Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with Untreed Reads Editor Jay Hartman

Untreed Reads is a newish e-book publisher. They do short stories, novellas and novels in all genres (except romance and erotica), listing several mysteries in their collection.

Editor Jay Hartman is a regular poster on the SMFS message group. Recently I emailed him with a few questions, and he provides some interesting insights into the world of e-book publishing.

DBK: How did Untreed Reads get started?

JH: For about ten years, I was the Content Editor for KnowBetter.com, one of the Internet's first websites dealing with electronic books. After those ten years the site owner and I decided to part ways and work on new projects. I was still doing ebook reviews and commentary around the Web, and decided to launch my own blog in November of 2009. As I continued to work on it, I realized that I couldn't find the types of works that I wanted to read, so decided...what the heck? I'll branch out into publishing for some of those markets that are underrepresented and use the knowledge I had gathered from the years in the industry to try and make it successful.

I happened to be having a discussion with someone at a birthday party about ebooks, and K.D. Sullivan overheard and was very interested. K.D. is a multi-published print author and had run her own editorial services company. We got to talking about the different things we'd like to do with the company and...presto. Untreed Reads launched at the end of February 2010 with the short story How to Eat Fruit by the wonderful Anne Brooke.

DBK: How do you see short works (novellas, short stories, flash fiction) factoring into the e-reader market?

JH: Flash fiction is still a really tough market. There's a difference between telling a super-short story and telling a super-short story well. I can also tell you that from a business standpoint I don't think the world is ready to pay for flash fiction. Novellas, novelettes and short stories are a whole other ballgame.
Untreed Reads didn't initially set out to have such a large focus on short form, but it just happened and the response has been HUGE.

The overseas markets are especially hungry for shorts. I think as readers' free time shrinks, there's a need for them to get that release from their daily woes in a shorter burst. A lot of folks don't have the time to sit down and focus on full-length novels anymore. A short story, however, can be quickly devoured while waiting for a bus, standing in line at the bank, in between classes etc.. The portability of the ebook just makes it that much more viable of a solution, with readers able to access their content on devices they carry around with them all day anyway. You don't necessarily NEED a Kindle. Crack out your smartphone or iPad or some other device and you're good to go.

DBK: According to most accounts, self-published authors are receiving about 70 percent royalties on e-books. Why should authors work with Untreed instead for 50 percent royalties?

JH: So first some clarification. That 70% is simply not completely accurate. Every retailer out there claiming to offer 70% royalties has some catch: the title has to be purchased in the US, the title has to be priced at $2.99 or more, there's a fee for transmitting the story, there's a fee for processing the credit cards...SOMETHING. And in those cases the author SHOULD be getting the 70%, because the retailers aren't doing any publicity, promotion, marketing or anything else to help them get the word out. They're not designing covers, they're not formatting the title. Basically, all they're doing is giving an author a chance to put their title up and then taking a cut of the profits. And, there's no vetting of the material for potential readers. Just because somebody CAN publish their own work doesn't mean they SHOULD publish their own work.

In our case, we run exactly like a traditional NY print publisher, except that we take submissions from both authors and agents. We have a submission process to determine what we feel is of value to release to the marketplace. We don't charge our authors for cover design, formatting or ISBNs. We do basic proofreading and content assessments with the author to get the work in the best possible shape.

Upon its release we do tons of marketing and publicity to back the title. Most importantly, a publisher can distribute where an author by themselves cannot. Places like Smashwords can get an author into maybe five markets when their process is actually working, and folks can get into Amazon on their own. However, we distribute to 50+ retailers around the world and on every continent. And, in some genres, the UK market is infinitely stronger than the US market so without some entry into that sales world an author isn't going to get as much notice. We're actually a rarity in the ebook world in terms of the sheer reach of our distribution. Most other ebook publishers are pretty limited in their range. 70% in your pocket isn't worth much if readers are turned away from being able to buy a title. Would you rather have 70% of 50 copies sold or 50% of hundreds?

DBK: You mentioned in an SMFS post that your short stories are selling better than novels. Do you have figures on how well short stories are selling?

JH: I can give you a rough idea. In August, roughly 90% of our catalog was available for sale in the UK. Just at Waterstone's alone we moved nearly 800 copies of about 30 short story titles. And that's just ONE of our 50+ retailers and just one month of sales. So you can see, that's some pretty great movement for short form. And, none of our catalog is romance or erotica, which makes that number even more interesting since theoretically romance and erotica are two of the top-selling genres.

DBK: The submission guidelines mention that Untreed has "high standards." What do those high standards entail?

JH: Quite a few questions go into this. Has the story been proofread, with grammar and structural mistakes fixed? In the case of mysteries, is the plot plausible with a satisfying conclusion that makes sense? Can the author write convincing dialogue that consists of more than just "he said" or "she said?" Is there a flow to the writing or is it choppy? Has the story been told before, or is the author bringing something original to their genre? Even more basic: can the writer actually write?

It's one thing to have a great story, but if you can't tell it properly no publisher is going to take the time to rewrite it for you. Make sure your submission is absolutely clean and as perfect as you can get it. Take the time to have a proofreader go through it before submitting. Run the work past a developmental editor to ensure that the pacing and flow of the story works. If authors invested as much time into making the work as perfect as it could be as they often do trying to get sales after the fact with a product that isn't ready for market, they'd be in much better shape to be successful.

We currently have a 50% rejection rate, perhaps a bit higher than that, because works submitted fail to meet these and many other standards. I think this goes back to what I was saying previously, where just because you CAN publish a story doesn't mean you SHOULD. There are some submissions I've wrestled with, trying to figure out if I should say yes or no. With those, I make a point of going back to the author and asking more developmental questions to get a better idea what was going on in their head. If I believe a work really has merit but isn't ready for primetime, then we'll offer the author a proposal contract to deliver us a finished work within 120 days.

Incidentally, I don't think authors should only submit a sample chapter upon which to base an entire submission decision. Sometimes the chapter that gets submitted isn't representative of what the work really is. And, with time being precious, sometimes it's better to be able to sit down and read the whole thing than have to go get the rest of the book later.

DBK: The short stories at Untreed sell for $1.50, the novels for $5.99, yet a good number of self-published authors are offering their work for less than that--as low as 99 cents for an entire novel. Why did you choose this price point?

JH: One thought here...did you ever notice that the bestseller lists at pretty much any ebook retailer includes less than five titles priced at 99 cents? In fact, usually a top 100 list at an ebook retailer doesn't have ANY titles under $5.99 unless it was a sale price?

Do you know that before Amazon created DTP the average price of an ebook over a ten year span was $5.99 and nobody had any problem paying for it? Then, places like Amazon and Lulu made it possible for anyone to publish their own work. What happened was a huge influx of material into the market filled with poor writing, bad grammar, typos, bad layouts and all sorts of other things that set the ebook industry back years.

People weren't willing to trust they were going to get good content because they kept picking up titles that were poorly written and filled with flaws. Then, along came $9.99 pricing which only made things worse. Authors, fearing a backlash to both the $9.99 pricing and the badly written stuff that was hurting the industry, panicked and started setting their prices ridiculously low in an attempt to woo back a jaded audience. The result? The market that it is now. The market still has poorly written material that anyone can throw up there, but it also has some of the BEST material to come along in a long time. After all this, it's not the PUBLISHERS who caused anything over $2.99 to be considered expensive, it's the AUTHORS.

Authors have devalued their work enough that it's now set the bar incredibly low. Authors have acted as if they need to give away their work to get it read AND THEY DON'T. Sales history in the industry over ten years proves that authors are operating under a false assumption. Unfortunately, thanks to the 99 cent crowd and others who think you should practically hand over a full-length work for no more than the price of a quart of milk, the value has gone completely out the window and now affects ALL authors. Now you have people buying based on price and not on quality of work.

The 99-cent authors aren't business people, they're just folks who want to get their writing out. What they don't realize is that their actions have affected the market for those authors who DO consider writing to be a business or a career. This was the same problem in the ebook publishing world for a few years when authors would throw up a shingle and become a publishing house overnight. They wanted to get their work out, but didn't understand that there is a business side to the craft as well. The result? Many of them folded.

I often hear the argument that 99 cents is the right price because "unknown authors/publishers should charge less for their works." What establishes an unknown author? What, only authors who show up on the NYT Bestseller list are "real" authors? What does that say about an author if they think people should pay less for their work because they don't know who the author is...yet? Where is their sense of self worth and pride in their work? There have been numerous studies and surveys done now over the least five years that show readers believe that if a title is priced too low, then it can't be of good quality and the author is desperate to sell.

Look, $9.99 pricing isn't the right spot either, what with production costs for ebooks being lower than their print counterparts, and I'm not advocating the price point. However, there are STILL costs involved with production: time for formatting, covers, time spent proofreading, time writing, etc. and those costs HAVE to be covered and an author paid their rightful royalties. Authors need to go back to valuing themselves, their work, their time, their effort and their fellow authors. Authors who have poor skills will be ignored by readers ANYWAY. People will learn to steer clear of those authors. It's no different than finding excellence in any other industry.

At Untreed Reads, we have multiple price points depending on the length of the work ($0.99 for super-short, $1.50 for short, $1.99 for novelettes and $2.99 for novellas), and I can tell you that we've had fantastic success for our authors at every single one of those price points. And our full-length works? Still at the age-old classic price of $5.99. And...no problems with people spending the money on that at all. Build the value of the product, and the rest falls into place: pricing, fan base and success.


  1. Terrific interview with lots of insightful info. Thanks.

  2. I'll second David's comment. This was enlightening.

  3. Thanks guys! They have an interesting format over there. If their work keeps selling like it has, I think they'll be seeing some more authors sign up.

  4. I've been wondering when someone would challenge the "99 cents or give it away" philosophy. As exciting as the Ebook concept has been, I think the end pricing and flea market business concepts have been key factors in the lackluster sales figures. Too high will run customers off. Too low will make 'em run faster. Excellent interview, Chris. I wish the best for Jay and Untreed.

  5. Great post, Jay! Thanks so much. Love the part about authors not giving their writing enough credit. And isn't it true that so many works have come out with poor grammar, a slew of typos and incredibly bad sentences. This is what's somewhat given ebooks a bad name.

    I'm really interested in the question about how you sell so well when you don't market erotic romance, erotica. Course, I suppose I don't know much about the other markets.

    You have me interested though.

    Again, thanks Death By Killing (love that name) and thanks, Jay. I'm sure many are walking with some much-needed knowledge.

    My best to UNTREED READS! You go, guy!


  6. Fascinating article indeed - thanks, Jay! I wouldn't trust that wonderful Anne Brooke character though - she's definitely very very dodgy ...



  7. Good interview, Chris. This sort of thing is especially helpful to those of us trying to learn the ropes of the writing business.


  8. Phew! That's one hell of a fascinating interview! Well done!

  9. one of the more interesting pieces i've read on e-publishing. great to have someone who understands it from the inside. a top interview - useful questions and thorough answers. (thanks paul for the tweet).

  10. Thanks, guys! In the future, I'll be reviewing some of their publications.

  11. Okay, I've got it. I'll throw in with JH and Untreed Reads.