Behind The Scenes: The Business of Writing
By Scott Nicholson

The first-ever Thrillerfest at the end of June, an annual convention of the International Thriller Writers, held a number of panels for fans, writers, and those aspiring to join the professional literary ranks. The message of the panel “Behind the Scenes: The Business of Writing” was that writing a marketable book is difficult, selling it is even harder, and then there’s the challenge of getting it into readers’ hands.

The panel consisted of Robert DiForio, who had a 17-year career at NAL/Putnam before launching a one-man literary agency in 1991; Keith Kahla, a long-time senior editor at St. Martin’s Press; Eileen Hutton, co-owner of Brilliance Audio, and MaryElizabeth Hart, co-owner of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. Karen Dionne, who runs an online writing network called Backspace moderated the panel.

DiForio immediately threw a cold splash of reality into the faces of the dozens of aspiring writers in attendance. “It’s unbelievable how many submissions I get,” he said. “I get 10 or more a day. I can’t write an individual letter back to everyone.”

DiForio said it’s difficult to explain what will get his attention, but an inspired query letter is a good start. “What’s your passion for this book? Why is this book important to you?” he asked. “If you convey that, I will read it.”

DiForio urged writers to take the time to research agents and send only to those who might be interested in the material. He told a story of how some people send out multiple queries but include all the email addresses, so the recipients are aware of the “spam attack” and delete it unread. “I can read a page and know if this is something I am interested in,” he said. He added that most of his time is spent on his 200 clients, so newcomers will have a hard time winning his attention, even though the advent of email has speeded up his response times.

Kahla echoed DiForio’s view on the avalanche of manuscripts. “There’s no time,” he said. “I get 10 to 45 subs a week. Eighty percent of those are ones I’ve already acquired.”

Because the submissions Kahla gets have already been screened by an agent and an editorial assistant, he usually will read at least five pages of a promising project. He’s looking primarily for a “competent writer,” but even that might not be enough. He has to circulate the manuscript’s main concept to others in the publishing house, hoping to win their support.

“When you get to the editorial meeting, all your hopes are dashed,” he said, only half-jokingly. “I have to be an advocate within the house, and the house’s advocate to the author. I have to fight for marketing money and attention inside the house.”

He also said the publisher isn’t necessarily concerned with getting mass attention. “Our customer is the bookstore, not the consumer,” Kahla said.

Hutton, whose company is an independent publisher of audio books, said her company needs to see the draft manuscript long before it starts plowing through the publishing channels. “We need to get it at the same time as the publisher,” she said. “The sales cycle is getting longer. And the manuscript has to have a book deal.”

Hutton also urged writers to keep their audio rights separate from the print rights, since publishers may not act quickly enough or be motivated to put out an audio version. She also said not all books lend themselves to oral treatment: “If you want an audio deal, you can’t have a deaf-mute as a main character,” she said.

Because Brilliance Audio has its own manufacturing facilities, it can respond more quickly to the markets and keep material available, as well as react to trends. She said the company also lets authors approve abridgments of their work if they so desire.

Hart said her job is to wade through the hundreds of new releases each month to find the books her customers will respond to. She said catalog copy and marketing plans may make a difference, but because her store is an independent specializing in science fiction, suspense, and mystery, she might not be as interested in the blockbusters that will flood the chain stores. She said the store has success selling books by new authors using word of mouth and personal recommendations. “Write the book you’re passionate about, the book you want to read,” she said.

The rush to get attention within the industry keeps growing more hectic. Kahla said the publishers make their first presentations on new titles more than a half a year in advance of release, with Hutton’s audio books presented in about that same time frame. Hart said her store places orders three to four months ahead of release date.

Kahla also said there was a good bit of hype in print run numbers and marketing campaigns. “It’s a happy, happy fantasy,” he said, with the actual initial print run of a book determined by store orders.

DiForio urged writers to take more responsibility in the marketing of their books and said, even for those with decades of experience, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the industry. “You never know what’s going to work,” he said.


Scott Nicholson is the author of THE FARM, THE HOME, THE MANOR, THE HARVEST, and THE RED CHURCH, with THEY HUNGER out in 2007. He’s an organic gardener, a semi-professional liar, and a goat breeder. His website serves up a blog and more writing tipsphotographs.

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