Writers in the Storm

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October 28, 2013

The Inside Scoop on Publishing by Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius

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 www.szacharius@kensingtonbooks.com

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.

Visit me at: Facebook at Steven Zacharius and on Twitter @szacharius

For Kennington Submission Guildlines 

Meet the late founder Walter Zacharius at this YouTube site and learn how their wonderful African American line got started.

48 comments on “The Inside Scoop on Publishing by Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius”

  1. Thanks to WITS for this amazing post and many thanks to Steven Zacharius for this detailed accounting of the state of publishing.

    You have answered most of the questions I might have had and more. I am still in the aspiring stage of my "career." As a retired full-time writer, I devote most of my efforts to what I love. It is for this reason, I would prefer the traditional route to publishing. Also, the new trend of digital first is encouraging for those of us who might seem like a risk. It gives the writer and the publisher a chance to "get their feet wet" or the other worn out cliche ... "test the waters."

    I read all the time that romance is the absolute best selling genre and as such WF with romantic elements or not, also appeals to the largest group of buyers ... women. Since I am a multi-genre writer, I wonder if you could tell me what percentage of your house concentrates on mystery and all of its sub-genre? Since women are also the largest buyers of mysteries as well, do you provide the same marketing support?

    Thank you so much, Steven. This has been a real treat 🙂

    1. First of all.....thank you everyone for all your comments. It was a pleasure to be able to blog here. A lot of you signed up to follow me on twitter, so now I guess I really better start tweeting. I generally post on my FB page, but generally it's just my personal ramblings, political views, family stuff, etc....but every once in a while, there's a publishing post :).

      I don't think I can give you an exact answer as to the percentage of mysteries that we publish but it is pretty big. You're absolutely correct in your assumption about the overlapping readership between romance and mysteries, especially the cozy mysteries that we publish. We generally publish at least two mysteries per month. We publish mass market originals as well as hard/soft mysteries. They are always a continuing series. Some of the authors that we've been publishing in mysteries have been with us for a long time now. These include JoAnne Fluke, Leslie Meier, Laurien Berenson and G.A. McKevett to name just a few.


  2. Thanks for for this great blog , Steven. I think it's very cool that Kensington is still a privately owned publisher and that it's been kept in the family. I for one always feel more comfortable working with people that I feel can be counted on to be around for a longer time than those whose who are constantly being melded into other huge corporations. I understand that individual editors often switch publishing companies but there's a lot to be said for the fact that writers can count on Kensington's core base and values to remain the same.

    1. Thanks for the invite Sharla. Actually most of our editors have been with Kensington for a long time. We have very little turnover at Kensington. Of our 90 employees, there are probably about 20 that have been here over 20 years. Our Editor-in-Chief, John Scognamiglio, has been at Kensington for over 20 years as well. And the other Editorial Directors have probably been with us close to ten years each as well. The same holds true for our Publisher, Laurie Parkin.

  3. Hi Steven. Thanks you for sharing your knowledge of the publishing industry. This is a rare treat, especially for indie authors like me. It's good to know where you and Kensington stand on digital publishing. I took the plunge three years ago and have experienced ups and downs. Amazon is my main retailer. I don't sell tons of books but do make enough money to keep me motivated.

    At a recent writers retreat, social media guru Kristen Lamb presented a workshop stressing some of the same points you mention here on WITS, particularly the need to post often and get personal on our blogs. It's a balancing act, trying to blog, tweet, comment on other authors' sites and maintain an active presence on Facebook -- all while trying to write. Not easy and very time consuming!

    I'd love to have a publisher help with promotion and marketing, but from what I've frequently heard through the author grapevine, unless you're a top tier author, publishers expect you to do most of your own promotion these days. Could you address this issue?

    1. You are absolutely correct that there is a bias for promoting and publicizing the top tier authors. It only makes sense for publishers, since those are the people where we make our largest investment. Publishing is a very cash intensive business because of the delay from when we sign up an author to the time we actually publish them. On a multi-book contract, which most of them are, it could be several years before we publish a book where we've already paid out substantial amounts of manuscript advances.
      It's always beneficial when an author has a platform to promote from. This is especially true in the non-fiction area, but it's equally as important in the women's fiction genres. We do try to give just about every author some level of promotion, whether they are digital first authors or established authors in print. Generally this is done utilizing social media more and more often. The promotions include emails of "postcards", newsletters focusing on various genres, digital samplers, review copies and ARC's, etc...
      Hope that helps.


      1. Thank you, Steve, for explaining how you promote authors via social media. I'm acquainted online with your wonderful new author, Ella Quinn, and have seen how Kensington helped her launch her first book, The Seduction of Lady Phoebe. (I love it, by the way!) That says a lot for you in my eyes. Thanks again!

  4. Thanks for the insight! I'm still in the development stage of my writing career and the self pub/ traditional pub question has been big on my mind.

    It's good to hear from someone who knows the industry what the general statistics are. It's also good to know why a publishing house would choose digital-first over print-first.

    Thanks for some great information and answering questions I didn't even know I had!

  5. Thanks for the fantastic post. You named many of the reasons I decided to go with traditional publishing, and I have to say I love being published by Kensington. Tweeted and shared on FB. I'll reblog tomorrow.

    1. Thanks very much for the nice words. And thank goodness you're telling everyone that you love being published by us 🙂

  6. Thank you, Steven, for the amazing insight. As a women's fiction writer, it's nice to see a publishing house that is so supportive of that genre.

    1. It's our bread and butter and always will be. I'm sure you're all familiar with the stats provided by RWA and how huge the romance genre has become. Kensington is a commercial publisher and we'd be foolish not to be publishing what the people want to read.


  7. Hi Steven,
    I met your dad in 2004 when he published Songbird. I was writing for a Connecticut-based newspaper, and he graciously invited me to his home. He took me on a tour of his modern art collection and I got to admire the garden.
    As the interview wound down, he urged me to submit any manuscript I wrote. It was his open-hearted willingness to read my material that motivated me to become an author of Regency romances. So I'd like to give a big shout out to the Zacharias dynasty -- you've changed my life and I couldn't be happier about it!

    1. Wow, thanks so much. That Connecticut home became our family weekend home about five years ago. We get to go up almost every weekend, all year long, with friends and family. My dad was a collector of many different types of art; modern being at the top of the list. But he also loved American Indian art and glass sculpture. Our offices in NYC also have over 200 pieces of art on the walls. When my father passed away in early 2011, I moved a lot of the art from his estate back into the office as well. Visitors often comment about the collection and it's great that he bought what he truly enjoyed.
      It took him over ten years to write his book Songbird, which was published by Atria originally, and then by Kensington in trade paper. So all of you shouldn't give up on your dreams.
      There are still a few Regency authors that do very well. But as is true with many genres, they are cyclical in nature and haven't made the climb back up in popularity yet. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
      Thank you for the very kind words and maybe I'll get to run into you in CT one of these weekends.


  8. I'm glad I happened to see the Facebook post about your blog post, Mr. Zacharius. A couple of questions -- what percentage of new novelists come from your unagented slush pile? I was surprised to see that Kensingston accepts unagented queries.

    I have a friend who double debuted. She self-published the first in a mystery series, and she did it well. Her novel then got picked up by an indie publisher. Does Kensington ever pick up new authors that way? Admission: This is a self-serving question. My debut comes out in March, and I'm thinking about my series' future...

    Thank you, Lisa Alber

    1. The "slush" pile isn't as big as it used to be because like most publishers, we tried to discourage it because it became an enormous job to look at everything that was submitted. Twenty years ago we had some of our biggest authors come from the "slush" pile, but times have changed. Every once in a while though, we find a gem which we often publish in print first. So, I would say that the percentage of new novelists from unsolicited manuscripts is pretty small. The best thing an aspiring writer can do is to meet an editor at a writer's conference and make your pitch. You then get one to one contact with an editor and a name for you to submit to in the future when your book is completed. All publishers constantly look at the rankings of digital first books as well, so we try not to miss a self-published book that is gaining some momentum.
      I hope this helps a little.

  9. Hi Steven,

    How can one get published by Kensington? I have always wanted to be an author with your company. I write Native American Suspense/Paranormal. I truly enjoyed all the info you have shared with us today.


    1. As I said right above this post, try to meet one of our editors at a writer's conference. It always helps to put a face to the name and develop a personal contact. Join your local writer's group and get support from the bigger authors in the group. Get quotes from them and submit them with your manuscript if they're established authors. That will help you stand out from the crowd. By all means if you can afford it, try and get to the annual Romantic Times or RWA conferences or if you write in another genre, their respective conference such as ITW or Western Writers.

      Good luck with the new book.

      1. Those are my kind of hours, Steve! Thanks for blogging with us here at WITS and for taking the time to answer comments. I'm positive there will be more tomorrow. 🙂

  10. Great post! I'm glad I saw this on my facebook feed. I'm an old Precious Gems author a line long, long ago at Kensington. It was my first experience into the publishing world and I thank Kensington for that opportunity.

    1. Those Precious Gems were great while they lasted. They were sold exclusively at WalMart at a very low price to consumers. At its pinnacle we were publishing 12 titles per month in this line. Unfortunately shelf space has severely diminished since those days.

  11. This post only reinforces my determination to go with traditional publishing. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    1. Thank you very much for your support Vicky. That being said, there are some wonderful small publishers out there. Kensington is still considered small in terms of comparison to the Big 5 or 6. All of those companies are billion dollar conglomerates and we have to compete with them every day of the week. One of the reasons we like the women's fiction genre is because authors build up a history and we can base our offer for a new author with more confidence by reviewing the available history from information from agents and Bookscan as well. Bookscan now captures almost all of the printed sales of books at the retail level. They don't capture the sales some of the largest middlemen, the jobbers as they are called, because they don't sell directly to the consumer. They could be resupplying independent bookstores, supplying some of the big box stores or supplying libraries. Libraries are a great source for developing a buzz about an author. I'm pleased to say that Kensington is one of the few "larger" publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at the same price as well them to any ebook retailer. Many of the Big 5 have a limit to how many times an ebook can be checked out before they library has to buy a new license or they sell the book at many times the multiple of the normal ebook price.
      Don't give up on the small indie publishers....There are some wonderful companies out there, Sourcebooks, Ellora's Cave, Samhain, Lyrical Press, Entangled.....and so on.....

  12. Great article. I tweeted, FB'd and tumbled it. Or is that tumblr'd it? Someone needs to write a social media dictionary. 🙂

    1. I'm actually working on starting up a blog again. I did one a couple of years back but it's hard to come up with fresh ideas to blog about all the time. And then you think to yourself, is this interesting to anybody out there? But I'm going to try it again. I think the site is The Book Publishing Insider that I reserved....and I'll get cracking.

  13. […] and traditional publishing and seemed to come out in favor of self-publishing. The other, The Inside Scoop on Publishing by Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius, most definitely advocated traditional publishing (to the point where I felt a wee little bit […]

  14. Thanks for the article, Steven. I'd like to present a different viewpoint, if I may:

    First, I still don't understand why people are harking on about "traditional versus independent publishing". It doesn't matter to the reader - they don't care who published a book so long as it's a quality product - so it shouldn't matter to us, either. An author needs to do what's right for their careers, whatever that may be.

    Second, you mention that "The biggest reason that a self-published author will always come to a publishing house is to get the book distributed in print." What do you think about publishers now debating whether or not to even release print versions of a book at all? Here's a link if you haven't read about it already: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/59721-for-major-pubs-will-print-no-longer-be-the-norm.html?et_mid=643610&rid=240990131

    And what about digital-only imprints? If print is the main reason authors come to publishers, what can a digital-only imprint offer an author that they can't do themselves?

    For example, I pay freelancers for editing, proofing, cover design, and formatting. I have a team of beta readers. I pay advertisers like Bookbub to get me tons of exposure. My titles earn out the cost of publishing in their first month, and earn out the cost of their advertisements almost immediately after the ad goes live. And I pay these people a flat fee, not a cut of my royalties for all future sales. This makes the idea of a digital-only imprint with no advance a very unattractive prospect for me.

    Third, in the question "How do we market and promote titles to catch the consumer?" I don't think you mentioned what Kensington actually does to promote an author's book (you allude to "large accounts" but I'm still not sure what you do with them). You do list a few things the authors themselves should be doing, but what do you, as the publisher, actually do to market a title?

    Thanks for the interesting viewpoints, we don't get enough of this from people on the other side of the fence!


  15. This is the main reason why I am so happy to be a reviewer of your books. I know that every month the list I receive will have a varying group of genres to choose from to read, and review for my blog and social media followers.

    1. We truly value all of the reviewers who take the time to look at the books that we publish each month.

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