Publishers Corner: Behind the Scenes at Zarahemla

First of all, I’d like to thank all the publishing folk who’ve taken time to write guest posts for this “Publishers Corner” category over the last year or more. We’ve had a good range, from Deseret and Covenant to some of the newest micropresses in the Mormon field.

Without someone else lined up for this month, I thought I’d type up a few notes and thoughts about my own publishing concern, Zarahemla Books (I’d like to see other publishers contribute reports annually as well). About this time a year ago, I thought Zarahemla was fading into the sunset. I wasn’t going to shut it down—there’s really nothing to shut down, in terms of overhead—but I wasn’t going to push it.

As it turns out, Zarahemla is still in the game more than I expected. What’s been evolving is a model of ad-hoc volunteer and hired help, a different mix for each book. This is because I don’t have time, money, and mojo to do as much by myself as I used to, and yet some books just can’t be repressed. (I fancy myself a writer too, after all, and I’m constantly pining to work on my own creative projects.)

These days, when a potentially interesting query comes in, I forward it out to some trusted readers, not all of whom volunteered—I just picked ’em and hoped they’d be interested, and a few have been quite helpful. A lot of the time, no one responds to queries I forward, which I take as a sign that the project isn’t worth pursuing. In reality, it may just be that everyone was too busy to read the e-mail—but oh well, I tried. For me personally, reviewing prospective manuscripts is one of the things I’m least willing to spend time doing, so these days I almost totally rely on others to tell me if something needs to be published, unless your name is Doug Thayer or Todd Robert Petersen.

Once something gets accepted by Zarahemla by recommendation of two or three literary experts, I’m to the point where I personally edit the book only if I already know the author and feel a mixture of interest and obligation to do so. In some cases, one of my handpicked readers will volunteer to act as editor for a book. In a couple of cases, when I’m not available and a volunteer hasn’t stepped up, the author has hired his or her own third-party editor, in which case I pay a higher royalty rate to help compensate for that investment.  But don’t worry, this is far from vanity publishing—first the book has to be accepted by the recommendation of two or three Mormon literary experts, and that happens only once or twice a year. (Personally, when I’m offered money to edit a book, I usually turn it down because I already have too much on my plate, at least under my current employment/family/avocational circumstances.)

I have to admit, there are now four Zarahemla titles published in past years or currently in the pipeline that I have not personally read. This is mainly because I have very little time for reading and yet a basement full of books I want to read, with two new bookshelves added just last month to keep up with my ongoing Amazon habit. What I do in cases where I haven’t read a book is act as the central hub for coordinating everything. As I said before, two or three enthusiastic, qualified readers first have to recommend the title for publishing, and then a volunteer or hired editor has to be found. Once the Word file is ready for publication, sometimes the author’s hired editorial service will do the page layout and proofreading, and sometimes I will do the interior layout myself and then ask for some volunteer proofreaders. (If I haven’t read the book up to this point, I definitely don’t like to read it now because I might not personally like it, and then I’ll make other people mad who have invested hope, time, excitement, and possibly money into it. I’ve come to prefer to just trust the readers who recommended it and other experts working on it—in fact, sometimes I’m tempted to put “book credits” on the copyright page and let everyone be openly accountable for their own role: selected for publication by so and so, edited by so and so, proofread by so and so, etc.)

Lest you think I’m too much of a slacker, I still put twenty or thirty hours or more into each Zarahemla title even if I’ve never read it and didn’t serve as its editor. I still have to do tons of coordinating between all the parties, oversee the cover design process (I allow a lot of back and forth with the author), set up the printing and distribution, set up the web stuff, send out media notices and requested review copies, pack and ship customer orders, do a lot of bookkeeping, etc. Even when an author pays for third-party editorial services, Zarahemla still invests about $500 in a book and doesn’t always earn that much back. I’ve never taken out cash from Z. publishing proceeds, but Z. occasionally covers a few related expenses on my own behalf, including some books and equipment. However, my personal benefit would probably work out to about $1.50 an hour.

So there’s the transparent, behind-the-scenes version of Zarahemla. It’s not perfect or ideal, and we have made and will continue to make some mistakes and miss some opportunities, but it’s better than nothing. For a niche micropress like mine, this model makes it more likely that the enterprise won’t burn out. On the other hand, I’m actually happy when someone DOESN’T publish with Zarahemla, because I see us as the publisher of last resort for books that are worthy but just can’t catch on anywhere else. I’m glad to see three or four other micropresses who are performing this same kind of safety-net role in Mormon culture—I think all their proprietors are more engaged in considering projects and editing them than I am, and if they end up replacing Zarahemla altogether, that’s fine with me. Between all of us, I hope no unworthy book with Mormon connections ever goes unpublished.

For anyone who might be interested, following are the cumulative sales for Zarahemla as a whole and for each individual title, from the time we started in 2006 through year-end 2011:

ZARAHEMLA BOOKS (all 15 titles)
Print: 5,340
E-book: 2,114
Total: 7,454

HOOLIGAN, Douglas Thayer
Print: 2,003
E-book: 73
Total: 2,076

ON THE ROAD TO HEAVEN, Coke Newell
Print: 646
E-book: 559
Total: 1,205

ANGEL FALLING SOFTLY, Eugene Woodbury
Print: 110
E-book: 523
Total: 633

THE TREE HOUSE, Douglas Thayer
Print: 501
E-book: 121
Total: 622

RIFT, Todd Robert Petersen
Print: 416
E-book: 79
Total: 495

NO GOING BACK, Jonathan Langford
Print: 243
E-book: 215
Total: 458

DISPENSATION, ed. Angela Hallstrom
Print: 330
E-book: 124
Total: 454

LONG AFTER DARK, Todd Robert Petersen
Print: 363
E-book: 71
Total: 434

HUNTING GIDEON, Jessica Draper
Print: 209
E-book: 29
Total: 238

THE DEATH OF A DISCO DANCER, David Clark
Print: 181
E-book: 46
Total: 227

KINDRED SPIRITS, Christopher Kimball Bigelow
Print: 101
E-book: 107
Total: 208

BROTHER BRIGHAM, D. Michael Martindale
Print: 152
E-book: 44
Total: 196

LIGHT OF THE NEW DAY, Darin Cozzens
Print: 72
E-book: 62
Total: 134

WHAT OF THE NIGHT?, Stephen Carter
Print: 64
E-book: 50
Total: 114

WASATCH, Douglas Thayer
Print: 50
E-book: 11
Total: 61

 

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18 Responses to Publishers Corner: Behind the Scenes at Zarahemla

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    Chris, thanks for this. I’ve been super-hard on you in the past for things that I now see are petty, and I want to take this space to apologize to you for those things. You had the wisdom of experience. I didn’t, and I didn’t fully appreciate that until this past year.

    Please accept my apologies.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thainks for this information. I, too, would welcome this kind of end-of-year report from other publishers. I think that what you’ve written here not only sheds light on Zarahemla’s practices, but also on the kind of work (and relatively small returns) that are involved in keeping literary fiction going in the Mormon market.

  3. Wm says:

    Thanks, Chris. I like that you’re willing to be so open about the process and sales figures. It’s useful information to have.

    One follow up question: do you have sense of what factors/publicity leads to sales?

    I mean, I’m not surprised that Hooligan and On the Road to Heaven are your bestsellers. I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re what you might call “crossover hits” in that both of the authors and the works themselves are more likely to hold appeal to both the AML crowd and the Covenant/DB crowd (I’d like to use more elegant terms for the two audiences, and, yes, they do overlap, but that’s easiest way I know of to convey it).

  4. Chris Bigelow says:

    Moriah, thanks. Even just packaging and shipping books takes more out of you than you think it will, am I right?

  5. Chris Bigelow says:

    Good question, Wm. A lot of it I don’t know, including why some books do so much better as e-books than others.

    With Hooligan, the whole BYU media machine and bookstore really kicked in for Thayer, but they also did the same for his other two titles that have sold far less. Hooligan is nonfiction, which may have given it some advantage among Mormons who prefer history to made-up stuff, and it seemed to find a huge audience among older locals with nostalgia for Provo. That appears to have been just a one-time lucky audience for Zarahemla, unfortunately.

    On the Road to Heaven benefited somewhat from winning the Whitney award, but I don’t know how much. What I really don’t know is why, four years after its publication and winning the award, the novel has recently started doing so (relatively) well in its new e-book edition, without any new promotion. If I had any clue why, I could maybe capitalize, but I haven’t seen so much as a blog shout-out for OTRTH in recent memory. I can only assume word of mouth is happening in channels to which I’m not privy, because I can’t imagine 500 people would spontaneously buy an e-book that wasn’t promoted.

    Other than that, it’s all really hit and miss. Reviews seem to move the needle a lot less than you’d hope, but maybe they plant seeds that pay off down the road? Nevertheless, I still offer the books to reviewers because frankly I don’t know much else I can realistically do in order to promote…

  6. Wm says:

    Thanks, Chris. I’m not surprised that reviews don’t do a whole lot. Or rather, I don’t think individual reviews can do a whole lot. If enough reviews say the same thing and the word on the street becomes that it’s a must-read then maybe that helps with sales.

    In terms of why some books do better as ebooks…

    I think it’s pretty clear for Angel Falling Softly. There was some controversy around the novel. It’s not the kind of novel that you’re going to spend money on for a trade paperback, but as a cheap ebook just to see what all the fuss is about? Yeah, you might do that.

    And with On the Road to Heaven it may be as simple as: I always meant to get around to it because it got good reviews and won that Whitney award, and now that it’s a $1.99 ebook, I’m finally going to just buy it.

  7. Chris Bigelow says:

    Makes sense, Wm. As a publisher it’s sad to think, but I see that it’s reality. About those $1.99 e-books… I overall think it’s a good strategy, but I suspect that far fewer $1.99 e-books actually get read than if they cost more or came in paperback.

    I know with my own Kindle, I’ll buy anything remotely interesting for under $5, and I’m already forgetting about what I’ve previously bought. However, if I invest more, I feel like I’m more likely to read it (I still won’t spend more than $10 on an e-book, though).

    On the other hand, I have that basement full of paperbacks, and I’m sure I’ll never read more than a quarter of them, if I’m lucky, and more realistically perhaps only a tenth of them. So maybe it’s just the same dynamic for me with e-books. I’d love to read studies on actual readership of e-books and how it compares to readership of purchased paperbacks, and how price plays into all that.

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I don’t know that this is such a strange model. I mean, how many owners of big publishing houses read all the titles they publish? I’m very grateful you are there, taking the risk and providing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Thank you. I hope your support system stays strong.

  9. Chris Bigelow says:

    Moriah, even in just the past five years since I’ve been using the U.S. Postal Service heavily for publishing, I’ve seen quality of service go down. I won’t trust it for a box containing anything more than 3-4 books, because so many larger shipments have been damaged.

    Another thing that’s a buzz kill is all the bookkeeping, both for royalties and taxes. I hope my Schedule C is small enough potatoes compared to my W-2 income that I don’t ever get audited, because I just do checkbook accounting and guestimate which expense categories to put income into (in other words, the total amounts for the year are right, but the breakdown of exactly what was spent on what categories is just estimates that all add up to the right total).

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Yes, the bookkeeping’s killing me. I was doing my taxes in October, the same time I was trying to get Fire and M&M out and I really cheated myself. I’m going to do an amended return for last year.

  10. BarefootMike says:

    I have purchased four books from Zarahemla in the last few months for two main reasons:

    1. Price (I buy the Kindle versions)
    2. Reviews from various Mormon-themed blogs

    I have finished two of the books so far and have been amazed at these authors have opened my eyes to a world I never really knew existed: good mormon literature. Even if the books were duds, I won’t ever cry over two bucks.

    I appreciate the niche Zarahemla fills–please keep up the great work.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      That’s the kind of response that writers and publishers love to hear! I hope you’re spreading the good news somehow, even if only through Goodreads…

  11. Eric D. Dixon says:

    “Between all of us, I hope no unworthy book with Mormon connections ever goes unpublished.”

    Very charitable of you.

  12. Jonathan Langford says:

    Chris,

    About how much money do you make (net) per print sale, as opposed to electronic sale?

    FYI, looking at my 2011 royalty statement from Zarahemla, it looks like royalties to me as the author are a lot higher for print copies: 76 cents per print sale in 2011, versus 36 cents per electronic sale. Ah, well.

  13. Jonathan, we sell printed books at various prices, generally from 45% to 100% of the cover price, so the answer to your question depends on how much a particular book sold for. And then I could look up the printing cost and deduct that, but the bookkeeping would be too complex for me to be able to amortize book creation and promotion costs into it (such as cover design, ISBN, free review copies sent out, printer setup fees, etc.). Zarahemla has very low general overhead, but we do have to pay for web hosting, business license, and a few other things, and those costs would need to be reflected to really give an answer of how much we clear per book (although, again, I could never pull off the bookkeeping/accounting to do so accurately).

    On ebooks, we sell them for only 1.99, and then we pay royalties on the net amount we actually receive after the ebook seller and our ebook handler deduct their commissions; our ebook handler holds back 15%, and I assume the seller commission rate must vary from seller to seller. The pro-rated costs of book creation/promotion and general overhead should be applied here too, to get a real accurate picture of how much we clear on ebooks. Based on your figures, you’re actually getting 18% on net ebook sales vs. 10% on printed copies.

  14. What I meant was, based on your figures, you’re getting 18% of cover price on ebooks, vs. 5% of cover price on printed books.

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