Archive for category The writing business

Building readership: a quiet rebellion against three pieces of conventional marketing wisdom

I’ll readily admit that book marketing is not my expertise, but some commonly accepted maxims really chafe for me. Indeed, my gut tells me I should do the opposite. So here they are, for better or perverse.

Rebellion 1: Social media – use pictures and videos for greater engagement

We all know the equation. A picture is worth a thousand words. Facebook certainly thinks so, and constantly reminds me with helpful messages. ‘Increase reader engagement with pictures! And videos!’

This is because most of my posts – on my page and my personal space – are text.

I love pictures and I’m not shy to use them, but my medium is words, not images.

As a user of Facebook, the people I cleave to most are those who write thoughtfully, beguilingly, provokingly. Though pictures might attract my eye, I take more notice of the accompanying caption or story. I tune out most of the videos because they are not made by the user. I have never made or posted a gif.

This probably makes me an unsporting FB citizen, but for me the joy of the platform is people’s voices, preoccupations, the way they speak their minds or sing their souls and the conversations that follow. Words. Because I want to meet people who like reading.

More successful with whom? (Here’s my page, BTW.)

Rebellion 2: Newsletters – keep readers keen with special offers and deals

I was a late starter with newsletters because I didn’t know what I’d put in them. I don’t produce books fast so I don’t have many new launches to write about. I have a small catalogue and can’t keep up a pace of constant special offers.

This sale-sale-sale mentality suits some writers, but it’s unsustainable for people like me. Besides, I would never subscribe to a newsletter with bargain mentality, so how would I write one?

It’s taken me a while to realise I could do something else. Although the books take shape slowly and there might be little progress from issue to issue, I am a full time wordperson.

I write about other work I’m doing. Adventures that arise from books past, present and future. I wrote about a highway that had been returned to nature – continuing the spirit of my travel memoir Not Quite Lost. I wrote about meeting a friend from my teen years and discovering how we had both turned into professional creators. I write a diary of what’s mattered to me in a month, as a human whose main delight is storytelling (and, yes, taking pictures).

Rebellion 3: Find out what your readers want

This is excellent advice in most types of commercial life. If you make running shoes, coffee, pens. It’s good for writers of how-to books – and yes, I have a list of Nail Your Novel book requests that I’ve not yet tackled because I don’t have a clone.

Researching reader preferences might be good for certain kinds of fiction writers. To find out which series characters to write about next; or which locations or historical situations might be popular. There are plenty of writers for whom this advice makes good sense.

But not for writers like me. You can’t tell me what you want to read from me. It’s my job to invent a book that only I could think of. Here’s Husband Dave, dreaming up his next one.

So this is the Roz manifesto for book marketing

1 Social media – to find people who enjoy reading … try text-only posts

2 Newsletters – invite readers into your creative life and share its milestones

3 Don’t ask others what you should write; follow your own star

But does it work, Roz?

Good question. I can’t produce evidence that this marvellously maverick approach is helping people discover my work. And without such evidence, articles like this can sound smug and insubstantial. Here are a few observations:

Facebook regularly hints that I should post more pictures, but the stats tell a different story. Posts that are pure text actually get better engagement.

My newsletter is not to everyone’s taste, but whose is? Some of the new subscribers fall away, but my list is slowly growing and some of the recipients reply to me by email or Twitter, continuing the conversation or just saying hello. (PS My latest is here.)

Most of all, I don’t find any of this to be a chore. It feels honest and genuine. As a sustainable policy, that seems like a good one.

Do you have any quiet rebellions, either in the writing/publishing life or elsewhere? Let’s discuss!

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A plea to authors – please speak out about piracy

I’ve had a worrying experience with a local book club. I’m not sure it is as it appears, so I won’t name names. But either way, it raises worrying questions about the way authors’ work is valued.

Recently, a book club invited me to make a presentation about Lifeform Three. The club voted to read it. The organiser went out of the room. Ten minutes later she returned. The books were ordered, she said! So quick. Everyone went home happy.

Except. I should have seen seven UK sales within 24 hours but there was only one. An ebook. Being indie, I know the local bookshops don’t have that many copies. Also, cheap second-hand copies on Amazon are scarce. Did the club just pretend they were going to read it?

It was sweet of them to spare my blushes. And I couldn’t exactly ask.

I shrugged it off. But this week I was talking to an author friend. She said she’d had the same puzzling situation, several times. She said that local book clubs had contacted her because they were reading one of her titles. They asked her questions about the text. But she saw no corresponding rise in UK sales. Like me, she knows local shops don’t have that many copies. The libraries don’t stock her books. Secondhand copies are in short supply. Each time a book club takes up one of her titles, she sees just one UK sale – one ebook.

It seems to be a pattern.

Finally, she said, she found the answer. She said that one club admitted that it buys one ebook and shares it among all its members. Could they be passing one copy between them all? Unlikely as they all needed to read it at once. She strongly suspected they were making duplicates.

Was this also the explanation for my book club experience? I saw just one sale, remember.

I asked. I was told: ‘We mostly get our books through Amazon, and often from the second-hand sellers. I like to read a real book and don’t have a Kindle’. So be it.

But why was I ready to believe villainy?

Because it fits a bigger picture. Because I frequently meet people who think piracy, file copying and illegal downloading hurts nobody. They say it’s a ‘victimless’ crime. They defend their right to do it. These are people in well-paid jobs, BTW.

What harm can it do? Let’s illustrate that by giving book clubs a fair hearing. Let’s show the good that just one group can – and does – do for an author’s reputation and sustainability and why we appreciate them so much.

The power of book clubs

Imagine if one club orders seven copies in a store. That puts the author in the store owner’s good books. If they’re bought online it spreads beneficial juice through the chart algorithms. Just seven copies can make a real impression. Many clubs are a lot bigger.

You might think traditionally published authors don’t have to worry as much because they’re funded by the publisher, but if the book doesn’t gain traction, the publisher drops the author.

So a book club is not only putting money where it deserves to be. It is doing a lot of good for that author’s long-term career. Thank you, BTW.

Money, money, money

I’m sorry to mention money so much, but I think this is one of the stumbling blocks. How many times have you had to explain to non-authors that books have not made you steaming rich?

Indeed, I wonder if we’ve helped create that impression? All these carefree pictures of authors signing heaps of books in crowded bookstores; holding launches in front of appreciative audiences.

Films and TV are even worse. I’ve seen LitHub articles that laugh at the kind of blissful artistic life that moviemakers think is the norm for writers.

Of course we like to share our highlights, but the public is getting an erroneous message that we’re all living the dream in a utopia of wordy fulfilment. So what’s a lost sale? Or 10?

We’ve failed to emphasise how much of an impact lost sales and piracy have (thanks for the pic Leo Reynolds on Flickr).

Selling ourselves too cheaply?

And obviously the freebie culture hasn’t helped – that’s a rot we can’t reverse. Neither have subscription services, where content is an all-you-can-eat buffet. We often hear people say they can’t afford to buy books, but many of those people can fund foreign holidays, concert tickets and regular doses of frothy coffee. They can’t fund their reading?

Because they don’t think they should have to.

Stealing is the new black

Yesterday I saw a sign in a charity shop: ‘If you steal from this shop, you are stealing from animals.’

Think about that. Who would steal from a charity shop? But it happens so frequently that the shop had to display a sign. How did the thieves justify that to themselves? The stock was donated so the theft harms no one? Another kind of victimless crime?

Unfortunately, there have always been ways to share files and cheat their creators. Ask any musician. It’s too late to change some people’s minds. But we can speak up so that more people don’t drift into it unawares. Ebook copying is damaging authors’ careers.

I don’t know how we’ll change people’s minds about this. Suggestions?

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Movements, movers and shakers: publishers and authors as literary citizens .. an interview

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.

Laura – thanks so much. This has been fascinating, inspiring and empowering. Guys, you can find Laura at the Forest Avenue website, on Twitter @forestavepress, on Facebook and on Instagram

Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter

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A week in the life of a small press .. an interview

Laura Stanfill (left) and designer Gigi Little

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. Part 2 is here. This is Part 3. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Do you have staff?

Laura I don’t have a staff, but I have some wonderful editors, advisers, submissions readers, and a top-notch graphic designer, Gigi Little @gigiblittle , who has been with me since the earliest days. She created our gorgeous logo, and I love the aesthetic she brings to our covers. They’re unlike anyone else’s covers, and recognizable as ours. My editor-at-large Liz Prato is an invaluable team member who helps with building camaraderie among our authors as well as with submissions, social media, big-picture decision making, and organizing us to celebrate milestones. Everyone interested in learning more about submissions—and what not to do—should follow her on Twitter @liz_prato .

Roz What’s a typical day (or week or month)?

Laura Forest Ave is run from my office in the basement and my kitchen table as necessary. Sometimes from the couch. I spend a lot of my time emailing with other publishers and authors, helping them with questions or questions of access. In any given week I:

  • Help other publishers, or other publishers’ authors, because a few minutes of my time can help others succeed
  • Send out ARCs of upcoming titles
  • Communicate with multiple authors about where their titles are in the publishing process
  • Set up interviews, excerpt placements, etc.
  • Reach out to booksellers
  • Design, whether it’s promo materials or upcoming titles
  • Work on backlist titles
  • Work on my own writing

Gigi Little, Forest Avenue’s designer, also performs in opera

Roz How much editorial work do you outsource?

Laura I outsource covers, copy editing, and ebook production; I do the rest in house because of my newspaper background. I used to teach QuarkXpress to newsrooms with a focus on time-saving shortcuts, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to teach myself InDesign.

I have long lead times for each title because my sales reps want advance copies, marketing data, blurbs, and other metadata nine months before pub date. I also have a higher risk on each title, because distribution is expensive, we need to print a lot more advance copies than pre-distribution, and we have higher print runs than when I was selling books out of the back of my car.

Roz How many submissions do you get a month? How much time do you devote to looking for new material?

Laura I am officially closed year-round except for a period of weeks each year. Our most recent open submission period was four weeks, and it closed in mid-March.

Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?

Laura We gather a committee of eight (or more) women readers to help us make decisions. We give as much personal feedback as we can, since we gear up for this intense period. Moreover, we only publish two or three titles per year, so it doesn’t make sense to be open when we don’t have any slots in our catalog to fill.

This schedule also allows me to do the volunteer outreach I am so passionate about, helping mentor other presses and answering questions from authors who aren’t mine. That’s time I would otherwise spend combing through manuscripts. Occasionally I take a look at manuscripts when we’re closed—often from agents who have a strong sense of our brand or who have connected with me personally. And I keep a shortlist of possible acquisitions at all times—those books that almost made it, or would have made it if I had more openings.

Roz What’s been been successful for Forest Avenue? I’m thinking many readers here might be prospective Forest Avenue types…

Laura We’ve had success lately with shorter titles with some magical elements—playful, joyfully written manuscripts that don’t fit into a neat literary fiction box. Our bestseller is actually a regional short story anthology, City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, which received a lot of love from local booksellers and continues to sell to locals and visitors.

My sweet spot for length is 60,000- to 80,000-words. But in 2018, we have two novels that are longer than 100,000 words. Parts per Million is an activist novel, set in Portland, Oregon, and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether for Socially Engaged Fiction. The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred—out in November—is a comic epic set on the Isle of the Dead, which is ruled by six-foot talking birds. It’s the most fantastical of all our fiction to-date, while Parts per Million fits more into the category of recent historical fiction, which we established with Ellen Urbani’s Landfall in 2015. Landfall is set in the South during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it was our bestseller for quite a while.

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Laura I avoid misogynistic protagonists in fiction, even if the character grows into himself and changes throughout the course of the novel. There’s too much of that material in the world already.

Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?

Laura We work very closely with our authors over multiple revision passes. That being said, authors have one chance to capture a publisher’s interest, so we highly recommend submitting polished manuscripts. Others’ input, whether it’s from a critique partner, a writing group, a teacher, or a professional editor can help writers put their best work forward.

Recently at a conference, I met a woman whose manuscript came quite far in our recent open submission period; I was astonished that she hadn’t workshopped the book, hired an editor, or worked with beta readers. What she accomplished without that outside perspective was phenomenal, and I immediately started introducing her around to writers so she can start building community. I have no doubt that with some revision, she’s going to find a place for this book in the world. It was so well-written and original.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Laura I am a do-it-yourself publisher, and I founded my press without studying publishing or getting my MFA in creative writing. There’s no wrong way to become a writer, but I don’t think there’s one right way, either.

Roz I’m not sure if this will be a welcome subject or not, but 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?

Laura When authors ask me this, I tell them to dig deep into why they want their book out, whether they have a specific timeline, what they want the publishing experience to be like, and if they are comfortable with creating and implementing a comprehensive marketing plan. It’s also important for self-publishing authors to set a timeline that allows for ample pre-publication publicity. All of that is doable.

Author Joyce Cherry Cresswell self-published after we had coffee and talked about her goals. She used Indigo: Editing, Design, and More, which is a Portland-based, woman-owned, full-service editing business, to polish and publish her debut novel. A Great Length of Time became the first self-published book to win the Oregon Book Award in fiction.

Laura and friends – a lot of friends – at the launch of Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Yourdon

When I publish a book, an author gets years of my dedicated time and attention, developmental editing, a cover by an award-winning designer, hundreds of galleys sent to hundreds of booksellers and reviewers, high-quality photographs of any events I’m near enough to attend, and sometimes snacks from my purse. I also organize launch events, print postcards, advertise, and act as a publicist and author coach, especially for debut titles.

Plus Forest Avenue has a national and international presence, not to mention full-service distribution, which means we get books on shelves, and we can reach far beyond the author’s personal contacts.

Roz As I said in my comment on the previous post…

But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that you also write. Tell me about that. Are you working on a book at the moment?

Laura I write literary fiction and am represented by Laurie Fox of the Linda Chester Agency. And yes, I’m always working on a book! Or two. I am polishing the latest draft of my novel, and I earned a residency in September at the Mineral School in Mineral, Washington, to dig into a new project.

Roz You have an agent … is it too obvious to ask whether you’d ever publish your own work?

Laura I get this question all the time! And I’ve thought about it. After all, Forest Ave gets books on the shelves of indie bookstores, and when I break down the writer dream I’ve had my whole life, that’s the key component. Discoverability. Shelf space. Doing events at bookstores.

And I’m ready to step up and promote my work. But I’d rather have someone else choose my manuscript, and let me focus on the author role. I’ve wanted a debut novel out my whole life—since I was writing books in first grade and “publishing” them with staples.

Roz Obviously a press is a vocation as well as an occupation. Most of us in the literary community adore what we do – I simply love making books, so I relish the whole editing and production process. But we’re writers too and we need to protect our creative time. How do you protect yours? 

Creating community – Laura Stanfill

Laura Perhaps I should respond with what I hope to do to create more space for my work!

It’s been a struggle to justify working with my stories, and my voice, when I have advance copies of upcoming releases to come out, another speaking gig to prepare for, or emails from my authors to answer. I do take time off, usually during writing retreats, and I often find 30 minutes or an hour per day to work on a draft of new work. It’s harder for me to revise big novel chunks in compressed time periods.

Before starting Forest Avenue, I woke up early and wrote for an hour or two every day before work; that time these days is often used managing emails and handling kids who wake up too early.

Coming next time: publishers and authors as literary citizens

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Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

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?

Renee Macalino Rutledge launches The Hour of Daydreams

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

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Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Here’s Part 1. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Laura, tell me how Forest Avenue Press started.

Laura It began as a grassroots display of community. And as a way to keep my brain busy while nursing an infant through colic. I knew so many talented, hard-working Oregon authors knocking on doors in New York and being turned away. It made sense to create one more home for literature right here in Oregon, instead of trying to bend our aesthetics to appeal to East Coast tastemakers. Besides, there are so many long-running literary presses in Portland. I was surrounded by willing mentors, who held out their hands to me as a newcomer.

I’ve always had a strong do-it-yourself ethos, probably inspired by my dad, who founded a collector magazine and put issues out for years. That’s how I saw my press—and still do: as a way to bring people together around a common subject matter. His passion was air horns; mine is literary fiction. When we had the opportunity to go national by signing with a distributor, I took it. We do publish authors from all over the US now, but a high percentage of our catalog remains Northwest focused.

Roz Your website sums up the Forest Avenue personality – ‘a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.’ How did you develop this? How long did it take?

Laura That speaks to my personal taste as a reader, and how I want our readers to be surprised by our books; a lot of readers come up to me and say how refreshing it is to read titles that aren’t predictable. We’ve always wanted to create space for essential voices that weren’t finding homes elsewhere —authors of color, LGBTQ authors, neuroatypical authors, and other underrepresented voices—as well as amplifying other authors and presses who are doing this kind of work in the world.

Roz Was it your intention from the start?

Laura The personality of the press has definitely shifted over the years. One of the things I love to tell new publishers is that it can take some time to get clear—and then clearer—about your mission and goals and taste. And that’s okay.

Roz Did you make any wrong turnings?

Laura When I first started, I wanted quiet novels, because those were the ones New York kept saying won’t sell. Asking for quiet novels seemed like a statement of purpose to take that phrase back, to turn ‘quiet’ from an oft-repeated rejection to a celebration of character-driven fiction.

But after growing into my publisher self more, and really honing in on my reading taste, I realized I love more whimsical, quirky—and dare I say it—loud novels. Boisterous novels—whether through their unusual language, or their humor, or their ambition to say something in a way that nobody has said it before. Novels that carry us someplace else while lodging deep into our hearts.

Many of our releases in the past two years have some genre aspects, like Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, a lush and poetic evocation of a marriage from the point of view of a village. It’s based on a Filipino fairy tale about star maidens and its mix of gorgeous language and real-world grit is buoyed by the theme of how we as human beings tell stories about each other because we can never really understand each other.

One constant, which I didn’t realize until our readers began telling me that they appreciated it, has been publishing books that aren’t predictable, that don’t fit into a commercial mold. Their stories might go anywhere—and often whirl into surprising territory. Unpredictable territory. I want to believe our readers come to our books and experience wonder and delight, the way we felt as children, when the world of reading opened up.

Roz Wow. It takes a confident, masterful storyteller to pull that off.

Let’s talk more about story. There’s a perception that literary fiction is often disdainful of plot. Clearly some of this is personal taste – a book that is plotless to one reader is an up-all-night page-turner to another. But many of my favourite literary writers are also cracking story writers by anyone’s judgement. Any thoughts on the plot-plotless debate?

Laura After planting my flag on “quiet novels” and receiving submissions where the characters sat around and looked at each other, I realized I needed to retool my thinking. I love deep, introspective, character-driven fiction. I love language that takes chances.

Roz I do too…

Laura But I do love a good plot. And writers who do all of that well end up with not-so-predictable, evocative, and completely fascinating novels. And that’s what makes me happy as a reader and as a publisher. I want it all!

Roz Me too!

Laura There are plenty of small presses pushing experimental work out, and it’s great, but I land in this plot-with-deep-characters-and-cool-language side of the industry, and I’ve cultivated a readership of fans who love these kinds of books.

Julia Stoops

Parts per Million by Julia Stoops, just out from Forest Avenue, is one novel that blends detailed characterizations with a heady, forward-moving plot. Julia worked on the book—about a trio of eco-activists—for 10 years, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Three point-of-view characters propel the engine of the plot, which moves inexorably toward a stunning conclusion. Parts per Million is full of protests and environmental activism but it’s also built on the stranger-comes-to-town trope, where a young, sick woman who has nowhere else to go disrupts the household these three characters have built for themselves. We’re super-excited that we have a deal with Blackstone Audio for the audiobook.

Back to personal taste, in our first year as a press, my wise publisher friend Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books told me to publish books I love, because that’s how I would build a brand and a community of readers. We can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, or we’ll fail. We just have to keep going, one book at a time.

Roz It’s so interesting to hear you describe this process. You’ve built a style for Forest Avenue in the same way as writers build their distinctive identities. We try a few things, find some don’t excite us as much as we thought, then we discover our true calling. Wonderful.

Coming up next time: marketing literary fiction

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Setting up and running a literary imprint – 4 interviews with Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue 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!

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Writing a book for easy money – a myth examined

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.)

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Do this before that: 5 production steps for brilliant books – guest post at Alliance of Independent Authors

A month or so ago, I wrote this advice in a post at the Alliance of Independent Authors: ‘Embrace the traditional publishing process and never rush it. It’s still the best way to ensure a book has proper development, error-catching and finessing.’

Debbie Young, who is editrix there, pounced – and asked me to explain.

So if you hop over to ALLi, you’ll find my concise guide to book production processes, why each phase is necessary and why the order is important. You wouldn’t believe how many times I see carts put before horses in the indie world. Step this way.

 

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Biggest challenge as an indie author and how to stay creative – interview at ALLi

How do I stay creative, motivated and productive when there are so many non-writing demands on an author’s life?

Today I’m answering these questions at the website of the Alliance of Independent Authors. What was the best decision I ever made? (Thankfully they didn’t ask about my worst…) Do drop in.

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