The publishing business is in flux. Digital printing processes have superseded offset printing and electronic publishing is capturing an ever-larger share of the market. Nobody knows if hard cover and paperback books will survive. E-books have made it easier for authors to get published but the glut of material means that it’s harder than ever to get noticed. Nevertheless, it’s every author’s wish to become rich and famous, or at least, well-regarded and wealthy.
How do you capture readers’ attention in the crowded marketplace? Not surprisingly, this is an issue for publishers as well as authors. I recently spent an evening talking to Emily Victorson, the owner of Allium Press in Forest Park. I learned that marketplace problems begin when an author is published. The book must be marketed, reviewed and stocked in stores. Oprah would be nice, but her approval is unlikely. Good word-of-mouth is to be devoutly desired.
Victorson talked about Set the Night on Fire, the most recent novel released by Allium. She describes the author, Libby Fischer Hellman, as a “publisher’s dream” because she not only accepted editing changes with grace, she also has myriad ideas for marketing her work. But even an established writer like Hellman, with a solid readership for her series mysteries, found that mainstream publishing houses were wary of a stand-alone novel. Publishers are, after all, in the business of selling books and a new approach by an author leaves them with the problem of getting that title noticed.
Victorson said that being in the Midwest has made it easier to be a small press because Chicago authors embrace the idea of independent presses. She has had many manuscripts submitted for consideration. However, the flip side is that it’s a constant struggle to get shelf space in bookstores, even independent ones. She described her efforts to get a well-known suburban indie chain (not represented here in Oak Park, River Forest or Forest Park) to meet with her about stocking her books. They were not interested in the titles because they perceived the press as too small—and therefore the sales too meager--to bother with.
However, Victorson believes that being a niche publisher is an advantage for a regional press. Allium specializes in Chicago history, both fiction and non-fiction. Her list of published books is currently all historical fiction set in the Chicago area, but she has plans to expand the offerings to non-fiction about the area too.
As much as I love books, I didn’t understand the huge task it is to get the material ready for publication. Talk about labor intensive. First, there are the manuscript edits. Victorson is of the opinion that every author needs an editor and, after reading some recent, poorly edited books, I agree.
That process takes time back and forth as author and editor negotiate the changes. At Allium Press the initial editing is done by Victorson, but before the final version is printed, she has another editor go through the manuscript to clean it up even more. Authors do self-edit, but errors are unavoidable. The writer has lived with the manuscript for so long, he or she just cannot see some mistakes. It takes a fresh eye to catch them.
Another task of the publisher is determining the actual design of the book. Such things as font sizes, styles, margins and other details must come together to make the manuscript look like a professional product.
And even though we’ve been warned not to, we do judge a book by its cover, especially in a crowded store with limited information about the title. So the artwork, the type face and even the position of the author’s name assume exaggerated importance. Have you noticed that well-known authors have their name positioned more prominently than the title of the book? That’s because readers tend to stick to writers they know.
Reviews are important and can definitely improve sales but it’s hard to get reviewed by prominent sources. Fewer newspapers do reviews these days and some reviewing resources have closed. This means that it’s more important, and harder, to get into the remaining sources. A publisher has to provide copies of books to be reviewed months prior to the release date, which can be especially challenging for a small publishing house that works on a tight time frame.
Despite all the issues, though, Victorson says she likes what she’s doing. She gets to wear many hats and is able to work with authors whom she considers good writers to produce literary works worth reading. Here’s hoping she is able to establish Allium as a premier publisher of Chicago-themed works.
The website is www.alliumpress.com. The books are available at Centuries & Sleuths, in Forest Park, and through online bookstores.