Wednesday, August 24, 2005

MANDATORY READ: The Elizabeth Burton Interview

Welcome once again to the show that never ends. We're so glad you could attend. Step inside, step inside. (Special thanks to my older sister for exposing me to the progressive rock likes of ELP at age five.) Today we are hand-delivering (or whatever) an interview with an editor (among other roles) with a small press that uses POD as its print method (likely the most popular technology for very small presses and new independents.)

We are meeting with Elizabeth Burton from Zumaya Publications.

Seats are filling fast so let's get started.

Girl: Thanks for stopping by, Liz--my casa, su casa. And, well, Bank of America's casa. Feel free to help yourself to some yogurt and pepperoni. So when did Zumaya open its doors? And where on God's creation are you, anyway?

Elizabeth: Zumaya was founded in Y2K by two authors, Martine Jardin and Diana Kemp-Jones, who had been through the scam wars, one to the tune of several thousands of dollars. They started out partly just to finally get their own work published but soon decided to expand the business to create the kind of publishing house that has gone the way of the dodo--the kind where good writers are nurtured and great books that can't get past the bean-counters could reach readers. As for where we are: define "you." The company is based in British Columbia. I run the editorial offices for Zumaya from Austin, Texas, and the editorial offices for our erotic fiction/romance line just moved from Massachusetts to Virginia. Ain't Internet commerce grand?

Girl: How many titles do you publish per year, and in what genre? I'm picking up a heavy mystery/thriller vibe here.

Elizabeth: Hmmm, you must be channeling Arthur Conan Doyle--he'd be up for that. Actually, we publish just about every genre there is, as well as some nonfiction niches. This year, we started publishing science fiction, fantasy and paranormal suspense (I like that better than "horror," don't you?) as a separate imprint, Zumaya Otherworlds. Our erotic fiction/romance imprint is eXtasy Books, and we just added a straight romance line there called Pearls. Our average is 25-30 titles a year. Since I do all the editing at Zumaya (mostly because the people whose books I sign make that a condition of their signing), that's as many as I can decently handle.

Girl: What, no Da Vinci Code copycats?

Elizabeth: Oh, ye gods and little fishes, no. We have a "business card" we hand out that says "Tired of reading what was hot last year?" We mean it. What I look for is something familiar enough the average reader will be comfortable with and enjoy but that is, at the same time, unique. In fact, if the "common wisdom" is that there's no market for something, I'm willing to bet there is. Historical novels, for instance. Friends of mine who write them tell me they've heard over and over that there just isn't a market for them. Then I hear other friends who love historical fiction telling me how frustrated they are that they can never find anything decent to read. So, historical fiction is one of the niches we're building--but not the John Jakes kind. What I like are historical novels that shed light on average people during periods that rarely if ever make it into the history books.

Girl: I agree--my theory is this: if someone was interested in writing it, there is probably someone (though maybe just one) person interested in reading it. So, how many Zumayans does it take to run the place?

Elizabeth: Most of the editorial and technical work is borne by three pairs of shoulders: mine, Martine Jardin's and Stef Kelsey's. Stef is the editor-in-chief at eXtasy. We get a ton of marketing help from some of our authors, for which we are ever grateful--they are the soldiers in the battle to beat the system.

Girl: What made you decide to go with POD as your publishing model? Have you done any traditional print runs?

Elizabeth: When Martine and Diana started out, POD was simply the most economical way for them to publish. Given that most if not all of the writers whose works they were publishing were unknowns, the print-on-demand model allowed them to take the chance on their books doing well without setting them on the verge of bankruptcy.

When I joined the company as a partner in 2003, I took a crash course in publishing. The amount of waste I saw that resulted from the print-run model, especially with mass market paperbacks, just appalled me. Okay, printing tons of books makes sense for Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, but when you're talking about a new or midlist writer what is the point of wasting paper and energy to produce books that are only going to end up on a scrap heap somewhere?

That, and the ability POD gives us to take chances the print-runners can't afford to, set me on the road to developing a new model that uses the benefits of inventory-free publishing for both us as a publisher and booksellers. I fully expect to do at least some small print runs when we get our first break-out book, which I expect to happen soon.

Girl: I've seen a bunch of "deals" for Zumaya on Publisher's Marketplace. What percentage of your books come from agents and what percentage from authors?

Elizabeth: I'd say it's about 5 to 1. We do have agented books under contract--there are agents who see us as a steppingstone to bigger and better things, and that's fine with us. Our contract makes it easy for them to do that--it's short-term and has a clause that allows them to buy out a title if it gets picked up elsewhere.

Girl: What is your typical advance?

Elizabeth: We don't give advances at this point. My research has shown that there are two main reasons given for advances. One, they show the publisher's belief in the writer. Two, they help a nonfiction writer offset the costs of completing a book proposal.

If I offer someone a contract, it's because I believe in them as a writer and in their book. I don't do it otherwise. In addition, we contract only for those rights we intend to use: trade paperback, ebook and audio. We don't do audio yet but I hope to begin by the end of 2006. That means all the other rights--foreign language, serial, film, etc.--are the author's to do with as he or she sees fit. Our contract term is for two years post publication, so if the author isn't happy with us they're free to go at that point.

As for nonfiction, we don't do enough of it where the lack of advance to this point has been an issue. Most of the submissions in that area are either finished manuscripts or the author has his or her research all but done and just has to do the writing.

Girl: What are some of your bestselling titles and how are they performing?

Elizabeth: Considering the bias against print-on-demand and the difficulty of persuading bookstores to even look at them, we are seeing a steady increase in sales of both paperbacks and ebooks. Our current paperback bestseller is a terrific women's fiction novel, 24/7 by Susan DiPlacido. It's a sexy, edgy novel set in Las Vegas that has gotten very good reviews. Our current bestselling ebook is a wonderful collection of fables about dragons that's the kind adults can read to their kids and have tons of fun doing it: The Affairs of Dragons by Mary Fairbanks. It's also available in paperback, of course.

Our most recent release, and one we have great expectations for is TechnoNoir, edited by noted mystery writer Jeffrey Marks and a woman whose debut mystery we'll be publishing in 2008, Eva Batonne. Finally, in August 2005, we're releasing another work of women's fiction, Harvey & Eck written by Erin O'Brien. Erin's brother was the late John O'Brien, who wrote Leaving Las Vegas. It's about a 30-something woman electrician who finds herself pregnant, dumped by her lover and living with a husband who's turned into a nag. She picks a name from the phone book and begins writing a series of letters to a man she calls "Eck" and over time both of them discover new lives.

Girl: Yeah, I thought TECHNO NOIR was great. Unusual and great, which is what made it stick out for me. How much does Zumaya sell online versus the traditional bookstore?

Elizabeth: We do a little of both, but at this point the majority of our sales are online because a good portion of them are ebooks. Our bookstore sales are usually at a signing, or shortly afterwards. We'd like to see that change, especially with indie bookstores. We feel print-on-demand can help them compete by giving them the chance to offer their customers something they can't get at the superchains. Now all we have to do is convince them.

Girl: How much editing to you put into your projects?

Elizabeth: If I see something that needs to be addressed at the time I offer a contract, I send the author a critique and request they consider making the changes I think are necessary. I then do a thorough substantive or line edit on the book when we're nearing publication. The edit goes to the author for whatever needs done, and when I get the new version back I set the proof and do a complete copyedit. The proof is set in a galley, which then goes back to the author for a final proof.

Girl: Excellent. So what's on the horizon for Zumaya?

Elizabeth: Good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I expect to see us with at least one book that breaks the barrier within the next six months. I've already mentioned I want to see some titles in audio. My biggest goal, though, is to make POD a viable alternative to standard operating procedure when it's used as an alternative to print runs. Maybe we won't save a lot of trees but at least we can say we tried.

Girl: Indeed. The smaller presses that utilize POD are already ahead of the biggies who are trying to figure out how to transition their current warehousing methods. Eh, but who cares--that's their problem.

Well, thanks again, Liz, for hanging out, chatting, and sharing a nice hunk of Hormel processed beef product. Check out what Zumaya is offering these days, and especially TECHNO NOIR, which yours truly recommends.

Stay tuned for more interviews and, of course, more treasure!