The concept that self-publishing is an act of desperation has been promoted by the assumed and established superiority of Big Six publishers, but that concept has been severely diminished in the wake of publisher failures and scandals of price-fixing.
Note: Books and Pals uses a broad definition of indie that includes both self-published books and books published by small presses. Our interview today is a change of pace from our normal Saturday fare, with an interview subject who is an editor for a small publisher.
How long have you worked in publishing?
I had some experience with a small ebook company before starting with Penumbra Publishing when it officially opened for submissions. Before that, I had contributed to several different genre reading/discussion groups and served as a critique contributor to several writing groups, as well as providing personal critiques for many different authors.
I’ve been involved in some way with books and writers for many years, with many friends who are authors. I have had the privilege to work with many budding authors before they became published and saw many authors who couldn’t catch a break in traditional publishing get their start with ebook publishers, then go on to catch the attention of traditional publishers and expand their careers to find wider readership.
It’s been a learning experience and a passion of mine to help other authors achieve their writing and publishing goals. At Penumbra Publishing, I am able to do all of that.
One of your authors, Walter Knight, suggested interviewing you and he called you “his editor,” but editor can mean a lot of things. What are your duties at Penumbra.
Currently I make most of the acquisition decisions for Penumbra Publishing and do about 90% of the editing, which means there’s a huge bottleneck in the book production process right now. However, we have a new editor who will (hopefully soon) share more of the acquisition and editing duties, especially for books that are mainstream in nature. I will continue to handle the genres of fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction. I expect to be able to relegate a larger portion of editing and acquisition to other editors we bring on board.
The selection and training process to bring in a new editor to learn our established editing guidelines is a slow process. We do more than just proofreading for typos. Story arc, character development, pacing, and other story elements come into consideration, as does fact-checking. The job of editing is therefore expansive, all-inclusive, and very labor- and time-intensive. Because of the small number of dedicated staff, we do not have different editors for different phases of the editing process. Usually one person does it all for one book, but occasionally another editor will do a final proofing.
I also serve as author liaison, meaning if there are questions or problems that arise, I am the ‘go to’ person to try to answer questions or fix situations. This provides a consistency for the authors and allows others involved in the day-to-day publishing process to focus on their respective duties without becoming distracted by issues that may require some research to resolve. As time goes on, I expect more responsibilities will be delegated to others so that the workload is not so heavy for any one person.
Authors see only a small aspect of the editing process, because we do try to involve the author in every step of the editing process and maintain an open dialog with the author about changes we feel need to be made to a story. The rest of the day-to-day business is a lot more work than one would imagine. Because I act as liaison to answer questions or troubleshoot issues that come up, I have my paws into every aspect of the business at some time or another.
Tell us a little about Penumbra Publishing. How many people work there? How many books do you publish, and what do you think is unique about Penumbra compared to other like-sized publishers?
Penumbra Publishing has officially been in business since January of 2009 and is still a fairly new business. Like many small startup publishers, Penumbra Publishing was formed by a private group of authors. Recent changes in bookselling (the availability of affordable-for-everyone print-on-demand services, and the emergence of Amazon as an ebook-selling giant allowing anyone to sell their books on an even playing field) made the formation of Penumbra Publishing a viable alternative to individual authors each seeking self-publishing avenues on their own. After investigating do-it-yourself publishing options, a business plan with established processes and a genuine business appearance was created for continuity of presence, purpose, and product. Work was originally done on a volunteer basis by the original authors involved in the business startup. The actual number of staff now fluctuates, as many of the people who contribute to the operation of the company are transient authors or subcontractors, with the volunteer aspect having dropped off considerably. Web site design and maintenance remains in-house with a dedicated web mistress. Cover art is also handled in-house by a couple dedicated folks with artistic background and skill, but at some point this aspect may be subcontracted. Day-to-day operations of editing/acquisition, web design, artwork, contracts/sales/accounting is a lot of work for a very small staff of four to six core people at any given time. For taxation and distribution account purposes, the company structure remains as a sole-proprietorship on paper. As the company continues to grow, with more distinct divisions of labor and a larger number of people to handle that labor, we expect the company structure to change as well.
Penumbra Publishing currently has over 25 authors and has published over 50 titles. We offer publishing services on the traditional model, free of charge to authors (as opposed to subsidy/vanity publishing which charges for publishing services). The traditional model of publishing is offered as a reasonable alternative to authors who cannot or choose not to navigate the agent-submission gatekeeper process established by larger traditional publishers. We split net royalties 50/50 with our authors. We are committed to ensuring the books produced by Penumbra Publishing offer great reader value by being good quality and competitively affordable. I believe our personalized service in fulfilling authors’ publishing needs while taking care of the back-end of the business, and at the same time offering quality books at reasonable prices, all combine to set us apart from many other small publishers who just focus on one or two of those aspects at the expense of the rest.
I scanned some of the books Penumbra publishes and besides Walter Knight, the name that jumped out at me was Jamie Wasserman, who is an author I know several of my regular followers love. How did you come to publish Jamie and when can we expect to see a new book from him?
Jamie Wasserman is a terrific writer and came to us through the usual submission process. When I read his first book, I suggested (as I routinely do with authors whose work appears to be quite promising from a critical standpoint) that he seek a well-established and larger publisher to handle his publishing needs. However, he chose to stay with Penumbra Publishing, and we are very grateful to have such a talented and gracious author as part of our group.
We are currently in the process of working on the sequel to his very popular Blood and Sunlight vampire tale. He also has another project that requires some illustration, but that is on the back burner until a dedicated illustrator can be assigned to provide the necessary artwork.
Jamie has two books currently published with us, Holding Back the Day and Blood and Sunlight – both vampire-themed. With Angel Moon (sequel to Blood and Sunlight) expected to be released next month, that will make three novels to Jamie’s credit. In addition, Jamie had an ebook-only humorous Night of the Guppy series resulting from serial chapters Jamie had posted online on an Amazon community forum for the amusement of his fans. At his request, we put these into ebook format and used artwork done by a friend of his to create the covers. He later decided to discontinue availability of the books and concentrate his efforts on more serious writing typical of the novels he currently has published.
What do you look for in deciding whether you’re interested in publishing a book?
The number-one criterion is subjective – do I like the story? I enjoy a variety of genres, including romance, fantasy, science fiction, action thrillers, spy-espionage, lawyer/cop procedurals, murder mysteries, and so on. If a story is well written with compelling characters, and I find myself drawn into the story, then I know there is something about the book that will probably work for a lot of other readers too. On the other hand, if I have to force myself to read through the first chapter, I know there’s something not ‘clicking’ with the story, and it is going to need work. Just how much work is the decisive factor in judging whether or not to accept a story for publication. If the storyline seems marketable, but the delivery is lacking, then other factors come into the equation when deciding whether or not to accept the project. Usually those other factors involve my perception of the author’s maturity and professionalism and apparent willingness to be flexible and take on the task of self-promotion.
I’ve seen very compelling query letters and book teasers, but the writing itself – the actual delivery of the story – is what determines whether the book’s going to work. Some ‘beginner mistakes’ like starting off with backstory or spending too much time describing the setting can certainly be fixed with little trouble, but other pervasive problems like awful dialog (stilted, silly, not engaging) and dull character interaction indicate the author isn’t invested in or doesn’t understand his story well enough to be able to tell it in a compelling manner. Part of that is the level of writing skill the author has managed to develop. Writing skill can certainly be learned by almost anyone, but the time it takes to do that cannot be compressed into a single lesson, and serious pervasive problems in a story cannot be fixed in the editing process without a complete rewrite. Due to time limitations and creative integrity, we do not make a habit of completely rewriting stories for authors. We may offer extensive assistance and advice, but when it comes time to return a story to the author for rewrites and the author can’t do it, it becomes obvious that the author is not ready to be published. That is why we have a policy of ‘fix and resubmit’ when a story shows some promise but has too many problems to fix in the edit process. If the author can fix it, then we’re good to go. If not ... well, we will usually pass on that project and suggest the author seek out a good critique group or a dedicated writing partner to get the story up to speed.
Occasionally I have accepted books for publication that I knew were going to be a nightmare to edit because of the amount of work that would be involved. But the story itself was so strong, and the writing talent, however raw, promised to be worth the trouble. Sometimes the sheer tenacity of the author plays a huge role in whether or not a book is accepted. An author who shows raw storytelling talent plus the willingness to do whatever’s necessary to learn how to fix a story is an author I feel is worthy of my investment of time to coach and develop.
The assessment process is unique for each submission and takes a personal investment of time and thought to consider every single book that comes to us, as well as every author’s potential. The combination of all that goes into the final decision. But if the writing style or the story itself grabs my interest, then it is almost always assured acceptance. Of course, ‘interest’ is a purely subjective thing.
For a reader, what do you think a book published by Penumbra has that sets it apart?
The personal process we use to assess submissions results in publishing books we find enjoyable on some level, or can appreciate for the stylistic quality or message/moral/theme. While no two people will have the same taste in everything, I think that, in addition to applying a personal perspective to each book we publish, we also look at it from an objective standpoint, trying to figure out what type of person would want to read a particular book we publish. In pursuit of the analysis of deciding what kind of readers might be interested in a particular book, we ask all authors to provide marketing ideas as part of the submission process. That (hopefully) makes authors more aware of their potential readership and prepares them to start thinking from a self-promotion standpoint about how their book will fit into the existing market.
At the point a book is offered for reading assessment or for reading pleasure, the book ceases to be about the author’s talent or interpretation or statement, and more about the reader’s interpretation and enjoyment of the author’s work. When we edit a book, we are always looking from that perspective. Will this particular section be something the reader can understand and relate to? Does that character present the best concept in terms of reader expectation? There’s always that kind of questioning going on in the editing process. When an author writes, that self-editing process should be turned off until the first draft is completed, just so the author can finish the story without crippling himself trying to second-guess the potential reader of his story. But at the editing stage, reader considerations should be taken seriously. Because of that, we’ll go through two or three rounds of edits and rewrites on some books to get them to the point where we feel they can deliver a good read.
That is what I think every publisher should be doing for every book produced, but whether that gets done every time in other publishing houses, I don’t know. All I can say is, that’s our publishing policy at Penumbra Publishing, and that is what we hope to deliver to our readers – books that we feel are ready to be read and will deliver the best reading experience possible.
Tell us about some of the books you’ve published recently and the kind of reader that would find them appealing.
Lily Steps Out by Rita Plush is available now. It’s a delightful story with a tinge of Jewish ethnic quality that is populated by characters who definitely have personality. It’s about an empty-nest homemaker who’s just now realizing that she wants more out of life than making beds and cooking meals. In effect, she’s looking for a personal purpose. And, as we all know, change doesn’t come easily for anyone in an established family situation where defined roles sometimes are hard to break out of. This is a terrific story that can be enjoyed by anyone, but especially it’s for middle-aged women who are looking at their lives and wondering ‘is this all there is?’ It’s a heartwarming and hopeful story I highly recommend.
Flight to Nowhere by Blas Padrino is in production now, but should be available within a couple weeks. It is a suspenseful romantic thriller set in Miami and surrounds that involves the mystery of a Cuban rebel who disappeared fifty years ago. It has strong political undertones and brings to life the ethnicity and trials and tribulations of Cuban Americans. This is an entertaining story with strong personal convictions, and I highly recommend it.
A lot of my followers are also authors. To an author who has found some success self-publishing, what does a company like Penumbra offer that they can’t do on their own?
For authors who have a vision for their book and want to control the outcome of that vision, self-publishing is a good alternative. Createspace or Lulu are two self-publishing services that authors can use strictly as printers. If a broader distribution is desired (bookstore shelving), then the author should consider setting up an account with Lightning Source (by Ingram Books), even though that represents a higher preparatory cost. An outside editor should be chosen carefully, as well as a book cover producer. These things cost money. And collaborating with anyone, whether it’s a subcontractor or a publisher, will result in the author’s vision of the book being modified to some extent. The trick is to find people who can respect the author’s vision for the book and try their best to align what they do for the book with what the author has in mind. All that costs money and takes time to investigate and subcontract.
For authors who don’t have the skill set or patience or money to do it all and subcontract editors and cover artists and buy their own block of ISBNs, the next best thing is to go to a small publisher and get help with the production aspects of the book. Every author should thoroughly think through what’s involved and check out publishers to find the right one to work with. This will involve a submission process, just like with an agent or a big publisher, but more than likely the standards of acceptance will be broader to include books that are routinely ignored by the traditional big publishing industry, due to a perceived lack of profitability.
No matter what route the author chooses to achieve publishing, the author is GOING TO HAVE TO DO SOME SELF-MARKETING. Even authors who approach agents or large traditional publishers are going to have to self-market. That doesn’t just mean going on a jet-set book-signing tour. It means some down-in-the-trenches social promotion to create an online presence. It means talking with people about the book in whatever capacity is possible (but NOT alienating people like a door-to-door salesman or street vendor). It means genuinely being interested in what other people are interested in, and letting them know in the course of conversation that yes, YOU have published YOUR book.
Penumbra Publishing is not the only small publisher out there, and might not be the best or the fastest or the greatest or whatever. Penumbra Publishing won’t be the best choice for every book or every author. All we can do for any author is provide personalized service and take a real interest in the work we publish, to make it the best it can be. We offer a publishing contract that I believe is one of the best and most equitable in the business. Our goal is to partner with the author to make every book as successful as it can be. Sometimes success doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. We do what we can to work with every author in whatever capacity seems best for the author’s circumstances.
We are always looking for authors who want the best for their book and their writing career, and who can be realistic about the options available. We want authors to be happy working with us, and we want to enjoy working with them. We don’t make sales or royalty promises, and we don’t charge for our services. We work with authors to put their books out there and try the marketing techniques we know work, plus experiment with some to see how well they work, but we don’t promise anything we can’t deliver, and we certainly don’t promise miracles.
That, basically, is what we offer. Each book we publish and each author we work with represents a partnership, a venture, an adventure. That’s what we bring to the table – nothing more, nothing less.
The publishing industry seems to be in the same position as the music industry was a decade or so ago, with movement towards electronic distribution. How do you see things changing over the next several years for both readers and publishing companies such as yours?
There have always been subsidy publishers and authors who were forced or chose to self-publish. The list is large and includes works that have gone on to become popular classics and perennial favorites of critics and the reading public. Many small publishers are business offshoots of authors or book curators who felt a need to redo the book publishing process according to their own concept of what it should and could be. Almost all large publishers began as small startup publishers.
With the advent of corporate publishing and publishing empires like Hearst and Gannett, the focus turned from curating literature to expanding profit margins. There will always be startup companies who will try to reinvent the wheel in the hope that curating can again become the focus with perhaps a little bit of profit margin on the side. There is no question that subsidy publishers are proliferating and profiteering in this last-gasp environment of the book industry, preying on the hopes and dreams of writers who don’t do their homework to gain an understanding of the business. The concept that self-publishing is an act of desperation has been promoted by the assumed and established superiority of Big Six publishers, but that concept has been severely diminished in the wake of publisher failures and scandals of price-fixing.
More and more people are jumping into the publishing foray to see their dreams finally achieved through self-publishing. Seventy- and eighty-year-old authors are finally getting their books published. It doesn’t matter to them that the heyday of their genre is gone, or the story is dated. They don’t care whether or not it sells, they just want that book in hand to show they finally did what they’d always wanted to do – publish their book. I think there’s probably a writer hidden in all of us that secretly dreams of fame and fortune through publishing a book. For most, the reality is a few copies sold to friends and family. But for some who have an undeniable need to write, it is not a choice, it is a destiny to be a published author.
Ten or fifteen years ago, ebook sales were not mainstream. This was the pre-Amazon era. Any author trying to gain reader exposure through an ebook publisher found it quite difficult, unless that author was writing for the popular genres – erotic romance and alternative lifestyle romance. Most of these small ebook publishers had their own distribution via their own web sites or through sites like Fictionwise, which was acquired by Barnes and Noble in 2009, prior to the Nook foray. The financial success of Ellora’s Cave, even though it focused primarily on erotic romance, brought real attention to the independent ebook industry, and during that time Amazon began taking ebook sales seriously, seeing an under-marketed opportunity for mainstream books, not just erotic romance. Amazon originally contracted with a French company offering the ‘mobi’ file format to publish ebooks, but soon developed its own ereader and marketing/sales structure on the Amazon site, based on the ‘mobi’ file system. It’s now known as ‘Kindle,’ and the French MobiBook is essentially out of business. Amazon also acquired the self-publishing service Createspace several years ago, and has recently contracted with some traditional-published authors to start its own select-release publishing company. Like a lot of startup small publishers, Amazon has seen the writing on the wall and is trying to squeeze the last drops of profit from print book publishing while taking full advantage of the upswing in ebook sales.
Amazon popularized and commercialized ebook reading technology and online book buying – in fact, online buying as a whole. This popularization of ‘anything can be sold online’ has turned the book into a commodity like any other, and removed it from its lofty perch as ‘literature.’ With deep discounts and price wars and authors giving away their books in the hope of attracting readers, books are now no more important in the scheme of things than a chilidog. Books have become just one more item to be consumed. Nobody keeps a hotdog collection, and I think the number of people who will treasure book collections will dwindle as the print book loses prominence in the industry and that generation fades into distant memory. Right now there is a literacy campaign that has been going on for years, trying to encourage people to read. I wouldn’t be surprised if the publishing industry is a silent sponsor of this campaign. Because look at the alternative to reading...
With a focus now on electronic gadgetry with built-in disposable obsolescence, the idea that anything – even art or literature – is a timeless treasure is quickly going by the wayside. Only the very rich and the very old will pay a million bucks for a Picasso, and books will be relegated to the better days of board games as new technology makes new forms of entertainment more appealing than reading. Authoring a story may morph into creating a virtual environment for the consumer to become immersed in, and reading itself may become obsolete with the advent of brain implants to transfer information. Of course that is probably in the far-off futuristic world of science fiction, so I’ll stop there.
I think for the next ten years, the book industry and the future of publishing will still exist in some form recognizable as we now know it, but I look for a lot more shake-ups in the industry, partly driven by technological advancements and partly by keen competition. A company will only continue to exist in some form if it has a legacy plan in place and is vigilant in maintaining and updating that plan. That is true for any business, whether it is involved in manufacturing or service ... or publishing. Technology and the market for products and services will naturally affect any business’s ability to stay current, so it is important not only to have a vision for the future but to learn lessons from the past and keep an eye on new trends. Most smaller businesses do well to keep their heads above water in the choppy sea of any market. A storm can blow in at any time, so it’s good to have a strong boat and capable captain at the helm – and hope for the best but be prepared for the worst.
Do you have time for leisure reading? Besides Penumbra authors, who are your favorite authors and why?
I manage about an hour every other day to read something I am not working on. I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and really liked the book. Many people called the writing simplistic, but I appreciated it specifically for its clean straightforwardness. I enjoy a story where the author’s voice doesn’t get in the way of telling the story. Too many times, the author is so busy entertaining himself with a clever turn of phrase that he forgets there’s a reader sitting there waiting for him to get on with the show. The Hunger Games was beautifully written because, although the language was clean and uncluttered, it managed to evoke an emotional response almost effortlessly. I admire the artistic finesse of that and applaud the author (and her editor).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is in my TBR pile and I can’t wait to get started on that. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before I can finish those – the books are huge.
I enjoy reading Dean Koontz, Orson Scott Card, Vernor Vinge, Michael Crichton, Ian M. Banks, and a host of other well-known authors, but I try unknown authors too. I like to read science articles to learn about new advances in science theory. This helps in keeping up with science fiction themes and making sure stories fit within the believability parameters for savvy scifi readers. Because I am a very eclectic reader, my taste may run from ‘trashy’ to ‘bizarre,’ and from time to time I might read business journals or other nonfiction like ‘how-to’ books on subjects I want to learn more about. While I’ve read some of the classics by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, I usually fill my head with contemporary work in genre fiction because that’s my business and that’s what I’m involved with on a day-to-day basis. Looking for great fiction and figuring out what makes it great helps make me a better editor, I think.
For More Patricia:
Blood and Sunlight by Jamie Wasserman
Holding Back the Day by Jamie Wasserman
Lily Steps Out by Rita Plush
All books published by Penumbra Publishing