By Nancy E. McCarthy
The Finger Lakes region has long been an inspirational setting for writing, writers and, of course, reading. The late Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the esteemed 19th century novelist Mark Twain, summered annually in Elmira with his wife’s family. For more than 20 years, in a cozy writing studio overlooking the Chemung River, he penned many works, including his beloved literary masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884.
“All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” noted Ernest Hemingway. “There has been nothing as good since.”
While some area authors may secretly aspire to write the next Great American Novel, many are content to simply share their work with readers in some printed form. Modern publishing avenues are plentiful, widening beyond the increasingly narrow path of securing a major publishing deal.
Today’s powerhouses (in the industry referred to as “The Big Five”) are Penguin Random House, Macmillan Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster. These monoliths don’t often take chances on unknown authors and usually only do business with reputable literary agents.
Another publishing option is a growing number of independent publishers who are accustomed to working directly with writers. They offer many of the services the publishing giants do – editing, design, distribution, marketing – but on a smaller scale. With less overhead, authors usually enjoy a larger percentage of their books’ profits with indies, but may face some limitations in marketing and distribution capabilities.
Self-publishing is a vehicle that puts the author squarely in the driver’s seat. Two big advantages of publishing your own book are complete control of the process and a bigger profit margin. But you also assume all of the financial risk.
Digital publishing is a relatively new trend utilized by traditional and independent publishers, as well as self-published authors. Although e-books initially launched as electronic versions of printed books, many are now released without a hard-copy version.
Big League Publishing
“Publishing has changed a great deal between when my book came out in 2008 and now,” says author and advice columnist Amy Dickinson (of “Ask Amy” fame), “but the one thing that doesn’t change is publishers’ desire to find good stories that resonate with readers.”
Dickinson is one celebrated Finger Lakes local who scored a traditional publishing deal. As a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist with a large fan base, Dickinson was in the enviable – and rare – position of choosing the publisher she wanted to work with. Her agent pitched her book proposal, which resulted in a lively bidding war between several publishing companies.
The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Story of Surprising Second Chances was released by Hyperion in 2008. This memoir about Dickinson’s family and life in the tiny village near Ithaca, quickly became a New York Times best-seller. Hachette Book Group, whose impressive author roster includes Nicholas Sparks, Tom Wolfe and JK Rowling, acquired Hyperion in 2013. Hachette re-released The Mighty Queens and, in 2016, will publish Dickinson’s next book which brings her life story up-to-date.
“I hope it will bring new readers insight into small town life in the Finger Lakes,” says Dickinson, who still happily resides in Freeville.
Delving into Digital
Mark Obbie, a criminal justice journalist in Canandaigua, took a different route. His Kindle Single (a short format e-book) was released through Amazon Publishing in December 2012. His journey started years earlier when he pitched a crime story to O, The Oprah Magazine. O doesn’t often consider unsolicited stories, but the editors were intrigued and contracted Obbie to write “A Deeper Love” about the strange and tragic 2006 murder of a mother by her son in Syracuse. It was published in July 2010 and became the impetus for Obbie to expand the tale into a larger work he titled God’s Nobodies.
His success with O magazine helped Obbie secure a literary agent who shopped God’s Nobodies to publishing houses. With no nibbles, they successfully pitched the concept to Amazon Publishing as a Kindle Single. Kindle Singles, launched in 2011, feature both new and established writers. Singles include fiction, memoirs, personal narratives, reporting, essays and profiles, and range widely in size, typically under 30,000 words.
His contract does not permit Obbie to disclose sales figures but he says his e-book spent seven weeks on the Top 10 sales list and climbed to the #3 slot in the nonfiction category. “Amazon told me I should be very happy with its success, so I guess I am,” remarks Obbie good-naturedly. “I would definitely do it again.”
Taking Matters into Your
Four years ago, seasoned freelance writers Don Stevens and Marci Diehl, both working on novels, commiserated in Canandaigua over the challenges of attracting an agent and breaking into the publishing business. The big companies were all but impenetrable to new authors. They had thought briefly about self-publishing or pitching their work to independent publishers, but Stevens’ research on indie companies didn’t impress him at that time.
“It seemed some of them accepted anyone, even bad writers,” says Stevens who lives in Syracuse. “Most had horrible cover designs and virtually no marketing plan. It was distressing but eye opening.”
Stevens decided to launch his own small press. Sidestepping staff overhead and salaries, Stevens assembled a select team of professionals (editors, marketers, designers) who were willing to work “virtually” on a project-by-project basis with a percentage of book royalties as compensation, just like authors. Merge Publishing was born: merging authors, publisher and everyone in between.
It is not surprising that Merge’s first two books were Stevens’ and Diehl’s novels. “The idea was, in part, to get our work out there, but also to help a community of writers who were having a hard time getting their work published,” Stevens explains. Diehl’s What You Don’t Know Now, an engaging, young-adult, coming-of-age story was released in 2014, followed by Don Stevens’ novel A Taste for Death: A Finger Lakes Wine Mystery, the first in a series, in 2015.
Merge’s third book, Slip Away by Joel Durham, Jr., of Clifton Springs, is slated for a 2015 late-summer release.
Many independent publishers create their brand by homing in on a genre. For instance, Burford Books in Ithaca focuses on the outdoors; selling titles covering golf, sailing, gardening, fishing and more. McBooks Press, also in Ithaca, offers an extensive catalog of historical fiction. Both publishers offer most of their print books in e-book formats.
Anyone can sidestep publishing companies and self -publish their own work, so the quality and success rates swing widely. Laurel C. Wemett, book reviewer for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, admires travel writers Rich and Sue Freeman for having built a solid self-publishing business. Their Footprint Press has released more than a dozen well-researched outdoor recreation guidebooks that cover biking, hiking, paddling, backpacking and other leisure and adventure options in the Finger Lakes region, and in Central and Western New York.
“One of the Freemans’ strengths is they are good at marketing. Some self-published writers are rather limited in that area,” says Wemett. “Once the book is printed in a shiny, colorful paperback with their name on the cover, they have achieved what they set out to do. But that is only the beginning.”
It is thrilling to publish a book, but attracting readers and building an audience is the real endgame. Regardless of how a book is published, today’s writers still need to promote their work if they want to sell books. Many authors have their own websites, write blogs, utilize social media and make appearances at bookstores and libraries to connect with potential readers.
The late American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever said it best. “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss – you can’t do it alone.”
Local Ties to the Next Rochester Read
For its 2016 community read, Writers & Books, a literary center in Rochester, has selected Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses by Rochester native Sonja Livingston. The nonprofit introduced its “If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book…” program in 2001 to encourage community conversations through reading, discussion, and the shared experience of literature. Each year since then, one book is selected for a community read. The event includes appearances by the authors at libraries, schools and other community centers for readings, discussions and book signings.
Queen of the Fall (University of Nebraska Press, American Lives series, 2015), Livingston’s second book, considers the lives of girls and women. In this collection of poetic essays, Livingston weaves together memories from her own life and the lives of iconic women (from the Virgin Mary to Susan B. Anthony) into a rich commentary on femininity, fertility and possibility.
In 2008, Livingston won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, resulting in the publication of her first book, Ghostbread (University of Georgia Press, 2009). Ghostbread chronicles Livingston’s childhood experiences as one of seven children growing up poor and fatherless in Rochester. She says her memoir was “well received in many places, but especially in this region, where the topic of child poverty (both urban and rural) along with the local backdrop really struck a chord with readers.”
Livingston is delighted that Queen of the Fall will be the next Rochester Read. “You just work hard and hope someone notices and appreciates your work, and celebrate when and if they do,” she says.
Livingston moved from Rochester to teach creative writing at the University of Memphis in 2010. “It’s a dream job, and Memphis is cool place to be a writer, but western New York seems to always pull me back, both in my writing and in my life.”
Coming up: Rochester’s Self-Published Book Festival
The Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County will host its second Self-Published Book Festival on November 7 and 8. It’s free and open to the public, and includes several informational programs covering topics such as “Promote Your Book Online” and “Building Your Author Platform.” A juried book fair will provide a forum for about 30 local authors to sell their books and network with book lovers and fellow authors. New this year is a vendor trade show.
Self-publishing expert Peggy DeKay, this year’s keynote speaker, will discuss “The New Freedom of Self-Publishing: How to Leverage the Technology.” DeKay wrote Self-Publishing for Virgins, a comprehensive book on how to self-publish successfully from idea conception to publication and promotion.
Preregistration is required for programs; sign up at Event Calendar at libraryweb.org beginning on October 1. For more information, contact Carol Moldt, Festival Chair, 585-428-8375, firstname.lastname@example.org.