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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Guest Post with Dave Zelterman

The Myth of Publishing
By Dave Zeltserman

When I was first starting out I believed I needed the validation from one of the large publishers to prove my books were worthy of being published. I was extremely na├»ve about the publishing industry then, and over the last five years I’ve learned quite a bit—I’ve also had every single book of mine rejected numerous time by the large NY publishers, and have instead have had six books published by the UK publisher, Serpent’s Tail, two books by the independent publisher, Overlook Press and two books by Five Star. Of those books that were rejected flatly by NY’s Big 6, one was picked by NPR as being one of the five best crime and mystery novels of 2008, two were picked by the Washington Post as best books of the year, and another was shortlisted by ALA for best horror book of 2010. I’ve won major awards, including a Shamus, I’ve had my books reviewed favorably by major newspapers around the world, and are seeing my books translated to French, German, Italian, Dutch and Lithuanian. One of my books has been optioned for film and should be going into production soon, and I just received an option offer for another book from a producer with a strong list of indie movies behind her. So what gives? If the large NY publishers are truly the gatekeepers of what’s worthy, how come they’re consistently rejecting me, yet my books keep getting significant acclaim? Well, as I said, over the five years I’ve learned more about how the industry works.

Let me talk about a few conversations I had with an editor when he was with St. Martin’s. This editor called me after Small Crimes was picked by NPR, wanting to let me know how much he liked the book and how much he wanted to publish me. It turns out he was only playing me; waiting to see if I broke out with Small Crimes or one of my other books so he could then sign me to a deal, but even still, I learned a lot from our conversations about how the large publishers work. First off, according to this guy, the large NY houses are ruled by fear. Editors are terrified of recommending anything different to someone above them—afraid that their careers could be irreparably damaged if they recommended something that their superior considers a waste of time. Because of that only the safest books are recommended. Let’s say an editor makes that leap and recommends a book that’s different than the norm; they then have to lobby support to try to get the book bought—try to prove that the book has commercial viability. With one of my books—a horror novel—I had an editor at TOR spend six months trying to lobby support so he could buy this book, but the final nail in the coffin was when they had a focus group look at the book and it was decided that the book had some scenes that were too upsetting (imagine that—a horror novel having upsetting scenes!).

I read this wonderful unpublished manuscript—a crime noir novel, The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken, and I told this editor at St. Martin’s about it. It turns out the manuscript had gotten to him also, and he told me it was one of the best submitted novels he had read that year, but that there was little chance anyone in NY would publish it because it was too different. I ended up recommending the manuscript to my Serpent’s Tail editor, who fell in love with it, and they’re now publishing this book. That’s the biggest difference between the large NY publishers and the smaller independents like SoHo Press, Akashic books, Overlook Press and Serpent’s Tail—the mindset at these smaller independents is to buy the books they love and trust they’ll find a readership, while the large NY houses making up the Big 6 have become all about buying what they consider the lowest risk books without any real regard to their quality, and even worse, they seem to have developed a very low opinion of the book buying public.

Here’s another reality about publishing today—most authors now are given one or two books by the Big 6 to make it or they’re done. It’s almost impossible for an author to break out with only one or two books, at least not without a lot of money behind them. If you look at most of the big names in crime fiction today—Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos—none of these authors would’ve survived in today’s environment. They all needed years to develop their readerships, yet new authors now aren’t being given that luxury. More often than not it’s one or two books, and then they’re done.

There might’ve been a time when the large NY houses acted as gatekeepers to what was worthy of being published, but the idea of them being any sort of gatekeeper now is only a myth. They’ve abdicated any role they might’ve once had about caring about the books they publish. Now it’s all business, and nothing more than that. The independent publishers are different—they’re out to publish the best books they can. They do this because nobody is going to be an independent publisher unless they truly love books, and they’re also smart enough to know they need to do this to survive. But with the large publishers it’s all bottom line, and it’s all become very shortsighted.
Dave Zeltserman won the 2010 Shamus Award for ‘Julius Katz’ and is the acclaimed author of the ‘man out of prison’ crime trilogy: Small Crimes, Pariah and Killer, where Small Crimes was picked by NPR as one of the five best crime and mystery novels of 2008, and Small Crimes and Pariah (2009) were both picked by the Washington Post as best books of the year. His recent The Caretaker of Lorne Field received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, calling it a ’superb mix of humor and horror’, and has been shortlisted by ALA for best horror novel of 2010. Outsourced (2011) has already been called ‘a small gem of crime fiction’ by Booklist and has been optioned by Impact Pictures and Constantin Film.
His latest book is Dying Memories (StoneGate Ink).
You can visit Dave’s website at Connect with him on Facebook at


Michael Malone said...

Well said, Dave. Power to the independents!

Paul D. Brazill said...


Les Edgerton said...

Have had similar experiences and you're right on! Very well said.

Jason W. Stuart said...

This is a lesson I've learned hard, myself. I wish I'd realized this four years ago. It's a marathon, not a race. I keep this in mind now as I slog on toward completion of the crime series I've started. And, I will only submit to the indies.

Great article.

Evan Lewis said...

Appreciate the insight, Dave.

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