The Corner Office: Indie Thinking Drives Dzanc Books
Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett are proving that the independent press is alive and well. In 2006, the co-publishers—Gillis, an author who made good in the stock market, and Wickett, a blogger who founded the Emerging Writers Network (EmergingWriters.typepad.com)—founded Dzanc Books with the goal to champion great writing. Now, with two years of business under their belts, the nonprofit press continues to garner attention for its crusade to help put good books into readers’ hands.
• What are the biggest challenges facing smaller, independent publishing houses?
Steve Gillis: Right at the top of the list is being well-financed. There’s a lot of motivated independents that are starting small presses. They go book to book, and then they fall by the wayside. When Dan and I decided to do this, we decided to make sure that we didn’t start until we were extremely well-financed.
Beyond that pragmatic concern … getting your books in the stores is tough. When we started … no one knew us from Adam. … We really had to establish ourselves and form our connections, and make everyone realize we were a legitimate competitor. We hit the ground running and let it be known that we’d be around for awhile. We showed them our list and our financial plan. I’m certainly not belittling those presses that are putting out one book a year, but that’s not what Dan and I wanted to do. …
Dan Wickett: … [When] we approached the distributors we [had] heard of prior to having that first book out … they said, “When you have your seventh or eighth book, we’ll begin to look at you.” It looked like we would have four years of me calling every store in the country. … We decided … to spend a little heavier than planned. Anytime we got any press, if we got a review in a place people had heard of, if we got any kind of highlights online, we would make sure the two distributors that we were most interested in got those releases. We worked with Coffee House Press. Their publicists had a lot of contacts we didn’t have …. We got a little bit more press in industry magazines. The strategy seemed to work.
• How have you deviated from the template of how a traditional book publisher is “supposed” to operate?
Wickett: A lot of horror stories that we’re hearing … [are] that [authors] are hearing [from publishers], “We love this book. We just don’t know how to sell it.” It’s because they’re allowing sales and marketing to pick what is published. Sales and marketing is something Steve and I do after we decide to publishing something.
Gillis: When you have the old template, it’s, “Let’s look at a book, and can we make money off of it?” We look at it and say, “Is this a book that excites us?” If this is a book that excites us, it will find its own market. We don’t do a market analysis on a book. … We have other editors and interns, so a book goes through a detailed vetting process. We don’t ever, ever reject a book by who’s going to buy it. … There’s some unique stuff on our list. That doesn’t scare us at all.
• How do you approach advertising and marketing?
Gillis: One of the things you don’t see is [publishers] getting authors out there to read anymore. That’s another thing that Dan and I said from day one. They just don’t or won’t send an author on a tour. We’re not going to publish a book and let it die on the vine. Some authors don’t like to read as much as others, and it’s not economically sound to send an author cross-country. But we’re helping an author to build a career, and you do that reader by reader. We do everything we can to get them out and expose them. …
Wickett: A lot of authors are geared toward sitting at that desk, and writing and hoping someone will find their words. They’re not [always] the best to do their own marking. [The Internet] is where the industry has gone. You have to have your own Web site. If you blog—great. If you can set up readings in your hometown—great. …
• What advice would you give to those in the industry who have not fully embraced the Web?
Gillis: The writers today are all online. Even the older writers now have their own Web pages. You expose yourself that way. That’s where people [who] read are. … It’s not that difficult to do. Just … getting on the blogs is easy. And if you’re looking at it from a business standpoint, you have to tap it. … We’re still going to try to get the traditional book review, but we’re really going to focus on the electronic medium, [too]. We’re going out to hit all the blogs and all the online journals and really market [Dzanc] that way—let everybody know us via the Internet. It’s worked. It’s truly where your audience is—everyone is online.
Wickett: I think the one advantage we had is that I had been active in the literary-blog arena for the two to three years prior [to launching Dzanc]. I had gotten my name out in front of the [others] bloggers … [so] they had a clue who was behind [Dzanc]. We got a little more attention online than most presses would in the first six months. We try to have a good dialog with the people we send books to and get reviews from.
• What’s the future look like for Dzanc and for independent publishers? Is it doom and gloom?
Wickett: I truly don’t think so—[and] not because I’m banking my future on it. I say that because I’m liking the stuff the bigger companies are staying away from. There are so many seemingly good, little companies that are starting up with just really top-notch first and second catalogs. I see more and more literary journals popping up. … A month before we announced, we started soliciting. We contacted six or seven journals we loved [and asked,] “Is there anyone who published [with you] who may have a story collection or a novel?” … That’s where we’re finding them. That’s where the other independent presses are finding the authors—through the journals.
Gillis: We’re excited. We’re still growing. Our vision is that we’re going to be around for a really long, long time. As long as there are people interested in writing, you’ll find people that want to get writing out to audiences. There’s a proliferation of small presses. They come and go kind of fast. [But] I don’t want to be a pessimist that reading’s on the decline. I just find that absurd. Everything has its ebbs and flows. If you go into it to make money, you’re going to be in trouble. That’s how the industry got into trouble. You have to have a different mind-set to do what Dan and I are doing and what a great number of people are doing—the great pioneer spirit. What’s the fundamental reason that people want to be involved in publishing and writing? The economic reasons were there, [but] not now. They have to go back to doing it because they love it.
Peter Beisser is a regular contributor to Book Business. He previously was the managing editor of several North American Publishing Co. titles and has written extensively about the publishing industry.