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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Book Store Desert

To steal a phrase from one of my MFA classmates, I live in a bookstore desert. One would think that in a place like Springfield where there are nine library branches that there might also be a bookstore but there isn't. We have a new casino, but no bookstore. The Mass Mutual Center, but no bookstore!

Once upon a time, in a city long, long ago, there was an oasis in that desert: Johnson's Books. When my grandmother was young she would walk from her house in Winchester Square down to Main Street just to go to Johnson's so she could buy art supplies. That was in the late 1940's when she was a student at the High School of Commerce (where I now teach creative writing). Then, forty years later, when I was just a tot, I remember my parents taking me to Johnson's and plopping me down in the basement where they had a children's section and play area. They would go upstairs and shop for books while I played with the other children under the watchful eye of the children's bookseller.

I don't remember the exact date that Johnson's disappeared from downtown Springfield (WGBY's Gone But Not Forgotten tells me it was in 1998; I would have been a senior in high school), but I do remember feeling its loss keenly. Of course, by then there were bookstores in the Holyoke Mall. We had Waldenbooks and Borders, eventually a Barnes and Noble in the plaza that sprang up behind the mall. As long as I had a place to buy books, I didn't really think twice about it.

It wasn't until I self-published my first book in 2006 that I began to see the distinct difference between the indies and the big chain bookstores. Broadside in Northampton was the first store willing to carry that book (which was terrible by the way, but Bill still managed to sell it); Borders at the mall was the second. Even though it was a chain store, Borders operated very much like an indie. Each franchise manager had a great deal of freedom in event planning and they chose to support local authors as often as possible. Sometimes I wondered if that wasn't what contributed to their eventual demise.

Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, wanted (and still wants) nothing to do with self-published authors. They are willing to deal with indie authors as long as they stock their books through a warehouse service like Ingram Spark. Because they're more concerned with the bottom line than with discovering the next great writer, B&N will only carry a book if they can get a deep discount by buying wholesale. They also want the option to return unsold copies of the book and get some sort of return on their investment which is not something that indies do.

Having been on both sides of the fence-- as both indie author and now indie publisher- working with bookstores like Broadside, Blue Umbrella in Westfield, and Book Club Bookstore in South Windsor makes my life a whole lot sweeter. Jess Martin at Blue Umbrella was my greatest supporter when my first novel came out and again when I launched my independent press. She ordered as many copies of my book as possible and offered great consignment rates, knowing that I would likely reinvest a good deal of my profits back into the shop (she knew I couldn't walk out without buying at least one book for myself). Later when I launched Dark Ink Press she hosted book launches for my authors, talked up their books, and even made sure that there was media coverage for each and every book.

Independent bookstores have become the nexus of the communities in which they reside. Blue Umbrella was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Westfield and on its coattails rode the burgeoning art community that has now made Westfield a destination. Broadside has been an anchor on Northampton's main drag since 1974. Johnson's, though defunct for many years, still carries with it the memories of an entire city. My mother still has a Johnson's bag tucked into the cabinet under her sink. Some of us (ahem) even collect Johnson's memorabilia. And, in a giant twist of fate that can only happen in the world of books. my business mentor is none other than...Mr. Charlie Johnson of Johnson's Books.

And with that supreme book nerd moment, I leave you to run out and patronize the nearest indie bookstore you can find.
Bon chance!


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Meet the Press

As part of our Intro to Publishing class, I had the opportunity to talk with Beth Collins, Production Manager at Beacon Press. Having majored in English and minored in film, Beth had initially planned to make documentaries. A few years after finishing her undergrad at Mount Holyoke, she went to Boston University for television production but found it difficult to find jobs that weren't freelance, which is certainly a common complaint amongst documentary filmmakers. Eventually, Beth started working as a temp at Houghton Mifflin while still making documentaries on the side. Thus began her road to publishing.

After realizing that she wanted a home in publishing, Beth found that Emerson College offered a certificate in publishing and she completed the program, adding some crucial publishing skills to her repertoire. Soon after finishing the program at Emerson, Beth was hired at Beacon.

As a production manager, Beth works closely with the finished manuscripts to get them through publication and ready for marketing. After a manuscript has been edited, Beth's department has to book for up to nine months, prepping it for printing. At any one time, Production may have up to ten books in different phases of production and each book may be in a different phase on any given day.

The production team, with Beth's guidance, works to ensure that the edits have been input correctly, that the covers look good and the jacket copy is correct, and that the finished product is ready for manufacture. Prior to production, cover designers have chosen a font package that will be used throughout the book and the cover itself is created. All of this is fed into InDesign and the book layout is finalized. The manuscript is then sent out to be typeset and printed to one of the group of printers that Beacon works with consistently. The production director (Marcy Barnes) is responsible for maintaining the list of printers as they do change frequently. If the book will become an eBook or Audiobook, those services are outsourced to companies that specialize in those formats.

At Beacon, authors can be certain they will be working with the same production specialist throughout the entire process, ensuring continuity through the entire project as production is where all the finishing touches happen. In many cases, Beth says, the books are rather straightforward academic texts that don't vary much in layout, making the process relatively simple to streamline. On occasion Beacon also produces books of poetry, in which case the author is generally responsible for directing the layout and appearance of the book as poetry takes its own form in the printing process.

As a reader, Beth says she's excited about a couple of Young Adult titles that Beacon will be producing which is something they haven't done before. The books have quite a few images and text boxes and Beth says she is looking forward to seeing what that process is like. Knowing my interest in mental health, Beth recommended The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease by Jonathan Metzl. "I was a production assistant at the time this book was published so I just reviewed the page proofs and jacket, but it’s stuck in my memory," Beth said of the book. Now Beth has a great deal more responsibility but says she greatly enjoys being a part of the production team at Beacon and having a hand in producing meaningful works of nonfiction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Time Travel

"Imagine yourself as a young twenty-something who would like to work in a large publishing house."  

When I was applying to college I told my parents I wanted to major in English because I wanted to become a writer. Here's how that went:

Me: I want to major in English.
My mother: ......
My father: .......
Me: No really. I want to be a writer and I need an English degree for that.
My mother: .......
My father: What the hell are you going to do with an English degree? You can't make money as a writer. You need a backup plan. Like teaching.

And so, that's what I did. I went to Elms with the intention of majoring in secondary education so I could teach high school advanced placement English and creative writing while I wrote the great American novel in my spare time.

Then came my early 20's when I accidentally fell face first into special education. It's a long story, and one that involves getting a mechanical pencil jammed in my hand (see earlier posts) but I found myself working at a residential treatment facility and researching my first nonfiction book (even though I didn't know that's what it was at the time).

Even though I was enjoying teaching and applying to grad school for special education, I still occasionally crept through the job postings in the publishing industry. I was never brave enough to apply for them but I certainly dreamed. I thought I wanted to be an acquisitions editor, slogging through the slush pile to find that one diamond in the rough that would become the novel of the year, of the decade, the voice of a generation. I pictured myself kicking off my Jimmy Choos and propping my feet up on the desk in my cubicle while I read manuscripts. Later I thought I might want to be an editor, going through manuscripts with my red pen, helping to shape a book the way Max Perkins did with Thomas Wolfe.

Then I discovered that I hate editing. I hate reading raw material. I also discovered that I'm much better at interacting with authors and helping them build a platform for their already finished book. Eventually, I also discovered the production aspect of a book, creating a schedule for a book's creation and launch, writing jacket copy, having input on the cover design. Laying out a book and formatting a text gives me a much greater sense of accomplishment than editing does. In fact, I've discovered I have neither the attention span nor the patience to edit a manuscript.

I still enjoy the thrill of meeting a new author who has something to say and hearing them pitch their work. I love discovering writers who have an incredible story that wasn't right for other publishers but might be right for a small indie press that can devote more time to the work. But most of all I love being the last person to touch a book before it's released, the person who coordinates all the moving parts and makes the author's vision a reality. Production is the behind the scenes machine that makes the book an actual thing, a product that we can put in a reader's hand and say, "Enjoy".

I'm still teaching and still an idealist when it comes to publishing. I now have friends in the industry and I love listening to them talk about the authors they're working with or the great manuscript they found that they hope the editors will love. I still sometimes wonder what that would be like. But I'm also a realist and I know that I want to be on the other side of the fence, behind the curtain, working to put the finishing touches on a book. Just call me The Wizard....


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mistakes Were Made

This week we were asked to take a look at some common publishing terms and reflect on our understanding of the business jargon.

The word of the day kiddies:

And no, I didn't choose it because it sounds like erotica. Get your minds out of the gutter.

In publishing errata is a loose sheet detailing errors found in a printed book. It's a literal accounting of your failures as a writer even AFTER having gotten published. Now isn't that a slap in the face.

I find a certain kinship with this word because this list of errors reminds us that at every step of the publishing process we are all human. Even though there is a team of professionals working tirelessly to make your work the best it can be for public consumption, nothing can ever be 100% perfect.

When I wrote my first novel I assumed I would just edit it myself. I would print it out, chapter by chapter, and line edit my own work.

Then one day my eyeballs exploded and my brain liquefied.

No, not really. But that's what it felt like. So I hired an editor and I thought, now it will be perfect.

I got it back and my head exploded a second time.

My editor and I swapped that manuscript back and forth at least four times and likely could have done it more (if I hadn't gone broke) and still found more errors.

Once it was published, what's the first review I got on Amazon? One star because the book was "loaded with errors".

That's it. I quit.

No, not really. But my first thought was, how the hell could this book still have errors? I've been staring at it for SIX YEARS. It has to be right by now! But it will never be right. It will never be 100% because the human brain can't pick up every error every time. There will always be mistakes and I've come to the conclusion that these are what makes the book human and reminds the readers that there is a real living, breathing person behind those pages. A whole team of them in fact! And none of them is perfect.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying, don't pick on authors when you find errors in their books. Even the largest publishing houses miss typos or small grammatical errors.

And no, your author friend WILL NOT appreciate you handing them your own carefully constructed errata after you read their book. If you do this, you will no longer have friends.


Friday, August 31, 2018

The Adult Thing

Today a student was trying to guess how old I am, which is a popular game for all ages. It's great how skewed their sense of time is because most of them assume I'm in my 20's. Although I'm beginning to think they're judging less on looks and more on maturity level...or lack thereof. So I finally tell them that I'm 38 and one student tells me I look younger than her mother who is 33. I almost said, "That's because I don't have a teenaged girl in my house" but I caught myself. Her next question was, "How old was your mom when she had you?" I told her both my parents were 30 when I was born and of course she blurted out, "That's OLD!" I laughed because their concept of "old" is so warped, but then she seemed to reconsider her opinion. "Actually, that's not old. That's responsible!" Gotta love teens.

This week in class we are being asked to consider what it means to be an "accomplished" writer and it's funny because this is something I think about often. Like most people, I buy a book, I read it, and sometimes I'm left with barely lukewarm feelings and all I can think is, "How did this person get published and not me?" I think it's only natural that we as humans spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. If you asked me ten years ago what I would consider accomplished, I likely would have said something about the NYT bestseller list and a piece published in the New Yorker. At one time I even had dreams of seeing one of my books become a film.

By the time I actually had a finished book in my hand, I lowered the bar a bit. Accomplished began to mean simply published. I thought getting an acceptance from an agent or publisher would mean I had "made it" as a writer, until I started papering my office with rejection letters. I knew I had a good book and it occurred to me that an agent/editor's job is so largely subjective-- I would never be able to please everyone with my work so I had to work to fulfill my own desires.

Once my first book was self-published and I ambushed the world with it, I realized that true accomplishment as a writer is having someone come up to you with your book in their hands as they tell you how much your book meant to them in some way. My greatest accomplish became the conversations I had with folks who had read my book and come away from it having learned something. I enjoyed the press, I saved every article (and still do) written about my work, and though I could collect these little mementos of accomplishment, it meant more to me that I had started a long-running conversation.

I didn't consider myself successful until I started getting messages from strangers who thanked me for my work. When you write about something as complicated and socially taboo as mental health, positive reactions to your work are cherished. When someone reaches out like that, it means you've broken down a barrier, scaled a wall, kicked a stigma in the face. The greatest success I've had as a writer is turning my book into someone else's accomplishment. Some folks who read my books would never have openly discussed mental illness without my books as a vehicle. I've raised their social consciousness in a very small, but powerful way. On top of that, participating in the MFA program has helped me remember, regularly, that as long as I keep writing, I will have accomplished something profound, even if it never sees the light of day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Blogging Out My Laziness

So as you can see, I haven't updated this blog in two years.


My goodness, what have you missed? Let's see. I got engaged, changed jobs twice, wrote two more books, under contract for three more, started a PhD, dropped a PhD, started an independent publishing company, adopted a handicapped dog, and pissed off an entire town.

I've tried a number of times to maintain a blog or even keep a journal and I've learned one very important thing: I suck at it. Do I write every day? Absolutely. Do I have the discipline, hell the organizational skills, to blog or journal every day?


However, after a false start with a PhD that made me miserable (more on that later) I decided I wanted to finish my MFA in Creative Nonfiction instead and classes start on the 27th. I was looking over the syllabus for one of my classes and realized there was a module about blogging which necessitated either maintaining a current blog or creating a new one and let me tell you, I panicked. Hard. The only reason I'm even able to update this blog is that it's tied to my Google account otherwise I don't think I ever would have remembered the login info. I'm not kidding.

Now here I am, writing an entry for the first time in two years so I don't look like the laziest grad student ever (I'm not-- I promise. I just have literary ADD) and I don't even know where to begin! I started the MFA in CNF two years ago, shortly after my last post. Originally I had started in Creative Writing-- pure fiction- but the program wasn't what I was looking for. I finished and published my first novel in between that program and the new one but I had always loved nonfiction and wanted to learn how to make my work more accessible to wider audiences.

Here's something you might not know about me: I like asylums. No seriously, it's true 😂When I started writing in 2006 I was determined to write just nonfiction. I wrote very clean, very fact driven accounts of each asylum accompanied by full-color images that I had taken. My first book, Behind the Walls: Shadows of New England's Asylums was exceptionally well received. It sold out every time we printed it and it became a worldwide bestseller. It launched my career and got me a lot of press, but I noticed a rather disheartening thing: the people who attended my lectures were the same folks over and over again. They were nurses, psychiatrists, teachers, professionals in the mental health field. They were the people who were already used to talking about mental health every minute of every day. No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to broaden the scope of my work, this book I had worked so hard to produce, that I was so proud of, that was now held in college libraries up and down the East Coast.

I eventually realized that it was my writing that was the problem. I was the problem. My approach was dry, factual. I was never really able to convey what it felt like to walk into one of these buildings with nothing but a camera and walk the halls of some of the most infamous buildings in human history. So I turned to fiction instead. I wove my favorite asylum into a novel using as much historical fact as I could while weaving this tale of mystery that could have happened on the wards of Northampton State Hospital in 1959. Hospital Hill also became a bestseller and eventually won a regional literary award; I suddenly saw a shift in the folks who were coming to my lectures, who were now willing to talk about mental health in the context of a cozy mystery. They connected to Valerie, my main character, and they reviled the evil doctor who made her life miserable. They wanted more.

So I wrote another novel. Another asylum. Another mystery. But I wanted to do more with my writing. I wanted to go back to my roots and write more nonfiction, but I knew I didn't want to produce another textbook. I wanted to write something that people would enjoy reading, like a novel, while learning a whole ton of random stuff about asylums and mental health.

Enter the MFA in CNF. It was the kick in the ass I needed to learn how to write for a reader, a real reader like the ones who might pick my book up at the bookstore. I stretched my own weird reading boundaries (very weird, trust me) and started reading writers like Cheryl Strayed and Ariel Levy. I picked up memoirs by my favorite actors like Lauren Graham and missives on writing by Stephen King and Charles Bukowski. I even got up the nerve to cold call some of my favorite authors and bend their ears about their own books.

Am I babbling? I'm babbling. Dammit.

Long story short, my goal this semester is to keep this up to date and let you all in on my writing life. I'm beyond excited about this particular class this semester and for completing my thesis, but also about the next few books I have on tap. I realize too that I'm not the only one going through this process, especially the process with my current publisher, and it might be nice to share with other writers. Who knows, maybe I have some wisdom to impart! Let's hope...

Do come back.