NBWC: Editors, Agents, Writers and Publishers on the Literature of Black Writers

Moderator: Fred Beauford
Panel: Regina Brooks, Chris Jackson, Linda Duggins, Johnny Temple
National Black Writers’ Conference
Saturday, March 28th, third (and final!) panel session

Beauford’s getting us started: I have two books.  One is a novel that I’m almost finished, called The African Gentleman and the Plot to Reestablish the World Order.  Also I have a memoir.  Now, I want to know: if I approached you with my books, would you take me on as a client.  And if you would, why?  And if you wouldn’t, why?  I want you to be brutally honest.  I want you to honestly assess me as a writer and why you think my book would or wouldn’t sell.  Once the question is answered, I’m turning it over to the audience.

Regina (the agent) asks him which book is finished and tells us that we shouldn’t approach an agent (as new writers) until the novel is completed.  Agents want to see that you can finish a book.  She wanted to know what the sales on his previous books have been … and he didn’t really answer.  She says she needs to know what the numbers are to get a sense of what his “sell through” is like.  When peole publish their own work, they should really know the answer.  Publishers are going to ask how well those previous books have done if she’s going to try to sell an incomplete manuscript.  (Still no real answer … he’d have to call his business partner.)  What promotional platform do you have?  He has his own literary journals (2) and his own publishing company.  He also has a history in PR, so he knows how to do that kind of work … but he gets tired of talking about himself.  We send out about 700 copies of each book we publish and get back about 3 reviews, and those 700 books are in circulation now.  She’s still trying to decide if he’d be an ideal author for her.  He says, “I don’t write ‘black books.’  My books are multi-racial. They aren’t necessarily set in black communities.”  Is the first book speculative fiction?

(Ok, I’m going to stop for now.  Mr. Beauford is kind of using this panel to talk about his own work, like he wants us all to walk out of here to buy his books.  He’s annoying me.  I get that he’s playing Joe Writer, trying to help us see how the conversation would go for us … but we probably wouldn’t be so obnoxious about just telling and retelling about my other books and big-upping my company the way he kind of is right now.  And then not answering the questions she does ask him.  Think I’ll just give the answers that the panel give and not the give and take with him.)

It’s important for Regina to know where he would see his book placed in a book store.  That gives her more of an idea of where to try to pitch the book.

She likes clear answers.  She’ll feel better about representing him then.  So, would she represent him? The answer is “no right now.”  He’s got a publishing history which is encouraging, but he needs the manuscript, and he needs to answer more of her questions.  She wants to hear more about him, less about what his company has done.

So, if we pretend Regina says yes, she’s then going to approach Chris who is a senior editor at a publishing house.  Would he buy the book?  Probably not.  He’d want to read the book first, so he can’t do that if there isn’t a complete manuscript yet.  That said, he knows the kinds of books his house publishes well, and he doesn’t think the novel would work for their house.  In terms of the memoir, he’d have to know more about what makes it extraordinary.  He, as an editor, is looking for books that are either going to be best-sellers or they blow him away because of their writing and literary value.  He doesn’t take chances with books he doesn’t feel passionate about.

If I did buy it, we’d work togegther on the manuscript.  That could be a year or more of work.  We’d talk to see if you’d be ready to do the work that I’d be suggesting.  If you’re not writing something that you think is so special, something that needs to be out there, something that hasn’t been done and needs to be heard, you shouldn’t be writing.  And I want to know if you’re willing to do what you can to promote the book, and that you have the resources/connections to do that.

If Chris bought the book, it’s in production, so the publisher (Johnny Temple) has to decide how much money he’s going to put into the book.  What does he look for?  It’s hard to answer the question.  My company is tiny — staff of four or five people, all of whom are involved in all parts of the work.  We don’t set proper budgets for our books.  We don’t have much money, but we’re known for how aggressively we promote our books.  We do whatever we can to make our authors visible.  We rely on our authors to be deep in that process.  When the read a book they like, they assess the author’s personality because the author has to have a strong working relationship with the staff, can’t take them for granted.  If they find out that you’ve been a jerk with your previous editor, they’re not going to take your book.  We partner with the author, work hand in hand with them.  If the partnership works well, a $2,000 marketing budget can look like at $50,000 marketing budget.

Linda is a publicist.  She wishes she could be at the table when the yes/no decisions were being made.  When she talks to authors, she wants to know how hard you’re going to work.  She wouldn’t want to work on Beauford’s book because she doesn’t have the sense that he would be putting in the work he needs to put in.  A lot of media outlets have dried up.  You as the writer have to be aware of marketing.  You have to LOVE your book in order to get it out there.  Marketing is a lot of work, and you have to be a key player.  You have to learn the business side of things and not worry about it taking away from your creativity.

(Uh-oh: he’s turing it over to the questions now, and there’s a crowd forming.  I don’t think I’m going to type all those questions.  I’ll add any answers if they seems general enough.)

Who publishes translation?  Johnny: More and more companies are publishing literature in translation.  It’s a hard sell because translation is very expensive, anywhere from $3K to $10K.  Archipeligo Books in Brooklyn and Seven Stories Press publish translation.  Chris: A lot of university presses publish translation.  If you go online and look at the press’ catalog, that will give you an idea.

What should we do for self-promotion? Linda: Start regionally.  Reach out of the local papers, tie your book into current events.  Figure out an angle that could be used.  Write for online publications and local publications to get some recognition, start to broaden your audience.  Know who you’re selling to.  Who’s your audience?  Are you writing for your family, or do you want other people to read it?  Regina: It depends on the kind of book you’re doing.  For example, I have a non-fiction book for women and finance.  Last week we taped a TV special that she submitted to her local PBS station and they’re going to use that and the book as a fundraiser for the station.  We taped it live with 300 women in the audience.  They bought the book and will be submitting feedback and videos and we’ll use that to further promote the book.  Fred: Don’t forget that you have a friend in the black press.  If you can write for the black newspapers (write your press releases as journalism), you can build your audience that way.

Advice for novices?  Regina: Get smaller pieces pubished in journals.  I scour journals looking for writers, looking to see if a short story could be developed into a novel.  I’m also always looking for ghost writers.   I have people with great stories but can’t get them written.

Regina: You need to develop a book proposal/a query letter for fiction.  You your work is more image-driven, send it as a dvd.  Johnny: When we’re looking at new material, we’ll look at proposals/query letters directly from authors.  We welcome that.  Regina: Your query letter should have a paragraph or so about the book, a paragraph or so about you.

If an agent likes your query, she’ll have a conversation with you, trying to get to know you a little to see what you’re like.  If she likes it, then she’ll contact the publishing house.  The editor will then make an offer to the author (if they want the book) and then make a deal.  Once there’s a deal, the editor and agent will hash out the terms of the contract.  Then the author goes to work on the book (non-fiction), or he’ll start working with the author on the manuscript (fiction).  Advances are based on what the house projects the book will make. 

No part of your proposal is “throw away.”  At some point in the process, someone in the publishing house, the agency, the marketing office is going to work with some part of your proposal, so write that proposal very carefully.

Regina: Don’t pick up the phone to call an agent if you’ve sent them a query.  If you meet me at a conference or workshop, you can pitch your work that way and we can start a dialogue that way.  If you have an interested publisher and no agent, it’s still a good idea to get an agent so they can negotiate with you.  You should let the agent know who else you’ve sent your work to.

What does author involvement look like? Johnny: Being engaged is expressing a willingness to do things like appear publicly, to maximize the connections you have, be actively involved in promotion of the book, use your own ideas for promotion.  Linda: We need to know we have a team mate in the author.  You have to work. 

A query letter is a cover letter.  It’s usally about three paragraphs.  You can submit the first 3 chapters of your novel … if the agent or publisher wants that first.  Do you homework and know their guidelines.  Don’t send chapters if the guidelines call for a query letter.   The proposal can be ten to fifteen pages, and you only need that for non-fiction.  Overview, table of contents, comparative titles, you as an author, your platform as a writer and marketing, key features and selling points of your book, any special features you want to have included.

Chris: The advantages of big publishing companites are diminishing.  Publishers — big or small — bring a level of expertise that is invaluable.  Self-publishing means you miss out on that quality.  They have to worry about their reputations, too, so if they’re putting their imprint on your book, you can count on them backing that with.

What are the dis/advantages of publishing with university presses?  Regina: Today, they kind of act like the big, for-profit houses.  Many are being pressured to make money, so they are starting to require the same things the big houses require.  The process is entirely the same.  Johnny: The real question is, who wants to publish your book?  You would want to go where there was the most enthusiasm for your work.  Regina: That model is drawn out a little longer because your book has to go through peer review.

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