First of all, I’d like to thank all the publishing folk who’ve taken time to write guest posts for this “Publishers Corner” category over the last year or more. We’ve had a good range, from Deseret and Covenant to some of the newest micropresses in the Mormon field.
Without someone else lined up for this month, I thought I’d type up a few notes and thoughts about my own publishing concern, Zarahemla Books (I’d like to see other publishers contribute reports annually as well). About this time a year ago, I thought Zarahemla was fading into the sunset. I wasn’t going to shut it down—there’s really nothing to shut down, in terms of overhead—but I wasn’t going to push it.
As it turns out, Zarahemla is still in the game more than I expected. What’s been evolving is a model of ad-hoc volunteer and hired help, a different mix for each book. This is because I don’t have time, money, and mojo to do as much by myself as I used to, and yet some books just can’t be repressed. (I fancy myself a writer too, after all, and I’m constantly pining to work on my own creative projects.)
These days, when a potentially interesting query comes in, I forward it out to some trusted readers, not all of whom volunteered—I just picked ’em and hoped they’d be interested, and a few have been quite helpful. A lot of the time, no one responds to queries I forward, which I take as a sign that the project isn’t worth pursuing. In reality, it may just be that everyone was too busy to read the e-mail—but oh well, I tried. For me personally, reviewing prospective manuscripts is one of the things I’m least willing to spend time doing, so these days I almost totally rely on others to tell me if something needs to be published, unless your name is Doug Thayer or Todd Robert Petersen.
Once something gets accepted by Zarahemla by recommendation of two or three literary experts, I’m to the point where I personally edit the book only if I already know the author and feel a mixture of interest and obligation to do so. In some cases, one of my handpicked readers will volunteer to act as editor for a book. In a couple of cases, when I’m not available and a volunteer hasn’t stepped up, the author has hired his or her own third-party editor, in which case I pay a higher royalty rate to help compensate for that investment. But don’t worry, this is far from vanity publishing—first the book has to be accepted by the recommendation of two or three Mormon literary experts, and that happens only once or twice a year. (Personally, when I’m offered money to edit a book, I usually turn it down because I already have too much on my plate, at least under my current employment/family/avocational circumstances.)
I have to admit, there are now four Zarahemla titles published in past years or currently in the pipeline that I have not personally read. This is mainly because I have very little time for reading and yet a basement full of books I want to read, with two new bookshelves added just last month to keep up with my ongoing Amazon habit. What I do in cases where I haven’t read a book is act as the central hub for coordinating everything. As I said before, two or three enthusiastic, qualified readers first have to recommend the title for publishing, and then a volunteer or hired editor has to be found. Once the Word file is ready for publication, sometimes the author’s hired editorial service will do the page layout and proofreading, and sometimes I will do the interior layout myself and then ask for some volunteer proofreaders. (If I haven’t read the book up to this point, I definitely don’t like to read it now because I might not personally like it, and then I’ll make other people mad who have invested hope, time, excitement, and possibly money into it. I’ve come to prefer to just trust the readers who recommended it and other experts working on it—in fact, sometimes I’m tempted to put “book credits” on the copyright page and let everyone be openly accountable for their own role: selected for publication by so and so, edited by so and so, proofread by so and so, etc.)
Lest you think I’m too much of a slacker, I still put twenty or thirty hours or more into each Zarahemla title even if I’ve never read it and didn’t serve as its editor. I still have to do tons of coordinating between all the parties, oversee the cover design process (I allow a lot of back and forth with the author), set up the printing and distribution, set up the web stuff, send out media notices and requested review copies, pack and ship customer orders, do a lot of bookkeeping, etc. Even when an author pays for third-party editorial services, Zarahemla still invests about $500 in a book and doesn’t always earn that much back. I’ve never taken out cash from Z. publishing proceeds, but Z. occasionally covers a few related expenses on my own behalf, including some books and equipment. However, my personal benefit would probably work out to about $1.50 an hour.
So there’s the transparent, behind-the-scenes version of Zarahemla. It’s not perfect or ideal, and we have made and will continue to make some mistakes and miss some opportunities, but it’s better than nothing. For a niche micropress like mine, this model makes it more likely that the enterprise won’t burn out. On the other hand, I’m actually happy when someone DOESN’T publish with Zarahemla, because I see us as the publisher of last resort for books that are worthy but just can’t catch on anywhere else. I’m glad to see three or four other micropresses who are performing this same kind of safety-net role in Mormon culture—I think all their proprietors are more engaged in considering projects and editing them than I am, and if they end up replacing Zarahemla altogether, that’s fine with me. Between all of us, I hope no unworthy book with Mormon connections ever goes unpublished.
For anyone who might be interested, following are the cumulative sales for Zarahemla as a whole and for each individual title, from the time we started in 2006 through year-end 2011:
ZARAHEMLA BOOKS (all 15 titles)
HOOLIGAN, Douglas Thayer
ON THE ROAD TO HEAVEN, Coke Newell
ANGEL FALLING SOFTLY, Eugene Woodbury
THE TREE HOUSE, Douglas Thayer
RIFT, Todd Robert Petersen
NO GOING BACK, Jonathan Langford
DISPENSATION, ed. Angela Hallstrom
LONG AFTER DARK, Todd Robert Petersen
HUNTING GIDEON, Jessica Draper
THE DEATH OF A DISCO DANCER, David Clark
KINDRED SPIRITS, Christopher Kimball Bigelow
BROTHER BRIGHAM, D. Michael Martindale
LIGHT OF THE NEW DAY, Darin Cozzens
WHAT OF THE NIGHT?, Stephen Carter
WASATCH, Douglas Thayer