Every so often, the publishers and editors here ask ourselves: Should we have an official mission statement? You know, something a little more specific than "to publish great mystery fiction." But then we shake our heads: That's our number-one goal. Everything else is secondary.
But I've started thinking about a larger issue: the role of independent publishers in our rapidly changing world. What do we do differently than the major players, and how will these differences help us publish more successfully (i.e., sell more books by worthy writers)?
AGATHO'S MANIFESTO FOR INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS
1. We must publish bravely. As I look back on my career, I think the definition of good publishing has changed. Good publishing used to mean publishing great manuscripts by worthy writers who are not necessarily established celebrities. Nowadays, after the corporate takeovers, good publishing seems to mean acquiring only those manuscripts that you predict will sell boatloads (and you have to go in front of the Powers That Be and swear by all that's holy that yes, this manuscript is the next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). I think we need to return to an earlier era of bravery, in which we take chances on the manuscripts we believe in. At my current company, we try to hedge our bets by balancing our publishing program: more canny marketing-based book purchases are balanced with passionate acquisitions. It's a lovely balance that works suprisingly well when we look at our P&L at the end of each year.
2. We must listen to our instincts. So much of the industry has become about debates: Will it sell? Won't it? Here are all the reasons why it will sell. Here are all the reasons it won't. But nobody has a crystal ball; and we know how many of those much-argued-over-books end up in remainder bins. I think we have to do a better job of embracing the art of publishing instead of trying to turn it into a science. It isn't.
3. We must embrace the electronic world. I think most of us do. The temptation, I think, is to start publishing more books because the new technologies make it so easy to do so (electronically). But we have to continue to give every book the attention it deserves. Every book must be edited and crafted, whether it is being printed or not. That's the only way for eBooks to have the credibility they must have in the new world.
4. We must accept unagented queries. Some of my best book purchases have been unagented. I think as independent publishers we must accept the truth that many very good writers turn to us in desperation when they cannot find an agent willing to take them on. Of course agents do a very important job of culling the wheat from the chaff; but, as most agents say in their rejection letters, a rejection does not mean a manuscript is not good. I'd say I get almost as many good queries and manuscripts now as I did when I worked at the Big Boys; and I think part of our success has been our willingness to take on writers who are not part of the establishment.
5. We must support non-market-savvy writers. Many, many publishing decisions are being made today based on a writer's "platform." How many Facebook friends does s/he have? How many people subscriber to his/her Twitter feed? How many read his/her blog? These are savvy questions in a world where way too many books are published. And yet - there are many, many fabulous writers out there for whom self-promotion does not come easily. We have to be willing to publish these writers and help them with marketing (or - crazy idea - do the marketing for them). It's true: Our jobs are easier when Author has 4 million Facebook contacts. But please see #1 on this list.
6. We must adhere to the highest standards. This means that all of our books need to be professionally designed and tyepset, with top-notch cover designs. A book is, after all, a consumer product - and everyone knows that one of the most important parts of the product mix is packaging. Consumers expect quality; we have to provide it.
7. We must price to show the value of our product. As economists say, price is a signal. It signals the product's worth to the consumer. I know the temptation is there to price our books (especially ebooks) quite low; and I see vanity published authors doing it all the time. I have even seen articles by publishers whom I really respect arguing that lowering ebook prices may have a positive effect on the bottom line. But my gut tells me not to do it, and I won't. Every single book I publish is worth the $7 or $8 what we charge for it on Kindle, Nook, etc. I'm not going to sell them for less. I'm not turning my books into interchangeable commodities. Maybe I'm wrong in this approach; time will tell. But for now I'm standing pat.
8. We must treat our authors as business partners. I've heard/read a lot of tales of publishers who don't pay royalties on time or at all. This is absolutely unacceptable. If we cannot afford to pay royalties to the authors who have earned them, we have no right to be in business.
9. We must develop our authors' careers. I think we have to do whatever we can to help our authors be successful. Of course, they must meet us halfway in this regard. But it's our obligation to send review copies to any credible reviewer or source that can help us get the word out. In the past, I was adamantly opposed to selling copies on consignment, because 90% of the time (no exaggeration) we never see a penny from the consignees. But I've changed my thinking on this. It doesn't cost that much to send a few copies, via media mail; and who knows, maybe Kelly Ripa will see it, love it, and start talking it up.
10. We must play to our core competencies. It's easy to get distracted in a digital era. Facebook! Google! Twitter! Social media! Amazon! Blogs! The media have changed, and so have the opinion leaders. But what makes editors/publishers successful hasn't changed much over the course of a few centuries: It's our job to find talent, craft it, and bring it to the public's attention. It's harder than ever to get attention for books written by non-celebrities and people who aren't the children of the already famous, but we have to keep trying, as frustrating as it is.