From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress
If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you’ll know the name Jessica Bell. We’ve discussed everything bookish – cover design, fiction writing, poetry and memoir. She’s guested multiple times on The Undercover Soundtrack, and gone the extra mile by writing the music as well as the books (she’s also a musician). As if this polyphonic creativity isn’t enough, she has her own publishing imprint, Vine Leaves Press. I’ve never interviewed her about that, and it’s high time I did. Let’s go.
Roz Tell me how Vine Leaves Press got started.
Jessica Vine Leaves started as a literary journal in 2011. It was a LOT of work to maintain, but we were lucky to have some fabulous volunteers working for us, and so we stayed on our feet until 2017. In 2014, we started the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, and that’s how we published our first book, the winner of the competition, Harvest by Amanya Maloba. So becoming a book publisher felt like a natural progression.
Roz How many titles do you have now?
Jessica To date we have 82 titles published and 15 forthcoming. We publish at least 10 books a year. Sometimes we might slip in one or two more.
Roz Ten a year! I’ve interviewed other small presses and they don’t manage even five a year. Did you make any wrong turnings?
Jessica Depends what you consider wrong turnings. A really amazing project that made us, and a lot of writers and artists happy, but almost bankrupted us, was the final instalment of the journal, which we published as a hardcover coffee table book in full colour. It cost us 5000 Euros to make, because, of course, we sent every contributor a free copy, and they were not cheap! I am so extremely proud of that collection of vignettes, but it almost killed the business. Thankfully in those days I was single and childless and only risking my own wellbeing, so I bounced back by working a lot of overtime.
Roz How much time do you devote to looking for new material? How many submissions do you get a month?
Jessica On average around 100. As we only publish 10 books a year, I’m extremely picky with query letters now. If someone hasn’t followed guidelines (query letter and first 10 pages), or has zero online presence, or doesn’t intrigue me before I finish the first sentence, I won’t even read the submission and it will be rejected right away. As much as I hate to say it, this is a business, not a hobby, and we need to sell books to continue to publish the writing of great writers.
Some may say I will miss the diamonds in the rough by doing this, but I’m okay with that, because I find the diamonds out of the rough! There are only so many books we can accept. Currently our publishing schedule is full until mid-2022!
Roz If there’s a Vine Leaves style, what is it?
Jessica Character-driven works that straddle the line between literary and mainstream.
Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?
Jessica I have a team. I will read all the submissions, and request the full manuscripts I want to consider for publication. I will then send those full manuscripts to the appropriate staff member (dependent on reading tastes), and they will respond with a one- or two-page evaluation outlining the book’s strengths and weaknesses, if they’d recommend the book to others to read, if it would suit our list, and if they think it would sell and why.
I accept or reject most books based on those evaluations. But I’m very careful to send them to readers who I am certain will enjoy to the content.
(Aside from Roz: you might recognise this bearded chap. My bookseller friend Peter Snell, of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, is one of the VLP readers.)
Roz What’s been successful for Vine Leaves Press? I’m thinking many readers of this blog might be Vine Leaves types…
Jessica Interestingly, poetry that is a bit daring in content, or has a unique theme, has been soaring lately! Also, our memoirs are very popular, and a few select novels also do well. But we are even more selective with poetry, so a note to poets: unless you think you have a collection that is extremely off-beat, or you have an extensive and interactive following online, please don’t query us with your poetry.
How to impress Jessica
Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?
Jessica No plots, rushed endings, lacking hooks, too much purple prose, stream of consciousness.
Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?
Jessica Definitely. Despite all books going through three different edits (development edit, copy edit and multiple proofreads), we want to be reading the best product possible right off the bat. If a book is poorly edited, it’s going to distract us from seeing and understanding what is the most important—story and voice.
Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?
Jessica Oh, in this day and age it’s everything. It’s actually the first thing I look at before reading a submission in full. A small press cannot survive without active authors.
Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?
Jessica They are great fun, and refine skills, but don’t expect them to suddenly make you a brilliant writer. They are for practice and discovery. Not miracle-makers. But yes, take them! But only for the pure enjoyment of it.
Strength in numbers
Roz Many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?
Jessica I can only speak for us as I don’t know what other small presses offer their authors. But we produce a professionally edited manuscript and designed cover and interior and incur all the costs.
We connect them with like-minded authors from our list in a private and very supportive Facebook group. This is a great cross-promotion tool. We do online promotion that they might not be able to do themselves. We steer them in the right direction regarding their online presence if necessary and offer ongoing support and guidance for their writing career.
If an author can do all the above on their own, then I urge them to self-publish. We are not necessary! Also, not every publisher will do the above, so choose wisely.
Roz Many indie authors will know you for your beautiful and quirky cover designs. When you’re working on a cover with an indie author, they clearly have the final say, with your guidance of course. But when you design for Vine Leaves Press, do other people give feedback on the suitability of a cover?
Jessica We will listen to all feedback, and if we agree we will revise. But ultimately, we have the final say and that is stated in our contract.
Roz How much of the publishing work do you outsource and how much is done personally by you? Do you have staff?
Jessica I now have a partner, Amie McCracken. I sold half the company to her a couple of years ago, as it was getting too big for my own boots. So we make all decisions together now. I am the go-to for all things related to submissions, design, bookkeeping, our SPILL IT! column, the new 50 Give or Take flash fiction newsletter, general admin and upkeep, and Amie is the go-to for all things related to editing, typesetting/ebook formatting, contracts and the publishing schedule, and our author liaison. We share social media responsibilities, and outsource some marketing video production, some newsletter composing, most editing and all manuscript evaluations.
Roz Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?
Jessica Be a patient and understanding person. If you’re not, you will run into trouble and conflict with your authors. Be ambitious and have the ability to look into the future regarding expectation. You will not make money straight away. Up until last year, we were just breaking even every year; sometimes we would have a loss, and that was with volunteers on our team! We are finally starting to make some money. That took six years.
Marketing … the literary way
Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction, poetry and vignettes are trickiest to market… any thoughts? What’s your approach?
Jessica Don’t settle for the same-old. Be as innovative as you can. Post something on social media EVERY DAY. Build a mailing list. Approach publishing like a self-publisher. Traditional methods used by the Big Five do not work for a small press. You will end up bankrupt. One of our biggest sellers is a vignette collection (The Walmart Book of the Dead by Lucy Biederman). It sells because it really is unique and intriguing. Market to niche audiences, not the world.
Roz Approach publishing like a self-publisher? I want that on a T-shirt. That’s a great insight.
Many publishers have reps who sell into bookshops. And distribution deals. Do you have anything like that?
Jessica No we don’t have reps. All our sales are online, unless an author has managed to get their book stocked somewhere on consignment.
Roz I’m on the Vine Leaves mailing list and you work hard to establish a vibrant and provocative presence in your newsletters. There’s very much a feeling of a Vine Leaves family.
Jessica I am a hands-on team member that nurtures our authors as much as humanly possible. Being an author and all-round creative person myself, I understand the needs of my kind. This is why I started the private VLP group on Facebook where members (authors and staff only) can support each other and their work. I have worked years to establish an extremely friendly and happy environment at Vine Leaves Press in order to motivate creativity and productivity. If you become a VLP author, you become a part of a loyal and enthusiastic family of book lovers that will bend over backwards to help you out.
Roz Is that your primary source of marketing?
Jessica Yes, that is our primary source of marketing. Next in line are the videos we post daily on social media, and we are also trying our hand at a few Facebook ads (after very expensive training!) and have joined Goodreads as a publisher so that we can issue giveaways. We are always looking for new ways to promote the press and our authors. Oh! We’ve also just added the ability to buy a Vine Leaves Press gift card.
Roz I notice you get amazing reviews for your titles! Are those Vine Leaves contacts or are they the authors’ own contacts?
Jessica Generally, they are no-one’s contacts. They are true fans! 😊 Cool, huh?
Roz So cool I am frozen with envy. You also have a full creative life yourself, indeed several. Not only do you write, you’re a musician with two identities – vocalist with Keep Shelly In Athens @keepshellyinath and solo artist Bruno. You design covers. And you run Vine Leaves Press. How do you get time for all this – and a full family life which we haven’t even mentioned… do you protect your creative time? What’s a typical day, or week, or month?
Jessica Sometimes I don’t even know how I do it. And somehow everything seems to get done. The only schedules I keep are for Vine Leaves and for my book design, because there are other people relying on me to get things done. All the rest I do when I can spare a moment. I don’t know when. Sometimes I feel like I’ve travelled to a parallel universe to get my creative time, and then return a little dazed and confused.
And of course, for the last 14 months, a lot of my time has been spent nurturing my son. I don’t think I’ve had much sleep in that time, but I am still functioning! There is no typical day here. I do what I can when I can. With a toddler in the house, winging it is the only option.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
Jessica We’ve started the 50 Give or Take newsletter, a Vine Leaves project which will deliver stories of 50 words or less daily to your inbox in an attempt to expose great writing and great writers without chewing up too much of a reader’s time. Subscribe here!
Also a new music project is under way. It’s called Mongoa.
Finally I’m getting stuck into editing my long-lost novel (last touched in 2016!) How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness.
Roz And where can readers find Vine Leaves Press – and you – on line?
Jessica You can find all of my projects at iamjessicabell.com.
Roz again: My Nail Your Novel books are full of tips to help you avoid plotlessness, hooklessness and associated prose horrors, purple and otherwise.