Every once in a while I get asked to do an interview. This request came from a woman at DePaul University who is completing a Masters in Writing & Publishing. They solicited several independent presses to ask about their experiences, and I was happy to oblige. The anthology of their interviews should be published in the next few months, but we got approval to post our interview on our own blog.
Thanks to Katy Heubel for putting together such an insightful questionnaire.
DePaul will be offering a Certificate in Publishing: How to Start Your Own Small Press. What topics do you feel should be included?
I would tell people to first learn as much about the industry landscape as possible (past, current, future), format trends, genre trends. Then about what you need to start your own publishing house (expertise in finance, admin, author relations, cover design, typesetting, digital expertise, ebook conversion, marketing, social media, distribution. Then decide what kind of house you want to start – there’s lots of choices – vanity press, subsidized, traditional, DIY, etc.
How has technology, specifically digitization, affected your publishing?
The advent of ebooks is why we got started. Ebooks were very new only a few years ago, and when we envisioned this press in 2008 it was more of a way for authors to get their work out in a simple, low-cost fashion. We were not interested in the traditional publishing model, the industry was already in change (but before Amazon self publishing), and we could see that the old model was broken. Epub was brand new and the most popular ebook format was still pdf. So, we launched as a digital only, type of DIY outfit, and have morphed into a more traditional house that maintains our primary focus on ebooks.
Since then, ebooks have taken off and the increase in our digital sales has allowed us to release certain high demand books as print editions as well. We have ensured we keep on top of digital trends and produce books that are clean and well formatted. For our print books, we use on-demand printing to avoid the high financial and environmental cost of paper books, but to fulfill the demand for paper books that some readers have.
So at the end of the day, without the digitization of the industry, we wouldn’t be here.
What’s your take on the importance or place of e-books for your press and the future of reading?
For readers, ebooks represent a complete paradigm shift. I’ve seen books following the same model as music for the past four years now. Sure, ereaders and ebooks are in the news, but we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg yet. I believe that sales of ebooks will make up the majority of book sales. That isn’t to say that I think paper books will die. There will always be those who like paper, and there will continue to be a market for paper. What I do see is that the commodity of mass market paperbacks and trade paper (for the most part), moving to ebooks and us retaining the beauty that is a paper book for those really special books. It is my guess (and hope) that specialty and large publishers will treat the paper book like the art form it is and produce truly beautiful and innovatively artful paper books, across a variety of genres.
Ebooks (and POD) have opened the arena and smashed the legacy publishers in the knee by tranferring the power of publication to the author. Authors have a multitude of choices on how they want to be published, traditionally or self published or somewhere in between. I like that authors have that choice. That choice recognizes that authors are valuable members in our society, that their work is important and can’t be held back by the very few that sit behind desks in New York City. Their work can be distributed easily and if it’s good, it’ll get read. If it isn’t, it won’t. That’s the beauty of the equal system that’s been created by Amazon and perpetuated by other self publishing entities. Publishers love to hate Amazon because they turned their world upside down. While I don’t like all the power they have right now, what they’ve done is revolutionary and I’m proud to be participating in the revolution with them and others.
Why do you think reading is important personally and culturally?
I’m no writer, but I am a reader. I remember the stories I fell in love with throughout my life and those stories represent a type of bookmark for events in my life. I remember the books I was reading in my fourth year of university, (Jurassic Park) what I loved when I was nine years old, (Little House on the Prairie), what I read on my Italian honeymoon, (The Lovely Bones) when I travelled in Paris, (Lolita), on a Hawaiian vacation (Frankenstein), my first job after school, (The Witching Hour), and when my first daughter napped twice a day (Secret Life of Bees).
Reading must be taught to all humans. Verbal stories passed along to each generation are disappearing and without written stories, we have no tangible link to others, no link to our past, to our future, to our fantasies, to our realities. Words give us the ability to fill in the story with the pictures in our mind. Fiction lends us temporary respites from our realities while non-fiction binds us to them. What is wonderful about reading now is that it’s not relegated to novels or anthologies of short stories. We can micro read poetry on someone’s blog. We can participate in web-only fan fiction. We can read a chapter of a novel while we’re on the bus on our phone, only to pick up where we left off on our computer a few hours later.
Is there one logistical area (acquisition, editorial, production, distribution, marketing) that your press excels at? Please explain.
Since most of the work at this press is done by yours truly (I do hire out technical staff, editors and cover designers from time to time), I think I’ve been very good at keeping in touch with what’s happening in the marketplace and keeping on top of trends. That said, when it comes to specific tasks, I’ve been quite proud of the cover art we produce. I think it’s very easy to spot a self published book or one by a very small press, but I think some our covers rival some of the larger houses in design and execution.
How do you promote your press?
Since we are small and only 3.5 years old, there’s not a lot of money for promotion. We make sure that we have all the tools that bookstores would need from us, like a semi-annual catalog, website, trailer, posters for local events, etc. For the most part, I have relied on social media to promote, I use Twitter to connect with authors and other industry people. Book specific marketing is done mostly by the author but we support their efforts by promoting with reviewers and producing artwork for any of their events.
What do you wish you knew when you started your press?
Lots! Looking back, the only thing I would change is that I would have avoided selling directly to the public. When we first started, there weren’t a lot of bookstores selling ebooks: Mobipocket, Sony and Fictionwise were the biggest ones. So we started our own store to sell the digital books. It was a hassle and I wouldn’t bother doing it again. I much prefer B2B and dealing directly with individual bookstores and distributors like Barnes & Noble, Kobo, OverDrive, Ingram and Amazon.
What are your pet peeves about the publishing business?
Legacy publishers who are trying to stop the tide. I don’t agree with the agency pricing model. Let the bookstores do what they do best, sell books. Let them set their prices and compete amongst themselves. I’m glad that the big guys and Apple were investigated by the DoJ. I don’t care if they say that everyone makes more money under that model. It’s wrong to force what you think are fair prices down readers’ and bookstores’ throats. That’s what a free market is for – balancing out supply and demand to come up with a fair price. No, I don’t believe that 99 cents is the right price for an ebook, but neither is $12.99. Let the market decide naturally and that’s what the price will be.
How do you judge your success as a small press?
I think our success comes from making the right changes at the right time and being small enough to do so quickly. We started with nothing and didn’t spend a lot of money on our business to get started. We planted a few seeds and they grew. Those plants matured and dropped new seeds, which grew. I’ve let this press grow naturally and organically and our sales increase healthily almost every month. Not exponentially, but sustainably. That’s a great feeling, because it doesn’t feel like it will end. In our short life, we’ve seen presses come and go for many reasons, but I think the main one is that they don’t stick with it. They change too much or not enough, collaborate with too many people and then when they don’t hit the jackpot, they close down. We didn’t set sales targets, we just let it grow on it’s own and made sure we didn’t over invest. It’s seems to be working so far.
Are there any ideas or trends that you feel will help small presses or magazines in the future?
Stay on top of the trends, start small, grow sustainably, don’t spend money you don’t have, don’t involve more people than you have to, invest yourself and stick with it.