Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview with Andrew Gifford of SFWP (Part II)

Here's the second and last installment with Andrew Gifford, publisher of the small press SFWP. To read part I of this interview, click here.

At our next birthday celebration, in January, The Writer's Center will bring in Pagan Kennedy. Pagan is a Bethesda native, and one of her very first creative writing workshops happened right here at the Center. What was it like publishing your heroine Pagan Kennedy?

Well, all the authors I’ve published are my heroes. Ray Robertson is the quintessential artist. A man who has devoted his life to the craft of writing and who hits hard every time. Alan Cheuse is in possession of a writing voice unmatched in modern American literature. Richard Currey captures the mind and soul with razor-sharp images that linger for a lifetime.

When next I have my hands on a few thousand dollars, I want to bring forward a new author whose work I’ve been supporting for many years. A young writer who also has the devotion, the voice, and the electric power of Ray, Alan, and Richard.

Pagan, though, does hold a special place in my heart. It’s her zine – and her early works – that inspired me in the early 90’s. My impressionable high school years. Her quirky participatory journalism, and her stunningly addictive fiction, has kept her on my bookshelves for 20 years. I was and still am ecstatic to have published Dangerous Joy, even though we made a mistake on the layout and found ourselves stuck with the inventory. But, hey, that’s publishing. Now they’re collector items. Or they will be, when we get around to a second printing.

What would you recommend for anyone beginning a small press?

The first rule (and this also applies to authors) is that you won’t make money. You must accept that. The old saying is true – you need a large fortune to make a small fortune in this business.

You’re in this because you love books, because you love writing, and you are willing to pursue that love all the way to the bitter end, regardless of the challenges you face or the obstacles in your path. You must also be willing to work. It’s a job – both publishing and writing – and it’s the sort of job that will follow you home, that will steal your evenings and weekends and vacations, and that will compete with your significant others, your children, your life. And that’s got to be okay with you.

If that doesn’t describe you, then stop what you’re doing right now. Sweep it all into the trash can and, please, get on with your life.

Now, the practical stuff: Don’t try and find a mainstream book. Don’t ape a dying industry. Be daring. Be different. Increasingly, as the Old Boy Network of publishing slowly topples, it’s the daring and different work that will begin to emerge.

Once you’ve found that book, then you should do the publicity yourself. Don’t outsource. Use the social networking sites – connect with people. Finally, after all this time trying to put together books with no sense of what the public truly wants, your audience is right there in front of you.

Shell out the cash to get a media list. Shell out a little more to make some nice galleys. Pay attention to your cover, your layout, your editing. Reading books, for many people, is also a tactile experience. The feel, the smell, the look. (Which is why ebooks and the Kindle will never truly destroy the printed word.) And, of course, a nice cover will sell more books than the words inside. That’s the sad truth publishers must face when working with booksellers and trying to get the casual shelf browser hooked.

Publicity should begin six months before publication. But a small press doing one or two books a year? Publicity should start a year before publication. Don’t be afraid to try and do the impossible. Explore translation rights, pitch excerpts to magazines, try and get reviews from big places. It only costs you postage, or a few minutes on email. You’ll strike out 90% of the time but, hey, to hell with them then. All you need is one good hit.

Join PMA. They’re worth it. And, if you don’t have the time or stamina to sell out of your basement, then get a distributor. In fact, I would urge you to take that path. Independent Publisher’s Group is a wonderful organization, and they’ve recently started working with PMA to cater to small presses. Don’t overreach in that area, either. Don’t go for the gold and try to get in the regular trade catalogs. You’re a small press, so act like one. Embrace it.

Indie bookstore owners and many authors are going to keel over as soon as I say this, but you need to focus on online sales and look towards electronic formats. The reason for this is simple – brick and mortar stores order more than they need to cover a supposed demand. They then return unsold copies, and typically get a free hand when it comes to salable condition. Working just with brick and mortars sees a 30-50% return rate, and a percentage of those are so damaged they need to be dumped. Online stores, however, maintain a smaller inventory. They order what they need to meet an immediate and real demand. You’ll still see returns, but maybe just 5-10%.

The industry is not about preserving indie bookstores – it’s about getting the writing to the general population. It’s about the authors, and their books. And it’s your job – by hook or by crook – to get those books into the hands of readers. There’s no room for weeping in the face of technology and change. Your future, as a small press, is to be an agent of change.

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