The Accidental Publisher

By Elisabeth Keely Wilson

Ostensibly, it was your basic itch just begging to be scratched. You know—the kind of itch that can’t quite be reached, so it keeps twitching and itching, demanding your attention. Finally, in order to appease the little beast, you have to twist and turn your body into various odd positions, until at last, you find just the right spot and “ah, relief!” This itch of mine, however, proved to be even bolder than your ordinary, garden variety. The little pest seemed to have a mind of its own and was clearly intent on attaining its complete and total satisfaction—no matter how long the wait might be. Even after a few years of my attempting to ignore the vexing sensation followed by a year or two of diverting its attention with creative endeavors, it persisted. In the end, completely exasperated by its relentless pursuit, I succumbed to the demand of that irrepressible itch—I will write a book!

Although I was aware that the contents of a full-length manuscript were contained in the piles of artwork and copious notes written to myself, I still couldn’t visualize how the various elements might be transformed into a cohesive whole. However, a few nights after agreeing to pursue the itch’s wishes, my unconscious mind rewarded my new-found willingness with a dream in which the book’s framework was clearly presented and the interlocking pieces seemed to fall naturally into place. Fortunately, my conscious mind retained many of the details of the previous night’s journey into dreamland and so, the following day, the writing began in earnest. Three months later, my itch was living in a state of bliss, prompting me to realize that the next phase of the process was about to begin. It was time for a publisher . . .

Now, I acknowledge there are still times when I long for that fairy tale existence where good things inevitably happen to good people; however, this wasn’t one of those times. Upon a thorough investigation of the publishing industry, it became apparent that the probability of my manuscript connecting with just the right publisher was, indeed, slim, and would be increased only with a sizeable investment of time and effort on my part and more than a bit of cooperation from the powers that be.

During one of my moments of doubt, I was struck by the realization that there were two potential obstacles that could prevent me from ever finding a publisher. Not only was I a first-time author (having previously written for magazines only), but my book, as proposed, would require the four-color process to be printed throughout. Taking these two points into consideration along with the magnitude of articles describing others’ difficulties, I chose to forego the publisher route, and instead, focused my concentration on the objective of securing an agent. At least this way, my logical mind reasoned, the agent would be responsible for producing that essential publisher.

The very first agent I approached actually offered a forewarning of what was to come. Her response to my book proposal was a handwritten note: “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You might want to consider self-publishing.” Pshaw! At the time, I was unaware of the significance of receiving a handwritten note from a literary agent rather than your basic form letter and I simply didn’t want to accept that this agent was being quite forthright with regard to my situation. Rather, my hope sprang eternal as it so often does, and I turned my attention to the numerous letters mailed to other agencies, anticipating that one of them would respond favorably.

Needless to say, over the next few months, innumerable dry responses signed with the agent’s stamp were sent my direction, basically informing me of the unsuitability of my proposal to that particular agent’s needs or desires. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I was not one to give up until all viable options had been explored. So another batch of letters would simply be dispatched, along with my heartfelt gratitude that at least there wasn’t a shortage of literary agents.

Just as my patience and persistence were beginning to wear thin, I happened to attend a women’s writing conference, and lo and behold, seated directly behind me was an attendee who was the owner of a publishing company. Oh, the beauty of serendipity! This publisher agreed to review my book over the weekend (a copy of which was my usual appendage), reportedly liked what she read, and I liked that she liked it. Over the next few weeks, we conversed frequently, negotiated the terms of a contract, and came to an agreement. It was with a humungous sigh of relief that I signed the final contract. Hallelujah! I had a publisher!

The next few months flew by as the manuscript was checked and rechecked, the finishing touches were added to the artwork and the cover design, and the entire package was submitted to a professional editor designated by the publisher for the book’s final reading. Upon completing the suggested editorial changes, the book was formatted, chapter by chapter, so that the negative film needed for the printing process could be created directly from disk. During this period, a common question posed to me by various family members was, “Who are you going to be today—Elisabeth, Betty, Elsbeth, Lily, Lisa, or Ellie?” Now, this isn’t quite as strange as it sounds once you take into account that I was not only the author, but also the copy editor, the artist, the graphic designer, the cover designer, and last but certainly not least, the computer technician. Whoops, and I almost forgot—I was and still am somebody’s wife and mother.

Well, as the bumper sticker so succinctly says… life happens. Just two days before the complete and unabridged version of the book was to be delivered to the printer, Chicken Little was proven to be right—indeed, it was the day that the sky fell. Quite possibly, the sky didn’t come crashing down on you and your world but it certainly did on mine. That morning’s mail had brought a letter from my publisher informing me that “unfortunately the company’s doors [were] closing as a prerequisite to the immediate need to file for bankruptcy.” The intent of the letter was to state that our contract was, in three words, null and void. So I did what Chicken Little always did—I looked to the sky for answers.

I was utterly confused—perplexed and befuddled—by this unexpected turn of events. What I truly longed for in that moment was a meticulously detailed set of instructions for this experience called life. Then I would know what to think and do! Instead, I was offered the suggestion that I just go with the flow and see where the flow took me. Now, while I am more adept today at going with the flow than I once was, it doesn’t necessarily mean I do it easily or with great panache but I did agree to try. Amazingly enough, I still had the willingness to persist (that itch had taught me well) in spite of not knowing where I was going or in which direction. I simply resolved to pay attention to anything and everything that came my way and let whatever happened happen. In essence, happenstance would lead the way. In other words, I was an accident just waiting to happen.

Somewhere during one of my sojourns along the information speedway (a fancy name for the Internet), I found myself at a website designed by independent publishers, for independent publishers. After perusing the site for just a few moments, I joined the association simply because I recognized its obvious value if I were to ever self-publish. At this point, I still wasn’t too excited about the idea of self-publishing, but I had begun to tentatively consider it as a slight possibility.

Actually, there was a valid basis for my hesitation. Having owned a graphic design business for many years, I was keenly aware of the amount of time, energy, and money that would be required to promote and market a book, particularly after the book’s publication. In addition, I recalled from past experience that the reality, in terms of time and effort expended on any one project, was usually double that of one’s initial expectation. However, I was attempting to remain open to the possibilities and let life’s current guide my way. So with every twist and turn, I simply whispered a little prayer that it wasn’t toward the falls.

My meanderings on the Internet also led me to a virtual storehouse of information involving various legalities within the publishing industry. Pertinent topics for the self-publisher included applying for a fictitious business name, obtaining a seller’s permit, registering for a copyright, acquiring a UPC symbol, and cataloging one’s book according to Library of Congress guidelines. Realizing that it might be wise to have all my ducks in a row—just in case—I began the process of filling out the various forms and applications required, eventually sending them on to their respective homes.

In the meantime, it had come to my attention that many of the newly released art books and children’s books featuring color illustrations had, in actuality, been printed overseas rather than in the United States. Intending to do just a bit of research on the various printing options, I subsequently found the publishing association’s website offered an abundance of information and contacts. Armed with a written bid from a large American printer (a benefit of my relationship with the now defunct publisher), my goal was to obtain competitive bids from printers elsewhere around the globe. I quickly discovered that many of the overseas printing companies had representatives located in the U.S. in order to facilitate the bidding of jobs. Eventually narrowing the field down, I finally met with one international printer to personally review several book samples that had been produced at his printing operation in Asia over the last few years. In spite of my doubts concerning the possible roadblocks with overseas printing, his extensive knowledge of the printing industry and his very competitive bid and printing schedule were quite reassuring.

Simultaneously, the quest for a publisher was underway, with my recent abandonment furnishing the key to open the door. After successfully arranging an interview with the president of a publishing company whose current list seemed to be the perfect match for my book, my hopes were high. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, however, came the revelation that his company didn’t, in his words, “do color.” So that was that! Our brief exchange concluded with a repetition of the handwritten message received so many months before. “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You would be better off self-publishing.” Consequently, I was offered the names of two distributors who could skillfully represent my work and who would be apt to accept me as a publisher in my own right.

Having been tossed a bunch of lemons, I knew the scenario—it was time to make lemonade. I figured I might as well take one more step into unknown territory, reasoning that if it didn’t work out, then I would absolutely, positively know which direction to proceed. I applied for a business loan requesting an amount that would more than cover the actual printing costs if I did, in fact, self-publish. Much to my consternation as well as to my surprise, the loan was approved by the end of the following day. Yikes! I was, literally and figuratively, at a point of no return. Standing on the edge of the precipice, my mind was a muddle.

Still clinging to the notion of myself as the emerging author, being represented by a strong, stalwart publisher, I was aware that the image was beginning to look suspiciously like a dream. Or possibly a favorite fairy tale? The reality was that I had a book ready to go to print a dependable printer prepared to respond to my every need, and the necessary funds safely ensconced in the bank. If I let myself fall into the world of self-publishing, I wondered, would I crash and burn? Or would I find my wings with which to fly? A flash of clarity brought the realization that the answers to my pondering would be found only with my acceptance of the challenge, come whatever may.

A color dummy of the book was packaged along with thirteen zip disks and sent to Korea, with the hope that, at least in this case, the number thirteen would be lucky. After three weeks, I received a slightly damaged box (Korea is a long way from San Francisco) containing a professionally prepared color proof of the entire book. So far, so good. After indicating a few minor changes, the proofs were immediately returned to Korea, as I didn’t want to create any hang-ups in the printing process. The next several weeks crawled at a snail’s pace while my emotions ran rampant, catapulting from intense excitement to paralyzing fear and back again. Finally, after what felt like five months instead of just five weeks, I received the much-anticipated call—a shipment for Brookside Press was docked at the Oakland harbor, would I accept delivery?

Barely a year after surrendering to that infernal itch, I became the publisher/owner of five thousand books. Today, upon opening my garage door, my eyes are immediately drawn to the space that is covered high with sturdy cardboard boxes, each one boldly proclaiming the scope of its journey:

Kaleidoscope
Brookside Press
Danville, CA
Printed in Korea

In all honesty, the actual presence of one hundred twenty-five boxes can be somewhat intimidating, particularly if you have the propensity to view each and every book as a reminder of the work still to come. Yet at the same time, I stand in awe of what I have accomplished thus far, seemingly in spite of myself. It is with a sense of ownership and pride that I reflect on the tower of boxes upon boxes leading upward toward the sky and I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I didn’t crash and burn—at least not yet. In retrospect, to classify my experience as pure happenstance or a simple quirk of fate seems, at least to my way of thinking, to be an oversimplification of the events. Indeed, the more plausible explanation for my foray into the publishing world is that it was an opportunity in disguise, just begging to be scratched.

You can find more of Elizabeth Keely Wilson’s writing as well as her art at www.elisabethkeelywilson.com.

Interview: Susan Bays, Independent Publisher at Arbutus Press

By Gloriana 

Susan Stites Bays publishes under the name of Susan Bays, and writes as Susan Stites.  She owns and operates Arbutus Press, a small independent company that publishes nonfiction subjects relating to Michigan and the Midwest only. Arbutus Press flourishes due to Susan’s skills, resourcefulness and drive.  Here, Susan shares some of her secrets—how she began, what she’s learned along the way, and her vision of the future. 

Tell us about your company in its present state. 

Arbutus Press is still a very small publishing company with a bright future.

What got you into self-publishing?

It all started under the name Discovery Travel Tours, a production company for audio travel tour tapes. After some success with writing a script, hiring an announcer, booking studio time, finding an artist for cover art, ordering jewel cases and J-card inserts, and selecting music or sound effects for audio, a 60-minute audio cassette tape describing Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore found its way into the marketplace. That was in 1989. It is still stocked through regional bookstores.

I guess that venture got my feet wet. Actually, it was total immersion into the exciting field of writing and producing.

After two more titles on audio tape, I found the concept of tape tours difficult to distribute. It didn’t fit standard displays at bookstores. There were no distributors who would handle them because the product was neither a book nor a book on tape. I realized that the product’s time had not yet come to the Midwest (tape tours are very popular on the West Coast and in museums), so I moved on to publish a book on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Road Guide: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a guidebook in its second printing.

So, from what I gather, you tried travel tapes, but found that in this market, books do better. 

Exactly.

Why did you choose to pursue the travel genre? 

I was a gypsy of sorts and loved to explore. I read Joseph Campbell at the time and just followed my bliss. In addition to bliss, it was a way to make my travels more necessary. Friends often came with me on my “business trips” to hike the dunes or take the ferry to Mackinac Island. I couldn’t think of a better business to be in.

You must have had to do a lot of research to jump in and publish a book. How did you find everything you needed to get going as a publisher? 

I bought a book on self-publishing. That got me started. From then on I just flew by the seat of my pants and asked people questions. Research was really part of my training as a biologist, so I applied those learning strategies to acquire the knowledge to get a book in print.

It was, and still is, a huge learning curve. I made mistakes, some costly, but it’s all part of the process of doing it on your own.

Care to pass on any of those lessons?

There are many technical aspects of the printing process that I found difficult to understand, ranging from paper selection to scanning and reproduction of photos. Now I realize that there are prepress businesses to help with this process. But it all takes money. The language of printers was foreign, so just communicating with them was difficult.

Then there was the confusing discount that booksellers and distributors receive, sometime tiered depending on shipping charges, consignment or not, and a million other details.

I never consign with bookstores anymore. If they want to buy a book, that’s fine, but consignment is very labor intensive, and the bookseller has no motivation to sell your book. The merit of consignment comes from a measure of desperation. No one was buying my tapes outright because the whole concept was unfamiliar. My choices were to consign with a bookstore or look at cardboard boxes in my basement that were filled with tapes.

Why didn’t you go with an established publisher? 

I might have given that option a brief thought but never seriously considered it. I really wanted to do it myself. The rewards, financial and personal, were my original motivation. Why would I want to give 95% of that away? I know that established big publishers are absolutely the route for fiction, but my project was regional nonfiction.

Would you define “regional nonfiction”?

To me, regional nonfiction means that the intended readers are familiar with the topic of the book because it is essentially about their neighborhood or about their neighbors. And distribution of the book is limited to one area or region. The Road Guide: Sleeping Bear, Dunes National Lakeshore is limited to bookstores in the region and visitors of the dunes. It is not a fictional account of the dunes, but a factual guide.

Why is self-publishing is better for that genre?

Because the marketing is easier. People are already somewhat familiar with it because they have visited the place or already know they like the topic. Again, the Sleeping Bear Dunes book sells itself if someone is interested in the dunes and needs a guidebook, versus a work of fiction written with the setting of the dunes.

In fiction, you’re selling the writer’s ability to tell a story with exciting characters and compelling conflicts. It takes many readers to form a consensus that a book of fiction is worth recommending. The reader doesn’t know if s/he will like it or not before buying it unless it is recommended by someone like the New York Times, other book reviewers, friends, book clubs. How many times have you overheard people in bookstores say, “I’ve heard this is good”?

I’m not discouraging writers from self-publishing fiction; I’m saying be prepared to put tremendous effort into getting the book out to readers.

How did you find a printer? A distributor?

There are resources in the library to help find vendors. Also, I asked an independent bookstore owner for advice. This proved valuable in finding distributors, publishing and marketing organizations to join, and journals to read—-for a start.

How did you handle the business aspect of self-publishing?

I bought Quickbooks, keep a card file, have a file cabinet, stamps, fax and a telephone. What more do you need?

Quickbooks?

Quickbooks is a software accounting program. It tracks the sales of books and accounts receivable, prints invoices and also has a wonderful feature that allows you to accept credit cards for book orders from individuals.

You did your own writing. How did you obtain the photographs that must have been an integral part of the project? 

Of the three books I’ve written, each has different sources. Some used historic archival photos or public domain photos. Even my digital camera produced some photos. Friends of mine took color shots for one of the books, and I share the profits from that project with them.

Did you do your own public relations work for the book? 

Yes. I found that every stage of publishing required a new skill. Public relations work is the most difficult for me. It takes a tremendous amount of my time and energy, and I have to put my ego away. PR can be an endless pursuit, because without readers for your book, you’re left with that basement full of cardboard boxes. Besides, the author is really the best person to convince a newspaper, radio show, or bookseller on the merits of their book. Sometimes, just the author’s enthusiasm alone will rouse interest.

What did you do about advertising at the beginning? 

I wrote a press release and sent it to various newspapers. If a press release is well written, the newspapers sometimes print it verbatim. It saves them money and benefits an author. Never underestimate the power of that first press release. Usually a follow-up phone call [to the place you sent your release] is helpful.

How did the book do when you released it? 

All of them have done well. By well, I mean I’ve made enough money to pay for the expenses and then some. The “some” is invested in more projects. Right now, I’ve taken the leap from self-publishing to other-publishing. I have an author’s work in layout ready to send to the printer next week.

By “other-publishing,” I assume that you publish others authors’ books?

It seems to me a natural progression to move from self-publishing to publishing other people’s work. For me, I can apply the acquired knowledge and experience from fumbling around to get my own stuff in print for the benefit of others. Sometimes it’s a joint venture, where the author and I team up and finance the project jointly, and sometimes it’s a standard contract where I apply my knowledge and money to publish a book for someone else.

What type of book is the one you’re publishing for the “other” author? 

I have two that I’m working on. One is a very special cookbook, and the other is a historical chronology through black and white photos.

Have you ever gone with Print On Demand (POD), or have you always used conventional publishing? 

I have researched Print On Demand and received a sample copy of one of my titles. I wasn’t impressed with the quality of reproduction for the photos, so it wouldn’t work for me. But I do have a copy of a an author’s work of fiction that is text only, and it seems a viable solution to the problem of quantity and expense for that type of book.

Your Sleeping Bear Dunes guidebook is in its second printing. This means it’s sold out or almost sold out. How many do you print at a time? 

I printed and reprinted 3,000 books under that title. Another book out last year will have 10,000 in print by mid summer. Determination of the print number has to do with what I think the interest is. Century of Summers [a third title] is an extremely regional book about people and places on a small inland lake near Traverse City. I have only 600 in print and sell them at the corner market. I’m pretty conservative in my print runs. I’d rather pay more per copy than store many books. Reprinting is nothing more than making a phone call and writing a check.

Susan, your experience illustrates several cardinal aspects of successful entrepreneurs in this field: 1) Write about what you love. 2) Be resourceful. 3) Do your homework. 4) Be willing to take risks. 5) The only way to learn is to jump in and do it. Does that sum it up? 

Well said.

What is your five-year vision for Arbutus Press? 

I see Arbutus Press remaining a small publisher of quality regional nonfiction in five years.

Susan, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. 

Visit the Arbutus Press website at www.Arbutuspress.com. Susan’s publishing name is Susan Bays, and she can be reached at Arbutuspress.com.

©2002 Gloriana