Interview with Judith Appelbaum

by Claire E. White

Judith Appelbaum is a true publishing insider. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College she took a job with Harper's Magazine in New York where she continued the training she started as a college intern with the company which is now HarperCollins.

Photo of Judith Appelbaum

She spent many years in the industry, analyzing and influencing book publishing as a columnist and reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, as the managing editor of Publishers Weekly and as editor-in-chief of Book Research Quarterly. She left Publishers Weekly to form her own company, Sensible Solutions, Inc., which markets books for writers and publishers.

Her book How to Get Happily Published, an industry classic, and has sold more than 500,000 copies and was just released in its 5th edition by HarperCollins. Winner of the Publishers Marketing Association lifetime achievement award, she is a faculty member of the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver, co-author of The Writer's Workbook: A Full and Friendly Guide to Boosting Your Book's Sales (Pushcart Press) and a leader in industry efforts to improve royalty payments for the benefit of authors and publishers alike. She speaks often at writers conferences and publishing industry events, and runs writing and publishing workshops at institutions such as NYU, CUNY, UCLA and the Women's National Book Association. She serves on the board of the Book Industry Study Group, the advisory committee of the Small Press Center and the editorial board of Publishing Research Quarterly, chairs the Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee's royalty group, and has had articles not only in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly but also in Harper's, The Writer, Small Press, Mother Earth News, the Authors Guild Bulletin, the PMA Newsletter, Media Studies Journal and Poets & Writers magazine.

A member of the Authors Guild, PEN, the Publishers Marketing Association, BISG, PEN Center USA West and the Women's Media Group, she lives lives in Bedford, New York. Judith spoke with us about the publishing industry and how it is changed, why self-publishing is becoming an attractive option for certain types of books and why authors must get involved with promoting their own books in order to be successful.

What was your first job in publishing?

I started out in publishing while I was in college, in a slot one rung below the usual entry-level job of editorial assistant. As a "summer floater" for the company that's now HarperCollins, I typed names and addresses for various departments in the publishing house pretty much all day every day. One of those departments was Harper's Magazine, which offered me a permanent -- and much more interesting -- job when I graduated.

How did you come to be managing editor of Publishers Weekly?

Because Publishers Weekly is the trade magazine of the book industry, it provides a great way to get information and ideas into circulation. When the first edition of How to Get Happily Published was finished, I had lots of information and ideas I thought publishers should be more aware of, so I applied for the managing editor position, which happened to open up right then, and got it..

What made you form your own company?

Also right after How to Get Happily Published first appeared, I started getting calls and letters from people who'd read it and found that the advice in it really worked. Lots of them wanted more advice that was tightly tied to their particular projects. So it quickly became clear that there was a need for a company that would help individual writers market their work to publishers and the public. Sensible Solutions, Inc., was founded to do just that.

The fifth edition of How to Get Happily Published was just released. What first compelled you to write the book?

Cover of
How to Get Happily Published by Judith Appelbaum
Click here
for ordering information.
In the mid-'70s, I worked on a reader-written magazine called Harper's Weekly. Conceived by an innovative editor named Tony Jones, it featured stories by men and women all over the country doing all sorts of jobs who had important news to share with the rest of us. Working on the Weekly taught me a great deal about how people who weren't writers (or weren't writers yet) could use the power of print, and How to Get Happily Published began as a book for them. Almost immediately, though, I ran into people who were writers -- often writers who'd been published a lot -- who told horror stories about books that sank out of sight as soon as they were "published." At that point, the design of the book broadened and it became a guide for professional writers as well as for sometime writers and beginning writers.

What is the biggest change you have seen in the publishing industry since the first edition of the book was published?

The biggest change in publishing over the past 20 years has been the enormous growth of professional, profitable small publishing companies. Although the mergers between the giant firms get more attention, the fact that tens of thousands of smaller publishers are now active and effective is far more important -- for writers, for readers and for the culture as a whole.

In your book there is an in-depth chapter on writing a book proposal. One of the things you advise is for the writer to describe his or her willingness to promote the book. Why is that so important today?

Writers need to help their publishers with promotion -- which translates as reaching readers -- for two primary reasons: writers know more about the audiences for their particular books than their publishers ever will, and publishers know that the only books they can afford to market adequately are surefire bestsellers. In other words, if the author doesn't do the marketing for most books, it doesn't get done and the books die.

What makes an author "mediagenic"?

I don't think authors have to be mediagenic to attract readers. Three things matter more: common sense (who are my targetable readers? where do they shop? whose recommendations would they listen to? what organizations do they belong to? what periodicals do they read? what Internet sites do they figure to visit?); donkey work (queries, pitch letters and phone calls using the information gathered above, plus follow-up, follow-up and follow-up), and passion (which can fuel the whole publishing process and make authors extremely effective on talk shows and before groups).

What should novice fiction authors expect their print runs to be for a hardcover book? For a mass market paperback?

First printings vary enormously, even for first novels. In general, hardcover printings are small (maybe a few thousand to start) and "mass-market" printings are larger (maybe in the tens of thousands). But whatever the first printing, smart authors try to keep tabs on sales and make sure publishers go back to press in time to satisfy demand the authors are creating.

How involved should published authors be in marketing their books?

The long answer to this question is the chapter in How to Get Happily Published called "Why and How to Be Your Own Best Sales Force." The short answer is: If you have a book coming out, you have to get heavily -- and intelligently -- involved in marketing it or prepare to see it fail.

For first-time authors who may have a limited budget, what are two things they can do that will help promote a new book?

It's not necessary to have a big budget, just as it's not necessary to be mediagenic. What matters most is the stuff mentioned above in that connection, which actually boils down to two things: define your audiences and figure out how to reach them physically, intellectually and emotionally.

Do you have any inspiring words for authors who are somewhat shy about getting out there and promoting their own books?

Shy authors are often pleasantly surprised when they pitch in on marketing their books, both because much of the work can be done through words on paper and because what you're really doing in marketing is making contact with the right readers for what you've written, the readers who will benefit from it and value it and tell their friends about it and give you the kind of psychic and financial rewards that make the whole publishing process worthwhile.

How important is networking for aspiring and published authors? What are some of the best places to make helpful contacts?

Networking is useful for writers, just as it is for people in any other field. Writers' groups and colonies and conferences provide good leads for networking, as do sites like this one. Which is why the the "Resources" sections include leads to them.

I'd like to talk about a growing field: self-publishing. Is self-publishing losing the stigma it once had?

Self-publishing has lost any stigma it may have had. Now that many, many self-published books have been wildly successful (consider The Celestine Prophecy and The Christmas Box, for instance), and now that many, many much-published writers are making self-publishing their first choice, it's entirely respectable. Of course, self-published books and periodicals have to be well edited, designed, produced and marketed.

What is the difference between self-publishing and a vanity press?

Vanity press imprints, on the other hand, still definitely stigmatize books,
"Self-publishing has lost any stigma it may have had. Now that many, many self-published books have been wildly successful... it's entirely respectable."
causing booksellers, librarians and the media to shun them. The vanity presses are recognizable by their come-hither ads. They "invite" authors to submit manuscripts for free "evaluations" and then offer to "publish" (translation: produce physical books) for a fee. A vanity press is likely to charge far more for producing a book than a production expert would, and of course self-publishers can choose to handle some production tasks themselves -- as noted in the "Self-Publishing Option" section of the book.

What kinds of works are good subjects for self-publishing?

Good candidates for self-publishing include books and periodicals that offer new information and/or that appeal to geographic communities or communities of interest and/or that are designed as calls to action. Fiction and poetry can work too, though. Self-publishers with projects that fit into these categories are most likely to succeed if they have certain personality traits, I've discovered.

Can a self-published book be picked up by a major publishing house?

Major houses go prospecting for successful self-published books and snap them up when they find them. Examples include The One-Minute Manager, The Yeast Connection, Mutant Message Down Under and Sugar Busters, in addition to the books mentioned above and lots of less well known titles.

Let's talk about agents. What is your advice to an aspiring novelist with a finished manuscript who is trying to find an agent?

I'd say, Refocus. Stop looking for an agent and start targeting and querying editors. As "The Plain Truth About Agents" chapter explains, too many new writers waste too much time and energy trying to get agents and failing, instead of trying to interest editors and succeeding.

Recently there have been a rash of complaints and lawsuits against agents and vanity presses who promised much more than they delivered to writers. Some of these entities use the Internet to hook unwary writers. What should a beginning writer be on the lookout for in order to avoid the dishonest and/or unscrupulous agent?

It's important to remember that anyone can use the label "literary agent." One hallmark of a professional is membership in the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives; And one hallmark of a scam may be a request for money up front; most reputable agents work on commission and don't charge fees.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

Publishing has always struck me as a way to change the world. I love to see writers expand our range of understanding, experience, knowledge, even happiness.

What is the most disturbing trend in publishing that you see today?

Although a number of dangerous trends are running (including the big
"If you have a book coming out, you have to get heavily -- and intelligently -- involved in marketing it or prepare to see it fail.."
houses' adoption of the movie model for acquisitions and marketing), I think the most dangerous is the trend toward overemphasis of "frontlist" (brand new books) at the expense of "backlist" (books that aren't brand new) on the part of smaller publishers and the distributors that carry their titles. Fortunately, the evil effects of this trend may be offset by trends spawned on the Internet. It's great to see Internet bookselling operations highlighting books by subject or author regardless of publication date, and Web sites making it easy for readers to zero in on books from all publishers and all times that will be especially valuable to them.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Although I enjoy and admire many more writers than I could list, some of my favorites are Wallace Stegner, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Arthur, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Reginald Hill and Julian Barnes.

When you're not running your own company, what do you like to do to relax?

Whenever I can, I read mysteries and take long walks. Most of all, I love walking in the Grand Canyon and along the wooded roads in the town where I live, but I get one nice side effect when I walk anywhere. My best ideas about my own writing projects and about clients' books seem to come to me when my legs are pumping along some path.

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