Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Update for Our Troubled Times

With CNN and CNBC bringing us ever-worse news about the economy, I wanted to speak directly to our potential clients regarding how TZC is approaching these tough economic times and fairing in general.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an excellent intern in Corrie Buck this semester and much housekeeping and updating has been accomplished by her, allowing me to focus on working with existing and new clients to polish their books.

Polishing is without a doubt the most important thing an author can do in this market. Editors are being laid off and lists are being cut back. Fewer titles are being acquired and some that were acquired are being delayed. It’s therefore not unusual for us to ask an author to revise his or her proposal or manuscript several times before we submit it.

Style is as important as substance. We provide manuscript preparation guidelines to every new client and they are on our website for potential and existing clients to reference as needed (http://www.zackcompany.com/submissions/ManuscriptPrep/manuscriptprep.htm). The cleaner and more professional your manuscript or proposal is, the easier it is for editors to focus on the content and not be distracted by funky spacing or extra tabs, etc.

Publishing is not recession-proof. What it sometimes does is lag the recession, as people move from more expensive ways to pass time to less expensive, e.g., fewer dinners and movies out and more reading at home. But libraries are a huge market for publishers and during times of budget-cutting, they take a hit, which means they order fewer books. And when the economy bounces back, it can actually take a while for it to hit publishers. Books are sold six months in advance, in general, with publishers soliciting orders and then basing print runs on those orders. Six months down the road, the economy may be great, but the books being published then will have been ordered now, when the economy sucks, and those orders will be fewer. Thus fewer copies may be sold. Fortunately, publishers have gotten better and better at doing fast reprints and I’m sure there will be competition at the printers for reprint press time eventually. Just not so much now.

If JK Rowling wanted to do publishing a favor, she’d come up with something new in the Harry Potter world quick. Harry Potter is a sure seller and bookstores could use the cash.

Publishers are going to be looking harder and harder to find just the best-sellers. Midlist, which has been writhing on its death bed for quite some time, is probably ready for Last Rites. There are truly only two markets in fiction: best-sellers and category-filler. A book better scream “KEEP READING ME!” by page ten, or editors are going to move on, which is oh-so-much-easier now that every editor seems to have an eBook reader of some kind.

The days when an editor would bring a manuscript home and might end up continuing to read because they just brought the one home are over. Imagine this: Editor brings one manuscript home and starts reading it. It’s a bit slow, but it’s the only manuscript she brought home that night. So she keeps reading. And what do you know? It picks up. Hmm, thinks the editor, if I can just get the author to cut a bit at the beginning and pick up the pace, we’ll have something here. I’m sure that scenario played out dozens of times every year. Maybe hundreds. But not anymore. Now editors have eBook readers and download the electronically submitted manuscripts to the reader. Get in ten pages and find the book slow? Move onto the next. After all, you’ve got ten or twenty on that reader. Fiction manuscripts have, it seems, become screenplays. It has long been said that a screenplay must seize the producer’s attention on the first page, and while I think book editors and agents have slightly longer attention spans, I also think those attention spans have been drastically shortened over the years. Working on eBook readers where the next book is just a Delete-key-away can’t help.

On the nonfiction side, the biggest issue continues to be the author’s “platform.” If you’ve never done so, definitely take a look at our website’s What We Want page (http://www.zackcompany.com/submissions/what_we_want.htm) where I talk a lot about platform. Authors need to build their platforms but also need to be able to QUANTIFY their platforms. Saying that you have a syndicated column is great, but being syndicated in three newspapers is not the same as being syndicated in 150. Saying you have a blog is not the same as saying you have a blog that receives 150,000 unique visitors each month. Being the keynote speaker at several management meetings per year is different than being a speaker with more than a hundred speaking engagements per year. When you write your proposals, you want to be able to quantify your platform so that publishers understand that you have an existing audience that will come to your book. Your platform has to sell the book, as the book cannot be your platform.

I cannot lie. Generally speaking, business sucks. It sucks for bookstores, it sucks for publishers, and it sucks for agents and their authors. But publishers will always need great books. They never stop buying great books. They stop buying the less-than-great books because they need to pick and choose what they present to the accounts more carefully. And agents must follow suit. Thus, I am taking on fewer and fewer clients every year, because I must truly believe in a project to put in the effort required to find it a home. The days of “Okay, let’s give this a shot,” are over.

That said, we need great books, and I confess that a few of our clients have been long silent on their next books. Marketing backlist is something we always do. And we never stop marketing unsold projects, generally speaking. Editors come and go and new publishers start up, and we continue to try and sell those projects we have not yet sold. We would not have committed to representing them if we did not believe in them. But sometimes it makes sense to strategically withdraw, to put a book on the shelf and try to sell something else, something new, something that may fit the changing marketplace better. If you are one of those authors who has been flogging the same old manuscript to agents and editors, you might want to ask if the time has come to move on.

In the coming months, we will continue our efforts to digitize contracts and royalty statements. We will continue to ask publishers to reprint out-of-print books or revert them. We will continue to suggest that backlist titles be reissued in new formats so that they find wider markets and reap both publisher and author greater profits with higher cover prices. We will continue to upgrade and develop our software and website to make them more efficient and help us improve sales of our clients' works both to publishers and the public. And we will continue to serve our clients the only way we know how: with commitment, with loyalty, and with the same persistence that has sold more than a few books after more than a few editors said no.

Z

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