David Lee Summers giving a reading.
Everyone, please welcome author, editor, & publisher David Lee Summers to Dab Of Darkness once again. This time, he graces us with his knowledge on publishing, small presses, and the mysterious hadrosaur mascot of Hadrosaur Productions.
1) Often in the publishing world, we see that cover art and even illustrations may be wide interpretations of the actual story. As a small publisher, how do you match art to the story?
First off, as a writer, I find it exciting to see how an artist envisions one of my stories or novels. I even love it when the artist’s vision doesn’t precisely match the vision I had in mind, as long as it’s a valid interpretation of what I wrote. It’s the process of seeing what I wrote through a reader’s eyes. I love seeing the elements of the story the artist found important.
The way the process works at Tales of the Talisman Magazine is that I send the stories that require illustration to our art director, Laura Givens, along with summaries of the stories. Laura then does her best to match the stories with the artists she works with, typically looking at how the “mood” of a story will match the tone and flavor of an artist’s work. Once the artist has the story, they’re free to go off and interpret it how they want. Laura works with them to create a technically good piece of work and then she sends it to me and I pay the artist. I very rarely interfere with the process. I only send something back to Laura if I feel an illustration gives away too much of a story’s ending, if I feel something could be interpreted as a copyright violation, or if I just can’t understand how the illustration relates to the story at all. I think I have only sent three or four illustrations back in eight years.
As for the covers of Tales of the Talisman, or an anthology like A Kepler’s Dozen, I really just tell Laura the mood or feeling I want to convey in the cover. Most of the time, she goes away and about 48 hours later has something for me. I swear, Laura Givens is a mind reader. Most of the time, what she sends me is perfect. In the few times I’ve asked for a change, it’s usually some detail that I don’t think was quite right and often it’s fixed the same day.
2) Concerning publishing etiquette, are unsolicited manuscripts a welcome treat or something that immediately goes to the bottom of the pile?
Let’s start by defining terms. A solicited manuscript is one that an editor has asked for. We often think of those as being equivalent to submissions made through an agent. Well, sorta. The way that happens is that the agent goes to the editor, makes a pitch and then the editor invites the agent to submit, hence the solicited part. Magazines, even big-name magazines like Asimov’s or Cemetery Dance, rarely solicit work through agents. They tend to buy short stories directly from the authors.
Tales of the Talisman takes submissions from anyone during its open reading periods. As long as the stories conform to the guidelines, these unsolicited manuscripts are absolutely a welcome treat. Our reading periods typically start on January 1 and July 1 of each year and we read until full. (Note, we did cancel our July reading period this year to allow us to get back on track with our publishing schedule.) The guidelines are available on the web at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com/gl.html
The anthology A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen stories set on exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler Mission. In this case, we wanted each story to be set on a different exoplanet. Because of that, writers had to tell us which star system they were going to feature in their story and then they were given the go-ahead to write their story. So, in this case stories were “solicited” even though they didn’t come through an agent. What this meant was that an “unsolicited” story was unlikely to be used. Even though I say that, we did get a submission for Tales of the Talisman that was perfect for the anthology, so I asked to buy it for the book instead of the magazine and fortunately the author was happy to oblige!
3) When considering a short story or even a novel for publication, are tales that fit snugly into a well-established genre preferred over tales that are cross-genre?
As a reader, I absolutely love it when authors play with genre boundaries and tropes to create something fresh and unique. The only real requirement is that everything works in the story’s internal logic. No surprise, then, that I love doing the same thing as a writer.
The reasons for genre compliance are really to give bookstores a place to shelve books and to give readers a sense of what to expect. Being a magazine of science fiction and fantasy, Tales of the Talisman doesn’t have to worry much about either of those things. When we’re lucky enough to be on a bookstore shelf, we’re shelved with the other science fiction and fantasy magazines. Because we are a magazine of multiple stories and poems, people expect a potpourri. So, in fact, I love to see cross-genre stories. That said, my preference is generally for good stories regardless of where they fit in genre definition. So, I usually buy a mix of stories that fit in well-established genres and ones that cross genres.
I don’t consider novels for Hadrosaur Productions, but I have considered them when I’ve worked as an editor for other publishers. My sense is that small presses are a bit more open to cross-genre works than bigger presses simply because they’re selling more of their works as ebooks or through online retailers and again don’t have to worry so much about how the books are going to be shelved at the local big box bookstore.
4) Do small publishers locate beta readers for their works, or is that generally left up to the author?
Again, I think a definition could be handy. A beta reader is someone who reads an author’s manuscript and provides an early critique. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of any press, big or small, finding beta readers for books. Typically that’s something left up to the author.
Generally, a publisher will run a manuscript through three levels of editing. First is acquisitions, where the manuscript is selected. Second is line editing, where someone will read for plot holes, characterization issues, factual problems, problems with sentence structure and so forth. This is probably the closest a publisher will get to a beta reading phase. Finally there will be copyediting or proofreading, where the basics like spelling, punctuation and grammar will be fixed. Depending on the size of the press these jobs may be handled from anywhere from one to three or more people.
Some small publishers will send a novel out for review blurbs. These are the little quotes you may see on the front or back cover of the book that tell how wonderful it is. This really isn’t the same as a beta reader. If the blurb writer loves the story, they will generally send you a short paragraph telling what they loved. If they don’t like story, they generally won’t provide a detailed report. They’ll just decline to provide a blurb.
5) Series versus stand-alones: What are the pluses and the possible pitfalls?
When a situation and a set of characters click, readers and publishers love series. Readers love them because they can come back and spend more time in a beloved world. Publishers love them because they have a ready-made audience for the next book in the series.
An author should only agree to do a series if they absolutely love spending time in the world. If not, they’re not going to create a series that readers will come back to. Ideally, a writer should also treat each book of a series as possibly the last, and wrap up the plot sufficiently that if the publisher cancels the series, readers won’t feel cut off. By the same token, writers should recognize that a reader may start a series in the middle. So, the book has to be able to function as a first book as well. In other words, the perfect series book is a stand-alone that functions in the context of a larger story arc.
In fact, as a writer, I’ve never set out to write a series. I always started with a standalone book, because a new set of characters and a new world is an experiment. That’s the beauty of the standalone. It’s a chance to try new things out. Sometimes those new things are wonderful and need to be explored in more books. Sometimes, that first book will prove sufficient.
On a related note, Tales of the Talisman did try publishing serialized fiction in some of its early issues. A few readers were enthusiastic about the serials, but generally these were people who were already loyal subscribers. New subscribers generally didn’t go back and look for past installments, and single-issue buyers didn’t rush to buy subscriptions to find out the next installment. Perhaps this was a reflection on the specific serials we bought, but it didn’t seem like this was the path to creating loyal subscribers and it kept us from buying as many wonderful stand-alone stories as we would have liked, so we ultimately decided to drop serials from the mix.
6) How important is self-promotion for an author that has signed with a small publisher?
I’m going to say something completely heretical in this day and age. Forget what you’ve been told about “self-promotion.” Figuring out how many tweets per day to send out about your book is a fool’s errand. Intentionally trying to build buzz is just going to get you put in people’s spam filters. What sells books is word of mouth by engaged readers.
The job of an author is to come up with an idea so wonderful, a story so eye-poppingly well told, characters so dynamic that readers will have no choice but to gush about the book. In fact, the book is going to be so terrific, you’re not going to be able to help yourself as you geek out about it to your friends on Twitter, Facebook and at conventions and book fairs. When you’re done with the first book, your job is to go on to the next book. It’s going to be so great, you’re going to have no choice but to talk about that one, too.
The best publishers, large or small, have always worked with the author to help share the enthusiasm, but all publishers have limited resources. Small publishers in particular are going to be people just like you, struggling to make ends meet with a day job, but who have a passion for the craft. On top of that, they also have a bunch of other authors they’re working with. If there is one specific promotion job I can encourage you to do, it’s to work with your publisher to figure out how best to dovetail your energies spreading the enthusiasm about the book, but do it with a spirit of partnership and cooperation.
So, yes, self-promotion is vitally important to an author who has signed with a small press, but the idea I want to get across is that if you’ve done your job as an author, the enthusiasm will flow naturally. It will be infectious. A few curious people will see and check out the book. If the book really is great and strikes a chord, word will spread quickly. If the book’s greatness eludes people, it doesn’t matter. Even though you’re enthusiastic and spreading the word, you’ll already be working on the next great book.
7) How did the hadrosaur come to be the mascot?
My wife, Kumie, and I both love dinosaurs. There’s one dinosaur in particular that we found particularly striking. It’s a Chinese hadrosaur called tsintaosaurus. It’s a duck-billed dinosaur that had a strikingly unicorn-like crest, in effect making it the creature of science and the creature of fantasy. Here’s a good page describing the dinosaur: http://museumvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/discoverycentre/dinosaur-walk/meet-the-skeletons/tsintaosaurus/
What’s more, when Kumie was going to graduate school for her Masters in Business Administration at the University of Arizona, her final project to create a company. That company became our small press. While working on her project, hadrosaur fossils were discovered near Tucson. We took it as a sign and named our small press hadrosaur after the creature of science and fantasy, and we use the tsintaosaurus in our logo.
8) In this electronic age, is distance between author, cover artists, illustrators, and publisher an obstacle?
The distance between people really isn’t much of an obstacle at all. These days I do the majority of business by email and it really doesn’t matter if the person I’m working with is across town or half a world away. Editing stories is largely a visual exercise, and emailing manuscripts marked up in Microsoft Word is very simple. Paypal has generally made it very easy to pay people, no matter where they live. The only thing that can be a very slight obstacle is that it costs more to mail contributor copies of physical books to people in other countries than it does to mail them to someone in the United States.
9) What is your take on book trailers and their effectiveness in promoting a single book or a catalog of books?
I think book trailers can be very eye-catching if done well. Like a good book, a good book trailer needs to be able to stand out from the pack and do something memorable. There are a lot of sites for sharing book trailers and it becomes another way for an author or a publisher to share their enthusiasm for a particular title. However, I’ve seen some book trailers that look like amateur YouTube videos. Nothing about them really captures my attention.
If you’re going to take the time to make a book trailer or spend the money to have one made, make sure it’s done right. Don’t just do it because it’s the “in thing” to do. Do it because it’s something you’ll be proud to show off. I haven’t assembled any book trailers lately simply because I haven’t had the time to make one of the quality I’d find satisfactory. The last one I did was for my novel The Solar Sea. It’s a little dated, but I think it still stands up, largely due to Laura Givens’ excellent artwork. I even made an animation for the video. It’s at http://thesolarsea.com
10) When you are actively scouting for new authors or artists, what are some things you look at for compatibility?
The process of “scouting for a new author or artist” is largely one of putting up a notice saying we’re open to submissions. An author will send a story or a novel (depending on what we’re looking for). An artist might send us a link to their online portfolio.
In the case of short stories, the process is simple. If they send me a story I love, I most likely will send them a contract. As long as they handle the contract and payment process in a business-like way, I’m happy to continue doing business with that author in the future.
In the case of artists for Tales of the Talisman, generally Laura Givens looks at the artist’s portfolio to see if the work fits the kind of tone and quality she wants to maintain. If it is, she emails the artists to make sure they’re happy to work for the pay we can offer and deliver the illustrations we need in a timely fashion. She’ll generally try them out with one piece. If all goes well with that first assignment, she’ll contact them for a future assignments.
Most of my experience with novels comes from acquiring books for other companies. Still, when a publisher commits to buying a book, it’s a relationship that will need to last at least a few years to be successful. I generally start by evaluating the cover letter to see if the author presents herself in a businesslike and professional manner. From there, I like to see what kind of track record the author has. Ideally, I’d like to see a few story sales or at least some indication that she knows how to work well with an editorial team. I also like an author who can carry on a conversation either online or in person. Conversely, I don’t want someone who will dominate a conversation or whose ego is so big, I don’t feel like I fit in the same room with it. I also like to know what an author plans next. Do they have another book planned? Is it a sequel or another standalone? There’s not necessarily a right answer to those questions, but I don’t want an author who has invested all their hopes and dreams in the one work sitting in front of me. Those authors are invariably disappointed when their baby didn’t make them a millionaire overnight or someone gave them a one-star review on Amazon.
11) As a well-established small publisher, what are a few pieces of advice for folks thinking of founding their own publishing company or joining one?
If you’re thinking of joining a small publishing company, look at their track record. Do their books look like they’re professional quality? Do they pay royalties on time? Do they treat their authors well? Do they have clear guidelines for the work they expect you to do? Talk to other people working with that press to find out if they’re happy or not and why.
If you’re planning on founding your own company, plan for the long haul. It can take years for a small publisher to find their niche and be successful. Stay within your means. Don’t publish more books than you can afford to. Don’t take on more projects than you can handle in a timely fashion.
Educate yourself about the process. Understand the workflows needed to create the products you plan to sell. For example, if you plan to publish both print books and ebooks, learn how to manage your workflow so you can do both in a timely manner. Understand how to create a print book and how to create an ebook. Even if you ultimately plan to contract these jobs out, it’s the best way to know whether you’re getting a fair price for the jobs performed.
Educate yourself about the marketplace. Where are you going to sell your books? How do you place those books with those vendors?
As a small publisher, treat your authors well. Pay your royalties on time. Keep clear channels of communication open with your authors and your staff. That said, remember, the readers always come first. Fill your orders in a timely fashion and pay attention to what your readers like and don’t like. They’re the source blood of any publishing venture and your mission will always boil down to finding the best way to get good books into their hands.
Thanks again David for sharing your time and knowledge!
Places to find David Lees Summers and Hadrosaur Productions
Tales of the Talisman
David Lee Summers: Wrong Turn on the Information Superhighway
David Lee Summers’ Web Journal