The Changing Landscape of Publishing: Guest Post by Cathie John
Continuing our Partners in Crime series, today I welcome Cathie John, the writing team of John and Cathie Celestrie.
CATHIE JOHN: The Changing Landscape of Publishing: What's Good For Independent Authors Is Also Good for Readers!
As some of you may already know, we are the husband and wife team of John and Cathie Celestri blending our writing talents into the voice that is Cathie John.
We discovered early on in our marriage that we both wanted to tell stories, each individually submitting projects with no success: Cathie writing novels and John writing and drawing comic strips. One day, John suggested we combine our talent on a comic strip idea he had for a husband and wife premise. The idea showed promise and received good feedback from several syndicates…but no cigar.
So, we each resumed walking our separate creative paths with no success. Then late in 1990, Cathie was diagnosed with stage 3 of a very aggressive breast cancer. The disappointments of those past rejections became insignificant in light of facing death. But after undergoing six months of aggressive chemotherapy treatment, radical surgery, and another six months of chemotherapy Cathie emerged free and clear of cancer.
John had at little bit of success with a graphic comic novel trilogy, which was distributed in stores by a small regional distributor. But wanting to share once again with Cathie the experience of creating a project, John suggested the idea of Cathie using the cancer experience (along with her other life experiences in the culinary field) as the back story for an amateur detective. This was the genesis of “The Journals of Kate Cavanaugh” series. We have been writing together ever since, each of us using our particular strengths where the other is weaker—we’re energized by our collaborative process.
After completing our first Kate Cavanaugh mystery ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC, we felt we had something that was at least entertaining enough to submit to agents. Dozens of rejections arrived by snail mail.
We firmly believed in the novel’s potential as the start of a series, but what could we do? At that point, John approached the small distribution company handling his graphic novel with the first Kate book. No sooner was it accepted, than Ingram Book Distributor bought out the regional distributor, taking in our newly formed small independent press along with all the other publisher accounts. We were now potentially available in all the regional warehouses. When Amazon launched, ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC automatically showed up on its site.
We were now a small one-author press with a one-book catalog. It was 1997. We thought we were living our dream—putting our money where our mouths were. What we hadn’t counted on was being looked upon as a "vanity press"—writers not good enough for the major publishers and book chains. Except, we actually were a small independent publisher. We handled our own writing, layout, cover art, etc, and used a service to print ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC in trade paperback. We stored our print run of 1,000 books in our basement and filled Ingram’s small purchase orders from our kitchen table.
The first year was an eye-opener as to the existence of literary gatekeepers through whose hoops one had to jump—our novel was not considered a real book. We couldn’t get the Entertainment editor of Cincinnati’s major daily newspaper to review our mystery, but fortunately, our local Barnes & Noble and small independent bookstore stocked copies. Then, a local newspaper gossip columnist mentioned our book as being of local interest (Kate’s mystery takes place in Cincinnati).
Shortly after that came Magna cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana. It was an exciting time! We registered as regular attendants, but when the Director of the convention, Kathryn Kennison, discovered we were new authors, she placed us on three panels! It was a bitter-sweet experience. All the regular attendants treated us as authors, buying copies of ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC and having us sign their books just like “real authors”. Unfortunately, most of the traditional authors gave us a wide berth. That was another eye-opener!
Two weeks later, we became aware of a major turning point while we were visiting New York City and introducing ourselves to the owners of a mystery bookstore in Manhattan. It so happened at that very moment, at that very store, the owner introduced us to Lynn Kaczmarek editor and co-owner of Mystery News. That isn’t the major turning point we’re talking about…it had already happened in Magna cum Murder, but we didn’t know of it. Lynn had bought a copy of our ADD ONE DEAD CRITIC on her own, curious to see if a self published author could “deliver the goods.” From that point, Mystery News reviewed all our Kate Cavanaugh mysteries and Original Sin City crime fiction novels, giving them each a better review than the previous one. (The inspiration for our Original Sin City stories came while researching Northern Kentucky history for our third Journals of Kate Cavanaugh mystery. In that novel, Kate discovers the existence of a long lost uncle who was intimately involved with the illegal casinos in Newport, KY back in the 1940s and 1950s.)
From 1998 to 2003, we developed as authors and were distributed through both Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Our novels were stocked in brick and mortar stores such as Barnes & Noble, many independent mystery bookstores, and on Amazon. Based on this, we were accepted in 1998 as full Active members in Mystery Writers of America. In 2000, we were interviewed by Publishers Weekly magazine for a special section on mystery publishers, including self-publishing authors. Our novels received great reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and all the mystery review publications. We wrote the initial “Independent Press” column for Mystery Scene Magazine. Our crime fiction novel Little Mexico was a finalist for the Barry Award in 2001 as Best Paperback Original. We didn’t have a lot of money to buy our way into the big box stores—publishers spent tens of thousands of dollars to get placement in strategy areas of the chain stores—but word of mouth was slowly building our audience.
Then came the financial crisis and the collapse and consolidation of many regional distributors in 2001 to 2003. Major distributors raised the performance bar for small independent presses, cutting them out of distribution channels because they didn't have at least 10 books in their catalogs. All three of our distributors relegated us to a small press ghetto, changing our financial terms, replacing them with terrible ones. We could not financially sustain ourselves with those terms and had to shut down. We tried submitting to literary agents, but none cared for our work even though we had readers and reviewers who wanted more of the stories we wrote and published. So, we left writing and moved on to other pursuits.
One-author independent presses weren’t the only ones affected by the changes going on in the publishing landscape. Readers were also affected by the major publishers. Many mid-list authors who had upwards of 20-30,000 loyal readers were dropped (and their backlist of novels were allowed to go out of print) because they didn't fit into an industry-wide corporate mindset that placed a premium on Blockbusters—they didn't have enough readers.
These authors were deemed to be “not worthy” by the gatekeepers in the major publishing houses. Those gatekeepers were not thinking of you the reader—even though you believed those authors were worthy and would spend your hard earned money on their books. Think YOU were frustrated? Imagine how those writers felt! They were more than ready to continue writing stories for you to read, but the business of publishing paper bound novels placed huge roadblocks between you and them.
However, the advent of the eBook has suddenly changed the landscape of publishing! There is now a way for authors and readers to connect directly!
Dropped authors can write new stories for their fans and issue eBooks to fill in their backlist. Now "Indie" writers have the chance to show you what they can offer that is new, that doesn't have to fit into some corporate preconceived notion of what YOU might like.
That is what we're ready to do, and so we are re-launching our publishing efforts as eBooks. We are writing new novels and issuing our five novel back list over the next year, starting with our Barry Award nominated LITTLE MEXICO and its sequel IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER. Both are now available on Amazon as eBooks.
We are also starting up a blog of our own, focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing historical crime fiction. We call it "Original Sin City".
It's amazing how much the publishing landscape has changed. It appears to be a really positive environment for us now—no more "vanity press" taint to our efforts. Self publishing authors are now appearing on the New York Times Best Sellers lists—this was an impossibility when we started!
These are exciting times. Best of all, there is no expiration to the shelf life of eBooks—time for word of mouth to grow an audience. You, the reader, are the new gatekeeper.