Saturday, February 18, 2012

Small Press Distribution Woes

Below are the (general) requirements for a small press that is seeking distribution:

  • A copy of your best-selling titles (or artwork, page spreads or galleys for books in production)
  • Complete title list with backlist and any upcoming publishing plans
  • Sales history of each title, including original pub date, sales Year-to-Date and previous year, Lifetime sales,
  • Available Stock and Location, and sales projections of future titles
  • Marketing and publicity plans, including copies of recent advertising and reviews, and marketing plans and budgets for upcoming titles
  • Current catalog, if available
Never mind the cost to the publisher, which can be substantial and based on a per title account, it is these points that discourage 90% of all small press from EVER obtaining meaningful distribution.  First they have to list their best sellers, and that means that they've hopefully sold something that might break the four-digit threshold.  Not likely.  It is most likely they will manage two-digit sales from internet presence only, and possibly three-digit sales if the author has gone out and performed speaking engagements, books signings, and hand-to-hand physical sales.

Determination:  They won't qualify.

They better have a healthy backlist that proves they've been doing this for a couple years.  We're not talking about three or four books, nor reprints of public domain classics. 

Determination:  If they don't have the stock--they won't qualify.

The original pub date, sales Year-to-Date and previous year, lifetime sales, of every single title can be a very embarrassing disclosure.  A house might have one copy that has sold 1,200 copies in three years, believing this to be their ticket to distribution, but if the rest of their backlist has average total sales of 45 copies (each) sold in three years, the chances or slim to none they will be picked up.

Available stock means just that--warehoused books.  That equates to offset runs, or very high initial POD runs (right from the gate).  Extremely unlikely with POD publishers, and that's just about all you see out there who call themselves small or independent publishers.  Expense is the culprit.

Determination:  Will not have sufficient inventory:  Will not qualify

Marketing and publicity plans--it's possible that a small POD press might have some ideas, tricks and gimmicks, but it is extremely unlikely that they will have any record of advertising dollars spent, or any real legitimate industry reviews.  Expense and credibility (sources) are the culprits in this example.

Determination:  Won't qualify.

They better have an up-to-date HARDCOPY catalog, preferably a color one.  Sadly many of them don't.

Determination:  Won't qualify.

Folks, these are just some of the bare bones requirements for simple, relatively economic distribution.  The chances that your POD outfit (publisher) has a distributor is very unlikely.  Which will mean NO bookstore placement. Fulfillment distribution is the least acceptable route for a small press, which costs less than the full package that has a sales force that actually visits and pitches to independent and chain book stores.

Publishing today is black and white.  There is no such thing as a medium-sized publishing house anymore, aside from a few (POD) exceptions that manage to garner respectable industry reviews, produce sizable print runs and sell copies in the thousands  .  Either they have distribution or they don't. It's the difference between selling 46 copies and 4,600.  It's as simple as that.  Sadly, if you don't have an agent batting for you and sending your manuscripts out to the majors, you will be inclined to accept contracts from the smaller guys.  Good luck.  Your only recourse then is to work/negotiate the contract until you feel comfortable with the deal.  You'll be hard-pressed to get an advance, but it is possible.  Anything is possible.

Good hunting.

P.S. three words have always defined legitimate publishing for me:


See if you understand the reasoning behind this.  It leads to a complicated but understandable formula, which leads right back to distribution status.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Agent Comfort Zone

Are you afraid of your agent? Just a little bit? Do you find it difficult to ask pertinent questions or advice? Never mind suggesting new markets that have opened up, or publishing houses that you know your agent hasn't queried. You would never tell your agent who to submit to, when, how, why and where? That's just showing blatant interference and disrespect to a professional that knows a hell of lot more than you do.

Horse crap.

I've had three top-gun agents over a period of 23 years. The first thing I get very clear from the beginning, is asking them if I am allowed, or can I be, proactive in the submission process. The answer has always been a definite yes. They can use all the tips and new industry information that you can send them. I all my cases, I stipulated that I would hunt down some of the smaller independent publishers who paid advances and had some type of legitimate distribution, either fulfillment or full sales force status. I was only told in two cases to keep a running record of where these submission went to--this avoids query-type traffic jams and annoying repeat subs.

Does it work? Oh, you bet it does! I tipped my agent off to a very large publisher imprint, suggesting that my thriller might be considered a good bet there. It was very much appreciated--off my submission went--along with another author's thriller. Guess what happened. That other thriller got a contract with a whopping advance. My agent was very pleased and let me know how much she appreciated the lead. Although it didn't happen for me, I'm very glad that a stablemate got the deal.

What happens if you're offered a contract? Do the ole lateral hand-off to your agent. They'll make the final decision and evaluate the contract. Do this immediately. Your agent can also use this as leverage to entice/inform other houses of immediate interest. I'm not saying this will lead to a preempt or auction. Just saying that it might give your agent a little bit of pulling power. It also gives your agent another publisher to list in his/her database, for future reference.

Caveat: This works very well during the last stages of the submission process, where your agent has just about reached the dregs and is hinting around that this second or third volley of submissions will probably be the last to be made. It's kind of a last ditch effort. It is true that some authors with single repped titles that fail to garner a contract, can be excused by their agent. Doesn't happen that often. Most agents will put a book on the back burner if it has failed to sell, and then watch industry trends and editor positions to query at a later date. That's when you should be writing your next book.

Point: Don't ever be afraid to make suggestions to your agent, offer help and research in the submission process, or query a few gems that might be outside your agent's box. Do it sparingly, and always thank your agent for making special submissions that you've recommended.

I had to kick my SF book's website off my sig line, and it pained me to no end. I'll offer it and in future installments. The artwork alone is worth the visit:


Chris Stevenson

Well, another Valentine’s Day behind us, taking with it the hearts, chocolates and Cupid. Today, it’s back to business as usual and I’d like to get right to business with this week’s guest, Chris Stevenson, author of ’Planet Janitor’.
IDI – Chris, tell  us, at what point did you know that you were meant to be a writer?
CS – That would be in 1987 when I read my first short story in Twilight magazine. I was completely bowled over, entertained by a new medium. I thought, rather egotistically, that I could write such stories and be easily published. I did attain print, but it took a year and over 80 short story submissions to the small press and slick magazines. I immediately realized the persistence required for this craft and decided to forge on.
IDI – What are you working on now? Can we get a peek?
CS – I’m putting the final touches on a YA dystopian tale. It involves a future of decline, hardship and crumbling economy, where a new system has been devised that allows heads of household to pawn out family members, to cover debts and avoid prison. It’s called ’Family Trade and Loan’, kind of a play on words. My MC is an 18-year-old female, who is pawned to the company for six months by her father. She ends up becoming an exotic dancer on the mining moon colony, Tranquility Harbor. Her father defaults on the loan, and she becomes property of the corporation. She must somehow escape from this wicked corporation, hide and start a new life without being discovered.
IDI - That sounds very interesting. What was the mind-thought behind your latest book, ‘Planet Janitor’?
CS – I really wanted something different about Planet Janitor to stand out. The original idea did not spring from my forehead all at once, but came in stages. I had a friend who wanted to start a water ionization business called Planet Janitor, 15 years ago. He never started the company but I never forgot the company title – it had an environmentalist quality about it. Fast forward 14 years; I thought what would happen to a crew who landed on a planet that was knee-deep in skeletons from horizon to horizon? That idea simmered. A few weeks later, I read an article about space junk, reclamation, retrieving and recycling precious metals, like titanium, gold, silver, magnesium and aluminum. This gave me the idea for a crew who were adept at capturing space trash. Suddenly I knew I had the entire plot structure and outline for a book. I had a planet besieged by a genocide and a naive crew of environmentalists. Land the crew on the planet, to accomplish a routine mission, but confront them with the planetary killers responsible for the genocide. That’s when I knew I had a Starship Troopers meets Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
IDI – Would you say your stories are plot or character driven?
CS – Although I love my characters and try to inject as much wit and irony in the storyline as possible, I’m forever taking them on extravagant adventures that require a lot of transitions and movement. I’m deeply interested in science and nature, and this also affects the outcome. I also have a bent toward very strong visuals, so I would have to say that I’m plot-driven. I would love to attempt a character-driven literary piece, but my heart and soul lies in creating spec worlds, fantasy or paranormal, from the ground up.
IDI – I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times before, but I’m interested in the answer. Where do your ideas come from?
CS – I bring my family members and friends together for a bull session, where we all toss around a ‘what if’ scenario. the grand prize goes to the one with the most unusual premise. I am totally fixated on developing the most original, unique ideas, and using props that have never been used before. I just did something with a dream catcher that the entire writing/author community has failed to use in the past or present. It was truly a eureka moment. I live for those moments of discovery.
IDI – I’ll bet more than one reader is wondering now in exactly what unique way you used a dream catcher!
I’ve heard arguments for each side, but when writing, do you outline or sketch the entire book before you feel comfortable enough to begin your draft or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your jockey’s?
CS – I definitely fly solo. I find that if I outline my plot, I most often deviate from it  because I feel trapped or confined. The characters most often run away from my plots, doing things that I least expected – changing the storyline, creating new sub-plots, acting out of character, and just plain being unpredictable. I’m too safe when I outline. I take great risks when I fly by the seat of my pants. Great, classic stories demand risk, with a certain breeziness and non-conformity.
IDI – Favorite author, and why?
CS – Easy, the late, great Poul Anderson. He was my mentor for many years, sharing with me his thoughts and advice on writing and publishing. Reason? turn of phrase, voice/style, irony, and a subtle humor and introspection that just had me gob-smacked. There’s a beauty in his writing that’s hard to describe, other than to say he used just the right words and created full-blown, 3-D imagery that could heave you breathless. I’ve remembered sentences, words and full paragraphs of his that have remained with me to this day; such was his impact on me.
IDI – We all draw from within and I believe there is an element of ‘us’ in everything we write. How much of you will a reader find in any given book?
CS – I play every character role as a stand-in. My world views are crammed into the pages but you’ll find it very difficult to identify them, since they will be camouflaged and subtle in nature. Unlike writers like Robert Heinlein, I’ll play hide and seek with you and dare you to find me. Except for one thing: I love tall platinum blondes, who aer tough and innovative. You WILL find that tag in many of my books.
IDI – What advice would you give to unpublished/new authors?
CS – So you want to be a writer and garner publication? Take two aspirin, go into a dark room, lay down and wait for the feeling to pass. Seriously, if you intend to write, you better read more than you write and write more than you think you possibly can. Determination and persistence is the name of this game. You’re fighting for a spot in the entertainment industry and it takes guts, just as though you were reading for a part or cutting a demo. Only you’re doing it with words, imagination and intellect. Once on the writing road you will have to resist looking in the rear view mirror. Your goal is straight ahead. No one will/can deter you from your aspiration. Don a suit of armor – you will need it to cast off the rejections from peers, agents and editors. Keep your family out of it, until you’ve reached a small publication pinnacle.
IDI – What was the best advice ever given to you, and by whom?
CS – I believe it was Alan Dean Foster, but I’m not sure. He said that if I was interested in publishing in book length, to write non-fiction first, using a solid platform. Non-fiction outsells fiction 3 to 1. He was absolutely right. My first two non-fiction books were instantly snapped up, with great advances. Interviews, dozens of radio programs and TV spots followed. I hit the limelight rather early. This gave me the confidence – the boost – to pursue novels. The novels were much more difficult to get published, but by that time, I was a ‘known quantity’.
IDI – Who is your favorite character creation in any of your books?
CS – Galoot, from ‘Planet Janitor’, takes those prestigious honors. “He’s a galoot!” was the first thing  his mother cried out upon the child’s birth. The father, a large man by any standards, knew that his son would be very special some day. Galoot’s first baby rattle was a piston from an old diesel engine. As the child grew, his interest in anything mechanical blossomed. After working in the space port ship yards for 20 years, Galoot earned his master’s certificate in aerospace engineering and function. When he joined the Planet Janitor crew, Galoot was single, lonely and almost eight-feet-tall and 500 pounds. Shunned by those who feared him, rejected by women for his awkward mannerisms, Galoot would find his real home in the company of true friends aboard the Shenandoah. He would also find the love of his life.
IDI – One more question, Chris. What is the hardest or most frustrating aspect of writing? Ideas, getting started, writer’s block, re-writing?
CS –  Easy: promotion and marketing are the most time and labor-draining aspects of this entire business for me. Marketing online is an art form that requires finesse, maturity and persistence. Social networking is so important for an author’s book launch, that without it, sales and reviews can suffer in direct relation to its neglect. Conference attendance, radio and TV interviews, book signings, answering fan mail – all of it is so important for effective promotion and marketing, yet it is so devastatingly, so emotionally and so physically draining that sometimes there is not enough time in the day to craft one sentence, let alone fill a word quota.
Authors Note: ‘Planet Janitor, Custodian of the Stars’ is my latest release and can be found at books and Kindle. the Kindle price for the eBook version is $2.99, and will remain so, with frequent free download trials coming in the near future. You can also visit the Planet Janitor website and see the beautiful artwork (26 illustrations all told), and read the character profiles of the crew.
IDI – Thank you, Chris. I truly enjoyed this interview and found many of your answers and ideas thought-provoking. Good luck with your upcoming release.

Cover Letters

What do you say in a cover letter to an editor? For God's sake, be brief. If you have any previous writing credits go ahead and list them. If not, briefly introduce yourself and tell them truthfully that it's your first time out, or you're a little new to the game. A little touch of humor works wonders (breaks the ice). I once told an editor:

"I'm sorry, I haven't made a sale yet--Charmin tissue has more print than I do." Her reply: "Charmin tissue has more job prestige than I do." We became friends after that and I sold her three submissions later. Lesson: try to be honest and original. There's no need to pander (suck up) to an editor. We're all human, and editors find it refreshing to find humanity in a letter, when in fact, they deal with mediocrity and boredom all day. Don't apologize for anything, but No Bragging.

Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short)

Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short) [Kindle Edition]

Chris Stevenson

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Product Description

The Crew of Planet Janitor are contracted to survey the damage to a lunar mining facility caused by a meteor shower. When a second job proposition proves too sweet to turn down, Captain Zachary Crowe must enter the devastated base. But will the reward be enough to outweigh the consequences of taking on such a risky mission.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 465 KB
  • Publisher: Engage SF (February 7, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00772MYLC
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled


I once asked a famous writer how he managed to be so prolific. He answered, "Apply butt to chair and fingers to keys." And there is no substitute for that answer no matter how you look at it. It doesn't get done if you're not doing it. It simply means, take time out for yourself--steal time, somehow, someway. Get selfish and let the guilt go!

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated)

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated) [Kindle Edition]

Chris Stevenson , Toni Zhang

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Editorial Reviews


"Planet Janitor does deliver an interstellar romp that hearkens to the best of Robert Heinlein or Philip José Farmer... A rollicking plot-driven adventure... The dangers are intimidating, the wonders evocative and the thread that ties it all together is always just a little more tangled than it seems." --The Canadian Science Fiction Review, December 13, 2010

"An intriguing and exciting cross between Aliens and 10,000 Years B.C. - Stevenson shows us a future filled with proof that we should listen to Stephen Hawking's warnings about alien life forms and what they want to do to us." --Gini Koch, author of `Touched by an Alien' & `Alien Tango', December 1, 2010

"Stevenson's book considers the possibility of an elite industry of environmental cleanup specialists who take on all sorts of bizarre environmental jobs... Clearly, this is a timely topic that hits home in the wake of the Gulf oil spill." --SF-Fandom, September 21, 2010

Product Description

Captain Zachary Crowe and the crew of Planet Janitor Corporation are adept at handling environmental clean-ups and close system jumps to collect precious ores and space trash. The problem is they have yet to complete an assignment without a mishap to add to their not so stellar record. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Orion Industries contracts Planet Janitor for a clandestine operation that no one else wants, offering them more money than they could spend in three lifetimes. The mission entails a 12 light-year trip to a newly found habitable planet in the Tau Ceti system. The crew will lose 26 years on Earth due to the cryo jump, but that is the least of their problems. What they find on Tau Ceti will rattle their wits, test their courage, and threaten their very survival.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3514 KB
  • Publisher: Engage SF (January 7, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004IASH8K
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #167,160 Paid in Kindle Store

How Do You Know?

Writing is not an art form, skill, job, wish, blessing, talent, genetic gift or any other derivative. It can be all of those things once you reach a certain level of accomplishment, aside from wishes, hopes and blessings. Writing is a CRAFT. It is developmental. It requires patience, persistence, toil, and tons of devotion to get it right. Basics are imperative--they are the foundation. From there, the heart takes over to learn expression, wisdom drives intelligence, humor evokes irony, pain produces empathy...and all these many things are learned by little leaps and bounds until finally we get it right. And when it clicks for you and you get it right, you'll know it as though the sun came down and burst in front of your face

Breaking In

Pick a magazine you like, a publication that you would like to appear in. If you receive favorable comments and an acceptance, continue submitting other work to them. Once you print with a magazine you are referred to as a known quantity with them. Once accepted it is much easier to break back into their pages. Multiple sales with the same publication can be considered a "House" writer. Any work your House pub rejects you can send off to other magazines. It is advantageous to establish a small career with one entity first. Publishers can be possessive of a writer if they feel they have discovered a new talent that's just right for THEM.

Non-Fiction Addiction

You can sell a non-fiction book on just three sample chapters to a vast majority of publishing houses. They usually want a marketing proposal (overall explanation of the book's audience appeal), a bio, which is a description of your background and expertise (commonly called platform), publishing creds (if any) and a full chapter outline, WITH the sample chapters. If accepted, you will then be given a boilerplate (standard contract) and a tentative due date that will allow you ample time to finish the manuscript. Editors really like to monitor non-fiction books through the writing and production phase, much more so than fiction. Don't be shocked if the editor suggests new chapters, or requests large cuts. They might even supply you with their own outline, interpreting their direction and focus of the book.

Celebrity Endorsements and Blurbs

Don't ever, ever let your publisher acquire a celebrity endorsement for your book who requires a monstrous fee to do so. Example: Ralph Nader told my publisher he would write the forward for $2,000, and then changed his mind after it was done, demanding $4,000. Did his name help sell my book? Survey says "No." Instead, write a humble and polite letter to SEVERAL of your favorite authors (same genre) and ask them if they would be so kind as to endorse your work with a few kind (blurb-worthy) words. 90% of the time the favor will be forthcoming and free, and if you get several endorsements, you can have your favorite pick. Will the other endorsing authors get mad at you if you don't use their lines? Nope, they've already forgotten about you.


Are multiple submissions unethical? It's unethical for a magazine or book publisher to hang on to your manuscript/story for months, sometimes years-sometimes knows an the "exclusive." Fear not the shotgun approach--the chances of two publishers accepting your work at same time are astronomical. I accumulated 250 short story rejection slips before I began to sell anything. So did many authors, who are brand names today. Hint: personalize each query for each agent/publisher. Don't get over-familiar or explain your aspirations, hopes and dreams. State the facts. This is a business.

Postage Costs for the Writer

Writers/authors are entitled to what was once known (still is?) as 4th class special book rate. This knocks your postage down considerably when submitting multiple hard copies of mag stories/articles or book manuscripts through the regular mail. I used it at Mail Boxes Etc. when submitting full length novel manuscripts.

Non-Fiction Platform

Non-fiction books outsell fiction roughly 3 to 1. Every publisher's marketing department knows that. Write about what you know and have a platform of expertise from which to draw from, or put a different slant on an old topic, and there is a good chance that you will make a sale, even without the name of an agent behind you. How is it that a book on totem pole carving in Alaska became a mid-list bestseller? Because it was the only book of its kind ever written on the subject, and was written by one of the only experts that had any experience with the craft

ARCs and Galley Sheets

Encourage, ask, beg your publisher to send ARCs or galley proofs of your new novel or non-fiction book to publications that are read by librarians, such as Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal. Solid quality trade paperbacks and hardbacks are the most desirable, and copies should be sent in 2 to 3 months in advance of publication. Libraries will usually purchase two copies, and with the thousands of libraries in the US, the sale can be quite substantial.

Editor--First Read and Beyond

 An editor will usually scan read the very first pages of a story, looking for general writing skill and a "hook." "Hook" is an idea, plant or prop that grabs their interest, such as character conflict (a dialogue argument), a tragedy in progress, or an obvious mystery that needs solving, or even action. Next, the editor will flip to the middle and check out a few pages, and maybe hit the final page for the resolution. If the editor likes the scan read then he/she will read the entire manuscript and make a final determination.