Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, "ScreenTEENwriters," is available throughMeriwether Publishing or Amazon.com and isthe only text on the market which teaches the craft of screenwriting toteenagers.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month - LITTLE PONDS/BIG PONDS:Look Before You LeapWhy do literary agents start their own publishing houses? A parallel, I think, can be drawn to the same reasons that Hollywood actors and actresses eventually form their own production companies: (1) to be able to pick and choose their own projects, (2) to compensate for no longer being marketable in the mainstream, or (3) to use them as a tax write-off.
While one would certainly hope that the majority of entrepreneurs go into this business for Reason No. 1, the proliferation of new literary markets has so widened the playing field for aspiring writers that it's not always easy to discern which ones represent the best investment of time and creative energy. Even more critical is the crystal-gazing associated with whether to be a small fish in an older, well established pool or a big fish in a fresh-sprung stream that, through no fault of its own, could dry up by year's end.
In our long-standing commitment to put independent publishers in the spotlight, as well as under the microscope, this month's issue looks at the McKenna Publishing Group. The questions posed to Eric Bollinger, President of Sligo Literary Agency and the founder of McKenna, are those which any savvy scribe should consider asking a prospective publisher before signing on the dotted line.
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CH: The McKenna Publishing Group of Indian Wells, California, is a newcomer to the industry, launched by its parent company, Sligo Literary Agency, LLC, in 2001. In light of the current economy and the riskiness of new enterprises, what prompted this bold new endeavor?
EB: In 1999, via another imprint, we had published a work titled Triumph of Disorder, Islamic Fundamentalism, The New Face of War by terrorism expert Morgan Norval. After the 9/11 attack, the book went into the top 25 on Amazon's bestseller list. That thrust us back into the business and there was no risk as the book was an instant bestseller. We then published several wonderful books we'd not been able, for whatever reason, to sell through our literary agency. We will have sixteen titles at the end of 2002, our first year, and each one has been profitable.
CH: What kind of previous publishing background do you and your editors bring to this organization?
EB: I have been in the publishing business for eight years, either as an editor or agent. Our editor-in-chief has been in the business for over fifteen years, and our sales consultant for over twenty years.
CH: What do you offer in terms of services and exposure to new writers that may not be available through other independents?
EB: As a small publisher, we can mobilize quickly to assist authors with the marketing of their works. Larger publishers have layers of personnel we do not have.
CH: Your webpage (http://www.insomniac.com/mckenna) cites an expectation that "each author is expected to work with the publisher to actively promote." What type of commitment (financial or otherwise) does this specifically entail?
EB: It entails the investment of time, not money. Authors are expected to solicit local and regional print media for interviews and reviews, radio and TV as well. Personal appearances, etc. Promote, promote, promote. The author IS the book, and we expect him/her to promote themselves.
CH: Please identify both the fiction and non-fiction categories at McKenna which are currently open to the works of newcomers. Are there any areas you would especially like to build?
EB: We are interested in any well-written work that can be promoted profitably, but do favor timely nonfiction.
(Note to humor writers: Bollinger was queried whether the humor category was open to submissions. "As you may know," he replied, "we have an author of humor and we only develop one author in this genre." When further asked whether this wasn't a somewhat limiting policy in light of the company's fledgling status, he answered, "Uh, no, it is not. It's called loyalty.")
CH: Do you pay advances? If so, how much and how are these monies generated by a company which is so new?
EB: We currently do not offer advances. Thus, we can bring to print far more titles by putting that money into production and promotion. We offer standard royalties.
McKenna sponsors a fiction contest twice yearly in which entrants pay a $50 fee to compete for one $1,500 first prize and one $1,000 second prize, publication, and possible representation by Sligo. Question 1: Since Sligo states that it doesn't charge any fees for representation, wouldn't an author be better off saving the $50 and contacting the agency directly with a proposal? Question #2: Since only 50 entrants are required for $2,500 worth of advances, what does the balance of entry fees go toward? Question #3: Do all entrants receive a critique of their material submitted so as to improve their craft for future contests?
EB: We are not the sponsor of the contest. Our author and editorial consultant Jim Woods is the sponsor. We participate by putting up the contest prize money and publishing the winner's manuscripts. The advantage to us is that we don't have to have editors read all of the hundreds of fiction submissions each year. It saves us a great deal of time and money. Jim Woods gives each submission the read and then a panel judges the finalists and the winners are presented to us for contract offer and publication. No, there is no critique, and that is clearly stated in the contest rules.
CH: A substantive list of foreign co-agents in the UK, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil and Russia has been established to aggressively assist the marketing of your authors' manuscripts to other countries. And yet Sligo's policy is firm in terms of: "we do not represent foreign writers, Canada included." This sounds like a double standard. Could you please explain?
EB: No double standard with this. Due to the Internet, we were receiving hundreds of submissions from India, France, South Africa and other foreign countries. Returning them was costly and time consuming. We attempt to sell the foreign rights for our American authors. We just don't wish to receive submissions from authors outside of the United States.
CH: How many new releases does McKenna have planned for the coming year?
EB: We are looking at twenty-five in 2003, and have nearly fifteen already in place.
CH: How many of these are by previously unpublished authors?
EB: Half will be by unpublished authors.
CH: Does the McKenna Publishing Group refer prospective clients to book doctors?
EB: Never. We do our own editing in house. If a work needs a book doctor, we don't want it.
CH: Sligo (http://www.insomniac.com/SligoLit) states that "we charge no fees of any kind (reading or otherwise)", yet the agency/author agreement itself identifies in Item 9 that the agency will be paid for "reimbursement of out of pocket expenses, including photocopying of manuscripts, postage, long distance calls, and books and galleys ordered from publishers for film, TV, serial and foreign submissions." Please explain this discrepancy.
EB: It is quite normal for an agent to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses. That is standard in the industry.
(Author's Note: The decision to charge fees is left to the discretion of individual agencies and publishers themselves and is not across-the-board policy. Accountability for such expenditures, of course, should be available for an author's review upon request.)
CH: Finally, the opportunity for aspiring writers to be published by "the largest New York publishers" through Sligo's representation is an enticing one. Yet none of the publishers listed at your site are anywhere near New York (i.e., Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas.) Is this part of a future plan as the organization grows or were the New York publishers left off the list for some reason?
EB: We have had offers from NYC publishers, but they were not as attractive to our authors as the offers for the same literary works as came from publishers outside of New York. We took the more attractive offers.
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About McKenna Publishing Group
Founded in 2001 to bring heretofore published and unpublished authors of nonfiction to print, McKenna's publisher and editors have been in the publishing business since 1996. They specialize in nonfiction, but do publish some well-written, high-quality fiction each year--the first and second place winners of the Jim Woods Prize For Novels in the Spring and the first and second place winners of the Jim Woods Prize For Novels in the Fall.
All fiction queries and submissions are to be made through that writers contest. Well-written, page-turning stories have a great opportunity to garner up to a $1500 advance and a publishing contract from McKenna Publishing Group, and runners-up will be offered agency representation by our parent company, Sligo Literary Agency, LLC.
Nonfiction authors are not required to be represented by agents, and may submit their manuscripts directly when following the Submission Guidelines.