One of the major questions sometimes asked in an editorial internship interview concerns your long term goals: are you someone interested in working your way up the chain of a publishing house within an established framework until you earn a leadership role, or do you intend to use your experience to start something of your own making? If your goal is the latter, then you should be prepared to explain such a goal with businesslike language and concrete details during the interview, as a way of showing your initiative and seriousness for the book pub profession. No one would expect you to have an innovative new model that redefines publishing or discovers an untapped market as a twenty-something college student, but it does benefit you to know the necessary rhetoric in terms of what it takes to start your own venture.
What is your starting list of titles? Will you rely more on acquiring new novels or purchasing backlist titles to start? How will you manage to pull authors away from the publishers they’re currently with to join an unproven venture? What thematic differences or production strategies would you employ to distinguish your publishing house or new imprint from those currently out there?
In an age when publishers are merging with one another, buying competitors, and dropping unprofitable imprints with rapidity, it’s rare to see too many new imprints created today. But Simon & Schuster has recognized the continued profitability of the sci-fi/fantasy market, and has likely observed how dedicated speculative fiction imprints like Ace Books for Penguin and Orbit for Hachette have achieved huge successes of late. S&S already has impressive science fiction writers on their list—Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King, for example—but they have chosen to progress beyond relying on big bestsellers in the genre. We’ll discuss here why their business model looks promising before it even begins, and the business lessons we can take out of their initial strategy for our own entrepreneurial plans in future.
Step 1: Find young, up-and-coming, award-winning authors: Of Saga’s first four original titles being released, three were written by nominees or winners of the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Two of the books are the authors’ debut titles. A third was written under the pseudonym of an award-winning speculative author, so in some ways the book is “his debut” as well. But the most important point in my mind is that these authors have won awards primarily for their short stories and novellas, not their books.
If you pay attention to major science fiction awards or speculative short stories, you know who Ken Liu is in particular. He has won two Hugos and one Nebula in the past four years, and has been nominated for several other pieces. Simon & Schuster acquiring his first novel is a major win for the imprint’s credibility, but for many readers his undoubtedly excellent first book will come as a pleasant surprise.
Pardon the upcoming baseball metaphor for non-sports fans, but think of yourself as Billy Beane and literary magazines and short story websites as the minor leagues when it comes to building a roster of authors. Certain authors will show the qualities you’re looking for in small doses, and they will be hungry for the chance to prove themselves with your assistance. Give them that chance, and you will have acquired new talent, and likely their loyalty when it comes to selling their sequels.
Step 2: Acquire these young authors: Other imprints are eying the same young authors as you, and they have the funds and established reputation to steal away these authors before your fledgling imprint can hope to reach them. One of my major duties as an intern for Heyday Books in California was updating an Excel document of “writers to watch,” from which the editors could search for new talent for the annual New California Writing anthology. Publishers are more proactive in finding authors than you’d expect from their huge slush piles, and it’s somewhat difficult to stake a claim on a new author without someone else having discovered her first.
But somehow, Saga found a way to not only claim Ken Liu’s rising star, but also steal Genevieve Valentine away from Prime Books. This publisher released her debut novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won or was nominated for several prominent awards. But Valentine has chosen to move on to S&S for her next book. Did S&S offer more money, or did the prestige of a Big Five publisher do enough to woo her away?
I have no insider knowledge to answer this question, but it remains an important issue nonetheless. You can’t simply decide that you want to kickstart a new fantasy or romance or mystery imprint without determining how independent you want your operation to be. Will you sell your business plan to a major publisher in order to have a monetary cushion and a name that draws authors? If so, you have to determine which publisher has a gap that your imprint can fill. If you plan to strike out alone for the sake of autonomy, then you need a stronger incentive to attract good authors to your new house, such as higher author revenue. Some independent publishers like Greywolf Press have achieved enormous success acquiring authors simply by paying them more money than the industry standard, but you have to determine if you can afford such a plan.
Step 3: Establish a distinctive style from the outset: Saga will not succeed on the strength of its authors alone, but must also create a brand of literature that will be familiar to readers, and to the booksellers who choose whether or not to place the books on store shelves. In a previous post, I discussed the clever business strategies that has allowed Orbit Books to succeed, including eye-catching covers and an emphasis on new paperback releases. They don’t focus on a single area of speculative fiction, however; their “About Us” page mentions their dedication to publishing “across the spectrum of Science Fiction and Fantasy – from action-packed urban fantasy to widescreen space opera; from sweeping epic adventures to near-future thrillers.” Saga also will not likely restrict its acquired novels to one area, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to make your proposed imprint overly specialized or limited.
But Saga’s first four books already have an interestingly ominous aesthetic: two ruined cities—one burning and another occupied by evil forces—a cracked helm, and a red snake as a symbol of the future. Orbit’s books, even its darkest dystopias like Feed, always seem to have a humorous, gleeful detachment from reality, but Saga’s initial list seems to be targeting the Game of Thrones crowd that craves solemn realism in its escapism. This choice isn’t just motivated by a trend, though; when I visited S&S’s offices in February and spoke with a couple of the editors there, they argued that the publisher has made its name on serious literature, and on seeking quality titles that establish trends rather than acquiring derivative copycats of the Harry Potters and Twilights that other publishers create. Thus, even S&S’s fantasy epics may be required to attain literary greatness. You have to determine whether your hypothetical house will have a similar culture that defines its acquisition or design choices.
Step 4: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules with the backlist:
Saga’s frontlist is deadly serious, yet its backlist mixes gothic horror and optimistic fantasy, with creatures ranging from dragons to vampires. The horror titles somewhat match with the contemporary titles’ aesthetic, but the Dragonsong titles by Hugo award winner Anne McCaffery don’t belong except for the fact that they are great fantasy novels. It doesn’t matter. The books have already sold very well, and don’t need to be matched up with new titles to keep selling well.
Conclusions: When trying to come up with an idea for your own future publishing house, the pressure is on to come up with some impressive niche subgenre, and that may be the necessary approach for founding a new literary magazine. However, your prospective employer should be just as impressed by a well-researched business plan that shows you thinking like they do.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m an avid fan of speculative fiction novels, and would love the chance to found or run my own sci-fi/fantasy imprint in the future. I will be following Saga’s initial months very closely as a perfect case study for my own future goals. If you have an interest in a particular genre, be sure to follow PW and genre-specific publishing blogs closely for comparable news about new houses and imprints, because they may also provide invaluable information for your career.
Thanks for reading!