Experiments and Prototypes

Sir James. Y. Simpson and friends drink liquid chloroform in an experiment, rather than inhaling the vapor. 

Beth and I have been jumping into the deep end the last couple weeks, learning new tools, trying untested theories and cockeyed plans, and forcing ourselves to take the next big step in this publishing venture. We have worked hard since January to lay firm groundwork for Northwest Quest Publishers. We’ve done our homework and registered the company with the state and the IRS, obtained a local business license and other paperwork pronouncing us official, created our website and social media accounts, and have dutifully updated them with stories that we are thrilled to share with the community. It has been exhilarating! However, we can hardly call ourselves publishers if we don’t ever get around to actually publishing something (and blog posts don’t count.)

Toward that end, we have brought together a few ideas that have been rolling around in the cabinets for years now, ideas that were begging to be brought to life, stories that fit NWQP’s GameLit and local history mission. Moreover, they are short, fewer than 20 pages, and we think that is an ideal place to start. We are working with a barebones budget, and we hope to avoid making gigantic, bank account-crushing mistakes as we learn the ropes. (We fully expect that we’ll blunder in some unforeseen way, neglect to plan for a particular deadline, say yes to some project that we would better have avoided and vice-versa, but…let’s see if months of practice and educating ourselves can help us skirt the worst of such missteps.)

We have been trying-out various tools for layout and editing and graphic design. We are digging deep into the long-buried memories in our heads from our printing days in school and scouring reference material for the current wisdom regarding typefaces, print resolutions, column inches, trim sizes, paper weights, and coatings. We’ve been in talks with many printers, weighing out the pros and cons of material and labor costs, product quality versus shipping charges and delivery times, big online companies versus small local shops. We can sense this discussion and the resulting decisions will continue ad infinitum, for as long as we are engaged in this industry. From our previous careers, we both have learned the importance of staying nimble and embracing change as keys to longevity and sanity. For our first product, our little prototype, we are using Scribus for layout and many free online tools for converting images and other files to the proper formats. After gathering paper samples and comparing quotes, we’ve decided to have our first batch of 100 books produced at Printing Center USA.

Baker City: Parade on Main Street, 1800-2100 blocks, 1885.

The prototype is a delightful little tale that Beth wrote to kick off our Oregon Territories series, a roleplaying game world set in the 19th century Pacific Northwest. The series will start with four stories, the first of which, Tinker’s Tools, takes place in Baker City, a town with roots going back to the final days of the American Civil War and the current home to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. The land’s memory goes back further than the arrival of white pioneers, of course. It’s a place rife with complex history, full of compelling characters with whom a game player can interact and brimming with stories to discover.

The Mint Saloon. Owner was J. W. Buckley. Sign at left says "Barber Shop in Lobby." At the right are two signs: "Puritan Club Pale Ginger Ale" "The Original [B?]arnum [Amer?]ica's Greatest [Hyp?]notist, [?] Laughs, [?] & Tears"
The Mint Saloon, Baker City, 1890-1910.

We are giddy and nervous because after all the trials and many errors, we finally sent the finished files to the printer a couple days ago. The hard copy proof of Tinker’s Tools is due to arrive tomorrow, and we can barely contain our emotions. It has been a 30-year dream for us leading to this moment, and we’re almost afraid to open the box when it arrives. Almost. We’ll most likely rip that box open with gusto and stare down at its contents for a good long while. More than licenses and taxes and websites, holding that first book in our hands will feel like this publishing company has truly come to life. Here’s to embarking on our own northwest quest. To everyone reading these lines or any of our books, we feel blessed to have you along on our travels.

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.