As your example could be of help to other writers seeking to get their work before the reading public, could you explain the unconventional process you are using and what makes it work for you?
—Rosemary James, New Orleans
As simple and direct as this question is, Rosemary, this is my third stab at trying to answer it because it has the whole history of publishing, and the publishing experience of all writers, including me, as its back story. I think I need to first take a brief look at what traditional publishing has offered, including its mystique, and why writers have begun to adopt independent avenues toward publication in a way that’s maybe analagous to how many film makers turned to a place like Sun Dance when the major studios wouldn’t take a chance on their projects.
Publishing is a very big industry and one that relies on the business and aesthetic skills of a vast cadre of people. But as large and many tentacled as it is, it’s still very small in terms of the amount of work pushing up against it and clamoring for attention. This has been an ongoing problem for writers who try to navigate the system—winning the right agent, winning the right editor at the right house, winning over the layers of decision makers who ultimately do the bidding of CEOs who, after so much media consolidation, are basically just a handful of people. It’s a true bottleneck with a bunch of smaller bottlenecks along the way, starting with the overwhelmed agents who often admit they approach their submission queries with a mindset of how to say no.
Obviously, there’s a huge amount of work, much of it excellent, that does make it through this process—agents landed, great editors acquired, editorial and marketing staffs put to the long and sometimes feverish task of launching a book. The innovative work you’ve been doing through the Faulkner Society and its competitions and conferences, where writers can meet with agents and editors who’ve looked at a sample of their work, has offered one excellent way for writers to establish contact points and has helped to kickstart the careers of writers such as Julia Glass and Stewart O’Nan. A number of other conferences have a similar purpose and many good results.
But there is a lot of work of proven merit that founders at some point in the chain between a good writer’s desk and the hands of an interested reader, and this to the detriment of both writer and reader. Until now, writers haven’t had much recourse against the publishing juggernaut, in part because they want nothing more than to join it. They crave both the imprimatur and backing the industry can offer. More than that, most have internalized the belief that a publishing contract from a major house means that their work is good and that a lack of that contract means that it isn’t.
Enter the digital age. It’s now possible with a cover design, a basic Word document, and the help of an ebook converter (or a writer’s own skill with publishing software) to publish an ebook. That doesn’t mean that book will sell; it doesn’t even address the issue of whether it’s any good. What it does mean is that you don’t need the whole publishing apparatus in order to publish. The same thing is true when it comes to getting paper copies of books out into the world. There are increasing numbers of reputable businesses who will help a writer produce an actual book for a reasonable cost.
One of the not so well kept secrets of publishing is that, even with professional marketers on board, a writer is still responsible for a great deal of the marketing push and effort if a book is to gain a real following. While I certainly don’t want to downplay the major impact the main houses and writers’ agents have in finding a significant audience for a book—it is huge—there’s still the fact that an author with a good book in hand, who is ready to work hard and be creative in marketing, can find an audience. And with the wide reach of the Internet and the growth of social media, marketing has new tools that are only beginning to be tapped.
The particular path I’ve taken after deciding on independent publishing arises from the unique factors of my own situation. I think that will be true for most writers. Let’s put this on a sort of scale. For a novice writer who wants to explore an important aspect of personal experience or has written a book of family history as a legacy, the goals are very specific and, though the process of producing a finished book will take time and effort, it’s quite doable given new opportunities, and I think a lovely idea. For writers who have a more serious writerly intent—to showcase creative work that has been a meaningful avocation for them—but not to seek a wide audience, there are tremendous options. There are wonderful designers, wonderful papers (some of them handmade), wonderful processes for including photographs or other artwork in the finished product. I have numerous friends who have published their work in this manner, and I treasure the books they have given me, both for their beauty and for the artistic worth of their contents.
Like many other writers, I’m in a third category—people who have made writing their life’s work and have achieved a definite measure of success but still have a body of unpublished work, which they and other good readers, including many in the publishing industry, have valued. Given my long and rather complex relationship with traditional publishing, it wasn’t a quick or easy decision for me to opt for independent publishing. Yet once I made the decision, I haven’t looked back.
Here, briefly, are the steps I’ve followed, though I’ll stress I don’t offer them as a template. I first took my unpublished work through a serious process of review, which included intensive revision that, in some cases, involved soliciting advice from other writers and, in all cases, revisiting comments and suggestions I had received from a host of agents and editors in a lifetime of writing. I then realized that I wanted the work to be published by a real press that existed as an ongoing entity, separate from me, that could publish my work now and retain the possibility of publishing other writers in the future, perhaps, in a hybrid of old and new, as an imprint of a larger house. Sky Spinner Press, Inc., a collaborative effort, is the result.
While I was working on the creation of Sky Spinner, I also looked for real professionals who could help me realize the vision I had for this whole project, which was to put the work first and have the books reflect my seriousness of purpose in writing them and, if possible, a sense of adventure. I’m very lucky to know a lot of creative people and their suggestions helped me put together my own personal dream team and, somewhat amazingly, in a way that fit my limited budget. In terms of the books themselves, I have a great copy editor (just for the books—any goofs on this site are on me), a super book designer, a very skilled ebook converter, and a printer with decades of experience working with both established presses and independent writers. I also had the great good fortune of my husband’s photographic archives and the skilled work of friends who are artists and friends of artists, which gave me many possibilites for cover art.
I also knew that to publish in any form in the digital age, a web presence is essential. There again I was fortunate. I found a web designer who could not only translate my visual and content ideas into an actual website but also had the patience to teach me what I needed to know about the operational part of a site, which was almost everything. And as further luck would have it, I have a friend who is full of great ideas and energy and is tackling the marketing side of things in the odd hours of days that are built around her young family.
I think you can see that my good fortune in terms of friends has been a big part of making this process work for me. It has also been a whole lot of fun. But what has been the real driver behind this whole project is my commitment to my work and my sense that when traditional publishing overlooks so much good work from so many writers, it is at the expense of our collective consciousness as thinking readers. I want more chances for more writers, more discoveries for readers. And, in the most personal way, I want the worlds I’ve wrestled onto the page (and inhabited like a resident) to have their own lives apart from mine. The truth is, that’s why I created them.
Rosemary is the moving force behind the Faulkner Society and Words and Music in New Orleans.