Catalyst Book Press

The places, ideas, and people that change us

What Exactly Is Publishing Anyway? Take II.

I recently received a disgrunted comment from Bert Stern, co-editor of Off the Grid Press. His disgrunted comment was in reference to my blog post of last January, What Exactly Is Publishing, Anyway? Mr. Stern takes issue with my suggestion that Off the Grid Press is no different from a vanity press. He suggests that  because they are highly selective and publish beautiful books, that should distinguish them from vanity presses like AuthorHouse.

I agree with Mr. Stern that Off the Grid’s books are different than the garden variety book from vanity presses like Author House. But what Off the Grid Press does still fits under the rubric of a vanity press, even if they are selective and even if they make no money off it, as Mr. Stern claims and as the website itself states.

I can reiterate much of what I said in the earlier post, but I’ll just offer generally accepted definitions of publishing practices.

The definition of publishing itself fits whatever model you want to consider–it is merely the act of producing printed material for sale or distribution. That is publishing, pure and simple, without any loaded meanings attached.

The standard publishing model is described in this way: a writer submits his or her work to a publisher, who accepts it, then bears all the costs of production and marketing and works to ensure distribution. This is “traditional publishing.”

Self-publishing is when an author assumes the financial cost of publishing a book, marketing it, and distribution.

A vanity press, according to the Free Dictionary online, is defined this way: “A publisher that publishes a book at the expense of the author.”

Off the Grid’s publishing model fits this definition, no matter how you slice it. They can distinguish themselves from AuthorHouse in any number of ways, e.g., by being selective, by producing good books, and even by not making money off of it. However, as Off the Grid press states itself, “Rather than finance the press through contest fees, we ask the writer to bear the cost of book design, printing, and distribution.” This fits the generally accepted definition of a vanity press.

Now the real question, and here is where it gets interesting, is whether we should place any VALUE on these distinctions. Can a self-published book be a good book–well-written, well-designed, artistic, etc? You bet. This isn’t often the case but it sure could be. Can a book published by a vanity press of any stripe be a good book? You bet your bottom dollar. Again, not often the case but it sure could be. Honestly, while I am following the standard publishing model for my own press and for my own writing (I have an agent, who submits all my books to publishers for consideration, and they either accept or decline), it is merely because I am not willing to subject myself to the social stigma of self-publishing. I want social legitimacy as a writer, and as a publisher. I’m willing for the most part to accept the standards imposed by the industry in order to be considered socially legitimate. But that doesn’t mean I think the rules for so-called legitimacy in the publishing world are the end-all be-all.  There are no Ten Commandments of Publishing, etched in stone. These are simply customs, and like most customs that are not imbued with morality, they are made to be broken, they are made to change, and they are being broken and they are changing. But like most traditions, those who adhere to the tradition will feel superior to those who don’t. It may not be right, but it’s certainly common.

As I said in my earlier post, I think the music world is light years ahead of the publishing world in this regard. Nobody cares who produces a musical c.d. or if it’s self-produced. If people like the music, they’ll buy it. I personally don’t think books should be treated any other way. Who cares whether it’s self-published or published by a vanity press or published by the so-called best of the best, Penguin or Random House or some other biggie in the business? Unfortunately, people in the book business do care. People in the book reviewing business do care.

And that is why we have dozens of small presses that are essentially a front. This is what I mentioned as the “dirty little secret” particularly in the literary world. There are excellent presses out there, who are selective in what they publish but who do demand that the author (usually poets) either share the production costs or pay for them altogether. None of this is publicized, allowing both the press and the author to enjoy the social legitimacy bestowed by the literary world and reserved for the traditional publishing model, even while they are breaking the rules.

What Off the Grid press has done, and I commend them for this, is simply be honest and above-board about what they’re doing. They’ve said, “Publishing poetry is expensive and hard to sell. But we believe in good literature. So we’ll publish good literature, and we’ll make sure it’s designed and produced well, but we don’t want to or we can’t afford to bear the production costs. If you’re willing to undergo the usual scrutiny of the submission process, the same kind you would undergo at any of the best small presses, we’ll consider your book–but please know in advance that you as the author will pay for the production costs.”

I understand Mr. Stern’s frustration with my characterization of Off the Grid as a vanity press. This carries a lot of stigma to it. I don’t think it should carry the stigma that it does but I can’t change those wide-spread knee-jerk reactions from people in the book industry. Nor can I change the definition of “vanity press” to fit Mr. Stern’s satisfaction either. It is what it is. I can only hope that as the publishing world continues to go through a revolution–a revolution brought on by digital imaging technology, the internet and online sales, and the new focus on publishing green–that some of these stigmas will fall by the wayside. This will allow *all* of us to get on with the business of publishing good books…

July 1, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, digital imaging technology, independent publishing culture, indie, POD, print on demand, publishing, self-publishing, small press, traditional publishing, Uncategorized, vanity presses, writing & publishing | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

off to printing

Last week, I finished the design on Ken’s book, Are You Famous? Touring America with Alaska’s Fiddling Poet, and I got it off to press. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life! And I’ve never had so many people be so nice….

Let’s start with my dad, who has designed books before, who uses Adobe In-design for some of his geological reports. Despite being busy with his own work (which pays about 200 times more than what I don’t pay for his free advice), he read through the first few chapters of the book, made both copy editing and design suggestions, and spent a few hours on the phone with me talking me through the software.

Or maybe we start even earlier, when Sara Juday, a salesperson for Ingram, and a friend of Ken’s, helped me work through some design issues. I had cheerfully designed the book and cheerfully made what corrections I thought were necessary and cheerfully sent it off for Advance Reader’s Copies to be printed. And the results weren’t bad, I swear, but they were clearly the efforts of a beginner. “You need more leading,” Sara advised me. “And you need to choose–either justify all the chapters or let them all be ragged. Personally, I like the ragged look but most nonfiction books are justified.”

And then there’s the wonderful, talented, generous Kathy McInnis, who designed the book cover and, 16 hours before I sent the book off to press, offered to look at the print ready files. Then she spent nine or ten (or maybe more) hours tweaking it; I know she was up late that night because at 1 a.m. her time, she was still working on it. I could really see the difference when she was done. Such small but important changes!  She was generous with her time and didn’t charge me for it because, she said, she wanted my book to be successful. She had had a lot of help when she was starting out and it was her turn to offer help, she said. Thank God for the Kathys of the world.

And then there was Ken Waldman himself, who read through each new draft, making corrections, offering suggestions. At the very end, I’d submitted the files to the printer, and offered to send him the print-ready .pdf so he could print copies of Robin Metz’s introduction with the new design, so he could point out to prospective buyers that the design was so much better than the Advance Reader’s Copy and they could see for themselves, now, couldn’t they. And then he called me, literally 30 minutes after I had submitted the files to go to print for a proof copy: “You’re gonna hate me,” he said. “But I found an error on the first page.” The first page! The first page! You can’t let something go to print if there’s an error on the first page. God, how had we missed it? How had we missed it? But we had, and so I had to make the changes, and submit new files, even though it cost me $40 to make the changes. ($40 is a cheap way to catch a mistake, much better than spending $4000-5000 for printing costs, only to discover the same error.) Yes, I’m grateful to Ken, and grateful for the fact that he keeps a good attitude about it all, even while I make the many (perhaps inevitable) mistakes of a first-time publisher.

In the midst of it all, there was the panic because I’d forgotten to enter the book information into Bowker’s and it wasn’t yet in Ingram’s system, so bookstores couldn’t order it much less find any evidence that it existed, and of course Ken is trying to set up readings and in-store events and the like.

Will the mistakes never end?

They’ll all be great stories someday….yes, someday.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | Alaska's Fiddling Poet, art, bookstores, Catalyst Book Press, independent book publishers, independent publishing culture, indie, Ken Waldman, literary presses, publishing, small press, traditional publishing, writing & publishing | , , , | Leave a comment

appalling: leaving graduate school, starting a small literary press

One of Ken’s acquaintances  was apparently appalled the other day to hear my story: young writer with a novel published by Knopf (The Confessional by J.L. Powers–great name, huh? great title, huh? ); rising star in academia (well, I’d like to say I’m a rising star, but perhaps “adequate graduate student at Stanford whose advisors are sincerely sorry to see her go but who understand she had divided loyalties from the start” is more like it); now to forsake grad school in order to begin small literary press that may flop, may succeed, but will probably never bring her fame and fortune but will, instead, cost a whole hella lot of money.

This person wasn’t appalled by the young writer part, especially since there’s no way I’m leaving that behind and I hope to have a voluminous and bright publishing career ahead of me, despite the fact that I frequently despair over my non-Judy-Blume-esque stature. (Hell, I’d settle for a few fan letters every once in a while.) Anyway, I think she was appalled by the fact that I’m leaving my Ph.D. program at Stanford to start a small literary press fer god’s sake.

Okay, I can see that my decision is not the kind of decision one makes if one is seeking job security. And granted, I’m leaving STANFORD’S Ph.D. program. Nobody does that. Well, nobody except little ol’ me. Who is mighty pleased with herself, by the way, except for those moments of doubt when somebody else expresses how appalled they are by my choices and then self-doubt rears its ugly little head. (But, girl! that head is UGLY! and it’s LITTLE, too, by golly, with beady little eyes.)

Anyway, please. Let’s be realistic. Who wouldn’t leave the academic world, if they had the choice? The problem is precisely that: choice. Once you’ve invested that much time and money into something that has no worth outside the academic world, most people don’t have anything but that world! I can’t find the link now, but a couple of months ago a blog on Atlantic Monthly posted something about how unhappy professors are in general. I stopped reading when the comments reached something like 600….but there was lots of lively debate, some people protesting that they were *very* happy, thank you very much, while others tried to offer reasons why profs would be so unhappy (such as low pay for such high education, zero choice for where to live, a career based completely on other people’s opinions of the worth of your scholarship but the people who care about your scholarship are less than 5 other people on the planet…that type of thing.)

So….Yes, I have my moments of doubt. Yes, I worry, too. What if my Ph.D. in African History from Stanford is the one thing that will keep me employed and well-fed when the world falls into a deep economic depression and everybody is starving to death? (Ha! That’s a likely scenario. Not the economic depression and starvation part, but the Ph.D. in African History Saves The Day part.) What if I regret it, can never return even to a Ph.D. in NON-African History at State University of Podunkville USA, and I live the rest of my life wallowing in luxurious regret? Well, okay. It could happen. It also could happen that I’ll win the lottery someday, despite the fact that I’ve never yet played except for the little lottery cards that my father-in-law slips into my Christmas stocking every year and which haven’t even won me a cent. (My husband, on the other hand, usually wins a couple dollars, and then his dad wins a couple more and gives them to Chris. Something akin to the biblical verse, “To he who has shall be given more, to he who has nothing shall be taken even what little he has” or something like that….)

You see my point. My point being: well, damn it all, I’m doing this thing. Some people tell me I’m stupid, some people tell me I’m brave and an inspiration, some people don’t say anything at all. The truth is, I’m not stupid and I’m not brave. I just want to spend my days writing, as best I can, and reading, as best I can. I love books–published books, non-published books, books in traditional format, books online, books books books. I can’t get enough of ‘em. I pay $60 every month for a storage unit just so I don’t have to get rid of my books. Those books in that storage unit will, at the end of three years, cost me more to keep than if I’d just thrown them all out and bought them again at some later date. But I don’t care. I can’t throw them away. I love ‘em. Just like I love the fact that I’m leaving Stanford’s prestigious grad school program–all for the love of books.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, independent book publishers, indie, Ken Waldman, publishing, small press, the artist's life, the writer's life, writing & publishing | , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Expo America And This Small Press

I spent last weekend at BEA, Book Expo America, an absolutely overwhelming insight into the book world. This is actually my second trip to BEA, so I was forewarned. My mother always used to say, “Forewarned is forearmed,” but, um, well, I’m not sure if that’s true. The sheer number of people, books, and other publishers would put any little publisher in her place and send her back to the very small unimportant San Bruno with her tail between her legs! Oh, well. There’s no way Catalyst Book Press can compete with giants like, oh, Knopf or Random House or hell! even Harlequin. But I guess that doesn’t matter. The books I’m bringing out are important books, and they’ll make a difference in people’s lives. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be working with some of the writers who’ve agreed to be part of Catalyst’s books–Ken Waldman, Ann Angel, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Ariel Gore, Tina Cassidy, and all the other writers, named and unnamed, who have put a piece of themselves on paper and staked a claim on their art and in Catalyst….

Anyway, at BEA, I visited with Ingram’s and Baker & Taylor, both of which seem willing to carry my books so bookstores & libraries can order them. That’s not the same as having a sales force but it’s something very important.

I got a number of totally cool books, including a signed copy of The Reggae Scrapbook and the latest y.a. offering from Ellen Hopkins, Impulse. I felt totally dwarfed by such giants as Judy Blume, Sherman Alexie, and Neil Gaiman. (On my personal blog, I’ve written about this, which you can read here.)

Here’s a few things I heard this weekend that are worth quoting:

*In a panel about how to create loyal online communities: “Failure on the internet comes free” and “People create an emotional bond to authors via blogs–there’s a sense of family, even while it can be creepy.”

*”Story of the production of the book can be as interesting as the story inside the book.” Hmmm. Not sure I believe that. But it’s worth putting up here.

* “Blogging is like note-taking for all the other writing you do.” Okay. Maybe. But if you write blog posts that are essentially your book, aren’t you giving away all the goodies? Maybe that’s why I haven’t yet created a wildly popular blog that’s made me an internet celebrity, feted at places like the BEA.

Okay, my FAVORITE from one of these infamous internet celebrities: “I blog 16 hours a day!” What? 16 hours a day? When do you eat? When do you sleep? When do you shower? When do you do other, personal, private things that should remain between you and the toilet?

P.S. I’m glad to say that I met a fellow newbie to the book business, who has become a good friend in the last few months.

June 2, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, independent book publishers, independent publishing culture, indie, literary presses, publishing, small press, traditional publishing, writing & publishing | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Writer-Publisher’s Manifesto

So on Friday, I was on the Cal-train to Stanford reading Poets & Writers when I should have been memorizing  Portuguese vocabulary words for a test which I subsequently failed. (I was studying the wrong list anyway. This is what happens when you combine too many activities all at once.) Anyhoo, the article that pressed my panic button was an interview with Rebecca Wolff, the editor of Fence Magazine. The interviewer asked her a fairly inoccuous question, “Think fast: poet or editor?” to which she replied, “[Laughs.] That is a fucked-up question right now. That is like the worst. I would have to say, right now, I have been demoted to editor, but I’m working hard at figuring out how to become a poet again. “

There is a real simple reason why this made me panic: the last thing I want publishing to do is subsume or overwhelm my art. My friends Bobby and Lee Byrd have certainly made similar comments (e.g., “You know what publishing has done to our ability to pursue our own writing, right?”), not to mention comments by some of my own writers for Labor Pains and Birth Stories. I tried to calm myself by reminding myself that I’m not embarking on something that I can’t, to some extent, control or contain–that I can keep the publishing load light by not publishing too many books, that I can stop at any time if my writing is adversely affected (this is the same thing I told myself when starting a Ph.D. in African History at Stanford), that I’m not doing this to make a living but just to get books out that I want to see published. Okay, most of that is bullshit even while it’s true. But nevertheless, I started desperately and mechanically writing in my journal (instead of memorizing Portuguese vocabulary words) and here are some of the things I promised myself. I’m sure that those who are more experienced than I am will perhaps laugh at these promises and think to themselves, “Just wait. She’ll see.” Maybe they’re right. But I’m a pretty determined gal when I need to be.

Manifesto or, more appropriate, Promises I Have Made To Myself During Weak Moments When I Panicked About My New Business and Wondered To Myself, “What The F*** Am I Getting Myself Into?”

#1 Write First Thing Every Morning Before You Start The Business Day

I’ve actually been pretty successful at this for a number of years now, though there have been stretches in grad school where even an hour or two every morning has been impossible.

#2 Don’t get Too Caught Up In the Book Business.

Okay, yes, books are my life and they will soon be even more of my life. But why should I panic every time I open Poets and Writers Magazine? In fact, why the hell should I even read Publisher’s Weekly? Ha-ha, okay, I’m just kidding about the last one, but I think the general point is that I shouldn’t spend everlasting moments on everlasting details that will never be finished anyway so at some point, one needs to say, “Enough. Time to break open that bottle of wine.”

#3 Learn Balance. Getting Into This Racket Was About the Creative Life To Begin With.

This one is key and reflects the truth I mentioned above. I’m not doing this to make a living, though I hope that will be a side benefit. I’m doing this, in part, because my own creativity demands a greater involvement with books and the book business, an outlet that isn’t satisfied just by writing.

#4 Slow Down and Start Small.

I mean, it’s impossible for me (financially or otherwise) to do anything BUT start small. But sometimes I forget that and I feel like there are one hundred million books-to-be-published screaming for my attention, all of them which should have been published two months ago. Maybe I’m building an empire or maybe I’m just building a little sand castle, but either way, it’s gonna take awhile…By the way, sand is awfully slippery and it gets everywhere and then it’s impossible to get rid of…

#5 Forget all the piddly little things.

Actually, sometimes the piddly little things count, like the moment this afternoon when I discovered that I had listed the wrong ISBN numbers on the thousands of postcards I printed and have been handing out to bookstores, publicity people, strangers, friends, you name it. There’s just one little number wrong but damn it, that hurts. Still….There are little things that maybe don’t matter. Like reading PW, ha-ha!

#6 Make the ezine manageable…an organic part of the whole.

Actually, this is critical. I want the family and fertility ezine to be a natural extension of the publishing company and to actually feed the publishing company…

I’m going to stop before I prove that yes, I should have been diagnosed with OCD, like most artists…

 

April 27, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, independent book publishers, literary presses, publishing, the artist's life, the writer's life, writing & publishing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Publishing & the Public

Everyday, I run into people’s curiosity about the book business–as well as a lot of misperceptions about it. I guess when you become a publisher, by default you also become an educator. Perhaps it’s that way with any business.

 One of the most common misperceptions about publishing is that there is a lot of money in it. That would be great but most independent publishers do what I’ve heard called “publishing by Visa.” Meaning: They’re in debt. Sometimes, a lot of debt. (This, I am trying mightily to avoid!) Unless you use print-on-demand (digital imaging technology), it costs a lot to get a book together. Even if you do use POD, it can cost a lot. Plus, the risks are many and profits low. Let’s say a press manages to get the cost of printing a book down to $2, and they charge $16 per copy. They have to sell it at 50% off to bookstores, which means they sell it for $8.00 per copy, for a total of $6.00 profit per copy. But that doesn’t include publicity costs, shipping costs, receiving un-sellable returns from bookstores that couldn’t sell it, or the cost of warehousing/storing the book, not to mention royalties or other payments to writers.

Another common idea is that all you have to do is publish a book and it’ll do well or be available in bookstores or that it’ll sell thousands and thousands of copies because so many people across the U.S. will be interested in the book. I really, really wish that were true. I went to the Book Expo America in 2003, the most important conference in the book industry. That year, over 100,000 new books were published. 100,000! Even if all 250 million Americans bought a book each year, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

My novel, The Confessional, has done all-right and has received excellent reviews. Plus, it’s published by one of the big guys, Knopf. But I get emails from people all the time who say they couldn’t find it in the local bookstore, including the local bookstore in El Paso, where the book is set and where it’s sold really well! So you never can tell why a bookstore will stock a book and why they won’t, but I’ve heard through the rumor mill that B&N gives a book a “two week window” to sell and then they return it. Maybe that’s exaggerated and it wouldn’t surprise me–but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true!

Anyway,  I guess I’m going into publishing because I really, really, really LOVE books. And if they can bring me some income, enough to make it worthwhile, that will be great. But I’ll probably do it anyway. It’s just like being a writer: I write because I love writing. Am I paid what my writing is worth? No, not really. But who is, except J.K. Rawling? (and we can’t all be her…)

March 10, 2008 Posted by | bookstores, digital imaging technology, independent book publishers, independent publishing culture, indie, literary presses, POD, print on demand, publishing, small press | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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