It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’ve just finished preparing the 2009 royalty statements and checks for Zarahemla Books authors. Sometimes I wonder about spending so much time on this endeavor, but I felt good today when I totaled up the grand total of books sold since Zarahemla started in 2006: 4,000 copies of 11 titles, with revenues totaling over $30,000. So that’s not nothing. And just yesterday I spent two hours on the phone with a non-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune reporter who is very interested in Zarahemla and is preparing a feature article. Other times, however, it seems like weeks go by without so much as a single book order coming in, and I start to wonder…
Anyway, for this entry I thought I’d discuss the biggest challenge facing Zarahemla and see if anyone can help. The biggest challenge is not financial, as some might guess, although there are times when I have to delay publishing a book or doing marketing until enough sales trickle in to finance it. The biggest challenge is that I don’t personally feel fully able to decide what to publish. What I’ve published so far has mostly been written by authors whose work or reputation I already knew, and I have a sense that I’m not effectively reviewing unsolicited submissions or putting enough feelers out to make sure Zarahemla is getting a shot at the very best stuff out there, faithfully realistic stuff that might not otherwise be published because it’s too worldly for most Mormons and too Mormon for the world.
For me personally, the problem boils down to not having enough time or willingness to read. When unsolicited submissions come in, I usually either ignore them or pass them on to somebody else who I hope might read and report back, although I’ve done that fairly informally and perhaps hamfistedly (perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of one of my e-mails inviting you to consider a manuscript on Zarahemla’s behalf). At one time, I had two fine gentlemen who were acting as acquiring editors, and they each acquired and edited a book, both of which sold between 100-200 copies. But then one of them accepted a book that I didn’t personally like enough to invest my time in, and understandably that put him off.
What would you do in my situation, if you ran a small niche publishing endeavor and wanted to make sure you were publishing the right things but didn’t have enough time to really evaluate everything, let alone reach out to find good stuff? Ideally, what I’d like is a panel of readers willing to review incoming submissions and also maybe get out and actually drum up submissions, and then report to Zarahemla with recommendations. And then I could determine what interests me enough to pursue, based on those recommendations.
There’s part of me that says, “If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep doing what I do either.” After all, I have my own writings and other pursuits that I’ve set aside to do Zarahemla, and it’s not like Zarahemla pays me anything (although I have to admit, when things have gone well Zarahemla has been able to pay some peripheral expenses, such as cell phone and computer equipment).
Zarahemla already has three books in the pipeline for 2010, which I will turn to as soon as I can find time; while all three are very high quality and worthwhile, none seem like titles that would sell more than 50-100 copies. In the meantime, occasional submissions roll in, and it’s not too early to start looking ahead to 2011. If you’d like to volunteer to be on some kind of Zarahemla editorial board or panel, let me know. What that would mean is that I would forward you submissions and also use you as a sounding board on other things. Of course, you would be free to ignore anything that comes from me. When no one responds, I’ll often just turn around and tell an author, “I’m sorry, none of our readers has opted to read your manuscript.”
Any other advice or ideas about how to run Zarahemla and decide what to publish would be most welcome. I’d love to hear any kind of blue-sky ideas, even along the lines of suggesting I pass on the enterprise to another group or organization, so that one person’s taste isn’t controlling things too much (for instance, Zarahemla will never publish poetry on my watch; from my perspective as a reader, poetry is like having someone put a raw, unpeeled potato on my plate and say, “Good luck digesting that,” instead of giving me a nice heap of creamy mashed potatoes, already practically predigested for me).
Thanks in advance for any input, advice, suggestions, ideas, critiques, or anything else about the issues I’ve raised above or anything else related to Zarahemla Books or beyond. I suppose I’m assuming that most people reading the AML blog are already somewhat familiar with Zarahemla Books, which may or may not be accurate. But anyway, now I need to move on this Saturday afternoon to doing my own taxes, commenting on student drafts, editing and writing for my current freelance book project, plus trying to interact with my wife and kids to some degree and help run the household… And oh, crap, it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow.