David Henry Sterry’s Tips for Getting Published
The other day, I had the great pleasure of speaking with David Henry Sterry, a very successful writer, who, along with his partner and wife, Arielle Eckstut—also an author and former literary agent—uses his experience in publishing to guide writers in their goals of publishing their books. They started a business called The Book Doctors and co-wrote a book called The Essential Guide to Guide to Getting Your Book Published. They also host an incredible event called Pitchapalooza, which gives aspiring authors the opportunity to pitch their ideas and get published. Jersey City’s own Word Bookstore will hold Pitchapalooza on May 22, at 7 p.m., so get your pitches ready and see what advice David has to offer you here.
So who are the Book Doctors and what do you do?
DHS: The Book Doctors is a company I started with my partner, wife, and former agent [Arielle Eckstut]. We help writers in all stages of the publication process. From figuring out the right idea, to coming up with a proposal for a nonfiction book, or writing a manuscript. We edit books. We also help writers with social media, figuring out how to reach their audience. We also help writers figure out who’s the best agent, who’s the best publisher, who’s the best editor to work with them. We think it’s the greatest time in history to be a writer, because there are so many ways to get published. And the great news is that this time in history anyone can publish a book, and the bad news, of course, is that in this time in history, anyone could publish a book. Basically, competing against every writer in the world. Now with the flick of a button, you could put your book up online and have it for sale to anyone in the world. So it’s a really exciting time, but it’s also a really confusing time, so we guide writers to figure out what’s the best way for them to reach that audience that’s going to love their book.
I found it interesting how despite being active in the publishing field — your wife even being a literary agent — when confronted with the question, “How do I get published?” it was difficult for you to answer. There was still quite the learning curve for you both. Could you talk about that?
DHS: Oh, sure. I mean, since we started this conversation three minutes ago, the publishing world has changed. These companies pop up that are great at doing something in the publishing world, then they disappear and someone else pops up. You know, it’s very confusing to know what’s the right thing to do. And everyone has a very different path into the publishing world. I started out in my book writing career being published by Random House, Harpercollins—you know, what they call the “Big Five” of publishing. Eventually, I had a book I just knew was going to have an audience and all those publishers rejected it. And I went to the academic presses and all those rejected it. I went further and further down the food chain til I’m calling up Joe’s Publishing House, and you call them up, and he says, [raspy New York accent] “Hi, I’m Joe, can I publish your book?” Even Joe wouldn’t publish this book!
But I knew there was a book there. And each time it got rejected, I changed the book a little bit to make it a little better, to make the proposal better, to get the right title. Eventually, I found a tiny independent publisher called Soft Skull Press. There’s like two people in an office, but they’re very well respected, and it was the perfect publisher for this book. And after a hundred rejections and a year and a half of looking for someone to work with, in 48 hours I had a book deal. That book, one that everyone rejected, went on to be on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, the mecca of the book publishing world. But for me, like you say, it was an incredible learning process of figuring out how to navigate these seas and find just the right person to team with, who was going to love my book and was going to get it out into the world in a meaningful way.
What was the book called?
DHS: It was called Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys. [I laugh] Yeah! You hear that sound and think how can anyone not think there would be a book and an audience there? And yet everybody in the mainstream of publishing turned that book down. And, you know, this is a very typical story. Harry Potter was turned down by twenty five publishers, every one of whom kick themselves in the ass every day because they turned that book down.
That brings me to my next question. Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys are probably great Google searches…
DHS: Yes, of course! They are so search engine optimization friendly.
Exactly. As a blogger, I’m able to relate to search engine optimization. The fact that you had to change the name of your book from “Putting Your Passion Into Print” to “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” “Putting Your Passion Into Print” is nice but “The Essential Guide” is much more search engine friendly. While that aspect of things can be annoying and feel a bit limiting creatively, like you said, this is “the greatest time in the history of publishing to write a book.” Can you talk more about how it positively or negatively affects the publishing of a book?
DHS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, nowadays, when you go to a publisher, it’s almost like an old-fashioned marriage. You have to have a dowry. In the old days, you can say, “Here’s my daughter. Marry her, and you can have fifty sheep.” I just called this editor, a really good publisher, small, independent, not a big huge corporation, and before I could tell her what the book was she asked, “What the author’s platform? How many Facebook people does she have, how many Twitter followers, was she on NPR?” I’m like, don’t you even want to know what this book is about? She said, “No.” That was such a wakeup call, a slap in the face. It made me sad that the content became less important. How many eyeballs you have becomes more important than how good your book is. To me, that’s a sad cultural statement. I say this to writers all the time and I can just hear the disappointment in their voice when they realize they’re going to have to either self-publish their book or go out and get 50,000 Twitter people. I mean, who wants to spend their life doing that? You see some of these Twitter feeds where the person sends out 50,000 tweets. You spend your life doing that, then how are you going to write your book?
I think it’s very sad situation in many ways how the world has evolved with the short attention span we have now, and how much emphasis is put by publishers on the author, him or herself, having to sell the book. And that has become more important than writing a fantastic book that a lot of people will love. But you know, this is the jungle — no one puts a gun to anyone’s head and says, “Be a writer.” This is the jungle we live in. And self-publishing used to be the red-headed step child of publishing, but it’s not anymore, and if you get turned down by enough people, now we have writers coming to us saying, “I don’t even want to find an agent,” you know, “F*ck these agents, f*ck these publishers, I’m gonna go and publish my own book.” And they get to control what the cover looks like and what the title is. I did it as an experiment myself, and it’s a very empowering thing. In a week you can have a book. It’s fantastic. And now at this point, the fastest selling book in the history of the world, you know what that is?
DHS: The fastest selling book in the history of the world is Fifty Shades of Grey. Mommy porn! Who would have thought? I mean, no mainstream publisher would have published mommy porn, but now after its success, all these publishers now have their own erotica imprints where they’re churning out horrible, terrible erotica in the hopes that it will ride the wave of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Yea, it feels like a terrible time for literature. I was thinking about this when I began reading your book. You make the distinction between, a good idea and the right idea. The right idea being the most marketable book, the one that speaks to audiences, and agents, you know, gets a lot of attention. I was thinking, would a book like As I Lay Dying be able to get published in today’s market?
DHS: I think about that all the time! Even, like, Catcher in the Rye. Because it’s so quirky and small. You know, it’s told from a weird point of view, a sarcastic voice. I wonder what those books would have a chance nowadays. I totally agree, because mainstream publishers, they just want werewolves and vampires. Snooki from Jersey Shore’s new diet book becomes more important than a great novel. It’s a sad situation. But in the end it also depends on what your goal is. If you want to get a six figure advance from a publisher, yes, you have to write a certain kind of book. But there is still a hunger. The pendulum swings. The more sh*t that goes out to the marketplace, the more people hunger for something of quality, that’s genuinely great and speaks to them — something that is literary and smart and challenging. There are plenty of those books being published. It just seems that in a weird way it’s harder to find them now.
And thinking about it further, even authors that we really cherish like Virginia Woolf, self published.
DHS: James Joyce! Totally, absolutely, you’re exactly right. No one would publish Ulysses, which was voted the greatest novel of the 20th century. Nobody would publish that book.
I was reading an interesting article in the New Yorker titled “Is Amazon Bad for Books?” It talks about the way Amazon sells books and their self publishing platform are affecting the publishing industry. Do you think it’s impacting the publishing industry in a negative way, or provoking a necessary change in the industry?
DHS: That’s a very complicated question, and I think the answer to both of those threads of your question is “yes.” It is negatively affecting in certain ways. I was just at my local independent bookstore and this customer was in there looking for a book about travel to Bali or somewhere, and the bookseller — who’s great, it’s a fantastic book store, we go there all the time — said, “Oh yeah, I have this book and that book and I could order this one.” And the customer wrote down the titles, and said, “Oh no, I can get this cheaper on Amazon,” and walked out the door! I felt like chasing after her, being like, “You can’t do that!” We need these stores. Don’t go to Amazon and buy the book because it’s fifty cents cheaper. Get to know the bookseller. They’re going to be able to tell you what books are coming in. You can’t ask someone on Amazon what’s a cool book on this or that and the other. So it’s negative in that sense. And they’re a predatory company, you know; they’re out to devour other companies. And I think that’s a terrible thing.
Now on the other hand, Createspace, which is Amazon’s self-publishing arm, is a fantastic tool for writers. And they have fantastic customer service. There’s an amazing thing on Createspace where you press a button and they call you within a minute to answer all your questions. So they’re pretty awesome in many ways. It’s very user friendly, you just have to get your file converted correctly and have a nice cover. You click the buttons and you have a book. So they do provide a fantastic service, and there are some people in the world who don’t live near a bookstore, so how are they gonna get books? I wish Amazon was friendlier to independent bookstores and did not work with such a predatory undertone. They’re almost like the dark side in a certain way. I wish they weren’t like that, and I don’t think they have to be like that to make money. But in a way it’s capitalism run amok.
Publishing isn’t necessarily the hardest part for an author these days. It seems that making money is the real struggle for a published author. Making money from books has never been easy, but what would you say is key to getting fair monetary compensation for one’s book?
DHS: Well, it’s great to be protected. It’s like the wild west out there. There’s a lot companies that make outrageous promises. Even Amazon. Part of the program is if you give them money they will promote and market your book. They’ll edit your book for you for a certain amount of money. Don’t get your book edited by Amazon, cause they’re not going to edit it properly and they’re not going to market and promote your book properly. You don’t need to have a degree to put a shingle up and say “I’m an editor,” or “I’ll help you with your self published book.” I had a client who spent $17,000 with a company that said it was going to publish his book for him. And for $17,000 he got ten hardcover copies of his book. They won’t even return his emails anymore! It just breaks my heart how many unscrupulous people are out there now.
The first thing is, before you give anyone any money be really, really careful. Vet them, talk to their clients and if they won’t let you talk to their clients, don’t do business with them. If you get a contract with a publisher and you don’t have an agent, hire a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property to go over the contract and make sure that you’re not signing something that’s not in your best interest. It happens all the time. Just to be careful as you proceed forward. To not be mesmerized by shiny baubles, empty promises that people make. It’s like going on a date with someone who tells you they love you, lures you into bed and they disappear in the morning. I think the more you take an active control in your own destiny as a writer, the better off you’re gonna be. So many times I talk to writers who feel like they’re so at the mercy of “please, please, work with me, please, be with me.” And in any kind of relationship when you’re the person who’s begging, it’s never in your best interest.
Since you’re guide was first published, lots of things changed in the publishing world, so you updated it, adding things like the importance of social media. In the past five years, going back and reevaluating your advice, has there been anything you decided to change or entirely remove from the updated book?
DHS: It was more adding to. Some of those principles of course, apply universally and seem kind of timeless. We would say there are four basic principles to becoming successfully published. You have to write a great book—that hasn’t changed. The better your book is, the better your chances of reaching an audience. You gotta network with people who are doing like-minded things. You have to research and find out what other books are out there, what book is like your book, where is your audience hanging out, what websites are they on—where do they shop? What TV shows are radio shows do they listen to? Are they on Twitter? Are they on Facebook?
When I self published my book, I was just going to do it as an e-book, so I sent out a blast to all my people telling them, “Here’s my ebook” and about half of them said, “I don’t want to read the ebook, I want a printed book.” So it was a fascinating experiment in seeing how nowadays you can actually talk to your audience. It’s really cool. But you have to be active and play a big role in reaching out to your audience. Finding out where they are, that’s the most important thing I think, discovering who your audience is, connecting with them in a meaningful way and letting them know what you have to offer. And the fourth thing is perseverance. You have to persevere—so many people give up five minutes before the miracle.
I found it interesting that when you talk about building an audience in your book, you talk about the importance of building an audience before you even have a book to try to gain a following and figure out if your idea is marketable by forming community very early.
DHS: We get people all the time. I say, “What’s your book about?” They tell me the book, and sometimes it’s a cool idea, and I say, “Do you have a website? Do you have a Facebook page for this? Are you connecting with people in any way?” They say, “No, I’ll do that once the book comes out.” Well, it’s too late then. This idea that you’re going to publish your book and sit by the phone waiting for Oprah to call, that’s just…you know, people do have this ridiculous idea that it’s going to happen. That their book comes out and all of a sudden 50,000 people are going to flock to their Twitter feed. It just doesn’t work like that. We see over and over again, people who are actively seeking out their community before the book comes out and they have a bunch of people who really are passionate about what they’re writing about, and those people are connected to people, etc, etc. Those are the people who end up selling books.
People have a real confusion about what it means to promote and market yourself. They think it means going on Twitter and saying, “I’m great. This is a great book. Love me.” It’s exactly the opposite in my opinion. The way to reach people online is by doing nice things for others. I try to do five nice things for somebody before I ask them for anything. And if I’m going after the right person, by the time I’ve done five nice things for them, they’re volunteering to do nice things for me. It’s a so much more humane and sensible way of connecting with people. To sign up for their newsletter, make comments on their blog post, review their book on Amazon, to spread the word on what they’re doing. If you’re going after the right people, they’re going to notice what you’re doing. What I do is go up to people who are writers, oftentimes. Every writer wants help getting the word out about their book. It’s very hard, as you were saying, to get an audience, to reach people, and if I’m helping someone do that, I’ve just observed over and over again how people pay it back.
Since the book was published, you and your wife have begun an event called Pitchapalooza, reminiscent of American Idol and Shark Tank, which puts a lot of weight on the value of a great pitch. Could you tell me more about Pitchapalooza?
DHS: Yes, Pitchapalooza is like American Idol for books. I also like Shark Tank too, it is like that. Writers get one minute to pitch their book to a panel of experts. Now unlike American Idol of Shark Tank, we’re not mean to people. There’s so much snark in the publishing business, there’s so many people who just seem to relish destroying dreams. Watching these hardened professionals is like watching someone crush a baby bird, it’s just ridiculous. A lot of the people who present in Pitchapalooza, it’s their first time they’ve gone up in front of a bunch of people in public and said, “Yes, I’m a writer and here’s my book.” They’re terrified, they’re nervous. We try to be very gentle and kind to them, but at the same time we want to give them advice. You know, this works and this doesn’t work. You gotta have a hero in your pitch. So many people are writing books and they explain them, but they don’t mention the hero of their book, or villain. There’s a number of things that we see all the time that writers…amatuer writers, mistakes that they make when they explain what’s fascinating, exciting, romantic, sad, funny, riveting about their own book.
They get a minute, we critique their pitch, and at the end of the Pitchapalooza, we pick a winner. And that winner, we introduce to an agent or a publisher who is appropriate for their work. At this point, dozens and dozens of people—not just winners, but also participants of Pitchapalooza— have gone from being talented amateurs to being professionally published authors. We hook people up with agents, with publishers, and for me, it’s an incredibly gratifying thing when I see a writer get up there and pitch a great book. And they just don’t have the right connections. They don’t know publishers, they don’t know agents, they don’t know how to go after those people. Our first Pitchapalooza winner was this team in San Francisco. They got up and pitched this book, an anthology of the secret love lives of Muslim-American women. Oh my God, what a great idea for a book! They won and we helped them with just polishing up and making their proposal right, and I called up an editor I knew, Laura Mazer—fantastic editor, she was with Soft Skull which was my publisher—and I swear to God, it took me twenty seconds to sell her that book, because the pitch was so good and the idea was so good. By the time we got done with the conversation, she was like, “Wow, I want to publish this book.” And within a week, they had a book deal and when that book went out it was in the New York Times, CNN, it went into four or five printings and now they have another book that’s come out.
To me, that’s such a gratifying thing, to take an idea like that, that I think is important and timely. And these women are so smart and funny, and they’re on a mission, and they’re sexy and Muslim-American. To see them blossom like this, it’s such a gratifying thing. And I think there are so many great writers out there that just don’t know how the system works. Because it’s a complicated business, it’s kind of ridiculous in certain ways and sort of counterintuitive. And traditionally it’s been run by people who live in this little cloistered shell of New York publishing, only publishing people they know, MFAs, and they’re out of touch with what America and the world wants to read. And that’s one of the reasons I think traditional publishing is in such terrible shape. Because they created this system that was deeply flawed and rewarded only certain kinds of entitled people.
How many of the people who participated in Pitchapalooza actually had a finished product?
DHS: I would say about half the people who pitch us books have manuscripts or proposals that are ready to go. But when I decide on a book I’m going to write, the first thing I do is write a 250 word pitch. Because what that does is, it helps you to crystallize the idea of what the book is. And the pitch is one of the most important arrows that you have in your quiver, because it’s the thing that you’re going to approach an agent with, it’s the thing you’re going to approach a publisher with. If you self publish, it’s the thing that’s on the online platform that’s selling your book. There’s your pitch, on the back of every book, there’s your pitch. If you go the traditional route, you find an agent and you pitch that agent, and if they love your pitch, they will read the first page of your book, and if they like that first page, they’ll read the first chapter, etc. And if they say, “Yes, I want you as a client,” that agent will then contact an editor and they’ll pitch your book, and if the editor likes it, that editor will go and pitch the editorial board. And if they like it, they will pitch the promotional marketing people, and then they will go and pitch the special sales people, and once the book is out, the sales rep will go and pitch your book to bookstore. If the bookstore agrees to take it on, if someone comes in looking for a book about hos, hookers, and call girls, the bookseller will say, “Oh, I’ve got a book for you,” and they will pitch the book to that person. And hopefully, if you’re lucky, people will be pitching your book long after you're dead.