Full disclosure, folks: Brooke Warner is my U.S. publisher, but that’s not why I asked to interview her. You see, when people hear that I’m traditionally and hybrid-published, they want to know which option is best and how to navigate the (sometimes treacherous) tides of the publishing industry. In Green-Light Your Book, Brooke Warner answers these questions and equips authors with the knowledge and skills they need to play big. Brooke is publisher of She WritesPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, and the co-author of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir. Her expertise is in traditional and new publishing. She is the former Executive Editor of Seal Press and currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She blogs on Huffington Post Books and SheWrites.com. She lives and works in Berkeley, California. Connect with Brooke on Twitter: @brooke_warner, or on Facebook.
This guest post is by Kristen Harnisch. Harnisch is the award-winning author of The Vintner’s Daughter, the first novel in a series about the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the twentieth century. Her next novel, The California Wife, will be released in 2016. Harnisch has been a speaker at the Writer’s Digest Conference and currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Connect with Kristen at kristenharnisch.com, on Twitter @KristenHarnisch, and on Facebook facebook.com/kristenharnischauthor.
Do you think there are too many books written and published today? What is your advice to a new author who’s seeking to differentiate his/her book from the crowd?
Objectively, yes. I think a lot of people are publishing books before they’re ready to be published, and more and more independent models are popping up to provide ways for people to publish. That said, I think it’s exciting that anyone can write and publish a book, and just because there are perhaps “too many” doesn’t mean there’s not room for new voices. Writers who want to differentiate themselves from the crowd must publish a well-crafted, well-edited, beautifully designed book. That’s the first thing. Beyond that they do need to attend to their author platform, regardless of how they choose to publish, because an author platform is the thing that makes a writer visible. Writers are often overwhelmed by all it takes to stay on people’s radar, to get their work recognized. It’s uncommon to see a writer have a breakout book with their first effort, and therefore book publishing is an exercise in delayed gratification. You have to work and work at it, and keep generating content and getting yourself out there consistently and professionally if you want to stand out.
Many say that today’s publishing models—including hybrid models like Booktrope, which just closed its doors—are unsustainable. Do you think a sustainable model exists and, if so, what might it look like?
I believe our hybrid model at She Writes Press is sustainable. We were featured in a recent Publishers Weekly article, and Jane Friedman was quoted saying that sustainability is a challenge. She spoke to a few of the things that need to happen in order for these models to be sustainable, which include shifting more of the cost to the authors and/or developing high-profile titles, what the industry calls breakout titles. She Writes Press has an advantage for a few reasons. We have a strong brand. We are curating our list. And I come out of traditional book publishing, so I understand what we’re up against. I think a lot of hybrid models started by people with technology backgrounds, or marketing backgrounds. Those publishers are innovative, and it’s been wonderful to see the emergence of these hybrid models, but in order to be sustainable you have to play by the industry rules of conduct, which, frankly, are confusing and maddening. And right now there’s a lot working against hybrid publishers. On the one hand, if you don’t have traditional distribution, it’s really hard to make headway into the marketplace and get the sales needed to move books, and on the other, if you have traditional distribution (like She Writes Press does), you have to deal with returns (which can come up to 18 full months post-publication). I think the main way we’ll succeed is by remaining completely transparent with our authors, which has been a cornerstone value of She Writes Press from the beginning.
How do certain genres lend themselves to different kinds of publishing? Are there any genres for which traditional publishing remains particularly valuable?
Good question, and yes. I believe that fiction and memoir lend themselves to traditional publishing (including hybrid publishers with traditional distribution) because these genres are review-driven, and it matters to authors—both for legitimacy and sales—that their books be in libraries and independent bookstores. Genre fiction, which includes science-fiction/fantasy, romance, erotica, etc., isn’t driven so much by reviews. Genre fiction isn’t particularly or necessarily literary, and there’s a voracious readership for these kinds of books. So these authors can and do see tremendous success in their self-publishing efforts. Then there’s everything else—self-help/prescriptive books, children’s books. Authors would do well to do a bit of research in their genre and to establish their publication goals well ahead of time. If you’re an author who needs or wants to have their books widely available, you need a distribution solution. If you’re an author who has your own huge audience and readership (typically entrepreneurs or coaches or people who do a lot of speaking and teaching) and you intend to sell the majority of your titles yourself, or through Amazon, then distribution is not nearly as important.
You’ve written several books about how to craft memoirs. How did you gain your expertise and what are the characteristics of a great memoir from your perspective as an editor?
My expertise in memoir comes from my years as Executive Editor of Seal Press, where I worked for eight years before co-founding She Writes Press. Seal Press is a women’s press, and the majority of the books we published during my time there were either memoirs, or memoir-driven (meaning nonfiction titles with a strong female narrative and personal element). I already loved personal stories, and Seal Press is an exclusively nonfiction press. I realized when I left Seal that I had both this tremendous love for memoir, and a deep understanding of what makes it work, and what makes it sellable. So it was a natural evolution for me to start teaching and writing about memoir. When I hooked up with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, I found a kindred spirit. Now we teach a biannual six-month memoir course together called Write Your Memoir in Six Months, we host an annual in-person conference, and we’re about to publish our second book together. It’s been an amazing partnership, and all in the service of helping authors understand and write more compelling memoirs. It’s a wonderful side thing that I have going on and I’m so grateful to get to work with so many passionate and committed memoirists.
How many books does an indie author need to sell in order to be considered “successful” by today’s industry standards? What are some of the best practices of successful indie authors?
There’s not a magic number. The “success” measure in the industry comes from a book having earned out its advance. So using that measure, an indie author could say that their book is “successful” when it breaks even, when the author has earned out his or her expenses. I think this is a difficult measure, however, because a lot of authors I know—myself included—spend a lot of money on publicity, and all the other stuff required to be a visible author. Because I have a new book coming out, I spent money to revamp my website. I created a book trailer. I’ll be traveling this spring doing the She Writes Press author tour. There’s no way I expect to earn out all of the ancillary expenses associated with my book, but I do expect to earn out its production and printing costs. So I think authors need to look at that carefully. Typically, a successful indie book, by industry standards, would be anything that sells over 500 or 1000 copies, since the average self-published book sells under 100. But we each need to determine what our own measures of success are, and if authors want to put a number on that, they should. We provide an earn-out sheet for our authors to work with, and I think this is helpful to them to consider the real numbers and to think through their expenses and expectations. And I also spend a lot of time educating authors about having realistic expectations. Because there are so many books in the marketplace, selling is tough, and sometimes it takes having two or three books under your belt as an author before you start to see the needle moving on sales. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get into publishing—and especially indie publishing—with your eyes wide open. It’s hard to know what questions to ask, and that’s part of why I wrote Green-Light Your Book, to give writers and authors a lot of information and a better understanding of this publishing landscape they’re about to enter, to maximize their chances for success.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.