I’m happy to post this interview with Keith Henning, publisher of Spore Press, because it provides a glimpse of what the future of publishing will look like. Spore Press signed up on Pubmission a year ago, and in that time they’ve been hard a work building an innovative list that reflect’s Keith’s desire to ask big societal questions, mixed with the occasional zombie or two, through speculative science fiction.
What struck me in this interview is that it makes clear what the value of working with the right independent publisher can be for a new author. Not only does a smaller publisher have the ability to adapt their business model without bureaucratic slowdowns, working with one can mean more control for the author. Spore Press seems dedicated to keeping authors involved in the publishing process by giving them final say on covers, creating individualized marketing plans, and building websites for them to help promote their books. Many who have experiences with larger publishers complain that that they’ve been left hanging out to dry once their manuscript was handed over to their editor. This doesn’t seem to be the case at Spore Press.
If you’re interested in submitting your work to Keith and his team through Pubmission, I encourage you to read the interview below to learn more about what Keith and his staff will be looking for.
Pubmission: Let’s start with the first most obvious question. Spore Press has a highly specialized niche in that all of your books focus on biomedical/biotechnical issues. What made you focus on this area when many other small publishers jump into the game ready to publish a little bit of everything?
Keith: We wanted to develop a niche where people will know what to expect when they buy one of our titles. Before moving into publishing, my last role was the Chief Operating Officer of one of the world’s largest cancer research institutes. I saw firsthand the rate of change in technology and the ethical and moral questions new advances and discoveries posed. I also saw that the people working on these technologies gave very little thought to the eventual consequences to what they were doing. Each bit of research was done in isolation, and as such, was very benign. However, as a non-scientist, it was easy for me to see that some of the largest questions we will ever face as a species will take place over the next 20 to 30 years — larger even than the existential crisis humanity faced after the Trinity detonation ushered in the atomic age. Spore Press would like to be the central location where these questions are discussed, probed, tested, and skewered.
That is not to say that is all we do. Spore Press also produces a sister imprint, Argenta Books, which is available for nearly any genre, so long as it is either entertaining or inventive. We did this because we know that it will take a number of years to develop our business based on such a specialized niche, and we also need a vehicle to develop our authors. So, Spore Press and Argenta Books will both be available on our website.
Pubmission: When it comes to acquisitions, do you find the narrow focus limits you when finding writers or does it make things easier? How so?
Keith: In the beginning, we received just about everything imaginable. However, now I think that writers are understanding what we are about, and the submissions are becoming more targeted. That is not to say that the odd book of erotic fairy tales doesn’t come in once in a while, but over the past six months that has been happening less and less. Via Twitter, my blog, and Facebook, I think it has also become clear that I am a sucker for a great zombie book. What I love about them is not the guns and splatter — though that is always fun — but the origin.
We recently published Anti-Sentient by Linda Butler in which scientists doing research on genetic therapy end up turning on dormant genes. No virus, nothing supernatural, just man doing what he has always done, reaching beyond his understanding with unintended consequences. I think it is the first zombie novel that is actually backed up by science, but it definitely won’t be the last. We have a number of books slated for the next year in which the origin science is mind-boggling.
So, in answer to your question, no — not at all. We are taking a number of books under the Argenta Books imprint to keep us busy and the really targeted submissions are beginning to appear.
Pubmission: What can you tell us about the books you’ve published already and what can we expect from you in the near future?
Keith: This month we will be publishing The Gorge by J.L. McPherson, a supernatural thriller that takes place entirely in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It has a number of themes, but the major one has to do with how a man deals with the loss of everything he holds dear: job, wife, and home. There have to be a number of people in America that this speaks to at the moment.
In July we will be launching the Sophia Katsaros series with Lykaia by Sharon Van Orman. It contains a 5,000-year history of the origin and mythology of werewolves. It is the first submission that made me call the author on the phone the day I finished reading the manuscript to secure the rights. Stunning is an understatement.
We have five titles scheduled for release in August and July; however, Waiting in the Silence by Rosalyn W. Berne under the Spore Press imprint is a tour-de-force effort I expect to be winning awards. It is a novel of historic, bio-science fiction, moving between the 1700s and the near future on the island of Nantucket. It is wildly speculative sci-fi that asks questions about over-population, reality, and the value of an individual versus the whole when advancing technology. It contains a rare, mysterious occurrence referred to as VISHNEW (Virtual Information System of Human Noetic Enhancement and Welfare) that makes possible the melding of the virtual with the real, and which supports, monitors and guides Island life, evincing both adulation and fear. Everyone is connected to this entity which monitors every aspect of their lives, including procreation (overseen by the Nantucket Compliance Court for Obstetrical Obedience).
Pubmission: What have you found works the best for you when marketing your books? Are you finding success with social media?
Keith: We are working on building our social media networks, but ultimately you have to have something that people want. Because of this we are doing a number of, I hope, innovative things to drive readership. Every title gets a video trailer. We have already sold the film rights to one title that will start production this fall. The same title, Lessons from an Evil Mind by Shawna Stewart, also already has a band attached to produce a soundtrack to the book. The idea is that they produce original songs, and a video for at least one, that are meant to go along with the book. This gives us the opportunity to cross-promote within the music community, and the band vice versa.
We are producing audio books to give away, alternate covers, scheduling giveaways…pretty much anything we need to do to get people talking about the books themselves on the social networks. We are having some success, but have yet to hit the critical mass needed for the marketing efforts to become self-sustaining. That will either take time, or a single, breakaway hit. I am building a business for the long term and am prepared for it to take the time and work necessary to create the connections that will ultimately make social media work.
Pubmission: It looks like you’re only selling books as e-books for the time being. Do you have plans to eventually include print versions?
Keith: All books will also be in print version. We are staggering the e-book release from the paperback release to drive interest and give us the opportunity for multiple release campaigns, the same way as hardcovers have traditionally preceded paperbacks. It also gives us an better idea of how large of an initial print run is needed.
Pubmission: I love your covers. Can you tell us a bit about your cover-design process? How much involvement does the author have?
Keith: The author has the final say on the covers. In the same way that we are involving filmmakers and bands in our process, we are also reaching out to traditional and non-traditional artists to do our covers. We could hire any of a number of book-cover design houses and get a stock photo and neat font treatment, but then we would look like everyone else. What we want is for each book to have the best match available for cover design. As a result, I have reached out to professional artists, graphic artists, tattoo artists, and others. In fact, the cover for Lykaia is being done by Chris Paradis, a person most know as a designer of limited-addition tarot cards.
I want at least three concepts for the author to choose from, and the author and artist work together directly and then let me know when they have finally decided. I do get updates throughout the process, but I might as well not, as I write into all of our contracts that the decision on cover art is in the hands of the author. We understand that these books, for many writers, represent years of their lives, and they will feel betrayed if we just slap something on it and ship it out the door.
One of the things that we are thinking about doing is having different covers for print and e-books. In online stores, such as Amazon, the cover gets shrunk to the point that it becomes an icon. I would like to play with this idea and design the e-book cover to be shown at 115 pixels high.
Pubmission: What does the inside of Spore Press look like? How large is your staff, are they all on site with you, and what can you tell us about your editorial process? How long does it take for a book to go from initial manuscript to finished product?
Keith: We are currently running a virtual office. Right now, there are five people involved with the company. I tried to assemble people I can count on and who know something about the business. For example, one person used to be an editor with a large publishing house in D.C. I think between us we average 2.2 degrees each. Most people involved with Spore Press have other jobs and do this with me as a passion. We meet over margaritas every few months to discuss submissions, giving them thumbs up or down, sometimes trying to sell everyone else on books we think are worth our time. Every submission goes through at least two reads before being put up for acceptance. Our editorial schedule runs from 45 days to 6 months, depending on the amount of rewrites and structural changes we feel are needed. Average is about 65 days.
Pubmission: Now that you’ve been in business for about a year, what were the biggest challenges you faced in getting your company off the ground? What has surprised you about the publishing game?
Keith: The biggest challenge was really to get authors to take us seriously. We were new. Many thought we couldn’t offer them anything they couldn’t do themselves. I took an old novel I had sitting around and we published that as our first title to test our processes. All of these things I have had to contend with.
Now that we have been in business for a while, and the authors we have signed have been talking about how they are being treated by us, how each book gets an individualized and targeted marketing plan, and how we work with the author to get the work into publishable shape. I think that word is getting out that we add value and, as we have more titles out, the network value of our brand will grow as well.
The single most surprising thing about publishing has been how uneven a playing field it is. The recent DOJ lawsuit against Apple and five of the big six publishers for price fixing and anti-competitive practices was not a revelation to me. However, I was very surprised by just how brazen they are. Bottom line, the world is changing around them and they can’t change fast enough to keep up. Companies like Spore Press can. We are free to innovate wildly. We can try things and if they don’t work, move on to something else. When we want to do a deal with a band, for instance, to write an entire album as a soundtrack to a book, we can locate a band through social networks, discuss the concept with them, hammer out the terms, and ink a contract all in the matter of a few days. For the Big Six, they would still be setting up the meeting to discuss if it was a good idea.
Pubmission: Much is being made now about the importance of an author platform. Does a writer’s online presence factor into your acquisitions process? How would you describe the perfect Spore Press author?
Keith: Online presence matters, but not at much as I thought it would when I began. We will provide a writer with a website and freelancers to help maintain the site. We will instruct them as part of the marketing plan on what websites to visit, what forums to talk on, and even how often. The perfect Spore Press author is a kick-ass writer who is passionate about his or her craft and willing to do what it takes to be successful.
Pubmission: Finally, speaking of websites, Spore Press has a very clean, attractive site. Can you offer some advice to other small publishers who are struggling to get up and running with their own websites?
Keith: I have been programing since 1982 and just like things to be clean and simple. In the end, form should follow function. I have tested our website with up to a few thousand titles, and, in fact, the real beauty of the site doesn’t become apparent until it is loaded down with content, which is what we are planning for. Clean really matters when there is a lot to dig through.
For other publishers who are just starting out, I have this advice: I have had technology startups backed by tens of millions of venture capital dollars and I have done companies on a shoestring. By far, the better situation is the second if you are building for the future. If you can learn to do it yourself and save the money, then you will be much better off and, ultimately, have a better solution. If you are at a loss for what to do, buy a good template for Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla and customize it. Your website, just like your company, can’t be broken beyond repair if you are willing to try something and move on when it doesn’t work.