Interview with Mary Bisbee-Beek

\"\"Elli Meeropol interviews Mary Bisbee-Beek, who will be available for individual meetings with writers during the Agent Meetings time and participate on the Paths to Publication panel.

What exactly is a publishing Sherpa?

This publishing Sherpa is a guide helping authors get from manuscript stage to next step whether it be helping to find an editor, agent, or publisher. Or just to answer general questions about a contract or how to pick one publishing situation over another. I recently helped an author decide between publishing with a hybrid press and a more traditional publishing experience. The questions and situations that come up vary, which is what keeps it interesting and challenging.

What genres do you most enjoy working with?

For publicity and marketing consulting, in alphabetical order – cerebral yet readable non-fiction, fiction and poetry. As publishing Sherpa, I am open to all questions as my involvement is sometimes helping to find the best person for what’s needed to make the next step – which is not always genre specific.

How do you charge for your sherpa and publicist services?

The first 30 minutes of sherpa services is generally on the telephone and that’s free. During that time we determine if I am the right person to help – if both parties think I can help we move to the next step which is my reading the work at hand. I’m mostly interested in finished manuscripts or first drafts, which are covered by a fee for a general read, then we schedule another call at an hourly fee for consulting. The consulting call generally lasts anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes but I bill on the quarter hour and I send invoices out within the first nine days of the month. How long this goes on depends on what needs to be done. Sometimes there are two calls in a month’s billing period but usually just one call per month plus reporting on what I’ve been doing for the project via e-mail, depending on what is prescribed.

I’ve known you as a publicist (full disclosure: Mary has been the independent publicist for my three novels), and that’s the work you’ve been doing for almost 40 years. How did the expansion take place, to shepherding writers and their work before they have a signed book contract?

First, I have to say that I don’t wish, nor anticipate, that the publishing sherpa arm of my business will ever take precedence over my publicity work. But it’s early days for the sherpa services so who knows? Doing anything for almost 40 years, on top of being married to someone who also worked in the same industry for that many years — combined rolodexes (dating myself with that term) are impressive and expansive — allows me to help someone less acquainted with the industry and guide people to the right connections.

It officially started a few years ago when an author was introduced to me by a mutual friend who had, once upon a time, been very active in the national literary landscape. But she had been out of that conversation for several years. When the author came to her and said that he’d been working on a book for several years and needed guidance about what next steps to take – the mutual friend said that she was no longer current with things literary. She suggested she introduce him to me, as she felt I knew more people in the publishing industry than she had ever known – that is something that we still debate.

An introduction was made. The author and I had a conversation and I offered to read his manuscript. I told him I wasn’t an editor and that I was going to read with an eye to what next steps might be considered. After, I read, I made some suggestions about the storyline. I also recommended another book that I had worked on years before that seemed similar and I wanted him to see how that story was told. He liked my suggestions and went back to his writing and then contacted me again asking if I knew of an editor that he might work with. I was more than happy to do that and luckily it was a very organic chemistry for the author and editor. Now and then I would get progress reports from the author then one day he called to say he was done and now needed help finding an illustrator to help him with a family tree that had some different elements – I was able to help him with that. Then he needed an agent. This was more challenging but I read the revised manuscript and made some queries to agents that I had worked with and respected. We were very lucky – I made five queries and the fifth agent fell in love with the story and took it on. There was more editing and re-writing and then queries and rejections — but the manuscript was sold late this past spring and there will be a finished book in the summer of 2019. Somewhere between first read of the manuscript and the agent search this author referred to me as his Publishing Sherpa … and the name stuck. I have to say that it was this author who also insisted that he pay me for the time and my contacts and that planted the seed that this was, that I was, a valuable resource for authors.

There have been other successes along the way that have resulted in publishing contracts; helping an author to work through a contract and to know when to ask for wiggle room; help in finding a designer or a non-traditional publisher; helping to find out whether to put in the time to find a traditional publisher or a hybrid publisher or to self publish. It depends on many different variables to figure out what the right call is. One venerable New York agent has suggested that the service I am providing is not only for authors but for agents as well, as I provide a sort of clearing house for them.

What are your thoughts about the state of the publishing industry right now, particularly for writers looking for a publisher for a first book?

In my professional life-span, finding the right publishing situation has always been challenging. Authors not only have to put their writing life together but also their publishing life and they have to come to the table with a strong readership almost entirely in place. They have to find the balance between being proactive and totally rogue. Patience and measured expectations are required. There are over 250,000 books published in the U.S. every year. That’s enormous competition so you have to do your best possible work and always ask yourself is what you are doing contributing to the reading landscape and how?

Meanwhile, I wish every author the best of luck – whether it’s your first book or your tenth book I look forward to working on or hearing about your new work via the media, whether it’s traditional or hybrid! For more on my business philosophy, visit my website.

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