By Beth Bentley
Parables has been around for about four years now, and we’ve published a book or two each year. The latest is Rob Goble’s Across a Harvested Field, which won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award. Before that, Arianne Cope’s The Coming of Elijah, too, won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award, and Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth won both the AML novel award and the Whitney award for best novel by a new author. We also published Mark Bennion’s outstanding collection of poetry, but primarily we want to be known for realistic, contemporary LDS fiction.
I say “we,” but our entire staff consists of my husband, George, and me. I’m the acquisitions/editor/typesetter/marketing person, and he’s the bookkeeper/art director. He and I both have to love a manuscript before we’ll offer a contract, but it’s not like we have to convene a committee meeting over it.
I want to publish the kinds of books I most want to read—namely about thoroughly engaging characters with LDS values, dealing with challenging, real-life problems. I’m not interested in gratuitous apologetics or inspiration. However, if some of that is organic and fundamental to the plot, it’s fine. Humor is a plus, but preachiness and easy, pat solutions are a really big turnoff. George is more plot-oriented and is especially partial to unexpected twists. He’s so widely read, it’s hard to surprise him, but guessing the end is fun too. Like most people, however, he’s impatient with flabby writing and slow-moving plots that wander off track.
I can usually make at least a preliminary decision on a manuscript within a month, and I consider electronic and simultaneous (but not previously published) submissions, so submitting to Parables isn’t a big investment for a writer in either time or money. I hate it, myself, when a publisher ties up my work for a year or more. Because I don’t get hundreds of manuscripts, I can give each one more attention than the bigger publishers can. I have writers’ guidelines posted on the Parables website, www.parablespub.com, but they’re only guidelines. I’m not going to refuse to look at a manuscript solely because it doesn’t come with a summary and outline or is single spaced. If the opening shows promise, I’ll keep reading until I either fall in love or find myself no longer interested. I generally make notes in the process because I don’t want to risk missing something on a second pass, so, even if I can’t accept a story, the author generally gets some free editing and more than just a “Sorry, not for us.” So far, only one person has complained that he didn’t ask for and didn’t want my opinion, but I always worry that someone will take offense.
Once I’ve decided to accept a manuscript, I send the author a negotiable contract along with the edited text for revision. I’m a heavy editor, but it’s not like I have to get my own way all the time. I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me. I appreciate that it’s the author’s name on the book, not mine. I only want to help the author make his book as good as it can be. I’m adamant about rejecting blasphemy and explicit sex, but I think a steamy kiss or some PG-13 language that a reader might find in any mainstream novel isn’t out of line when it serves the character. Usually a manuscript goes back and forth between the author and me a couple of times, as we fine-tune it. Meanwhile, George works at designing a cover everybody can live with. He welcomes input, which is a little unusual, but the authors seem to appreciate his flexibility.
I like to get uncorrected proof copies of the finished text out to reviewers in May, trying to time the appearance of the book with its actual release just before LDSBA in August, but that’s not a lock either. We use print-on-demand technology, which is a more expensive process (per copy), but I think we’ve managed to keep our retail prices competitive, and the end result is virtually indistinguishable from offset books.
So far I’ve had only great experiences with our authors. I suppose there are difficult people out there, but I haven’t run into any. Maybe that’s because I’m not as harried as a lot of overworked editors. For instance, I don’t have a problem if somebody wants to call me up to pitch a book or see if I got a submission or discuss marketing or merely vent about the state of publishing in general.
Tapping into the market for these more adult novels has been an adventure. I think of our target readers as the book-club women who meet in their homes because an officially sanctioned Relief Society meeting has restrictions on what they can and can’t choose. The only way to reach these women is through word-of-mouth. But marketing has become easier with each book we put out, not only because of the increasing recognition Parables has been getting (due in large part to the efforts of our wonderful authors), but also, I think, because of Internet social networking, blogs, message boards, and search engines.
Just this past month, we took the plunge into e-publishing on Smashwords.com. Four years ago we published our first two titles in both trade paperback and PDF format, but sold only a single electronic copy. I understand that this year ten percent of all books sold in the U.S. are in electronic form, so I posted all our in-print titles online at considerably reduced prices. Mark Bennion’s is there at “choose your own price,” as an experiment. I even posted my own latest novel, A Wandering Star. Till now I’d hesitated to publish anything of my own under the Parables label, not wanting Parables to look like a self-publisher, even though I think self-publishing’s current stigma is, in many cases, undeserved.
It may seem inconsistent for a commercial publisher to support self-publishing, but (given decent editing) self-publishing may be the best solution for writers whose books have only a limited pool of potential readers, like our book club types—a small subset of LDS readers, which is an even smaller subset of all mainstream book readers, which is a depressingly small subset of the general population. Traditional publishers have stockholders and board members to answer to. They have to make a profit, but most writers I know have day jobs and would keep writing even if they never sold a word. I believe in the free exchange of ideas. For instance, I recently recommended that Irreantum be a free, online journal, instead of a paper-only, subscription magazine. I succeeded only in moving the board to consider posting back issues for free download, but I consider that a positive first step toward literally opening up LDS literature to the world. Look at what Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg have done in just a few short years. Imperfect, yes, but liberating to parents who could never dream of buying a set of Encyclopedia Britannica or Great Books of the Western World.
I thoroughly expect e-books to revolutionize publishing in the next decade. Not only are they significantly cheaper, lighter, and with adjustable print size, but they don’t take up any shelf space (which is increasingly important to libraries). I lost count of how many of my friends got a Kindle for Christmas. And I must have seen at least seven or eight people with e-scriptures in Sunday School this past week.
But until that revolution, all our books will continue to be distributed by Ingram Book Co., the largest distributor in the U.S., making them available through Amazon and other online and brick-and-mortar stores. Most LDS bookstores, except for BYU’s three locations, have been slow to stock our books, despite their awards. I’m hopeful that our having more titles now will make us more attractive to independent LDS stores. I’m less hopeful that our future books will have any better luck than our current titles in passing the chain outlets’ rigorous vetting process, and that’s fine. I understand that Deseret customers, for instance, expect to find only books that are “safe” enough for their twelve-year-old’s virgin sensibilities. Parables publishes books for mature adults. Not only would the complexities of adult life depicted in them be of only marginal interest to a preteen, but even the style of writing and the metaphorical and historical referents would likely escape them. For the time being. I consider every Deseret reader a Parables reader in embryo.
Some years ago George and I owned a small general bookstore in Massachusetts. We saw parents desperate to get their children (boys in particular) interested in reading. Somehow the schools had failed them. The kids could read; they just didn’t want to. Books didn’t turn on the movie in their heads—the fictive dream. But we literally watched some of them go from Gary Paulsen to Steven King to Cormac McCarthy in under five years. I have every confidence that the reading experience can surpass anything offered by TV, Internet, or gaming. Where else do we ever get to examine another life from the inside? It’s the ultimate in understanding human nature. And thus ourselves.