The little press that seriously could (a conversation with Lou Aronica of The Story Plant)

As tough economic times force publishing professionals to think outside the box, perhaps those best equipped to weather the storm are the ones who were already doing it. The Story Plant is a small press and relatively fresh to the universe, but its founders state their goal without flinching: "The Story Plant is dedicated to developing commercial novelists into bestselling authors." Publisher Lou Aronica came to the project after twenty years at Bantam, Berkley, and Avon, during which he edited and published a number of NYT bestsellers. Teammate Peter Miller spent thirty years managing writers, repping several NYT bestsellers, and Executive Producing more than a dozen movies. He's currently working on a HBO miniseries with Tom Hanks' Playtone company. All of which is to say: these guys clearly know what they're talking about.

I got curious about The Story Plant when I received a review copy of James LePore's forthcoming A World I Never Made. (Watch this space for an author interview and more about the book next week.) It's a well-written international thriller a la Bourne -- danger, intense personal backstory, and location location location -- but can a David-sized press really generate a bestseller in Goliathville? Lou Aronica graciously takes a moment to talk to us about it.

Lou, thanks for being here. I’m curious about the conversation at the root (no pun intended) of The Story Plant. What is it you set out to accomplish?
Peter and I started The Story Plant because we felt that, while the world certainly didn’t need another publisher, it did need someone to make commitments to novelists and work aggressively to build their careers. Throughout my earlier publishing career, I’d dedicated myself to author development. This requires launching a writer with a vision of four or five books, not one. Publishers have moved away from that for financial reasons. This move made good fiscal sense, but not good publishing sense. With few exceptions, readers don’t discover a writer en masse the first time out. Peter and I felt that a company dedicated to commercial fiction and a long-term commitment to the writers it publishes could make a mark.

And how’s all that working out so far?
Well, we certainly picked the best possible time to start a new company…. We haven’t had any breakthroughs yet, but we’ve only published two books in the midst of a miserable economy. What has worked out is that we’ve managed to put a very strong little list together. I think we’re working with a first-rate team of writers. Our plans are on course with those writers.

How has the shift in the economy changed your business plan?
It hasn’t changed the core business plan at all. We still see The Story Plant as an author development house. What has changed is our expectations for our authors’ first books because booksellers are being ultra conservative. It’s still too early to see how this will affect the growth curves we expected for each writer.

It says on The Story Plant web site: “While we understand that no one buys a book because of the logo on the spine, we hope you'll come to find our imprimatur synonymous with storytelling excellence.” Define “storytelling excellence.”
To me, “storytelling excellence” means giving readers characters they can relate to and sympathize with at some level, presenting stories that hold together well from beginning to end without becoming predictable, and writing those stories with crisp prose. We’re publishing commercial fiction and our goal is very high quality entertainment.

You’ve also said The Story Plant is dedicated to developing commercial novelists into bestselling authors. How do you go about that? And what are the essential elements that make a novelist commercial in your view?
The first step is picking a writer who writes something that speaks to a large potential audience but does so in a distinctive way. I think a writer is commercial if that writer addresses something that matters to a large segment of the readership, either via subject (love, crime, family, friendship, overcoming hardship, etc.) or treatment (memorable characters, high emotional engagement, clever turns of phrase, fast pacing, etc.). A writer breaks out if he or she presents the work in a distinctive way.

Next, one needs to connect with a core readership. It’s very difficult to promote your way onto the bestseller list. Overwhelmingly, reader enthusiasm drives commercial success. Our goal with The Story Plant is to get a core of readers interested in and talking about each of our writers. Our expectation is that this core will be relatively small with the author’s first book but, because it is enthusiastic, it will continue to grow from book to book. I’m very encouraged by what we’re seeing with our third publication, James LePore’s A World I Never Made. The blogosphere is already buzzing about it and the novel has received several enthusiastic reviews – and it doesn’t go on sale until mid-April. People care about this novel and I think that level of connection will drive word-of-mouth and build Jim over the four books we currently have planned with him.

Would you take a chance on a book you love if you felt in your gut that it wasn’t going to sell well?
I did that several times at Bantam and Avon because I thought the writer was someone we should be working with, someone with true skill as a writer. Often, the results were ugly, but sometimes this paid off in a major way because we were by the writer’s side when he or she came up with a bigger idea. We don’t have the room to do that in The Story Plant right now because we’re a small company. We know that some of our books aren’t going to sell because that’s the nature of the marketplace. But we can’t buy anything right now unless we think it has a better-than-average chance to sell at least moderately well.

In terms of both quality and quantity, how would you describe the submissions your receiving?
I’m satisfied with both so far. We’re only planning to publish seven books this year and maybe a dozen in 2010 and I have no concerns about being able to reach those marks with very good books.

Looking at the books on your list this year, what is it about each of them that really clicked for you?
What’s consistent about all of our 2009 titles is that they all engage the reader emotionally. Whether it’s a suspense novel, a mystery, a fantasy, or a romance, each touches the reader at a deep emotional level: a man searching for his troubled, estranged daughter; an emotionally scarred woman who needs to pretend to be a mother; a family trying to contend with sudden tragedy and the effects that time has had on who they wanted to be; a lover refusing to give up hope in the face of overwhelming odds; a widowed man caring for his infant son. The books on our list excited us for various reasons, but all of them connected with our hearts. I think that’s critical if the goal is to build a dedicated audience.

Lou, thanks again for stopping by. We truly appreciate your time. Final question: What are you reading?
One of the hazards of spending the entire day around words is that one doesn’t necessarily want to spend the entire night with words as well. I don’t do nearly as much reading “for fun” as I would like and I therefore have a huge backlog of books. Right now, I’ve finally gotten to Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert is a truly inspired writer and I find her perspective illuminating and her sense of humor revitalizing.


Anonymous said…
Dear Joni,

I just printed out Lou's words of wisdom about emotional connection in a really large font.

I'm posting it on my wall so that I remember it while I'm trying to coordinate all the things that writers must think about while writing a scene.... I want remember what it is I'm really doing.

Great interview. Thanks for putting this together, Joni, and for dropping by BtO, Lou.

I wish you and The Story Plant all the good breaks the universe can manage. It's wonderful to see a publisher spring onto the scene with such a clear vision for growing its authors. I'll be interested in checking out what you're publishing. And emotional connection really *is* the key, isn't it?
Nancy J. Parra said…
Thanks Joni,

Great info. Good luck, Lou, on your venture! Seriously, It would be fabulous if this became the next publishing trend!
Joni Rodgers said…
I think a key point Lou makes is that "booksellers are being ultra-conservative."

This week a friend of mine was terribly disappointed with the initial sell-in and resulting modest print run of her next book. This is no rookie; this is a bestselling author. No one is immune.

The good news is, this will (I hope) affect the way returns are handled and cause booksellers to expand the myopic Peter Principle way they view past sales stats.
Dorothy Hagan said…
Colleen and Joni, I have so enjoyed all the posts these last few days. Thank you both.

Forgive me if this is a really naive question. But haven't book publishers thought beyond printing a bunch of books, hoping they will sell, and then dissing the author for the lack of success? Currently there is Kindle technology, print-on-demand, etc.

Please smack me good if I am speaking the unspeakable, but with my POD book, if I sold a bazillion books tomorrow (and some authors have), they would be printed and shipped within days. No out of print worries, no storage and return issues. And with no help from anybody, a POD book is as available as any "published" one from any online seller.

Just a novice asking.
My heart goes out to the bestselling author suffering a weak sell-in. With the economy so troubled, this is going to affect so many writers' chances of selling future books -- at least without going into the author protection program (the pseudonym route). What's sad is that no matter what the root cause of a poor sell-in or weak sell-through, the author's name is the one that ends up tarred.

Thanks for the kind word re. the blog.

I think everyone would love to have a less wasteful system that the current model, but the vast majority of books are still sold in stores at this time. This makes POD bestsellers exceedingly rare.

Will the model change? I think it's headed that way. But I also think the reading public prefers to have some gatekeeping going on with conventional publishers. Also, publishers have a much better shot at buying co-op space and promoting effectively enough to create a bestseller. Individuals can't pull off store co-op in the same way. So for a while at least, the system chugs along.
Dorothy Hagan said…
Thanks for the explanation, Colleen. Without the industry knowledge, you just sort of scratch your head. I absolutely agree with the gatekeepers and the co-op and promotion aspects. But do you think publishers will ever simply change the way they physically print the books? Since everything now is stored electronically, it seems like it might become de facto POD in the future, with the publishers, as you say, as the gatekeepers.

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