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Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

First Books

Strong proposals are written in concise, fresh language and answer several questions: So what? Who cares? Why you? Your cover letter should discuss the competition and explain how your book is different. A quick search of Amazon is a good first step. You’ll also want to describe your intended—and heretofore neglected—audience. And, you should recount why you are the only person in the world qualified to write your book. Jenny Wapner ’99, an acquisitions editor at University of California Press, appreciates and puts greater trust in an author who has taken the time to familiarize her- or himself with the market. “It’s not that the publisher cannot do this research,” she says, but when an author knows the competition, it “signals that he or she is not working in a vacuum.”

Novelists follow a similar path to the one outlined above with one important distinction: unpublished fiction writers must complete a manuscript before submitting it. The manuscript should be accompanied by a cover letter that begins with a “hook,” to get the editor’s attention, and includes a brief plot summary and audience description. Literary agents play a more critical role, as many publishers will not look at a fiction manuscript unless it comes via an agent.

On January 26, 2005, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston handed down a ruling in a case brought by a small organic blueberry farmer from Maine.

Organic, Inc.

Samuel Fromartz ’80, Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006)

Alternatives to Traditional Publishing

If this seems like too much market analysis, self-publishing and POD offer different venues with shorter timetables.

New technology has democratized the publishing process. Anyone with a computer can publish a book. After shopping her manuscript around for six months— with agents and publishers telling her it was well written but would be difficult to market—Lena Phoenix ’90 decided to self-publish. In 2006 she financed her own print run of The Heart of a Cult (Garuda, Inc.).

Phoenix cautions that self-publishing requires a great deal of work and attention to detail. “I spent a lot of time arguing with my printer about misaligned book covers,” she recalls. Additionally, she found it difficult to earn back her significant up-front costs. Unable to break into the mainstream book distribution system, her sales occurred entirely on her own website, on Amazon, and in a single independent bookstore that agreed to carry her book. Self-publishing was ultimately worth it, Phoenix says, because the book received great local press and strong reviews, and won an IPPY award from Independent Publisher Book Awards, which honors the year’s best independently published books. “The sales record and publicity for my first book made a big difference when I started shopping my next book and helped me land an excellent agent,” she says.

In a similar manner, Elizabeth Gedney Christensen ’38 set out to publish Acres of Loveliness: The Flower Seed Industry in Lompoc Valley (Lompoc Valley Botanic and Horticultural Society, 2006). Rather than doing it all herself, however, she hired a book packager—someone who helped to edit and design the book, as well as to find a printer; the horticultural society funded her project. Christensen vows never to write a book without the help of such an expert. “I had worked in publishing for nearly 50 years for Random House Dictionary,” she says, “but the world had changed from my early experiences.” She doubts she would have found her printer, located in Jerusalem, without the book packager’s recommendation. Her help was indispensable, says Christensen. “She was a godsend.”

Acres of Loveliness

Self-publishing outfits that offer POD and short-run printing are another alternative. Companies such as iUniverse follow a business model based on demand-first. Books (either in electronic or bound form) are available for order when customers request them. Some of these companies, including Ingram’s Lightning Source and Amazon’s BookSurge, also use digital printing technology to produce smaller print runs. Earlier this year, Borders partnered with Lulu, a POD operation, to launch Borders Personal Publishing program, in which authors can create their own books at in-store kiosks, while paying more for editing, marketing, and other services. (Eventually Borders plans to launch in-store placement of these books, provided authors purchase the premium package. The titles are also available at Borders.com.) It is important to note that an increasing number of trade and university presses are switching to POD after initial publication.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008