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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/7/11

Deborah Emin, e-Publishing and the Sullivan Street Press

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My guest today is Deborah Emin, founder of Sullivan Street Press. Welcome to OpEdNews, Deborah. What is Sullivan Street Press and how is it different from any of the other publishing houses out there? 

photo credit: Suzanne Pyrch 
Sullivan Street Press (SSP) is an e-book only publisher for the simple reason that I want to see this new revolution have a good home. Lots of other publishers are going this route or will go this route soon enough.

For environmental reasons as well as financial reasons, for a company this small, one person run, there is no better way to make ends meet as well as to offer a great deal for a low cost.

I published one book as a bound book and then watched the whole circuit of its history from idea to bound book and realized just how much of the earth's resources this took up and would continue to take up as long as the books existed.

While it does take energy to read an e-book there are other reasons for this type of publishing as well. Some of them are also political. No one can tell us that this book is out of print or that there is no room at the inn, so to speak. It will always be.

In addition, SSP is one of those companies that really takes seriously the whole geography of book publishing. We distribute for other publishers as well as for ourselves. We do this because we know that most bookstores outside of large cities don't exist anymore. So we began the Itinerant Book Show in order to help other writers get the word out about their books.

In our newest incarnation, we will also be be using a new iPad app to distribute electronically books that will work together synergistically to corral, if you will, like-minded readers who would like a specific type of book that speaks to them as fiction, non-fiction and some of the genres within each of those two choices. And we will keep adding, as time goes by, more books to the mix so that more people and ideas can come together to create a larger and larger community of people who share many common interests and can at the same time learn of new things, new ways of seeing the world and the possibilities inherent in it. 
This is a fascinating concept, Deborah. But, flesh it out for me some more; I'm a very visual person and this is still a little abstract for me. All of your books are electronic only, correct? Other than that, how is SSP different? Are you publisher/editor and chief bottle washer? Do e-books get the benefit of traditional editors shepherding them along or are they more 'as is'?

My books get the benefit of an editor, separate from me. This person is a paid professional whose job it is to make sure the story works. The covers are designed by a pro as well. All the people I work with in this way are all professionals.

As all must know by now, there are so many people who are unemployed by the traditional publishers. They are looking for work and are extremely talented. For a small company like mine, this makes such good business sense to work with people like this. Plus we all speak the same language. We know what it is we are looking for and work towards achieving it.

You can't really run a publishing company totally alone. You are dependent on all kinds of labor that must be found and worked with on a case by case basis. Since for the present moment, there is a new website being developed (you can't run an e-book only business without a really good website supporting that business), I found a company that works with small companies and nonprofits.

Just as I expect that company to be building something for me from the ground up, I would never expect that an author who submitted a book that I might like to publish would be able to present it to me completely ready to go. That wouldn't be a reason for her or him to come to me.

So, I distinguish the fact that we both produce (publish) as well as distribute (take on the books of other publishers or self-published authors). With the books we publish, we have a very different relationship with an author than if we are distributing books. But both are part of the business plan, which is one of the reasons we are so different from other publishers.

So, let me make sure I understand this. With traditional  publishers, a writer doesn't actually first write a book and then submit it. The writer creates a book proposal which includes a table of contents, a chapter or two, the story of why the author is the person to be telling this story, etc. Is it different with e-publishing?

No, what I am saying is this--we pretty much do what a traditional publisher would do--except none of the people who would work for the publisher work for us. We can choose a variety of freelancers to work with.

What you describe is traditionally how a non-fiction book is done. A proposal is submitted, with what a traditional proposal contains--and then we decide if that is for us. But for the record, we are more interested in creating the works that we publish even if we partner with others to create them than we are interested in going the more traditional route.

Novels, have to be complete to be of interest, which doesn't mean we wouldn't show it to an editor who would evaluate it for the viability of the story as we move forward.

I think what distinguishes our plans from the traditional ones and this has nothing to do with how e-books get formatted, is that we want to be involved in the process of making the book and even more importantly, helping all authors to understand how the new ways of marketing to readers are really about creating communities of readers and writers who do read and write because there are things that need to be done and understood about the world that can only be accomplished through this approach.

I know none of this is very visual. This is our approach though and has to do entirely with why a person reads so intently and why writers engage with that kind of reader. 
You say: "we are more interested in creating the works that we publish even if we partner with others to create them than we are interested in going the more traditional route." I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

In other words, I am not looking for lots of other authors to publish.

i know a great blues musician who lives in my neighborhood. He isn't a writer by tradition. I want to help him tell his story in a new and innovative way. I also want this new way to make sense to his way of seeing the world and bring him and SSP some money for the effort of getting the story out there.

The idea would be to take some of his musical experiences and create them in short bursts and sell them as if they were cuts of a record. Because they would be e-books, we could include audio as well as video with each cut of the record.

In that way I want to help him sell his story. I want to help him create it and shape it and then market it for him.

Cool and definitely unconventional! How do you overcome the resistance of old-fashioned readers who like to hold an actual book in their hands?

I wish I had some kind words to say to those who cling to the past in that way. I know this sounds harsh but I am at this moment in my own transformation from a devoted bound book lover to an idealist about the future that it is difficult for me to recall just how much I used to pore over the ways in which a physical book came to be.

My first job in NYC in 1978 was with a small publisher and while their business ended up going broke for lots of reasons, there were a good deal of great perks to being a young person in the book business in those days. One of those things was learning first hand and having then to do a good deal of work that most young editors can only dream about. So I know what it feels like, vaguely, to hold that new book in one's hands and to know precisely how each decision was made for each detail of the book. I was that involved in the production and the editing and the design and the paste up, and on and on. When we received our copies from the printer, they came to me and I can't tell you how exciting it was.

But now, a new excitement grips me. I have stopped the talks about wanting to lie in bed with a physical book because I am dreaming of the days when it will be so common that e-books will be more than text on the screen. I want the new e-books to be sexier, in the way physical books are now for some people and were for me 30 years ago.

I want to be able to afford to put into production the kinds of books that keep me awake at night that are full of enhancements that include some of the game technology, the advances we will have in picture definition on the page. As a brief example of what keeps me happy is this dream of a book I want to write.

A story of a man who has run away from his life in one town to race to another place from his past. Simultaneous with the escape are his past memories in photo flashbacks and a chase story as well that is like a game version of Where's Waldo. Now this may seem chaotic and mad to some, but when I talk to the people who are currently involved in creating the new technology to do these kinds of books, they too are quite excited by what is going to happen when this kind of technology isn't a $50,000 investment but is as common as HTML.

The answer to your question is thus: It is difficult to let that question of physical vs e-books to even enter my mind anymore because I am dreaming in a different direction and enjoying it too much.

I admit that it's hard for this old-timer to get my mind around what you're talking about. It sounds so futuristic. But I am both open-minded and interested. Do you think that "real' bound books and traditional publishing will cease to exist any time soon?

"Cease to exist." An awful phrase in my mind.

No, we can't wipe out all of the book business any time soon nor should we want to. I think what we want to see is the re-arranging of the ways in which decisions are made, the emphasis on huge advances for books and the ways in which this imbalance affects all other writers.

What has made traditional publishing hard for me to swallow isn't their allegiance to bound books. That is the misapprehension people have. The traditional publishers are also rapidly though belatedly getting into the e-book business. Their approach to publishing is what has to change in order for their to be a more equitable way for us to have the books we need to keep a democracy alive.

So, if I may return to something that is anything but sci-fi and that is our Itinerant Book Show which is a cross between a Tupperware Party and a traveling salesman. Bookstores have gone out of business for lots of reasons that have to do not with the rise of the e-book but with the awful recession we are living through and other factors tied to the business model of traditional publishing.

I wanted to find a way to meet people when I traveled. I didn't want to stay in motel rooms glued to some tv and not have a chance to find out what the communities I drove through were all about. So I came up with the Itinerant Book Show. I knew that most people I would meet would never even hear of the books I could take with me. These books were published by a variety of authors in a variety of genres and I keep adding to the inventory. I appear in small cafes, galleries, living rooms, anywhere people can sit down and talk about books, buy the books I carry with me and listen to my lecture about the ways the publishing world is changing. This is a new/old business model and it has made me lots of friends along the route.

I don't think most people who write are ready to give up on bound books and that is what will determine the course of them. Sometimes I think if they had more facts about what the real costs are, like learning about slaughterhouses can cure you of eating meat, they would cease and desist. But that is going to take its own time with its own economies. And the fact of physical books hasn't been replaced yet with the thrill of e-books and until that happens we will be in this inbetween place.

Anything you'd like to add before we close, Deborah?

Nothing more to add. Thank you. You asked wonderful questions.

You've opened us up to new possibilities for books and readers alike. Thanks for talking with me, Deborah. It's been a pleasure.

Sullivan Street Press website

Deborah's blog

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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