Independent Success! Breakthroughs in Publishing

What Does That Book Got That Mine Donít? PART IIA Conversation with Writerís Digest National Self-Published Book Awards Judges
Dear readers, I pray I will make it out of here alive. My only hope is to get out these last words, capture the greatness of my deed, or it will all be for naught. Understand, dear readers, what I did was for you. I will move sky and earth to insure your Independent Success. And, yes, even commit a crime. A crime that I now pay for dearly.

It seemed such a simple task. Find out "What does that book got that mine don't?" from the people in the know. So, on November 27, 2002, I made my move. All of America spent the day giving thanks around tables laden with golden turkeys, creamy mashed potatoes, the choicest desserts and family love and harmony. Or, they spent it pretending to ignore "Aunt" John's new look, the fact that Grampa had way too many around 9 a.m., the two public spanking incidents (the kid deserved it, the dog didn't) and the fact that nearly everyone had been eating with their car keys in hand since the gravy boat hit the table. I know, that's just my family, right? But I digress. While all of you non-dysfunctional writers were enjoying the holidays, I was committing a crime.

I hijacked the judges from The 2001 Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards. I stole them, held them hostage and threatened to force them to spend the entire Holiday season with my family unless they spilled the secrets of Independent Success! with us. They laughed, of course. It seems an idle threat, but my family is no idle threat. They are a promise, a terrifying one.

So I took the judges over for a little "pre-Thanksgiving" get-together to shake them up (the equivalent of a severe pistol whipping). After only 10 minutes they were not only offering me the keys to literary heaven and begging for mercy, they were apologizing to me for growing up in my family. Of course it was too late (read all about it in my upcoming book). With the lingering threat of staying for dessert at my home, the judges offer this advice to anyone who thinks they've got what it takes to go for the Independent Publisher's IPPY Awards 2003. Now, I must pay for my crimes. Though if loving Independent Success! is wrong, I don't want to be right. Merry Christmas!

(Carrie T. Rivera was last seen fulfilling the obligations of her probation which include, but are not limited to: group babysitting toddlers while under the influence of both sugar and Veggie Tales, rubbing Aunt Edna's bunions for a period of no less than one hour and eating at the children's table for all holiday meals.)

The Victims
* Philip Lee
Publisher and Co-Founder of Lee & Low Books, he knew publishing was for him after taking a job in a B. Dalton bookstore when he moved to California from Hong Kong as a teenager. After meeting his business partner Thomas Low in 1991, they founded a unique company that specializes in multicultural children's books. To date, Lee and Low have published over 100 titles, with many translated into Spanish.

* Bonnie Hearn Hill
An editor, teacher, journalist, speaker and author, she has published four non-fiction books (three specifically for writers) and one novel so far. MIRA books will release her latest novel, The Intern, in February 2003.

* Mollie Katzen
A writer with 4 million books in print and listed on the New York Times List of The Ten Best Selling Cook Book Authors of All-Time, her latest work is Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Caf»

IS: What's those books got that so many don't?

Katzen: The books that stood out to me were those whose message and mission were not only original, but clearly conveyed. Sometimes people get caught up in the subjectivity of their creative process and have trouble communicating their ideas so that someone picking up the book is confused as to its purpose or its message.

Hill Hearn: Whether literary or techno-thriller, good fiction is character-driven fiction. Authors who stand out in this category have asked themselves two questions. Whose story is this? What does this person want? These are the basics of focusing your fiction, a topic I address in my classes.

Lee: In the case of children's books, I felt it was important that they not be didactic. They have to respect a child's intelligence, have believable plots, likable characters, and satisfying endings. In terms of design, the text shouldn't be too long so that there is a nice balance with the art. IS: What words of wisdom can you offer writers who are debating between self, independent and traditional publishing routes?

Lee: I think self-publishing is probably the most difficult path, since it is difficult to get wide distribution and reviews from national journals and major newspapers. It is a viable option if there has been no success in getting interest from publishers or if the book has such a specialized niche that other publishers do not have the know-how to reach the intended audience (e.g., books that address medical issues). In comparing independents versus large publishers, one question often comes up. Does size matter? My answer is that it depends. I've addressed a few of the most common raised questions below:

1) Won't I get more money from a large house?
On paper, and in the beginning only, the answer may be yes.

2) Large houses sell more books, right?
Not necessarily. It's important to consider how your book will be positioned on a publisher's list. Will your book be one of 50 new titles in its season? Perhaps 20? If so, how much attention from the sales and marketing department can you expect for your title?

3) It's just more prestigious to publish with a large house, isn't it? That depends on your idea of prestige. Big-name studio actors, for instance, often go after roles in small-budget independent films in order to be associated with a more "prestigious" product. Book publishing can work much the same way. Lee & Low, as well as many other independent publishers have won many major national awards in recent years. Many authors and illustrators (especially those previously published with Large Houses) believe that the attention from manuscript to bound book they receive from a smaller, independent publisher can be more important to the final product than being part of a big conglomerate. The same is true for after the book is published. It makes simple business sense. A publisher with a very large front list might focus on selling more of what's selling. A publisher with an annual front list of 10 titles will make sure each of these books get into the hands of reviewers, awards judges, bookstore buyers, etc. (For more information on this check out,, and ).

IS: Can you give those writers who will be vying for the IPPY awards some words of advice?

Lee: Always do your homework. Research what's already been published and who's publishing those books. It may help the writer to understand if a certain topic is overdone or assist the writer in locating a publisher/editor who has a special interest in the subject being written. Be persistent. Just because a story has been rejected 10 times does not mean that a publisher cannot be found (though a writer should pay attention to editors' comments, especially if the same comments appear.)

Share your story with others and listen. It's good to get others' opinion about the story. A writer can take writing classes, join a writer's group, or get ideas from local booksellers or librarians. Stay positive. It's never easy to get rejections. But if a writer believes in the story, is willing to make revisions (rewriting is a big part of the publishing process), then the effort should eventually pay off. Good luck!

Katzen: The book's design is very important. It must be attractive enough to make us want to follow the instructions inside and then clear enough to accommodate the content. Too much design is distracting, too little is dry and boring. I believe that consumers react to books just as contest judges do. They pick up the volume, thumb through it, and will either keep on reading or put it down and look for something else just seconds later.

However, there is no formula to make a book work. There is just clarity and intuitive sense, good communication skills, and a desire to truly serve the audience. People can sense when a book is written for the audience, or whether it's just about the author's vanity.

Hill Hearn: Let your characters drive your story. In too many of the entries I judged the protagonist was just the author with a life. Ask yourself whose story is it? What does this person want? Then let it play out on paper. Learn how to control your point of view if it kills you. Break the rules only after you've learned to play by them. Learn how to craft a scene that shows instead of tells. Most of all, don't worry about trends. Write the story only you can write, the story that's in your heart. Let your passion drive you.