ParticipantsGreg Daniel, Daniel Literary GroupStephen Hanselman, founder and president, LevelFiveMediaKathryn Helmers, managing partner, Creative Trust Literary GroupJill Kneerim, director, Kneerim & WilliamsGail Ross, agent and president, Gail Ross Literary Agency
PW: As an agent, have you noticed companies having to trim lists and/or downsize author advances or royalties?
Kneerim: We haven’t seen royalty rates changing, but advances certainly have. I will quote a leading editor-in-chief of a major imprint who said to me recently, “Fifty is the new one twenty-five.” Brand-name authors are still easy to sell, but even they are taking a big hit in terms of advances.
Helmers: Trade publishers are definitely more gun-shy about any projects not authored by well-established brands. This is true even for authors who have a track record of steady sales both in academic and professional and in trade markets. For example, on an author whose top three books have each averaged over 30,000 copies sold, I recently fielded initial offers of only four figures. Five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.
Hanselman: I’ve seen advances drop by 30% to 40% in 2009 in many categories and cases, but the crossover scholarly book is relatively unchanged. Typically, these books are acquired in the mid-range with upside expectations, and that hasn’t changed much.
PW: What do you think are the greatest challenges right now for academic authors trying to get published?
Daniel: Publishers, whether trade or academic, are trimming their lists of new releases, so there are fewer opportunities.
Ross: When I speak about book deals in this climate, I always ask [the author] right off, “Is it a book?” While that of course means, is it better suited for a journal article, a blog or a magazine piece, it also means: is it unique enough to stand out on a publisher’s list or bookstores’ overstocked shelves? Does the writing sing and not just hum, and does the author yet have a large enough platform to deliver any kind of captured audience who must read it? Is the author right now ready and willing to give up the time, money, blood, sweat and tears it takes to have a critical and commercial success?
Helmers: For academic authors who want to cross over into trade publishing, the big three must-haves are a lively intelligence, a lucid voice and strong, clear ideas.
Hanselman: Academic press commissioning is down across the board, so many of the normal outlets for scholarly publishing have contracted. However, in my experience, the market for crossover academic works at the bigger trade houses has been marginally affected, so authors need to rethink their traditional approach of doing monographs first followed by “popular” works later in their career. It would be a great development for higher learning and our culture if more scholars eschewed specialist language and learned to communicate their insights to a broader audience at an earlier point in their careers.
PW: What advice do you have for religion scholars who are trying to publish their work during challenging economic times?
Hanselman: Publish shorter, more technical works in academic journals, while seeking out public speaking opportunities to develop those ideas for popular consumption and feedback, and plan book writing as an outflow of that public outreach.
Helmers: Do your homework on the competition and hone your ideas to razor-sharp. And don’t ever forget to work hard at the writing craft. Voice matters.
Daniel: Platform is more important than ever, even for academic publishing. Do everything you can to grow your platform. The Internet offers a great opportunity for this. One of my authors is a professor who gets 10,000 to 15,000 unique visitors a day to his blog. He has no trouble finding publishers.
Ross: I tell all nonfiction writers that their book idea must pass my three-legged stool test. (1) The idea must be unique and of interest to many (based on new scholarship, a successful class, a study, a workshop series). (2) You must have the ability to effectively reach an audience that will complement the publisher’s general efforts, through workshops, speeches, religious institutions, Web sites, radio, TV, etc. (3) Along with a great agent’s guidance, you must write a thorough book proposal that will make editors at publishing houses miss their subway stops or cry if the e-books they are reading from run out of battery.
Kneerim: Wait a while, if you can; if you can’t, get the advice, if you can, of a good agent and consider hiring a developmental editor to help you choose and tailor a portion of your work to show to publishers. The presentation has to be irresistible. And unless you have a strong relationship with a very good publisher, the best publisher of all for the kind of work you are doing, don’t submit your work exclusively to one house at a time; instead, do a multiple submission to the best houses. Diversifying like this improves your chances of getting published and of getting valuable feedback on your project. Save a few good houses for later, in case you learn something invaluable about your presentation and are able to correct it before sending the book out to the rest.