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You might remember an exciting post here in the last days of 2017 – the Triskele Big Five mentoring competition. Triskele is a publishing house owned by five authors (various posts about them here) – and in the months since that announcement they have been hunting for an unpublished manuscript to mentor. Once they’d gathered their entries and whittled them down to a shortlist, it was my job to choose the final winner.
I wrote in my original post that I anticipated a few challenges and lessons from the task – and I wasn’t wrong. Especially when I found the finalists were a widely varied collection of styles, genres and approaches. How to judge them?
Well, reader, I found a way – and it was all rather interesting. Pictured here is the winner, Philippa Scannell. Hop over to the Triskele blog for all the details … including my attempts to determine the winning formula.
This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Pressin Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This is the final instalment. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress
Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?
Laura Our submission readers do consider marketing potential, whether the author has relationships with well-known authors who might blurb, and—most importantly—whether the author has built genuine community and relationships with indie bookstores.
We don’t measure social media account followers or anything of that sort, though.
Roz Speaking of which … You’ve built a great relationship with authors and bookshops and a supportive community within the writing world.
Laura I moved to Portland in 2001, founded a writing group at a local bookstore, and then proceeded to watch the literary scene and write fiction for 10 years. I didn’t know how to engage—or that I should engage. I didn’t realize I could speak up, or be part of the community, besides as a witness. When I founded the press, I built on those years of being present on the scene, and that credibility helped me earn respect, blurbs, and consignment deals with local bookstores.
Roz I follow you on Facebook and often see lovely pictures of you at your authors’ readings.
Laura Showing up and listening and supporting others is important, of course, and that’s really how I built my community. I founded my press nearly six years ago now, but I also had that decade of being present, of walking into indie bookstores and listening. Going to other authors’ and presses’ events is still very important to me. I encourage writers not only to show up at events, but to say hi to the people sitting next to them, to introduce themselves to the presenting author(s) when they ask for an autograph, and always bring business cards.
Roz What about the Main St Writers Movement? (Reader, if that’s familiar to you, you might have seen it here.)
Laura I founded Main Street in February 2017 to urge writers to support each other at the local level—and their indie bookstores—as a way to strengthen the literary ecosystem. The movement crystallized out of the core values I have as a publisher. One component of Main Street is amplifying underrepresented voices. If your voice is well represented, or if you have social capital, use your voice to direct attention to stories that need to be heard. Don’t hog the mic; pass it. Don’t take up all the space with your words; leave space for others. We’re in this together; we need to have parades for each other and celebrate each other’s achievements. This is an anti-competition movement, a togetherness movement, and quite frankly, a quest to get writers who want to establish professional careers to actually support publishers, literary magazines, and booksellers, which strengthens the industry and then in theory creates more space for more voices. It’s really, at its most basic level, what I’m doing to fight the erosion of reading culture.
We have a Main Street pledge and newsletter, which is on hiatus right now, because I’m focused on a publishers’ speaking tour. I talk about community at every gig, no matter what the topic. Then I challenge my audience to do something: attend a reading at an indie bookstore, or volunteer at a school, for instance. I’ve been to Pasadena, Tucson, and several Portland events already this spring promoting these values and trying to inspire others to do this work too. Because a movement isn’t about a founder; it takes all of us.
Michael Ferro, author of Title 13 (Harvard Square Editions) has been quoted publicly about reaching out to me for advice, only to have me connect him with publishing community members in his own city, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a great example of what Main Street can be, because he took the example I set and is now passing on what he knows to others. If we all reach out and share what we can, we’re going to uplift each other.
Roz Michael Ferro? Small world. I saw that post, tweeted it, we then got chatting on Twitter and he’s writing a post for The Undercover Soundtrack. I love what we can do simply by saying hello.
Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?
Laura Figure out your business model, your distribution method, your initial number of titles, and the cost of running the business for the first two years. Don’t forget to factor in printing costs, mailing costs, design software, freelancers, Internet access, and everything else you’ll need to make your business run. You’ll find helpful and accessible information in Joe Biel’s forthcoming People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, forthcoming in late 2018 through Microcosm Publishing. If you want to do some reading right now, Thomas Woll’s classic Publishing for Profit is a great resource.
Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter…
This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress
Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.
Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.
Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.
Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”
“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.
Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?
Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.
Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.
Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.
Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.
Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.
You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?
Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.
Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?
Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.
Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.
Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press
If you dig way back in the archives here, you’ll find comments from Laura Stanfill. She was an energetic correspondent in the early years of my blog and we’re both fans of the slow-maturing, carefully built novel.
In 2012 she went quiet and it turned out she’d been brewing an audacious project – her own publishing house, Forest Avenue Press (hence her Twitter name @ForestAvePress). It’s a testament to her energy that I heard plenty about Forest Avenue before I knew Laura was behind it, and once I did, I badgered her for a proper interview.
I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about this pioneering journey, and especially the tricky business of building an imprint in one of the most challenging – and dare I say it, cautious – corners of the literary world. Actually, it doesn’t have to be cautious, as you’ll see.
Once we got talking, we had way too much for one blog post, so the Laura interview will be my theme for this week. Here’s how it will go:
Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’
Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’
A week in the life of a small press
Movements, movers and shakers – publishers and authors as literary citizens
See you tomorrow!
There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.
Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.
Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way. Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?
Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.
Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.
In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.
(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)