Friday, July 29, 2011

Publishing not as Usual Part Two: Lou Aronica Talks about The Fiction Imprint

I've already run a piece about two writers who are now going to publish with the Fiction Studio Imprint, but now I have the man behind the The Fiction Studio Imprint, New York Times bestselling author, former publisher of Avon Books and Berkley Books, Lou Aronica. An invitation only imprint, The Fiction Studio publishes books in paperback and e-book format and it represents a revolutionary new way of publishing. Aronica,created this new frontier, a gathering of “ambitious wildly creative writers.” To read the whole story, look here.

I'm thrilled to have Lou here.

You have a fascinating background, coming from the world of traditional publishing. Why don’t you think this model works anymore? And can you tell readers something about the way Fiction Studio Imprint changes the rules?

I'm not saying that the traditional publishing model doesn't work anymore. What I'm saying is that it doesn't work for enough people any longer. I'm going to sound like an old codger with this, but back in the day, when I was a publisher at a big house, we offered writers a decent up-front income, careful editorial attention, and appropriately scaled marketing support (after having walked six miles uphill in the snow to get to work). When a traditional house is still willing to do this, it works very well for a writer. However, that combination of financial, editorial, and marketing is increasingly rare.

Meanwhile, the market has shifted in the writer's direction. Manufacturing and distribution – huge barriers to entry in the past – aren't an impediment as long as you can accept the online bookselling world as your marketplace. Many writers have visions of their books in bookstores all over the country. That's a very appealing vision, but you need to be willing to accept the baggage that comes with it in the form of heavy returns, pigeonholing, and publishers turning down your next book because the previous one didn't sell enough to keep the booksellers interested.

When I started Fiction Studio Books, I established a relationship with our distributor, National Book Network, that allows for bookstore distribution. I knew I was going to hold that in reserve, though. Because the focus of the program is on developing audiences for writers, I felt that the development had to happen on the digital side. Having the ability to distribute into the physical retail market means that if a book takes off to the point where we would feel comfortable with a physical distribution, we can do it, but we've had some very successful books already and I still haven't hit that point. By focusing on the digital side, Fiction Studio can publish a much wider range of fiction and take the time necessary to build an audience for a book.

The most significant way in which Fiction Studio changes the rules is that it is essentially a writer's collective. I'm the curator – I need to love every book we publish – and I make my thirty-plus years of publishing experience available to every writer on the list, but the writer remains in control of the publication and keeps the overwhelming share of the publishing income. I set it up this way because I wanted Fiction Studio to be a community of writers working together and sharing ideas. We've already gotten some nice results from that. 

You published your novel Blue yourself—and made it a bestseller. I speak for every writer out there: how, how, how, did you do this???

The reason I wanted to publish Blue myself was that I knew it wasn't a novel that publishers could easily position. It's a father-daughter novel, but it's also a fantasy novel. One viewpoint character is a man in his early forties, another is his fourteen-year-old, largely estranged daughter, and the third is the twenty-year-old queen from the bedtime story world they created when the daughter was much younger. It's about the affect of divorce, but it's also about the value of imagination. I'd spent six years writing it, and I could imagine every publisher saying, "Yes, it's a nice story, but where do we put it in the store?" I knew there was an audience for it, though, and I felt that I needed to try to find it for myself.

Because I wasn't concerned about physical distribution, I didn't have to worry about the book selling in the first two weeks, and I didn't have to worry about where the book was going to be placed. That allowed me to be more patient with the publication and to cast a wider net in trying to draw attention to it. The first step was getting blog reviewers to take it under their wings. I pitched three different markets – the general fiction readership, the sf/fantasy readership, and the teen fantasy readership, and I got very encouraging review attention from bloggers in all three areas. I received about seventy reviews for the book and only a couple of them suggested that I consider a career in the fast food industry.

Once I'd established the novel's credibility, I decided to drop the e-book price dramatically. I couldn't do anything about the print price because those books had to be printed, but I realized that I'd already spent all the money on e-book production that I needed to spend (copyediting, proofreading, cover design, conversion, etc.). If I looked at that expense as a "sunk cost," everything I made thereafter was profit. That's the thing about the e-book business: it doesn't cost you any more to sell twenty thousand than it does to sell twenty. If I could take price out of the buying decision for the reader, maybe I could sell many, many more at $2.99 than I was selling at $9.99. That's when the book took off. I think the combination of the great reviews and the low price made it easy for readers to download. I don't think either by itself would have done the job.

Essentially, I used a very old technique. I saw the first life of the e-book as the "hardcover" to gather reviews. I then used the cred those reviews offered to sell the lower-priced edition, the "paperback reprint" if you will.

One thing you said, which I loved, was that writers are now getting second and even 10th chances to get their work out there in front of the public, which means there are a lot of sharks out there. Do you have any caveats for writers who want to go a non-traditional route?

While the barriers to entry are much lower than they've ever been, publishing is still a foreign experience for most writers. Many of them will seek help, and some people will try to take advantage of them. My feeling is that a writer should never pay a fee for publication. There are genuine costs involved in getting a book into the market. You might need a professional editor. You will definitely need a professional copyeditor. You will need a professional proofreader. You will need a professional cover designer (notice the repeated use of the word "professional" here; this isn't a cute literary device – there's an enormous difference in working with experienced professionals). You will need pages designed and composed for the print edition, and you will need a conversion house to create the e-book file. You will need to print copies for marketing purposes and spend the money to mail those copies out. You may need a marketing professional to help you promote the book. All of those are legitimate expenses and there are many excellent freelancers out there providing these services. However, any publisher charging a fee beyond the cost paid to the freelancer isn't, in my opinion, a real publisher. If a publisher is making money on a publication before the author sells a single copy, it's difficult to believe that this publisher is working in the writer's best interests.

Your imprint is by invitation only. How are you finding your writers?  And what should a writer who wants to be noticed by you do?

The reason the imprint is invitation-only is that I don't make any money on a publication unless the books sell. Therefore, I need to believe that the author is going to be an extremely active partner in the publication. This isn't something I can identify simply by reading a manuscript. Therefore, I look for recommendations from people in the industry, writers who strike up a correspondence with me, tips from the guy at the farmer's market, that sort of thing. I'm going to go over my title target for the first year, so this method seems to be working (and thank you, Caroline, for sending two fabulous writers in my direction).

If someone wants to get my attention outside of these methods (I've heard that the guy at the farmer's market isn't above taking a little "seed money," if you know what I mean), they need to show a real interest in the process. I want to work with writers who are interested in writing and publishing. You can't really be a valuable member of the collective if you don't care about how things work in this industry. Then, of course, you need to get my attention with the writing itself. I'm far more interested in characters and character evolution than I am in plot or setting.

What’s next on the horizon for the Fiction Studio? In other words, what’s obsessing you about the book business?
I'm hugely optimistic about the business right now, more than I have been in a very long time. Digital publishing is liberating in so many ways. Still, the publishing world is changing daily, and what's working right now will seem quaint in a few months. My real obsession at the moment is sustainability. How does a writer find an audience and keep that audience? Much of the energy in the business right now is coming from pricing and the growth of the user base (all those people getting their first Kindles, Nooks, iPads, Sony Readers, etc.). That allows for a certain level of success to come simply from seizing opportunities. However, sustainable success is going to come from staying in readers' minds. How do you capture the moment while working for the long-term. That's what gets me up very early in the morning.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I think you nailed it.


Jeff Lyons said...

Great effort and wonderful courage to do this... thanx Lou!

Wondering about digital rights. There is a push now by agents and lit managers to "force" pubs to split digital rights 50/50 to swing advantage to writers for a change. Since you are focusing on digital side of the house, how are you making this advantageous to writers financially? In other words, how is your imprint handling this differently than traditional houses?

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