One of the cold hard facts of the publishing world is that, typically, once a book is printed and distributed, it is left out there, on its own, to either sink or swim. For the vast majority of the approximately 300,000 books that come out annually, the PR department of the publishing house may issue a single press release about the book. After that, they will do no followup nor expend any further effort to promote it. Of course, a few lucky books get a big splash of publicity, financed by the publisher – or sometimes, by the author. But most books – many of them fine pieces of literature – are seldom really noticed by the reading public, because no one gets behind them.
If only there were someone whom authors could turn to, somebody who believed in them and their work so much, that he or she would go to bat for them – help get reviews in major publications, encourage bookstores to use nice eye-catching displays, convince publishers to keep the book in print long enough to for it to make an impact.
Now, there is – Literary Ventures Fund (www.literaryventuresfund.org).
Literary Ventures Fund, a not-for-profit private foundation, is the brainchild of Jim Bildner, an author who was just completing his MA, when he began to fully understand “how difficult it is for writers to get books published and wanted to do something” to help. Since he had a business background in venture capitalism (including being a general partner at the venture capital firm of New Horizons Partners in Boston), Jim started thinking about the publishing business in untraditional ways, trying to figure out how he could help literature be more effectively marketed, while challenging the status quo of the industry.
“Our aim is to do a couple things,” Jim told me. “One, obviously, is to support specific works, but more than that, to try and create new channels for books to get out to reader’s hands. One of the biggest problems in publishing is the inability of publishers to think long term…. as soon as the catalog’s out, that’s the end of the project [from the point of view of the publisher]. So, one of the things we’re doing quite differently is that we’re looking at a book for over a two to three-year window. That means we’re going to keep it in print, and we’re going to try and find ways to induce bookstores to feature it more prominently. We’re going to try to come up with new channels that don’t involve returns…which is a big killer…. You know, it’s the only industry in the world where you can actually take possession, consume it, and return it for full value. It’s insane. ”
Of course, Jim was referring to the universal practice that allows bookstores to return any unsold inventory and receive full refunds, no questions asked. To counter that tradition, LVF has established a program in which they will give independent bookstores discounts for taking 25 nonreturnable copies of a title at once. That can make it less of a gamble for them to buy books by comparatively unknown authors. At the same time, when shoppers see 25 copies of the same book on a shelf, they tend to notice it, pick it up, buy it.
But that’s only a small portion of what LVF is doing.
According to LVF’s Website, “We believe in the importance of the literature we invest in. Our objective is simple: get the work into the hands of readers and keep the work in print for years to come.”
The key word there is “invest.” LVF makes investments in a handful of authors and books annually. “We’re actually trying to do two things at one time, ” Jim explained. “One, support literature, one book at a time, but equally important is sustainable philanthropy, which is why we invest in books; we don’t make grants.” The books they choose to support are expected to give them a return on their investment, so that LVF can continue to support new books and authors, hopefully, as Jim said, “in perpetuity.”
LVF uses a variety of business models, depending on the individual project. “You should definitely go to our Website (www.literaryventuresfund.org) and see the investments we’ve made to date; they’re all similar but different in a way,” Jim explained. “One is called ‘The Writer’s Fund’ which is a direct investment in an author. For Tom O’Malley, it allowed him to actually take off time and finish his second book. In that respect, I may emulate what Perkins did for Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And by doing that, he quickly provided support for the author and, if that book is successful, then he’ll- we’ll have a share of that advance and the future rights to that book.” They connected with Tom O’Malley when his agent told them about him.
However, most of LVF projects center on a specific book, rather than an author. They can be involved in any of aspect of the publishing process. Depending on the status of the book, they might help find a publisher for it, or assist a publisher in being able to acquire and publish it, and/or work on developing (and funding) a good marketing and promotions plan. “[LVF] is the first of its kind,” Jim said. “We’re learning a lot about the dysfunction in publishing and being able to bridge many gaps.”
LVF finds out about books and authors from various sources they trust, including agents, publishers, contacts at MFA programs, their own board and other professional associates. “The beauty with what we’re doing,” Jim said, “is that we are agnostic as to source…. we’re interested in a work. not a press, not an infrastructure.” Nor do they care if it is fiction, non-fiction or poetry, mainstream or genre – as long as it is a worthy, wonderful book.
Okay, that all sounds great, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know the money for all this good will and support has to come from somewhere. Usually, the writer pays in one way or another. Right?
Wrong, according to Jim. When I asked him where the “return on their investment” comes from, he said it comes from the publisher, not the author. At first, he said it doesn’t affect the author’s royalties at all. Then, he thought a few minutes, and said, “Well, I guess the only way it actually affects royalties is, hopefully, by our investment which is in marketing and promotion, the books sell more than they would normally sell. And therefore, there are more royalties for the author.”
LVF has been around only for a few years, having been founded in May, 2005, with their first portfolio of literary investments announced in February 2006. However, they have already had some nice successes, such as the acclaimed, “Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali” by by Kris Holloway.
What’s more, LVF merged with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) in 2005. For those of us who tend to be somewhat skeptical about people who seem to be offering a dream-come-true to authors, that connection with the respected and better known CLMP gives LVF almost immediate gravitas. But, according to Jim, it was also a sensible business move. “There are three benefits,” he said. “For CLMP, we were able to give it some stability and also give it some presence. What CLMP gave Literary Ventures is a database and a technical skill set that we didn’t really have and we didn’t have to recreate.” They also share personnel and connections within publishing.
I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of impact Literary Ventures Fund will have on publishing. What kinds of books will they bring to the public’s awareness that might have been ignored? And, even more important – given that they can only work with a few books and authors per year – what kind of changes will they affect on the industry by simply trying to develop better, more sensible, more author-supportive business practices? Wouldn’t it be great if lots of copy-cat not-for profit organizations cropped up? Even better, if the industry started adopting more effective marketing and sales practices. Or – okay, call me a dreamer — if publishing houses themselves saw, from LVF’s example, that backing even the unknown author who simply produces really fine reads (versus blockbusters), by providing ongoing marketing and promotions for longer than a single day, can be not only good for literature, but also can be good business.
In the meantime, it’s good to know there’s one small organization out there that is trying and apparently making a difference.