Sitting with a Sarabandista: Sarah Gorham, Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books, talks independent publishing [Books]
Describe the journey of a book for me. What takes it from manuscript to printed copy?
We have a production schedule. It starts with the manuscript submission, and then I send a contract. After that, they get a royalty advance. The book goes to edit; generally Jeffery – my husband – and I do the poetry edits. I also do most of the prose edits, the initial ones; those are the large-scale edits. If the book still needs it, we’ll go on to a line editor. In the case of prose or poetry, we don’t need to do that. Then it goes to a copy editor, who does the fine tuning – grammar, punctuation, all the fun stuff; we farm that out. In the mean time, Kirby [Kirby Gann, Managing Editor] is over in his office beginning to look at design for the book. The author comes up with some kind of image that will fit with the title and the content but is still attractive and will attract the reader’s eye. Most of time, the authors come up with really good stuff. Then, Kirby will take that image and work it into a design; he’ll also do the interior design. The next step is going to type set; all the corrections have been made, the author submits the manuscript in a final form and we covert it to type. Then it gets turned into bound galleys for our reviewers and just plain, old paper galleys for us. These are proofread very carefully, and, after all those corrections have been entered, the book goes to print. It’s there for about 8 weeks, comes back to us and then we send the bulk of the copies to our distributor. The rest of them come to us and we send them out for review and to the author. So, that’s the life history of a book; it takes about 8 to 12 months for the production part of it. We schedule our books about 18 months to 2 years in advance.
Wow, that’s a labor of love.
Yes, it is. But it’s well-organized and goes pretty smoothly.
Who is your distributor? Where do books go for printing?
Our printer is a small, offset printer that does small press runs, and what I mean by that is 1,000 [copies] and on up from there. They’re located in South Dakota. We have a rep here in Louisville, but that’s where a book is printed. I don’t why that is, but that’s the story. Those books are shipped to our distributor; [our distributor] has a warehouse in Tennessee but their office is Minneapolis, so all of their administration is done there and then the shipping and packaging is done in a little town in Tennessee.
So a book goes on a pretty physical journey around the country.
Yes, it does. And our distributor sends books all over the country.
Does the recent decline in book sales make you nervous?
Oh sure, everybody’s nervous. The technology is changing so fast, nobody wants to get cut short on any innovation but it’s difficult to sort out what will sell and what won’t sell. We now publish e-books simultaneous with our paper. Occasionally we’ll publish cloth but not very often because they don’t sell very well. That’s just the change in technology, but the bigger issue is that people aren’t reading as much as they used to. So, we’re trying to appeal to the very short attention span online, we produce book trailers that are 3 minutes long that might lure someone into buying the book or the e-book – we might have to go to 30 seconds. But, you know, we have a relatively small niche in the country, people who read poetry and short fiction and creative non-fiction, and I don’t think those numbers are going to change drastically over the years. The people who should really be worried are the commercial houses who’ve relied on huge numbers and that’s the way they’ve supported things.
So you’re expecting to hang on to your continuous readers, people who are always going to read.
Right, and hopefully get some new ones, too! We do a lot of outreach.
You’ve already answered my next question: how do you feel about e-books? I have a personal vendetta against the Kindle and the Nook because I like the physical act of reading.
We all feel the same way. There’s nobody in this office that reads e-books – well, my husband does; he has an ipad now! But he mostly uses that for things that can be downloaded for free; for the reading reading he still buys paper editions. [E-books] are what they call an “additive genre”; it will sell books in addition to the books you already sell. So, for example, we had a period of a couple of weeks when Caitlin Horrocks’ book of short stories, This is Not Your City, was being re-printed because it sold so many. We sold about 200 e-books during that period because it wasn’t available on paper, and that was a good thing. And e-books don’t come back to the bookstores; a sale is a sale.
So, for you, how do you find time to write when you’re doing twelve months of editing and re-editing? How do you find time to do your own poetry?
Well, it’s not easy, and it’s getting worse. For years and years I managed to get up early in the morning and spend about an hour, half-hour, 45 minutes at the coffee shop writing before I went work. I still do that, but Sarabande work has come creeping into that time when I read manuscripts. I used to be able to produce both poetry and essays; this year I’ve only started one essay, and I haven’t even finished it. But, I’d have to say, it’s not just the work creep, it’s the grandchild creep! They’re two and four, with another one on the way, and they get first priority. But, you know, I have four books of poetry, and I think that’s a good record. I’ve finished a book of essays and there may be some more work I need to do on that, but I’m in no rush. So, we’ll see!
Do you have any favorite books or authors? I know that’s a horrible question sometimes to ask.
Well, I can tell you some things that I’ve read recently. I’m reading Ben Lerner’s new novel, [Leaving the] Atocha Station is the title; it’s his first novel, he’s a poet. I also just read Bluets by Maggie Nelson which I absolutely adored – perfect example of a lyric essay, a cross between poetry and prose. I’ve read some strange stuff that I really loved; there’s a wonderful, little novel called The Fly Truffler by Gustaf Sobin, and I also loved a little novel called Hero by Frederick Dillen. I really liked the Great House, Nicole Krauss is the author, she’s terrific; that was a great book. I love the Eastern European poets, Zbigniew Herbert. Susan Wheeler is one of my favorite poets. So, that’s a short list.
But you do find time to read!
Ah, no. Even less time to read! I read before I go to sleep, probably about ten pages a night and then on vacations. That’s why I only read short books!
Why were your personal collections issued from a different publisher?
As a publisher I would think you would not want to publish your own work because it looks like vanity publishing. Nobody’s betting it except yourself, and I think it instantly brings the integrity of your press down. That’s the long and the short.
Where do you see Sarabande Books going? We have so much changing as far as technology and paper is dwindling. Where do you see it going in the next five or ten years?
Well, I think that we’re very lucky that we have a distributor who keeps ahead of the current technology – and I mean ahead; they’re even trying to anticipate what Amazon’s going to do next. Twice a year they fill us in so we can decide whether we want to pursue this particular new technology or not. That, on one hand, and then the other hand, we’ll stick with what we do best, which is the best work and figure out how to support it financially. It’s very difficult to predict what a book will sell; if I had the answer to that, I would be a rich woman. But that isn’t the main priority for us; it’s the quality of work. Hopefully, the quality is so good and the book is so unusual and terrific it will sell anyway. That’s the basic direction.
LIGHTNING ROUND: Word Association
Wagon Radio Flyer
Cliff Becker…he’s a person
Note White pages
Balcony International house hunter
Envelope Blue letter
Sneaker High top
Press Letter press
Stick Carrot stick
Fish Blue gill
Talon Red-tailed hawk
Tires There’s a pile of four them outside my house – rotting, rotting tires
Vacuum Cleaner heavy
With titles gracing the shelves of both local favorites, such as Carmichael’s, to the big box chains, Sarabande Books is dedicated to serving the bibliophile a consistent and enticing read. While mainstream publishing houses grasp at ever flashier and snappier means to maintain a shrinking attention-span, Sarabande’s enthusiasm for literary value and community outreach bucks the growing trend of quantity over quality. It’s not a question of numbers, dollars and cents, but of commitment to the art form itself. Although the projected readership trends can be daunting as the digital age hangs its lugubrious head, a love for the craft and respect for the writers will ensure that Sarah Gorham and her crew of Sarabandistas will keep – and hopefully expand – their following of faithful poetry seekers.
Photo: Courtesy of Every Writer's Resource website www.everywritersresource.com