Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What it takes to be a publisher

Hats. I wear a lot of them these days.
Photo by Erkut Hancı cc license (CC BY 2.0)

I had a long conversation with Sharon Bially last week - a fellow writer who also happens to be a book publicist - and she remarked that I had a very interesting 'story' to share: that of forming a publishing imprint and wearing the dual hats of writer and publisher.

And it got me thinking that I should talk about what it means to be a publisher, both to outline the necessary steps in the process as my own reminder, but also to share that information with fellow writers and readers.

So I thought I'd write a series of posts, starting with the reasons I created Interrobang Books and what I hope to accomplish with it.

Going Indie

Unless you've been living on an island in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle without access to any media or the internet, I don't have to tell you about the massive changes to the publishing industry over the past ten years. When I started writing my first novel in 2004, I certainly didn't imagine I'd be publishing my own work. Remember, this was the time when self-publishing equaled vanity publishing.

In 2004, publishing really only meant one thing: that a writer had sold a manuscript to a publisher (typically through a literary agent), and that manuscript would, in a year to a year and half, be transformed into a physical book. The other option was to pay a hefty price to have a carton of books printed and if you were lucky (or persuasive enough) you might sell them, one at a time, to friends and neighbors. But in those years, this path was reserved for writers whose books weren't ready for prime time, or for your local organization's fundraiser cookbook.

EBooks didn't really exist in 2004. This was three years before Amazon released its first e-ink kindle, when reading electronically pretty much meant a pdf on your computer. There were early adopters of PDAs, but ebooks weren't common or easily available.

That first novel I finished wasn't anywhere near ready for prime time, though I didn't know that then. I did query agents for it. Shockingly, I got several requests for partial and full manuscripts, but nothing ever came of it. I kept writing and kept querying. My 3rd manuscript was the story that helped me sign with my then agent. Five years (and five novels later), she and I parted ways for a variety of reasons. I could cite changes and consolidation in the industry that narrowed the scope of what was being published, but at the end of the day, she and I weren't a match for one another.

During our partnership, even as she went out on submission for multiple projects, I was watching the world around me change and shift. EBooks became more popular and easier to access. Book stores were closing. Publishers were buying one another out in mergers. Software and sales channels that hadn't existed before suddenly made publishing  accessible in the way that word processors had made writing easier.

So by the time the agent and I broke our formal relationship, I had the knowledge, the technology, and the backlist to become my own publisher. 

The Name and the Message

I chose the name, Interrobang Books, because I have always loved the concept of the 'interrobang'. It is an old printer's mark, consisting of a question mark (the interrogative) and an exclamation mark (the bang). It was used, among other purposes, to denote a combination of delight and surprise.

If I have a 'brand', it is in writing character-driven stories set in worlds that don't quite exist so I can both delight and surprise the reader.

There's a lot of talk about 'brand' and 'platform' among writers these days. I look at it as a very simple issue: it's about intention and integrity. In everything I do, either as a writer or a publisher, I strive for authenticity. My 'message' is consistent, whether it is in a blog post, a status update, or a new novel.

The Mission

So when I started thinking about becoming a publisher, my overriding goal was to produce books that were professional quality in all their aspects. And that meant making a commitment to all parts of the process, from assessing the readiness of a manuscript, to editing, to proofreading, to formatting, to typography, to design, to cover art.

Part of any job is understanding the scope of the work and knowing your limitations.

I had the skills and the knowledge to be competent in some of those tasks. Others I knew I could learn. Some, however, I needed to outsource. I have no talent for drawing or painting. I can't even take a good photograph. So creating covers was not a job I would even attempt. And while I am a decent editor, I am not a professional editor, nor do I believe most writers can edit their own work effectively. Typography and formatting are skills I am good at (a misspent youth doing layout for a college literary magazine and yearbook), and I have learned to be even better.

One of the biggest challenges to being both an author and a publisher is in separating the tasks from ego.  When wearing my 'writer' hat, I need to be in love with the story. Engaging any sort of critical mindset is anathema to the initial creative process. But when it comes time to assess the marketability of a project, well, that takes a very different eye and a very different sensibility. And a whole lot of work.

But that's another post for another day.

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