After sending out Tori Alexander’s blog on March 28th, I had promised to post a two part blog written by Danner Darcleight, whose powerful prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September. But there were a series of events that occurred last week, which led to thoughts that I wanted to share with you first. In a nutshell, this blog concerns survival and success as a publisher of literary fiction, the assumptions we made when starting out, and the reality of what I’ve learned, when it comes to the matter of “which reviews are most important” when it comes to selling books; and the difference between reviews in magazines and newspapers (read by the public) versus reviews published and read by only a small group of publishing “insiders.” And who are these “insiders”? Librarians, publishers abroad, filmmakers and the four pre-publication journals that serve them: Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, as well as a couple of very successful and widely circulated bloggers, as exemplified by Sheila Deeth (Sheila’s Reviews).
When we started publishing there were lots of newspapers reviewing books. Over the past 37 years, few are left. The New York Times was atop the list back then, both for their Sunday Book Review and their daily weekday reviews (one major review a day from Monday through Friday). Today they are the only major newspaper left who devote time and attention to publishing book reviews.
When I was in my mid-twenties and about to get my M.D. degree from the N.Y.U College of Medicine, I worked at the New York Times as a night intern. Before that, ever since I entered the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan as a 13 year old art student, I was an avid reader of the Times. Later on, when Judy, my wife and I, first started publishing in 1979, we had a major review for Richard Lortz’s novel The Valdepenas, written by the legendary Anatole Broyard, which appeared in the daily Times on Thursday, January 31, 1980. This was a grand beginning, which made me assume that one needed to have books reviewed in the weekday editions of the Times in order to succeed as a publisher. As it turned out, this was also the last full review we ever had, though there have been over 9,000 other books reviewed there in the last 36 years.
Given the fact that we have no grants, no funding other than ourselves and book sales, the question remains how did we ever manage to survive? One answer is to say that this is mysterious and unexplainable: “kismet”—a gift from the universe—and that surely is true. But looking at things analytically one can better understand the building blocks that have fallen into place that have allowed us to continue.
One can talk all they want about how difficult it is to get a review in the New York Times where there is fierce competition for review space. But getting reviews in the pre-pub journals is not a walk in the park either. Last year we were fortunate enough to get two novels reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review on their Shortlist page—which was much appreciated. But sales of these novels—Margaret Vandenberg’s The Home Front and Tom LeClair’s Lincoln’s Billy—were hardly affected after these reviews appeared. At the same time, we’ve had great success in getting coverage by the pre-publication reviewers, each of our 16 yearly releases being reviewed by at least one of these review sources, and most by several.
This past week we’ve had exceptional reviews for four of our forthcoming 2016 novels, with two reviews in Kirkus: one for Ray Merritt’s Clamour of Crows, and another for Ira Gold’s Debasements of Brooklyn. Publishers Weekly featured a rave review for Charles Davis’ Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, while Booklist gave Chris Knopf’s Back Lash a starred review. These are the reviews that not only increase sales for these titles, promote translation sales (220 right sales abroad since we began), and intrigue filmmakers. All of these enable us to go forward.
There are also other sources of revenue that help our bottom line. Blackstone Audio, a company based in Ashland, Oregon, that publishes unabridged audio books, and Haila Williams, their acquisitions editor based in New York, have acquired at least half of our titles for more than a decade. Three of our novels have been turned into movies and many others are in option. The fact that many of our titles—be they literary mysteries or literary novels—have been finalists or winners of major book awards has also aided book sales—including all the major mystery awards (Hammett Prize, Nero Award, Edgar Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Anthony Award). On the literary fiction side we’ve published several finalists or winners for the National Book Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Lambda Awards, and both the PEN/Hemingway Award and PEN /Winship Award. Other authors have received cash prizes from both ForeWord Magazine’s Best
Book of the Year Award and the Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award that were turned over directly to the authors. This does not include local State-wide honors for both mysteries and novelists we’ve published.
Accumulating all these accolades for so many authors has given us great satisfaction, but that is not necessarily reflected in profitability. Profitability is more assured if a writer is published by one of the five major conglomerates (actually, with mergers, I believe they are now down to “four”) who, with their huge advertising budgets and joint ownership with other mass media feed on celebrity and account for 85% of books sales in the U.S.A. A memoir for a star like Amy Schumer, or the formulaic James Patterson, who ”writes” over a dozen books a year (mostly written by well-paid writers) and who was honored at the last National Book Awards ceremony because of his contributions to literature are not books we have any interest in. (If I sound like Bernie Sanders here, blogging about the way things are, I’d be flattered. But Bernie is on to more serious stuff, trying to change the way things are run and how traditional politics screws a hoodwinked public while enhancing the rich, when all that I’m talking about are books as part of the entertainment industry, which I have no interest in reforming at all).
What I’m talking about is simply “gratefulness;” grateful that we have been able to endure, to sort out from among the 5,000 queries and submissions we receive each year those few books we can present to readers who hunger for quality fiction primarily as opposed to “pulpy fiction,” and that we’ve been able to do this successfully despite being relatively invisible to the larger public, whose awareness depends on what major media outlets and columnists consider “important news” when it comes to books is a continuing unfolding of kismet, whether deserved of not.
If one’s passion is fiction (the step-child of publishing, where non-fiction overwhelmingly predominates), and a desire to find and promote artful writers (as opposed to seeking “Best Sellers,”) what we are doing now is as good as it gets.
I love working on behalf of our writers and it is thrilling when one of their books takes off. And I love my two co-publishers: my wife Judy and Chris Knopf, without whom nothing is possible.
Now comes the “Academy Award Speech,” where every recipient goes on to thank all those who helped them: I love being surrounded by those exceptional people who work with us here in Sag Harbor: Felix Gonzalez, our warehouse manager; Cathy Suter and Brian Skulnik who share office space alongside me and stay up-to-date with every aspect and detail of keeping things on track and anticipating what we have to do next to keep things moving along, andfeel the same way about those off campus: Lon Kirschner who reads every manuscript from beginning to end and comes up with astounding book covers, Barbara Anderson who is a copyeditor without peer, Susan Ahlquist who is a remarkable typesetter and the book designer of both our books and those ads we periodically place in Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene Magazine, and Jeff Aghassi, our film agent out in Los Angeles. I also want to thank some outstanding overseas agents who have been with us for years, are in touch with us regularly, who sell our books abroad, and who we invite to dinner every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Jill Hughes who covers Eastern Europe, Franka Zastrow at the Schlück agency in Germany, Lora Fountain in France, Jane Judd in England, Jackie Huang at the Nurnberg Agency in China, Rita Vivian in Italy, and Atsushi Hori at The English Agency in Japan
As Porky Pig used to say when signing off on cartoons that were once shown in movie theaters, “The..the..the..the..the..... that’s all folks!” And that’s about it.
COMING OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS: the promised blogs from Danner Darcleight.
As always, I welcome your comments.