The Literary Underworld-From Conventions to the Online Store, The Literary Underworld helps quality small press titles find an audience
I have to say that I'm always excited about a visit with Elizabeth Donald. A very talented and successful writer (be sure to check out Abbadon, Nocturne, The Dreadmire Chronicles: Knight of the Demon Tree, The Cold Ones, and her other work), Elizabeth is also one of the most engaging and entertaining personalities that you will encounter on the Con circuit. Any convention's programming track is strengthened by having her on it. Yet it is another aspect about Elizabeth that puts her in a very special class; those that help other authors get a boost on their roads.
In this area, Elizabeth instigated The Literary Underworld, an operation that helps quality small press authors through booth exhibits at conventions, as well as maintaining an online store. The catalog has grown rapidly, and the exhibits at conventions look very impressive, with an array of very established small press and self-published authors.
I wanted to bring a spotlight to the Literary Underworld in this interview, in the hopes that a little awareness can be raised, and perhaps a few more folks will be encouraged to order some titles online, or purchase a few books when they come across a Literary Underworld booth at a convention.
So let's visit with the vivacious, gifted, entrepreneurial visonary otherwise known as Elizabeth Donald, and venture into The Literary Underworld!
-Stephen Zimmer for the Seventh Star Press Blog, December 28, 2010
(Elizabeth Donald, Author and Founder of The Literary Underworld)
SZ: How did Literary Underworld come about? Elizabeth:The Literary Underworld began with a couple of friends. I’ve been doing the convention circuit since 2004, and at one point I looked around the dealer’s room and saw at least half a dozen authors like me, each of us with our own boring table and one book in front of us. It was a waste of space for the show, it looked pathetic and it was expensive for the author. If the table cost you $75 and your profit per book is only $5, you have to sell a lot of books to make back your cost, not to mention your hotel room and travel expenses.
The alternative, of course, is to sell out of your bag. The problem is, that’s not really a viable plan these days. In the past, or even five years ago, an author could carry a boxful of books around the convention and people would come up at the end of a panel or during your signing and buy books from you. For some reason, they don’t do that anymore. I don’t know if the cons told people not to do that anymore, or if readers thought they were annoying us – and I can assure them they are not, authors are always willing to take your money.
The problem is that small-press authors really have to sell books at the shows to make our expenses. Most cons can’t afford to pay authors’ expenses, and so we’re on our own ticket for most or all of our hotel bill and travel. If we don’t sell books, we can’t afford to go, especially in this economy. That means being in the dealer’s room.
So I started splitting a table with a couple of friends. We shared the cost, and we shared the responsibilities at the table. When one of us had a panel, the other two could cover. It made the conventions a lot easier to survive and more financially viable.
Then a funny thing happened. Other authors who were buried under the cost of their own tables or trying to sell out of their bags asked if they could join us. In return for sharing the cost of the table and helping man the booth, we were able to help each other and help the cons save valuable space in overcrowded dealers’ rooms.
After a while, it got to be a little cumbersome to split the costs. For one thing, some authors had seven books and some had two. Some were present at nearly every show and some were only there once in a while. So to be fair, we switched to a commission method – 20 percent off the sale, which the authors themselves set. I take their books with me so I can offer books at shows they can’t attend, and that’s pretty much when the Literary Underworld stopped being a few friends and became a business, the only authors’ cooperative of which I’m aware that acts as bookseller, coordinating our efforts with other authors’ cooperatives such as the Illinois-Missouri Authors and the immensely successful Imagicopter.
Consider that when an author sells a book through a bookstore or the publisher or Amazon.com, they get on average about 7 percent of what you pay. If they sell the book themselves, they can keep as much as 40 percent of the cost. Even with our commission, authors make nearly three times as much per book as they do through bookstores – and sometimes the actual cost of the book is far less because of it.
We launched a web store late 2009 to allow the authors to sell their books in between conventions. As of now the Literary Underworld represents more than 25 authors and a few small presses that sell their titles through us. When we travel around to conventions, the authors who are present run the booth themselves. I have an assistant who loves books and helps track the inventory, so the fact that we can find the books when we’re looking for them is entirely due to her. I do the online portion myself, so any typos on the site are entirely my fault.
SZ: What is the process for selecting titles, in terms of a quality control, as we all know that the small press and self-publishing world runs the gamut from things that can stand right alongside a major press title to things that aren't so able to do so. Elizabeth: Authors pitch books to me all the time, and while I know the industry is changing, I very rarely take self-published titles. It really has to be an exceptional book, and the author has truly impressed me with his or her passion and willingness to work for the book. Most of them are small-press books I’ve read and feel would be a good match, or from authors and presses I know and respect. On occasion, when I see an author or a book on the tour that I feel would be a good match, I’ll ask them if they’d like me to take a handful of copies with me.
Up until now, I’ve mostly done the selection myself. But to tell the truth, our backlog of authors and/or titles that have been pitched to us is getting very long. In the new year, I plan to ask my existing authors if they’re willing to occasionally read a submitted title and recommend whether or not we should carry it. Surprisingly enough, I can’t do everything myself. I don’t want authors to have to wait months to hear from us.
I’ll say this: as an author with my fair share of them, it absolutely kills me to send rejection letters.
SZ: How many conventions do you attend now with Literary Underworld? Elizabeth: We average about one convention or book fair a month, taking December off for sanity. I don’t want to do too many more than that, because at some point I’d like to have a life.
SZ: Do you see any differences between attending a large convention like a DragonCon, and smaller conventions? Elizabeth: In terms of sales, there is no real pattern to where we will sell. I’ve had my best and worst takes both at Dragoncon. I try to think of it in terms of our sales-to-customer ratio – how many books we sell compared to how many feet go past the booth. Sometimes we sell a ton of one book and everyone else goes begging; other times we sell a handful of copies of several titles. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s 300 or 30,000 in attendance.
It’s certainly very different attending a mega-convention than a small con, but I think in both cases you tend to see friends and colleagues that you’ve seen in years past, making each con like a family reunion. There are people I only see in Atlanta, or in Nashville, or Kansas City, or Memphis. Whether we’re among a cast of thousands or only a few hundred, we always seem to find each other. If you have a problem with crowds and long lines, I wouldn’t generally recommend a mega-con – and the elevators in Atlanta are definitely not for the claustrophobic.
But at nearly every convention, there is a certain continuity. They are run by fans, volunteers who love genre fiction and are doing their best to give everyone a good time and diverse, intelligent programming. They’re populated by fans, readers who love genre fiction and can talk about it with some degree of understanding, and they’re looking for something new and different. That’s what we try to offer: something unusual, something you won’t find at a chain bookstore. And our authors are always willing to help develop and present unique panels at the shows.
SZ: What have been the biggest challenges or adjustments in running Literary Underworld? Elizabeth: I had no idea how much of my time it would take. It takes a lot of effort to keep the ball rolling, to run the web store and haul the booth out to so many conventions. It has also been quite a challenge to get the word out about us. I always thought it was egregious that bookstores charged 40 percent; now I know why. We have absolutely no money for advertising and rely almost completely on word of mouth and free social networking for our business. Strangely enough, it’s been hard even to get the authors to promote us – you’d think it would be natural for them to guide their readers to buy from a seller that gives them back 80 percent instead of 60 or 40 percent, but so many just say, “Oh, I’m available on Amazon.”
But the biggest challenge is fitting three racks, containers of drapes and décor, signage, boxes of 85 titles and my 11-year-old son in a Toyota Camry.
SZ: What are your goals with Literary Underworld in 2011?
Elizabeth: I want a van. Okay, that’s not likely, but a girl can dream. I’d settle for the web store taking off to the point where it covers our expenses. I didn’t start Literary Underworld to make money for myself, but that 20 percent doesn’t cover enough, not with cons raising the price of dealer tables each year and hotel rooms getting more expensive by the hour. The web store costs us much less overhead, and more web sales would offset those cons that have not exactly been overly profitable.
I want to expand our offerings into independent comics and young-adult fiction. Last year, Diamond declared it would not carry comics that could not meet $2,500 in wholesale orders, which knocked out a lot of independents and niche comics. I hear they’ve had to back off that some, but in the meantime, I want to help get independent comics out into the cons. I’m proud to say Dandelion Studios and its imprint, Quarterstaff Comics, distribute through us and we had the sneak preview of its new title, “Stone,” at Archon – a week before it was available to the public. I’d like to see more comics on our shelves.
And anyone who pays attention to bookselling knows that YA genre fiction is the fastest-growing market, but far too much of it is simply a Harry Potter or Twilight knockoff. I’m looking for stuff that’s a little different, adventures in science fiction and fantasy that will draw in young readers. There’s something about a book you read as a child or teenager that stays with you all your life, and I want to help those young people find our fantastical worlds.
I’m hoping to get more steampunk and horror comedy, because that’s what people are asking about at the booth. I want to find more authors, so that we have new faces and new titles for our fans each year. I’m taking us to a few new conventions in 2011, trying to get out of the rut of going to the same cons every year.
And, of course, it’d be nice not to go bankrupt.
SZ: What is the climate like out there right now for small press authors, in your view? Things seem so chaotic at the major retail level with so many chains closing stores. Elizabeth: The real change happened a few years ago, when chain stores stopped buying small press. I had a book published by a mid-size press in 2005 that was in every Borders in America, and I had the big-box signings and my name in the paper. Two years later the sequel came out, and suddenly I couldn’t find my book on a single shelf. When the bottom fell out of the world, big box ran to the safe stuff: to the New York Times bestsellers, to Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts and the Twilight series. They stopped buying us long before they got in trouble, thinking the American public only wanted to read the same stuff over and over again. It turned out they were wrong, and I think that’s a good thing for us.
Meanwhile, the collapsing big-box stores mean less competition for independent booksellers. I can’t say that new bookstores are opening up, but it seems like the slow death of the mom-and-pop bookshop has stopped, or even reversed. And those independents seem far more willing to work with small-press authors than they were a few years ago, realizing perhaps that the way they can truly compete with big box retailers is to offer the diversity and high quality available in the small press. If you’re looking for vampires that don’t sparkle, you probably want Main Street Books, not Barnes and Noble.
SZ: What kind of titles are your most popular at the moment? Can you give us a few examples of best sellers? Elizabeth: I don’t think my authors would necessarily appreciate publicizing our sales records, so I’ll refrain from the actual titles. I will say that steampunk steampunk steampunk … yeah, and some steampunk. Maybe it’s just a trend, but it’s sure holding on. Horror sells more than fantasy or science fiction two to one, and erotica written in any genre sells like mad, especially paranormal and/or GLBT romance.
I can say that I personally tend to be our biggest seller, but I think that’s simply because I am the only author who is present at every show. Regardless of genre, the books that sell the most are those of authors who are there, and actively promoting their own work. I think that’s something a lot of beginning authors don’t know: you are your own best salesperson, your own best publicist. If you just sit at home and wait for the checks, they’re going to be pretty small. And if you just sit there and be quiet, or heaven-forbid rude to the readers, you’re not going to sell.
SZ: Time for web links and social media links for Literary Underworld. I'd also like to ask you to put links in for yourself, so people can discover what an amazing author you are!
Our web store can be found at literaryunderworld.com, and we have awesome holiday specials that will continue through to Dec. 31!
It’s really not all the spammy – I can’t afford to email people more than once or twice a month. But it seems more people read their email coupons than use the coupons we post on Facebook, so it’s really y’all’s fault.