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Black Ink

There's more to publishing than Random House, Knopf, and hotshot literary agents. And there are more ways than you'd think to make a living as a writer.

Madison Magazine, December 2005
By Robert Chappell / Photography By Martha Busse & Eric Tadsen

Like many journalists,Karl Curtis knew he had a novel in him. Curtis, the forty-one-year-old editor of the weekly Verona Press, finished The Liberal Art of Murder eight years ago. He calls it a "traditional murder mystery" set, as the title would suggest, on the campus of a small (fictional) college in southern Wisconsin. The hero is the intrepid editor of the college newspaper (write what you know, as they say) who must solve a murder while college administrators, fearful of bad publicity, do their level best to call it a suicide and keep a lid on the story. "I don't want to give away the plot too much," he says, but he will say the hero "gets the bad guy in the end."* Curtis sent the manuscript to a handful of agents and publishers and got a handful of rejections. But they were the rejections any aspiring author dreams of getting - the kind with personal notes of encouragement. That is "unheard-of," Curtis says. "Usually they want you or they don't. And usually they don't want you unless you're Britney Spears or Hillary Clinton."

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 sell well.

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 doesn't hurt.

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.

Goblin Fern Press is an imprint of HenschelHaus Publishing, Inc.

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