Interview with Shawn
Rugged Land is a New York publishing company committed to providing the utmost in editorial and marketing guidance for each book it publishes. To that end, only six hardcover and six paperback titles are released each year. Rugged Land has also developed book trailers, viewable at the Rugged Land web site; these book trailers combine the best of books and filmmaking to promote new titles. Mr. Shawn Coyne, one of the partners at Rugged Land and a former senior editor at Doubleday, was kind enough to participate in an email interview for AbsoluteWrite.com.
What made Rugged Land decide to publish only six hardcover and six paperback books per year? Is it realistic to expect large-scale financial and commercial success from only twelve titles per year, compared to the large publishing houses?
I see publishing a small list of books as far more analogous to the majority of successful businesses with the potential for very high returns as opposed to today’s rather archaic publishing model. That is, General Motors doesn’t come out with 100 different car models per year, hoping that twenty of them become profitable enough to overcome the losses of the other 80 models. Rather General Motors makes 10 or 12 models of car per year, works very hard to promote the differing characteristics and values of those models to their core markets, and invests its creative energies into making each model profitable. And every year or so, they come up with a new model or new approach to selling an older model that strikes a chord with the public and they end up selling an exponential amount of one model versus the others. But each of those models is expected to be profitable, or it is discontinued.
Now, today’s publishing model, from the Random House empire through many medium-sized independent companies, is to publish a lot of books in a year in many different genres and hope that a few of them become huge bestsellers. And those houses do that. A few of their books throw off enough money to overcome the losses from 60% of their lists. That’s right, a little secret that the bookkeepers at the big houses know is that the average success rate for a book to reach profitability is about 40%. That is, 3 out of 5 books published by the big companies lose money. So you have 40% of the list paying off the debt of the other 60% and, on top of that, holding up the companies overall profitability. Not exactly a great business enterprise to jump on…
So, after many years working in the traditional publishing business model—at Dell Publishing, St. Martin’s Press, and Doubleday—I kept thinking that the ideal situation for a publisher would be to find an editor with a better profitability batting average than .400. If a publisher were to find an editor who knew his/her markets and projects so well that they were capable of making each of their books profitable, then every now and then that editor would be likely to find a writer that would become a huge bestseller. If close to 100% of the books a publisher published were profitable, then lightning could strike one of those titles and exponentially increase its profit margins.
As an editor with an interest in business, I kept very meticulous records of my own publishing track record. In addition, I was fortunate and successful enough in the arena to be given several different lines of books to oversee. I directed crime fiction at Dell and St. Martin’s, non-fiction action/adventure at Dell, military non-fiction at Dell and St. Martin’s and the sports non-fiction program at Doubleday. Needless to say, I published quite a number of books; over 250 titles in my career.
So, I calculated my batting average and found that in my core genres—crime fiction, military non-fiction, sports non-fiction and fiction, narrative non-fiction adventure—I batted about .860. That is 86% of my titles were profitable. And of those titles that were profitable, I had a number of big bestsellers—averaging about one to two per year.
So, when we began Rugged Land, as a publisher I thought that I’d be a good editor to have working for me.
Rugged Land’s web site copy refers to the Commando vs. Seventh Army business models. Can you elaborate on what Rugged Land means by this?
The Commando business approach as opposed to the Seventh Army begins with what I discussed above. The Seventh Army throws a lot of soldiers and artillery into a mission; a commando unit uses maybe four to six soldiers with precision. Random House has hundreds of employees and publishes about a thousand books a year under its umbrella. There is no single “character” of Random House. It’s by definition Random.
Rugged Land, on the other hand, has five full-time employees and works with other creative players, depending upon the book, on a service contract basis. That is, we don’t have a full-time “marketing” department required to come up with marketing plans for a novel about golf as well as a cookbook dedicated to cabbage. We find the best freelance marketer that has contacts in golf for the golf book and the best freelance marketer that has contracts in the cabbage cookbook world and ask them to work with us on these individual titles.
And with a small number of titles, we can do just that. We can concentrate and be passionate about making each one of our books the most successful commercially as it can possibly be. And we don’t publish books that we don’t believe have a chance to be national bestsellers.
It’s unusual to see writers’ guidelines posted on a publishing company’s website. Why did you decide to do that?
Writer’s guidelines? Not really sure what you mean by that. But we do look outside of the traditional agent-editor relationships to find our writers. And many of the most talented writers working today are just not being serviced by the publishing industry. It’s not impossible that we might find someone that we believe in through our website. The odds are astronomical, no doubt, but stranger things have happened.
In an April 4, 2002 Bookselling This Week article on the American Bookseller’s Assoc. web site, Bookweb.org, you’re quoted as saying, "Newspapers are cutting back on book reviews, and I think the fact is that the media in general is not covering books in the way it should." Why do you think newspapers are reducing the number of book reviews they publish?
Book reviews and book coverage is generally boring, in my opinion. It’s not all that exciting to read if you are a casual reader and I don’t believe people run out to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. We’re not in the J.D. Salinger writing a short story for The New Yorker era anymore. Books have to compete with a lot of other media and covering books is just not as cool and fun and exciting as covering Aerosmith’s concert or Britney Spears’ naval piercing.
So, until books can be a little more fun and interesting to a wider audience (something that Oprah, The Today Show, Live with Regis and Kelly are doing for books), newspapers look at them as obligation copy, like obituaries, as opposed to selling copy. And, as much as I wish it weren’t true, they’re right.
Now, it doesn’t mean that we all have to sigh and quit trying to make books cooler and more interesting. In my opinion, there just isn’t anything else like reading a book. It’s the best entertainment value, period. Why not try different ways to use the instant gratification of the visual media to impart the “coolness” of reading?
Do you think online media can successfully fill the vacuum left by newspapers in getting readers interested in the buzz on new books?
Online media can definitely increase the buzz about books and actually move people to read more. The reason is that online is a reading medium. Those who chat and communicate online are probably readers. It’s a fantastic way to reach an audience that passionately cares about a particular book or genre.
How would you like to see the media cover books?
The media covers books when people care about the messages and thoughts in a book. When the messages, entertainment values, and snooziness of books are not appealing to the public, they won’t cover books. You can’t force the media to care and cover a book just because it’s “good” for them to do it. The book actually has to excite people. Harry Potter… gets tons of media coverage. It’s because the books are exciting and interesting to people. If you publish a book like Harry Potter…, or The Closing of the American Mind, or Slander, or The Firm, people will buy it, read it, talk about it, and the media will report it. Simple as that. But to be a publisher and cry in my beer about how the media isn’t doing enough for books and book reading is a waste of time. Find a book that does something for people, enough people to get them talking, and the media will join in.
Do you have any opinions you’d like to share as to who you think is doing a good job of keeping new books in front of readers?
I’m not sure what you mean by this. Booksellers could certainly be more creative about actually exciting and selling books to their clientele. Unfortunately, though, there really is very little incentive for the retailer to spread the word about individual titles. It’s a long and boring argument that stretches back to the end of WWII, but the business of bookselling has devolved really into stocking as many titles as possible, taking in as much co-op advertising from publishers as possible, and employing as few people as possible with low overhead. Of course there are exceptions and exceptional booksellers across the country, but there isn’t really a charismatic retailer trying new things and energizing the book world in a way that I’d like to see. Rugged Land’s web site offers a book trailer for John Scott Shepherd’s Henry’s List of Wrongs; this seems to be an exciting and innovative new avenue for catching the interest of readers.
Do you think readers are responding less to traditional print and online ads and reviews? Are book trailers the public relations and marketing tool of the future?
I love filmmaking. Half of our company is a production company dedicated to seeing some of our titles make it to the big screen as well as a film-only enterprise partnering with Hollywood studios. My business partner is a film producer.
Anyway, I think book trailers are cool and interesting and a new way of giving people a visceral sense of what a book is about. Who knows about the future for book trailers. We’re really the only company doing them. But it seems to me that it would be pretty cool to walk into a bookstore and see and hear some fun films about books. It would be more entertaining and a better shopping experience. And far more effective in getting people to pay attention to an individual title than just making a poster of the jacket…
Do you have any advice or tips you’d like to share with writers aspiring to have their first novel accepted for publication?
Never ask anyone to read your first draft, second draft, or third draft. Don’t bug people after they’ve agreed to read your book. Know what genre you are writing in and read every book you can think of in that genre. Figure out who will buy the book. If you can’t figure out who will, then stop writing. Read Story by Robert McKee and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
What was the most memorable book you’ve ever published and why?
Every single book I’ve published has taught me something. The bombs are the most memorable, but I would never tell you what they were as I don’t want to hurt the writers who wrote them. The bombs are important, though. If you don’t take chances, you never have bombs. But if you don’t take chances, you never have bestsellers.
For more information about Rugged Land, see their web site at http://www.ruggedland.com.
Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years' experience as a readers' advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal, The Imperfect Parent, and Absolute Write. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine. Amy is also the managing editor and an international markets columnist for Absolute Write. Visit her online at http://www.amyba.com.
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