“The bookstore is the worst place for books,” said publisher Kevin Watson. “Bookstores are killing small publishers.”
It’s Day One of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Minneapolis—and it’s snowing. It’s April, and it’s snowing. Yet I feel hot from all I’ve learned in a day, including from Kevin Watson.
He gave me insight on how the bulk of authors and small publishers make it today in America. With my small company, White Whisker Books, competing in the marketplace, I became all ears.
Before I’d met him, I’d attended four panels, three of which dealt with trauma and/or war—popular subjects at this conference. With all that misery on my mind, I needed chocolate, and the Bookfair was a great place for that.
The AWP Conference can be divided into two main parts. Many people come for the 75-minute panels that focus on writing craft and publishing—over 500 offered over three days in a conference center the size of Dallas. There’s something for everyone. The Bookfair offers endless rows of booths, mostly small publishers, spread out over a space larger than a football field.
I found chocolate at Press 53, a small publisher out of North Carolina, run by Kevin Watson.
“Bookstores, are you kidding me?” said Watson.
“How does your press make money, then?” I asked.
“Small publishers can’t make money at bookstores,” he said. “The returns kill you.” I learned that myself with the latest book White Whisker published. The reviews were great—and the returns even larger. We’ve paid more money in returns than earned.
“Bookstores are also not great for authors,” said Watson. “If you’re a new author, do you really think a reader, scanning among the thousands of books at a bookstore, will come across yours?”
Rather, authors need to be good at finding places to give a reading, and they’ll have an audience who then will buy the book.
“I sell authors their books at half of retail price,” said Watson. “They sell their books at full price. Thus, they get 50%--much more than the 10% royalty they’d otherwise get. I make a little money too, multiplied by my many authors. It’s win/win.”
Thus, when he takes an author on, he needs to know they are driven to find places to read, such as bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, art galleries, and with various groups, such as book clubs.
I then met one of Watson’s authors, fiction writer Clifford Garstang, whose new book of short fiction, What the Zhang Boys Know, won a writing award by the State of Virginia. Garstang explained that he sends his books to contests, which is a great way to get a book publicity if it wins.
“Join contests?” I said.
“Yep. You can’t be shy.”
That reminded me of the first panel I attended today, “Social Media for Authors.” I learned from panelists Meghan Ward, Amy King, Susan Ito, Issac Fitzgerald, and Sophfronia Scott a few truths:
· It’s more important to have fans rather than followers.
· Social media is like a party. You don’t walk into a party where you don’t know people, hold up your book, and say, “Buy this thing.” Rather, you converse. If people like you, they’ll find your books.
· You have to find the enjoyment of social media, rather than see it as a responsibility. Most people now use Facebook with real friends. If you have an author’s page on Facebook, then spend the money to boost your post. Facebook needs to make money while you make money.
· Do your posts help other people or make them laugh? You need to connect to people.
· Share your flaws. Don’t come across as having the perfect life, but offer some of your challenges—even ask for help.
· Be reciprocal. Respond to other people’s posts.
Many authors have the old-fashioned notion that publishers will give them a big advance, spend millions on publicity—get them on the Today show or whatever—and money will pour in after all that hard work in writing.
The truth is, you need to be an entrepreneur and find good ways to hawk your book. You’ll have the cachet of being published, but from there, you have to find your audience.
If you’re enthusiastic about your work, then it should fall into place. Or take this another way: keep your expectations low, and just try new things. Writer Anne Lamott just posted on her Facebook page a great truth about publication: "Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing."
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.