- by Vonna Harper
Please welcome Executive Editor Annie Melton here to explain what Etopia Press is about.
People ask me how Etopia Press got started (ok, what they generally say is, “Are you insane?”). Starting a publishing company was one of those “someday” kind of dreams—you know, like wanting to travel when you retire or move to a bungalow on the beach when the kids grow up. The kind of thing you don’t think about in too much detail because it’s not demanding to be fed, watered, paid, sent to copyedits, or chauffeured to school/scouts/practice *right now.* Until one night last June, when I was talking with an author friend and commiserating about the state of publishing, and e-publishing, and how I had all these great ideas and had done every job in the book from writing and editing and cover art to business development and marketing and accounting…
And as I was talking about it, the idea just burst out of its “someday” container and birthed itself into reality right there. That was it. The genie, as they say, was out of the asylum—I mean bottle. I said to my friend, “Did I just talk myself into doing this?” And she said, “OMG, you’re serious…I think you should go for it!” The name and logo came to me that night as I lay in bed wondering if I needed to schedule a psych eval and a CAT scan, and the next day, instead of calling the doctor, I registered the URLs. The next eleven months has just been me running to keep up with it.
Basically, I thought that by taking advantage of emerging electronic markets and media, as well as existing online and print opportunities, we could provide both traditional and electronic readers with a wider variety of books and ideas than just different versions of the blockbuster du jour. Not that those are necessarily bad—but there seemed to be a ton of authors thinking they had good books that weren’t getting the attention they deserved from traditional publishing, too many authors not getting second or third print contracts for silly reasons, too many authors being passed over by editors and agents because they hadn’t mastered the arcane art of the query or because their premise wasn’t “marketable.” I wanted to create a place where readers–and authors–could find an escape from the ordinary.
What baseball can teach us about…publishing?
My youngest son started Little League this spring. I sat there in the bleachers the other day, watching two teams of six-to-ten-year-olds playing their little hearts out. Well, some of them were playing their little hearts out. One was sitting in the grass in the outfield picking at…something. Another was spinning in circles with his arms outstretched, making himself dizzy. But some of the little guys showed surprising potential.
One kid, who was barely as tall as the bat, blasted one out to left center field that came this close to going over the fence. Another kid can catch almost anything. He’s been spending a lot of time playing first base. The coaches pitch most of the game, but in the last inning when the boys get to pitch, one kid stepped onto the mound and found he had an absolutely blazing fastball. Surprised himself as much as the rest of us. Don’t ask him to catch it when the catcher throws it back to him, though. That’s a whole different skill set he doesn’t have yet.
It made me think of publishing.
I know. It’s sad that I can’t go to a ball game and not think of work. But publishing seems to require a lot of skill sets, too. You have to write a compelling query letter (marketing copy). If you work in marketing for your day job, or have taken eleven workshops on writing queries, you might even get invited to send in your novel. But only a couple of chapters of it. The next real skill test is the synopsis, which tests your ability to summarize all the plot, character and conflict from three hundred pages and six months of work into two to five engaging, and not deadly boring, pages. If you’re a scientist who’s used to writing abstracts for your research papers, this should be a snap. But for most novelists, writing anything in under a hundred pages is probably going to…well…be about as effective as spinning in circles in the outfield and making yourself dizzy.
But hey, you have to prove you can do all these things first, because everyone knows you have to. It’s part of the game. It’s in the official rulebook. Right?
Over the last several years of reading submissions, I’ve found some surprising things:
- Query letters are useless. There is no correlation between someone’s ability to write a snazzy cover letter and a full-length work of fiction. The first is marketing copy—and copywriting and fiction writing are two different skill sets. Writing is like pitching. If I’m looking to sign a pitcher with a blazing fastball, I don’t care if he can be Mr. Suave in person. I want to see him pitch.
- Synopses have their uses, but making acquisitions decisions isn’t one of them. Synopses are remnants of the paper-and-postage days when having too many full paper manuscripts took up too much room. Partials kept the editors and the mailroom clerk from getting hernias grabbing submissions from their inboxes and kept the author from going bankrupt on postage to publishers who weren’t interested. But we have this thing called email now. It’s cheap and the files take up very little room. From now on, it’s just faster and easier to request the full manuscript in the original submission.
Since we do ask for the full and not a partial, we can just keep reading until the story itself tells us to stop, for good or for ill. We still require a synopsis, because now and then they come in handy for certain things. But I never read them before I read the story.
So what skill sets do we think are important for novelists, besides the actual writing of the novel?
- Self-editing skills. This is a different skill set entirely. Self-editing requires you to put aside your ego and take a good, hard, objective look at your story under harsh lighting conditions. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne. Do the exercises and don’t make excuses for why the rules don’t apply to your particular story. They do. Even if you’re already published, your writing can always be tighter. Stronger. It’s amazing that I still reject stories over and over for the stuff in this one writing reference alone.
- Blogging skills. If you want to sell your book, you’ll need to promote it, and showing me you have a blog or a web presence and are using it to get your name out there is important. It’s certainly more important than telling me you read my personal blog every day or crafting a bunch of silly teaser questions designed to “hook” me into reading your letter. I want to see that you’re out there living in the 21st century and that you’re ready, willing, and able to promote your book. I don’t want to have to convince you of that after the book is out and you ask me why it’s not selling.
- Social networking skills. Facebook and Twitter and whatever else you like are important tools for getting news about your book out there. It takes a while to get some traction, so if you wait til your book’s out, you’ll be way behind the curve. You don’t have to have a million contacts, but getting out there and getting started shows us you’re walking the walk. And of course, if you do have lots of friends and followers, that’s like showing up to pitching try outs with a World Series ring. That will make me want to find out what everyone sees in you in ways no formulaic cover letter can touch.
Those are the new rules of the game as we see them at Etopia Press. A good blog is a million times more valuable than a snazzy synopsis, and Facebook and Twitter are your new query. The basics are still the same, though—you have to write a good book. But when it comes to getting our attention, we don’t make you play games. We want to see your work. Anyone who claims they don’t have time for you and your story is out in left field picking grass.
You can learn more about us at http://www.etopia-press.net