- by Dara Girard
Bywater Books publishes an array of high quality lesbian fiction from the humorous, award-winning title I Came Out For This by Lisa Gitlin to the works of bestselling crime writer Val McDermid. I was honored that the co-founder took time out of her hectic schedule to talk about her company, advice to writers and her thoughts on marketing.
Tell us a little about yourself and your publishing company.
I was born in Ohio, but my family moved to Michigan when I was quite young. I’ve been an athlete most of my life, and love drawing, building, landscaping, reading and writing. I’m a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, taught in the public schools for 25 years, and coached basketball and softball at both the high school and amateur athletic levels. I published my first book the year I left teaching, and have currently written nine novels. In 2004 I helped found Bywater Books, a publishing company that produces top quality lesbian fiction.
After teaching for 25 years what made you decide to become an author?
Although it always seemed that my focus was on athletics and art, privately I wrote— little stories, journals, always choosing to write my school assignments rather than present them orally. It was a manner of expression that I learned to rely on when thoughts or questions couldn’t be expressed otherwise. Very early I identified my sexuality, but in the 50’s and 60’s it wasn’t discussed outside the realm of mental illness or a secret perverse society. When I started teaching, that private form of expression became even more important. Closeted everywhere except my home, I began to use writing as an affordable therapy. It wasn’t until my partner convinced me to submit my stories for publication that I realized that others might benefit from what I had written.
What made you decide to create Bywater Books?
I was working on my fourth novel when my publisher began telling me about a new publishing venture that she was thinking about. At the time I had never considered being involved in the publishing end of the business. But, the more we discussed it the more I realized that we had the same vision of what to publish and how a publishing house should work. It would be a publishing house that would build slowly and stay small enough to maintain a thorough editing process and allow the time to work with and promote each author and book. For me, that was an author’s dream. So, when she asked me to join her in founding Bywater Books, I couldn’t resist.
You manage general operations. What kinds of duties are involved with that position?
General operations includes management of direct sales, communications with authors, printer, accountant, web site manager and acquisitions director. I am also responsible for getting press releases and ARCs out to the media list, and providing books and materials for events such as author signings and conference appearances.
You also manage the annual Bywater Prize for Fiction. Can you tell us more?
The Bywater Prize is our annual writing contest that is open to both published and unpublished writers. We are looking for original, well-crafted stories about and for lesbians that are written in a compelling voice. The winner will receive an honorarium of $1,000.00 and publication by Bywater Books. Through this contest we have discovered a number of wonderfully talented writers.
What current trends in publishing do you find the most interesting/disturbing?
Actually, the most interesting trend in publishing is also the most disturbing, self-publishing. The technology available now is inexpensive and easy to use, both for print and ebooks, and it has provided a whole new possibility for writers who haven’t been accepted by a traditional publishing house, or who for various reasons don’t wish to be. It has allowed new voices to be heard that may not have fit with what traditional presses are publishing, or willing to take a financial risk on. Some have also used self-publishing to prove their marketability, and have then been contracted by a publishing house. Others have found ways to successfully market themselves, and continue to self-publish.
But, self-publishing has also allowed the market to be flooded with books that are sub-par, lacking professional editing and typesetting, and produced with low grade materials. And, it is particularly damaging to a niche market such as lesbian literature, since many readers already have doubts as to the quality of our literature. One poorly written book could turn away readers who are unwilling to waste time and money struggling through the enormous amount of books out there in order to find good reading.
What advice do you have for seasoned authors in the current climate?
Good advice, in any market climate, is to keep stretching and growing as an author, to not become satisfied with a structure or “formula” that has worked for them. Presses, too, can be guilty of expecting a certain type of story from a successful author because it sold well for them. But, turning out the same kind of book over and over often leads to story staleness. The readers know what to expect from a favorite author, but that can also mean boredom with the storylines. It’s important to take chances, try new things, and to stretch the boundaries to offer the reader something unexpected.
And, if a publisher rejects a manuscript, authors, especially seasoned authors, have the option to search out a company that publishes the type of book she wants to write, or to self-publish. But, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of those options. By self-publishing, the author has complete creative freedom, all of the profits from sales, and all of the costs of editing, producing, and marketing their book. A publisher, on the other hand (I’m speaking from under my Bywater hat now), incurs the cost of editing, proofing, typesetting, cover art, printing, ebook conversion, sales and distribution (both individual sales and those to national and international bookstores), press releases and ARCs, and also their share of the partnership with the author in further promotion. In return, the author receives a percentage of the sales.
So, what the author must ultimately decide is how much time and money they can personally afford to put into producing and promoting their book, and whether the amount of sales will result in more profit that a publisher can produce.
In addition to your role with Bywater Books, you’re also a bestselling, award-winning author. How does that impact your role when working with new authors?
I’ve found it to be very helpful to have been through much of what new authors will be experiencing, and also through a few things that they may be able to avoid. I am in position to answer questions they have throughout the publishing process, from submission to final product. I can assuage their worries about editing, rewriting, and deadlines, and can encourage and offer advice when they begin the promotion process. In this economic climate, it is imperative for author and publisher to work in partnership to promote and advertise, and many times that is one of the most difficult things for an introverted writer to do.
They are out there doing their first reading and signing events, and making themselves visible and available to their readers. So, I pass on the advice that has helped me the most. Advice such as how to choose the right passage to read, timing their reading and practicing it out loud, and reading slowly and enunciating. And, just letting them know that we have all had events that were well attended and those where hardly anyone shows up.
As an author and publisher you’re in a unique position to see publishing from two different viewpoints. When it comes to marketing efforts, what have you found to be most effective 1) as a publisher 2) as an author?
The one huge marketing tool that we as a publisher have that an individual does not, is the wide reach of a large distributor. Our sales representatives at Consortium Book Sales and Distribution hand sell our books to bookstores across the country. They also have national accounts people who deal directly with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Baker & Taylor and other large book selling organizations. This would be an impossible task for an author. But, beyond that, effective marketing efforts are the same for both.
We know that a larger on-line footprint helps us sell books, so both the company and individual authors work daily to maintain and increase visibility on web sites, blogs, blog tours, newsletters, Facebook, and twitter. But, we have also found that the old school methods of being physically available and willing to do events and signings is also very effective. The number of bookstores has decreased drastically, but other venues have begun to take up the slack. Organizations and book groups are very willing to host author events at libraries, restaurants, hotels, inns, and even bars. And, both our company and authors participate on conference panels, workshops, and combined events with other publishers and their authors.
Find out more about Bywater Books
Find out more about Marianne and her work.