From the Bottom Drawer to the Bookstore

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.

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3 thoughts on “From the Bottom Drawer to the Bookstore

  1. Congratulations, Jack–And best of luck on your agented ventures. Like you, I’ve published a few books handled by agents, and several not. As the playing field narrows more and more, I am confident that agents will be reaching out to indie presses more frequently, and will opt for the one on one approach and modest advance over a large check and decisions by committee. Yours, Tim

  2. Joe Burg says:

    Nothing has leveled the playing field like self-publishing. Instead of meager royalty percentages AFTER profits, authors can get 70% of the royalty off the list price. Book stores are closing, online shopping is the future.

    • Established publishing houses pay royalties to authors based either on a percentage of the list price of each copy sold or else a percentage of the amount billed to customers (a net royalty). I have never heard of a royalty scheme that only paid after a profit had been made by the publisher.

      This is however exactly how it works with self publishing. All the royalties go to covering the production expenses and profit only happens when all the production expenses have been sunk. And many self publishers have discovered that 70% of almost nothing is less good than 10% of something.

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