Digital technology is revolutionizing how books are produced and delivered, and antiquated business models for acquiring and marketing books are leeching profits from booksellers. Together, the technological innovation and financial stagnation are changing the publishing industry at a breathless pace. Digital printing (also known as POD for “Print on Demand”) and the old school model of distribution and discounts have made it easy to publish books and difficult to sell them through traditional channels.
I had first-hand experience of this situation when White River Press brought out my first novel. Located in western Massachusetts, WRP prints with Lightning Source and distributes through Ingram’s. WRP created a beautiful, soft-cover edition of Into the Wilderness. According to our contract, it was up to me to market it. This, it turns out, is much harder than I could have ever imagined.
Without Advance Reading Copies or reviews in the trade review publications, bookstores had no idea my book existed, and few of them were willing to carry anything POD, even at full trade discount and returnable – the standard, archaic, terms in the book industry. Without this help from a publisher, an author is a guppy swimming against an ocean tide. I decided if I was going to work this hard, I might as well publish my books myself, so I went to Publishing School.
I attended an intensive, week-long course in Literary Publishing at Emerson College in Boston, taught by Gian Lombardo of Quale Press. There were sixteen students, ranging in age from 23 to 65; we were about evenly divided between our interest in starting literary magazines and independent book presses.
Each day, we tackled another aspect of publishing, starting with an overview of literary and independent book publishing. During the course, we covered a host of decisions a start-up publisher would have to make: for profit or 502(3)c; mission statements and editorial standards; printing and distribution methods; marketing the press and marketing the publications; fundamentals of book and magazine design and manufacture; financial management; copyright protocol; tax consequences; capitalization; and finally, legal issues.
Some of what we covered is information that pertains to running any small business, something I’d done successfully for sixteen years. But during those sixteen years, I was so engrossed in management that I had little time to write. By the end of the second day of class, I realized I didn’t really want to start my own press – I only wanted to write. But I stayed for the full week, because the information pertaining to publishing was interesting, and I figured it could only help to know better what a publisher is up against. I also loved getting to know my classmates – all passionate about the literary arts.
In addition to covering the nuts and bolts of setting up a small press, Gian Lomabardo also invited colleagues from the publishing world to speak. This was fantastic. We met Rebecca Morgan Frank, who launched memorious, which has become a highly respected literary journal in only five years; Ladette Randolph and Andrea Drygas, from Ploughshares, and Bill Pierce, from Agni, told us about editing and producing these two prestigious literary journals. Guy Petit, from Flying Object, taught us about letterpress publications and opened our eyes to a whole subculture of small-run, hand-made books that are themselves art objects as well as publications of literary art. Janaka Stuckey, founder of Black Ocean Press, explained his model of short-run offset production of beautifully designed and award-winning poetry books, and David Emblidge told us how he established and capitalized his successful press, Berkshire House, now part of Countryman Press at WW Norton.
These guest speakers made it clear that establishing and continuing a literary enterprise requires vision, passion, and money. And regardless of the format or business model of the endeavor, the return on investment would be in the satisfaction of adding to and sustaining a literary culture rather than wealth.
In the end, what publishing does is add value to a piece of literary art. The selectivity of the press, the editorial process, the design of the text block and cover, and marketing through established relationships between publishers, reviewers and booksellers, all add value to poetry and prose. When a book publisher or a journal follows its vision, readers are reasonably assured that these publications will deliver the kind of literary experience they’re willing to buy and eager to read.
I’m glad I went, even if it was only to learn what I don’t want to do. That in itself is an important lesson. But I also learned this: publishers will always need good content, so it’s time for me to get back to work.
Deborah Lee Luskin is author of Into the Wilderness, winner of the 2011 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com