Brooke Warner on Memoir, Hybrid Publishing, and Leveling the Playing Field
When Kauai Writers Conference invited us to present, we celebrated and danced in our kitchen. Then we looked to see who else was presenting because one of the great pleasures of going to a conference is hanging out and networking with some of the most interesting people in publishing. We were overjoyed to see Brooke Warner’s name on that list. If you’ve been in publishing, especially independent publishing, for any length of time, you are aware of the force that is Brooke Warner. Educator, writer, editor and entrepreneur are just some of the many hats she wears, and wears well. In anticipation of saying aloha this fall, we decided to pick her brain about books, publishing, and other strange phenomenon.
The Book Doctors: For years, you were an editor at great independent publishing houses. Then you started your own publishing company, She Writes Press. Tell us about that shift from editor to publisher/founder? What did you learn about the publishing process that you didn’t know before after taking the helm?
Brooke Warner: Oh goodness, so much. I really only had one hand on the elephant in my role as editor. Now, as publisher, I’ve circled the beast many times. I know the ins and outs and so much more about how the whole distribution and supply chain work. When you have a limited role, it’s easy to just focus on what you do — and as an acquiring editor, I had one job: to acquire. When I was in my final years in that role at Seal Press, I remember explicitly thinking that I didn’t want to have my boss’s job — as publisher of the imprint. I could see how much busywork was involved, how much tending to the backlist, putting out fires all the time. Somehow when I started She Writes Press I didn’t see that long-range vision of what the responsibility of being the publisher would be. I just saw this opportunity and calling. Five-plus years later, I have my old boss’s job, and the good news is despite the busywork and the backlist and the putting out of fires, I also have an intense drive around the mission of the press — which is both about supporting women writers, but also about leveling the playing field in book publishing due to our business model.
TBD: Speaking of She Writes Press, what is it exactly? We have lots of clients who aren’t sure if it’s a self-publishing platform or a publishing house. We’d love for you to explain what the company’s mission is and what exactly you do!
BW: That’s funny, and I get it. We are hybrid. We call ourselves a hybrid publisher. It’s a business model that’s new in some ways, but it has been around forever in that traditional publishers have been cutting hybrid deals for as long as there have been traditional publishers — meaning that the authors cover some or all of their expenses in exchange for what the publisher brings to the table: expertise, brand, legitimacy, distribution. And the author, in exchange, gets much higher-than-industry standard royalties. We have sometimes said we’re between self-publishing and traditional publishing just to qualify ourselves as neither, but really the press is so much more like traditional publishing than self. We operate like a traditional publisher — with a sales force and traditional distribution, with a creative director and a strong editorial and design team — but because the author pays, some people will always see us as self-publishing. I have been on a mission to increase the visibility of hybrid presses because there are many of us, and I think it’s the model of the future.
The traditional model is broken because of the way advances work, requiring acquisitions editors to bring in “big” books, or authors who are already famous or have celebrity ties. There are so many fewer passion projects these days, and so little opportunity for someone with a beautiful story but no author platform to get published. So that’s where the excitement of hybrid and small press publishing lies for me — that we’re providing opportunities for women writers by providing the platform in the form of getting their work out into the world.
TBD: What have you learned about writing from editing other people’s work?
BW: Great question. Everything about life. Editing other people’s work is an intimate experience. You get to see into someone’s world, but also into their mind. It’s a great gift. And it’s also my job to show people how they’re being perceived, and so it requires a lot of directness and honesty, and in that you learn that some people are flexible and open and others are not. I have learned a lot about humility and taking accountability for times when I’ve been less than gracious. I have also learned that there aren’t a lot of people out there who are willing to call it as they see it. I guess the work has landed me smack dab in the middle of understanding human dynamics. It’s kind of like therapy, except that you’re writing the story with clients in many ways, and helping them not only to excavate, but also to articulate, and to make their messages bigger than just their stories. There is so much going on. I’ve also learned a lot about suffering, about the pain and loss people experience and their resilience. Being an editor is a pretty incredible window into humanity.
TBD: Memoir is one of your specialties. How has the marketplace for memoir changed in the years you’ve been in publishing, and how does She Writes Press fit into that picture?
BW: In many ways it hasn’t changed at all. I think memoir has always been looked at suspiciously by the book industry. It’s a new genre, and many serious writers disdain memoir, or else they only think a person should write a memoir after they’ve earned the right to it. It’s got a troubled but complicated reputation because people love it and they hate it at the same time. And that makes sense to me because it’s kind of like classier Reality TV. You are witness to the most intimate things in these people’s lives, and if you like the writing and the story the people can become your heroes, but if you don’t then there’s the potential to heap quite a lot of judgment. As humans we compare ourselves to others, so in the best memoirs we see ourselves in other people’s stories, but if the story hits too close to home, or if we dislike the story for other reasons, it’s easy to project our own insecurities and angers onto those authors. So memoir is fraught — for readers and publishers alike. That said, I love it. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s a brave genre, and I know the kind of blood, sweat, and tears that authors put into their memoirs. I know many (if not most) have no choice but to write their memoirs. They can’t not do it (double negative intended).
She Writes fits because we are a house that has been open-armed about memoir from Day One because of my history with it. I think that the publishing industry’s expectations for memoir make it impossible for most memoirs to succeed. We don’t have those same expectations, so we can publish them, as long as we deem them to be publish-ready. We’re not concerned with the fact that there are too many abuse memoirs, or too many mother-daughter memoirs. We believe that writers’ voices matter, and that you shouldn’t be barred from publishing just because someone else wrote a book that broaches the same topic as you. So again, in line with our mission to give voice to women writers, we’re doing this with memoir, and it’s a significant piece of our publishing program.
TBD: What are some of the do’s and don’ts of writing a successful memoir?
BW: Here are some best practices for writing memoir.
- Write in scene
- Pay attention to descriptive details
- Put the reader right there with you
- Understand the value of reflection and takeaway
- Learn craft
- Information dump
- Write about your whole life (memoir is slice of life)
- Write a book for the sole purpose of processing your pain or some sort of vendetta writing
TBD: How important is it for writers to be entrepreneurial in their approach to publishing? Do you have some good examples of how being entrepreneurial helped one of your authors achieve success?
BW: Very important if they want to sell a lot of books. It’s also okay that some authors don’t care one way or the other, or that some authors have very different goals in their writing.
And yes, we have lots of examples of authors doing different kinds of things. We have an author right now who’s been incredibly successful with Facebook ads, who’s been moving about 2000 units every three months because she has the right book and the right ad formula. We have authors who’ve worked their contacts and who are regular contributors to popular blogs and media outlets. We have authors who are tireless on the speaking circuit, traveling and saying yes to anything from book clubs, to school events, to literary panels. To do it right, you have to be tireless, and that’s why it’s not for everyone. And the most successful ones are writing more books, too. It doesn’t end with Book One. We have two authors who are about to publish their third books with us and quite a few (maybe fifteen-plus) who’ve published two books on the She Writes Press imprint, which is still less than five years old.
TBD: What if you are an author without a platform? How can this lack of platform be overcome?
BW: For She Writes Press, platform is not a focus. Intentionally so. In fact, I had the vision of platform not mattering when I co-founded it because of my experience at Seal Press (which is the subject of my TEDx talk). I believe that the Catch-22 of book publishing is that you need to have a platform to get a book deal, but you need a book to build a platform. So publishing non-traditionally allows you to get the book to build the platform. If authors want to use She Writes Press as a springboard, we are happy for that. For us, our platform is about giving others a platform, and wherever authors choose to go, including if they’re interested in SWP and then go elsewhere, we’re supportive. I’m an author advocate and author champion, and that extends well beyond authors who publish on She Writes Press.
TBD: What are you working on these days?
BW: I just started writing a new book. My last book came out in 2016 and then in 2017 I did a TEDx talk somewhat based on the book. So now I’m diving back in with the goal of publishing this new book — about women and publishing — in 2019.
TBD: What is the hardest part about being the publisher of She Writes Press?
BW: I’m not sure there’s one hardest thing, and I’m so grateful that we have the most amazing, savviest, and engaged authors. But one thing that comes to mind has to do with holding the line. Because we’re an author-subsidized press, there’s a perception (that I understand) among some authors that they’re our clients. And yet, that’s not how I run the press because that’s not the traditional publishing model that I learned under. So I treat the authors like authors, which means I hold a big vision for them, and I also hold a realistic vision for them. I feel like I have the job of cultivating dreams and bringing people down to earth. I pride myself on being real and transparent, and so that means insisting that my authors go through this process with their eyes wide open. It also means pushing back on authors when they inadvertently sabotage themselves, which mostly comes with certain editorial directions and/or cover designs. I am firm to the point of being a hard-ass sometimes, but I hope and think most of my authors know how invested I am in their work, and that if and when I do hold the line it’s for that higher vision and best interest of the work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but we kind of have to. What advice do you have for writers?
BW: Oh, I’m always happy to get this question because it’s a core message I have for writers, which is not to give up their dreams just because they hear “no” — whether that’s small or big. The publishing industry is so contracted right now, and many authors who’ve shopped their work around and who’ve been rejected do take it personally when they shouldn’t. Traditional publishing’s barriers to entry are higher than they’ve ever been, and the reasons authors are rejected have nothing to do with their actual work and everything to do with how well-known they are not, or their lack of platform or brand. The exciting thing is that authors can create all that for themselves these days. This is what becoming a green-lighter — someone who gives themselves permission to pursue their creative dreams — is all about, and as a press that helps authors green-light themselves, this is a message I always love to end with. Thank you.
Join Brooke and The Book Doctors at the Kauai Writers Conference, November 5–11, 2018!
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book, What’s Your Book?, and three books on memoir. Brooke is a TEDx speaker and the former Executive Editor of Seal Press. She currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She writes a monthly column for Publishers Weekly and has blogged actively on Huffington Post Books and SheWrites.com.
Join Brooke and her co-host Linda Joy Myers for a special May 1st memoir event featuring keynote speakers and best-selling authors Mark Nepo and Dani Shapiro. Sign up by April 1st to take advantage of exclusive thank-you gifts: www.MagicOfMemoir.com
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Get publishing tips delivered to your inbox every month.