Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[Interview: Part 2 of 2] Neil Marr

Publisher and author, Neil Marr worked as a journalist for over 35 years before he and his son, Alex, set up BeWrite (a non-commercial writers’ website which offered free professional editorial services and optional online showcasing).

After three years, they transformed the website into BeWrite Books publishing house and have gone on to release over 120 paperback titles.

In this interview, Neil Marr talks the formation of BeWrite Books, the use they are making of print-on-demand technology and their plans for the future.

What made you decide to transform BeWrite into BeWrite Books publishing house?

Quite simply, the talent out there that wasn’t getting a look in. The big houses are swamped (that is not a criticism) and their slushpiles are never cleared.

We read every proposal. OK, 98% might be knocked back at first fence with no request for full MS, but everything gets a fair crack of the whip -- not by interns, but by one of four experienced pro editors. Often a rejection is accompanied by a line edit and masses of editorial notes to guide the author in revision.

What challenges did this transformation present?

Hard work. Twenty-four-hour days. Simple as that... sheer hard graft and ever-producing mindplay.

I’ve worked 62-hour shifts for this wee house regularly. Partner (and son) Sandy took a full year off from his high-paying IT day job to help put things together.

How has BeWrite Books been received?

We’re still battling against the stigma of producing mostly with PoD, which -- unfairly -- lumps us in with the vanity cowboys, to the uninitiated.

We’re getting over that.

Folks are beginning to see that PoD ain’t necessarily a four-letter word. You will never Google up a negative review of BeWrite Books. We’re listed in all the publishing ‘bibles’ and our reputation for editorial excellence and general square dealing is always emphasised.

Who are these 'vanity cowboys' you talk about?

Sadly, the revolutionary new print-on-demand production system was soon hijacked by vanity press operators who simply convert a raw manuscript into a print-ready PDF at the touch of a button, and the innocent initials PoD came to often mean Publish on Demand.

The internet is bursting at the seams with companies offering to ‘publish’ anything that comes their way... at a price. There is no selection process, no editorial input and no quality control. The only books these companies are interested in are authors’ check books.

There are companies releasing up to three titles an hour... and still claiming editorial input. Nonsense. I sometimes have a novel in edit for over a year. Even with a pro editorial team of four, we’re hard pressed to release a dozen titles a year.

Some Publish on Demand operators boast of being ‘traditional’ (whatever that means) and don’t charge an author up front or even offer a single dollar advance. Instead they ask the author for a list of family and friends and press them into buying. Few sales are made to the general reading public. But production cost with no editorial input is so low that they’re soon making huge profits by playing the numbers game. Such companies have become known as ‘author mills’.

Why is it a fallacy to associate all PoD with vanity publishing?

Vanity press self-publishing was always risky for the author. There was the cost of a short run of a few hundred books and the difficulty of distributing and selling the books. Hardly ever would a self-published author recover his expenses, and he’d be left with a stack of unsold books gathering dust in the garage. Print on Demand technology has reduced the risk for genuine small press but it also presents an opportunity for Publish on Demand outfits to cash in on the enthusiasm of unpublished writers.

I think there’s little chance of vanity press and self-publishing ever going away. In fact, it’s in its hay day. Word processing computers make it simple (too simple?) for someone to knock out 60,000 words, call it a novel and tout it around electronically at zero cost and effort. We’ll always see thousands of sub-standard books released this way every year. And even more as time goes by.

Why?

Simply look at rejection rates with a genuinely selective publishing house. Even a small company like ours accepts less than four percent of what we’re offered (often, even then, after full author revision before it goes into full edit). Bigger houses and agencies reject an even greater percentage of submissions (because they receive more, not because they’re more choosey).

Some authors will learn from rejection and improve their work. And that’s exciting to see. Many others think they know better and self-publish or go the publish on demand route to by-pass the critical selection process.

Having said all this, I must add that some self-published work is quite fine -- usually when its author has employed a professional editor. But that’s a tiny, tiny minority, and it’s swamped by second, third and fourth rate self-published or author mill releases.

What does PoD allow you, as publishers, to do that you couldn't have done had the technology not been available?

In our case, PoD is a print term describing a process by which books are instantly printed on order -- one single copy or a few dozen at a time depending on the day’s demand. We use the excellent Lightning Source print company and set our titles both at their US and their UK bases. Books are printed and despatched by the press closest to the ordering party. Distribution and exposure is usually via online sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.

This process allowed smaller companies like BeWrite Books to launch. Before then, publishing was a hugely expensive venture to set up with thousands necessary up front to pay for a mass print run. Then, of course, the books had to be stored and physically peddled around high street stores. And about 60 percent remain unsold and are returned or destroyed for a full rebate to the retailer by the publisher.

A PoD title costs relatively little to set up digitally for press, packaging and distribution is handled by the print shop, and there’s zero wastage. We covered all expenses -- not inconsiderable -- out of our own pockets for the first three years or so before starting to break even.

Our most valuable input, though, is not in money so much as professional editorial, technical and administration know-how. The editorial team of four, for instance, shares nearly 150 years of pro experience. I work long hours at least six days a week. But we’re not at the stage even now where we can afford to take salaries, which is why I occasionally have to moonlight for other publishers and -- like yesterday for Murdoch’s News International -- run a story for a big newspaper or magazine to go toward the household bills.

We do have working capital now, though, and we’re planning our first venture into short-run and stacking the shelves at physical (rather than online) bookshops with a thriller by David Hough called Prestwick (BeWrite Books, 2009) later this year.

What would you say sets BeWrite Books apart from other similar ventures (if that is the right word) that are out there?

In a word, editorial. There’s not a giant house to match our editorial expertise (almost two centuries combined experience), our eventual proofing. And we’re as selective as hell. The reader of a BB book will never be disappointed. We’re too darned smart for that.

What are your plans for the future?

Immediate future? A chilled beer and a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Later this year, out first venture into short-run with David Hough’s Prestwick which we are short-run printing and plan to launch at all major UK airports over the next four months. One heck of a book!

Earlier, you mentioned that you started publishing with one or two co-authored collections from the BeWrite Community. What are the titles and characteristics of these collections, who were they by and are they still in circulation?

Actually, our first venture into publishing was an experiment to showcase the short story work of three particularly talented and prolific contributors to the website -- our first two members back in 2000, Peter Lee and Terri Pine (now Terri Nixon) and another regular poster, Andrew Muller. I added a piece to make up page count. We had no cover artists at the time, so the book, Chill (BeWrite Books, 2002) was covered by my son, Alex -- a fine photographer -- who used sugar to simulate ice with a ghostly image of a screaming skull showing through. Pretty effective.

A second collection by BeWriters was The Creature in the Rose (BeWrite Books, 2004), love stories with a macabre twist and co-authored by a whole bunch of gifted scribes.

We were becoming very, very busy on the publishing front by this time, though, and we had no choice but to close down the community and its forums. The lads and lassies all agreed that it was for the best. The BeWrite Community had done its job and it was time to move on to the natural second stage, helping authors into print. With a technologist pal in Canada, however, I opened a new writers’ group to pick up where BeWrite Community left off. Many old BeWriters meet up there and exchange work for critique. You’ll find it at www.bibliophilia.org.

These days, we no longer run collections and concentrate on full novels. Several genres (no horror or fantasy, chick lit, etc), but our main interest is in what’s become known as ‘literary fiction’: all about wordcraft.

Related resources:
Possibly related books:

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Related interview:

[Interview: Part 1 0f 2] Neil Marr, Conversations with Writers, November 5, 2009

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