Interview with Mary Ann Rivers and Ruthie Knox, Publishers
How did Brain Mill Press start?
We founded Brain Mill Press in 2013 with a year of research and development before we began acquisition. Ruth had been an editor for university presses and for her own successful academic editing business for close to fifteen years, and Mary Ann had been a consulting editor for journals of creative writing and small presses for nearly as long. Both were authors with one of the big five and had success writing. We were excited by the conversations in the writing community that were challenging representation and access, as well as by authors and books negotiating the boundaries of genre, mainstream, and literary fiction. We were both ready to actively support these kinds of visions, authors, and work and to apply our experience to producing terrific reads that were available as ebooks and beautiful print editions.
Tell us a bit about Brain Mill Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Brain Mill Press is a traditional independent publisher that publishes 15-20 titles a year of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our titles are mainly solicited by our editors, though we occasionally open calls for submissions. Our editors have a wide range of influences, but are primarily interested in authentic books that deeply engage readers and represent traditionally underrepresented authors and audiences of LGBTQIA, women, and people of color. We aim to produce these books in such a way that honors the story, using, for example, original art on our covers and paying close attention to cover and interior design. Our mission is to widely distribute and promote all of our titles and to identify books and authors who are pushing boundaries and writing compelling prose and poetry with a strong voice.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
Forthcoming is a weird West series we’re very excited about, by V.S. McGrath, that features an iconic female protagonist, Hettie Alabama. This series will be exciting for fans of fantasy and paranormal world-building who cut their teeth on Young Adult and Middle Grade books devoted to building compelling settings, as well as fans of the kinds of storytelling in West World, Jessica Jones, and True Grit. The first book in the series is The Devil’s Revolver.
We’re also excited to bring out Sarah Hahn Campbell’s memoir of grief, Grief Map, a fierce book of recovery from the perspective of a woman who has lost her partner, and the resulting aftermath for those who never understood their relationship. Documenting Light, by EE Ottoman, is a book currently in our catalog that is a transgender romance that focuses on the intricacies of tender interpersonal negotiations and the role of history. Badger, by CM McKenna, another in our current catalog, is part of the neo-noir emergence of genre-bending books, and is a controversial story of a recovering pill addict and the Boston street vigilante who is at the center of her and Boston’s obsession. We can’t wait to release Amanda Kabak’s The Mathematics of Change, because its dark, witty drama with intense relationship triangles is such a fast and immersive read.
We also have RITA award-winning and Lambda Finalist Alexis Hall’s lush historical Nettlefield upcoming, and a comics series Future Echoes by Al Davison of Spiral Cage fame, edited by DC/Vertigo comics scion Alisa Kwitney. We have a robust catalog, and quite a bit forthcoming, and there is a great deal for many different kinds of readers. Haris Durrani’s Technologies of the Self has gained so much attention this year, and we anticipate Victoria Smith’s Faith Healer, which deals with the Marcos regime and the diaspora, to gain similar momentum. We really need these stories, right this minute. We didn’t even get into the poetry, which is just killing and edited by Kiki Petrosino, whose collections include Hymn for he Black Terrific and Fort Red Border. Oh, and short stories! Karen Vaughn’s collection, A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, will make Kelly Link fans very happy.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
The strengths of independent publishers—that they are nimble, flexible, and closer to the ground as far as appeals to readers and contemporary conversations—also introduces what needs to change. There is a lot, a lot, of disparity to address in publishing that big houses are approaching in so many imperfect, slow, and clunky ways, and this disparity has to be taken up in independent publishing. We must hire editors who represent underrepresented talent in publishing. We must acquire with this as our first consideration. However, this means we must also focus on strong distribution and marketing options for independent publishers and commit to building dynamic and visible platforms for our editors and authors. We’d love to see more and more options for distribution, that is, marketing and placing independent titles with retailers in a manner that is robust and competitive—distributors with values to boost the signal of these authors and presses. We’d love to see better attention and representation at the major conventions and conferences for publishers, authors, and booksellers who are committed to insisting on diversity in our bookstores, libraries, and catalogs. We can’t permit publishing to trend toward monolith. It doesn’t help authors or new presses coming onto the scene, and it certainly doesn’t help readers. There is a great deal that is happening, so much, and it would be awesome if the biggest challenge that all independent publishing was facing was exponential growth and demand.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Brain Mill Press?
We haven’t taken on debt, which is important, as it keeps us motivated to create profit and loss budgets for every title. This means that we haven’t paid ourselves yet, as a press just two years into a catalog, as our focus still has to be on developing our titles. I think one of the primary ways that we cope is by adding our skill sets. Ruth is a talented designer and code monkey, so this is a tremendous asset as far as reducing costs and building what we need to be competitive. Mary Ann has acquired a lot of hard skills in marketing in different venues that apply positively to our decision-making and production plans for every book. We don’t think any author should pay anything, as this is a barrier and a kind of insidious gatekeeping that prevents diversity in acquisition. Right now, we’re selling just enough to stay at our current level of acquisition; however, we’ve been looking ahead since we’ve started at developing digital products for the publishing tech market that would be a source of income for the press. If you decide that what you are is a publishing house, then there are standards you’re beholden to—a publishing house must be distinct from a publishing services company, and it complicates the marketplace when publishing service companies look like a publishing house and authors are left with inventory to sell and little support.
I think for new presses, it’s a good idea to look at what people you can gather in your corner with extremely diverse sets of skills and an eye toward growth. Often, very valuable people to a press may not, at first glance, look like a typical founding member (your MFA, former editor, enthusiastic or successful author), but their durable strengths will provide perspectives and skills that are the difference between a static catalog and the ability to acquire. Looking at your connections with backgrounds in fields like law, accounting, tech, project management, social media, and design as potential founding partners also means you’re widening your circle of support when it comes to soliciting donations (if you do that), identifying markets, and spreading the word.
We also launched an online platform, VOICES, that publishes essays and columns, and this is the primary push of our social media outlets. Content is important, and if you’re acquiring and curating books at a small press level (1-40ish titles a year), then having high-quality content on a daily or weekly basis is great for building readership. You must pay, if you possibly can, your contributors, but there are a lot of new and aspiring writers who are interested in building their portfolio who write for standard rates of around $.06/word. There are also important and high-profile voices and writers who, if they support your mission, are happy to contribute to your platform. VOICES has established our mission and values and brought us amazing writers (and sometimes, acquisitions), more so than any other effort. Having engaging content pushed into the social media environment multiple times a week also expands our audience of readers who are the first buyers of our titles. There are so many presses who are offering unique perspectives and amazing writers who could draw an audience in this way. We have an ever-growing National Poetry Month event on VOICES every April, and that’s been amazing for expanding our audience.
We’d also encourage presses to be unafraid of making application to well-established distributors. It may seem, at first glance, that a big distributor would not be interested in a tiny press, but they need to diversify their catalogs, too, and if you have interesting books, they may very well be interested. It’s important to have great ebook distribution in addition to print, and it’s probably not enough to simply manage accounts with the big ebook outlets yourself (Amazon, etc.)—ebook distributors can make sure that anywhere ebooks are sold, your books are there, which is important for discoverability. It’s also much simpler to make application to ebook distribution.
Submitting your books to contests, for industry review, and making sure your distribution includes distribution to libraries (your ebook distributor should be getting your books on Overdrive) are also things all independents can do to build their press file and their authors’ platforms. It’s so important to take care of your authors with as many resources as you have available, since this often distinguishes you from authors’ experiences with the big guys.
Money is always, always a challenge, but I think it helps to reframe money as one of many possible resources that can grow what you’re doing.