Last month I had the honor of stealing about half an hour of time from Rhonda Hughes's busy day to learn more about traditional publishing and Hawthorne Books, the press that published Jay Ponteri's memoir, Wedlocked. (If you haven't yet read Part I & Part II of my interview with him, check them out!)
Though I didn't realize it at the time, I first heard of Hawthorne Books last summer when Dora: A Headcase came out. A Facebook friend of a friend is friends with Lidia Yuknavitch, so I saw a lot of the unique, interactive promo Yuknavitch did for that book. It wasn't until Jay Ponteri announced that Hawthorne Books was going to publish his memoir that the name started to register. And then it seemed like I started to hear about the small press or their books everywhere, including during my interview for VoiceCatcher with Trista Cornelius, who described Yuknavitch's memoir, The Chronology of Water, as an example of someone doing something really innovative and honest with their writing. "She invented a way to speak from the female body to express her experience and her choices in life," Trista said. "It was art. It didn't ask for forgiveness or pity."
Rhonda Hughes started Hawthorne Books about 13 years ago, after graduate school, with the vision of marrying form and function. "Books should also be beautiful," she said toward the beginning of our conversation, and they should last. Especially in this day and age, when readers have a choice between an e-book and a print book, she feels readers need an incentive to buy the print book. Which is why they take such care in picking the materials and work with Adam McIsaac, their graphic designer, to create beautiful, eye-catching covers.
Hawthorne Books publishes six books a year. Most of the books they find through agents and referrals. In the past they've had an open submission policy, where unrepresented authors could contact them directly, but this has been suspended because, Hughes said, they couldn't keep up with the number of submissions, and blind submissions tend to vary more in quality.
When they acquire a book, it's still customary to pay the author a small advance. For a small press like Hawthorne, the advances can run around $1000-3000 for an established author and $100-500 for a debut novel. Standard royalty rates are around 10-12%, which means the author ends up making about a dollar per book sold.
said that it takes about a year from manuscript acquisition to
publication - in part because the distribution databases require information about nine months ahead of publication - and they never miss their deadlines. It's what I would have
expected from any professional book publisher, but I've known a few
authors who have worked with small presses that can't seem to get their
acts together. (For example, one of my author friends recently had her e-book
published, and instead of publishing her book on the publication date,
her publisher sent her a round of edits and several options for the
cover design. Ugh.)
One of the things that I was most curious about is what services the publishing house provides to the author, since I'd heard that authors who go the traditional route still have to do a lot of their own publicity these days. Hughes said that one of the advantages to going with a small press is that there are fewer books between which their attention is divided. Although it's helpful to the press to have authors who are willing to do some of their own publicity, Hawthorne designs and runs nationwide marketing and publicity campaigns for all their titles. They also provide editing, cover design, printing, shipping and distribution, including acquisition of the ISBN(s). Each of the books they publish is available in both print and e-book formats, and electronic books currently account for about 18% of their sales.
Recently, Hawthorne Books has started to shift its attention to putting more energy into online publicity, such as connecting with book clubs and doing guest posts on The Huffington Post, and is considering moving away from in-person book tours, which foster positive relationships with bookstores and readers who can attend but don't necessarily sell more books. (This makes sense to me - I usually go to readings when I already own the book.) When I mentioned the trend for self-published authors to go on virtual books tours with tour companies like Xpresso Book Tours, Innovative Online Book Tours, PJ Blog Tours or Read Between the Lines, Hughes said that Hawthorne Books does something similar: They have a list of about 50 bloggers whom they contact when a new book comes out, where an author might do a guest post or interview or have their book reviewed.
"What makes an author good to work with?" I asked. Hughes thought for a moment and said that an author can best help their publisher by being open to their audience, being the face and presence behind the book. By being willing to write guest posts and accepting invitations to speak on radio shows and at universities and book stores. It helps when authors are willing to work hard at being visible, personable and accessible.
My last question was about the extent to which authors have control over their final product, which is a concern of many authors who are trying to decide between self-publishing and going to the traditional route. I know from my interview with him that Jay Ponteri worked closely with McIsaac, the graphic designer, to come up with a cover design that he was happy with, but can authors say no to edits? Short answer: yes. If Hughes finds a promising manuscript that has a fatal flaw in it, she'll tell the author up front that Hawthorne will publish the book only if x change is made. If the author doesn't want to make that change, then they don't have to sign with Hawthorne. But once an author is signed, she said, it's up to them whether to accept or reject editing suggestions. "The final line is, it's their book," she said.