QUIBBLES & BITS

My subject this week is Small Presses and "Crap Happens," so if you’re a wildly successful published author with 6, 7 [or even high 5] figure advances, feel free to skip this blog entry. And, as always, this is just my opinion. ["Of course it is, Deni, who else’s opinion would it be?"].

I’ve been published by Walker, Harlequin, Kensington and Delphi [among others]. I write crime fiction and historical fiction, and I love both genres. While researching the 1692 Salem witch trials for an historical romance, it occurred to me that I could combine my two loves into one book. Thus, I wrote EYE OF NEWT, the first mystery in my Sydney St. Charles "witch" series.

I called it a "cozyhalfhistwoo."

But Big Pub Houses weren’t interested, and I finally shelved the manuscript when St. Martin’s said the concept was "too dark." I don’t write dark. . .

[Please ignore that last sentence, since a goodly number of readers swear up and down that they prefer "dark" mysteries, like The Cat Who Became a Serial Killer or The Exorcism of Lassie.]

Flash forward a few years. Buffy and Charmed were popular on TV, a film studio was shooting the big-screen version of Bewitched, and I had been agentless for a while. So I decided to use EYE OF NEWT [dusted off and revised] as an "audition piece." I submitted to 4 agents. Two weren’t enthusiastic enough, one said she’d sign me up and market the book if I took out the historical portions, and one said I showed promise [ouch! – NEWT is my 13th published book]. So I began investigating small presses. . .

Three wanted EYE OF NEWT. Three small presses saw the commercial value: witchcraft was "in" — so were cats, dogs and parrots. Three small presses knew I had a fan base and a library "name" from my diet club series. And, I guess, three small presses thought I showed "real talent" rather than "promise"  🙂

I chose Five Star.

EYE OF NEWT came out in October 2004–just in time for Halloween!–and received a rave Library Journal review. By the end of December, NEWT had a 95% sell-through. Since then, the book has gone Trade paperback, is on the desk of a high-powered film rep, and I suspect it’ll soon go large-print [wish I could crack the audio market].

When I started writing CHAIN A LAMB CHOP TO THE BED, many agents [and a few editors] told me I’d never sell a series that had started at another pub house. I don’t like to be told I can’t do
something. LAMB CHOP, a Five Star Mystery and the third book in my Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller diet club series, made its long-awaited <ahem> debut last November/December. But there was a glitch in Five Star’s cover art department and the book was sent out too late for major reviews. Without a review [positive or negative] from one of the big three — Publishers
Weekly, Library Journal,
and/or Kirkus — library sales are impaired. All I could do was ask friends and fans to request the book from their local libraries [see last Tuesday’s blog].

"So, Deni, you’ll stop publishing with Five Star now, right?" Not! Crap happens. EYE OF NEWT earned out, big-time, and I’m already negotiating with another press to bring out my diet club backlist in paperback, which will, eventually, include a LAMB CHOP reprint.

There are many spokes in the publishing wheel. and if Five Star wants another Ellie or Sydney book, I’m game.

I’ve just sedated Beatrice, after promising her that she can continue her serial, GOLDIE AND THE THREE BEERS, next week. Instead, I want to tell you a "crap happens" tale. As L&O would say, this is "ripped from the headlines," but I’m not using any names. I swear under oath — and on a stack of Stephen King novels — that it’s NOT Five Star. Also, I’m not one of the authors involved.

Once upon a time a small press contracted many new authors, all of whom had written some really good mystery novels. Eventually, the small press allegedly began cutting corners and costs, delaying releases, and using a printing company that produced such a poor product, several authors returned books to the small press’s owner, refusing to consign copies that fell apart or had pages missing or had huge errors that weren’t the fault of the authors who’d carefully checked the galleys. The small press owner always had excuses, some of them pretty creative.

The press then "went silent" by not answering phone calls, emails, or snail mail. That left authors waiting for edits, galleys, book releases, etc. One author’s second book was months overdue, which, she said sadly — and a tad caustically — made it difficult to schedule a launch.

Also screwed were authors who had ordered and pre-paid for books to use at signings; who had anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars tied up in their books. "The silence was awful," said one of those authors.

Half the authors chose to leave.

Another author said, "It wasn’t easy to leave a ‘bird in the hand’ publisher and step back into the heavy competition of submitting/crossing fingers, searching for a new publisher.  But if you can’t count on getting your edit, galley or book release month after month, or worse, ordering books and paying for them and not knowing if you’d ever receive them, what other choice do you have?"

Some authors got out with all their rights. Some are still battling to get what’s owed to them. "Mostly the problem was the broken promises, excuses, and breached contracts," said an author who bailed. "Better to go out on our own and find some other way to publish," said another.

What did I tell those authors [whom I’ve promised to keep anonymous]?

Well, I certainly didn’t say "Crap happens." While that’s undeniably true, it’s not very soothing.

Instead, I related my experience with Zebra. How I’d contracted 3 books and was convinced that my career was on the brink of soaring to unimaginable heights. In my daydreams I pictured my new convertible, my villa in Greece/Spain/Ireland, my huge hot tub, and a box of new paper clips
[rather than the "borrowed" paper clips — and rubber bands — from Kinko’s]. In my divorce I specified that my ex was not to get a penny of my advances and royalties.

One of the contracted books — DREAM DANCER — was published in 1997, just before my Zebra line
went belly-up [or in their words, "was downsized"]. And although I had to nudge, I received reversion letters for the other two books.

I truly thought my career was over.

But it wasn’t. I simply took a deep breath and began to look at other spokes in the pub-wheel. I contracted FOOTPRINTS IN THE BUTTER – an Ingrid Beaumont Mystery co-starring Hitchcock the Dog – to Hard Shell Word Factory, an e-publisher. FOOTPRINTS was seen by a print publisher who brought it out in hardcover. Since then, it has gone mass market paperback and large print [with Thorndike in the US, BBC Library in the UK].

One of my Zebra paranormals — HALLIE’S COMET — was sold to Five Star Expressions.

So yes, crap happens. But you can’t have a rainbow without some rain and my mantra has always been: "If you drop a dream, it breaks."

To the authors who had the courage to leave an unsatisfactory publisher and start again from scratch, all I can say is please don’t drop your dreams!

Over and out,
Deni

9 thoughts on “QUIBBLES & BITS

  1. Lorraine T.

    Good Godfrey! What an absolutely frightening post to the unpublished writer.I thought, apparently mistakenly, that the struggle was to find an agent, and once that was accomplished, the agent handled finding and dealing with a publisher.Somebody, anybody, please tell me Deni’s experiences are not the “way” getting published is usually achieved.Lorraine

    Reply
  2. Naomi

    What an important post. I have friends who’ve been in similiar situations with other small presses (bankruptcy, struggles over rights, etc.). The key here is to continue writing in spite of the publishing disappointments. And, like Deni has done, skillfully steer one’s career through rough waters and narrow passageways.

    Reply
  3. Beatrice Brooks

    Lorraine, my experiences are not the absolute “way” publishing is usually achieved. Other authors have had “similar but different” experiences. Fortunately, most haven’t. And life plays an important part in my/our careers. When THROW DARTS AT A CHEESECAKE, my first diet club mystery, came out, I wanted to buy an ad in Weight Watchers magazine (at that time I think it was $9,000 for the smallest ad) and tour the country, my books in the trunk of my car (and find and strangle the Kirkus reviewer), but I had 3 kids to raise and no child support. All I could do was write my sequel, BEAT UP A COOKIE, during the day, wait tables at night, and give out cheap bookmarks with the lasagna and cheesecake. We do what we have to do…IF WE WANT IT BADLY ENOUGH! And if life throws you a curve ball, remember the Boston Red Sox.

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  4. Lorraine T.

    Deni, Thanks for the reply. A big factor I hadn’t considered in reading your post, is that besides wanting it badly, you started young. I’m starting old, after retirement from a very different work (accounting), and so am not sure if I have strong enough a desire, drive, etc., to match even a part of the efforts you had to make. I have to “think on it” some more.Lorraine

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    I think the moral of the story is if you want to be a successful writer, you have to be willing to WORK HARD to get there. While serendipitous things happen in the publishing industry, it’s hard work that makes the wheels actually turn. Rather than being offputting to me, Deni, your story shows me there is more than one way up the mountain. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. Elaine

    Lorraine – if you need an example of starting later in life (I like that better than ‘old’)I’m your gal. How much later in life, I ain’t gonna say . Just know it’s never too late if you’re truly motivated. Keep in mind, however, ‘desire & drive’ are too different things. And did I mention patience? Or the ability to face rejection? Just a few minor things to think about.

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  7. Ross Hugo-Vidal

    Hmmmm….:Well, lightning can strike when you least expect it. Say, you win a writing contest out of the blue, like the SMP/Malice Domestic Best First Mystery Contest. Because luck is the residue of design (Churchill), isn’t it?Or Two,Fate is a future that you simply didn’t try to change(JA Konrath),Or Three, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Any reference to Murderati’s own vertically challenged Jeff Cohen (AS DOG IS MY WITNESS) is purely intentional.In any event; aim high, work hard and never give up!

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