Publish or not to publish?
When Dominique Raccah founded Sourcebooks in 1987 (with $17,000 from her 401(k) plan), the company initially published a few professional finance titles. Sourcebooks is now publishing five to ten single title romance novels per month (in addition to its popular gift books, college guides, nonfiction, poetry, calendars, and children’s books)—and it is the largest female owned trade book publisher in the U.S. The company has embraced digital publishing, and it is well known for its marketing strategies.
Dominique got into romance publishing when Sourcebooks published some Jane Austen sequels—and their sales took off, beyond all expectations. Dominique brought Deb Werksman on board to be the company’s acquiring editor for romance and women’s fiction. Dominique and Deb are passionate about their work, and they love talking about their favorite romance authors—from Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer to their own growing roster of romance authors.
In my interview with them, I asked, “What criteria do you use when you are looking for new romance authors?”
When Sourcebooks decided to become a serious romance publisher, what did you do?
Deb Werksman: The first thing I did was to start reading the top of the category.
Dominique Raccah: Right.
And try to figure out what’s the experience I’m having here as a reader, and how do I capture that into a set of criteria, because—
That could communicate.
I wanted to be able to talk to authors also about what was missing in their submissions to me so that if something had the germ of a really good idea or a really promising premise, I could get them all the way to publishable. That’s been really useful.
You can see that—you can see the kind of books that we’re publishing that—that are, you know, other people—are really different from what other people are doing, and you can see the response, and I think there’s a hunger for fresh and new and interestingly different.
So what are your criteria?
Okay. So I’m looking for a heroine that the reader can relate to, because I believe that we are in the entertainment industry fundamentally, and that you want to spend time—you’re asking somebody to spend some money and time. Fundamentally, it takes time to read a book. They want to hang out with a heroine that either in some way recreates or reflects them or they would love her as their best friend.
Right, and one of the things that I’ve seen, you know, that’s really clear is we’ve read books where the heroine was really obnoxious—really a diva, really, you know, mean-spirited, you know—and, you know what? The books don’t work! Like you’re not interested in spending time.
Then the hero that the reader can fall in love with. Okay. The hero, fundamentally, bottom line, is the object of desire, so then we put this guy on the cover—preferably without a shirt, ok? So the hero, you gotta be fault— now look, he can start out as a bit of a cad.
Well, look at Mr. Darcy! There’s an evolution there!
Well, Mr. Darcy was not communicative, you know, and said the wrong things.
But the heroine—somehow the two of them together redeem him, alright. So that’s the hero.
You can see for example, one of the things that I love about the books we’re publishing, you can see in Grace Burrowes, the growth of the chara—because it’s very character-based, Grace Burrowes. So the growth of these two people—how as they fall in love they redeem one another, and that’s also what I see in Georgette Heyer, right? That, you know, the ones I was going to—some of the ones I was going to show you, you know you can—the man, you know, grows in a way that you fall in love with him, and the woman really kind of learns to understand, really kind of—. She grows as well. Just, there’s a real preciousness to this.
And what are your other criteria?
Actually, I have three more. I have a world gets created that the reader can escape into, and that’s all about the world building and the escape, as we said. And then I need a hook I can sell with in two or three sentences.
I’ve got to be able to explain the book.
Yeah, and quickly. My salespeople need that; everybody in editorial needs that, so got to—
What’s different, what’s new, what’s fresh.
And then finally I am looking for a career arc for the author. So I almost never—we almost never acquire one book at a time. I really need to know if this first novel is successful, what’s coming next and next and next.
What’s your vision?
And I’m really thinking seasons out beyond, because it’s a brand we’re building, so that’s the—that’s—I’m looking, what’s this author’s brand?
The author’s brand.
Yep. And those are the criteria.
You’re developing a relationship, so how do you find your authors?
Well, I find that I do a lot of conferences all over the country, and I also talk to a lot of agents, and I judge a lot of contests, and I do a lot of pitch sessions in blogs and like that and I just—; I think, fundamentally I’m really open, and I love to hear what people are writing and creating, so they come to me.
It’s a good moment for Deb, you know. The transparency that we all get to have now really works for somebody who is as, you know, as warm and charismatic and open as Deb is, right? So if you’re—I think it’s harder for editors who want to sit in the behind a desk and not communicate with anybody. I think this is a harder time for that because authors need you to communicate. They need an explanation. They want to understand. They want to be part of the process, which is awesome!
Dominique Raccah has thought a lot about the profound impact digital technology is having on publishing. Here’s what she has to say:
I’ve, you know, been incredibly blessed, incredibly lucky. And so being the owner of a book publishing company during the time that the book itself is transforming is fascinating. And it’s just really—we’re very digital. We’ve been in digital a long time. We got into mixed media. We sold 7,000,000 mixed media books. So we got into mixed media, probably we were among the first. And we’ve really been, you know, constantly innovating, you know, because a publishing company that starts with one person, which is what we did, I started with me, so that kind of a company has to be built. So it’s grass roots, and it’s bootstrapped. And, you know, we’ve really got an enormous set of talent. And the talent, I see myself as almost a ringleader, right, you know, sort of a bit of a maverick. And I kind of love the talent pool that I fostered right around, and not just I, but that our team has fostered. So the talent is the people in the organization, the authors that we work with, our customers whom we work with, the agent community. It certainly wasn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t easy. I can’t even begin to pretend that. And sometimes I think I—in an attempt to simplify I make it sound like it was a lot easier than it actually was.
Digital, what does it mean? What’s the impact? Well, you know, it’s enormous. You know, I’ve been giving talks around the country. I’m the chair of—currently the chair of the Book Industry Study Group. And what I can tell you is that digital changes everything. And, you know, if you—you just think about the supply chain, right? So it starts with authors. Well, first of all, just being a creator, a content creator in this age, is changed by digital, right? Because first of all, you can get readers so much more easily. You can get people to read your stuff, respond to it. And if you’re smart, you’ll take advantage of that, and make changes, and really pay attention to it. You can also—so moving from the content creator to, you know, to actually the submission process, well, we all take submissions through email these days. There was a time—you remember there was a time where you would send packages, and the letters would come back? I mean, those days are gone. So, you know, and you can also discover who to submit to. I remember when I was interested in writing, never actually did anything with it, but when I was interested in writing many, many years ago you couldn’t even figure out who to submit to, right. Now you can. It’s pretty simple to find an agent, to find publishers, and to find also what publishers are doing.
And then the next piece of that chain, right, the bookseller. Well, I mean, the booksellers are, you know, are exploding. I mean, they’re doing—they’re trying, they’re experimenting, they’re developing new kinds of projects; the Nook the Kobo, the—and it’s— they’re experimenting within their own organizations, and then they’re partnering with other people. And then, you know, of course, there’s the marketing today, actual reader, so that everything is impacted. And, of course, marketing, you know, social media changes the whole conversation. So I think it’s an explosion in the ways that we connect and communicate, and can reach readers.
And, you know, I’ve been saying, I think there’s never been more opportunity in book publishing than there is today. You know, if you think about book publishing in a very narrow way, you will actually believe that we are constrained by this future. I actually am thinking about it. It makes sense, right. I’m an innovator and a person who’s coming—who’s always coming at publishing slightly from the outside. So, you know, we at Sourcebooks and all of our team are, you know, really building digital into the equation, you know, very early. So whether it be apps, or enhanced books, or—we are constantly evolving and thinking about how do we bring this to the reader more directly in a better way. For me it’s really all about the reader and the reader experience. What can we be doing to help you go more deeply into that book? What more can we be doing to really touch you? I want to—I really want to change that in some way, and, you know, I think that’s going to be the mission for the rest of my life.