David Rozansky is the founder and publisher for Flying Pen Press and its numerous imprints. In this interview with Publetariat founder April L. Hamilton, David discusses how and why he got into book publishing, what it’s like to work with Flying Pen as an author, and his opinions on matters related to the economics of publishing and self-publishing.
ALH: Following over two decades of experience as a writer, journalist, and then magazine publisher, you decided to launch Flying Pen Press. Why?
DR: There are two forces at work here.
As I entered publishing, I started with magazines back in the early 1990s, mostly because it was easier for a struggling writer to launch a magazine on a shoestring than to start a book publishing house, but my real interest was in publishing books. Then, not too long ago. it became possible to launch a fully functional book-publishing house with no capital outlay. I had the knowledge, the passion and the contacts, so launching a book-publishing house was a natural progression of my career.
The other factor is that in 20 or so years of writing, I often came upon unfair or predatory practices among publishers. I wanted to give my fellow writers a place where they would be respected, and where their work was the reason for being [in] business. Once it became practical to launch a book-publishing venture, I felt like I had an obligation to do so.
ALH: Flying Pen initially faced some serious skepticism from authors who believe a publisher which doesn’t offer sizable advances isn’t a legitimate publisher at all, but when the Harper Studio imprint launched last year, it was with the announcement of the imprint’s intention to forego author advances entirely in favor of a profit-sharing approach to author compensation. It seems Flying Pen was a bit ahead of the curve on this new trend of reducing author advances and looking for alternative compensation schemes. How does Flying Pen compensate its authors?
DR: Before I answer, I would like to say I don’t see any reversal of any trends. There have always been small publishers that could not afford to pay advances. An advance requires a great deal of speculative capital on the part of the publisher. If the book does not earn enough to clear its advance, that publisher is out of money. The larger publishers have enough cash reserves to entice the bestselling authors with large advances, and with their large title lists, they can afford to gamble. But smaller houses just can’t take that risk, because it only takes once for a poorly performing title that does not earn back its advance and then that company is bankrupt.
I also believe that writers should stand behind their work, as I always have with my own writing. That means sharing the risk that the writing will not find a following with readers. I don’t mind giving writers a better-than-average share of the rewards for sharing that risk, but authors that demand an advance before they have proven themselves with a fan following are telling me that they are not sure of their writing, and authors who are well established in the trade with a large number of readers have told me that they prefer more royalties over any advance.
When an author has enough of a fan following that bestseller status is almost all but assured, then advances become a way for large publishers to convince a writer that they are more dedicated to the book’s success than their competitor. But small publishers just don’t have the money to play that, and the large publishers, in this economy, have been bitten pretty hard by their overestimations and are shying away from big advances.
I have instituted a fairly innovative royalty schedule, however, one that no one else has tried. Instead of paying a royalty that is based on cover price or on net sales, I have set it up so that authors earn royalties based on shares of gross profits of each book sold. Gross profits is based on the net sale price less printing costs and some marketing costs that both publisher and writer agree on, such as review copies printed or special ads.
This changes the publishers-author dynamic a bit. Instead of seeing authors as vendors of content, where we try to drive the price for content down with creative accounting, Flying Pen Press becomes a partner with the author. As a typical example, the author earns 100 shares, Flying Pen Press earns 115 shares, and the cover designer and the contracted book editor earn about 30 shares each. The only way that Flying Pen Press can make more money is if the author makes more money, since we all get a cut of the same profit numbers. This falls in line with my philosophy of giving as much respect as possible to authors.
We are now playing around with the idea of giving authors profit shares of the company, as well, over and above their royalties, provided they continue to write books each year and they communicate regularly with their fan bases. Once we have more cash flow, my plans are to offer authors health benefits, disability insurance, and other perks that are sorely lacking among my competitors, but that will have to come only once we have developed a rich and successful catalog.
We also pull from our authors for staff positions. Authors make the best editors, I have found, and as an author-centric publisher, it pays to bring on my fellow writers as key decision makers.
ALH: On your website, under submission guidelines, it says Flying Pen has "an immediate interest in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels, and in poker books and role-playing-game books." Is Flying Pen evolving into a genre-specific imprint, or do you have plans to broaden your range in acquisitions?
DR: While we have a strong interest right now in those particular genres, it is because we have developed inroads into those markets. Our acquisitions interests, however, are in most all fiction genres except for erotica, children’s, young adult or poetry, and our nonfiction interests can include most anything except new age or religious titles.
I have always said that Flying Pen Press would determine its own direction, regardless of what my interests are. That is, it is easier to market books to people who are already familiar with your company than to try and beat a path into a new genre. Two of our first three books were science fiction novels, and then last year, we decided to fill the catalog with science fiction because the World Science Fiction Convention came to Denver, our home town. As a result, we have strong roots with science-fiction bookstores and readers, and so it is less expensive to operate along that path. Thus, our predilection for science fiction. As we draw on our authors for staff, the staff comes form this pool of science fiction writers, and that causes an even deeper association with that genre.
Having said that, we are interested in all commercially viable fiction. Key to that is the author’s fan base and quality of writing, not the genre.
When it comes to nonfiction, it is a little different. Our first nonfiction book is a poker rulebook. Finding nonfiction writers is harder, but marketing nonfiction is very easy. You don’t have to explain what the book is about, the reader gets it from the title. There is less of a "beaten path" associated with what subjects we can market, and more of matching the reader’s needs to the writer’s ability to fill it.
We do have specific imprints for certain nonfiction imprints.
Game Day is the imprint for game books and books about games. This includes poker and role-playing games. It can also include books about video games, board games, fantasy sports, collectible card games, party games and children’s games. We also look for books about casino games and gambling, as well as books about the gaming and gambling industries and books on game theory. Puzzle books also fall under this imprint.
Flying Piggybank Press is our business imprint. In this title, we are addressing the subjects of business management, small-business operations, personal finance, and career management. If we can get a juicy corporation expose, we’d love to have it.
Flying Pen Press Aviation is an imprint for aviation and aerospace topics, including fiction, how-to, technical, textbook, history, pilot travelogue, and any other subject that we can market to pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
Traveling Pen Press titles are travelogues. Such books don’t sell well, but I spent three years as an expatriate in Central America, and I have a soft spot for such writing.
Flying Pen Press Travel Guides is self-explanatory. We want to publish travel books. We don’t have the operating capital to compete with Fodors or Lonely Planet, but we can easily market quirky travel guides. I would say that being in Colorado, we find that there is a strong need for ski-resort guides that is not being met. One of the big challenges with travel guides, at least for Flying Pen Press, is that we publish in black and white only, and these books tend to rely on color photographs rather extensively.
We want to publish some regional titles. Flying Pen Press Colorado focuses on anything about the state. Flying Pen Press Southwest focuses on the Southwest U.S., and Flying Pen Press Rocky Mountain West addresses the mountainous states.
The one imprint that means the most to me is The Press for Humanitarian Causes. I spent three years as a volunteer in Central America during the 1980s, and I learned that there are many people in this world who are suffering but for the need to be heard. This imprint gives those people a voice, either written by the people in those places, or the volunteers who help them. Flying Pen Press keeps none of its profit shares from these titles but instead donates them to the volunteer humanitarian organizations helping the people who are the subject of the book. I believe that the freedom of the press goes a long way to bringing hope, peace and freedom to the people of the world, and this is my way of giving back to the community.
ALH: Within the preferred genres, what is it that Flying Pen looks for in its acquisitions?
DR: As you can see, we have a lot of preferred genres.
In fiction, we want a really good story well told, by an author who has developed a fan following and communicates with those fans regularly. This holds true for narrative nonfiction and memoirs as well.
In nonfiction, we want topics that appeal to readers by an expert that can actively instruct and answer questions about the subject matter. And we are looking for strong, ethical, thorough journalism.
I can’t really say that when it comes to "what we are looking for" in our acquisitions, I can’t say that we are really much different than other commercial publishers. We want books that can be sold in bookstores, of the quality such stores require.
Flying Pen Press doesn’t publish books, per se. We publish authors, and it is the attitude, skill and passion of the author that is more relevant in our acquisition process. We expect authors to write well and professionally, but we also expect them to write on a regular basis. If an author can write one, two or more books a year, we are far more likely to publish them than someone who will turn out only one brilliant book.
And also, Flying Pen Press does not buy manuscripts, we buy readers. If there is a demonstrated passion for the author’s work, then we are more likely to see value in that material.
ALH: What kind of experience can an author expect after signing with Flying Pen, in terms of editorial, cover design, marketing and support services?
DR: Flying Pen Press is a commercial publisher, so we do all of that. We are a virtual company, in that all of the staff work from their home offices.
How much we need to work on a book after the author turns in the manuscript depends on the book and the author, mostly, but we try our best to make the book the best it can be.
Generally, we bring on a book editor as a contractor that is best suited to working with the author, who agrees to work for shares of gross profit. We have found that this creates a fairly close working relationship with the author in the prepublication stage. However, we want to bring more of this in house because we find that freelance editors are not paying close attention to the post-publication marketing of the book.
In any event, I have a tight hand on the editorial side, and I am always ready to step in if there is any disruption in the editorial process.
As to covers, Laura Givens is our art director and designs the covers. She is an excellent artist in her own right, and as she has been designing book covers for some time, she has a fairly competent stable of artists to draw from. We engage the author in the cover design stage, but in the end, Flying Pen Press has artistic control over the cover design, and we have found that some authors nitpick at the cover so badly that it becomes a negative influence on the artwork quality, so sometimes we have to say, enough is enough. The author’s involvement, when reasonable, is very important to us, though, and we show authors every sketch and draft as the cover develops.
As to marketing, we do what we can. We primarily market on the Internet, like most small publishers do. We produce a catalog, and we call on bookstores. However, as the gap between author and reader closes, it becomes imperative that the author do more of the marketing. We focus on training authors on how to attract fans, how to connect with them, and how to communicate with them. We are establishing new routines where Flying Pen Press helps authors with blogging, newsletters and publicity, to help give the author more time to write, but ultimately, the readers follow the author, not the publisher.
I am not sure what you have in mind when you ask about support services. I forge personal friendships with each and every author, and I treat them as if they were family. I give them any support I can, and they have an open invitation to knock on my front door at any time, even at my home…which is also my office, being as Flying Pen Press has a virtual office. I want writers to succeed and to be respected, because those are the seeds of my own prosperity and self worth. There are no stockholders at Flying Pen Press, no bottom line, no ego. In my mind, as a publisher, I work for the authors, not the other way around. I give whatever support I can, though I cannot send company jets, pay for transcontinental book tours or put Oprah on speed dial. But I will be there with my truck when the author moves, and come with food when the author is sick, and clasp the author’s hand whenever we meet. I can only offer my friendship as a support service, but I can think of no support more powerful.
ALH: To what extent does Flying Pen employ, or plan to employ, Print on Demand and ebook technologies?
DR: We leverage Lightning Source, a print-on-demand printer owned and operated by Ingram, and we turn all of our books into ebooks, although we are still experiencing the learning curve on ebook technical matters.
Every day, more publishers are turning to Lightning Source. It is practically cornering the market on Long Tail publishing. Lightning Source provides more than just the highest quality print-on-demand technology in plants in the U.S. and U.K., they provide distribution through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, NACSCORP (a distributor serving college bookstores) and all the major wholesalers in the U.K. to serve all of Europe. More plants will be opening in countries around the globe. They also serve Amazon and the online arm of Barnes and Noble. Lightning Source allows Flying Pen Press to set our discounts however we want, so that we can offer standard terms to the trade. Lightning Source also handles returns, which is critical when marketing books to the trade.
In return for a higher print cost per copy, Flying Pen Press is freed from the costs of warehousing and the costs of inventory risk. No book is ever printed that is not wanted. Books ship directly from the Lightning Source Plant (wherever it may be) to the store, or more often than not, directly to the reader. Flying Pen Press never has to invest capital in a print run in the hopes that the readers will buy all the copies. This makes it easy to invest effort in new, untried authors, and to keep publishing their work even when their first title does not take off right away. It also allows us to make more profit with niche titles that may not necessarily find a large audience.
Should we ever get a large order, Lightning Source immediately sends our file to an offset printer, and the print savings are passed on to Flying Pen Press. Lower print costs increase gross profits, which helps increase the author’s royalties, because it is all based on shares of gross profits. That is the beauty of print-on-demand: it can use either offset or electronic printing presses, and never is a copy wasted. Waste in this business is very expensive, so it is no wonder that even the biggest publishers are turning to print-on-demand technology.
As to ebooks, it’s clear that the public is now hungry for more titles on more screens. Because we are more focused on having authors build their careers than on selling copies of a single title, we encourage authors to allow free ebook distribution for about half their books, or at least for their first few titles. Then, when the author has created a name for herself, it is a good time to begin selling ebooks for profit. This is always a controversial subject, and we follow the author’s lead when it comes to ebook pricing, but Flying Pen Press is not one of those publishers that demands that profits must stand in the way of the author building a fan base; we see that as counterproductive.
ALH: In recent publishing news, we’ve learned of an author who landed a contract with Harper Collins after acquiring a sizable following for the Podiobooks version of his novel, and another who got a 2-book deal with Simon & Schuster after self-publishing his book as Kindle edition and promoting it himself. It seems hardly a week goes by without similar self-publisher success stories; as a publisher, do you feel this is an exceptional blip on the radar, or the beginning of a new trend in acquisitions?
DR: Again, I would say neither. Small presses and self-publication have always been a great way for authors to build their fan base to a point that large publishers make offers. This is as old as commercial publishing itself. It only seems different now that self-publishing is so economical, but it is neither new nor a mere fad. Rather, it is the normal means of getting noticed.
It is important to note that getting published by a big name publisher is not the ultimate prize. After the publisher, distributors have to be talked into warehousing the book, then sale reps have to be convinced that the book is the best in the catalog, and then the bookstores have to take to it, and finally, the reader has to buy it in large quantities or it all comes tumbling down, with the author left in a pile of failure.
However, if the author takes care of her end of business first, by convincing enough readers to buy the book that there becomes a subtle buzz for the book, then everyone’s job at the bigger publishers becomes easy. And because of this, a successful (and I need to stress *successful*) self-published book stands a very good chance of snaring the big marketing dollars–even if it’s only self-published as an ebook or podcast.
ALH: Is Flying Pen open to acquiring the rights to successful self-published books?
DR: Yes and no. We are certainly open to acquiring a successful book of any type, but successful means that it has a following, not that it looks nice and has the pages in order. I have had many self-published books, ebooks, web books, audio books and print-shop books land on my desk. And so far, all but the print-shop book has been deplorable. The grammar is usually awful, spelling errors are rampant, not thought at all is given to style, plots have large open holes, Characters are stilted, and there is no skill or talent in the writing. The reviews on Amazon–if there are any–are often negative. When I Google the author’s name, nothing comes up. The core market of the author’s friends and family have been mined out years ago, making it impossible to ignite the spark of buzz marketing that is so crucial to book marketing.
For some reason I cannot fathom, many authors turn to self-publication as a way of sidestepping the vetting process. But self-publication means that the book has to be more attractive to readers than what a large publishing house puts out, and so a self-published book requires more vetting, at the author’s own expense. An editor *must* be hired. The author’s own online marketing efforts must be ten times more intense than her traditionally published peers.
Self-publication is often seen by authors as a way of avoiding the torrential demands made by commercial publishers, but in reality, it is actually a deeper immersion into the tempest that is the publishing world. Those writers who are prepared for the tempest have a great challenge before them, with a great reward waiting for them if they succeed, but self-published writers who think they are above the tempest will find themselves drowning in the whirlpool of an apathetic market.
Flying Pen Press will never want the self-published author whose attitude or record indicates that the author is burned out on marketing and promotion and just wants a commercial publisher to take over. Instead, it must be clear that the author has mastered these tasks with vigor before a self-published book becomes the least bit interesting to a commercial publishing house like Flying Pen Press.
Unfortunately, every publishing house is looking for the successful self-published books that have proven themselves. Chances are, a small house like Flying Pen Press cannot compete when one of these rare gems comes along. So Flying Pen Press is more likely to work with unpublished authors, or with midlist authors who have grown tired of the ivory-tower publishing establishment in New York City.
ALH: Can you tell us something about Flying Pen’s latest release, and what led you to acquire this particular book?
DR: Our latest release is actually part of our first acquisition.
The latest book from Flying Pen Press is Riders of the Mapinguari, the final novel in the Feral World series. Here is [some] information:
Riders of the Mapinguari.
The third novel of The Feral World series.
By Gaddy Bergmann.
Riders of the Mapinguari by Gaddy Bergmann is the final novel in The Feral World trilogy, a post-apocalyptic odyssey set 3,000 years in the future. Humanity has barely survived a near-extinction-level event – the collision of a major asteroid with Earth in the middle of the Twenty-First Century.
Riders of the Mapinguari takes The Feral World in a radically new direction. Blake and his friends have traveled through the Great Plains and are living peacefully in the Warmland, when they are attacked by an enemy quite unlike any they have ever faced before: the Terran army. Poised to conquer the Warmland, the Terrans not only greatly outnumber the natives, but they also have hundreds of mapinguari – giant beasts that can overpower anyone who would oppose them. Blake and his people must face them, though, if they hope to save not only themselves, but the entire Warmland. The Feral World trilogy is unique in offering an optimistic view of post-apocalyptic society, which has come to consist of local tribes that depend on hunting and gathering. Gaddy Bergmann (Denver) is an ecologist and zoologist, and he carefully crafted a world where the biosphere develops naturally in the absence of humanity’s misguided management of the planet.
Gaddy Bergmann is a naturalist and scientist. He has performed research in both ecology and microbiology. He has also worked in education, teaching elementary, secondary, and university students in the subjects of math, science, and composition. An admirer of animals and wildlife since childhood, he was inspired to write /The Feral World/ books by the beauty of the natural wonders he saw all around him.
I first met Gaddy in October, 2006, at Mile Hi Con, a science fiction convention in Denver. I had just started looking into Lightning Source and realized that my dreams of book publishing without any capital outlay were now feasible, but I did not know if any writers would appreciate the no-advance, shares-of-profit payment schedule. So I went to the first conference where I might find writers to see what the response would be. I put a sign in my hat that said: "Writers and Editors Wanted." I arranged a pitch session at the convention, expecting no one to show.
Instead, I was surrounded for the entire weekend by aspiring writers, and the pitch session brought was well attended. I went to Mile Hi Con to get a feel for interest, but I left with eight manuscripts to review. One often hears from publishers that unsolicited manuscripts are usually dreadful, but somehow I was very lucky–of the eight manuscripts, six were very well written and worth publishing.
Gaddy Bergmann was the first person to hand me a complete manuscript, in a very large three-ring binder. I was drawn into his world of rubbletowns and feral dogs and Bebelishi culture. But it was much too long, twice too long. Fortunately, the novel had a major plot shift exactly at the halfway point, and Bergmann agreed to split it into two books, which required very little effort at all. Bergmann also mentioned that he was working on the sequel. This resulted in a three-book contract: Migration of the Kamishi (ISBN 978-0-9795889-1-4), Trials of the Warmland (ISBN 978-0-9795889-4-5) and Riders of the Mapinguari (ISBN 978-0-09795889-5-2).
I would like to end this interview by inviting people to ask me questions about the publishing industry. My email address is Publisher@FlyingPenPress.com, and I can often be found on Twitter: @DavidRozansky. I am happy to take calls at 303-375-0499, but please keep in mind that the nature of a virtual office means that I do not keep any regular business hours.
Learn more about Flying Pen Press at the publisher’s web page, http://FlyingPenPress.com, and subscribe to the Flying Pen Press newsletter by sending an email to newsletter-subscribe@FlyingPenPress.com (Flying Pen Press does not share its newsletter subscription list with anyone for any reason, and will only use it to send regular newsletters, press releases, and occasional special offers for Flying Pen Press titles).