Burning the Pencil at Both Ends: An Interview with a Small Press Operator

Editor’s note: Samantha Donisi-Hamm is a graduate student at the University of Houston – Victoria, where she is working on her M.S. in Publishing. She recently asked Atticus Books publisher Dan Cafaro to respond to a series of questions for a research paper she is writing for one of her classes.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

What prompted you to start Atticus Books?

I am nothing but resourceful. In another lifetime, I owned and operated a used bookstore in the NE Philadelphia suburbs. On slow days I got some creative writing done—also covered criminal trials for the daily newspaper to generate income—and fell in love with the idea of becoming a full-time writer.

Fast forward to the adoption of a child, a move to the Sonoran desert, and my desire to earn a full-time salary, and I found myself in the nonprofit corporate world, editing a technical journal and writing articles on performance management for HR professionals. After a few years, I carved out a book publishing program (because no one else had the nerve to step forward at an off-site meeting with senior management).

Once I learned the intricacies of publishing, I found I had a knack for acquiring manuscripts and developing a rapport with book authors. Granted these were authors of business books, but the experience (working hand-in-hand with Production and Creative on layout and design) opened my eyes to the possibility of someday starting my own imprint.

You also might say that Atticus was born after a failed attempt to start up an independent bookstore (in the spirit of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights) in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. I didn’t have the capital to invest in a commercial retail venture, but after attending a NYC small press fair, I met kindred spirits and was inspired to try my hand at indie publishing.

How long were you in the industry before you decided to start your own house?

I wasn’t really ever “in the industry” pre-Atticus since most publishing professionals consider the association world to be far removed from the general trade industry. I have learned by doing and Atticus celebrated its fifth year of life this month.

Walk me through a typical day for you.

As the owner and operator of a small press, I juggle a wide assortment of daily responsibilities to be sure that our publishing projects are on track to deliver on time and within budget. I typically face each day as would a project manager, with specific tasks that need to be completed to “move the ball forward.” This could include checking in with authors, editors, and designers to gauge the status of a manuscript, depending on where it is in the process. I mostly communicate through email correspondence, and often exchange several email messages with each stakeholder to be sure that everyone is on task. I prefer to err on the side of over-communication to be certain that we’re all on the same page.

Much of what I do, editorially speaking, would fall within the parameters of a project editor’s role because we do not have a large staff. I generally outsource copyediting, proofreading, page layout, and cover design to independent contractors with whom I’ve worked for the last several years. I also work very closely with our printer and distributor to be sure that our orders are being fulfilled in a timely manner.

A press has multiple moving parts and it is my job to make sure that the mission-critical needs of Atticus are being met. This can include being sure that books are being delivered to author readings, customers, and other events. Author relations also is a primary responsibility of the publisher and/or acquisitions editor who first established the relationship with the author.

Once you’ve established a strong portfolio of titles, then the number of messages from authors reaching out to contact you for a variety of reasons grows exponentially. When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to manage your workflow. But as you secure more book contracts and fill your publishing pipeline, the communications become a major challenge because of the sheer number of people seeking your attention. This includes writers seeking to be published, in addition to the writers whom you’ve published.

It’s amazing I find time to read any new manuscripts!

How DO you find time to read new manuscripts?

I have been fortunate to work with editorial assistants and interns whose appetite for books is immense. It also helps that their taste in literature aligns with mine, so they have become my first line of defense. Once I’ve perused cover letters and pared down new ms queries to a select few, then it’s really a matter of whether the book captures my imagination enough to make me shirk that day’s duties or lose sleep.

Are there things that happen every day or people you know you will hear from?

Atticus runs a weekly journal (Atticus Review), so between the book publishing house and the Review, I manage a staff of ten editors with whom I converse on a regular basis. I know I’m bound to hear from at least a couple of the editors daily. I frequently hear from authors whose books are in production, as we plan a marketing strategy, roll-out, and launch. Depending on the number of projects we have flowing, I also will hear from the distribution manager and print manager. Because Atticus has become such a lean press, I wear the hats of marketing and production manager, but ideally these are roles that should be filled by individual specialists.

What types of things surprise you when they happen?

I’m sometimes surprised at how much of a vacuum many of us live in. Because we are so engaged in social media, I’ve developed online relationships with many editors and writers. In this age of instant messaging, some people have come to expect immediate responses from publishers about their work. Given the volume of communications coming in from all directions, this is next to impossible, not to mention, unhealthy for the profession. I seldom provide thoughtful responses any more to writers because of this worsening dynamic. I’m surprised that writers aren’t sympathetic to the growing demands placed on publishers. It seems there’s a human disconnect exacerbated by this desire for instant acknowledgment and gratification. I guess I may be naive, but I’m still surprised by the sense of entitlement that prevails. Some writers act like we owe them feedback, as if they had paid us for an evaluation.

How many different people (colleagues and authors) do you interact with on a given day?

If I begin to count, I might catch the next plane to the Caribbean.

Do you specialize as an editor, or do you do a variety of functions (acquisitions, development, copy editor, etc.)?

My specialty is in acquisitions. I am capable of developmental editing, but given the time constraints, I often expect the final draft of a manuscript to only require light copyediting.

What about the stages prior to that point?

I’m glad you asked as without proper context my previous answer may give people the wrong impression of Atticus and our vetting process. Although we often publish the debut works of writers, we mainly are interested in seasoned, meticulous writers who understand the value of workshop/peer feedback, edits, revisions, and more revisions. Most of our published novelists teach creative writing courses and possess at least an MFA in writing. HOWEVER, given my background (a college dropout who cut his teeth in print media as a full-time sportswriter with a daily newspaper), I have a soft spot for marginalized writers so I do not even consider a writer’s CV until after I’ve read his or her work.

You do not need to hold an academic degree of course to write compelling fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, but I find that the best writers are those who are well-read and cannot NOT write. By the time you’ve come knocking at Atticus, I expect you to be familiar with the small press terrain. I expect you to read literary journals. I expect you to have a pile of rejection slips in a desk drawer somewhere, and I expect you to be supporting some of the better, more established indie presses whose catalogues are exemplary.

Are you responsible for marketing the books on your list? What does that entail?

I am the primary marketer of all Atticus titles. This entails a very concerted social media effort including Facebook, Twitter, Atticus Digest (our HTML newsletter), select print and online media sites, and award competitions. We also conduct a very large outreach to reviewers, booksellers, and librarians with press releases and advance reading copies.

How do you stay on top of trends/current events in the publishing industry?

I read Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews, New York Times Book Review, Rain Taxi, various blogs, Twitter, and I try to pay attention to what the industry’s pundits and knowledge leaders are discussing.

What do you see as the most significant differences between large publishers and smaller presses?

1) Resources. 2) Passion. 3) Pride.

You do not need to hold an academic degree of course to write compelling fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, but I find that the best writers are those who are well-read and cannot NOT write.

I’ve had one editor tell me that they essentially run their own small business because they follow manuscripts through from the slush pile to publication—would you agree with that assessment? Can you give me your take on that idea?

We all operate differently, but that essentially is a true testament. When you’re as involved and as deep in the weeds as we are in the day-to-day operations, you can touch and smell the dew every morning.

Would you agree that publishers have to balance projects that sell and make money with those that bring integrity to the house but that might not generate much revenue? If so, how do you find that balance?

There’s no separation of church and state in a small press environment. Every decision you make should derive from every fiber of your being. If you’re making decisions based on monetary projections, then you’re no longer of the indie mindset. You’re just a mini-capitalist seeking a big payday.

Most of us would love to be able to make a modest living from producing art. Sadly, the current climate does not make that ambition feasible. It’s ice-cold out there, and the clothing we own doesn’t come close to keeping us warm. I used to believe in a balanced approach, but I favor the high-risk/high-rewards method these days.

Once you’ve lost autonomy, you’ve lost your integrity as a fiercely independent entrepreneur. Of course if you’re bent on having your publishing enterprise pay the bills, then there’s something to be said for an ROI-centric, middle-of-the-road business model.

Is there anything someone can do to prepare themselves for a career as an editor at a smaller press?

Is it possible to train for a marathon by chain smoking cigarettes and drinking barrels of whiskey? I’m not sure there’s a manual that can prepare you for the life. You either receive enough intrinsic value from the experience or you’re destined for a career-ending bender due to the frustration. If you can manage to eke out a living and you’re good with that, then you may end up being the happiest person in your ward, bar none.

Define “Indie Publishing” in your own words.

Indie Publishing is a mindset and a way of life. Many writers may look at it as a stepping stone to the “big leagues,” where establishment recognition and advances are more readily available, but indie publishing will exist (and perhaps even thrive) as long as people crave communication and community.

Indie publishing doesn’t have to be DIY; in fact, I prefer the term “interdie” because the ecosystem is healthier when we embrace the idea of interdependence. When we form collectives that help level the playing field. When we brainstorm to innovate, we will have a legitimate chance to improve the industry’s outlook.

Most of us would love to be able to make a modest living from producing art. Sadly, the current climate does not make that ambition feasible.

Indie publishers are to the Big Six what Main Street is to Wall Street. You may think consolidation and economies of scale are the inevitable results of a profit-driven industry, but we should never sacrifice culture, art, and diversity for the sake of margins. Thank heavens for public libraries, and public radio too.

Maxwell Perkins
Scribners Editor Maxwell Perkins

How about the romanticized aspects–do you think there is still some truth to the image of the hardworking editor toiling endlessly to perfect a manuscript, (the Maxwell Perkins image)?

I believe where there are words on a page, there always will be a need for wordsmiths, editors, advocates, and visionaries. Many examples of Maxwell Perkins exist today, but instead of developmental editors, literary translators may in fact be defining these times. The Internet has expanded not only the accessibility of literature, but the awareness of international greats such as Haruki Murakami and the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez. According to Fox News Latino, if you have read any of Marquez’s books in English, what you read was actually composed by one of two people: Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman. That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

It would seem that the digital age has somewhat eaten away at that romanticism, with the majority of communication coming through emails and as you put it, the immediacy of social media allowing people to live so much within a vacuum. Has the digital age more helped or hurt small publishers? What are your thoughts on self-publishing in this context?

The digital age is a glorious time to be a small publisher because never has our audience been so potentially large or engaged. It takes a different set of skills to master the fine art of “selling” artfully told narratives to a population so accustomed to “dumbed down” advertising. But the advent and remarkable high quality of TV series dramas alone bring me confidence that people gravitate to layered, nuanced storytelling.

Self-publishing is an obvious avenue for writers to explore and will continue to gain a foothold in the industry as more businesses focus on assisting writers in their efforts to become published. In some ways it may be a matter of semantics as even vanity presses now are re-positioning themselves as publishing services.

Self-publishing is becoming an affordable and efficient solution for many writers. And the stigma of being self-published is lessening, so all signs point to growth…but let us not forget due diligence. Let us not forget the importance of small press advocacy and the power of numbers. Whether we want to admit it or not, gatekeepers, curators, and (yes), even critics are integral to the arts world. That doesn’t mean that writers can’t go it alone, but they shouldn’t abandon partners who believe in their talents.

Bureaucracy may not be healthy for the book industry, but a compressed system of reasonable checks and balances, it seems, is worth preserving. In sum, I believe in the value of talent scouts and small publishers and editors fill this role. To paraphrase a cliché in dire need of an editor, integrity too takes a village.

Is there anything else you can add about the unique challenges presented to small publishers in particular?

If I haven’t yet soured you on a career in publishing, then perhaps you have what it takes. Remember that the publishing world is a big place if you’re open to the idea of earning a living as a technical editor, copywriter, or public relations/communications manager for a professional nonprofit association or medical firm. However, if you’re insistent on working as an editor for a trade publisher or small press, then you’ve just reduced your chances of getting a job one hundred-fold. You may as well learn to burn the pencil at both ends: make an honest living working as a laborer and start up your own labor of love after hours.



Source of Maxwell Perkins photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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