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Out of print, not out of sight

Liza Dawson talks about her firsthand experience of the still-unravelling possibilities of online publishing

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Liza Dawson runs an efficient, full-service and highly selective literary agency based in New York City. When I met Dawson in New York a few years ago, she came across as a no-nonsense sort of person headed for a distinguished place in the world of publishing and printing. That is where Liza is today through sheer determination and hard work.

At her Liza Dawson Associates, we read these words: “Every day we draw on our expertise as former publishers to ensure that the material we submit stands out. We’re fascinated by how books and ideas spread, and so we’re deeply involved in all aspects of maximising a book’s life in the marketplace — including the digital, film and licensing worlds.” Liza Dawson Associates claims to have “rebuilt careers” and “launched first-time novelists” and last year, three of their titles were on the New York Times bestseller list, “for a total of 72 weeks”.

Yes, Dawson has arrived in the world of digital publishing. And I spoke with her again. Excerpts from the interview:


What is digital publishing?


Digital or e-publishing is just like print publishing except that these books can be downloaded from the internet through internet retailers such as Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple. What has made it so popular is the availability of relatively inexpensive e-readers.


What made you go into this business, especially as you already had a successful literary agents’ firm and have been in the business for sometime now?

I wanted to understand how this electronic world actually worked so that I could explain it to my clients, and the only way I could do that was by involving myself in it. It has been labour-intensive. But it has made me a far better adviser than I’d be without this expertise. Now I actually understand how Facebook sells books, how an author’s website should look and what a publisher’s responsibility is in this world.


Did you research the e-world thoroughly? Do you think digital publishing will take over completely anytime soon?

Yes, my colleagues and I have called in many consultants to advise us. We’ve also met with Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and many of the traditional publishers. There have been seminars and conferences and presentations. It’s the main subject publishers are discussing these days.


How is digital publishing different from or similar to the classical form of publishing?

It’s faster to get books out into the marketplace. It’s cheaper to publish e-editions than print books. However, it’s not a perfect solution. A traditional publisher has a large staff of editors, copy editors, publicists, marketers, booksellers, etc, devoted to the business, so they have many advantages to offer. On the other hand, authors receive a higher percentage of the royalties by not going through publishers. I think digital publishing is a very good way to reintroduce a successful author’s backlist books. But if an author is an unknown, then it can just be a waste of time.



How many books have you published up until now?

Six. Five of them have been by Jean Sasson. One of them is by my author, Robyn Carr, who is a bestselling romance author. I plan to publish several more of Robyn’s out-of-print books in the next few months. And I’m also launching two more new books by well-known authors.


How have the digital books been received?

They’ve done extremely well. Traditional booksellers don’t have the space to keep an author’s older titles in stock. Digital publishing gives these older titles a fresh lift. And if an author has an ongoing career (as all my authors do), then the backlist helps keep readers’ attention between new books. Once a reader falls in love with an author, they want to read everything. That’s what makes digital publishing so exciting.


I read that you republished some of Jean Sasson’s books. How well did that go?

Jean’s books have done especially well. I was fortunate enough to be able to digitally release all her “Princess” titles. They’d still be selling in print, so she had a very big international fan base. Twenty years ago there wasn’t much of an audience for books about the Middle East. That has certainly changed and by now, Jean is viewed as an authority in the field.


How have writers approached this new world of publishing? Is it a sort of an added bonus — for the time being — to paper books?

It’s added a lot of work to writers’ lives. Setting the books up digitally is not that difficult, but then they have to promote it through Facebook , Twitter, etc. This can add a couple of extra hours of work a day, and many writers are uncomfortable about promoting themselves and revealing so much personal information to readers. If a writer doesn’t think this will be fun or interesting or profitable, I don’t press them to do it. However, some writers have fallen in love with this new media world. It’s very exciting for them to receive several e-mails every day that say: “I love you, I love you. Please keep writing. I can’t wait to buy your new book!”


You have said, “My business is to build my authors’ careers.” How would you do that?

Very few writers have the kind of overnight successes that someone like J.K. Rowling had. Most writers’ careers is built slowly — over twenty years. They start out with a small following and then, if the publisher is doing things right by getting the books out into the marketplace and if the writer is regularly publishing new and exciting books, the readership grows. My job is to make sure that the publisher and the writer are always working together to make that audience grow. I know that everyone thinks they could write a book if only they had the time. But real talent combined with real work ethic is a rare commodity. It’s far easier for me and for publishers to build a proven writer’s career than to be hunting for new talent.