Market and Novel Talk
by Michael Neff
Looking To Fall in Love - A Conversation With Peter Rubie
Peter Rubie specializes in a broad range of high-quality fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction he specializes in narrative non-fiction, popular science, spirituality, history, biography, pop culture, business and technology, parenting, health, self help, music, and food. He is a "sucker" for outstanding writing. In fiction he represents literate thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, military fiction and literary fiction. Peter Rubie spent the 1970s and early 1980s as a Fleet Street newspaper reporter, and a TV and radio journalist, first in England and then in the United States. In 1981, he immigrated to America to follow his passion for playing jazz. While living and working in New York City as a professional musician, he was lucky enough to study and play with such musicians as Warne Marsh, George Coleman, Junior Cook, and Jack Wilkins. His first novel was published in 1988, followed by a second in 1992. He has written mainly non-fiction books since then, including TELLING THE STORY: HOW TO WRITE AND SELL NARRATIVE NONFICTION (HarperCollins).
Who says you deserve to be published just because you REALLY want it, or REALLY work hard?
- Peter Rubie
MN: How have your opinions or conceptions of the agent business or book business evolved since your early days as an agent? Do you see
things differently now?
PR: Absolutely. The business itself has evolved and become tougher as fewer titles, but more of them, become the norm for publishers. We're also in a recession and the publishing industry always gets hit hard at such times. However, the basics are much the same as they've always been: an excellent writer with a strong
story, or topic in the case of non-fiction WILL find a publisher.
We're all looking for reasons to fall in love, not reject things. Perhaps I'm more elitist now than I was, but I don't see that as a drawback. Who says you deserve to be published just because you REALLY want it, or REALLY work hard? We've succumbed to the American Idol syndrome where being seen as being famous is taken as a supposition of talent, rather than actually taking the time and trouble to learn and develop one's craft.
The competition is fierce, and the readership for books shrinking by all accounts, and I'm afraid, as much as I hate to say it, but I feel more strongly
now than before that talent (i.e., the speed with which one learns to do something well) has a place here. In other words, you HAVE to
have something interesting to say first and foremost, and alas, many of us think we are interesting people but we're really not except to
our friends and family. Then you need to have some grace and insight in the way you say it.
MN: Do you think it is more difficult these days for a first-time
author to earn out an advance? If so, why?
PR: I think few first novelists earn out, though a decent few will at
least break even. Part of the problem is the issue of "returns"
(i.e., books returned to the publisher by the bookstore) which do
tend to mess up author sell-through numbers over time. As to why,
I think it's just the nature of publishing that most books published
are not expected to do that well, though they are expected to hold
their own. Someone, somewhere, once said that the average book
buying population is about 10,000-20,000 people and so your sell
through numbers tend to be drawn from this readership.
MN: Would you generally say that authors, especially first-timers,
need to develop a marketing strategy for their novel once it is
published? Do you have marketing suggestions? Does your agency assist authors with any advice in this area?
PR: I would say a marketing strategy is always useful, but it does need to be realistic, and most fiction is not easily marketed the way,
say, nonfiction can be, to specific interest groups. (Parents, for example, or those interested in fly fishing or physics.) Study and
research marketing and PR as much as possible, and really get a handle on the internet as a possible source is my best
Lissa Warren, one of my clients, and the head of marketing at DaCapo Press, for example, has written a book called the SAVVY AUTHOR'S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLICITY that might be a place to
FinePrint Literary Management may make a suggestion or two, but so far we have not found the right
formula for mixing agenting and PR for authors, though we are actively looking at this area. I think merely hiring a PR person to
work for the agency is not an answer because if you're not careful it creates a class system of authors within the company comprised of
those who are worth promoting and those who find themselves not worthy for whatever reason who would get kind of mad they've been
excluded. (Understandably.) However, it is an issue that we all need to be paying attention to.
MN: Do you see any new trends in the fiction market these days? Any genres losing or gaining market share? (Paranormal
romance? Thrillers? YA fantasy? etc.)
PR: Again, the problem with trying to nail trends is that by the time you've written the manuscript the trend is long gone. The "trick"
is to try and guess what is going to be hot in 18 months time. The genres are always a good bet, though some are softer than others at
various times. In the end, though, a really well done book will always stand a chance of being the exception to the rule and that's
probably where one should be aiming for, I guess.
MN: Not long ago, there was a lot of hype over the potential for Internet to market and sell books. In your opinion, have blogs and
Internet in general produced a measurable impact on the marketing and selling of fiction? If not, why not? Where are they succeeding? Failing?
PR: I think they have produced an impact, though how measurable is a good question I can't answer. I know of companies that market
largely using the web, such as BenBella Books and Quill Driver, and Fauzia Burke has a company called FSB Associates which is the only
company that specifically deals exclusively with internet marketing for publishing and has done for over 12 years. The web is
effective in targeting specific audiences who might want to know and read books that are specifically targeted to them but it's a lot of work.
MN: What do you see as the future for E-Books and other forms of publishing? Do you see the classic publishing model taking a hit? Adapting?
PR: This is an interesting question I can't really do justice to here. Suffice it to say the real issue is not technology, in my
opion, but one of figuring out rights issues by publishers who are famous for being reluctant to embrace the modern world seeing it as
a threat to, rather than adjunct to, traditional publishing. It's all about how they make money, and monetizing the new trends and
techniques is something everyone in publishing is struggling with at present.
I believe that within the next 10 years (and of course it will be sooner than that in all likelihood) there will be a proliferation of ereaders, like the Kindle and Sony Reader only much better (I have a Sony myself, and find it really useful though also very deficient in some ways), and this will drive a demand for ebooks that publishers will eventually embrace as the mass market
paperback readership continues to shrink, and it is met by a growing argument for adding the ebook as a mass market replacement.
There are strong financial reasons publishers should embrace this, and eventually there will come a tipping point but we haven't reached it
yet. The people who will be hardest hit until they learn to reinvent themselves will be bookstores.
MN: What does the future hold for Peter Rubie?
PR: I am now the CEO of a largish agency (9 agents at last count) and as I get the agency on a stronger footing, I will spend more time with
fewer clients, but certainly I will be taking on more clients. I'm just going to be more fierce about things I represent. I also want
to get back to writing seriously and I'm hoping I can do that in the next couple of years with luck.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
Web del Sol/Algonkian Workshops
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Washington, D.C. 20006