The notes from the publishers, Curtis says, all
had a similar theme: the book was good, but ended too abruptly.
That would normally set the aspiring author to rewrite and resubmit,
but real life intervened. Curtis's son was diagnosed with a cancerous
brain tumor, and the novel swiftly moved to the back burner.
His son is a healthy junior at Verona Area High
School now, but the experience left Curtis tapped. Once he pulled
the novel back out of the drawer and blew the dust off, he was able
to rewrite it but "didn't have the energy to send it out to publishers
and get rejected," he says. Still, he wanted to bring "closure"
to the project and see it through to completion.
Serendipity stepped in when he got what he calls
"junk mail" from Madison-based Goblin Fern Press. The company, founded
in 2002 by business consultant and personal coach Kira Henschel,
does what Henschel calls "custom publishing."
Traditional publishers do not charge a reading
fee, nor do they require an investment from the author. The publisher
pays for printing, design, marketing and distribution, but also
keeps most of the proceeds. And because of the investment involved,
traditional publishers tend to take only books that are likely to
Goblin Fern, on the other hand, will read only
three chapters and meet with an author for a thirty-minute consultation
to "see if it's a fit," says Henschel. Then, for $450, the company
will review the entire manuscript, produce a written review and
help the author decide where to go next. They might do nothing more
than hook an author up with a printer and assign the book an ISBN;
they might help the author set up his or her own publishing company;
they might, as in Curtis's case, "co-publish" a book.
"I'm a minority investor in my book," Curtis says.
"I paid a small percentage of the cost to get it printed."
He's also had to do most of the marketing - "It's
up to the author to create the buzz," Henschel says. It hasn't been
easy. Curtis is well known in Verona, so he had no trouble selling
his book at several retailers there; he got Prairie Bookshop in
Mount Horeb and Booked for Murder in Madison to carry it; he's sold
a few on Amazon.com. "Just the mention of Amazon.com gives me some
legitimacy," he says. "If you're selling them out of the trunk of
your car, people think you're a snake-oil salesman."
For what it's worth, the book is a real page-turner
and probably good enough that it would have gotten picked up by
a commercial publisher, had Curtis had the energy to go that route.
But a few too many typos sprinkled throughout call Goblin Fern's
editing abilities into question. And, because Goblin Fern isn't
a commercial publisher, Curtis has had trouble getting coverage
and reviews. "It'd be easier to get my name in the paper," he laments,
"if I started a garage band and played at some dive bar." In all,
he's sold about four hundred copies since the book was published
just over a year ago.
Some of that bias in the media is understandable,
given the reputation of so-called "vanity publishers" like Publish
America, iUniverse and XLibris. While traditional publishers have
been the "gatekeepers" of the literary world, print-on-demand (POD)
technology has made it possible for anyone to publish whatever he
or she writes; while that democratizes publishing to a degree, it
also means there are a lot of bad books out there. Book reviewers
at newspapers and trade publications like Publishers Weekly are
reluctant to put time into a book that hasn't run the traditional
publishing gauntlet, and bookstores won't waste shelf space on books
that don't have a traditional publisher's credibility behind them.
And bookstores like to return books that don't sell; print-on-demand
books usually can't be returned.
Vanity presses don't really hurt the publishing
business, says Ben LeRoy of Bleak House Books, a traditional small
press in Madison (see our profile on page 114). "People say you're
flooding the market with bad books," he says. "Well, that's stupid.
When one of these [books from a vanity press] shows up at Publishers
Weekly, it just gets thrown away. The harm is only when businesses
like Publish America are telling the authors this is the first step
to realizing their dreams. The danger of POD and self-publishing
is the unrealistic expectation of what will happen when they have
a book. What'll happen is there's no market for it, but they want
to see it on bookstore shelves. These people go in starry-eyed."
LeRoy admits there are times when custom publishing
seems appropriate: "If you have a family history - there's no market
for that beyond your family. Or if you have a cookbook you want
to put together." Or if you just want to close the book, so to speak,
on a trying time in your family's history, as Curtis did.
Henschel says Goblin Fern isn't exactly a vanity
press; she places the company "somewhere between the pure self-publisher
who goes to Kinko's to publish and the big publisher where you need
an agent." She stresses the fact that Goblin Fern doesn't publish
sixty percent of the manuscripts it receives (though it will still
provide editing and consultation services for a fee). The press
has also gotten two awards from the Midwest Independent Publishers
Association, as well as a Book of the Year nomination in nonfiction
for Leave No Man Behind, an memoir of the U.S. effort to retrieve
prisoners of war and MIAs left in Vietnam.
Curtis says he has no regrets about going with
Goblin Fern for his debut novel. "This was a good solution for me
at the time," he says. But he's halfway through the untitled sequel
to The Liberal Art of Murder, and plans to shop that one around
to the more commercial publishers. He hopes that bigger publishers
will take him more seriously now that he's got one book out, even
if it is with a smaller custom press.
LeRoy of Bleak House says that hope isn't exactly
misplaced. "It's not a requirement" of the big houses that an author
be published by a smaller press first, he says. "I personally know
authors who have gotten six-figure advances for a first book. There's
a pride of ownership for a big publisher to say, 'We discovered
this author.'" But, he says, "I'm sure [being published by a small
press] is going to be looked upon favorably. Always for me - maybe
I'm a bad businessman - but always for me it's about the quality
of the book. And then it's figuring in the sales potential." And
a track record of good sales from a smaller or custom publisher
Unless that custom publisher is one of those much-maligned
POD houses. "If I see a book from Publish America or iUniverse or
XLibris, that is a strike against," LeRoy says. "That track record
is one you'd want to keep hushed up."
Henschel agrees. "There are some out there that
are just slimy," she says. "Very, very much preying on people. It
makes me mad." Plus the Internet-based publishers, like iUniverse
and XLibris, don't do much editing, she notes, and do a pretty shoddy
job of design.
Either way, Curtis is approaching his follow-up
novel with optimism, but still harbors some skepticism toward the
big houses. "There are some bad writers out there," he admits. "But
broad-brush policies hurt the good ones struggling to get a writing
career off the ground."
Robert Chappell is a staff writer for Madison
Magazine. His two novels are currently collecting dust.