BookSmarts Podcast (ep. 37): Victoria Sutherland on Reviews and Opportunities for Independent Publishers
Victoria Sutherland is the Founder and Publisher of Foreword Magazine, Inc., and Director of Children’s Books USA. She joins the BookSmarts Podcast to discuss how Foreword Magazine can help smaller, independent publishers with their marketing endeavors.
The mission of Foreword Magazine, Inc. is to help booksellers and librarians discover great books from indie presses through an artistic magazine dedicated to book reviewing. Victoria has spent many years of her career focusing on independent publishers and small press authors, and currently serves as Treasurer of the Independent Book Publishers Association. She discusses marketing trends that she’s discovered throughout her career as well as the process and positive outcomes of their book reviews.
How did you get started in publishing?
I have a degree from Michigan State University in Communications and I started off selling advertising space for some regional trade magazines and lifestyle magazines early in my career. I fell into publishing because there was a packager in the town that I live who bought Small Press Magazine, which was started by Publishers Weekly, in the early 90s, I think. It was bought by Britt Bell and his wife, which ran a small publisher out of Rhode Island. The wife died unexpectedly, and they were selling Small Press Magazine, so the packager that I worked for asked if I would like to come on board and help them sell ads and be the publisher of that magazine.
I saw Small Press Magazine as a great opportunity to really start focusing on independent presses. The publishing industry had been tepidly watching Self Publishers with the onset of desktop computers, but there had been some more established publishers around for the 10 or 15 years prior to that, and there wasn’t a good resource for small presses to get recognized. Small Press Magazine was doing great reviews and was a trusted source for librarians and booksellers on which books to pick up for their stacks.
How was Foreword Magazine created?
The person I was working for took Small Press Magazine in a direction that I didn’t think was good, long term, and so a couple of other women editors and I decided to start our own publication when he rejected our offer to purchase Small Press Magazine and that’s when Foreword was born.
It was 1998, April 1st. We packed up our computers from home and walked him down the street to a little office space above an ice cream shop, as I’m sure many small presses have started, on sawhorses, with old doors put on top. One of our first purchases was a fax machine and that’s how we let people know back then that we were open for business. Anne Stanton and Marty Lenk were my two co-founders but, after a little while, they decided to pursue some other interests. So, that’s, in a nutshell, how I ended up being the the only owner of the publication.
I feel like we came at a great time. Not very many independent presses were getting coverage in the regular trade magazines and so we just went with it. We were monthly at first, went down to quarterly, now we’re bi-monthly. I like to call myself a media company. We have a digital publication for people who prefer that. We also have marketing services for people editing, and representation at some trade shows overseas. Our whole mission was to provide an opportunity for independent presses to have the same sort of level playing field that the larger houses were and that’s been the premise of our success, I think.
Have you seen any recent trends in how independent publishers are handling marketing and reviews?
In terms of marketing, I think a lot of pressure is being put on social media to help them sell books. I’m still standing by the side of the road watching to see what happens because I think it’s driving consumers to books that they might not have otherwise heard. I always felt like the trade was still worthwhile reaching out to. I mean, bookstores and librarians are setting the tone for culture in their communities. They’re places for gathering and they’re the ones who are recommending books to read to their patrons. So a 300 copy sale from a large library in Houston or Los Angeles is still a big deal to me. So while I do see a lot of independent presses trying to focus on some social media, I hope they don’t dump all of their monies or efforts into that, because it’s a nice complement to what they do to the trade as well. It’s got to be the whole package.
In terms of reviews, I mean, reviews are a commodity now in terms of the the world, whether that’s in restaurants, hotels, airline services and books, everybody wants to see a review of the product or the book, or whatever it is, the place that they’re staying, or the restaurant they’re going to, before they make a decision. And so the value of reviews continues to only increase in my mind. We do long form reviews, which is different from some of the other trade journals. Our small annotations are about 100 words, and recommend the book or don’t recommend the book. But we feel like, since the beginning, we’ve put a lot of money into or we’ve invested in paper quality and whitespace into making sure that the magazine was a piece of art. And as well as the words, you know, the reviews being something that they can enjoy for, you know, on their coffee table or on their train ride home or, you know, for a little bit longer than just a resource that they have at their desk at work.
One of our recent endeavors was putting a conference together at the American Library Association this year called Library Insight Summit. It was a gathering of librarians from across the country and the Chicago area to talk about what they look for in books and book reviews. Book reviews are still really key for them. I’m sure you’re seeing this too. The metadata in their NetGalley and Edelweiss and all the accounts is also very important. So, I guess my recommendation is to just really figure out who your target market is. If you want it to be people in consumers who are shopping at bookstores and patronizing libraries, then make sure that the librarians and booksellers know about your book.
How many reviews do you typically have in a magazine, and how do you approach whitespace and ensuring the copy is readable?
I’m not going to speak on behalf of my Editor in Chief Michelle Shingler, but I’ve heard her say this a number of times. We’re trying to make sure that some underserved voices are being heard in terms of diversity, and LGBTQ and authors who might be publishing in categories that are not very common. But we also have to make sure that we’re satisfying their interest in what is coming from more established presses as well.
Fiction and nonfiction, about 125 per issue, so it’s not very many. We have category close ups that are genre specific in each issue, and we always include graphic novels and children’s picture books as well. Those aren’t quite as long as the long form reviews but those are hot topics for librarians, especially those who are trying to make sure that the graphic novels are age appropriate and the children’s books. There’s so many coming out. We want to make sure that they’re getting a good offering from independent presses.
We also do poetry, which is not very commonly covered in trade magazines anymore, but we feel strongly about the art of poetry and so we want to make sure that that is getting some recognition and appreciating those presses who continue to publish poetry. We’re also spending a lot of time doing translations, and introducing some great works from overseas to American markets. The key is they have to have some distribution set up in the United States; it’s important for our librarians and booksellers to make sure that they can easily order the books from it and get it on their shelves.
What is the book review submission process like?
Because we make sure that reviewers read the book, we require three to four months in advance of the publication date. So right now (as of August) we’re looking at November. Actually, I think that deadline is passed for our November, December issue. We’re looking at January, February publication dates. Since COVID, most of the trade magazines are taking submissions via digital file, which makes things a lot quicker. She would appreciate a tip sheet or a sell sheet attached to the book submission that will help her very quickly figure out, make sure that the ISBN is there, see what the pub date is. Get an idea of what the book is about and see if it fits in her spreadsheet of what we have to cover that month and then she’ll spend some time looking through the book.
Because we only review books that we can recommend to libraries, we don’t want to include a book that isn’t going to meet our standards, and sometimes the reviewer will send the book back and say I don’t think that this is something that you guys should cover. And we’d say, okay, thank you for letting us know, pay them a reader’s fee. Unfortunately, because we’re so small, we don’t have a tracking system for publishers to watch their book go through our system. But if your book is chosen for review, we do let the publisher know because at that time, we’ll start getting cover art and making sure that the reviewer has all the resources that they need to make a good judgment of the book. Then we have three layers of editing and a couple of layers of editing after the magazine is laid out.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are a little bit upset about the timeframes that we have with trade publishing, but librarians and booksellers are insistent on having information prior to the publication date so that any publicity that happens once you get the book released on radio or interviews and newspapers and things when the consumers are coming to the store, they’ve got it ready on the shelves or in the libraries. And they’re not like, where’s this book? I’ve never heard of it before. They have heard of it.
What percentage of the reviews are paid verses just a submission?
In the magazine, they’re all free. We only review books that have been submitted to us at and those are no charge, probably 70% of them are free, and 30% of them are paid.
Especially because we didn’t NOT choose your book because it wasn’t very good. We just didn’t have the space for it. In my dreams, I was imagining a publicity meeting happening every Monday morning and saying this one, this title got picked up by these trade publications last week, let’s pay for a review for these because they’re just as important to us and the prices, you know, they need a review. I’m not here to convince people that fee for reviews are where it’s at. I think it fills a void. A service fills the void that was necessary. And because when we first started, there were only 55,000 titles coming from independent presses; It’s millions.
Now, how do you get noticed for things like that? Plus, another option for this is if you’re a first time Author Publisher, which we deal with sometimes, and you’re not quite sure how the trade is going to respond to your book, here’s great feedback on your manuscript. Before you even pay the money to have it printed, we’re going to give you an idea of the development didn’t happen very well, the editing, copy editing was bad, the copyright page isn’t set up properly. So fix those mistakes before you go to press.
We don’t really review textbooks, but we did do a science book that was a very obscure topic that we actually had a reviewer who could handle the subject matter, do the book. And he came up to us at a trade show afterwards and said, nobody was touching my book until I paid for this review from you guys. And I got an order of 300 copies. Because it was reviewed. So that in of itself was confirmation or affirmation for us to keep up with that side of the business. And frankly, it helps all of us. It’s a decent enough revenue stream that we have. We have to keep it because the advertising dollars are drying up as we speak and so in order to support a print publication, we need to have several streams of revenue coming in.
What recommendations do you have for independent publishers?
The number one suggestion I have is that quality is always going to be king. I don’t care how unique your subject matter is or how different, how necessary it is. Librarians and bookstores and even readers are going to reject books that aren’t well written. So that’s number one. Always. We have to just keep keeping on with putting good books out.
I would check in with libraries or podcasts or library listservs or bookstores. We heard at our conference that young adult books are still very popular, you know? So, try to publish books that the market wants. Graphic novels, books for boys that are like normal boy books, diverse titles that are written by diverse authors. I mean, we want to give the diverse publishing population a chance to publish great books and get into the marketplace too. I guess I just keep going back to quality. Your book is going to resonate as long as the quality is good, and they’re not feeling like they’re picking up something that isn’t packaged perfect, you know, as professionally as it possibly could, including editing and design.