by Jay Hartman
Publishing is very much about lessons you learn as you go along. Sometimes you hit something out of the ballpark and sometimes it’s a swing and a miss.
As Untreed Reads celebrates its sixth anniversary, it’s interesting to look back on the various trends in publishing that we either jumped on before they were cool or those that we looked at in the rear-view mirror and said “well, we probably should have gotten started on that sooner.”
For starters, in the beginning, short stories made up the bulk of our catalog. You could find shorts available in magazines and e-zines, but nobody was really publishing these as stand-alone works. Our primary focus was the short story, and for several years they were the belle of the ball and made up the largest percentage of our sales. With the advent of self-publishing and authors selling full-length works for $1, the short-story market rapidly dried up. That seems to be turning around a bit again with Kindle Singles and James Patterson‘s Bookshots, but we had to move on to other things.
Print is one area that is experiencing a resurgence. We started out as strictly an e-book company, and now we’re what’s referred to as “e-book first,” meaning our primary interest is in electronic literature, but we’ll do print-on-demand if it’s the right fit. Print was one of those things we weren’t in favor of for a long time, but we finally realized we needed to offer it if we wanted to stay relevant. Keeping things print-on-demand has allowed us to avoid mass killings of trees and still provide a format that people love.
One thing we’ve always set as our mantra is “if everyone else is having trouble classifying your work, you’re probably a perfect fit for us.” Mystery and romance are still our key genres, but we’ve dabbled in a little bit of everything over the years. Ultimately, it’s about the story itself. Cross-genre works are some of our favorites. Maybe it’s a mystery with a sci-fi bent (see our anthology Moon Shot) or comedic mysteries crossed with Thanksgiving (our The Killer Wore Cranberry series). We’ve done clown noir with author Whit Howland, Ice Age mysteries with Kaye George, and a love story from a dog’s point of view from Robin L. Gainey.
Following the same tired tropes that everyone else does is simply not interesting. The world doesn’t need any more shapeshifters, boy wizards, vampires, zombies, or romance stories where sex is everything and there’s no actual romance. Well, unless you’re putting such an amazing original twist on it that a reader can’t help but be wowed by how different the book is. It can’t follow the same established conventions that already exist. Every time someone submits a story and says something along the lines of “if you like Stephen King, you’ll want to publish this!” we say “If we wanted Stephen King we’d go ask him for a book to publish.”
Case in point: for romance and erotica novels, we are more interested in realism than fantasy. We have no problem with stories that don’t have a happy ending as long as the main characters have grown in some way through the process. For these categories, we are particularly interested in stories featuring baby boomers and 55+ characters. We feel this is an extremely under-represented section of the romance market. All the books today seem to be about young people with great bodies and everyone lives happily ever after. But, that’s not reality, and if the story pulls you in, it doesn’t have to fit a certain stereotype. Want a great example of this? Check out The Sweet Charm of Distance by Jared Glovsky for exactly what we mean.
Novellas and short stories are a tougher sell than ever, but still some of our favorites. Sometimes a great story doesn’t need to be novel-length to get the job done. The issue has become that readers generally don’t want to pay to read short stories anymore. However, we’re still interested in short-story collections and the occasional anthology if the theme is unique and different. We’ve had a few cases when a group of authors have brought us an anthology that is so incredible we can’t help but jump on it. Anthologies have the opportunity to present really intriguing ideas in a short and tasty format, and it’s a bit of a surprise that more authors choose to publish short stories individually rather than team up with other writers for this type of writing project. Ultimately, that means more authors helping to spread the gospel of a particular work, which benefits everyone.
Of course, every editor and publisher loves a good series or serialized fiction, and those are always a bit more attractive than a one-off book.
We’re not limited to fiction, though. We’d love to expand to more nonfiction offerings, particularly medical and business titles. If the authors are regulars on lecture circuits and conventions, that greatly increases their chances of being picked up by us. We’re never going to be gung-ho for categories such as religion or self-help, but going back to the previous idea…if it’s an idea that just hasn’t been done before or brings a different spin on a topic, then that makes the ears…er…eyes perk up.
One thing that is still critical for authors is to have a marketing plan with their submission. Too often we receive submissions where it’s unclear who the target audience is or how the author plans to reach said audience. No author who has a publisher should ever have to go it alone, but it’s unrealistic to think that a publisher is going to do 100% of the publicity for an author without him or her ever having to do anything except show up for a book signing. The number of authors who say they don’t need a publisher and can do it themselves, then fail to generate an audience or promote well, is staggering. Writing is 50% talent and 50% prostitution and you have to be prepared to carry some of that weight. As a publisher, we incur all of the production debt, including cover design, editing, proofreading, layout, distribution, marketing, soliciting reviews, promotion, arranging signings, and the list goes on. It’s not unreasonable to ask authors to do their part in driving business for everyone involved. And yet, most authors do little or no promotion at all. As a publisher, we’ve emailed blogging opportunities to our authors, Tweeted, posted to Facebook, run sales and promotions, gotten books in front of libraries, and meanwhile the authors didn’t repost, re-Tweet or even mention anything going on with their title. Do not expect to be a best-selling author if you can’t roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty. Or a lot filthy.
The Big Five publishers say authors need to have a platform, or a built-in readership that is ready to buy their books. Most independent and small presses, such as we are, would be happy just to know that the author has a plan for how to help us spread the word on their title and how they will help drive sales, while agreeing to be an active partner in the process.
The bottom line is that if you want publishers like us to get excited about your work, the work needs to be something different and the author needs to approach writing as a business and not a hobby. If you care only about selling a novel for 99 cents and giving away your book for free to anyone who will take it, you’re definitely not a good fit for us. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s your goal, but it just doesn’t line up with what we want to represent.
Six years and still going strong. We’ve done some things right, we’ve done some things wrong, but in the end it all comes down to great content, talented authors, and willing readers. We’re excited about the next six years and where our authors and their works are going to take us. And maybe, just maybe, someone out there has a mystery series featuring a protagonist that’s a gorilla and solves crimes at a zoo. We haven’t seen it yet…but we keep hoping.
Jay Hartman is known as a respected innovator in the ebook industry—constantly ahead of the curve. Because of his expertise and instincts, he is a regular speaker and interviewed expert on ebooks and all things in the ebook industry—at conferences in person and online, including Litquake; the University of Colorado, Boulder as a Keynote Speaker; and multiple writers groups.