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Jim Cox Report: December 2000

Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:

Another month gone by faster than the proverbial speeding bullet!

After the normal monthly announcements, I've got something I want to share about some new "tips, tricks & techniques" that have come my way, on how the small press publisher can secure commendable reviews and build up an expanded direct sales customer base at the same time.

But first things first --

1. The December issues of our two monthly book review magazines "Internet Bookwatch" and "Children's Bookwatch" are up on the Midwest Book Review site, and have been sent out to our subscribers.

Subscription is free. To sign up just send me your email address and which one (or both) you'd like to be subscribed to.

Our website homepage is

Anyone has carte blanche permission to use any of our reviews to enrich the informational content of their websites, organizational newsletters, internet discussions, or for any other commendable purpose. Just cite Midwest Book Review when doing so.

2. I got a lovely letter from Barbara Whitaker, president of the "Northwest Association of Book Publishers" on November 24th. She had enclosed the four latest NWABP newsletters, where she had taken advantage of some of my "Advice For Publishers" articles on the Midwest Book Review website. Because there is so much stuff in them, she had serialized them over four issues.

I was so pleased to learn that! Her letter & newsletters are going into our grant renewal documentation folder, to be hauled out at the annual renewal application for the two grants that fund our library newsletters and website.

It also helps explain the recent and sudden surge of first-time submissions by small presses I had previously never heard of, coming from that part of the country!

If you have a newsletter or organizational publication, and something on the Midwest Book Review website would be useful, please feel free to avail yourself. Just mention where you got it and I'll be happy!

3. I want to share a response I gave to an inquiry on an aspect of the book review process.

> We've just self-published our first title; in fact, we're getting our first
> shipment of books from the printer this week. We're planning on doing a big
> mailing of review copies, and we're wondering if we should wait until after
> the first of the year at this point. I know in the recent discussion on the
> postcard mailing, someone suggested as January and August as the best times
> to send things out. Can I assume this holds true for books too?

It does indeed hold true for books. October, November, and the first two weeks of December are the very peak with regard to the volume of incoming titles submitted for review. You stand a much better chance of having your book noticed if it is received in January, February or the first couple weeks of March -- which also coincides with the seasonal low points for the big conglomerate publishers.

In March, April, and May, the "Spring" titles start coming in. The next slump is usually around July and August. Then with September, the "Fall" titles start to arrive, climaxing in a pre-Christmas ten-week frenzy.

But, anytime you submit to book review operations like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The New York Times Book Review, or the Midwest Book Review, there will always be a very large number of competing title submissions for review.

In January, (the lowest incoming submissions month of the year) we still get around one thousand titles. In November, it's around 2000. The average monthly incoming submissions is 1500.

It's curious, but that makes about 50 books a day coming in, every day, Monday through Saturday. That average has been sustained for several years now here at the Midwest Book Review, rain or shine. There are "bumps" in the average intake months when something happens (like one of my articles getting published in a publisher organization newsletter, or a new "how to" book on publishing comes out with some of my advice for publishers in it) to increase the numbers, but after a few weeks things drop back to that good old 50 book a day average.

That figure includes hardcovers, paperbacks, adult titles, kids books, fiction, non-fiction, the whole spread and scope of what gets published in this country (and Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand!).

And the Midwest Book Review is small potatoes compared to PW or LJ -- their average is twice to three times ours!

As it is, with our 43 volunteers, we are able to actually review about one-third of the submissions to us, month after month, year after year. The odds are higher with the small presses and self-published authors, because of my policy of giving the little guys preferential consideration as an offset against the prejudice they face when submitting to the larger review publications and organizations.

If you want to get an idea of just how massive our little book review operation is in regard to what we can do with what we are sent, take a look at our two on-line book review publications, "Internet Bookwatch" and "Children's Bookwatch" on the Midwest Book Review website (they're free)

If I may say so, it's rather impressive -- all it takes is a workaholic editor-in-chief, 46 compulsive book readers, and around 1200 publishing companies to make it happen!

4. In response to still another aspect of the publishing business, mainly when self-published authors and small press publishers are considering dealing with the major (and mostly New York City based) publishing firms. The questions were posed by Bonnie Marlewski-Probert, who does truly and consistently excellent work as a specialty small press publisher.

> 1. Because this book is outside our normal niche, if I sign a book publishing
> contract with a major house, what can I realistically expect them to do in
> terms of promotion? And for how long can I expect them to promote the title?

In terms of promotion and marketing, you can only expect what the terms of your contract specify. Realistically, you cannot expect anything more than the most minimal effort in your behalf. The "life span" of your title would rarely extend past the season (spring or fall) in which they release it. The major houses do not live off their backlist, as small presses and regional publishers do. Once the season is over, your book with that major house is history.

> 2. Am I better off doing the book myself and hiring a PR firm to promote the
> title, set up TV/radio interviews and if so, how does that work? Who pays
> who and how much and when?

If you are a novice or mid-list author, you must expect to shoulder almost all PR efforts yourself. It's not going to be the major house's publicity department that lines up speaking and appearance opportunities for you -- it's going to be you and/or someone you hire for that purpose. If you do bypass a major house and publish the book yourself, begin with a business plan that has line-item budgeting for PR.

When hiring a professional PR resource, submit your proposal to several different ones and ask for their bid. If you approach half a dozen of the more seasoned independent publicist firms (and just vette some of the names on this publisher forum to create your list) you will get a reliable idea of how much things cost, from sending out publicity releases to reviewers, to pitching media for appearances, to arranging a book tour, etc., etc..

> 3. If I did sign with a major publishing house, who sets up the book
> tours/promotional tours and who pays for those expenses? does the writer
> have any input to encourage the publishing house to spend more money to
> promote the book?

Again, all these items must be specified in your contract -- otherwise you are on a collision course with disappointment. Novice and mid-list writers have very little clout with major publishers as to how large a promotional budget is going to be. And promotional budget determines PR staff time, book tour allotments, review copy numbers, etc. By the way, it all comes out of the author's end as figured out in advance by the majors, on how much they are going to pay you up front (remember that royalties won't kick in to you until the major house's advance has been earned back from book sales).

> 4. When the publishing house no longer promotes a title, what recourse does
> the writer have in terms of promoting the title themselves? Can I buy back
> the rights to the book? Is that a sound idea or is it not worthwhile?

Usually authors can. But again, that should be an item in your original contract. Whether or not it's a good financial idea depends on whether or not you think you can keep selling copies of your book season after season, year after year, once the major house has let the title go out of print. (Remember that a single season is the typical lifespan for most books put out by major houses).

> 5. If you sign a publishing deal with a major house and the standard
> contract indicates that they want first refusal on the next X number of
> your books, does that have to remain in the contract or can I have that
> removed so that they have no option on any future titles?

You can negotiate anything. Whether or not you would be successful depends on how badly a major house wants your book. Wanting first refusal rights to your next book(s) is a major house's way of trying to stake a claim, in case you are one of the writers whose first book with them turns out to be quite profitable. It's usually not a good idea for the writer to be locked in that way. Try to avoid it if you can, but if it turns out to be a deal breaker for the major house, then think of how badly you want them to put your book out. There is no right or wrong answer here; it's just a matter of badly you want them to publish you.

> 6. Last, but surely not least, are there any list members who have signed
> with major houses and can you share your experiences with the rest of us?
> Good/Bad? Would you do it again?

I can respond here, too. More than half a lifetime ago, I wrote and self-published (with the help of my stepfather, who bought an old 19th century hand-operated printing press as a hobby) a book on Mormon history ("The Contributions Of Joseph Smith To Plural Marriage"). It was a one thousand print run. It sold out in about six months. I was approached by a major house for bringing it out as a mass market paperback. I was dazzled. I was also still in college, with a wife and a son, working part-time as a janitor, dependent on family and scholarships to continue.

The money was good, but I turned the deal down. The house (long since defunct, a casualty of the 1980s "merger mania") wanted to have me do a bit of re-writing (a combination of dumbing down and sensationalizing up!).

I've never regretted my decision -- and I still have a couple of copies of that old book, which I'm saving for the next generation of grandkids.

So, the bottom line on whether or not to have a major house publish your book is this:

They never have your best interests at heart -- nor should they. They should have their shareholders', employees', and customers' best interests at heart, with yours as a kind of corporate afterthought. The more successful your book in making money for them, the nicer they'll be to keep you -- because now it's in their best interests to do so.

Ever notice how it's the writers who are lowest on the prestige totem pole in the Hollywood film and television industries? I often think that same phenomena seems to holds true within the corporate bowels of the major houses.

A major house is more experienced at the art of the deal than you are. If you want something from them (promotional budget, publicity assistance, advertising expertise), then you will have to have it clearly and concisely spelled out in your contract -- or it probably won't be there when you need it.

There's another problem with the majors -- they tend to have an horrific turnover of staff. So the editor or publicist you begin with may well not be the one you end with.

This is one problem usually not encountered with small press, regional, and specialty houses.

Good luck!

5. Then, there were these comments I made on the subject of "cover art":

Here's another thought about the critical significance of cover art in making or breaking most books in today's competitive marketplace.

Covers are often even more persuasive than publicity releases as to whether a book will be accepted or rejected for review consideration.

We get an average of 1500 titles a month at the Midwest Book Review. I can tell you that I keep every title on our shelves hoping for a successful review assignment for at least 8 weeks. But at the end of every month, I prune dozens of titles from the shelves when their particular 8 week "window of opportunity" has expired.

The most common reason these titles are orphaned is not subject matter, first time authorship, or small press publisher status.

It's because their cover art is inferior to all of the other titles that came in and sat beside them on that shelf, for eight solid weeks. Cover art that looked like the product of a high school drawing class assignment for beginners. Cover art that was so avant-garde that it left all mainstream sensibilities bewildered in its wake. Cover art that looked cheap, felt cheap, was cheap.

If you can't afford top quality artwork for your cover, artwork that would hold its own against all the competition its niche or category is faced with, then try to use a top quality, thematically appropriate photograph instead.

It's the cover that will entice a reviewer, bookseller, distributor, librarian, or customer to at least pick the book up long enough to open it and cast eye tracks on the interior, where (hopefully) the really good stuff is waiting.

6. Now, let's talk about recruiting reviewers and building up a customer base.

This little email came in, and I think it is a model of its kind:

> My name is Trisha Lindsley and I am an intern for New Riders Publishing. I
> am wondering if we could have your permission to use a review that you posted
> on With your permission, we will use your quote to send to key
> customers in an informational email. Please let us know. If you have any further
> questions, contact me.

This young (I presume) intern did it right. Not knowing me or the Midwest Book Review policy of carte blanche permission, she found a review by a reviewer on the internet (we routinely post our reviews on the Amazon, Borders & B&N websites) that she thought would be useful in their direct customer advertising/promotion campaign and asked permission. It was, of course, immediately given by return email.

Any time you see a review somewhere on the internet that you'd like to make use of, it is a very, very simple matter to just send an email requesting permission. It helps (just as Trisha did) to indicate where you saw it and what you'd like to do with it.

The reason for identifying where you found it is that, in this age of the internet, reviews get picked up and passed along so that they often pop up in places that the reviewer has never heard of. It also helps clue the reviewers in as to the kind of reception website visitors give their reviews when they are in such high-profile places as an on-line bookseller website.

7. Here's something else on the same subject of recruiting reviews and building a customer base. I'm going to reprint the email in its entirety so that I can talk about various elements of it:

> Subj: Deconstructing Jesus

> Hi -
> Sorry for the intrusion, but I saw your review of "Deconstructing
> Jesus" at Amazon and thought I'd let you know about my book, "The
> Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold," which can be found
> at

> You may also be interested in the Christ Myth info at the following
> links:

> Just letting you know.
> Acharya S
> Archaeologist, Historian, Mythologist, Linguist
> Member, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Greece

Here is someone who has a book in a subject area similar to one I reviewed. He discovered my review (and me) when visiting Amazon and checking out his competition. He then contacts me, cites having found my review, and brings his book to my attention.

Note that this fellow is out of Athens, Greece!

If I were an ordinary "reader reviewer", then what he has done would be a direct marketing contact bringing his book to my attention, in case I'd like to check his book out and possibly purchase it.

Since I'm a professional reviewer, what he's done is bring to my attention a book that I would have quite probably never known about any other way.

He ends by citing multiple contact options and his credentials (so that I know he's coming from an academic background, important in this category).

The key elements in avoiding the dreaded "spam" label are all here. Including where he found me, why he's contacting me, and telling me how I can secure additional information. Plus, he's not giving me a detailed pitch. He's referring me to websites for that.

It has the feel of having been generated as a specific inquiry tailored to me, not as a mass marketing PR release that could just as easily be addressed "To Whom It May Concern".

At the same time, it could well serve as a template for use with other reviewers (or possibly been drafted from a template with an "insert Jim Cox here"). But it doesn't come across that way.

I think his email contact is another model of what you as a small press publisher can do when you see someone reviewing a book similar to yours. It could result in either another review or a possible sale of your title.

Well, that's all I've got time for today. The toner cartridge on my Apple Lazer Printer just went dry, and I've got to go into Madison and hunt down another one at $72 a pop.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

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

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