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Getting into print
By Belinda Anderson
Like most artists, writers struggle to place their product before the public. Even an established author such as Meredith Sue Willis, whose previous novels had been published by Scribner’s, faced marketplace challenges with her latest, Oradell at Sea. The following passages are excerpts from a discussion with Willis about the problems — and possibilities — in today’s publishing climate.
Anderson: Why did you choose to publish with WVU?
Willis: “I didn’t have a contract with a commercial press, so it wasn’t a matter of saying no to them. Commercial publishers, the minute a book is not selling, they pulp it. There’s a joke, that’s really true, that yogurt has a longer shelf life than commercial fiction. If a book doesn’t take off within six weeks, they don’t pulp it immediately, but they stop pushing it.
“West Virginia has a few presses, but most of them are very small. The university press has the resources to possibly be something big some day. This is their first brand-new literary fiction. I really like that they’re reviving this press, and they’re very personal.
“I’m still very ambitious, but my ambitions have changed. Publishing has changed. Giant conglomerates publish two or three books that are really big and they merchandise them as if they were tissue. They want the totally lowest common denominator. They have no interest in a book about West Virginia if they think it will only sell to West Virginians.
“Yet at the same time we have the technology to make niche publishing possible. I’m very interested in small publishing houses and what they’re doing. I’d rather be part of a good and interesting project, and in the end, I may sell more books and make more money.
“I’m having more input and control into what’s happening with my books now. It’s nice to be hands on. When I was a little kid and I first started writing, the first thing I did was make my own books. I had my own imprint, called Black Horsey Books. I would spend hours taking pieces of paper and making little tiny books and stapling them together and making the little logo and then I’d make the cover for the book.
“My children’s books I brought back into print through a really tiny publisher, a place called Montemayor Press that has maybe six or seven books out. They put my Marco books back into print, so if anyone wants to buy one, they can use the Internet. Presumably, they’ll stay in print indefinitely, because they’re using print-on-demand technology. I hesitate to say that because people associate print-on-demand with companies that charge you a lot of money to put your book in print. But, in fact, print-on-demand is being used by all the commercial houses to keep small sellers in print.”
Anderson: What kind of runs do these small presses do?
Willis: “They do several thousand. Commercial
houses don’t do that many more. If they don’t think a
book is going to sell hugely, they will do maybe 5,000, maybe
10,000. The difference between 5,000, and 3,000 at a small press,
is not that great because you can always reprint.
Anderson: What about the folks that have not been published yet? What are their options?
Willis: “That’s a much harder question. Obviously, anybody can do it now. For $200, you can put your book in print. But that leaves out whether it’s a book that deserves to be in print. Don’t assume you’re going to be well known even if you bring a book out. Don’t write if you don’t get something out of it for yourself, even if you’re never published. It’s just not worth it. Watch out very carefully for anybody who takes money for publishing your book, even if they call themselves print-on-demand rather than vanity.
“Fewer and fewer people are going to get their books published commercially. I think what we really need are gatekeepers. We need professional editors who will prepare people’s books. We need review outlets. That’s why I have this online newsletter. You need places to go to find out which of these books are worth reading.
“Before writers run and start self publishing, try all the contests, try all the commercial places. Try all the conventional ways. Then start thinking self publishing. We should all be thinking of alternative ways of publicizing, presenting, reviewing, making books available to one another. The Internet is a great opportunity. But we do need to give serious thought to how to get the books out there. We can’t simply sit around waiting to be discovered.
“For example, with Oradell, I’ve written little press releases for every alumni association. I sent them to the local paper where I lived. The (WVU) press actually had already sent out general press releases, but these are very specific ones. I’m not very good about pushing my books, but I can certainly send letters. I think a lot about who might be interested.
“I think there’s something much more important, for us to honestly evaluate one another’s books and push one another’s books and create new outlets for these books. What about this, what about an online West Virginia Writers Review of Books?”
Anderson: Is there anything you’d like to share that might be encouraging to West Virginia writers?
Willis: “The good news about the commercial publishers is they’re more open to first writers, first novelists, at this point because if you’ve published a couple of books and not gotten them rich, they’re not as interested in you as if you’re just an open possibility. The other good news is they’re always interested in what they perceive as exotic. So play on living in a part of the world that’s different from those editors who are all in NY or San Francisco.
“The other hope is the new possibilities for networking, for publishing, for reviewing one another’s work. It’s going to require some patience. We’re not there yet.
“I think we have to change our minds towards thinking longitudinally rather than making a big splash. One of the big disappointments that came to me when my first novel was published was there was a publication date and nothing happened on that day. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but everything about writing is a process rather than an explosion or an epiphany.
“Don’t picture yourself with pancake makeup and the lights and Oprah. Picture yourself continuing to write, if you really like it, because if you don’t, you shouldn’t bother. Picture yourself in a community of writers who are helping each other. Picture yourself eventually being read by some people who get something out of what you’ve written. I’m not asking people to lower their expectations. I’m actually asking them to be more creative in their expectations.”