John Betancourt’s Wildside Press is hundreds of miles from New York, but from his vantage point in Bethesda, Maryland, he has a clear vision of what’s happening in publishing and what the future holds. His wide-ranging talk at a recent meeting of the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter had me furiously scribbling notes so I could share his comments with PDD’s readers.
Betancourt is a successful science fiction author of many short stories and about 40 novels. He and his wife Kim started Wildside Press in 1989 to publish speculative fiction, but it has grown over the years and now publishes mysteries (including my friend Sasscer Hill’s first book, Full Mortality, out in May) as well as nonfiction, e-books and magazines. One of the company’s imprints, Juno Books, became a co-publishing venture with Simon & Schuster as of January 2009, with an emphasis on dynamic female protagonists in contemporary/urban fantasy/paranormal fiction. Authors like Carole Nelson Douglas are publishing with Juno. One of the imprint’s budding stars is Washington area writer Maria Lima, who began with an obscure small press but moved to Juno after Betancourt read her first book and fell in love with her captivating style and voice.
He came to our meeting to present the chapter’s new anthology, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, which Wildside is publishing. The anthology is a trade paperback, one of the formats that Betancourt believes will replace mass market paperbacks. “I’d like to see mass market paperbacks go away,” he said, pointing out the generally low quality of the paper and binding used in the books. He believes e-books will replace a lot of the print book market within a few years and could become the favored way to introduce new writers. He predicts that e-books will soon be making more money than mass market paperbacks. For print, trade paperbacks and hardcovers are of higher quality, last longer, and earn more money per copy for both the author and the publisher.
Online publishing, he believes, can be a good way for beginners to attract attention and break in. “Online publishing is your friend,” he said in answer to a chapter member’s question. “Even if it doesn’t pay, it can get attention for your writing.”
The inevitable questions about finding an agent led Betancourt to tell his own career story. He has sold his books himself, then hired agents to negotiate his contracts. He doesn’t believe agents are particularly good at selling books because of their limited contacts and their tendency to give up quickly. However, with big publishers that accept submissions only through agents, writers have no choice but to use them from the start. He advised meeting personally with an agent before signing with him or her. A personal meeting at a conference or workshop is the best way to find an agent, preferable to cold querying. Be at your best for such a meeting, he said. “Make them want to know about you and your writing. Be outgoing, funny, charming.” Sell yourself and you’ll make the agent eager to sell your work.
Publishers have become frighteningly quick to drop writers these days, Betancourt pointed out, so after signing with a publisher, you have to be pleasant to work with, or you might discover that you’re replaceable. He recalled a bestselling science fiction author of Star Trek novels who phoned her editor several times a week for lengthy conversations. The writer’s contract was dropped. The moral of the story: “Don’t piss off your editor.”
The internet offers a lot of opportunities for self-promotion, Betancourt said, but a heavy-handed me-me-me approach will turn off potential readers. Don’t plaster the internet with self-promotion and “don’t push yourself as a writer” on internet groups, he advised. “Be interesting, be entertaining, contribute something.” Nobody will read a blog that is about nothing but the writer and her new book, and if the only time you show up in an internet group is when you have something to sell, you won’t win over any readers.
A few other bits of Betancourt advice culled from my notes:
Make sure people remember you and your books. Memorable titles and memorable author names are always a plus. Betancourt advised Lynda Hill to use her middle name, Sasscer, for writing. He advised Maria Y. Lima to drop the middle initial to make her name flow more easily off the tongue. Change the spelling of your name if that will make it stand out.
Try to avoid selling the paperback rights to the same company that brings out your hardcovers. You’ll get more money by going elsewhere.
Never let an editor keep anything for more than three months. Always hold editors to the time limits they give in their guidelines or on their websites.
Try writing intelligent, thoughtful online reviews of other people’s books as a form of self-promotion. If readers respect your opinions, they’ll check out your writing.