Cover Story: Quill's Will
Steve Mettee picks up ideas from the world around him. Traveling, reading the paper, browsing in a bookstore—he’s the type to notice what’s there and what’s missing, and think about how the publishing company he founded, Quill Driver Books, can meet needs and fill in gaps. And once he’s latched on to an idea, he’s loathe to let it go. “A publisher requires two things,” he says. “One is passion, and the other is optimism. If you haven’t got passion and optimism, then you shouldn’t be in this industry. When I get passionate about something, I can get behind it. I think about it when I’m driving down the street. It’s almost like I can will it to happen.”
Of course, after 14 years at the helm of his Sanger, Calif.-based publishing company, Mettee knows that willpower alone cannot make a book sell. (“I miss as much as I hit,” he confesses.) But his instinct and tenacity lie behind all of Quill Driver’s successes, from the recent New York Times best-seller “Dr. Gott’s No Flour, No Sugar Diet” to the trend-defining survey of social-network marketing, “The New Influencers.”
A Quill Driver health book, “Could It Be B12?” was “overlooked by everybody” when released four years ago, he says. He continued to push the exposé of misdiagnosed B12 deficiency, which now is selling steadily, with a second edition in the works. “It became our mission because I believed in it,” he says. “I feel like we sell each one of those books one at a time.
“Certainly the large publishers have a reputation for putting a whole bunch of books out, and the ones that are not quick to come out of the gate get kind of ignored,” Mettee says. “As an independent publisher, we only do so many titles. We need all of our books to sell, so we’re out there battling. We will work a title for a year or two before it finds its market.”
He compares the process to filling a bucket with an eyedropper until it finally overflows, at which point momentum takes over. “You would think the media would like to write about something new, but it doesn’t,” he says of fighting pop culture inertia. “It likes to write about what everybody else is writing about.” On the other hand, the right author at the right time can “fill the bucket” immediately, which is why Mettee is always on the lookout for what he calls “the good platform,” an author with a built-in fan base or other surefire credentials.
Dr. Gott is a case in point. Mettee had read the Connecticut doctor’s health column for years in the Fresno Bee and one day got to thinking that he’d do well as an author.
“I liked him, I liked his voice, I liked his style, and one day it dawned on me, ‘Hey, how come I never read about him having a book?’” Mettee recalls. An Internet search led to a transcontinental conversation between the doctor and publisher, which eventually resulted in “Live Longer, Live Better,” followed by Dr. Gott’s hugely successful diet book.
Not the conventional way to come by a manuscript, but Mettee’s never been too worried about doing things the conventional way. His favorite author-recruitment story concerns the famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
“Just put down that I met her at a Playboy party in Chicago,” he laughs—which, in fact, is true. But actually getting the spry Dr. Ruth under contract took years, as Mettee doggedly pursued his book idea with Westheimer’s agent.
“It took a couple of years for me to get her business manager to realize that I was a for-real publisher,” he says. “People like that are very wary of being used, so they are not open to every idea. I’d see [her agent] when I’d go to New York, and I think I wore him down.”
Quill Driver eventually published “Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50,” one of the most popular titles in the publisher’s “Best Half of Life” series, a brand aimed at older adults.
Over the years, Mettee has had great success focusing in on a few select categories: The Best Half of Life, Health & Diet, Business, Parenting, and Books for Writers among them.
In June 2008, Quill Driver merged with Fresno, Calif.-based Linden Publishing Inc., which publishes mainly woodworking titles; however, Quill Driver still functions as an independent company in terms of acquisitions and backlist. “We are using Quill Driver Books as the driving force for the combined company since it has the momentum; is better known with agents, authors, reviewers and others; and publishes in genres that are more active. It works for me because it frees me up to spend more time acquiring and editing, the things I enjoy most,” says Mettee, who retains the title of publisher.
Focused … but Open to Possibilities
Quill Driver began life by publishing a history of Black Bart, a notorious California highwayman, but soon moved beyond regional titles. “They are still in the mix, but about seven or eight years ago, I realized it was just as much trouble to do regional titles as national titles, and our national titles are selling better,” Mettee says.
While small and strategically focused, Quill Driver is not a niche publisher and remains open to any proposal that seems likely to be successful.
“We oftentimes break out from anything we’ve ever done,” Mettee says. In the works, for instance, is a book on geocaching, an orienteering sport involving hidden objects that players search out using Internet clues, maps and GPS tools.
“Now, do we do any hobby books? Do we do any other sports books? No,” he says. “But we like this author a lot, and we like the fact that we are first on the market. We like the fact that it’s a growing sport and a youngish sport played by people under 40 primarily, and it’s everywhere.”
Follow the Reader
Mettee is just as open to new distribution models, finding success in nontraditional channels, such as selling health and business books en masse to be handed out at corporate seminars and retreats. A team of sales reps keeps in close touch with bookstores and chains across the United States and Canada, and the company has enjoyed notable success in selling foreign rights to titles, having seen books translated into at least 16 languages (including, most recently, a second title in Vietnamese). Closer to home, Quill Driver has experimented with placing books in unusual venues such as car washes.
“One of the sales reps we have who calls on bookstores in the Southeast recently said to me, ‘You know, our customer hasn’t moved away. They are just buying someplace else, and we’ve got to find out where,’” he points out.
Mettee believes in following readers, whether the path leads to kiosks, big-box stores or handheld devices.
“E-books and digital delivery of all books, even the printed and bound copies, via machines like the Espresso Book Machine, are a part of publishing’s future,” he says. “We are currently moving all our titles into the Kindle format and are waiting until the superstructure for other digital delivery systems is in place. At that point, we will jump in with both feet.” On his blog, The Write Thought, he predicts the Kindle will become as popular as the iPod.
“Before terribly long,” he says, “Amazon.com will stop stocking many titles, opting to print each order on-demand. This will be embraced by the publishers since it means less inventory to warehouse and handle, lower freight costs, fewer returns, and, with fewer books pulped and less shipping, it will also have a positive effect on the environment.”
In distribution as much as in marketing, Mettee says the strategic focus should be on giving a book traction. The conundrum for an independent publisher can be that, to get momentum, you need to get a book in stores, while retailers will look for markers of success when deciding whether to stock a book.
“It’s not necessarily the reader who cares,” he says, of a book’s association with a big-name author. “It’s all the gatekeepers that are between the publisher and the reader who care. I can get better distribution when I go to the buyer at Barnes & Noble with an author like Dr. Ruth than I can with your mother-in-law.”
Still, with his eye for good material and an eager audience, Mettee has been able to turn a number of unknowns into successful authors. Indeed, some of his authors discovered the company through his stable of books for writers, including a well-known guide to writing book proposals that he authored.
“I love writers,” Mettee says. “I’d rather know the author of the book a movie was [based on] than the star of the movie. … They are the force that drives our industry. I have to [remember to] put on my businessman’s hat because I get in trouble helping them out more than I should sometimes.”
His rapport with writers has paid dividends however, as it did with the author of a popular Best Half of Life title on improving memory, whom he met at a writer’s conference where he was presenting.
“People ask me what works,” he says. “The No. 1 thing you have to have is good books. If you are competing with the big guys out in New York, they’ve got good books—well-thought-out, good content, well-edited, well-written, easy to read. If you don’t have that, it’s just not going to sell.”