The Classroom in My Living Room

The highlight this week has been Kickstarter’s virtual conference, The Next Page: Creating the Future of Publishing. It was a free all-day affair that featured panel discussions on the ever-present impact of technology, the need for inclusion and representation in the industry (both in the staffing and in the published works), the economic landscape of publishing today, and an exploration of collaborative communities within the field. It was a fantastic way to hear what several professionals have to say about these topics, and even better, I didn’t have to figure out the logistics of spending a day (and lots of money) in a convention center. Kudos to Kickstarter for their tremendous efforts to pull this off!

Children learning geography in the hospital school. Photograph, 1921
Literally old school…

My first thought when reading about this event was to expect it to be an all-day advertisement for Kickstarter and its services to artists, self-publishers, and other creatives. So many individuals and small companies have funded their projects this way that I would have eagerly tuned in to hear their experiences and tips for successful campaigns. However, to the conference organizers’ credit, the discussions covered a wide range of options and viewpoints. I was almost disappointed there wasn’t more talk of crowdfunding, but I know I can find excellent guides on that elsewhere. Instead, they approached it through a wider lens, and brought in publishing industry pros and contributors from both small, independent presses and traditional New York-based agents, editors, and strategists.

I gained a lot of useful information about tools we might want to start using at NWQP, such as Airtable for better data visualization, machine learning and AI-based analysis and development through companies like Storyfit, the potential for publishing works via cloud-based file systems (and even automating that process) at sites like Hederis, and crowd-driven social storytelling on sites like WattPad. (Even if such tools are not a good match for our mission or budget, it’s good to keep abreast of what’s available and what other publishers are using.)

Radical Representation, the discussion on inclusivity, was quite insightful, especially the contributions by Ace Ratcliff, a writer and advocate for intersectional feminism with a specific focus on disability rights. She brought home the realization that the Americans With Disabilities Act is now 30 years old, and there are still many physical and intangible barriers to entry into the publishing industry, or into accurate representation on the page. I was struck by her description of the continued lack of a corporate thought process into such inclusion, and that much of the gains continue to be afterthoughts or reactive measures. Her words packed a punch when she said she doesn’t believe there’s anything “radical” about representation, or at least there shouldn’t be. I also had to agree with cartoonist and storyteller Ronald Wimberly when he cautioned against using the term “expert” when it comes to sensitivity readers. I wholeheartedly believe in writers and publishers seeking to ensure that people and groups are portrayed with respect and accuracy through the use of such readers, but none of us is fit or experienced enough to stand as the sole arbiter of any group’s culture, standards, expectations, etc., even if we are a full-fledged member. If I’m going to write about a life of which I have no personal experience, I’m going to gather as much feedback and consensus as I can. (Better yet, in this case I am probably not the best one to write this tale. I always want to work toward creating space for people to tell their own stories.)

In keeping with other events and forums about publishing I’ve experienced, Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing, presented a cautious outlook. The panel included Kickstarter’s Senior Director of Publishing, Margot Atwell, literary agent DongWon Song, author and Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, Amy Stolls, and Portland’s own publishing hero and founder of Microcosm Publishing, Joe Biel. More than a sad recounting of the challenges publishers face in a world where they bring home about 25-50 cents on each $20 book sale, this panel also discussed the economic viability of even making this a career choice. They talked about the inequity inherent in determining who can afford the educational and cost of living expectations for professionals in the traditional New York presses, but then Joe gave a great example of how he forged his own path to viability, outside those established parameters. I’ve read anecdotes he’s shared in the past and remain inspired that a labor of love can still lead to a good and worthwhile life. His answer begins at 5:54:32):

Kickstarter panel video

The day concluded with a great discussion on collaborative communities in which authors and publishers can be good literary citizens, as Jane Friedman calls us, offering each other mutual support and camaraderie. It’s in my nature to do this anyway, and I greatly enjoy signal-boosting the work and careers of others in my field. I believe in an abundant universe and I think there is room enough for all the artists and makers to thrive. However, the field is crowded and the breadth of creative works vying for our attention grows exponentially. (Joe Biel mentioned that when he first looked at the production figures while writing his basic author contracts, 3,000 books a day were being published. Since then that number has grown to 8,000 a day!) Obviously, we need to act as allies to each other and help shepherd each other’s stories into the hands of readers we think will enjoy them. The panel members gave great examples of how they engage with the community and help to nurture a diverse and lively community.

I have barely skimmed the surface of all the great information available throughout these sessions, and I am grateful to Kickstarter and all the panelists for sharing their time. I hope they consider offering more digital conferences in the future. I not only took a ton of notes and followed all of the participants on social media, widening my exposure to their input and continuing the conversation, but also had the ability to befriend other folks interested in publishing in the ongoing chat that accompanied the talks. In every way, this event was a great service, and I look forward to participating in many more.

When the Student is Ready

Bencke & Scott. (1872) Little Students. , 1872. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Bencke & Scott. Little Students, 1872

Beth and I will be the first to admit that we have no idea what we’re doing we are new to the worlds of entrepreneurship and publishing. Yes, we’ve been steeped in the culture of literature, writing, bookselling, gaming, and customer service all our lives, but when it comes to starting and operating a small press, especially at a time when the publishing industry remains in constant flux, the prospect is both exciting and terrifying.

Just last week, Baker & Taylor, one of the biggest names in book distribution, announced that it is ceasing its wholesale trade to booksellers. Yikes! They are going to focus on textbooks and school libraries, leaving a void in distribution to brick and mortar retailers. At first we looked at this news as a possible harbinger of hard times for the book world, but then we noticed a quote by B&T’s president, Dave Cully, who said that one of the reasons for their withdrawal is the increasing number of publishers who are selling their books directly to stores, without the need (and expense) of a distributor in the middle. It seems that there may be some daylight in there after all for small houses to carve out a space in the market to find their readers.

Long before we decided to take the plunge to form Northwest Quest Publishers, we had been learning everything we could, attending as many industry events as possible, saying hello to old friends and making many new connections with people who’ve been doing this for a while. One resounding message that keeps bobbing to the surface, whether we are hearing it from the members of a panel at the AWP conference or within the musings of an independent publisher’s Facebook timeline, is that this business is a labor of love, that funding is hard to come by, that Amazon’s digital empire is an existential threat, that no one reads anymore or wants to spend even a minimal cover price that would barely pay for a book’s production costs.

Yes, we know in our heads that at least some of those statistics and analyses are accurate, and financial planners may consider us crazy to even attempt this venture. But you know what? As English majors and artists, we’ve been hearing these warnings and seeing these societal disparities throughout our educational and professional lives. We’ve long lamented the difference in how much our culture values the work of engineers, programmers, and skilled trades over academics, artists, and other creative workers (celebrities and in-demand decorators notwithstanding.) However, what we instinctively knew about ourselves back then holds true 30 years later: happiness and fulfillment require that we follow the path of our hearts. We’ve succeeded at lucrative professions that exist at the periphery of our bliss in order to pay the bills, but then the days – and then the years – have flown by and where is the creative life?

Beth is much better than me at compartmentalizing her life. Her day job only interferes with her art in as much as the actual workday requires its number of hours. I find it remarkable, but she shrugs this skill off as merely a short attention span. I don’t know whether my own approach to work should be viewed as commendable dedication or an ineffectual character flaw, but I am a one career at a time kind of girl. I am always all-in, always completely consumed by the task at hand. The higher the level of responsibility I take on, the harder it is for me to ever disengage. Needless to say, throughout my four wonderful years of running a busy code school, the writer and artist in me began to feel ignored and disrespected.

Here’s where Northwest Quest Publishers will bridge those two worlds of art and technology. It will demand a keen business acumen, creative editing and story skills, and a technical familiarity with a host of tools. Our intention is indeed a labor of love, one towards which we’ve been building our entire lives. We are beyond excited about bringing forth under-represented writers and characters in GameLit, folklore, and historical interactive fiction. We know there is a desire for this work (in addition to our own) and we think we are uniquely qualified to help shepherd this “micro niche” to its rightful place on the shelves. In the meantime, we have a lot to learn! We are at the starting threshold of this journey in many ways, and I am overwhelmed at the breadth of resources out there for new entrepreneurs, small press publishers, and curators of our genre. As we work our way through them (bird-by-bird, as Anne Lamott would say), I will be sharing the insights I glean from them here. It will help me to chronicle our company’s history along with my own evolution. I sincerely hope sharing my experiences, the good and the bad, will help other aspiring dreamers in their own quest for fulfillment and self expression.