Interview with Joanne Merriam, Publisher
How did Upper Rubber Boot Books start?
I had been toying with the idea of starting a press for over a decade, since my days as a staffer at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. After I immigrated to the United States, I had some trouble getting my footing in the writing communities here, mostly because I was mired in poverty and unable to attend conferences or writing workshops or the like. I met Molly Peacock at a reading, and she spoke about her experience immigrating in the other direction, and recommended that I start something that made writers come to me, much as she had started The Best Canadian Poetry in English series.
I started a small (very small) Twitter zine called 7×20 in 2009, and edited it for two years. I started URB to publish a best-of anthology. The Kickstarter for that project allowed me to buy 100 ISBNs and start putting out ebooks. I chose ebooks because they required no upfront investment except for time, and I already knew how to build websites, which makes the learning curve for building ebooks much less steep. I paid my writers very modest advances against their royalties, and slowly built an audience. I started putting out print edition of my books in 2012 and now all of our new titles are available in both print and ebook formats.
Tell us a bit about URB. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I’m a poet who has been a science fiction fan since middle school. I publish both poetry and science fiction, and love projects that live in the grey areas between genres. As an immigrant, I’m also really interested in expanding the awareness of the American science fiction community to include more of the amazing writing that’s happening outside our borders. I’m also really into fiction with a poetic approach to the language.
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?
The book that’s taking up most of my time right now is The Museum of All Things Awesome and that Go Boom, an adventure sci-fi anthology to be released this July. I’ve also set up a website for the actual museum, which exists 500 years in the future on another planet, with lots of fun exhibits, backstory for the museum, continuing education for the professional adventurer, and more, at http://www.matagb.org.
For 2017, I’m working on a solarpunk anthology, Sunvault, co-edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Wieland, which we’ve just kickstarted in April, and an anthology of long poems, Warning! Poems May Be Longer Than They Appear, co-edited by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum and Matthew Silverman.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I really enjoy the freedom to pursue projects that might not make it through a more grueling editorial process. If I decide that I want to publish something and don’t mind potentially losing money on it, which is a risk for all of my poetry titles, I can forge ahead.
The tools that large companies like Amazon and Ingram provide have made it possible to publish books that may appeal to only a few hundred or a few thousand readers, and social media has made it possible to find those readers, so even for the most risky titles, I can feel the satisfaction of getting books into the hands of the people who will love them.
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 Upper Rubber Boot Books?
I’m categorically against charging writers for anything. (The only time a writer would give me money would be if they wanted to buy copies of their books to hand-sell at readings and the like, which I sell to them at cost.) I think that reading fees provide a perverse incentive for publishers to focus their business model on encouraging submissions rather than on growing their audience, since it shifts their compensation away from readers and towards writers. Further, an unexpected (but predictable) side effect of widespread adoption of this practice would be that it would limit publication to those people who can afford to pay out several hundred dollars in reading fees every year.
Printing costs are something I have to be careful about. I print most of my books POD (print-on-demand), which is more expensive per copy but doesn’t obligate me to print hundreds of copies, or to limit myself to titles likely to sell hundreds of copies. Since about half of my titles are poetry, that’s a real concern—a book of poetry can be a best-seller without cracking 1,000 copies. I’ve done print runs of a few books, to fulfill pre-orders through Kickstarter, have copies to sell at conventions, and provide contributor copies. I’m lucky to live in the same city as an excellent printer, J&J Printing, which saves me hundreds of dollars in shipping fees since I can pick up the books from their office.
The cost of most print books looks something like this: the bookstore selling the book will keep about 40% of the cover price, and the author(s) will receive about 10% of the cover price in royalties, so you’re losing half of the cover price right out the gate. The physical book itself might cost anywhere from $2.50 to $6/copy, depending on length and special extras. Most of my poetry books cost me about $3/copy, and most of my anthologies about $5/copy. (Ebooks have no production cost for me except my time, but I also pay 30-35% royalties on ebook sales.) It costs money to buy ISBNs, register copyrights, pay proofreaders, pay for cover art (and cover design, if you farm that out, though I do my own), pay for software, and pay for advertising and promotion. Most of those are fixed costs, so the more copies I sell, the less they cost per copy. A book that costs $3 to print, I’ll sell for $11.99, while a book that costs $5 to print, I can’t sell for $20—nobody will pay that for a trade paperback—so I sell them for $13.99, giving $1.40 to the author, $5 to the printer, and $5.60 to the bookstore, leaving me with $1.99/copy to cover expenses—but the longer books are fiction, which sells better, and so far it’s worked out alright.
I’ve found the old saw that “to make a small fortune in publishing, start with a big fortune” to be mostly true. I am able to pay my writers and stay in the black by working a day job, running Kickstarters for pre-orders, and occasionally putting my own money into the business. I’ve made several expensive errors (most notably, I optimistically printed 800 copies of our first big anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, and I still have about 200 copies in my house three years later, which are very slowly selling) and had to learn as I went. Every year, I need to put less of my own money into the business; with any luck, the only thing I’ll need to personally subsidize this year will be travelling to MidSouthCon in Memphis in March.
I haven’t posted a profit yet, four years into it, but I’m hopeful for 2016, since the bad decisions I made out of naiveté when I first started aren’t affecting me much anymore (for instance, I’ve broken even on those 800 Apocalypse Nows), and the next two anthologies I’m putting out (Museum and Sunvault) are fun and I think (hope!) will appeal to a broad audience.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you guys today! I’m excited about what’s ahead for small presses and publishing. It’s going to be great.