Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Publisher Spotlight - Tyche Books: New and Shiny

To tell you how I first came to meet Margaret Curelas and Tina Moreau would take a blog post all of its own, but I assure you, it’d be an adventure story full of twists, turns, coincidences, and an overabundance of women wearing hats at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, November 1st through 4th, 2012.

I’d mentioned a few posts back that I had been approached by Margaret to see if I would be interested in interviewing some of her authors in time for book launches.  The more I interviewed their authors, the more interested I became in Tyche Books itself, not only as an emerging publisher, but as a business owned and operated by two real risk-takers with an unorthodox sense of timing.

Now, if you’d like to hear an actual professional interviewing them, then go here.  It’s the link to an interview condcted by DayBreak Alberta, a CBC Radio production.

Upon listening to that interview, I was inspired to chat them as well.  The challenge:  they’re in Alberta and I’m not.  But, then Fortune – Tyche’s mascot, by the way – smiled upon us.  Tina and Margaret were both coming to Toronto to attend the World Fantasy Convention, and I just happened to be in town at the same time.

I had invited these two businesswomen out to dinner, and to my vast delight, Patrick Weekes came along for the ride.  So, between the last panels and Patrick’s 8:00 p.m. signing at the Sheridan, we headed across the street to a Chinese food place, and after an awesome repast of foodstuffs we could barely pronounce, I switched on the voice notes on my shiny new iPhone, and we talked shop.

It also bears mentioning that Tyche Books has recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.  Ladies, many happy returns!

New Kids

Tina and Margaret share something of a common experience:  they both originally worked for Edge Science Fiction and Publishing.  Tina was the managing editor of one of the smaller imprints, handling such things as the slush pile, author relations, layout, and so forth.  Margaret was the acquisitions editor for Edge proper.  After a couple of life-changing events (specifically, having kids), both found themselves looking for new dragons to slay.

In fact, both Margaret and Tina were looking for work that they could do at home – work that allowed for hours flexible enough to accommodate a baby’s changing (and demanding) schedule.  Fortunately, because of the evolving nature of the industry, they no longer needed to store boxes and crates of material; no need for heavy duty production or shipping; everything could be done online – and therefore, from home.

Tina told me, “Most people would say we were a little bit crazy there.”  Considering they were both new mothers – one with a toddler and the other with a three-month old – and considering that they were starting up a new business in a changing industry at the tail end of a recession, I was inclined to agree!  But as their business credo states:  “Fortune favours the bold.”  Apparently Fortune also favours the sleep deprived.  In their first year alone, they’ve launched five new books, with a solid line-up for the future.

So was it hard getting started? I asked them.  Tina admitted that the learning curve had been a challenge.  She held up two hands about four inches apart, saying, “I’ve learned this much.”  She moved her hands to the left.  “And [Margaret]’s learned this much.”  She added the spaces together.  “And we’ve pooled our knowledge base.”  Then she held one hand close to her chest and pushed the other one across the table.  “And we still have to learn this much.”

Margaret agreed.  “Our learning curve is shrinking, but it was pretty steep in the beginning.”

It’s Tina who handles a lot of the business aspect – the numbers, book layout, the distribution, basically all the whip-cracking that takes a book from a project to product, on time and at budget.  This is the kind of thing she went to school for, though even in her late teens, she had the entrepreneurial bug, though her initial dream of starting her own bookstore didn’t pan out.

And it’s Margaret who deals more with the authors and the social marketing, from acquisitions to editing.  She’s also moving out of her comfort zone to talk with the crazy people behind interviews and reviews.  Y’know, people like me.

By the way: Lucia Starkey is responsible for cover design, and according to Patrick Weekes, she’s a delight to work with.  I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet.

Collaborative Competition

Experience and big dreams aside, I know it’s tough for any new business to start from the ground up, especially when there’s already a huge and well-established base of competition.  So I asked them how intimidating the competition was.  They surprised me with me with their answer.

“We’ve found small presses have welcomes us with open arms,” Tina said.  “It’s not as competitive as I would have estimated.  When you get into the larger presses, it does become more competitive – between the larger companies.  They don’t see smaller companies as much of a threat.  They don’t really care too much about us one way or the other.”

Margaret agreed that there is a sense of collaborative competition.  “What’s good for us is good for others.  So it’s beneficial for small presses to help each other.”

When they were first starting out, Tina and Margaret talked to a lot of other small presses out there, and they exchanged information, contacts and best practices – a lot of don’t do as I did, do as I do now experience.

And when you think of it, this makes a lot of sense.  Let’s say there’s a start-up company out there that offers a new way of marketing small press books.  To keep that start-up company afloat, it would make sense to throw as much business their way as possible.  Small presses can only do so much – a book or two or three per quarter, tops; but together, many small presses can throw a lot of business over to that start-up company.  The start-up company stays afloat, multiple small presses are increasing their distribution effectiveness, readers are getting more books at better prices – everybody wins.

This all blew me out of the water.  I mentioned that I’d seen this kind of attitude between other emerging and independent authors, but I couldn’t imagine it happening amongst small presses.  So I asked if this was a changing trend, or if it was just a Canadian thing.  Margaret said that most of the presses they’d met were Canadian, “and more specifically, Albertan.”  Tina added that even most of the small presses she’d met in Ontario and BC had been supportive.  So maybe it is a Canadian thing.  With luck, I’ll be able to interview small presses in the States and abroad as well, and we can find out.

I asked them what they saw as their biggest challenge in expansion.  They could sum it up in one quick word:  distribution.

A little sidebar here:  in the scant few hours I’d spent at the convention, the one thing I heard the most was:  support Canadian presses by buying books from Canadian presses.  Without consumers paying for unique and high quality books from worthy small presses, those small presses will simply disappear.  It’ll be that much harder for rising stars to get noticed and get paid for doing what they do best:  building culture and telling good stories.

So how do we encourage people to buy more from small presses, especially when it’s so easy to download free books elsewhere?  And how do we know where to find books from these small presses?  And therein lies the challenge of distribution.

Tina explained:  “If you have less than ten titles, you’re considered a risk.  They [book sellers] think you might just be a self-publisher who is trying to get away with a publisher title.  So anything under ten titles is considered a risk.  So a lot of them won’t stock anything from anyone with less than ten titles.  Once you cross that threshold, though, then they start taking you seriously.  Then they start thinking, ‘Well, these guys have been around for a while, they’ve got ten titles, all right...then they’ll start stocking you.’”

Margaret added, “By the end of next year, when we have nine or ten titles, that’ll go away.”

In the meantime, Margaret and Tina are doing everything they can to break past that image of bad risk.  “Yes, we’ve only got five titles,” Margaret said, “but we’re still legit.”  Considering the big plans they have plans for 2013 and 2014 – including the Canadian sf anthology Masked Mosaics, edited by Camille Alexa and Claude Lalumière – and considering the amount of time and effort they put into marketing their agents, I would absolutely agree that they have the business sense required to be “legit.”

New Gates Mean New Gatekeepers

So how do they market a relatively unknown press with emerging authors?  Margaret said simply, “Not easily."

Tina explained:  “Because we’re a small press, we have limited marketing dollars, so we try to do as much as we can with as little as we can.”

They rely a lot on social media marketing and a lot of word of mouth.  That comes from Twitter, blog posts, interviews, Facebook fan pages, the lot.  They spend a lot in review copies as well, to get them into the hands of reviewers who will also help to spread the word about their books.  They also take out ads in specific, niche-appropriate and well-researched magazines, they get their books into library catalogues.

And who bears the responsibility of marketing, I asked, the publisher or the author.  Margaret said it’s a fifty-fifty split.  It’s also up to the author to build and make use of a network of their own.  Patrick Weekes had a bit of an advantage here, coming “preloaded with all the software” required for virtually marketing his book, The Palace Job.

But it's more than just the means that make social media effective.  Patrick said, “It’s important having a network already in place full of people who are willing to say the things that you’re embarrassed to say yourself.  I can say, ‘Hey, my book is out, it’d be great if you all buy it, thanks.’  But that’s just once.  Whereas, y’know, it’s good having a network of friends who are going to jump on and say, ‘Patrick’s book is out!  It’s really awesome!’”

Margaret said, “I do know there are some publishers who say, send us your novel and your marketing plan...and your sales are entirely based on what you do, and not what the publisher does.”  In other words:  it’s sink or swim for the new author.  If you don’t sell well, then you’re at risk of being turned down for future works; or if you’re accepted, you may end up being published under another name, to distance yourself from a bad sales record.

This is especially true when it comes to the Big Six – or rather, the Big Five, what with the merger between Penguin and Random House.

“I’ve known a couple of writer friends who are published by them,” Tina said.  “If you’re still a fairly small author, they will publish your book, and they’ll say ‘This is the amount of money that we will spend on your book.  You tell us where we need to spend it, and then you’re on your own.  And that’s it, that’s all you get.”

They mentioned that marketing is something they’re still learning.  It’s an area of the business where they have no formal training.  But they have hired the services of a BC publicist to teach them the ropes.

But one of their biggest marketing tactics right now is the concept of the eBook card, produced by Enthrill.

Seriously, these are cards are fantastic:  they have the cover of the book, the blurb on the back, and a single-use code for the purchase of an eBook copy.  You buy a card (maybe even get it signed by the author), you go home, you redeem the code, upload it to your eReader – sweet, geekly awesomeness, Batman.

They’re also great for selling at conventions:  anybody travelling by plane can agree that a good convention runs you the risk of going over your luggage weight restrictions.  I bought eight books myself, and I was only there for a couple of hours.  I also seem to buy books from long-winded writers.  That’s why I’ve downgraded from a briefcase to a backpack:  it’s more ergonomically friendly.  But if I were to buy eight books the size of a postcard, I could throw those puppies in my purse and not look like some thirty-something high school nerd.

But there’s another practical angle to the use of the eBook card:  it allows a bricks-and-mortar bookstore to sell eBooks.

We got to talking about the influx of independent and self-published authors, and how it sometimes feels like shoddy workmanship has pushed eBook markets to the saturation point; consumers have become wary of independent authors disguised as small presses.

“People for many, many years have been using publishers as the gatekeepers to fiction,” Tina said.  Consumers trusted established publishing to weed through the slush pile and produce only the best; and now, in some ways, Amazon and Kobo sites have become a kind of slush pile of their own.

“I’m reminded of a blog post, I read,” Margaret said, “called, ‘I’m not your beta reader.’”  You can find that blog post here.

Tina said, “...If you want to self-publish, you’ve got to do it right.  You’ve got to be professional about it.  You’ve got to treat it like a business.  You have to pay the right people to do the things you can’t do yourself...And a lot of people out there don’t treat it like a business.  They’re just like, ‘Hey.  I’ve got a book.  It’s finished.  I’m going to throw it up on Kindle.’  And yeah, then you get this whole beta-reader mentality and people are getting burned and now they’re starting to do the ‘let’s check the brand on the spine to see who publishes this’...People will still go and get the eBooks from self-published authors, especially if it’s an author they know, or recognize...but I think people will become more wary of this whole beta-reader self-publishing thing.”

To me it sounded like not was the industry evolving, but so was the consumer base.

Margaret compared the situation to her once-upon-a-time job as librarian.  “With Google and better, more advanced search engines, people were like, ‘Well, why do I need a library,’ or ‘Why do I need a librarian, because I’ve got Google, and the internet has everything!’  Well, when they start doing serious research, the librarians are the ones to say, ‘Here’s how to find out if this is a trusted source.’”

Which brings us back to the eBook cards:  they allow book sellers to be the new gatekeepers of good fiction.

“That’s kinda the reason why the whole eBook card thing is so awesome,” Tina said.  “It’s because we get to go back to bookstores and use their expertise in selling sell eBooks!”

Margaret jumped in and said, “And because they have the cards, they have something physical, something tangible for people going into the bookstore to actually browse...That’s how [some of my friends] shop for their eBooks:  they go to the bookstore and say, ‘Okay, I like this and this,’ and they take a picture or make a list, and they go home and buy the eBook.”

How much easier then is it to buy the eBook card right in store, then go home, enter the code and upload the book to your Kindle or Kobo?  It means you can buy your eBooks with pocket money, real live legal tender.  Or in my case, you can buy one with spare change, and then hand that eBook card over to a friend, like I did to Michael Lorenson.  (I already had a signed copy of the The Palace Job, so he got the eBook version.)

It also means that you can buy an eco-friendly eBook and support your favourite independent bookstore.  Win-Win-Win situation.

So does it pay to be the new kid on the block?  Absolutely yes it does – especially when the whole block is being refurbished.

Tyche Books is on the bleeding edge of a new era in publishing, one that is scalable, economical and very exciting.  It allows them to be creative and be geeks at the same time.

“We like being new and fresh,” Tina said.  “Like our eBook cards.  Because they’re new and shiny and I like playing with them.”