Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sunday Interview - Jeff Rutherford of Delabarre Publishing

Jeff Rutherford and I met at one convention or another more years back than I can count on my fingers. We've been in and out of touch over the years, talking books and writing and the like. We recently crossed paths again via the miracle of social media. Since he has many interesting things going on including the release of a book by the great crime writer Clark Howard, I thought he'd be a great person for a Sunday interview.

A little about Jeff
Jeff worked in traditional publishing for 3-4 years in the 1990s with the Denise Marcil Literary Agency, Inc. For the past 15 years, he has worked in public relations - managing and developing PR campaigns for digital lifestyle companies at the intersection of technology, media, and publishing. In 2010, he founded Delabarre Publishing, an independent publisher of quality eBooks. In addition, Jeff has recorded 43 episodes of the Reading and Writing podcast - where he interviews writers and authors about their latest books, their writing habits, and what books they love and enjoy. In addition, he is revamping and recording new episodes of the Book Marketing podcast which examines how publishers and authors are using digital strategies to market and sell books.

A father of two, Jeff lives with his family in the hills of Western Massachusetts.

Tell us a little about how Delabarre Publishing and what you’re doing in the realm of e-book publishing.

I had long dreamed of starting a small publishing company over the years. I've observed and participated in the publishing industry intently for the past 20 years. However, the financial costs of traditional publishing (print and production costs, the returns issue) stopped me from jumping in.

I've long been fascinated by eBooks. In 2000, I bought a Gemstar ereading device. It was a clunky, early, early predecessor of the Kindle or iPad. The screen wasn't all that bad, and I read several books with my Gemstar device. I moved from that to downloading books for my PalmPilot and watching the business models and success of companies like Fictionwise. So, when Sony launched their eBook devices and then Amazon made the big splash with the introduction of the Kindle, I knew that eBooks would have a huge impact. I don't think I would have predicted the traction this quickly, but I think Amazon made a very, very smart move by pricing current titles at $9.99. While traditional publishers tried to figure out a strategy and response, Amazon built a sustainable business in 18 months or so.

Then, when these various eBook platforms began introducing self-publishing programs, I knew I wanted to participate as a publisher. I've written fiction, and I've won some prizes and published some of my short stories. However, I just didn't feel that my own fiction efforts were ready for prime time as eBooks.

I started thinking about how and what type of books I could publish electronically. I knew that whatever I published, I wanted to emphasize quality - quality in the writing, quality in the production/formatting, and quality in the cover design. I have a 7-year old son who loves riddles, puns, and wordplay. One day when I was in a bookstore with him, I glanced at a shelf of joke books, and I knew that those could work really well as eBooks. I went home, researched the current market for kids joke eBooks. Then, I contacted a friend who is a freelance writer, and paid him an advance to write 101 Short & Hilarious Jokes For Kids.

After working with a cover designer and an eBook formatter, I published my first eBook in August 2010. Since then, I've published a wide variety of kids joke books, including 102 Hilarious Jokes for Kids, 103 Hilarious Halloween Jokes for Kids, 102 Hilarious Christmas Jokes For Kids, 500 Hilarious Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids, 101 Hilarious Animal Jokes, 102 Hilarious Jewish Jokes For Kids, 101 Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes for Kids.

What are your thoughts on cover art? How do you develop the cover for a title you’re going to release?

I've worked primarily with one cover designer, and we have a great working relationship. She has developed a very consistent style and tone for the joke books. But that's not all I'm publishing. She's also designed covers for novels, travel books, etc.

I'm not a graphic designer. I've never used Photoshop. But over the years, I've looked at literally thousands of traditional book covers, and I think I have a gut feel for what looks good and "pops" as a cover. Thankfully, the designer I work with, can take my ideas and turn them into eye-catching covers. When I email my designer initially, I usually try my best to describe the tone and feel of the cover artwork I have in mind.

I know you have a title from Clark Howard, Hard City. How did that come about? Were you an admirer of his work at the outset?

After the kids joke books began selling well, I knew that I wanted to expand my eBook publishing to include a variety of titles and topics, including fiction. I've read many of Clark Howard's novels, but Hard City was the first novel of his that I read. It was purely by accident. In 1990 or so, I was in the library at the University of Georgia. I spotted the title Hard City on a new release shelf, grabbed the book and read the first page or so.

The book is an amazing coming of age novel - based on the real-life story of Howard's troubled childhood living on the hard streets of Chicago in the late 1940s. Over the years, I bought multiple copies of Hard City, and I re-read the novel four or five times over the years.

I thought about Hard City as a potential ebook, and I confirmed that the book was not available as an eBook. In fact, after its initial hardback publication by Dutton, the book was never even published in paperback. I tracked Howard down through Mystery Writers of America and sent him an email. A few weeks later, in January of this year, I was at home on a Saturday afternoon, and he called me to discuss publishing Hard City as an eBook. That was a very exciting day, and now Hard City is available as an eBook for a new generation of readers to enjoy.

And, now, Howard and I are collaborating on publishing a multi-volume collection of his many, well-regarded and award-winning mystery stories. Stay tuned for the first volume later this year.

Also, I want to add, that thanks to working with Clark Howard to publish Hard City, that opened the door with other, established writers to discuss publishing some of their backlist. I've also had the great privilege to publish two young-adult novels written by Bill Crider, the popular mystery writer. Crider's A Vampire Named Fred is now available, and we'll soon be publishing A Werewolf Named Wayne. A Vampire Named Fred was previously published a small, defunct publisher, but the sequel A Werewolf Named Wayne is previously unpublished.

Any dream authors you’d like to publish or any particular book you want to resurrect in an e-edition?

I'm in discussions with several authors currently. Some I can't discuss publicly at this point. I will add that regardless if I publish them or not, there are plenty of series that I think warrant eBook publication. For example, I know that some of Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective novels are available as eBooks, but not all of them. That's a series that's ripe for eBook publication. Also, I've always been fond of multi-volume definitive collections of short stories. I'm not in discussions with them, but I think all the great science fiction collections that NESFA has published over the years would make wonderful eBooks. The same goes for the current Subterranean Press multi-volume collection of Robert Silverberg's short stories.

Tell us about your joke books and developing those. Are there more on the horizon. I know the supply of humorous public figures is almost infinite.

In addition to the kids joke books, I have published 2 collections of "political" humor - 99 Sarah Palin Jokes and 101 Donald Trump Jokes. Those haven't sold quite as well as the kids joke books, but I do have plans for other adult and political joke books.

What else is on the horizon for Delabarre?

I've got a lot of eBooks in production. I haven't even mentioned The Italy Plane Reader. I partnered with GoNomad, a great online travel site that features travel articles about destinations in the U.S. and around the world. The Italy Plane Reader, as the name suggests, is an eBook featuring numerous articles about Italy - the perfect read on the plane ride to Italy for your travels. In partnership with GoNomad, I'm going to be publishing more "Plane Readers" including eBooks about Central America, Cuba, and a guide to nudist travel and resorts - Travel Naked.

I will also be publishing - very soon - the eBook of a book that I sold to HarperCollins in the 1990s when I worked as a literary agent in NYC - 50 Great College Drinking Games by Ross Bonander. Ross has also written another book that I'll be publishing which I'm very excited about - a quote book similar to a Bartlett's-style collection. But, Ross' new book is collecting strictly quotes from the 2000s. We haven't settled on a title yet, but it's moving close to production.

You’ve worked in traditional publishing and now you’re part of the e-book revolution. What do you see down the road? Any predictions?

Predictions. Hmmm. I'm certainly immersed in book publishing, but I'm never confident about my own crystal ball of predictions. Nonetheless, here are my predictions:

1. I think there will be many more independent publishers similar to Delabarre Publishing. Traditional publishers aren't moving fast enough to publish their backlist. In some cases, they don't have electronic rights to their backlist. And, when they do publish their backlist, they price the books too high, because they're working from a traditional pricing structure.

2. With traditional publishers, I just don't know. I've been struck recently at several industry events that I attended where publishers, authors, and editors spoke, and there was almost no discussion about eBooks and the impact of eBooks. While they may not be discussing eBooks, I'm certain that the accountants at major publishers are discussing them. How do you continue along as if nothing has changed when you're selling fewer hard copies of books, and the pricing pressures keep going lower?

And, I want to point out, very strongly, I have no animosity whatsoever towards traditional publishers. I love publishing. I love books. I have a house filled with books (too many according to my wife). But, it's inarguable that the business model is changing much faster than any publisher ever dreamed it would.

3. Bookstores. Used bookstores will continue to exist. However, the outlook for bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble is grim. Yes, B&N has moved aggressively, much more so than many publishers insiders ever dreamed, with the Nook, but again with pricing structures, they're making less money on lower-priced eBooks. And, they're selling fewer print books. With Barnes & Noble, I think in 5 years, they'll have half the stores they do now - if not less.

4. Writers will continue the rush to publish self-published eBooks. The vast majority will sell only a few copies. Unfortunately, many authors write their books, but then they're willing to settle for sub-standard formatting and cover design. If they settle for poorly designed covers and formatting, their books won't rise above the flood of self-published books. In addition, the ease of self-publishing as an eBook is just too much of a temptation for many aspiring writers. They're going to publish poorly edited drafts hoping to be the next John Locke or Amanda Hocking, and they're only going to sell a few copies.

However, the good news is that there will be A LOT more successful self-published writers. eBooks and self-publishing technology have democratized book publishing. If writers spend the necessary time to write the best book they're capable of, and pay an editor for valid editing, and spend the time to design an eye-catching cover, there's nothing stopping them from succeeding very well.

5. Reading and books overall. I'm excited and ecstatic! To quote that song, "The future's so bright I've got to wear shades." As more and more backlist titles are published, the rich depth of novels and non-fiction will be available to just about anyone with the click of a button, including libraries as Amazon rolls out their library lending plans later this year.

6. While optimistic, let’s not forget the digital divide. If there are fewer bookstores, there will be communities that are underserved by having books readily available, and those same neighborhoods don’t have the affluence for teens and adults to run out and buy a Kindle or an iPad. I don’t like the idea of two Americas – haves and have nots – and I think it’s something we all have to be mindful of as technology races ahead.


Charles Gramlich said...

Does seem like the ebook revolution has allowed some folks without a lot of monetary resources to do some creative stuff in publishing.

Sidney said...

It really is an exciting time.

Jillian said...

Very useful material, thank you for the article.

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