Pros. and Cons. of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self Publishing (Part 8): Interview with Independent Publisher and owner of Conundrum Press, Caleb SeelingPosted: December 5, 2016
There is no question that the rise of digital publishing has changed the face of the publishing industry. How could it not? This week we hear from someone who has a good handle on the publishing industry and what those changes look like. The following is an interview with Caleb Seeling, the owner of Conundrum Press, a small independent publishing house which publishes poetry, literary fiction and creative non-fiction by authors in the Rocky Mountain region.
Kaye: What brought you to become a publisher?
Caleb: I have always been a reader and a writer, and during my grad and post-grad years, I became more involved with social engagement and cultural influence. So when the opportunity arose to enter the publishing industry as a senior acquisitions and developmental editor, I took it. As I learned how the industry worked, I hatched a vision for what my own press would look like–to run a literary publishing company as a social entrepreneur–had I the opportunity (and gumption) to start one. That opportunity came in 2009 when I joined the thousands of other editors in the unemployment lines when publishing companies laid off most of their low to mid-level staff. I decided to use the time to make my vision a reality, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Kaye: As the owner of Conundrum Press, what are your publishing goals?
Caleb: To not only publish excellent literature from the Mountain West, but also to champion voices of minorities and disenfranchised people. We’ll do this through an evolving acquisitions strategy, promotion, philanthropy, and also education via Colophon Center.
Kaye: What do you see as the advantages of independent publishing over traditional or self-publishing for today’s authors?
Caleb: Well, for starters, the term “independent publishing” has been coopted by the self-publishing world. Conundrum Press is a small press, and like most small presses, we operate much the same way a so called “traditional” press does—we accept agented manuscripts, we have contractual terms and pay royalties (and advances on occasion), we have full editorial, design, production, marketing, and sales processes, we’re internationally distributed, etc. So the question is really about what are the advantages and disadvantages of choosing to publish with a small press, or a medium-sized press, over one of the big 5 and their subsidiaries, or over self-publishing. The advantages are that we are more passionate, more invested over a longer period of time, more focused, and more flexible than large companies. And while we don’t have the resources that large companies have to throw at their A-list authors, we do at least the same amount of promotion, and probably more, than they do for their lesser known authors. We also have more resources and expertise than most self-publishing authors do, and have the ability to get books into more markets and sales channels than they do.
Kaye: This series is using independent publishing to refer to small and medium presses and I have distinguished these from self-published endeavors for my readers. That said, you stated that small and medium presses operate along the same lines as the big traditional publishing houses. Do you think it is any harder or easier for an author to get picked up by on of these houses than it is with traditional publishing houses?
Caleb: I guess the answer is it depends. Small presses are kind of like literary magazines—you’ve got to know what their focus is, be familiar with what they publish before sending a query. Their lists are going to be comparatively small per season, so they have to pick and choose very carefully. I have a slush pile, but I haven’t really had a chance to go through it because I am actively looking for what and who I want to publish, and then I go after them. Other houses may have different acquisition strategies. Also, there are many more small presses than there are large houses, so the chances are in your favor for that reason. But standards vary across the board, as well as how much editorial work they’re willing to do to get a manuscript ready.
Kaye: How has the increasing trends in self-publishing affected the role of independent presses?
Caleb: It’s made small presses that much more valuable, given the fact we are filling in the enormous gap left by the mega-conglomeration of media companies and the incredible noise created by the advent of relatively inexpensive print-on-demand and design technology. But self-publishing, while really great on so many levels, has increased the level of clamor for attention in the marketplace to a pitch that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to be heard at all. And with the cost of advertising and publicity staying as high as it is, it has perpetuated our culture of celebrity, where the only ones who get heard are the ones who are already known, or who have tens of thousands of dollars to throw at promoting one book, much less a list of 10-100 per year.
Kaye: How has the rise of Amazon and digital publishing in general, affected the publishing industry?
Caleb: Amazon has not only contributed to the noise, but it has encouraged unrealistic expectations of authors regarding the ability to sell, and in their bid to control the publishing industry through their algorithms and price controls, it has been antagonistic to publishers and contributed to the downfall of American community of which local bookstores have always been a hub. They’ve made our job really difficult and they are extremely unfriendly to work with on the vendor/supply side. On the other hand…never before has there been the opportunity to have ALL of our books available anywhere to anyone who wants them. And there’s the rub. Can’t live with them, and, for now, we can’t live without them.
Kaye: What do you see as the future role of independent publishing houses within the changing publishing industry?
Caleb: The importance of small presses will only grow as the mega-media conglomerates continue to merge, which they will, and as the glut of media grows worse, which it will. As the noise and de-diversification of books and content gets worse, the need for risk-taking gate-keepers will also grow. Small presses meet this need, and more and more agents and authors are turning to them, taking the bold, long-term approach to publishing that small presses excel at. What we need now, however, is readers to become aware of the publisher’s mark on the spines of the books they read, and to deliberately choose to buy a book from an author they may not know published by a small press. The success of the buy local and small food movements are encouraging…deliberate consumer choices really do change the world. It’s happening with our food and environment…so let’s see it happen with our information and entertainment as well. Buy local. Read small. If you find a book on Amazon that you want, call your local bookstore and order it from them instead. Or buy directly from a local or regional small press. Our culture is a garden that needs to be tended—small presses, conscientious authors and agents, and partnering indie bookstores can bring the seeds to fruition, but we need readers to harvest what we’ve grown.
My thanks go out to Caleb for taking the time to offer his input here. His responses have been educational for me and I hope they have for other authors out there as well. Be sure catch next week’s interview, as well, when we will hear from another independent publishing house, Curiosity Quills Press.
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