rugged Land, we published The War of Art together there and he called me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re starting up an agency?” I said, “Yeah, do you want to be my client?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, in fact I do.” We met — Steve and I have been friends for 20 years so in 2011, the rights to the war of art in paperback came due and I said to Steve on a lark one day after we had a really rough meeting at a major publisher.
I said, “You know what Steve? Let’s just pull that book back and we’ll start our own company and we’ll have our own little independent publishing company, we don’t need distribution anymore, we don’t need seven figures to start, we can start our own publishing company and we can build it out as we go and we’ll probably lose a little money each but at least we’ll control our own thing.”
Steve was like, “Let’s do it. Oh man, I’d love the sound of that.” So we started Black Irish Books back in 2011 and as these things happen, a year later, Oprah Winfrey calls and she says, “One of my favorite books is the war of art, do you think Steve, I mean, she didn’t call me, she called Callie Otenger, whe’s our fantastic publicist, do you think Steve would want to be on super soul Sunday with me? We’re like, “When can we start?”
She had Steve on and put the book on the paperback best seller list in New York times at number one for 12 weeks and so the black Irish thing has been working great, it’s a ton of fun and that’s kind of where I am now but you can see, I’ve published hundreds of books, I’ve worked ends of the street, I’ve done nonfiction, I’ve done a lot of — in my agenting career, I had to read things in the newspaper and call journalist and say, “Hey, let’s figure out how that article can be a book?”
A lot of this stuff is everything that I love to do which is what you and I are doing on the podcast now which is developmental editing. It’s working with somebody who is very dedicated to what they want to do and taking the time and working methodically through a process so that they become a better and better writer. That’s kind of what I’ve finally figured out now that I’m in my 50’s, this is what I’m here to do. I’m here to help people learn how to tell stories in the most effective ways.
[0:37:41.0] TG: Whoa. It’s funny because I’ve only heard bits and pieces of that along the way so I need to hear the whole thing. My story is much shorter mainly because when you start in publishing I was 10 years old. I think this is interesting because I basically backed into publishing. I’ve actually never worked inside of the big publishing, I’ve never had a job at one of the big publishers, never worked in New York. I was just a web developer who learned about marketing and I had a small little freelance web development and marketing firm and I had kind of done a bunch of work and started a couple of businesses to acquire those skills and I read this book called Recession Proof Graduate by a friend of mine named Charlie Hoehn, who basically walks you through how to get a service business off the ground.
So I thought, “Well, I really like authors and I had worked with one author, maybe I can get some more author clients,” and so I just started sending out cold email pitches to bestselling authors trying to get them to hire me. It was phenomenally successful. The third email I ever sent was to a guy named Dan Pink, who while it’s funny because his big break before I came along was a Whole New Mind and Oprah kind of gave him that who had him on. I think on the soul Sunday thing. That was like when his second book or third book exploded and then I came in right before the book drive, which debuted on all the bestseller list and then I ran the launch a few years later To Sell Is Human.
We put that at number one on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post list. Basically, I started working with a lot of business but clients, a lot of cognitive science like Danna Reilly’s predictably irrational I think is what it was. I worked with like Dana Reilly, Dan Pink, Chip and Dan Heath. At one time we were working for four different Dan’s at the same time and so I worked with Pamela Slim, I got into the fiction side with authors like Hugh Howey and Michael Bunker and several others and started. All of it was through just literally cold pitching.
For a while, that’s all I did and then of course as my reputation grew, then I didn’t have to pitch as much but I stopped Hugh Howey. Early on in Wool when it was first coming out in eBook, I read it and loved it and just started emailing him and he happened to becoming through a town that was an hour from me. Dude, just give me an hour and so I bought him lunch and we ended up working together on a bunch of stuff.
[0:40:36.8] SC: He’s a great guy.
[0:40:38.9] TG: Oh man, just one of those like you wonder how such nice people exist because he’s just one of those — yeah, fantastic guy. For basically about six years I worked with authors to help them build their online platforms so their websites of social media, their email marketing and then I would launch books and so I helped authors launch their books, at one point I had five clients on the New York Times list the same time.
[0:41:07.8] SC: When you launched those books Tim, a lot of those writers are with a major five and then Hugh was independent, so you worked on both so you would launch in coordination with the Big Five publishing house and also you would launch people who didn’t have that right?
[0:41:25.5] TG: Yeah, I can’t claim anything on the success of Hugh Howey’s wool, I did help him with some other books but yeah, most of my work was with traditional publishing but, as you know, you basically have to do all the marketing yourself no matter who it is. A friend of mine is Nicki Papadapalis over at Penguin Portfolio and the way she put it is publishers can help you basically expand the reach you already have if that makes sense? It almost acts like a multiplier.
So if you have zero reach, they can do 10 X of zero which is zero. If you have reach, they can help you so most of my work had very little to do with the publisher, in fact, we’ll get in to this most of the time I learn very quickly, it was better if I didn’t interact with the publisher. I would help build their website, build their email list and that’s the main thing and I don’t want to get this into a marketing lesson but the email list is the main goal of building the email list, that’s where we sell all the books, that’s where when we launched Dan Pink’s book, To Sell is Human, over 70% of the sales that put them on the number one on all the lists came through his email list.
[0:42:42.5] SC: Wow.
[0:42:43.4] TG: And I ran the entire launch. That was actually my first big launch and it was like this nerve racking because he basically — he called me like six months before the book was coming out. He’s like, “Okay, you’ve been telling me for the last three years when we worked tougher that if build a big enough platform I don’t have to hire publicist and do all that stuff. I’m just going to let you take this launch and you need to do a good job for me.”
So I was like, “Oh dear god, what have I done?” So I like scrawled out on these big sticky notes that are three foot by five feet, or not quite that big, like three feet by two feet, my plan and I was carrying it on the train up to DC and I sat in his kitchen and pitched my launch plan to him and his wife and this was the first time I done a big, big launch like this. That was in like September, the book came out December 31st and he’s like, “Yeah, let’s just do what you have there,” and so I…
[0:43:44.6] SC: It’s terrifying when you give you…
[0:43:46.2] TG: Yeah I know. So I ran the entire launch and it debuted at number one and then three months later Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Decisive, debuted at number two and I did the exact same thing, I ran the launch soup to nuts and that was the week that I had, oh let’s see if I can remember them all, it was Dan Pink, Dan and Chip Heath, Michael Moss, Hugh Howey and another one, there was five on the list at the same time.
Then I came out with my own book, Your First 1,000 Copies, which is basically the 101 version of book marketing and so what I’ve done is work directly on the author’s side and I have always been kind of the advocate for the author and I don’t care about whether or not publishing gets what they want or the agent gets what they want, I’ve always just been focused on the author and helping them build something. I always have a long term view of these things.
So whenever a book comes out, I’m not just looking at this book, I’m looking at — what I like to say is, I don’t want them to just be a person that wrote a book. They need to be a writer and this is a long term career thing. So helping them think long term, helping them build a platform that gives them choices and independence if they want it and always having that long view and so I’ve worked with divisions of all the major publishers, I’ve worked with everybody from editor to publicist to blackies, who ever are getting books out into the world because several of the books that I’ve worked on were like the book of the season for that publisher.
So yeah, that’s how I came into publishing which is very much the opposite of how 99% of people come into publishing, which I never — even most independent start with publishing and I just started as a freelance web developer. That’s my background, it’s pretty much the opposite of yours which I think is good as far as our perspectives on the industry as we dive into this.
[00:45:53.1] SC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I just want to say something about that thing about the long term point of view and I think you really nailed it there because I was listening to this interview with Louis C.K. and he was on WTF with Marc Maron and he was talking about this project that he launched called Horace and Pete.
[00:46:12.3] TG: Yeah, I listened to that same thing.
[00:46:14.6] SC: Oh man, it was an amazing interview. I can’t recommend it more highly but the thing that struck me was that at the end of the interview, Louis C.K. was just like, “You know, I’m going to die and if I just did the Louie Show for 15 seasons, I look at that as one thing. I look my stand up stuff as one thing. So I wanted to do Horace and Pete because it was a different thing,” right?
That’s like a whole different separate world and if you think of your writing career in those terms instead of, “Oh boy once I get this book out there, then I’m done. Then I’ve got a book on my shelf and I can use it as my calling card.” I mean I guess that’s a way to approach it, but I think what you’re trying to say is, approach the business as separate projects that can all come from this one well of your website or your e-mail list or your tribe of people who care what you’re doing.
Treat it like a really precious gift because if you exploit the people who care about you for one thing, they might not show up for something that you’re going to do later that’s even better and I think that’s a really good thing. No matter what your big decisions and your big worries are about publishing, and we’ll get into all those questions here, you have to have a very good 30,000 foot view of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place.
So I think if we take it from that point of view and answer these questions with that knowledge that it’s our recommendation that people look at their writing work as a progression of projects as opposed to, “Oh my God, how am I going to get this project on this list by this time?” Does that make sense?
[00:48:16.8] TG: Yeah and I think too looking at it as a long process is important as well from a standpoint of you’ve got to move. I was talking to a friend of mine and he has a friend who calls herself a writer and he’s like, “I’ve read some of her stuff. It’s really good, but she’s never published anything and she’s in her 40’s and she’s been writing for years but she’s never published anything.”
So actually he is further along because he actually has published a book and I look at it as everything progresses, putting stuff out into the world is important and looking at each individual project as a stepping stone in this long line that is your career and so, when I talk to writers on the marketing side I really encourage them to start putting their work out there as quickly as possible because you’ve got to start.
We’re going to get into, in the other parts of this series, we’re going to get into how to get an agent and all that kind of stuff but the important thing is to move. Don’t sit too long, don’t wallow too long. Another friend of mine, he worries that — he’s kind of putting the pressure that his first book’s going to be a masterpiece and so he can’t let go because it’s not a masterpiece yet. So there’s all kinds of balancing acts in that.
But yeah, looking at working with all the writers, the other thing I found that I think we might as well mention here is the fear never ever, ever goes away. In fact, there’s a part of it that grows overtime. So my authors that I have, two or three New York Times bestsellers in their past actually feel more pressure with their next book and I think a lot of beginner writers think like, “Oh well once you hit the list all these pressure disappears and everybody knows you’re a good writer and you have all the validation.”
What I’ve seen is actually different, this is where the author starts thinking, “Okay, it’s this book people are going to finally realize I am a fraud. It’s this book that it’s going to fail so spectacularly that no agent or publisher is ever going to want to touch me again.” And so learning now in the beginning to work through the fear is so important because it never ever, ever, ever, ever goes away. It just stays with you and it’s more about learning to work with it than waiting until that magical day when it disappears.
[00:51:05.7] SC: Oh absolutely, yeah.
[00:51:07.5] TG: All right, I want to start with one question before we finish up this episode and we’ll dive into some other ones but the first one that I know we both probably get a lot is indie publishing versus traditional publishing, which one should I do? I’ll let you answer first.
[00:51:24.3] SC: Okay, well there’s two parts to this question. The first part is a psychological element and the second one is pure math. So let me tackle the psychological element first. The psychological element is, and this is true of anybody. I’ve published my first book with my name on it, I published it with a division of Penguin and I wanted to. And the reason why I wanted to, beyond the fact that it was a really nice advance attached to it, was that it gave me a sense that I have been validated.
That I had past the mustard of the gatekeepers and the gatekeepers being people just like myself and I’m afraid of them as much as anybody else. I’m afraid of what people think of me. I no longer work in the big five industry and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t think, “Oh man, everybody thinks that I’m some boo, who has his own little independent thing and who cares.” But I know that’s baloney.
But the reason why I wanted to publish with a major at the start was to get some validation and I think that’s fine as long as you say to yourself, “I know deep down that the real reason why I want to publish this book with Random House is because it’s going to have Random House on the spine and when people say to me, “Oh, who published your book?” I could go, “Random House MF, you know? It’s Random House, I didn’t self-publish this, it was Random House,” and that’s totally valid and I think anybody who says it’s not valid is lying because we all want to be validated.
So the first question you have to ask yourself is, how important is that validation? Now if that validation is more important than you publishing anything until the day you die, then live with that. I don’t think it is and I think most people can eventually get past that. But if you can’t get past that and you say to yourself, “Oh I’m never going to publish unless one of the big five publish me,” then that’s perfectly valid. Work on your stuff, work on getting an agent, submit it, understand that it’s going to be a very long process to get that validation and maybe someday you will and that will be great but I’m going to tell you as someone who has had it, it doesn’t last.
It’s like you said about the bestselling authors who are more panicked than people who have never been published before. It’s a very ephemeral, empty, non-existent feeling.
[00:54:16.8] TG: Yeah, I’ve had several friends of course who’ve had their books published. I’m like, “Yeah but isn’t so cool, walking Barnes and Noble and there’s your book?” And they’re like, “You walk into Barnes and Noble and you say, “Oh there’s my book,” and then you’re done.” They’re like, “It’s not nearly as amazing.” It’s like this super anticlimactic moment. Anyway, go ahead.
[00:54:41.8] SC: All right, so the psychological element, face it. Face it down, stare it down, beat it into submission because the psychological element is going to hold you back. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to pursue the big five but if you don’t get into the big five, there’s a great alternative and it’s an alternative that I now choose over the big five and the reason why he choose it over the big five is for control, power, freedom, better financial payoff but most importantly, it’s about freedom and creativity.
The independent publishing platform is so wonderful today, it’s incredible because you have the power with a laptop to find people who will give you a great jacket at a reasonable price to find people who would design the interior book in a beautiful way. You have the ability to take those two, only two files, and send them to a number of print on demand places that will assure people that they can have a physical copy of your book and they can buy it on amazon.com where it’s where everybody buys anything anyway today and it will be available electronically and it also gives you the ability to create your own store so that you can sell directly to the consumer yourself.
There’s no more freedom than it is today in the publishing community and if you combine the independent thinking of an entrepreneur with writing and with marketing, you can find an ability to create enough wealth for you to be a writer, a full time writer who can pay his bills and can keep chasing that dragon of the next thing inside of you that has to come out and you can make money doing it. You’re not going to get paid a million dollars right off the bat. You’re not. You’re probably going to barely breakeven. It might take you five years to make enough money for you to quit your day job but it’s absolutely doable.
And we can break down the mechanics of the math later on. There is a formula that you can come up with yourself that given the choice between $100,000 or a $50,000 or a $25,000 advance from a big publisher versus independently publishing yourself, there is math that you can do to figure out which one is going to be more financially better for me?
[00:57:39.9] TG: Yeah, I actually created a calculator that does that.
[00:57:44.1] SC: Oh good.
[00:57:44.6] TG: Yeah, I’ll link to that in the show notes.
[00:57:47.3] SC: Good, good because one of the big things in book publishing when I was starting is they wanted to keep the profit and loss math that’s complicated and difficult as possible not only for authors but for editors and agents and if you apply yourself just a tiny little bit, you could figure out the math very, very easily and the math isn’t so great on what you give up especially for a book that isn’t fiction.
That is purely practical self-help like, How to Plant a Raised-bed Garden. If you’re writing that kind of book, don’t sell it to a major publisher because you can find your tribe online in a way that those tribal members will pay you for that book directly at a much higher return on investment than you will ever make from a major publisher and your major publisher won’t even let you send out free copies of your own book.
So you can’t even market and promote a book that you sign over to a major publisher in a way that you know what. So my first rule of thumb for making a decision between the big five and independent is if you were are writing practical self-help non-fiction do it yourself.
[00:59:16.5] TG: Okay, so I have a pretty standard answer I give when people ask me this question. What I say is, “You should start with indie publishing as your default answer and have to get caught into traditional publishing because like, I already mentioned, you get the freedom, the control, more money, all of that kind of stuff with indie publishing. And in capitalism, if I give up something, I should get something back.
And what I’m asking is, “Okay, I’m going to give up control, I’m going to give up the copyright, I’m going to give up how much money I make on each copy, I’m going to give up, when I get paid I’m going to give up the decision making on the cover. If I’m going to give that all up, what am I going to get in return and if it’s not good enough, then I should indie publish. Now that obviously takes out of the psychological answer but I don’t like thinking about that stuff too much anyway. No but when it comes to practical, that’s what I say.
So I have a good friend of mine who just signed his third book deal with a traditional publisher and having a traditional publisher makes it easier for him to become a highly paid speaker and in that world, it’s still easier to get $15 grand to show up to speak if you’re through a traditional publisher and look like you’re from a traditional publisher and have all of that stuff than it is to start from ground zero and build that kind of career.
So he keeps going that route. I also have clients who get paid seven figure advances to have a traditional publisher publish their book and again these guys are often making their money doing speaking more than just book sales and so what they get in return is worth what they’re giving up. Another scenario is a John Scalzi. He signed last year a book deal for 13 books for $1.3 million, it was somewhere around a one million bucks a book but it was over 10 years or something.
I’m probably completely messing up the actual specifics but it was a bunch of books over a long period of time for over a million dollars but if you look at his book sales, he was an indie author first and then he signed on with a traditional publisher and if you look at the sales of his books and just did a little of bit of that back of the napkin math, you would see he’s losing a lot of money going with a traditional publisher.
He could easily make more money on his own and he wrote up a blog post about this and the part that stands out to me, it’s been a while since I’ve read it and basically he’s like, “I’m tired of being a small businessman. I just want to write. I just want to write and give it to somebody else and let them do everything and so what he’s giving up is money but in return, he’s getting a lot less overhead as far as all the crap he’s got to deal with as an indie author.
Because you know what? You don’t have to design your own cover when you’re a traditionally published author. You know what? You don’t have to hire a freelance editor when you’re traditionally published. You know you don’t have to deal with distribution, you don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of stuff. So it’s not just money that you’re looking at but my thing is, okay if I’m going to give up all of that stuff with my book to a traditional publisher, I have to ask the question, “What am I getting in return?”
Because too many authors start with the default answer and they’re just like, “Oh please publish me, please publish me, please publish me,” you know? And so they end up getting this deal where they get a $5,000 advance that they only get a certain percentage of and then that doesn’t really go very far and then the publisher does nothing for them and now, they’re like, “Well what am I going to do?”
So they still have to do all their own marketing and all their own sales and all that kind of stuff. So it’s really important that people know what they’re getting into and know what they’re giving up because it’s much easier to make a couple thousand dollars as an indie author now and retain all of those rights and all of those things.
[01:03:48.8] SC: Yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it.
[END OF EPISODE]
[01:03:52.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned before, this was the first part of the three part Publishing 101 series we are doing to show you the behind the scenes of how publishing really works. As always, if you want anything Story Grid related, you can get that at Storygrid.com. To see any past episodes or look at any of the show notes or reference any of the downloads, those are at storygrid.com/podcast.
As you continue to listen and you love the show, make sure you go to iTunes and leave a review, leave a rating. That is how we hear from you the best and that’s how you can help us share the show with other people. If you want to reach to us on Twitter, we’re @storygrid. Thanks as always for listening, and we will see you next week for Part 2 of Publishing 101.