The world of traditional publishing has gone through many changes in the shifting consumer and media landscape, but for many authors, getting there is still a huge goal. However, being able to make a name for yourself in the traditional publishing space takes a lot of work, and you have to be ready to put in that work if you want to succeed. Hannah Bennett is the Senior Acquisitions Editor at Start Publishing, where she acquires for the Viva Editions and Cleis Press imprints. Together with Juliet Clark, Hannah discusses how an author can dip their feet into the world of traditional publishing. It’s going to be quite a journey, so take the plunge today!
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The Traditional Publishing Space With Hannah Bennett
We have a little bit different guest. Before we get started with her, I want to invite you to go over to YouTube and like us, follow us, look at our videos. It’s over at Superbrand Publishing is where we are at YouTube. Please subscribe, download us every week and leave a review for us. You have no idea how much we enjoy hearing from you. Pretty soon I’m going to start reading one of those reviews on every show, so you could be spotlighted. Our guest is from the traditional publishing world. Her name is Hannah Bennett. She is the Senior Acquisitions Editor at Start Publishing, where she acquires for Viva Editions and Cleis Press imprints. She is also the intermediate past president of the New York City Chapter of Women’s National Book Association, a nonprofit literary organization founded in 1917. She is a member of Pace University – MS in Publishing advisory board.
Hannah is the producer, co-host and editor of the podcast, Arguments About Nothing, a comedy podcast that was dubbed “fighty escapism” by OZY.com. She holds a BA in Communications and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MS in Publishing from Pace University in New York City. In her spare time, she writes for both work-for-hire projects and her own fiction projects. Welcome, Hannah.
Thank you for having me.
My first question is what kind of fiction do you write?
I’m probably like a lot of your audience. I’m also an unpublished fiction author. In my spare time, I write young adult fantasy for my own amusement. Maybe someday I’ll publish myself. Although right now, working in the publishing field leaves not the most time to sit down at home and write your own books. I’d love to do that someday myself.
I have 5 or 6 mystery novels. They’re horrible but people read them. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what’s gone wrong there. I had to reread one. I always say I’m a better storyteller than I am a writer, but I noticed I’m not too bad of a writer either.
I’m sure you’re not if people are reading them. What I’ve noticed is that if I ever opened up my manuscript while I’m at work on my work computer, I suddenly start with a red pen crossing everything out. It’s like my editor brain turns on and suddenly I hate everything I’ve ever written.
We’re also our own worst critic. There’s that balance in fiction between good writing because you’re a grammar Nazi. I don’t like those people. I write to get your personality in it. You have to write a little bit like you speak, so your voice is in there. There’s always that balance between the two that is hard. I speak in clipped sentences, so that comes across in my writing. Sometimes that choppy writing doesn’t make for the best reading.
Depending on how well you can get your voice across, it can be very endearing no matter what that voice is. As long as it sounds genuine and it sounds like something people would say. By the way, I prefer grammar goddess.
I stand corrected.
Corrections are always done with love from an editor.
I’m thinking like in high school where your English teacher is the grammar Nazi. I’ll get you a crown and you are now deemed the grammar goddess. You do a lot of reading. What makes a great nonfiction proposal or even the query letter? People get scared with the traditional publishing like, “What do I put in it? How much do I put in it?”Depending on how well you can get your voice across, it can be endearing, no matter what the voice is. Click To Tweet
It is different for fiction and nonfiction, depending on the genres you’re writing and also who you’re submitting it to. I have mostly done in my career nonfiction, so I can speak a lot more to the nonfiction proposal side of it. Nonfiction proposals tend to be a lot more involved than fiction query letters. When you’re submitting fiction, you’re typically submitting a query letter to try and get some of these attention about generally what the book is about. You are submitting maybe the full book or at least sample chapters. The person who’s looking at it is going to base their initial decision on whether they want to see more primarily on the text itself.
With nonfiction, a lot of those books are bought based only on the proposal, meaning that the full book has not already been written. The proposal has to have a lot more in it. If you are sending a nonfiction proposal straight to an editor or even to an agent, you’ve got a lot more that you’ve got to do in terms of research. Nonfiction tends to be much more based on who the author is and why that author is the best person to write that book. Why that author has expertise in that area? Why that author is going to be able to reach an audience with that book?
A good nonfiction proposal is going to have not just a very interesting pitch where you’re giving a description of the book. It’s also going to have a breakdown of what the author brings to the table, their professional expertise, their author platform, including where their work lives online, where their audience lives, what sorts of extracurricular things they might have going on, whether that be speaking engagements or articles that they’ve written or organizations that they’re a part of.
It’s going to have a breakdown of the market that they’re trying to reach. Proving right from the beginning that they have an understanding of the market that they’re trying to get into. That can include talking about who their target audience is, whether that be somebody very niche audience or a more general nonfiction, self-help audience. It could even include comp titles. Most of the time, by the time a proposal gets to me from an agent, an agent has usually helped a nonfiction author spruce it up a little bit and include comp titles.
Comp titles are comparable titles that are going to show an editor, “Your book is like this book, and it can sell this number of copies because people are interested in this topic. It is not like this book, meaning that it already hasn’t been completely done before and here’s why it’s unique.” There is a lot more that goes into it for nonfiction and you have to be able to research, “What are the other books that exist in the market already. Is this a saturated market? Are there a lot of books on this topic already? If so, why is this book more important than the books that already exist and why am I the best person to write it?”
I want our audience to take note of this. She told you how important that author platform is. You also look at social media, email lists, all of that to make sure that they’re bringing people to the table as well who will read this. It’s not just all about who you as a company can bring to the table. It’s a lot about who they’re bringing.
It’s one of the most important things in nonfiction because people are buying that book based on who the author is. I work for Start Publishing. Nobody has ever sat down and said, “I would like to buy a book because it’s published by Start Publishing,” if you think about it that way. They’re sitting down and buying a book because it’s a topic that they’re interested in or it’s an author that they’re interested in. For a nonfiction publisher, you have to know that they have the expertise and you have to know that they have networks because the people who are going to help you sell that book are other people that are working in that field or in that industry. There are other people who already shown an interest in that and the author needs to show that they can connect to it.
A lot of people get a little hung up on social media statistics because those can be very important. If you have a huge social media platform, that means you already have proven you can get followers and you can get people who are interested in you and your work. It proves to a publisher that you’re going to have people click that buy button when that book goes live. It isn’t the only way to get a publisher’s attention. A lot of what goes into it is about how are you connecting to people. For some authors, maybe they’ve got 1,000 Twitter followers, but they do public speaking engagements throughout the year that sell out to big audiences or even intermediate level audiences but engaged audiences.
Perhaps they have a lot of journalistic connections in the media because they’ve written a lot of articles on the topic. We know we’ll be able to get them placement in various media because they’ve already got connection. Perhaps, they have some high-profile people that they know who are willing to endorse the book. Perhaps they have a newsletter that they send out or maybe they’re a part of a professional organization. Any of that information can be a way to prove to us that you as a nonfiction author, understand how to reach people.
You said something there and I want to point this out to my audience. Nobody ever buys the book because it’s published by Start Publishing. For those of you who are out there, even though this is traditional shopping, those big publishing, self-publishing companies, and you don’t buy that extra piece that goes to Amazon because they say, “We’ll publish it here.” Nobody ever goes to buy a book from Xlibris or AuthorHouse’s website. You have to go that extra mile and put it on Amazon or those multiple platforms. I see a lot of people doing that. Nobody goes there to buy books. Same as what Hannah said, “Nobody goes to Start Publishing to buy books.”
If you think about it, a lot of your favorite books, I’m not sure you can even tell me off the top of your head who the publisher was.
You answered one of the questions we were going to next. How do small indie publishers work from the big publishing houses? Start Publishing is little smaller than somebody like Macmillan.
You have the big five publishers, that’s what they’re called. They’re the Macmillans, the Simon & Schusters, the Penguin Random Houses of the world. They are large corporate publishers with many different divisions, many different imprints and a very large staff. They’re putting out a great number of books per year. You also have intermediate publishing houses where they have a staff maybe of 50 to 100 people. You’re also going to have some smaller indie houses. There are now more and more of these hybrid publishers that are more like self-publishing houses that are giving you services.
There are all these different tiers of publishers. When people are submitting to different publishers, they don’t necessarily understand that these different kinds of publishers bring different things to the table. I’ve only ever worked in smaller indie publishers. Before this, I worked at RosettaBooks, which began as an eBook company and then started doing print books while I was there. For a lot of indie publishers, they are not necessarily the big publishers that are going to be able to give you a gigantic advance on your book. Indie publishers can’t necessarily take that same level of risk upfront. One thing I like for people to remember is that an advance is an advance on royalties. Smaller publishers may not be able to give you as much money up front as an advance on royalties because that is a risk for them that they may not get that money back. On the other hand, if you are still able to sell your book, you’re still going to make that money. You’re just going to make it on the backend instead of on the frontend.
One thing that people don’t understand is royalty advance. I worked in Price Stern Sloan and HP Books. When a royalty advance was given, that means you’ve got money upfront. A lot of times, we would have authors that were in deficit. The difference is you may get some money upfront, but you could end up owing that publisher money.
You’ll never see another dime after the book is published because you never do what’s called earning out your advance. You never make enough money to pay for the advance that you got in the first place. For smaller publishers, not necessarily for Start Publishing. Start Publishing gives advances, but for different publishers, they’re going to have different levels of risks that they can take upfront versus what they’re hoping that they can earn you on the back-end through royalties by doing the same work.
The other thing is that with big publishers, for the books that get attention with them, they can have a huge splash. They have a huge marketing budget. They’ve got a giant machine of people working behind a book, trying to make bestsellers as often as possible. Because of how many books they put out per year, sometimes people get down to the very bottom of the list. If you’re looking at different publishers, sometimes it’s good to remember that the bottom of the list of a big publisher, you may not get very much personalized attention because you’re not necessarily their priority, versus smaller houses tend to do fewer books per year. Therefore, they tend to prioritize more of their books per year or spend a little bit more personal time on each.
Some different houses are able to give you more flexibility as a result of prioritizing each book. Maybe they’re able to give you more author consultation. Maybe their team is a little bit more responsive because they’re not putting out quite as many big titles that month. There are some benefits that can counteract maybe if you don’t end up at a big house. Probably everyone’s dream is to end up at the big house, but what I’m trying to say is don’t silo yourself. There are a lot of different kinds of publishers out there. There are a lot of small publishers out there that maybe align better with your mission and are dedicated to bringing your book and doing the best that they can to buy your book.
You can be that little fish in a big pond. When it comes down to the end of the day, it’s the same thing as, “Nobody buys books because they’re Start Publishing.” When you’re traditionally published, nobody says, “It wasn’t Simon & Schuster so you don’t count.”
A small publisher can get a review in a major trade magazine the same way a big publisher can. A small publisher can have a hit book that goes viral the same way a big publisher can.
Do you think that the smaller publishers go for less of that mass media product? It seems like the bigger ones definitely look at what that mass sales product is. Do you think you look at that a little bit less and go outside those genres?
You are more likely with a smaller or independent house probably to get the attention of an editor if you are not coming in with like a superstar author platform or mass media platform. A lot of small publishers are willing to take risks on debut authors and new authors that they believe in. It may just be that they’re willing to take a risk on somebody because they’re not paying out $50,000 advance. There are a lot of people who are going to have a little bit more time with a new author to bring them up to speed.
I know that at my publishing house, I work with a lot of debut authors because we publish a lot of nonfiction. It’s specialized and niche. I’m more concerned with, “Are you in the right niche? Do you have the expertise than I am with necessarily? Are you some superstar author with a big mass media platform?” I’m able to look at these people in a different light and perhaps give them more of my time and attention as a debut author and help guide them through the process a little bit more.
What is the particular mission of your company?An advance you get for your book is an advance on future royalties. Click To Tweet
Start Publishing owns a lot of different imprints, and imprints being different divisions of a publisher, different lines of books. I acquire for two of the imprints at Start. I acquire for Viva Editions and for Cleis Press. Viva Editions is primarily a mind, body, spirit publisher. There’s a lot of health, wellness and spirituality. There’s also self-help, inspiration, personal growth, humor and pop science. There are a lot of different nonfiction genres that can be all loosely tethered to the idea of publishing books that are inspirational, help you grow, give you wellness and wholeness, and focus on your mind, body and spirit. Cleis is a little different because it is one of the oldest LGBTQ publishers in the nation. It’s primarily a sex and sexuality publisher. We publish a lot of sex and sexuality books, and also LGBTQ books, nonfiction and also erotica, which is the only fiction that we publish.
I’ve had people bring me books like that before. We don’t do that. That’s good to know. I want to say about that. You said it’s the oldest one. That’s a pretty new genre in the scope of mass media. It’s probably only come into fruition in the past several years.
Cleis was founded in the ‘80s. It was one of the first ones that was founded with that mission. Cleis is great because it is mission-driven and mission-oriented. We try to highlight different voices. We try to be very inclusive. I personally am very interested in books that are supporting and helping women. In Cleis, we do a lot of books like that as well.
That’s such an array of books you get to read all the time.
What I love about my job is I’m constantly learning things.
I am too. I don’t know about what you’re learning.
Everything, you can tell from the different divisions of books I’m working on.
How many books do you end up reading a week?
It depends. A lot of what I’m reading are proposals. It might be more like sample chapters. I have weeks that are more editing-heavy because I’m not just the acquisitions editor there. I’m also the developmental editor there. On top of assessing proposals as they come in, negotiating contracts and doing deals with agents and authors, I’m also doing the first pass of editing, the developmental editing on the books that we do acquire. Sometimes I’m spending weeks that are more devoted to acquiring new things and reading lots of projects. Sometimes I’m working for several weeks in a row on one big project that I’m editing.
You’re a part of some volunteer organizations and some nonprofit. How does participating in those groups with other professionals and writers help you? How is that beneficial to you and others out there who want be a part of that?
I love talking about this. When I was brand new to New York, I had moved here to get my Master’s in Publishing. I had no idea about New York and also about the publishing industry, how to be a writer and how to be an editor. I found this organization called the Women’s National Book Association. It is a national organization founded in 1917. The mission of the organization is to support women in the book community. It’s a membership organization. It is supporting women who are writers, readers, publishing professionals, librarians. Anyone at all connected with the book industry or people who love to get together and talk about books.
The purpose of it is to give people a chance to connect with each other, to network with each other and to provide education. We do a bunch of different programs. They might be an educational workshop or seminar. It might be a panel with different authors or agents. We also have opportunities for agents and authors to meet each other, for authors to pitch their work and open mic nights. We have promotional opportunities for authors who are our members also.
If you’re an author, it’s a great organization to join. There are a lot of organizations in the city that have this similar mission who are there to help support writers connect with each other and connect with the publishing world. For me personally, it gave me a launching point, a starting point to learn more about the industry. It taught me a great deal of things. It allowed me to connect with many interesting people. It allows me to share when I have some professional success. It allows me to give back to the community because it’s a volunteer organization.
I was the president of the New York City chapter for a couple of years. I got to help give back all these wonderful things that had been given to me over the years. I like to talk about it because for writers, it’s easy to overlook these kinds of organizations and the benefits that they can bring to you. On top of being great ways to network and meet people and to learn about your industry, it also is a way to prove to editors and agents that you’re dedicated. It is one extra step that you can take, especially if you don’t already have a huge author platform to prove, “I am invested in this. I have joined this organization and I’m doing everything that I can. I may not have a huge professional platform, but I’m out there working towards it. I now have access to this big group of supportive people who are going to help me with my book.”
It’s one more thing that you can put on a query letter or in a proposal to say, “I’m invested in this. You can trust me to be invested in this book for the next several years over the course of this publishing process.” A lot of what I think people are looking for when they’re assessing proposals and query letters is like, “Do I trust that you are going to be as invested in this in two years as you are now?” That’s one more way to prove that.
One thing I see with my publishing company over and over is people come here with unrealistic expectations. I would imagine a group like that where you’re connecting, you’re hearing stories, and you’re getting an idea of what it takes to be out there promoting your book. There are many writers who just want to write and they don’t want to promote. I have this joke I talk about. It’s not passive-aggressive but it’s like, “I want to be famous but I don’t want to be seen.”
The conundrum of a writer.
It’s such a weird thing. Back when I first started building my platform, I was over on Google Plus. It was long ago. Google Plus is out of business now. I had a whole writer’s group over there and every time I tried to sell them on publishing or platform building, they didn’t do anything. One day I threw a quiz out there and found out that they all just wanted to write. They didn’t want to do all of those other things. That’s not the way to get yourself published and build a platform. You have to go out there and be seen, and embrace building.
The benefit of something like this is that you’re with other people who have done that. You can learn from them as you’re talking to them. You can go to workshops that are going to teach you specific skills that maybe you’re lacking in. You’ll have opportunities to promote yourself. There’s a lot baked into it or built into it at the same time. Probably the biggest benefit is what you said, talking to people who have been there before, people who are now on their second book. They’re still in the organization because of all it brought to them the first time. For a publishing professional, it was extremely valuable to meet those people. It’s also fun.
Here’s that other thing that I’ll tell you. Much of the nonfiction world with speaking, online marketing and all that, you can get yourself in what I call ‘the bootstrap your way to bankruptcy’ model. Being able to talk to these people and see who out there is for real, what out there is for real. Many of you, your goal is to make the Amazon bestseller list. In the media world, that doesn’t mean much anymore because you can cheat to get there. I’m glad you agree with me because I talk to media people all the time that people go in and they say, “I have an Amazon bestseller.” You can sell three books within an hour and be an Amazon bestseller.
People think Amazon bestseller mean a number one bestseller or a number one new release in a specific category. That category might be dental hygiene. That category might be some small category that has had one book published the entire year. Everyone now has caught on to that. It does not mean what people might think that it means, although it’s still a great thing to have by your name to be able to say, “I was an Amazon bestseller in this category,” even if it’s for just a day or a number one new release in this category. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s nothing. It definitely is not nothing. I as an editor get excited when I see it from my books. It just doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to a marketer or a publicist or an editor as being a New York Times bestseller.
Back when I published my books, they didn’t have all of these genres. By the way, you can make up a genre, which contributes to what’s going on out there. Back then, mystery was mystery. I made up 38 between Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich. That was something I was proud of. Now I could go out and make up my own genre, be number one and be that only person in that genre. You guys have to be careful about what you buy. I know a lot of people will go out and spend $10,000 to become an Amazon bestseller. You don’t need to spend that money if that is your goal. If you want to get to a bigger bestseller list, would you say in addition like Wall Street Journal, USA Today, those types of lists? Those are credible lists. If you’re going to do this, go for those credibility pieces out there.
It’s an understanding. By the way, congratulations to you for keeping such good company with your book.
I wish I’d known how to take a screenshot back then. That was my only thing. They’re both two of my heroes, even though Sue Grafton is no longer alive. Janet Evanovich, I remember seeing an interview with her, and she used to be a romance novel. She switched to mystery because she ran out of positions. I thought, “That’s hilarious.”There are many organizations in different places that aim to support writers. Click To Tweet
I feel like being in a sex and sexuality publisher, that seems reasonable to me.
Hannah, if people wanted to reach out to you, where can they find you? I’m going to say this with the best of intentions, reach out to Hannah if you want advice. Don’t reach out to Hannah if you want your book published because there is a process through her company that happens and please respect that.
Let me tell you about the process then too because that way if you’d like to reach out to me in a more formal way because you think you have a book that would be right for me, it’s certainly the way that you can do it. If you have a book that you think might be right for Viva Editions or for Cleis Press, you’re welcome to send it to the email addresses, Acquisitions@CleisPress.com or Acquisitions@VivaEditions.com. You can find more about our Submission Guidelines by going to CleisPress.com or VivaEditions.com. There’s a Submission Guidelines page on both of those websites. You’ll be able to look at the kinds of books that we publish and see if your book looks like it is in the right category or is the right fit. You can email us with your picture proposal and follow those guidelines. Following the guidelines is another very important tip for anyone submitting.
Go into it because I hear this a lot. People want to follow their own rules and you guys have these guidelines in place for a reason.
We have it in place for a reason and sometimes I’ll get emails from people that will say like, “I know this isn’t what you asked for, but here’s my first chapter.” First of all, to do that, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. As an editor reading so many proposals and I have limited time, for you to say like, “I ignored what you requested and what you instructed of me,” it makes me think that perhaps for the rest of the two year process, you’ll be ignoring what I request of you. It starts off on the wrong foot. The other thing is we request that information for a reason. If we request a certain piece of detail, it’s because we want to be able to look into that detail.
If we have to track you down on Google and it takes us 30 minutes to find your oddball Twitter handle and if you’re not supplying the information, how much effort do you think a small indie publisher is going to put into tracking you down? If you want us to know the information, you’ve got to send it. It’s also respectful of people’s time. It’s respectful of the process and it shows us that you’re reading, which is another important thing. For publishers, they’re going to send you many emails full of important information once you get a book contract about editing, about publishing, about marketing, about your schedules and your timelines. We want to know that you’re going to read those instructions, you’re going to read those emails and you’re going to respond to them. I hope that helps clarify why it’s important.
I do hear about those people that want to do it their own way. They don’t get that you’re not looking for game-changers here. You’re looking for books.
It’s not personal if a publisher is not going for your proposal necessarily. You have to remember that publishers and editors and agents, all of them are looking at so many proposals. They have an idea of the kinds of things that they’re looking for. They’re reading through a lot of proposals of people who have not done anything remotely close to what they’ve asked for or even are sending in the right genres. They’re not going to be slow to set it aside if it’s not going to be a process that they think they can believe in.
Hannah, thank you so much. This is very illuminating.
That’s how to get in touch with me professionally if you do want to send us something. If you want to get in touch with me personally, you’re welcome to. I’m on Twitter. You can follow me @HelizBennett. That’s one way to connect to me. The last thing I wanted to say is in my pursuit to create my own author platform, I started a podcast called Arguments About Nothing, which is a comedy podcast with my cohost, Shelby Sampsel.
Arguments About Nothing is meant to be a lighthearted comedy podcast about arguments that aren’t going to get you in trouble at the Thanksgiving dinner table. We take very ridiculous hypothetical situations. We argue about them seriously as if they are something, when in fact they very much are nothing. They are meant to be an escape from a lot of this heavier stuff in the world these days. If you’d like to either learn more about that podcast from me or if you’d like to reach out to me via that platform, you can follow us @ArgumentsAboutNothing on Instagram, or you can email me at ArgumentsAboutNothing@Gmail.com.
Do you guys get wasted or do you bring Uncle Fred in? How do you do that?
We’re able to have these ridiculous conversations completely sober. It’s a natural outpouring of our personalities. Shelby and I take hypothetical situations. We debate them seriously, although not seriously. The point is to have a debate about something that doesn’t matter and to be a lighthearted addition to your commute home. Hopefully, people will be interested enough to check it out. It’s not specifically book-related, but it is another way that people can show as an author or as somebody trying to enter the industry that you are committed to doing art and all of its various forms. Any platform building thing that you have like that can always speak well to you because it shows that you’re invested, interested, getting out there and being creative.
It probably wouldn’t hurt with you when you submit your book to say that you have 5,000 downloads a week on your podcast.
It certainly would not hurt. Not one bit. There are lots of ways to reach out to me, so feel free.
Thank you, Hannah.
Thank you. It was so nice to talk to you.
- Superbrand Publishing – YouTube
- Hannah Bennett LinkedIn
- Start Publishing
- New York City Chapter of Women’s National Book Association
- Arguments About Nothing
- Viva Editions
- Cleis Press
- @HelizBennett – Twitter
- Arguments About Nothing
About Hannah Bennett
Hannah Bennett is the senior acquisitions editor at Start Publishing, where she acquires for the Viva Editions and Cleis Press imprints. She is also the Immediate Past President of the New York City chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, a nonprofit literary organization founded in 1917, and a member of the Pace University M.S. in Publishing advisory board. Hannah is the producer, co-host, and editor of the podcast Arguments About Nothing, a comedy podcast that was dubbed “fighty escapism” by Ozy.com. She holds a B.A. in Communications and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.S. in Publishing from Pace University in New York City. In her spare time, Hannah writes both work-for-hire projects and her own fiction projects.
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