Publisher’s clearing house: Even with a drop in book sales, local authors still strive to get their work in the hands of readers

Published June 23, 2010

The Suncoast has a lot of the usual components that writers look for when searching for a place to hunker down and break their writer’s block: pleasant weather, ocean views and a solid community of other writers to edit, critique and discuss their works. But getting your ramblings and rantings in print form, or that first novel in the hands of the masses, can be a difficult endeavor for both novice and experienced authors. That’s one area where Sarasota can offer more help than just a good working environment, but the classic advice to authors everywhere still holds true — don’t quit your day job.

There are two types of publishing companies. Traditional publishers choose authors whose books they think will sell, usually footing most of the bills for printing costs, cover design, publicity and distribution, then taking the lion’s share of the profits from each book. Non-traditional publishers offer services that authors pay for and are usually reserved for the rejection letter-weary or those looking for a guide in their self-publishing escapades.

One traditional local publisher, Oceanview Publishing, specializes in the mystery, suspense and thriller departments and recently moved its headquarters to Longboat Key. They have a line-up of six local authors on their roster. Publishing manager Frank Troncale says the company puts out 12 books a year, and has released 50 titles since 2006. They have to be picky, thanks to the more than 200 submissions that arrive every week. “I don’t think a lot of people go to the big publishers first because they don’t want to be rejected,” said Troncale. “We get a lot of referrals to us and we can’t publish everybody so we try to pick the best books.”

Rejection letters are as common as coffee mugs among emerging writers. Longboat Key author H. Terrell Griffin took plenty of licks before catching a break after the owner of Circle Books passed the manuscript for his third novel, Blood Island, along to Oceanview, who then asked him to come aboard. “I sent out 25 query letters and got 25 rejections, so I decided to start publishing myself,” says Griffin, who self-published his first two books, Longboat Blues and Murder Key. “I started researching the costs from getting ISBN numbers, to getting copyrighted and dealing with the printer. It’s a tremendous difference. Oceanview is a traditional publisher with a well thought out editing process where the author and editors and cover artists and everybody gets together. They have the marketing tools to get you into the big box stores.” Troncale says the key to Oceanview’s success is their personal touch: “We get our authors very involved in the process. It’s really like a family. Everybody is excited when a book comes out.”

With over 400 books in print, Pineapple Press has operated out of Sarasota for nearly three decades. They narrow down submissions less by type of genre than by geographic area. “Florida books is what we do,” says Executive Editor June Cussen. “All our books are non-fiction about Florida, and if they’re fiction they must be set in Florida.” Cussen admits that many of the authors coming her way have met attempts to be picked up by big name publishers with failure. “Going with Random House is probably a better bet than going with Pineapple Press,” she says, “but if you want to try the big boys you pretty much have to have an agent. We make the assumption that authors have already tried a bigger publisher before they came to us, unless it’s specific to Florida.”

Much like Griffin’s luck with Oceanview, longtime Sarasota Herald-Tribune humor columnist David Grimes was picked up by Pineapple Press via a friend’s reference. This is by no means a common occurrence. Grimes started out going through the same disappointing charade with big name publishers: “They won’t even return your calls,” he says. “They don’t let any newcomers in. If you’re in, you’re in. If you’re not, you can’t get in. It’s like a magic kingdom.”

Even after he scored the publishing deal with Pineapple, Grimes was disillusioned with his ability to make money through book sales and what the life of a published author really consisted of. “I’ll tell you right off the bat, this is not a get rich quick scheme,” says Grimes. “The process, the way you make money, if you make any, is promoting your book, which is a far different thing than writing your book. Once it comes out it’s up to you to go on speaking tours. It’s really like a full-time job going to book fairs and signings. I really hated it, because I don’t like to be up there in front of people trying to hawk my book. I like to write, I’m not a salesman.”

All parties agree that the number of people buying books and the publishing industry in general is not what it used to be. Many authors and publishers have started trying new tactics in order to meet the demands of a new technological world. “Traditional publishing is changing so rapidly, so independent publishing is kind of the way to go now,” says Julie Ann Howell, publisher and founder of Peppertree Press, a local non-traditional publisher with over 300 books in print, half of them by local authors. “It takes a good 18 months to [hear back from big name publishers] and then you don’t have a say in how it comes out.”

Authors pay Peppertree for services normally provided by traditional publishers, but they have much more control over the editing, design and royalties from their book, and the company also offers guidance with the daunting promotion process. “We always say, ‘think outside the box,’” says Howell. “We’ve had authors have signings at Heavenly Ham, a bank, an Indian reservation, so it depends on what the author is writing about and what works for them. … We don’t own the book. If it gets picked up by a bigger company we send them on their way.”

One local writer who has always done things outside the mainstream is video game creator-turned-author of theGeek Mafia series, Rick Dakan. Harnessing the marketing power of the Internet and targeting specific audiences are Dakan’s current methods, exemplified in the writing and promotion of his new book Cthulhu Cult, based loosely on the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. “There’s a very devoted fan base for H.P. Lovecraft so I figured they’d be easy to find,” says Dakan. “The other side is this book is set in Sarasota. So it’s reaching out to the local market. So, it can be read by everybody, but the people who will really get it are Lovecraft fans and people from Sarasota.”

Dakan is trying to find out if self-publishing, mixed with a little ingenuity, actually returns a higher yield compared to his first three books, which were published by a small traditional publisher. Along with maintaining a website and blog, Dakan started an H.P. Lovecraft-themed podcast and uses social networking sites to promote Cthulhu Cult, all an attempt to reach the kinds of people who might be interested in his book. He also offers a variety of eBook formats along with the standard print version.

“It’s this interesting middle ground because I clearly don’t have an advantage over someone going through a big publisher,” says Dakan, “so the question is can I do better than someone going through a small press? The first time I had to get the press, and now I’m using CreateSpace (a print-on-demand service owned by Amazon.com). I make five times more per book by doing it this way than I would make selling them normally. So it’s kind of an experiment.”

Experimentation appears to be what all publishing companies are in the process of right now. “Publishing is changing,” says Cussen, who recently outsourced Pineapple Press’s warehousing and distribution to Ingram Publisher Services. “Most of it goes through big box stores and all the used books are pretty much web-based, and of course eBooks are coming on fast. The incredible proliferation of books due to self-publishing and Internet books has completely flooded the market. It really has changed the game.”

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