Maureen C. Berry, author of the cookbook Salmon from Market to Plate, is the feature of this month’s Publishing Stories installment. In this post she tells her experience with a traditional publisher and the ultimate successes she found for her book.
My Flirtation with Traditional Publishing
by Maureen C. Berry
You write and polish the best manuscript you can. You hire an editor. You research and then query an agent (or 10). Then wait. While you wait, you wring your hands, fret over that last phrase, that one word. Should I have written more? Less? Did I seem needy? Will they like my work? OMG, did I include my phone number? I suck! What if I never hear from any of the agents? Should I self-publish? Traditional publishing is overrated. I will not self-publish, I’ll wait until I hear back. Checks email every two minutes. A rejection letter is better than nothing, right? A badge of honor. Surely someone will love my book.
As I aspired to publish my first book, these thoughts raced through my mind daily. Okay, who am I kidding, by the minute. My goal? Traditional publication. While I always considered self-publishing a viable option, I was convinced that traditional publication was the best route for me.
But as I researched agents and prepared my query letters, I was a hot mess.
Then something short of a miracle happened.
The first agent I queried for my book, tentatively titled Eating Salmon, replied within five minutes. My pulse raced, my breath caught in my throat. I wondered if I might be hyperventilating. I looked around my one-woman office needing someone, anyone to see the reply.
Thank you for your MS. This is really do-able. [I almost fell off the chair]
But not for me. [Heart dropped to gut]
However, [Heart fluttered back to life], this is a perfect project for XYZ.
And BTW, there’s a similar title, ABC, that was bought earlier this spring by John. P.Q. Literary. Use this in your market research. And please use my name in your query to XYZ.
Okay, so now I am dancing with the dog. Is it too early for champagne? I call my husband. Validation sets in. I pinch myself. Then I sit down to write the second query.
You know where this is going right? Insert all the above first paragraph internal dialogue.
Within two weeks, the second agent bit. And within two more weeks I had my first contract from an imprint of a midlevel publishing house in New York.
But first I had to write the book proposal (I had written the entire manuscript) and have the manuscript edited. I hired Katherine Pickett through an online referral.
I found a publishing attorney on Twitter (yes, it’s true!) who agreed to negotiate my first contract pro bono. Three months later, I signed off on the contract and submitted the manuscript.
Was the advance good? Nope — think small four figures. Was my royalty rate fair? I could have done better — was advised to not accept this contract.
But a contract is a contract, right? I was a first-time author with a small but growing platform. This contract could only help me build my brand, not hinder it.
The publisher suggested a book style — softcover, 6″ × 9″, black-and-white illustrated interior with color cover graphics. 200 pages. I flip-flopped, wanting a hardcover, full-color interior (mine was a cookbook after all, and we eat with our eyes), but I relented, assuming they knew best. And really, I didn’t have much say or any options, other than breaching the contract (code for return the advance and forfeit my rights to the manuscript to the publisher).
Much time went by without any word from the agent. When I did hear, she suggested I write the outline of the second book in the series, Eating Shrimp.
Then late that summer, I was working with the publicist. Salmon from Market to Plate was scheduled for a spring release date. My book had been upgraded to full color, they’d use my photographs, and the book would be larger, thus a higher royalty rate to me. Win-win! I shouted into the woods from my office.
But a month later, my agent messaged that she was retiring and I’d be working with someone else. Not daunted, but a little disappointed, I shook it off. Agents move around and there is always fresh blood willing to learn the ropes.
A few days later, on a Friday afternoon that fall, I received a message from one of the editors at the publishing house: my project was put on hold. Indefinitely. They had a competing title scheduled for a spring release, a lifestyle seafood cookbook by an author with a larger platform.
Over the weekend, I considered my options. I would attempt to negotiate my rights back without penalty or returning the advance.
Mid-October, nearly a year to the day after receiving the contract, the publisher agreed to my terms and within two weeks, my rights were reverted. I told myself (and the husband and dog) that I’d give myself six months to find another agent/publisher.
Then the new year rolled around. And, well, my attitude changed, as often is the case during the new year. I decided to self-publish under my company, Berry Consulting. It never occurred to me to use a self-publishing services company. My thinking was if I’m going to self-publish, then I’m going to learn how to do it with all the unknowns, bumps, and not-so-pretty side of doing something totally foreign. A friend’s cousin, a graphic artist, wanted to expand her portfolio. Her style leaned toward commercial but fun. And with that recommendation, mid-January 2016, I hired Megan Johns to design my book. I wanted an April release date to coincide with the opening Alaska salmon season and my project fit her schedule.
Megan delivered Salmon from Market to Plate a week ahead of the April 13, 2016, release date. Any delay was editing and style issues on my part. Megan is a terrific book designer.
Is Salmon from Market to Plate a success?
- Salmon was #1 New Release in Fish & Seafood Cooking on Amazon for its first week out.
- It won a Gold Star for cover design from The Book Designer for the month of April.
- I was invited to the 35th annual Kentucky Book Fair this November hosted by the Kentucky Humanities Council.
- I was accepted to the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University next fall.
- In October 2016, Salmon received an Honorable Mention from the 24th annual Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Competition.
- Salmon is stocked at two locations in my small (20,000-person) western Kentucky community — Bobbi’s Hallmark and Bookstore at the mall and 45-70, a men’s bespoke store in downtown Madisonville.
- Salmon was accepted for review by BookLife/Publishers Weekly.
- The larger bookstores in my region, Joseph-Beth in Louisville and Cincinnati, Parnassus in Nashville, and Barnes & Noble in Bowling Green rejected my book. But I am not disappointed. Encouraged is the word that comes to mind.
And what marketing do I do?
- I try to do a book signing/salmon tasting event every month in my community. Average book sales are 15 books per event. I sell signed copies from my home, shipping via media mail and taking payment via PayPal, including the shipping and handling plus tax in the price. For each of these signed books, I offer a free bourbon-and-butter cookie, made by a local baker, that looks like the cover of my book.
- I send free copies to industry and sustainable seafood organizations.
- I sell books to chefs and restaurants.
- I submit books to writing contests and for review.
- I work hard to not be that author who shouts, Buy My Book! on social media.
There is much to tackle yet. For instance, how do I sell foreign rights? And should I? Should I print an Asian counterpart? Should I hire a publicist?
There are many questions I can answer. Am I glad that I self-published? Yes. Did I make mistakes? Yes. One biggie was that I didn’t give myself enough time to submit galleys for review. Is self-publishing hard work? Yes. The marketing responsibilities are overwhelming some days. Do I still want to be traditionally published? Yes. But would I self-publish again? Hell yes.
One thing that kept me sane when I otherwise thought I’d lose it was that I believed in myself and my project. Because if you can’t be your own cheerleader, then nobody else will either.
Salmon from Market to Plate is available as a 200-page, softcover, full-color, 6″ × 9″ book. Available on Amazon ($12.95) and Kindle ($6.99). Also available wholesale from IngramSpark.
Like this blog? Find more insights and advice in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available from POP Editorial Services LLC, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and other fine retailers.