On Being an Independent Publisher: A Chat with David Kudler of Stillpoint Digitial Press

dkudler-headshotWhat is an independent publisher? David Kudler, or more properly his company Stillpoint Digital Press, is one.

David Kudler is a writer, audiobook narrator and an editor. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief at Stillpoint Digital Press and the recently-elected president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. Since 1999, he has also overseen the publication program at the Joseph Campbell Foundation. David was kind enough to stop by today to talk about what it means to be an independent publisher and some of the work he does at Stillpoint Digital Press.

NS: David, I came across a recent blog post from you where you discussed the idea of being an “independent publisher”. Can you tell us what that means to you? How did you come to be an independent publisher?

DK: Well, I’ve been a freelance editor since I got out of college — originally supporting my acting career. (My mother-in-law once quipped, “Only an actor would turn to literature for steady employment!”) About fifteen years ago, I began running the publications initiatives of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, gradually building up what had been largely a program of licensing Campbell’s existing work and trying to create new works from his unpublished material to what is now essentially a small, thriving publishing venture, issuing audio recordings and ebooks under its own name. I was editing text, I was designing print and ebooks, I was recording and editing the opening and closing credits for all of the audio (my wife has been the foundation’s voice since before I came along), and I was taking care of marketing. I realized that I was handling all of the functions of a publisher.

And so I started Stillpoint Digital Press, which allows me not only to offer the same freelance services that I was offering before, but also to publish under my own banner.

“Independent publisher” has begun to become synonymous with “self-publisher,” but that’s not really the meaning of the phrase; an independent publisher is nothing more nor less than a person or company publishing without being affiliated with any larger organization. And they have a lot more in common — the smaller publishers and the author-publishers — than either does with the corporate subsidiary publishing divisions. One group is publishing out of a passion for what they produce; corporate publishers are, first and foremost, responsible to increase profits for the shareholders. Now, indies hopefully approach their craft with a dedication to the business of publishing, and I know that a lot of folks working at Big Five publishers are deeply dedicated to the books that they produce. But the initial impulse is quite different, and the product reflects that difference.

Sorry. I’m the president of the local independent publishers association. Don’t let me get on a roll!

NS: Can you tell us a little more about the work that you do at Stillpoint Digital Press? I understand that you publish your own and other authors’ works in both print and digital but that you also provide a range of editorial, e-book conversion and other services for authors who wish to self-publish their books. Does one side of the business take more of your time than the other? How does the publishing side of the business compare with the services side in terms of what actually makes the business viable/profitable?

stillpoint-lauraenglish

“Laura English”, a novel by Lynn Arias Bornstein, has just been released by Stillpoint Digital Press.

DK: Yeah, we’re kind of a soup-to-nuts publisher/publishing services outfit. Part of that has been out of necessity; I wasn’t sure when I started what I wanted to do, and which services the market needed, and so I did everything. A friend of mine calls it the spaghetti-on-the-wall business model: do everything all at once and see what sticks.

The parts of the job that I enjoy the most — deep developmental editing on the one hand and actually publishing a book on the other — are hugely time consuming; it’s hard to charge an author what I know to be worth my time for the editing, and it’s very difficult as a very small publishing house to do more than break even on the publishing. I offer my authors a very non-standard royalty: 50% of net (as opposed to the more traditional 10-12% of gross). I do that because I’m also an author, and I know that the whole edifice is built on their labor. I also know that in this environment I (as a very small publisher) have to give the authors a real reason not to do it themselves.

The various services that I offer — and I take most of those on myself rather than subcontract at this point — still fluctuate wildly in terms of how much of my time they demand in any particular week. For about two months last winter, I was almost completely focused on producing three audiobooks (Uvi Poznansky’s Apart from Love and A Favorite Son and David Wesley Williams’s twelve-bar blues of a rock-and-roll novel, Long Gone Daddies). Audiobooks are very time consuming, let me tell you! For every hour of final audio, you’ve got between four and ten hours of recording, editing, etc.

For the past few months, I’ve been largely focused on book publishing projects — Lynn Arias Bornstein’s first novel, Laura English, which is being published as we speak, actually, as well as a wonderful memoir, Pasta in My Bra: A Saga of Cerebral Palsy, a mystery, a romance, more audiobooks, and lots of ebook conversions. Oh — and I’m still working with the Joseph Campbell Foundation; we’ve got a major new ebook coming in the next couple of months.

Like I said: spaghetti on the wall.

NS: I first came across you and your work after having found a beautiful Japanese new year’s folktale that you adapted called The Seven Gods of Luck. You have written, published and narrated a number of books and must have helped others with their own projects. Is there one project that is your favorite and stands out to you and can you tell us a little bit about it?

stillpoint-godsofluckDK: That’s really a very difficult question: it’s like asking me which of my daughters I love most!
It would be probably the most truthful and most politic of me to admit that the single title I’ve taken the greatest pride and pleasure in is in reissuing The Seven Gods of Luck. The book had been published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1997, but had, as such things happen, fallen out of print.

I love the story; I love Linda Finch’s wonderful art. And so after my first few projects with Stillpoint (my shakedown cruises, as I called them to Jack Beritzhoff, the author of my first print title, the nautical memoir Sail Away), I contacted Linda and asked if she’d like for me to reissue it — not only as a paperback, but as an ebook and a read-along audiobook.

She was just as enthusiastic as I, and sent me the beautiful paintings — I’d never seen the original art before, only the printed versions, and so I was blown away by the richness and texture that she’d managed. (This isn’t in any way a knock on that 1997 edition — it was really lovely.) I added some notes at the back that we hadn’t been able to include in the first edition; I corrected some of the Japanese. I recorded the tracks — thinking of how I had read the book to each of those daughters I mentioned when they were little.

It’s a wonderful old story; Linda’s art frames it beautifully. And children’s books get to touch hearts and minds that are much more open to experience than adults’.

So yes: let’s go with that one.

NS: What tips might you have for authors seeking to publish their own books? What do you see as the major challenges?

DK: My two biggest pieces of advice will both seem a bit heretical.

The first is that self-publishing doesn’t mean that you have do everything yourself — or that you should. The chairman of Penguin/Random House doesn’t copyedit every book, nor does he try to design his own covers. He’s your competition. Budget in the time and (if you can) the money to outsource the parts of the work of publishing that you really can’t (or as I said shouldn’t) handle yourself.

The places where you will really serve yourself best by finding someone else to help out? Highly technical processes like print layout and cover design. It’s possible to create your own ebooks if your work is narrative and doesn’t include much in the way of complicated formatting or images.

stillpoint-shlomo

“Shlomo Travels to Warsaw” by David Kudler and Maura Vaughn.

You should absolutely have editors at each of the three stages of editing — development (before the “final” draft is finished); copyediting (after you’re done developing the book but before you’ve had it laid out); and proofreading (after layout/conversion and just before publication). Do you have to hire professionals? I’m not unbiased, I recognize, but I highly recommend it.

Having said that, not every book needs a developmental edit; if it’s been through lots of workshopping or peer review, then you might be able to minimize or even skip this step. It is essential, however, to have someone professional or at least very knowledgeable in the finer points of language and publishing look the writing over before you start to transform the manuscript into a book. Language that makes perfect sense to you and your family may turn out to be absolutely incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t know you or the subject.

A good copyeditor will not only fix errors of style and mechanics, but will also ask the kinds of questions that you don’t want your readers to have to ask — Isn’t the Golden Gate Bridge red? Wasn’t Bill’s wife named Rebecca the last time we saw him — is he divorced and remarried, or is this the same woman? Are you sure you want her to scream in ALL CAPS for three paragraphs? It’s an essential part of the process.

The same with proofing, which happens after the designer(s) have finished converting the book into its various formats. Not only is a good proofreader amazingly good at actually seeing what you’ve actually written (as opposed to what you THINK you’ve written — missing words that our minds fill in, homonyms, etc.) but they will see where the design created problems that weren’t in the manuscript — technical fine points like rivers, widows, and orphans, as well as gross formatting errors — missing paragraphs, improperly formatted pages and the like. They are the difference between a book that looks like a book and one that you’ve thrown together in Microsoft Word.

So: look at what you’ve got, and find people who can help you make it as clean and as polished as you can.

selfpub-quoteThe other advice will seem not only counterintuitive, but counter to my last suggestion: don’t wait until it’s perfect to publish.

Books are infinitely perfectible. The traditional publishing process and a bazillion MFA writing programs have conditioned us to think that no book is ever ready — that they must be workshopped and rewritten and workshopped again. And again.

Each book that you create must be (as I said above) as polished as you can make it — well thought-through and as well crafted as you can manage, and then as well honed as you can get the help to achieve.

But that doesn’t mean that you should wait for Apollo to come down from Olympus and award your manuscript a laurel crown before you can publish it.

Writing is a craft. What is the best way to learn a craft? By practicing it. If the Beatles had sat in their families’ flats in Liverpool waiting until their sound was just right rather then heading off to Hamburg and just playing and writing and playing and writing… where would popular music be today?

Most authors think only of their first book. But honestly? Once you’ve written that one, you will look up and think of other things to write about. (Many authors have to hold those ideas at bay until they have the room to address them.) At the very least, you will have learned much from the process of publishing that first book that you really owe it to yourself to try to put back into practice.

One way that you can help yourself: divide and conquer. That mammoth manuscript, covering five generations of a single family’s battle to survive? See if there are places where you can cut it into pieces, and then develop the pieces as fully as you can, publishing them serially. Hey. It worked for Dickens. And Tolkien. And thousands of other authors.

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s easy to bite off too much; my own first novel manuscript stalled at about 40,000 words before I realized that what I really had was the first part of a three- or possibly four-part series. (It’s now with an agent; I told you I still respect traditional publishers! Also, she turns out to be an excellent developmental editor.)

The second part is purely business: it’s hard to market a single title. But once you have a series — or even a number of unrelated titles — there’s a critical mass that becomes easier and easier to reach. Each title sparks off of the others. A reader who enjoys one book will find another. A positive review for one book will benefit the rest.

So don’t wait. Publish. Publish. Publish.

NS: What piece of advice might you give to a person starting out as an independent publisher that you wish you had when you started out?

DK: Following up on what I said above: do everything as well as you possibly can — but don’t try to be perfect. There’s never been a book that didn’t need at least a little more editing. To paraphrase Cyrano de Bergerac, shoot for the moon, but don’t be disappointed when you find that you’ve fallen among the stars.

(Interview conducted by Nelson Suit)

* * * * *

dkudler-headshotDavid Kudler is a writer, audiobook narrator and an editor. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief at Stillpoint Digital Press and the recently-elected president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. More information about David Kudler and Stillpoint Digital Press may be found on Stillpoint Digital Press’s website.

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