Welcome to the four hundred and fifty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today sees the first of a two-part interview with writer and publisher Robert B Marks (who will be returning in March to talk more about his writing). A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Robert. Can you please briefly explain the structure of your publishing house… perhaps who’s involved along the process of an acceptance to the book / story being published.
Robert B. Marks: Legacy Books Press is a micro press – I take care of the contract negotiations, editing, typesetting, and quality control, and I contract out sales and publicity to people who know more than I do.
Morgen: Publicity is something that a lot of authors struggle with (myself included). Do you write yourself? If so does this help with deciding which projects to take on?
RBM: I do – I also edit. I’ve been very lucky in a few ways. I’ve been able to work as an author with Pocket Books and Osborne / McGraw-Hill, learning a great deal about how they took care of editing and quality control, and then I was able to spend a few years editing for the Queen’s University Electrical and Computer Engineering department and Faculty of Law. So, when I started LBP in 2007, I had a good handle on my craft.
Morgen: The $64,000 question: out of all the submissions you receive, what makes a book / story stand out for all the right reasons?
When somebody’s book is a true labour of love, it shows. It becomes far more than the sum of its parts.
Otherwise, I like to see a new angle on something, or even better a book on some corner of history that almost nobody has ever covered.
I was absolutely thrilled when John-Allen Price wrote The War that Changed the World about this little-known war that lasted about two months and yet shaped the world we live in, and which just about nobody else has written books on in a very long time.
Morgen: I’ve often heard that there are only so many fiction plots (I think seven is the most often quoted number) so it’s interesting that you talk about duplication in non-fiction. Without naming names, what makes a book proposal / story stand out for all the wrong reasons?
RBM: When it’s very clear that the author knows absolutely nothing about my publishing company, and very clearly hasn’t read the submission guidelines. I state up-front that I’m looking for non-fiction history books. All of the books on the website are popular and academic non-fiction history books. Why somebody would send me a family saga or a historical romance novel is beyond me – it doesn’t stop people from sending me them, though.
I’ve also seen some submissions that are just dreadful – as in “the book is so completely unpublishable or the query is so inept that I’m wondering if this is a joke” dreadful. I think the strangest was from this fellow in the United States who pitched me a book about how Christianity in America was getting the message wrong, and offered to travel across the United States proselytizing to promote it. In the end, professionalism really does stand out – if you’re not professional in your initial query or manuscript, why would anybody expect you to be professional enough to work with in general?
Morgen: My submission guidelines are pretty simple… well, I basically will host anyone who writes (regardless of genre) but it does stand out when someone’s not read them and either sends me something completely different (for instance an interview they’ve done with someone else) or random text which doesn’t fit any format. I’d always recommend reading one of whichever option they plan to go for so they get a feel for it. What genres do you accept? What would you suggest an author do with a cross-genre piece of writing?
RBM: Right now it’s all non-fiction history books, with a focus on less-covered corners of history. I am looking into launching a fiction line once I have more infrastructure built – my own e-book The Traveller on the Road of Legends was basically an initial foray to test the proverbial waters. But the earliest that will be happening is 2014 (and, I must stress that I am NOT accepting fiction submissions at this time, nor will I be until 2014 at the earliest, so please do not send me any until I announce otherwise on the LBP website).
Morgen: I’m sure someone will try (please don’t, folks). How can an author submit to you?
RBM: Well, ideally I want a query letter first – preferably through email – with an outline of the project, the target market, and the first three chapters of a completed manuscript. If it’s an established author, an estimated completion date will serve as opposed to a completed manuscript.
Morgen: That sounds very ‘normal’. Can you suggest some ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s when submitting to you.
RBM: Do read the Legacy Books Press website and the submission guidelines and hints. Don’t think you can ignore them, or hand me a clear rough work in progress without any track record and have me accept it. Don’t give me a query letter riddled with spelling and grammar errors – if you can’t get those right in your query, why should I even look at your manuscript?
The biggest thing, though – and I’m fairly sure that this goes for a number of publishers across a number of subjects and genres – is that if your query is interesting enough for me to read your first three chapters, you ultimately have around 10 manuscript pages to impress me, tops. Even there, you have to grab me with your first paragraph, and then keep me interested for the first page, and then the next nine. I’m a history buff, and if you can’t grab me in your first few pages, how are you supposed to grab the reader who decides what books go onto the bookstore shelves, or a customer perusing those shelves?
And, for that matter, and yes, I am paraphrasing a scene from Adaptation to a degree, I publish history books – it is the one subject in which the whole of human activity is represented. Wars, betrayals, love, great romances, the rise and fall of civilizations, corruption and virtue in the corridors of power, they’re all there, often stranger than fiction can ever be. If you can’t find a way to make that interesting, you’re doing something wrong.
Morgen: That can be said really for any kind of writing, can’t it, especially if the authors themselves are bored by whatever they’re writing (as happens). Are there authors that you deal with on a regular basis and / or perhaps represent directly?
RBM: One of the things I am trying to do for the long term is build a regular roster of authors. I’ve had some success there. Kjeld Hald Galster’s second book – a really amazing study of modern coalition warfare in Afghanistan and the lessons of history – has just entered pre-release sales and publicity and is available for pre-order, and John-Allen Price is working on his second book for me, this one about the rise and fall of fascism in the United States in the 1930s, which should be coming out next year.
Morgen: This is a question that I ask authors but I think is just as relevant to you as a publisher: what was the first book / story you published?
RBM: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour, by R. Drew Griffith and myself. It was a textbook for a course at Queen’s University, and it launched Legacy Books Press. The funny thing is that Drew and I had written the book with no such intentions – we were going to have it published in the traditional manner, with my agent representing us once we got to the contract negotiation stage. The manuscript ended up at this small publisher and promptly fell into contract negotiation hell – the offered contract started with the publisher adding his personal name to the copyright and went downhill from there. So, after months of getting nowhere in negotiations with this place, which shall remain nameless, I decided to start a publishing company of my own and just publish the thing myself.
The thing is that I’m an old-school author first and foremost. Part of my professional ethos is that you don’t self-publish (even putting up The Traveller on the Road of Legends five years in was something I had to spend a lot of time getting comfortable with in my head before I did it). I didn’t really feel like a real publisher until I’d published The Secret History of Star Wars, by Michael Kaminski.
Morgen: It clearly helps having a writing background and of course being a “history buff”. What do you feel about an author writing under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to their profile? And would you recommend an author writing under different names for different genres?
RBM: It really depends. If you do write under a pseudonym, it has to be a credible one. “Thargon the Destroyer” may sound like a cool pseudonym for an internet post or story, but it lacks any credibility in print, or even professional online, media. That said, there are no shortage of cases where a pen name is a professional necessity – my mother, who wrote Harlequin Intrigue novels back in the 1980s, had to use a pseudonym because part of Harlequin’s basic contract was copyrighting the author’s name for exclusive use. And, there are no shortage of cases where an author becomes known for one genre of literature, and then has trouble being accepted in another. Ultimately, I guess it depends on the case. For my own authors, I prefer them to use their real names, as it is non-fiction, and that does help with credibility, I think.
Morgen: I’m sure you’re right because it’s all about getting the name known and unless you already have a following as one name or publish the book as ‘Joanna Trollope writing as Caroline Harvey’ (which to me defeats the object) then a secondary name I guess would be like starting from scratch. You mentioned earlier that you had an agent so perfect timing for another semi-priceless question: do you think an agent is vital to an author’s success? How would you suggest an author gets one?
RBM: When it comes to traditional publishing, absolutely. The most important thing an agent does is negotiate the contract, and the ability to do this properly is vital. The agent is basically a safety net to prevent a publisher from screwing over an author in the contract phase. If you ever find a publisher who is unwilling to negotiate with your agent, it’s time to run away very fast.
Morgen: Now for, in theory, a simple question: what’s your opinion of eBooks, do you publish them and do you read them?
RBM: I do publish them, I don’t read them (I prefer printed books), and I think they are a very good complement to the printed page. In my case, my first professional publication was an e-book for Pocket Books titled Diablo: Demonsbane back in 2000, right at the beginning of the very first e-book revolution, so I’ve seen e-books develop right from their beginnings.
The thing that really bothers me is technology pundits, who seem to not only believe that just because a technology is new is must therefore be better, and who also seem to take a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome approach to e-books and printed books – you can almost hear them chanting: “Two formats enter! ONE FORMAT LEAVES!” And it’s all ridiculous. The way they write, there’s an actual break from reality. Despite all the market figures saying otherwise, I’ve read no shortage of people declaring that the printed book is dead, and anybody printing actual paper books is using an obsolete business model.
Here’s the thing – according to the latest figures from the Association of American Publishers, which recently expanded its sample size considerably, the book industry netted around $30 billion last year (which means that the gross was probably around $60 billion). E-books occupied around $2 billion of that net. So, in around a dozen years of development, it hasn’t broken the 10% market share mark yet. There are no signs of the sort of format takeover that occurred with the DVD format vs. VHS, where the former wiped out the latter in five years flat. There are, however, a lot of signs that e-books are a growing and healthy complementary market, related to but separate from printed books, and if I had to make an educated guess, I would say that they are most closely related to the mobile phone app market.
Morgen: I’ve only had a handful of interviewees say that they read eBooks only. I have so many books dotted (OK, much more than dotted) around my house that I don’t think I’ll ever get through them all… and I have a Kindle. Changing direction slightly, poetry and short stories are, in my opinion anyway, the two most hard done by genres… what do you see as the future for them? Do you think the eBook revolution will help given that eBooks seem to be getting shorter?
RBM: Absolutely, although I think that it is a bit of a fallacy to say that e-books are getting shorter. Back in 2000, when I wrote Demonsbane, I was specifically instructed by Pocket Books to keep it at between 20,000 to 30,000 words. So, the trend towards shortness was there right at the beginning.
The thing you have to keep in mind is how people consume written material. Different material is consumed in different ways. So, newspaper articles, for example, are consumed in a very active manner – readers like to discuss them, and so any newspaper that doesn’t have an online presence where readers can post comments is at a disadvantage. Longer fiction and non-fiction is consumed in a very passive manner – readers like to sit down and read passages for long periods of time, so what can deliver that in a simple, easy-to-use format is best (and let’s face it, you can’t get much simpler than a printed, bound book). When it comes to short fiction and poetry, e-readers are very good at delivering them in nice, bite-sized pieces. I’d say that it’s an ideal way to deliver single stories or poems.
Morgen: I have (with short stories anyway). I’m quite an impatient reader; I like to read the story in one go and seeing as I have very little spare time I go for short stories or a Quick Read at the longest (generally an hour’s-worth). Do you have to do a lot of editing to the stories you accept or is the writing usually more or less fully-formed?
RBM: I won’t accept a book for publication unless it’s in a publishable state to begin with. That said, I don’t think there’s a book out there that doesn’t need a couple of editing passes to make it truly shine. So, when I get a manuscript, I do at least two editing passes to make sure that everything works, and that the things that need expanding on get expanded on. And they all need it, even the ones that are publishable from the outset.
Ultimately, any given writer is one of the worst editors of their own work. The problem is this – the author knows what he or she was trying to say in the book, so s/he will project that onto it in the editing pass. You need that extra set of eyes just to make sure that the book says what the author thinks it says.
All that said, the key to successful editing is invisibility. The end reader should never be able to detect that an editor’s hand was involved in a book. If I’ve done my job right, my authors’ books shine, and the reader will never know what edits needed to be made – it will seem like the entire book popped out of the author’s head fully-formed. That is what good editing is. If you can detect the editorial pen, it’s a sign of bad editing.
Morgen: That’s true, and yes, we are far too near our writing – we knew what was meant when we wrote something, besides another opinion will not only find what needs to be chopped (I have two of my novels, both fairly edited to death already, with one of my first readers. I’d dropped them in to her and she started on them whilst I gave her husband an I.T. lesson and by the time we’d finished the pages had significant splashes of colour on them). Pat’s a poet and loves detail so it was really interesting to see she’d chopped so much out). Have you had any surprising feedback about any of your published works?
RBM: Not really. Surprising sales results, certainly. Sometimes you never know what is actually going to stick and do well. And, I love it when something does better than expected, like a public domain reprint of Jomini’s Art of War outselling a new book on ancient humour – it’s always a thrill.
Morgen: I tend not to keep an eye on my Amazon page as I don’t have much out at the moment but Smashwords email me every time I have a sale and that’s a thrill (especially as it doesn’t happen very often, I’m hoping that will change when I have my novels online). Is there a story, section or theme of a book that you’ve printed, or yet to print, that you’re particularly fond of? And why?
RBM: I like to joke that Legacy Books Press is my way of expanding my personal library in the single most expensive and time-consuming manner possible. I am, however, generally wanting to publish books that I would buy if I found them in a book store. So, I guess the books I’m really hoping to find are the ones I don’t yet know I really need to publish, if that makes any sense. My favourite books tend to be the ones where one of my authors uncovers and explores this new corner of history that I’ve never heard of, and that receives almost no coverage.
Aaron Miedema’s Bayonets and Blobsticks, I think, is a great example of this. He discovered an entire realm of World War I bayonet fighting that just about everybody else has ignored or discounted. You’ve got this massive, world-wide war that has received tons of coverage over the years, and he found something new. It was an honour to bring it to print.
Morgen: I volunteer in one of my local Red Cross shops and war books are some of the fastest to go out (especially when we have our Red Cross week and do a window display of them all). Non-fiction is more popular than fiction, I suppose because it’s easier for people to know they’re going to like it. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
RBM: Keep writing, and be professional.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you could recommend?
RBM: I keep coming back to one source in questions like this – On Writing, by Stephen King. I don’t necessarily agree with what he says about outlines, but when it comes to style, I think a writer could do worse than to use it as his or her bible.
Morgen: ‘On Writing’ has been the most recommended book in these interviews (and almost every time I say I have it but I haven’t read it yet… and um, I still haven’t). Given that more emphasis these days is put on the author to market their published works or indeed themselves as a ‘brand’, how involved are you generally with your authors post-publication?
RBM: I try to have as much involvement as possible with my authors, and to be honest, I wish I had more than I’ve been able to have. Legacy Books Press started out as a micro press on a shoestring budget, and it’s in the next twelve months that I’m hoping to bring about the last stages in turning it into a proper small press. So, a lot of effort has been made to expand the infrastructure and learn the business side of the trade, and I’ve been blessed to have patient, kind authors who are willing to take the journey with me.
That said, publicity can be hard. You’d think that getting book reviews would be easy, but I can’t count the number of review copies that I’ve sent off to journals and magazines only to see the copies disappear and the reviews either materialize years after the fact, or not at all. Last year, I finally had the resources to contract out to Smith Publicity, which now serves as the publicity arm of Legacy Books Press on new releases, and it was just a revelation to watch them work. They took an integrated approach, not just pushing review copies, but also marketing the author at the same time. I haven’t looked at publicity in the same way ever since.
Ultimately, I see the relationship between myself and my authors as a long-term one. I want them to come back to me with new projects, and I want to do right by them, no matter how long it takes. I do believe that an author should be an active participant in the marketing of their own work, but at the same time, the driving force should be the publisher. So, I’ve told all of my authors that while they can order new author’s copies at any time, if they want to use them for publicity purposes, to tell me what they want done and let me do it. They shouldn’t be bearing the costs for that.
Morgen: Wow. You sound like a “proper small press” to me. Apart from Smith Publicity and your website, is there any other way that you and your authors market yourselves?
RBM: It’s funny you should mention that, as I don’t think the Legacy Books Press website has ever been that active in the marketing of LBP’s books. The real marketing has been through book reviews and media coverage. One of the things I learned from Smith Publicity is that when you’re getting a book review or interview, one of the things you want the reviewer or writer to do is link directly to where the customer can buy the book, rather than to your website – the minute you require that extra click, you lose a lot of potential sales.
At this point, Legacy Books Press is in the process of implementing a new book release model as part of the transition to a small press. When you’re a micro press, you tend to release books in a certain way – you don’t have a lot of pre-release publicity, and you tend to focus your efforts mainly on getting people to buy your book online. So, you release the book first, and then focus on the publicity and marketing later. The problem is that this actually cuts you off from most of the book market – online sales in 2011 only accounted for 18.5% of the total, so you’re literally missing out on over 80% of potential sales.
Kjeld Galster’s new book, Crucial Coalition, is the test run for the new model. The book is coming out on November 15th. The book has now gone to the printer, and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. For the next six weeks, The Cadence Group, who are handling the sales and marketing, will be pitching the book to bookstore chains and libraries. From the middle of September to the publication date, Smith Publicity and Legacy Books Press will be conducting a publicity campaign, and the reviews and publicity should be coming in from October to March.
The interesting thing is how so much of this works. The majority of the pre-release publicity, while certainly meant to be seen by consumers, is heavily aimed at the bookstore chains. Before any bookstore chain will even touch a book, they want to know that it’s new, that they can have it on their shelves for the publication date, and that it will be backed up by a publicity campaign. If they see all these things, the price point is good, and they like the book, they’ll give it shelf space.
This really is the most crucial marketing of all – if you do these things correctly and you can get the shelf space in the bookstores and the attention of the libraries, you can chase thousands of sales at a time. If you don’t, you’re left chasing dozens at a time.
Morgen: You’re lucky, in the UK our bookshops are dwindling. Here in Northampton (middle England) we have a population of over 200,000 and one bookshop (Waterstone’s). In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about, or distributing, your publications?
RBM: I’m based in Canada, and I’m using print-on-demand printing from Lightning Source, which is owned by Ingram. So, when it comes to getting books to the people who order them, I’ve got worldwide distribution.
The funny thing is, as I mentioned above, so little of this matters when it comes to getting the attention of the people who count with these books. It’s almost all methodology. You need to have the four to six month lead time before the book is released to take care of it all. You need to get the sell sheets out to the bookstores and libraries. You need to get the cataloguing in progress (CiP) data to boost the library sales (and there are a number of libraries who will buy a book based entirely on the CiP information crossing their desk). You need to back up the sales effort with publicity. That’s what opens the door.
And once that door is open, it really seems like there’s a ripple effect. The bookstore sales help drive the online sales, as a lot of people browse in the bookstores, and then buy online. Those four months before the book’s release can determine whether you’re going to sell hundreds of copies, thousands of copies, or tens of thousands of copies. They really make or break the book. And nobody tells you that when you start up a micro press of your own.
Morgen: It certainly sounds more complicated than most people (I’m speaking for myself here) would imagine… and a lot more hard work, especially ‘before the event’. What do you do when you’re not working?
RBM: I do a number of things. I spend a lot of time with my fiancee. I also make honey wine, play the violin (badly), and practice German Longsword fighting.
Morgen: I’m not a wine fan but honey wine sounds nice… and German Longsword fighting intriguing. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
RBM: Well, besides making a shameless plug for the amazing work by Michael Kaminski, Kjeld Hald Galster, Aaron Miedema, and John-Allen Price, I suppose I should also plug my new fantasy e-book, The Traveller on the Road of Legends. It’s a good read, as are they all.
Morgen: Thank you so much, Robert. I look forward to chatting with you again (and finding more about ‘The Traveller on the Roads of Legends’) in March.
Robert B. Marks is an author, writer, editor, publisher, and researcher living in Kingston, Ontario. He holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Medieval Studies and English Literature from Queen’s University, and a Master of Arts degree in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, and has conducted strategic communications research for the Department of National Defence. He is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, the e-book that launched the entire Diablo fiction line; Garwulf’s Corner, one of the first computer games issues columns ever to appear on the internet; The EverQuest Companion: The Inside Lore of a Game World, a book exploring the background, history, and community of EverQuest; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour.
And the link to the Legacy Books Press website is www.legacybookspress.com.
Robert will be returning on 20th March 2013 to talk more about his writing.
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