Reflections of a first-time author-Part 2

Howard Owen, a friend, author and former colleague, taught me to always carry my book in the car in case someone wants to buy it. Edie Gross, another former colleague, did just that last week. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

Andi Russell, who does the Books page at the Free Lance-Star, where I used to work, invited me to participate in a new feature called the Local Author Spotlight. The Spotlight asks 17 questions of the writer. Here’s a preview of two of my answers:

What I learned from the writing/publishing process:

I was surprised to learn of the writer’s place in the publishing process. I compare it to the groom’s place in a wedding. He’s essential but strictly a minor player. I expected the writer to be an important player since he or she is the creator, the one who starts the process, and upon whom all others depend.

He is at first, but that changes when he surrenders the text to the publisher. Then, like the groom, he’s basically told where to stand and what to say. I don’t mean this in any way to be a criticism of History Press, my publisher. They have behaved honorably from day one. It’s my fault that I was not better informed as to what would happen to me and my work once I signed a contract with them.

What I learned is that after the writer surrenders his or her manuscript, it becomes the publisher’s book. The publisher decides how much of the writer’s text to use, what the book will look like, what it will be called, when it will reach the public, what it will sell for, what the writer will be paid, when he will be paid, and who will sell the book. The writer may be consulted on these points, and even get to argue them, but the publisher has final say.

The publisher prints the book or creates a digital equivalent and then ships it to retailers, the second major player in the process. Again, I was surprised to learn that the retail arm of the process appears to be dominated by one company, Amazon. The others, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, keep one or two books on hand in their stores, then reorder one or two more when those are gone. I don’t know what percentage of my sales have been through Amazon, but I bet it is significant.

And so it is not surprising, when sales revenues are divided, that the author stands third in line behind the publisher and the retailer. My sense after being involved in this process for more than a year is that the $22 list price for my book is split roughly $12 (publisher), $8 (retailer) and $2 (author). Please tell me if I have the numbers wrong. It might make me feel better.

My advice for those trying to write:

Don’t be deterred by anything that I’ve said in answer to the question above. Write that darn book and get it published. It will make you very happy.

PS: Reflection of a first-time author, Part 1 can be seen here.

Where is Mr. Jennings when you need him?

books2When my friend said he didn’t do online shopping and asked where he could buy my book, I didn’t know how to answer. History Press said it was going to place the book with the national chains. Was it available in the stores here? The answer, I discovered, was yes and no.

At the local Barnes & Noble, I searched in the Virginia section, but The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not on the shelves. “We had one copy but sold it,” said a clerk, after checking his computer. “We have another one on order. Would you like to reserve it?”

My next stop was at the local Books-A-Million. Again, I did not see the book in the local history section. “We have two of them. They just came in,” a clerk said, after checking her computer. She and I searched the shelves but could not find it. “It must be in the back,” she said. Apparently the books were still boxed and sitting in the storage room. The clerk said they would need several days to move them to the display floor. “Check back this weekend,” she said.

I wanted to tell the clerk about Mr. Jennings, the manager of Clark Drug, where I worked when I lived in Southern California. Mr. Jennings patrolled the stock room, and if he saw a box of merchandise that he thought should be unpacked and moved to the floor, he marched us back there to get it. “You can’t sell stock that’s sitting back here,” he would say.

So now it appears that my partners in the book-selling business are one company with strict inventory controls and another that needs a lesson from Mr. Jennings. I wrote my friend and told him what I had learned and that I would sell him one of my copies. Sure, he said, bring it by any time.