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.
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.
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.
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…
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…)
As I muck around trying to figure out how I can pay all my writers for the Labor Pains and Birth Stories anthology without going broke before I even start the press, I begin to realize exactly why so many presses fund their operations (or at least their payment to writers) through contests. Yet charging a submission fee isn’t something I’m especially interested in doing, especially not for an anthology. As a writer myself, I frankly don’t ever submit to contests or anywhere else that charges a submission fee. Why? Maybe I’m not desperate enough to get published. More important, if I have to shell out $10 or even $20 every time I submit something, even an entire book, I’m going to lose a lot of money over the long run. Do you know how many times you have to submit something before it gets accepted? There are, I suppose, a few lucky folks who don’t have the problem of rejection, but most of us normal folks experience it on a regular basis. Now I have an agent, a good one, too–and I still experience rejection. So…Contests seem like another great way to go broke, unless you’re the publisher, and then they seem like a great way to maybe break even.
My friend and former boss Bobby Byrd emailed me recently to say he’s putting together an anthology right now and, thus, remembering why you should never ever put together an anthology and, he said, I should take that advice to heart. Oops. Too late, my friend! And besides, I know he loves putting together anthologies. Anyway, I sort of intend to do a lot of anthologies, but on related topics, plus I’m going to have a webzine focused on the same topic (literary essays on topics related to fertility) so I hope I’ll build a loyal audience and a niche market. I told Bill Pierce of AGNI that I was, in a sense, publishing a literary journal but bringing it out as a book every 6 mos. to a year. He might have been bullshitting me, but he told me it was a smart idea. I hope he’s right because I certainly am approaching this publishing thing differently than a purely traditional model of publishing. Either I’m completely stupid and I’m going to work really hard and fail–or maybe I’ll be lucky.
Steve Almond wrote an interesting article in this month’s Poets & Writers about the difference between hardbacks and paperbacks. Many publishers these days are publishing first print runs in paperback, knowing that they’re more likely to sell copies that way. It may seem like a press has no confidence in a book’s success if they don’t issue it first in hardback but in today’s economy and today’s book market, that is just not the case. People will buy books for $10-12 when they won’t shell out $15-20. There is a psychological barrier in that leap between $10 and $15, let’s admit it. Even I’m more likely to buy a book if it’s only $10 and I, well, I’m a total whore when it comes to books. (Bookslut is already taken, so maybe I should nickname myself The Book ‘Ho.) Anyway… I love hardback books and I’m glad that Knopf had enough confidence in my novel, The Confessional , to put it out in hardback first. But still, I don’t plan to put any of Catalyst’s books out as hardbacks, at least not right away. Choosing to go paperback seems like a really simple and effective way to cut costs–and according to Almond, it doesn’t have a negative effect on potential reviewers, who review according to interest, not whether a book is a hardback.
It’s disheartening to get into today’s book world. On the one hand, it seems like there are more opportunities and reasons to publish than ever. On the other hand, it seems like it’s a cutthroat business world. (I speak from a writer’s perspective as much as a publisher’s perspective, though I feel personally everlastingly grateful for the agent I have and the editor I ended up with at Knopf.) I don’t know how independent book publishers make money when they have to shell out money for booths at this book fair and that book fair; send out dozens, even hundreds, of free books to reviewers, bookstores, & librarians; and accept returns that are unsaleable from bookstores who couldn’t sell the copies in a few months and thus, send the copies back. It’s a cold, scary world, I’m learning.
- Alaska's Fiddling Poet
- birth mothers
- birth parents
- birth stories
- Catalyst Book Press
- digital imaging technology
- independent book publishers
- independent publishing culture
- Ken Waldman
- literary contests
- literary presses
- print on demand
- publishing on demand
- small press
- Steve Almond
- the artist's life
- the artist's list
- the writer's life
- traditional publishing
- vanity presses
- writing & publishing