The novel gait of Skyhorse Publishing

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Publishers come in many sizes and niches, but few of them have the broad scope of titles at Skyhorse Publishing. The company is not one of the Big 5 imprints. Even though it sold $43 million in books last year, it’s considered a major independent. Skyhorse is a place where titles of the books seem to matter as much as the names of the authors.

A Publisher’s Weekly article about the publisher, noting the press went from $0 to $43 million in 10 years, included this insight from its founder Tony Lyons about acquiring and selling books.

Lyons has no interest in changing his model to try to compete with the largest of New York’s trade houses. He is quite happy to pay modest advances for books that may sell 3,000 or 4,000 copies in a particular niche, but which also have the potential to have a long run in backlist. Backlist sales now represent about 60% of total revenue. Though Skyhorse has published many books that have sold more than 100,000 copies, Lyons said he considers a good sale for a typical Skyhorse book to be around 20,000 copies.

Acquiring a book that might only sell 4,000 copies is not unusual in the publishing business. A company the size of Skyhorse doesn’t often make this a regular practice, though. This publisher, like all of them, wants bestsellers on its lists of books. It’s published 46 New York Times bestsellers.

But a book with modest sales (think 300 books a month for a year) fits into the Skyhorse pedigree, too. That desire for a long run in backlist is important. Nonfiction titles — including some memoirs — dominate these lists of books the publisher still sells but doesn’t promote much anymore. Think yoga books, think a memoir of how a couple lives with only Victorian housing, clothes and the like — these things sell forever if they’re done well.

How could you not be curious about a publisher whose company was named after an editor from its own ranks? Nonfiction is the heartland of what they’re looking for today. Here’s something else that’s novel: the publisher takes on submissions that are un-agented. You need to submit a proposal, like all nonfiction submissions require these days.

  • Sports (Team and Individual)
  • Outdoor Sport (Hunting, Fishing, and Camping)
  • Adventure and Travel
  • Health and Fitness
  • House and Home
  • History
  • Humor
  • Military History
  • Business
  • Games and Gambling
  • Horses
  • Pets and Animals
  • Nature and Science
  • Food and Wine
  • Aviation
  • True Crime
  • Current Events

Skyhorse needs to see one of the following sections in the subject line when you submit your materials.

  1. Outdoor & Sports
  2. Fiction & Literary Non-fiction
  3. Children’s
  4. Cooking & Lifestyle
  5. Politics, History, & General Non-fiction
  6. Racehorse (highly trending topics; e.g. adult coloring books)
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A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

Self-publishing sources to skip

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Skipping girlNew writers, or anyone who hasn’t got a publisher yet, look into self-publishing service houses. These are the companies like Hay House, Author House, Xlibris… you probably recognize them because they’re peppering your inbox. For so many of these, they’re a way to invest in your book. But you want to do some work in advance of your spending, like with any investment.

I suggest you skip Xlibris. It’s one of the oldest companies that serve the self-publishers. These are called author services companies by now. They do the “system integration” of editing, printing, and distribution. Xlibris has some dissatisfied customers out there, and some have been unable to retrieve their products from the Xlibris catalog.  You can also skip Author House, Hay House, Lulu… the list goes on.

How do these companies do business? Most of the time, they sell to the less-experienced writer. A traditional publisher will invest money in your book, take a higher share of the royalties, and use their existing catalog to try to leverage interest and sales of your new book. Self-publishing author services companies do none of these things. Bookbaby can be useful. They recommend 7 editing companies, and offer a complete publicity service. You can purchase a review, or use the service that’s included with a book production package. Editing services at these author houses can be tricky.

A friend has discovered that editors from the Philippines are serving Xlibris customers. The Philippines can be a fine place to contract for English-speaking customer support. The English is adequate for phone conversations about typical transactions and situations. But you can see how a country without a native English culture could produce ersatz English services. These kinds of author services companies — and even firms like Web.com, for author websites — undersell and bid rock bottom by going offshore for their contractors. Offshore services coming from England, of course, are not offshore in that same sense.

Marketing is the realm where the author must take the lead. A nonfiction book, thank goodness, is far easier to market than a novel. (Every book is easier to market than a novel, except perhaps poetry.) The Writer’s Guild has released a survey of its members that points at the evaporation of publicity and marketing from traditional publisher services. More

Let Amazon’s crowds say if your book will play

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Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 3.48.50 PMAmazon has announced a new service, Write On, that promises to give authors the opinion of readers who will unpublished manuscripts. Think of it as a crowdsourced critique group. From The Wall Street Journal:

Write On allows authors to post their work at any stage of the writing process and engage with readers who may suggest any number of revisions. The site already includes dozens of works and, for some, comments on aspects as detailed as a misplaced comma.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company offers no financial incentives for using Write On, though she hinted that Amazon may find stories it likes and publish them.

The story in the Journal adds a note from a unnamed spokesman that there’s no reason anybody couldn’t see these unpublished books, and then take interest.

Indeed. There is no reason why Amazon couldn’t take interest in the published books it already stocks, too. But books from larger publishers get a great deal more interest at the world’s largest bookseller. Write On appears to be another step on the path Amazon took to produce its Alpha House and Transparent streaming series entries. The retailer, now producing plenty of content with six of its own book imprints, is a provider of content. More

The future of bookselling: keeping authors happy

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bookstoreThings are changing on a steady course for the trade of selling books. Now there’s analysis emerging that suggests the most important part of publishing — in the trade sense, where there are agents and the lot — is keeping authors happy.

It’s been said before, but this book industry is really about the storytellers, not the companies which make their stories available and try to lure readers toward them. Imagine the role of the bookstore in five years as an advertising medium, a place to help generate desire for a book. You walk the aisles, but you order from an online source. Showrooming, it’s already being called.

A savvy column on this is online at The Idea Logic Company, written by Mike Shatzkin. In The future of bookstores is the key to understanding the future of publishinghe writes

Most of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. It is still true that putting books in stores is necessary to get anywhere close to total penetration of a book’s potential audience. Ignoring the in-store market obviously costs sales in stores, but it also costs awareness that reduces sales online. (After all, stores are very aware of the “showrooming” effect: customers who cruise their shelves with smartphones in hand, ordering from Amazon as they go!)

But that’s today when the online-offline [book sales] division may be near 50-50 overall and is 75-25 for certain niches. If those numbers become 75-25 and [niched at] 90-10 over the next five years, the bookstore market really won’t matter that much to most authors anymore. Whether through self-publishing or through some fledgling publisher that doesn’t have today’s big publisher capabilities but also doesn’t have their cost structure, authors will feel that the big organizations are less necessary than they are now to help them realize their potential.

It’s still easy to find the agents who remain cheerleaders for the “curated” book. That’s the one which is selected from many which are submitted, then re-crafted by revisions from the author [demanded by the big organization to ensure sales, or the hopes of them], then finally edited by a pro and turned out to a sales force.

Maybe. But when bookstores become shops for coffee and blank books and writing instruments and toys, the big organizations are going to get a smaller share of retail space. Book retailing is going to become less important than book selling, and the latter is much more available to the indie publisher.

Self-publication route smooths with editorial support

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On the website Writer Unboxed, an article proposes that the movement to self-publish will break down barriers enough to entice writers with traditional deals. It already has; a best-seller like Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance, the War of Art) has founded Black Irish Press for his latest book. The net result? Books get into the markets and onto readers’ devices, books that the traditional houses won’t invest in with a traditional deal.

But these self-published books still need support from editors and marketers to wear down the prejudice against this route.

They succeed for one main reason–the ability to price, package and reach your own audience without gatekeepers who need to publish blockbusters. It’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom that has already created some new sub-genres because there was no editor or marketing panel to say, “We don’t think stories about post-high school will sell.”

There is also the money. The average return for a writer on a trade paperback book is about a dollar. On hardcover, maybe you get a bit higher. On mass market, it’s a bit lower. Still. You have to sell a heap of books to make a decent living, and the truth is, shelf space has shrunk insanely over the past five years. In digital publishing, the return on even a $2.99 book is around 2 dollars. At higher price points, it goes higher. Do the math.

And oh, it comes in monthly. Monthly! For a great many established authors, this is mind-boggling.

It’s true there is less respect for self-publishing, for all the reasons that have always existed. But I predict that the support systems of editorial and design will continue to improve and writers will be able to hire the teams they require. Many of us are already doing it.

This dispatch came from the latest Romance Writers of America conference. Just this morning I was talking about Jodi Thomas, a writer of bestselling romances who taught me at the Writer’s League of Texas Writing Academy. Jodi stays busy with a couple of books per year. But she was glad to admit she needed help from editors.

At one point in her career, she was frustrated with the revision letters she was getting from her editor about punctuation. She joked, “I just typed up a page of commas and sent them to her and said, ‘You put them where they belong.’ ”

Jodi’s a best-seller because she’s an ace with characters, draws vivid settings (her latest is the Harmony series, set in the made-up Harmony, Texas) and knows story structure cold. We all need another set of eyes for something in our work. Outside editors are essential. If you don’t get a deal from a small press, you can still get an editor. Your compensation comes in $2 increments off that ebook. Every month — not by the quarter like a traditional deal.

Most editors let us pay by the month for services, too. Look into it if you’re getting a book up on its feet and need coaching or editing.

Could be a good time to be not yet in print

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Google and the Authors Guild announced today that they’re revising an agreement to pay authors for printed books that get read online. Along with the American Association of Publishers, the parties wanted to give Google the clear path to scanning millions of printed works, then offering them to read over the Web.

There might be no better time to stay out of print than now, while your as-yet-unpublished book isn’t covered by the agreement. Published writers, you and your publisher have until June, 2010 to file an objection to the agreement if Google has already scanned your book. Nobody has seen the latest version of the agreement promised today. But DC Comics and Microsoft have filed objections to the existing settlement.

The Authors Guild threw up a roadblock to Google’s scan-and-display policy when it was announced last year. A fairness hearing in US, scheduled for today, has been delayed until next month.

The Guild is the domain of the published writer, and the organization takes its eligibility to an exclusive level. Even if you have a book contract, it must “include a royalty clause and a significant advance, and must allow the author to retain copyright.” Independent book publishers, who are accepting new books from new authors at a faster rate than major presses, are skipping advances these days. The Guild accepts members whose books are “published by an established American publisher… excepting small literary presses of national reputation.”

So whatever agreement the Guild, major publishers and Google arrive at, it won’t keep you from disputing when Google scans your small-press book and charges to read it. With exclusive eligibility requirements like these, Google is just ensuring that those left out of the agreement will probably welcome the online readership as a way to promote the books — which will likely have links to online stores. That’s where Google makes its money anyway, not in the per-reader charges.

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