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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Publisher

There’s an interesting and (hopefully) good-natured-but-heated thread happening between Robert J. Sawyer, author of Mindscan, and Evo Terra of the Dragon Page.

It started when Sawyer, who runs his own publishing house called Robert J. Sawyer Books, received a manuscript from an author seeking publication. The author sent a follow-up email to Sawyer twice within 3 months – in today’s relatively slow-moving publishing world, that’s asking a lot – indicating a pending decision to go the Print-on-Demand route. Sawyer responded to said author with a rejection:

I’ll also say this: repeatedly forcing an editor to focus his or her thoughts on your work by asking if a determination has been made yet may lead the editor to make decisions prematurely, and there’s only one safe decision to be made that way. Since you want a decision now, here it is: I’m going to pass on your book.

So, best of luck elsewhere. All that said, though, one writer to another, I think going the route of online serialization and POD are mistakes you will regret in the years to come. Online publishing and POD are a waste of time; you’ll have fewer than a hundred readers, I’m willing to wager, in either format. But it’s up to you.

Evo Terra of the Dragon Page took issue with this last part and responded on his blog, citing his experience with his audio-book serializing website, podiobooks:

Serialized online fiction, especially if that serialization takes advantage of RSS distribution, can and often does result in significantly more than one hundred readers. Well-written books (and well narrated, if in audio form) following the RSS paradigm, which delivers new chapters/episodes to subscribers when made available, will, for a significant portion of titles, result in one thousand or more readers/listeners to the work. I’m not making these numbers up, nor am I working from anecdotal evidence. I’ve seen it time and time again, on and other spots.

Evo then goes on to cite Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi as examples of the potential success.

The conversation then ping-ponged back to Sawyer who responded with this blog entry:

Now you’re saying, well, let’s ask the two most successful examples of online text distribution how well they’re doing as an indication of whether or not the advice I gave to an unknown, first-time novelist was sound or not — which would be not unlike me saying, “Well, let’s check J.K. Rowling’s numbers to see how a first-time fantasy novelist can expect to do.” 🙂 John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow are exceptions, literally; their experiences have been exceptional, and are not the norm.

And even when Cory does talk about this, we get soft numbers from him; Cory usually cites the number of printings his books have gone into — six for his most-successful one to date, all in trade paperback, which, of the three common book formats [hardcover, mass-market, and trade] has the lowest threshold for economical reprinting, instead of the actual number of copies sold.

He does know that figure; he just doesn’t share it. But it’s on his royalty statements — and royalty statements, in fact, don’t list number of printings (because they’re meaningless, since a printing has no fixed size — a trade paperback reprinting could easily be and often is 1,000 copies), so he’s giving us the public number [anybody can see what the printing number is on a book], and is withholding the private number.

My 2 pennies: This is an enlightening converstaion. Hopefully there’s more to come…

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Publisher

  1. joshua corning // July 22, 2006 at 12:42 pm //

    yeah i don’t really care about online distrobution v whatever…what really bothers me is the first comment about how awful it was for an author of a book to ask 2 times over 3 months if the pubisher wants to publish or not…ooooh how terrible.

    anyway i am never buying a sawyer books book…it is obviouse that the publisher is more interested in contoling people to actaully finding good books and publishing them.

    note: this is a hollow threat…the chances that I would come across a sawyer published book are nil to none…but comming across a short story or audio book for me is not uncommon.

  2. We might have another winner here as well!

  3. I don’t know about this its interesting that his comments were pulled from about midway in the response he gave to the perspective author, and maybe he has a magnificent track record with responses. Either way, I don’t care – the more interesting discussion is the one that revolves around distribution and statements to that effect.

  4. I’m not sure that Sawyer didn’t give the author some good advice.

  5. I recommend a read of John Scalzi’s take on all this (especially since he is cited).


    “As a writer, I certainly agree it sucks that the submission process takes so damn long — indeed, the lameness of the submission process in general was one of the major reasons I decided to serialize Old Man’s War online in the first place — but writers have to remember that the submission process is not for their benefit, it’s for the benefit of the editor. And anyway, if you’re annoying an editor at the submission stage, you’re not making an argument for yourself being easy to work with at any other stage. So, in sum: don’t piss off the editor.”

    So the author in question pissing off (to use Scalzi’s phrase) the publisher/editor (Sawyer) was mistake one.

    Lots more good stuff in that posting.

  6. Joshua:

    So you are boycotting Sawyer’s publishing house because someone who wasn’t Sawyer posted a comment you didnt’ like on his blog?

    Hmm… that seems pretty silly.

  7. I don’t know this editor and could not care less about his thoughts. But I know that he’s wrong if he means POD books and on line serialization are not the way to go for an unknown brand new author. I average more than 300 new independant hits to my site monthly. This does not include those who drop by my on line store at my publisher’s site…with no blog. So are people reading me? Yes. And I own all the content. Could I develop a following? I already have. Will I ever break a book big? That isn’t dictated by whether or not it’s print or POD. Face it. Just because the mega hit of POD hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s left to the visionary. Could anyone see the multibillion dollar shoe market in the late seventies? The multibillion dollar shoe market tied to the rise of the fitness craze of the seventies eighties etc…Sneaker stores–what?!Now everybody accepts it. It doesn’t take too much of a visionary to see the rise of the home computer and the POD book. And with the rise of POD and the home computer comes the slow fall from grace of the Gods in traditional publishing.

    The time is done, long gone, fallen to so much shadow, when true writers would need to beg(read worship) publishing for their shot. Any real writer knows that if ya got it, then ya got the need to give it and some wanna be, some gonna be, some coulda been writer passing for an editor is no longer gonna play some mind control and otherwise sadistic games to serve his/her own ego and will not stop the march toward publication.

    Hey editor, fan base dictates sales. Why not create a fan base for free–on the web. More people know about my writing now then if the manuscripts sat under the bed waiting for the world to change and recognise my talent. I went POD and now instead of waiting for publishing to recognize me,I’ve been recognized in public as I entered a restaurant by some one who bought my book that I didn’t know!!!Some one is actually selling my autographed book on ebay and another of my autographed books actually got sold. Have I sold a lot of books. No. I still have to work, but I don’t have editor kissy lips and I have a small following instead of following editors as part of the writer cult. Would all the same have happened with a small print run as a new writer? Doubtful because of the cutting edge nature of my work, but who really knows? But I do know that my creativity and productivity are not frustrated by some pompous frustrated impediment who is merely waiting until he/she can find time to work on their own memoir or some house’s lack of an ad budject. Now to be sure maybe there is an editor out there who wouldn’t put me through inquisition torture without paying me a modest up front advance and who wouldn’t keep changing his mind after his vision which I spend months crafting doesn’t work(which was why I didn’t do it in the first place). But the point is I don’t need to find that editor and that’s all that matters.

    Newsflash: the point in a fledgling career such as my own is not purchased books but rather noteriety as in public notice then the big break book will come. So let the bloggers dream on the break through hit count. Let POD cats count the click throughs every month. POD is here to stay. And let us say Publisher/editor a__ kissing is increasingly becoming thing of the past. Thank God. And thank God for POD.

    Kamau Atem

    7 quality POD books in 2 years.

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