The other day, a new woman author emailed me. "Hello — I am interested in having my book published. I am not quite sure of the steps I need to take to publish it and do not wish to contact one of the 2 million e-publishers located on the net."
A week doesn't pass that I don't get a plaintive email from a new lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered writer who is trying to break into print. They have their book finished... but no idea where to go from there. After a few rejections, or near-misses with bad agents or bad deals, they feel like a deer trying to cross a swamp full of alligators. Other published authors get similar emails too. Indeed, we seem to the front-door Information Booth for GLBT publishing. People write us because it's hard to get functional, nonpolitical, no-b.s. information elsewhere about many aspects of the book business. Many book professionals are too overworked to take time to help — and some of our literary organizations are too entrenched in old politics to give disinterested advice to newcomers.
Some writers do succeed in crossing the swamp out there — there's a whole new wave of them — including Alex Marcoux, Juliet Sarkassian, Kirk Read, Alex Sanchez and others who showed up at the IV Lambda Literary Festival in San Francisco last fall. But some will get their hearts broken, and give up the fight. Several years ago their struggle inspired me to start putting together an online resource full of no-b.s. information called "Secrets of Writing and Publishing." Taking their emails (minus their real names) and my own responses, I crafted a menu of help articles on many subjects, adding to it from time to time. I try to take to take some of the mystery out of everything from agents to writing for hire.
Fortunately, new authors today have options that weren't available when some of us older people were trying to break into print in the 1960s and 1970s. It's daunting, but do-able in today's depressed economy. Post-911 book readers are still reading books — most bookstores tell me their sales are holding up. Publishing that first book can be hair-raising...but it can also be a wonderful challenge to one's own ingenuity and endurance.
Here's some basic stuff that I tell the newbies:
Option #1. You can go the traditional route... look for a large or small trade publisher.
The big publishers bring out fewer GLBT books these days, but there are many mid-size and small houses out there. How to find their contact info? A Websearch will find most. The current edition of Putting Out (Cleis) has a listing of publishers and agents. Many new authors don't think to do market research, but browsing in a big gay bookstore or a chainstore with a well-stocked GLBT section is a good thing to do. Among other things, it helps you spot publishers who might be interested in your work, especially in a distinct genre like erotica, mysteries, women's health, poetry. The mega-list of contact info for mainstream publishers and agents is enshrined in Literary Market Place (LMP), available in most libraries.
Next, send a query letter to hundreds of publishers, both gay and mainstream. The query should be one page, with a paragraph or two summarizing the story, and a few lines about yourself. Some people say you should send queries one at a time, but this could take you forever... especially since some editors and agents take forever (or never) to reply. I say the hell with it — mail all your queries simultaneously. Out of hundreds of queries, you might get just a few nibbles. But all you need is one solid prospect.
If no established publisher offers you a contract, it doesn't mean your book is "bad." Good books do fall through the cracks. This is where the options come in.
Option #2. You can self-publish.
The old stigma on so-called "vanity publishing" is going away, as markets diversify and writers push to meet their needs. Today a growing number of GLBT authors are forming their own legitimate independent imprints. Some, like myself, have published with big houses but are dissatisfied at how writers are often treated these days. All it takes is a few bloody battles over editing, or getting your royalties paid, to make one go independent. Other writers go indie with their first book and make the Lambda bestseller list. Notable example: Randy Boyd and his West Beach Books.
Self-publishing is lots of work. Traditionally artists have been bad businesspeople, but you have to be just that — a good businessperson. You have to wear all the hats that, under Option #1, somebody else wears for you. You'll need good legal and design and marketing information. You'll also need a good accountant (unless you adore doing your own bookkeeping and invoicing). The upside: you'll have creative control over your product. And you get to keep most of the income from it. This includes control of your own subsidiary-rights sales, which can bring extra cash. With the launching of InsightOut Book Club, a new market for gay books has opened up. Publishers in some other countries are hungry for material, and scour the English-language market for likely titles to translate. (I just sold the Latvian rights for The Fancy Dancer.)
If you have enough capital to cushion you through the first few years, you can be a miniature version of a big publisher. Meaning you do all the things Random House does, only on a small scale. You pay for your first printing, store the books somewhere, sell them till they're gone, order the next printing. That's what my Wildcat Press does. We started up in 1994 with one title; eight years later, we have 11 titles. Our printings run from 1000 to 5000 copies. Top printers are eager to get business even from small imprints, so our printer is Phoenix Color. We like working with them because it's important to spend a little extra on a gorgeous cover, and Phoenix specializes in cutting-edge cover technology.
The most important thing about self-publishing is this: from the very beginning, you can't lose track of costs. The arithmetic is relentless. A 350-page paperback can cost $1.50 a copy to print, meaning $7500 for 5000 copies, and you have to pay the printer's invoice long before your sales income starts coming in. If the book retails for $19.95 and wholesales at 55 percent, that means you keep only 45 percent of $19.95. Out of your 45 percent you have to recoup printing costs, shipping, promotion, preproduction, etc... plus cover your overhead and come out with some profit. The smaller the printing, the higher the unit cost of the book. Small publishers generally have a narrow profit margin — some are lucky to break even.
Likely you won't get your first book distributed by big wholesalers. Ingram recently decided that it won't distribute publishers with fewer than 10 titles. But if you produce a professional-looking book, chances are your title will be snapped up by smaller distributors like Alamo Square (a gay-owned company), BookPeople, Bookazine. Later you can work your way into the bigger jobbers, like Baker & Taylor, who does a lot of library sales. Amazon.com also carries titles from self-publishing authors. So do several Canadian, Australian and UK/EU distributors.
If you don't have capital, you can go the "print on demand" route. POD is popular with new women authors right now, enabling them to get books out at minimal cost. Booksellers tell me that this exciting new genre, called "Xena books," is selling wildly. Printing on demand costs more per copy, but you only order a couple hundred copies at a time. The books (always paperbacks) are printed and perfect-bound on a high-tech xerox machine instead of a web press, so the printer can do short runs. One friend of mine ordered just 50 books for his first POD printing. Some Xena-book publishers do pre-publication sales and use the cash from sales to pay for their printing. There are a lot of POD printers around, so shop for the best reputations and best job prices.
Option # 3. There's always e-publishing.
According to epublishingway.com: "Simply put, e-publishing, short for electronic publishing, is publishing information — books, reports, info-products, interactive media - in electronic format, making these accessible in several forms: on C Ds, as downloadable files (zipped or compressed, executable, in PDF or RTF), or in 3.5" diskettes. Smaller e-published matter can be transmitted through email as attachments."
My newest correspondent is wary of e-bookpublishing. It's not a bad way to go if you have no other options...but go into it with open eyes. The Internet has definitely been oversold as a place to sell books — even amazon.com isn't making a profit yet. Most e-publishers want to own your book-publishing rights, no differently than a standard print publisher would do. Some are pretty hard-nosed on terms, and don't promote books. Many new authors are afraid to be hard-nosed too, and don't negotiate for better terms. I know a few authors who like their e-publisher, but I've also heard from those who aren't happy with the e-deals they made.
But there's a second e-publishing option: you retain all your publishing rights and sell your own e-book on the Web, via your website. Customers pay by credit card to download digital files of your book. Some authors report they do well with this option... others say sales are disappointing. There may be a limit to how many people want to read books on Palm Pilots! Even Stephen King reportedly didn't do well with his highly publicized e-book. One thing is sure: you must do a LOT of online promotion to get people to visit your site and buy the book.
Whatever option the new author picks, he or she commit to a lot of legwork and ditch-digging to make it pay off. There was a golden time when an author could kick back in that vine-covered ivory tower, write great stuff and assume that he or she will have a wonderful agent and editor do all the work for them. Those days are over. Most successful GLBT authors today, even those with mainstream publishers, take a highly proactive role in how their work gets into the marketplace. Even the biggest trade houses don't always do a good job, so the author has to leap into the breach and help. If sales are flagging, you can get a wholesale account with your own publisher, buy your own book at 45 percent, sell it to stores and at events at retail, and pocket the profit. Some authors have actually done this... and saved a faltering book from going out of print.
As you choose your option, learn to step back from your work and look at it as dispassionately as you can. Most publishing professionals, who see hundreds of books crossing their desks in a year, will view your book as just another package of hamburger in the meat counter. Try to imagine how agents and editors see your work — how bookstores will see it — how reviewers will see it. Once you're in this mode, you can see how your work might be packaged, marketed, even improved.
Most important of all: arm yourself with a lot of professional information. Grow a thick hide and a set of teeth like an alligator's. Then march steadily forward across the publishing swamp, and make it your own.
As our literary world looks ahead to the next Lambda Awards, my hat's off to the new authors, some of whom will stand at that podium someday. I wish them well.