As our Spotlight On … Book Editors week continues, today, we deviate to focus our attention on publisher Don Linn. I met Don via Twitter (the little social networking engine that could) and I find his insights and observations to be on target with the modern publishing world.
Don graciously agreed to be interviewed for this series and I hope you find his responses as fascinating as I did.
Ha! If we knew that the publishing business would be in better shape than it is. In fiction, it’s a particularly difficult call but my feeling has always been that a strong story will be saleable most any time. To me, while it’s worth watching trends and talking to buyers and readers about what’s interesting to them and what they’d like to see is valuable, but only to a point. Good writing, strong characters and a nicely woven tale transcend trends. Of course you have to get the cover, the price, the publicity, the distribution and a zillion other things right to make a book successful, but without a good story, those things seldom can carry the day. Readers are smart.
Is the electronic industry better able to ride trends than the print industry?
I think it probably is for a couple of reasons. First, we have a shorter time to market in most circumstances simply by eliminating the printing step (which will become less of an advantage as POD and devices such as Espresso) improve and attain greater acceptance.. Shorter time to market, at least theoretically, should allow digital publishers to be onto ‘the next big thing’ more quickly than traditional publishers. I think this will be particularly true for timely non-fiction. Second, because of the low advance, high royalty model that many digital publishers have adopted, we can take a risk on an emerging trend without making a huge investment. Finally, I just think digital presses are more nimble generally than their print counterparts and can respond more quickly because of their small size and more versatile company infrastructure.
What advice can you give authors about measuring their success? Particularly when critical success far outweighs financial?
Authors have to measure their success according to the goals they’ve set for themselves. For some, it’s sales; for others, it’s getting good reviews; for still others, it’s signing a contract with a particular publisher. Any or all of these are perfectly good measures. But I will say that the best authors I know personally measure their success in relation to what they describe as their need to write. If they’re getting their ideas down and doing it well, they view themselves as successful.
Tell us more about yourself. As an author, I love learning new and interesting things about a publisher.
The birth of my two children and the grueling travel schedule of investment banking led me to rethink my priorities and my (then) wife and I made the decision to slow the pace. We moved to a small town in Mississippi where I took on the role of managing partner for her family’s businesses, which included large cotton, catfish, soybean, rice, corn and wheat farms, a catfish processing and marketing plant, a cotton gin, a feed mill, a small bank, a chain of assisted living facilities and some other odds and ends. Yes, that was a change, and you can read more than you probably care to know about it in chapter 19 of Po Bronson’s 2002 book What Should I Do with My Life? (http://tinyurl.com/ln5974 ) Suffice it to say, my business skills and my ability to adapt to different situations were honed during those fourteen years.
In mid-2001, I faced another What Should I Do? moment due to some changes in my personal life. As if by magic, the above-mentioned Po Bronson reappeared, calling to say he was on the board of a book distribution company in St. Paul, Minnesota, that was for sale, and he thought I should buy it. I went to look and thought it was an opportunity to work with some really cool and important independent publishers (City Lights, Akashic, Copper Canyon and New Society, to name only a few), turn it around and make some money. So I bought it, had some success and ended up selling it to Perseus Book Group in 2006.
After knocking around for a few months, I accepted an offer to become senior vice president and publisher at The Taunton Press, a top-quality publisher of hands-on and how-to books, magazines and Web sites. It was a great experience to work with an incredibly talented and generous group of people at Taunton, and we were fortunate enough to produce New York Times bestsellers, James Beard and IACP award winners and category leaders in our target markets.
But I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I’ve been fascinated with this transitional phase of reading, writing and publishing for some time. So when Kassia, Kat, Kirk and I finally came up with the idea to put Quartet together, it seemed the time was right to make the move.
If you have 2 hours free time tonight, what would you rather do? Why?
Most of my free evenings are spent cooking and reading. Apparently I’m getting old.
Why your own small press? What led you down the road to founding the Quartet Press?
Well, we hope we’re not going to be a small press forever. More seriously, having worked in traditional publishing I came to realize what an enormous undertaking it was going to be to transition a print publisher to the digital model, which I think everyone agrees is at least a major part of publishing’s future. Converting systems, workflows, infrastructure and mindset to the new approach is time consuming and expensive, even under the best of circumstances. Kassia, Kirk, Kat and I determined that not only would it be easier and faster to build from scratch, but also that we could create the company that we wanted and one that would be able to serve readers, authors and the community. One day we were talking about it…the next day we were doing it.
Are you an author turned publisher?
No, as you can see from the background information, I’m an investment banker, turned farming/agribusiness/banking/health care manager, turned book distributor, turned book publisher, turned co-founder of Quartet. Like most people, I feel like I may have a book or two in me (probably non-fiction) but God only knows when I will find the time to try to write it.
Why the book business? I often ask other authors what made you start writing, What made you get into the book business?
Despite having been a voracious reader all my life, it never occurred to me that I’d be in the book business until the opportunity arose for me to buy Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, a distributor of over 100 top quality independent presses from around the world. After working with those folks, who were (and are) some of the most creative, thoughtful, hardworking, industrious and fun people I’d ever met, I was hooked.
How can an editor help a writer achieve their creative vision?
In general, I think editors can help authors best by pushing them hard for focus and clarity in their writing, character development and storytelling. Writing a book is very hard work and it’s natural for author fatigue to set in at some point and for certain elements of the book to break down. .The best relationships between author and editor are the ones where the editor helps the author overcome those weak points to make the book whole.
Is it difficult to not interject your own vision on what the author is doing? How do you walk that fine line?
It’s the author’s story and a publisher or editor can never lose sight of that. The analogy I like to use is this: I tried to raise my children within a certain set of guidelines that I thought would be beneficial to them as they grew up, but their lives are ultimately their own. I could make them be home by 11:00 (cut 2000 words of unnecessary character backstory) but I didn’t want to force them to become something they weren’t (significantly alter the crucial arc of the story).
From my own personal experience, I would say my editor labored lovingly to help produce a better work, do you feel a kinship with each piece you edit?
I can say that as a publisher, I really bond with the titles I’ve been associated with. The hard work really becomes a labor of love. If it doesn’t you may be in the wrong business.
What is your pet peeve when you’re editing?
Missed deadlines. I can’t emphasize this enough. Authors, you’re hurting yourselves when you don’t get things in on time. It creates production havoc and can cost sales big time.
This concludes our Spotlight On week at the Daily Dose! I want to thank all the editors and Don for taking the time to answer my questions. If you have a question for Don, feel free to post it here and I will do my best to point him at them.