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It Takes a Team of Davids to Persuade Goliath to Change

Large publishing companies and the press choose what books are available for the public to read, and their choices are not necessarily based on the merit of the books they promote. The very sad part of this story is that the public gets spoon-fed by the big publishing companies and the press. A lot of very fine literature never makes it to the readership for which it was intended.

How many people have you heard say, "I'm going to write a book someday"? Perhaps you are one of them. How many stories have you heard about writers getting their books rejected by a hundred publishers before they find one that will publish it?

At this point in the process, large publishers are upfront, clear, and honest. New authors are not welcome. The message is, "Don't waste your time, energy, and money sending manuscripts for consideration. They will not be read, period."

That means there are two alternatives for new authors: self publish commonly referred to as vanity press and small independent publishers. Vanity presses are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to getting attention and respect from mainstream newspaper and magazine reviewers. Then come small presses, and they are lumped into one large, irrelevant category to be ignored regardless of the differences between them.

Many writers think that once a book is published, all that's left to do is sit back and wait for the royalty checks to come pouring in. But the thrill of getting the finished product in hand is short-lived when the reality of marketing sets in.

Marketing has very little to do with how well the book is written, how good the plot is, or how realistic the characters are. Books are not reviewed on their merit. There are only two things that will get a book noticed by the press: how well-known the author is, and how big the publisher is.

Well-known authors will get reviews in major newspapers and magazines even if they recycle the same weary plot over and over again. Books by celebrities will get reviews even if the celebrity knows nothing about writing.

Major publishing companies can command a high profile with the press even if the author is relatively unknown because they print, or say they print, thousands of copies of a book and have them available at major distributors. The number of books printed, however, says nothing about the quality of the writing. Printing a large run creates the illusion of confidence and success. Sara Nelson, author of the forthcoming book So Many Books, So Little Time, says publishers lie about the number of books they print, and many of the books they do print end up on remainder stacks before the first run is depleted.

Here is the catch-22 for the unknown writer and the small publishing house. The small independent publisher prints maybe 10,000 copies, as opposed to 300,000 copies, on a first run. Large publishers can afford to take the hit if the book doesn't sell. Small ones can't. The book must first generate enough of demand before large numbers of books can be printed at a reasonable cost to the consumer. The demand, however, cannot be generated without reviews and press releases from major newspapers and magazines.

Most novice authors don't know about the futility of seeking reviews from major newspapers and magazines. With the hope of getting just one legitimate review from a major source, they spend many hours doing e-mail and fax queries and a lot of money sending books from their personal stock. What happens to those books? They get thrown on the heap without even a glance, rejected without opening the cover. Rejected, not because they are unworthy, but rejected because the author is unknown and the publisher is small. To make matters worse, the books they offered for review don't stay on the junk heap. They end up being sold as used books on the Web sites of major booksellers.

If major newspapers and magazines refuse to review books on their merit or even print press releases from unknown authors and small publishing houses, only well-known authors will get noticed, and noticed again when their books end up on the remainders. It's no wonder that the big picture disillusions a new author, and the tendency to complain and give up kicks in.

But wait it's not impossible for an unknown author and a small publishing company to get noticed. It takes tenacity, creativity, cooperation, and knowledge about how the system works, with perhaps some luck thrown in.

While it's true that newspaper and magazine critics do not judge which books they will promote on the basis of quality, nevertheless, the small publisher must hold itself accountable to a higher standard than the top five conglomerate New York publishing houses. A couple of bad apples can feed the stereotype about a lesser quality from a small press. The author and the publisher need to work together to insure that a well-written book with an engaging cover will bode well for both the author and the publisher.

And knowing how the system works can be a good thing. It can save the novice author a lot of time, trouble, money, and heartache. For example, sending queries and review books to major newspapers and magazines is futile. The author must earn a reputation in the little leagues before approaching the majors. There is support from reviewers who favor small press. Midwest Book Review, Book Sense, and ForeWord Magazine are good examples.

Librarians tend to be friendlier, more articulate, and fair-minded than the newspaper and magazine book critics. They are a good source for reviews if they're interested in the subject of the book, or a particular age or ethnic group. For example, because of the high number of retired people living in Florida, Florida librarians might be more interested in books that appeal to an older population. And the bonus is that librarians are potential book buyers. That's just one example.

Getting good reviews however is not enough to generate the kind of sales that will make it feasible to do a larger printing and get the price of a book down to where it can compete on an even playing field with the big guys. The next big hurdle is press releases. The media tends to treat press releases from new authors and small presses with a yawn.

This is where tenacity comes into the equation. It's a well-known fact that in advertising a small, consistent presence sells more product than one big splash. If this axiom holds, it stands to reason that the persistent presence of a growing number of individuals and organizations that demand good literature will be taken seriously.

Together, the public, the author, the small independent publisher, the reviewers who favor small presses, and the librarians must cooperate to persuade Goliath to change his ways.

Marilyn LaCourt

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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