Writers In The Storm is honored to welcome Steven Zacharius, President and Chief Executive Officer of Kensington Publishing Corp. Steven has graciously offered to give us the inside scoop on the publishing world from his unique perspective as a New York Publisher. Be sure to find the link below to a YouTube video where Walter Zacharius explains how Kensington started their African American Line. It's truly fascinating.
By Steven Zacharius
I’d like to begin by thanking Sharla Rae to invite me to be a guest blogger. Usually it’s only my co-workers who have to listen to me blab on and on, so this is a treat. Shar has submitted to me a list of suggested topics and I’m going to try and address all of them. If anyone has any questions, you can always email me directly from our website at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just for a little background information, Kensington Publishing Corp. (KPC), is probably the largest privately owned book publisher left in this country that publishes hardcover, trade and mass market books. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary since my father, Walter, founded the company. I’m pleased to say that there’s a third generation Zacharius involved in the company and that is my son, Adam Zacharius. Even though we are a relatively small company in comparison to the other firms we compete against, we do it every day. All the firms that are bigger than us are billion dollar conglomerates and most of them are foreign owned.
Now to the questions:
Independent or Self-publishing Versus Traditional Publishing:
In my opinion this is still an area of great hype by the media and by the digital e-book retailers themselves. We’ve all heard of the enormous success of a handful of authors that have sold 1,000,000 copies of a book they self-published, generally on Kindle, Apple or the Nook platforms. What you very rarely hear is about the other 1,000,000 books that were self-published where the author sold only 25 copies to their families and friends. And believe me, I’m not criticizing this. To be able to put down your story into words is a miraculous feat; I couldn’t do it myself. Self-publishing offers the advantage of giving the author great control over the book and cover design and of course the big allure of earning a huge percentage of the net receipts.
In reality, very few authors make any money doing this because the sales are so low. The key in publishing, whether it be in digital or print, is to get your book noticed. If the publisher can’t get your print book into the stores, nobody is ever going to see it and even know it exists. Sure you can post it on your website or blog about it yourself, but that’s still a relatively small number of people that are going to see anything about your story. The publisher’s relationships with digital and print retailers is critical. Publishers develop these relationships over decades with the retailers, wholesalers and buyers. We see all of the major accounts on a monthly basis to let them know about the new books coming out and how we’re going to promote them. It’s hard if not impossible for a self-published author to do this, especially in the print world.
Digital is obviously a growing piece of the business, in our case, over 30% of our revenues; but the rapid growth has slowed down and the decrease in print sales has thankfully also slowed down as well. With e-books the publisher sends the book files to all of the major e-book retailers and then tries to arrange for promotions with these e-book retailers. Sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we’re not. It’s just like being in a retail store. There are only so many places that the consumer can easily see the book. The home page, weekly or daily email blasts from the retailers, discounted promotions, etc… But keep in mind how many digitally self-published books there now are and how crowded the space is becoming. The self-published author is competing with the larger publishing houses for that valuable promotional space.
I personally don’t think that publishers are going to have any problems attracting and keeping writers in the future. Publishers can sell a far greater number of copies than a self-published author can. We have more promotional vehicles open to us which are very expensive, such a front of store displays. Also, publishers spend money on advertising, whether it’s print ads, Facebook ads and or even just doing social media to stimulate talking about the book. The publisher also gets reviews for books and quotes from other established authors and reviewers.
The biggest reason that a self-published author will always come to a publishing house is to get the book distributed in print. This is something that you really can’t do on your own other than via print on demand, which is a very small distribution and still quite expensive. Let’s also not forget that publishers provide tremendous services for writers. We work with the writer on the storyline, edit the book, do cover design, typeset and proofread the book, market the book and distribute and collect the billing. In addition, we attend numerous trade shows, library shows, Book Expo America, and writer’s conferences to promote the books. We also sell foreign rights and other subsidiary rights, such as bookclub, large print and audio, which the self-published author would have a much harder time doing on their own, if they even had access to these markets.
Author’s Rights in the New Publishing Paradigm:
Of course I can only speak on behalf of Kensington, but we would not publish a new book without controlling the e-book rights as well as the print rights. As mentioned previously, 30% of our revenue is now coming from digital sales. Today the industry standard is 25% of net receipts and I don’t see that changing quickly.
Depending on if the author is being published in a digital only imprint or a traditional imprint is the determining factor as to the structure of the deal. Most digital only imprints don’t pay an author advance, or if they do, it’s relatively small. In this case the royalties can be higher than the standard terms because the publishing house is not laying out money for that advance, which can often be the largest expense of the entire publishing process. Each contract is different and it’s always a negotiation as to how the specific deal is going to be finalized, but there are general guidelines and legal boilerplate that publishers will not change.
The industry is obviously still in a state of flux but the balance between digital and print seems to have reached a balancing point for the moment. Retailers have decreased shelf space for books, there are less large chains but independent bookstores are making a comeback. Online retailers are of course still growing and this is a challenge that all of us in the industry have to deal with on a daily basis. An online retailer can have over a million titles on their website while any one bookstore, even the biggest, would have a fraction of that.
How do we market and promote titles to catch the consumer?
Social media is the fastest growing way but even this can get overcrowded. There are only about a dozen large book accounts that remain in this country. These include the large book chains, wholesalers and book jobbers who distribute to libraries and independents. The industry has consolidated over 750 wholesaler accounts and a couple of thousand independent bookstores a little over 20 years ago to a handful of major accounts today. This makes the business easier in many cases but harder to deal with in other ways.
Most of the bigger publishers now are putting new authors in their digital first imprints. It’s a less expensive risk for the publisher because of the limited print distribution outlets that are now available. If we see that the book has real potential and has good strong e-book sales, we would of course consider publishing it in print.
Kensington’s strength is in women’s fiction. It probably represents about 75% of the number of titles we publish. But we also publish non-fiction, Westerns, thrillers, mysteries and books geared towards the African-American reader. Women’s fiction trends tend to come full circle eventually. One year historical romances are in vogue and then you see a shift towards contemporary or paranormal. I wish we could be fortune-tellers and be able to predict this with any kind of certainty but it’s impossible. Digital publishing allows us a little more flexibility in getting books to market faster and trying to catch and ride these trends.
Social Media and Websites:
Authors must have a website and more importantly it has to be updated on a regular basis. It’s not enough to just put your book covers up there and have it be a static sight. Get someone to help you design it if you can’t do it yourself. Include personal things about yourself. Pictures, videos, anything like that. Readers want to get to know their favorite writers. We don’t know how much this really helps sells books, it’s impossible to tell. But the most successful authors have huge mailing lists, are constantly tweeting and have Facebook Fan Pages that are all constantly being updated.
Sending out an email blast to people who visit your website is vital, whether you do it yourself or the publisher controls the process and just uses your names.
When it comes to marketing always start in your local bookstore; hopefully you have one. Then start spreading out like the spokes of a wheel, in all directions. Get to know the store manager and go in to sign your books if you have a printed book available. Autographed books don’t get returned very often. Try to get local coverage at your bookstore or library and have an event to let people know who you are and why you wrote the book. You won’t draw a big crowd but it will start a little buzz and every little bit helps. Hopefully you have a local paper and they’ll cover the speaking engagement.
If you’re self-publishing spend the money to do some copies by Print On Demand and give them away to key people or give away digital copies of your books to influential people. If you’re a member of a writer’s group, which I definitely recommend; have the most successful author in the group read your book and try to get a cover quote from them that would boost your recognition and make a publisher take notice of how good your books is.
I hope this information helps. I’m always available to answer questions.
Meet the late founder Walter Zacharius at this YouTube site and learn how their wonderful African American line got started.