Friday, September 24, 2010

Six Questions for Lorina Stephens, Publisher, Five Rivers Publishing

Five Rivers Chapmanry is a POD/eBook publisher of fiction and non-fiction, catering to new Canadian authors. The company "is committed to publishing quality books that have had the scrutiny of a good editor." Learn more here.

SQF: According to a report by Foner Books (, “[g]rowth stagnated for booksellers in 2008, and overall book sales barely moved according to the government.” In addition, I’ve read a number of articles concerning the difficulty authors are having securing book deals. In your opinion, what is the current state of the print book market?

LS: This is a topic I’ve discussed on and off on our blog for three years now.

The way I see it, and agreed I’m just a mouse amid all these giants, the general decline in print books has more to do with what’s being published, rather than a public aversion to purchasing books. The mid to large houses have, for decades now, sacrificed publishing quality books that have had the scrutiny of a good editor, with original concepts and voices. Instead publishers have listened to marketing departments who haven’t wanted to work particularly hard to sell an unknown voice or an unknown subject. Let’s face it, it’s easier for a sales person to go into a bookseller and pitch 10 books that are all knock-offs of Stephenie Meyer (who actually borrowed from Anne Rice, who borrowed from Bram Stoker), than it is to convince a bookseller to risk capital on an unknown Canadian author writing a satire about the political world on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. (I’m referring to Terry Fallis’ award-winning Best Laid Plans.)

This long-term trend, combined with the rise of print on demand and digital technologies, has resulted in an explosion of self and independently published authors. When you look at the statistics for the past few years, the majority of new books printed have come from this sector.

What does that mean? It means several things. It means more choice to readers, albeit many of those choices still require the uncompromising hand of an editor. It means a glut of books on the online book market. It means a rise in Internet savvy authors marketing those books not through conventional means, but through social media, relying upon reader reviews and viral phenomenon to spike sales.

And in all of this the mid to large houses, for the most part, aren’t watching what’s happening at the grassroots level. Instead they keep adhering to the perceived tried and true formula, a formula which, in fact, is failing.

Consequently what we’re seeing stocked on actual bookshelves has become beige. Pabulum. For the most part.

If you’re wanting to take a risk as a reader and find something stunning, more and more people are turning to small, independent presses like Small Beer Press , ChiZine Publications, and yes, even our own Five Rivers Chapmanry.

It’s in these small, free-thinking presses you’re finding not only fresh, exciting new works, but healthy, vibrant businesses that are enjoying brisk sales and excellent critical and reader reviews, presses that understand the importance of reaching out on the grassroots level.

Of course, these micro presses are flying under the radar of broad sales statistics analytics. So it’s hard to measure numbers or make comparisons. If, however, other houses are doing as well as Five Rivers, there are some very healthy, if microscopic, publishers out there who, collectively, may very well make a difference in those sales analyses.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript?

LS: We look for the following in a manuscript:
  1. In fiction, tight characterization and point of view. For our tastes, excellent fiction starts with the characters. Environment, plot progression, all of the meat of a novel hangs on the author’s ability to distil the plethora of information required in order to build a credible world into the viewpoint of the main character.
  2. In non-fiction we’re looking for the quirky, the historic, the untold, told with authority and backed by solid research.
  3. Above all we’re looking to bring to the world the richness that is the Canadian psyche and experience. We believe we have a vibrant history and culture, a unique voice, and wish to showcase that to the world.

SQF: What major mistakes do authors make when pitching their books?

LS: We see pretty much the same problems over and over, something that prompted me to write a humorous blog post.

On a more serious note the three biggest problems we see are:
  1. Failure to read our guidelines. We don’t publish certain genre, and we only publish Canadian authors. Sounds unfair, but we are a small house looking to establish our own niche rather than clone ourselves in the image of a Random House or Penguin.
  2. Failure to submit a synopsis with the query. If I like what I’m reading, how am I going to know where the author plans to take me if I don’t have a synopsis to guide me?
  3. Pointing me to all manner of online reviews, blogs, and YouTubes to illustrate how well-received the author’s trial publication has been. I have no problem picking up a self-published author. I do have a problem picking up a lazy one who expects me to invest another 15 to 30 minutes exploring the Internet when they could have just as easily sent me an overview of these items. Worse yet, instructing me to simply do a Google search for their name and see how wonderful they are. You have no idea how many times I’ve had a pitching author do that.

SQF: Of the books your company publishes each year, how many are by previously unpublished authors?

LS: Quite a number. Paul Lima, one of our best-selling authors, is an excellent example. In January 2009 we picked up the first of eight self-published books, How to Write a Non-fiction Book in 60 Days. The book is part of the Workshop-in-a-book Series by Paul, and has consistently sat in the top 100 non-fiction writer’s guides on Amazon in the US, UK and Canada since November 2009.

Since then we’ve released (re)Discover the Joy of Creative Writing, and Harness the Business Writing Process. Everything You Wanted to Know about Freelance Writing will come out late this year. The remainder will roll out throughout 2011.

We’ve also just released an excellent debut novel by Alicia Hendley, A Subtle Thing. And we’re hoping to acquire a few debut works in the coming weeks and months.

SQF: What is your advice to new, unpublished authors looking for a publisher or agent?

LS: It may sound trite, but good enough never is. Make sure your work is as polished as you can make it. And write a killer cover letter and synopsis. The cover letter often is an indication to a publisher or agent of your writing competency. The synopsis demonstrates your ability to focus and disseminate critical information. And of course your first three chapters must demonstrate that indeed you can write, that your story is one worth telling, and that the agent or publisher simply cannot live if they don’t snap you up.

It’s also important to be sure the agent or publisher is a good fit for you. Analyze the other authors, if possible. Check out the marketing style of the house. This is a community you’re going to adopt.

SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?

LS: What are the most common mistakes I see in fiction?
  1. Too much telling versus showing.
  2. Passive versus active use of verbs.
  3. Cookie-cutter characters, particularly villains.
  4.  Poor punctuation, particularly in dialogue.

Thank you, Lorina. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 9/27--Six Questions for Douglas Lance, Editor-in-Chief, eFiciton

No comments:

Post a Comment