Writers & The Independent Marketplace
Where: Denver, Colorado
When: September 25, 2010
What: This writers conference, sponsored by the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, billed as “a candid conversation between authors, booksellers & publishers,” offered writers practical advice about pitching, publishing, and marketing their books.
Cost: $150-$225, depending on date of registration.
Every September, the Mountains & Plains Independent Bookseller Association (MPIBA) holds its trade show, where independent booksellers, publishers, and writers gather to discuss business and learn about new books. This year was the first time the trade show included a one-day writers conference, “Writers & The Independent Marketplace.” The conference consisted of three panel discussions, a chance for the attendees to deliver their book pitch and have it critiqued (“Pitchapalooza”), and an author luncheon at which writers Karl Marlantes, John Shors, Dom Testa, and Eric Litwin discussed their personal paths to publication.
I’ve attended many writers conferences and panel discussions over the years, and speaking as someone who has a novel coming out in March, I found the information provided at this one to be extremely helpful and uniquely focused on the practical business and logistical aspects of publishing a book. I did not know a lot of this stuff. Some of the attendees had published books through a traditional publisher or were aspiring to, and some were considering self-publishing. In the past, writers taking these two different paths would have had very different experiences and workloads. But these days, most writers putting out a book through a traditional publisher are expected to promote themselves as much as a writer choosing to self-publish does.
Getting Your Book Into Print
The first panel, “Getting Your Book Into Print,” was a discussion with Fred Ramey, the Colorado-based Co-Publisher of Unbridled Books, Arielle Eckstut, a writer, entrepreneur, and literary agent, Robert Gray, editor and columnist for Shelf Awareness (a daily newsletter for booksellers), Sandra Bond, a Denver-based literary agent, and Nancy Mills, the president of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. The primary message the panelists sent was that even authors published by a major publishers need to promote their own books. In the current economy, the larger publishers are putting out fewer titles, but self-published books are proliferating. Ramey estimated the output to be 700,000 books annually. All the panelists emphasized the importance of authors doing their best to try to break through that noise.
Ramey said Unbridled Books likes to introduce debut writers and publish them for their careers, which few large publishers are doing today. Ramey said, “I’m fairly certain that the future of publishing does not involve these huge conglomerate publishers.”
The panelists advised the aspiring authors to figure out who their readers might be, then go get them by visiting trade shows and conferences and by approaching local booksellers. “People have to start to believe in you before they go to your book,” Eckstut said.
One attendee asked how common it is for a publisher to pick up a book that’s been self-published and republish it. Ramey said, “It’s not common, but it can happen. We picked up a self-published book that sold well, Living the Artist’s Life.” Eckstut said her agency will consider representing self-published books that sell 5,000 copies within the first year, or have received particularly good reviews.
Selling Your Book Part One: Getting Your Book Into Our Stores
On the second panel, several booksellers discussed how local authors can approach them and work out an agreement to feature a book in their stores. Arsen Kashkashian is the head buyer at the Boulder Book Store, and the consignment program he developed for self-published and small-press authors has served as a template for several similar programs at other independent bookstores. Kashkashian said the program “allows self-published authors to engage with the store in the same way that major publishers do.” Boulder Book Store charges self-published authors a range of fees for a variety of services, beginning with a $25 one-time charge to place five copies of the book on sale, up to $225 for a featured spot on the main floor, participation in a group book signing, and mentions in the store’s website and newsletter.
Dom Testa, a Denver radio show host, spoke about how he self-published several young adult science fiction novels before attracting the interest of a traditional publisher. He achieved a good amount of book sales, he said, by following three rules: “1. Write a good book, 2. Get out of your house, 3. Find a platform.” Testa established a non-profit organization to encourage literacy in children, and speaks to audiences frequently, always remembering to mention his books.
Selling Your Book Part Two: Working With our Stores to Reach Your Readers
The third panel focused on how writers can distinguish their books from the pack and reach readers that are interested in their subjects.
Several of the panelists discussed how almost all of the display space in stores such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the airport bookstore chains is purchased by the books’ publishers. These fees, called “co-op” fees, can be prohibitive for all but bestselling authors with major publishing houses. The panelists emphasized that it’s much easier for a self-published author or one publishing through an independent publisher without a large marketing budget to negotiate space for his or her book in an independent bookstore. Indie bookstores sometimes charge co-op fees for authors who give readings, in order to pay for their regular ads in local papers, but the fees they charge are “reasonable,” according to Alison Kothe Nihlean, the Marketing Director for BookPeople Bookstore in Austin, TX.
Nihlean said her store sponsors over 300 events every year, and she asks each author who approaches her to set up a reading, “What do you expect?” She said that one local writer told her he wanted to have his release party for his book at the store, and invite all his friends and family through Evites and Facebook. She said his grassroots promotional efforts were successful, and he sold 160 books.
Kalen Landow, who does marking and public relations for The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, said, “More and more, the author’s job is about marketing.” She advises clients to get Twitter and Facebook accounts, study the most effective ways to use them, and update them frequently. Another tip she had for authors is that booksellers work six to nine months in advance with their orders and planning, so authors should contact their local bookstores early if they want to set up an event.
The most entertaining part of the MPIBA writers conference was “Pitchapalooza,” billed as the “American Idol” for books. Each conference attendee was instructed to prepare a 60-second pitch of his or her book to present to a panel for a critique. The writer with the best pitch won a 30-minute consultation with Arielle Eckstut. The panelists included Eckstut, who with her husband David Henry Sterry wrote The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully, Elizabeth Jordan, the head buyer at BookPeople in Austin, and Katie Schmidt, the Small Publisher Liason for Tattered Cover Bookstore.
Eckstut and Sterry emphasized the importance of authors crafting a polished pitch of their books to use in query letters to agents and publishers, and to present to buyers at bookstores or whomever they happen to meet. Sterry circulated throughout the day, asking anyone who confessed to having written a book, “So, what’s your book about?” He posed this question to me at the coffee station, and I admit that I flubbed it. I hadn’t thought to prepare my own pitch, as I was just reporting on the conference, not participating. His point was made—anyone who is publishing a book should be ready for this question at all times.
Eckstut said that one frequent problem she sees with pitches is that authors sometimes “separate their pitch from their book,” writing a pitch for a humor book that isn’t funny, for example. “The voice of your book needs to come through in your pitch.”
After the introduction, volunteers began to deliver their one-minute pitches while the judging panel kept the time. All the participants had clearly worked hard on their short presentations, each of them delivering a convincing commercial for their books that were lively and frequently funny or moving. After each participant finished, the panel offered their critiques and suggestions, such as advising writers to balance their emphasis on plot and characters in the pitch, or including a comparison to other successful books that share something in common with the book being pitched. Eliza Cross, a Colorado-based writer, won the Pitchapalooza competition. She is the author of, most recently, The Rusty Parrot Cookbook: Recipes from Jackson Hole’s Acclaimed Lodge.
The MPIBA hasn’t yet decided whether they will offer this writers conference again at next year’s trade show, but if they do, anyone who is in the process of publishing a book, either through a self-publishing service or a traditional publisher, will benefit from attending.
Also in this series:
• Aspen Summer Words Fest: Southern Lit, Secret Hopes and a Surprise Stand-In by Jennifer Lee Sullivan
• The Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon by Bonnie ZoBell
• Summer Fishtrap in Oregon by Naomi Gibbs
Plus: The Map!
• Check out NewWest’s comprehensive map and rundown of regional events, Book Festivals of the West.