The previous post outlined 20 habits of successful independent publishers.
The following contribution from Jack David, the founder of ECW Press, a mid-sized and fast-growing indie house, describes one of his surprising and shrewd independent publishing habits.
As an indie publisher with a broad list, I’ve begun to suss out NY literary agents to see what they might have to offer. Usually, they agree to meet with me, sometimes just out of curiosity, sometimes thinking they might even be able to sell me something. Once they figure out that I’m likely to offer $3k or $5k against net royalties, they often shake their head and ask if any other agent would make such a deal. And the answer is yes. If I ask the agent about their hot author, and if the agent is looking for $50k, then no deal. We run through some well-known writers, and then I ask, “Is there a manuscript that you love but can’t sell?” This question often has the effect on the agent of neurons flashing and files opening and closing, until there’s a glint, and then a discussion. Likely it was submitted to the Big Six, and the Medium Ten, and no one bit. So why not try it on this publisher from Canada? And that’s how I acquired a memoir by Herschel Cobb about his granddaddy, Ty. From an agency that has J.D. Salinger on its roster.
Now I’m not bragging that we’ll sell a zillion copies, but now that the manuscript is about 80% written, I think I’ve got a winner.
Another story concerns a golf writer who had been previously published by the largest Canadian-owned company. The proposal sat on the publisher’s desk for at least six months. One day, I ran into his wife, an old teaching colleague of mine, and we chatted, and I asked how her husband was doing. And that led to the golf writer and me having a pastrami sandwich (we didn’t share). The conversation went something like: “So, Lorne, what’s going on? What are you writing?” And then a bunch of ideas that didn’t ring any bells for me. Finally, a mention of an idea about him and Moe Norman, an eccentric Canadian golfer whom he had known since he was a teenager. “Oh, tell me more.” And we published the book in April, and have reprinted three times since. The point? You can’t tell where those good books come from.
And finally, my car mechanics, Zyg and John. I’ve been going to their garage for at least twenty years (I drive a Mercury Grand Marquis, if you want to know). One day, John said to me, “Aren’t you a printer or something?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m a book publisher.”
“Well,” said John, “there’s a guy named Al who used to own a circus and has written a book. What should he do?” And that’s how we came to publish Al Stencell’s three circus/side show books.
Jack David is the co-publisher of ECW Press in Toronto. He has gradually delegated everything he can’t do very well to others, and left himself acquisitions and management.