The Two-Week Rule

everytime-you-make-a-typo-the-errorists-winWe have a rule in our offices at Lantern Books that no copies of a book newly arrived from the printers are to be scanned for typos, verbal infelicities, or solecisms. It’s hard to do: the eye roves over the page like a klieg-light, casting into sharp relief the typefaces chosen, the leading and kerning of letters and lines on the page, the running-head format, the dimensions of the book, the thickness of the paper, the margins, and so on. We’ve poured our hearts (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) into the book, and it’s beyond disheartening to be confronted with mistakes that somehow bypassed the author, editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader.

After fourteen days, however, we can view the errors with more equanimity than despair; and exasperation and self-loathing have been replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and steely determination not to do it again. Thankfully, technology has helped us experience fewer unwelcome surprises. Not only can we do a dummy run with one or more copies of the book, just so that we can get the three-dimensional item in our hands before committing ourselves more fully to print, but the actual print run can be a matter of only a few copies, allowing changes to be made quickly, with relatively little expense, and with relatively few tarnished copies out there in the world.

I still think the two-week rule needs to be applied—and not just for publishers. An author recently told me that she’d sent her mother a copy of a book over which she’d labored mightily for many years, only for her mother to reply immediately that she’d found three errors—and that was just for starters. Of course, it is the ordained role of parents everywhere to remind their children that, no matter how much they may feel they have accomplished, they’ll always be in the wrong. So, authors: make sure you tell your readers (and especially your supposedly nearest and dearest) that for fourteen days you want nothing but unconditional love and support. After that, one’s fragile heart might be strong enough for the uncomfortable truth.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing

Fulfilling a Dream

Pythia Peay

Pythia Peay, with her books: American Icarus and America on the Couch

As a publisher, I’m often told by folks, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” My immediate (internal) reaction is often Why? It’s an enormous amount of work—research, writing, editing—and the rewards (little money, no reviews, few readers) are almost always incommensurate with the effort spent in creating the work. Sure, there is the satisfaction of a job completed, a story told, a mental and/or psychological itch scratched. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t expect more from their writing than these. And yet, sometimes there are occasions such as these. . . .

I first met Pythia Peay twenty years ago when she was the book editor for the now defunct magazine Common Boundary. I was the publicist for Continuum Publishing Company at the time and I’d send her our books on psychology and spirituality for review. Pythia told me that she was working on a book, entitled America on the Couch, and when I began my new company, Lantern Books, in 1999, Pythia’s manuscript was one of the first I considered. It was enormous: 600 pages of interviews with leading psychologists about what ails America. For all its worth as a book, America on the Couch intimidated the hell out of this neophyte publisher, and I turned it down.

I usually don’t like to reject manuscripts tout court, and I told Pythia that I’d been taken with a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction, in which she’d talked about her father. Joe Carroll was an aviator who embodied the aspirational, charismatic, can-do, and optimistic America that burst into the world’s consciousness after the end of the Great War. Yet he was also a depressive and a drunk, who put his family through hell because in his metaphorical flight from himself he always psychologically crashed to the ground. This American Icarus, I wrote to Pythia, was the heart of her story. She should lock Couch in a drawer and tell her father’s tale. I averred that what wisdom she’d gleaned from the psychologists would make its way, as necessary, into the telling of his life, as it charted the highs and lows of the American century.

Pythia embraced the idea of her father’s memoir wholeheartedly. For years, she researched the archives, talked to experts, and visited locations—uncovering a personal and social history, full of fascinating details and fruitful investigations, that gave body and, more significantly, soul to the story of America. When she sent American Icarus to me again, I was astonished and delighted. I now had in hand a book that, I felt, could command a larger publisher’s attention: one able to do unto this book what had been done to Women Who Run with the Wolves and other such titles that appealed to the children of the Greatest Generation, or men and women at midlife, or those who’d had to deal with alcoholism in their family.

I suggested to Pythia that she get an agent, which she did. And another. And then another. For three fruitless years, she followed their advice in revising her manuscript so that the publishers could politely but firmly reject it. She needed a bigger platform, the editors told the agents; they couldn’t market the book, the sales force told the editors; we no longer take such risks on mid-list authors, the executives told everyone. As Pythia relayed these responses to me, I feared that Icarus—expressive, romantic, and expansive—was passé, out of the conceptual reach of the 30-something editors for whom the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness problem and who wanted prose as polished and unscarred as the kitchen countertop in a new Brooklyn condo.

Eventually, Pythia came back to us, defeated as so many authors are by the timidity and rigidity of mainstream publishing, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the title. By way of a perk, and in the spirit of Why the hell not?, we threw in the original book idea, America on the Couch—this time updated, with 40 interviews organized into six parts, each introduced with a mini-essay by Pythia. Here, too, Pythia worked with her customary dedication, honesty, and moral seriousness, and eighteen months after the launch of the campaign, she yesterday found herself  (as the picture above illustrates) sitting before a stack of both books, signing her name.

Neither Pythia nor myself know the future of these titles. They may, like many, disappear into silence; they may, like some, capture the imagination of their readers and through word of mouth pick up sales that will rebuke the agents and publishers who failed to see what I did: a rich, deeply felt, and very American story on family, land, and the ravages of time, and a remarkable collection of interviews over twenty years on these United States. Whatever happens, however, it’s vital that we acknowledge that what was only a dream or a hope twenty years ago has, through an enormous amount of work and dedication, as well as new technologies and the trust and commitment of friends and family in pre-ordering these books, come into being. While this is only the beginning, it is not just a beginning . . . and, for now, that should be a reward in itself.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, Writing

On Whimsy and Lizards

Life, as we know, is rarely fair; and things, as we also know, are rarely equal. And, it would appear, never has life been less fair or more unequal than in the case of Rowe vs. Literary Estate of P. G. Wodehouse. As the more tenacious of readers to this blog may remember, some years ago I had the itch to write a literary parody of P. G. Wodehouse‘s immortal characters, involving Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and the gang in a bloody mash-up with zombie literature. The result was Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, a work that even its staunchest literary champions would admit posed absolutely no threat to Wodehouse’s standing as one of the titans of English comedic prose style.

Being the honest cove that I am, I approached the estate for permission to print or distribute—for free or with monies going to a charity of their choice—and was told never to disseminate this work in any way. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when one of the fans of BWLK emailed me with a link to a collection of parodies of Wodehouse currently for sale on Amazon, expressing the hope that its presence would encourage me to do the same. Entitled Whimsy & Soda, this book by Matthew David Brozik is not discernibly different in genre than mine (although probably a good deal funnier and better executed). Like mine, Mr. Brozik’s volume contains all sorts of disclaimers that it hasn’t been authorized and is a parody, and so forth. Why, one is tempted to ask, is this book OK, and mine not?

In fact, Mr. Brozik had contacted me in 2012 to find out how I’d coped with the Wodehouse Estate. He took things into his own hands, and has written about it (amusingly and fluently) it here (I’m the sad unfortunate whom MDB mentions!). In further correspondence today, he writes:

I entered into a written agreement with the Estate. After the Estate came down on me, my well-regarded IP [Intellectual Property] lawyer colleague/friend and I wrote the Estate’s counsel a letter explaining just why they were in the wrong, legally. They backed down on three conditions: 1. I couldn’t write any more than the 12 stories in my collection; 2. I had to change the title (I proposed, and the Estate agreed to, WHIMSY & SODA); and 3. I had to indicate in the book itself that the stories are parodic and not authorized. I considered the whole thing pretty much a win.

So, there you have it. I will have to consider my next steps.

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How Do I Get Rid of Books?

Books decaying in Detroit

Books decaying in Detroit

Occasionally, a beleaguered bibliophile will ask me how to shift a bunch of books that they no longer need but don’t want to throw away. Books may be wonderful in many ways, but they are bad for the environment when they end up in a landfill, decomposing slowly and releasing methane—and who wants that to happen? Luckily, a number of options exist for those who want to tidy up an apartment. Here are a few of them:

  • Secondhand bookstores. I’m not just talking about The Strand (or your local equivalent), but Housing Works (or your local equivalent), Goodwill (ask beforehand if your local branches take books), and even your local library. You may not get a lot of money for them, but at least they’ll be in a place where other book-lovers congregate. These options are especially good if you have a lot of popular fiction or practical titles.
  • Freecycle. This amazing service allows people to give away (and pick up) stuff . . . for free. You’ll often find bookpeople on Freecycle. In Brooklyn, where I live, a guy runs an unofficial circulating library service for senior citizens throughout the borough.
  • Ebay or Amazon. You could set yourself up as a vendor of secondhand books, but that might be just too much effort, and you’re not really interested in the pennies you will make versus the amount of time and labor you’ll spend getting all those books up online. But it’s an option if you have a lot of time and patience.
  • Local schools. Schools too may need books: especially classics and hardy perennials, which can be given to needy students. Call them up and see if they’re interested. Here‘s an organization that does precisely that.
  • Overseas. Consider donating books overseas, where libraries may be scarce and the hunger for knowledge and information—especially practicing and learning English—may be great. Here is a website on that might help.
  • Books Through Bars. This organization takes books of special interest to prisoners and sends them, or takes donations of books and money. Consider helping this organization (or your local equivalent).
  • Stoop sales and a box outside your apartment/house. If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, just take a bunch of books outside and watch them disappear. Make sure to take the box in if it looks like rain or snow, or night is falling.

I’ve found that it really helps to sort the books you’re thinking of getting rid of into subject categories. Doing so makes your book collection more useable to potential collectors, and will certainly make them more attractive to people with special interests.

You may own some books of disputed worth to anyone—Fodor’s Hawaii (1975 edition), for instance. In which case, my advice is to get yourself a shredder and rip the book into segments. You can either put the paper pieces out for recycling, or use them as bedding for your worm-bin, or as absorptive material for the old paint you’re disposing of, or even stuffing for a pillow. Either way, you keep the books out of the landfill and free up a little more space to . . . yes, buy more books!

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Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

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Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by my company, Lantern Books—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend. I was proud to be Norm’s publisher and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved me a great deal of time and gave me extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck me as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and I very much appreciated that. In fact, I thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

I will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for the magazine that I co-founded, Satya, and for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously—including, to my surprise, mine. He kindly took the time and the energy to review The Polar Bear in the Zoo and The Elephants in the Room at length and with his customary acumen and generosity. It’s rare these days to find people who’ll not only read your writing but pay you the compliment of an honest review. He did both, and I was deeply touched by that generosity.

I recall I first heard Norm speaks at an outdoor rally back in the early 2000s, when he worked for The Fund for Animals. I believe he was speaking on why the animal advocacy movement should reach out to people of faith. I don’t remember much of the day, except that it rained and Norm talked with the perspective of someone who’d lived his beliefs and wasn’t just spouting bromides and scriptural quotations.

In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. I  regret that I didn’t get to know him better over the years. We don’t honor our elders in the movement very well, and that’s very much to be regretted. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

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Twelve Tips for Successful Crowdfunding

Janell O'Rourke's painting, from her Housekeeping series. Part of THE ART OF THE ANIMAL.

Janell O’Rourke’s painting, from her Housekeeping series. Part of THE ART OF THE ANIMAL.

For decades, publishers have avoided finding out whether their readers want the books that they painstakingly and expensively produce. We’ve conducted no customer surveys or marketing, and have relied instead on editorial hunches and the occasional word from our sales reps about what genre or works are exciting the general public.

Now, however, publishers have not only a means of not only determining just whether anyone is interested in the book we’re thinking of producing, but of removing the risk of producing it in the first place. We can now ask readers to invest in the book’s creation. This is crowdfunding, and it has opened up new possibilities for publishers everywhere.

My publishing company, Lantern Books, has now used crowdfunding—in our case, Indiegogo—to produce four books. The first, We Animals by Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, was a 208-page, full-color hardcover, the production of which (from writing the text to distribution) we budgeted at $35,000. After a 60-day campaign, 680 individuals bought 1280 copies and we raised $51,007. This allowed us not merely to cover the costs of the creation of this book but to print 1250 more copies than had been pre-ordered. These copies were effectively cost-free, and their subsequent sale through the usual book-distribution outlets allowed us to generate enough revenue to cover the costs associated with a conventional printing of another 3000 copies. We are currently selling down this inventory through standard publishing–retail means.

The second and third titles—American Icarus and America on the Couch by depth journalist Pythia Peay—were also budgeted at $35,000. Although these were not photo books, they required substantial editorial and production work. Once again, we made our budget, although we relied on a couple of large donors at the end of the 60-day campaign to take us over the top. These books are currently being edited and will be available in Spring 2015.

The final book is The Art of the Animal, edited by Kathryn Eddy, L. A. Watson, and Janell O’Rourke. Like We Animals, Art is in full-color; unlike with We Animals, we assumed a much smaller market for the book, and so the budget was less: $13,500. We ran a shorter campaign (45 days) as a means of intensifying interest, and pulled in $14,190.

Before the advent of crowdfunding, none of these books would have been feasible for a small, independent press such as Lantern. Certainly, the greater availability of short-run printing and higher-quality print-on-demand technology now make it possible to produce few, full-color books. But the creation of these works still requires editors, designers, and typesetters, all of whom need to be paid. Simply put, these titles’ size and complexity would have made them too expensive to produce.

That said, crowdfunding is not a sure-fire means to raise adequate revenues. Indiegogo, Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and other sites are full of  projects that didn’t get anywhere near their goal (at which point, they either forfeited nine percent of the revenues they earned or, in the case of Kickstarter, didn’t receive any of the money pledged). So, what have I learned in these campaigns that might help you lessen the chances of not making your goal?

  1. Set a reasonable target. Unless your project is very high-profile with a huge built-in fan-base, be very hard-headed about how much you can raise. If in doubt, only use crowdfunding for a part of the project. It’s better for your morale, for your customers, and for your bottom line to meet the smaller goal than fall far short of the bigger one.
  2. Orient the campaign toward a thing. Kickstarter began as a way for artists to raise money for their albums, books, shows, and so on. If you make the goal vague or numinous, it has much different expectations. To that end, therefore . . .
  3. . . . Don’t think of your campaign as charity. Yes, folks may want to support you in a general sense, but you need to think about the campaign as delivering a product. Use words like pre-order, investment, buy. Resist using words like donate, charity, give. Change your attitude, and that of your customers. They are getting something, and not just being kind.
  4. Make a movie. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a movie (three minutes or less) that explains your project—where you’re talking directly to your audience and making your pitch clearly and concisely—is fundamental to a campaign’s success. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production, and it absolutely should not be long, but it helps. Here, here, and here are some good examples of what to do.
  5. Consider your audience carefully. Is your community enthusiastic but poor or hard-to-reach but rich? How is your product generally valued in the marketplace? These considerations will enable you to choose and price accurately the perks you offer, in addition to branding the product in a way that speaks to your audience’s aspirations and self-image.
  6. Make the perks count.  The “perks” are those items or services that people can purchase in addition to the thing you’re trying to create. In our experience, you need to offer people a way to send you a small amount (because they want to be involved) as well as a large amount (because they want to feel like a sponsor or patron). Some campaigns, such as this one, rely on lots of small purchases; others need a blend of $30 and $500 ones. On the one hand, you need to ensure you can earn enough through the simple acquisition of the product and not rely on the big buyers. On the other, it’s advisable to provide folks with the option of purchasing something expensive.
  7. Budget for distribution. Your biggest headache is likely to be fulfillment. People are going to order your item from all over the world. Lantern’s solution has been to estimate shipping at one rate: the relatively many who live nearer your distribution point will pay more to compensate for the relatively few who live further away, who will pay much less. We’ve found that the costs work themselves out in the wash. Another option is to charge more for overseas shipping.
  8. Have a back-up plan. Use your credit card; engage a wealthy relative to step in; bring in some really amazing perks half-way through the campaign that are guaranteed to get you over the finish line. You do not want to fall short in your campaign.
  9. Send bulletins. Regular messages describing the campaign, expressing thanks, and telling folks about how the production is coming along are essential. Just because somebody’s already paid for something doesn’t mean they won’t buy another copy or let their friends know about their campaign. Don’t bombard your backers with messages (that’s irritating), but coddle your customers.
  10. Don’t just use social media to get the word out. In our last campaign, nearly half the money came from those who had been emailed, as opposed to accessing our campaign through Twitter, Facebook, and so on. That suggests two things: (1) people want to be approached directly; and (2) crowdfunding is now becoming so common that people are zoning it out. You need to be persistent, polite, and persuasive. Targeted emails may take longer, but they may be more remunerative than generic blasts or posts.
  11. Don’t do it all yourself. Make sure you have a group of folks responsible for reaching out to the community—preferably people who are networked to people in networks. In the case of The Art of the Animal, three well-connected and committed individuals were responsible for a third of the purchases made. In the case of We Animals,  the author could tap into organizations who knew her work and were willing to spread the word about the campaign to their networks. This meant that our outreach grew exponentially.
  12. Be positive. People don’t want to see your panic, smell your desperation, or hear you moan about a lack of support. They have plenty of other things to spend their money on. Make them feel part of something bold and exciting.
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