Maybe We Can't Live Without Amazon

By Meghan McNamara

I say it a lot these days: Amazon is taking over the world. 

We buy our gadgets from Amazon, our groceries—some might even say our news, if you count the fact that Amazon's president and CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns the nationally syndicated Washington Post. Soon, we may even buy our healthcare from this behemoth online retailer. Often, our dollars support Amazon in ways we aren't even cognizant of


Amazon's influence isn't hyperbolic; this company is redefining the way we purchase and pay for almost everything these days.


What started out as an online book retailer has quickly, in the span of just twenty years, spiraled into a nationwide dealer of goods and services. And there’s plenty about that which might give government regulators cause for concern. But what most of the Amazon-consuming public likely isn’t privy to, is the complete lack of regard (or seeming disdain) that the company continues to show the publishing community.

It’s no small secret that independent publishers get short shrift with big box stores, but these days, Amazon is extending their indifference as far as big publishing houses, distributors, and authors.

For Stillhouse Press, this is hardly surprising. In 2017, we had two titles listed as “Unavailable” on their publication date, despite showing up for presale for months leading up to their release. What’s more, warehouses showed the titles as "in stock," but after several hours on the phone with out-of-country call centers, Amazon unapologetically told us there had been a “glitch in the system,” and we needed to be patient while it worked itself out.

Source: Twitter,  @kellyforsythe_

Source: Twitter, @kellyforsythe_

In the end, our distributor couldn’t force Amazon's hand on the matter any more than we could and the books continued to show up as unavailable for the better part of the week that followed. As a result, we ended up returning to Ingram’s distribution arm, for little reason except that they had more pull with Amazon than the smaller distributor we had been using.

Stories like this are a dime a dozen—and hardly the only thing Amazon is doing to undermine small presses. Last November, Goodreads.com—one of the many businesses owned by Amazon—took their previously free book “Giveaway” option to market. What had once functioned as a grassroots marketing tool for indie publishers and self-published authors is now a $119/book marketing investment.*

Why offer something for free when you have the power and visibility to charge for it? seems to be the modus operandi here. And sure, it seems like an excellent way to pull in even more in profit, but some are dubious about whether or not the program will stick around. As an indie press or self-published author, often times the funds just simply aren’t available.

Source: Swenson Book Development

Source: Swenson Book Development

Perhaps one of the most palpable areas where publishers are starting to feel the impact of Amazon’s capitalist ways, however, is with the company’s [in]famous "buy button."

Amazon's "Buy Button," now available to the highest bidder.

Amazon's "Buy Button," now available to the highest bidder.

With the exception of books, Amazon has historically offered their buy buttons to the highest bidder—the party that could offer a new good at the best (read: cheapest) price, regardless of who had brick and mortar rights to distribute the product. The emphasis on new is important here, because with booksellers, it should—in theory—be the publisher who holds the only new copies of a just-published or forthcoming book.

Not only does allowing third parties the right to a book's buy button undercut publishers, distributors, and authors (who see no dividends from books sold by third parties), but it ultimately begs the question: Where are these third parties sourcing their "new" books from? Some publishers have attempted to stand up to Amazon, but it doesn’t look like the company has any intention of changing its policy.

So... where do we go from here?

If my bookshelf and the recent Association of Writing and Writing Professionals conference (AWP) are any indication, the independent literary community is as ebullient and self-supportive as ever. But, if it is to continuing flourishing while the most popular platform for sales continues to re-write the rules, we in the book-buying community have to adapt our habits. 


I get it : it's simply easier to buy your books from Amazon. It's faster, often even slightly cheaper. But lately I've thinking about how important ease really is in the book buying process.


Last week, while surfing the web and drinking my morning coffee, I came across a book that gave me that "I have to have this" feeling. I get it often, sometimes twice a week (to my partner's dismay). I navigated easily to the Amazon site. As a Prime customer, it could be on my doorstep in two days. 

But I didn't end up adding the book to my cart. Instead, I called my local bookstore, One More Page, and spoke to a human (terrifying, I know). It took five minutes. I chatted with the woman on the other end of the line, exchanged pleasantries, told her I'd see her in a week. It will take about five days for my book to reach the store. But that's fine. I can wait. In fact, I am already looking forward to the trip, to the inky goodness of freshly-printed pages and colorful rows of un-cracked spines.

Maybe we can’t live without Amazon — where would I buy my fancy French sea salt, or those perfectly sized tension rods at a moments notice?— but we can change what we depend on it for, and I would argue that books should not be one. #BuyBetter

* As of press time.

From Still to Shelf, Pt. 3: The Ins and Outs of Book Design

When a manuscript has finished its journey through developmental editing, substantive editing, and copyediting, it’s still just a text document. The actual process from manuscript to book involves more than just slapping on a copyright page and cover. Hundreds of tiny choices must be made along the way: what font should be used for chapter titles, body text, the epigraph?  What kind of symbol or image should provide scene divisions?  How much white space should the book contain? What should the color scheme of this book be? Artistic and highly specialized professionals guide Stillhouse Press in these decisions, making up the core of our design team. 

We rely primarily on two people for the bulk of our design work: Kady Dennell, a freelance designer develops our interior layout and design, while our Art Director, Doug Luman handles cover design and brand development. Like each aspect of Stillhouse, book design is a collaborative process between. It’s important to us to not only develop an aesthetic and marketable product, but also to create a book that serves as a visual archetype to its literary content. For this post, we invited Kady to share some of the intricacies of this process.


Interior

Kady Dennell

The interior design process begins with design inspirations (interior layout and font choices used in other books that are either market matches for the current project or just well-designed products) from the author, the book's managing editor, and Stillhouse's Editor in Chief, Marcos L. Martínez. After the team decides on a direction, I browse through my library of fonts or research online for typefaces that will achieve the desired look. There are many aesthetic “families” that exist in typography, each with its own aesthetic consequences. The style of a font and its placement on the page, while it seems a simple thing, can completely alter the meaning of the content.  Consider a sign for a hardcore workout bootcamp written in delicate cursive, or an entire novel presented in bolded comic sans. Neither of these properly evokes the genre, purpose, or central aesthetic of the content that the physical language is meant to represent.

A mid-process design mock-up for the cover element of  POP!

A mid-process design mock-up for the cover element of POP!

Once I’ve found a set of typefaces that match our intended aesthetic, I then propose two or three layout concepts to the publishing team for their input. These concepts will consist of ideas for page number placement, text size, font, headline placement, and body copy font and leading (the actual justification and margin work of copy on the page). From there, I adjust the layout design and prepare style guides and master pages in Adobe InDesign, an industry staple for publication design. The next step is styling the text for the whole manuscript, which is usually done with two main fonts (one for chapter titles and another for body copy). After all of the type is stylized, I adjust spacing to minimize orphans and widows—the design term for words left dangling across lines or left on lines by themselves. Once the manuscript is laid out in its entirety, I submit the file to the editorial team and they do a comprehensive review of the now fully designed book. Once their comments return, I implement any final changes and design edits, and then the final is ready for print.

Interior

Michelle Webber

The cover is the face of the book.  It is the first and often only chance to grab the attention of readers and encourage them to investigate what’s inside.  A bad cover—one that is ugly, busy, or confusing to its audience—can lose sales, regardless of the quality of the content within. Alternatively, a good cover aims to convey key elements of that content and inspires the reader to take a closer look. 

Our design process varies from book to book.  Some manuscripts immediately suggest a strong design direction.  For example, the design concept for Matt Fogarty’s Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely emerged more or less as soon as our editorial team began discussing it (for a detailed look, read designer Alex Walsh’s post).

While the exterior design process is constantly evolving, it always begins with a conversation between our art director, Doug; the book's managing editor; the author; and the marketing team.  Some authors are more opinionated about the content of their cover than others.  Many come to the table with a list of things they absolutely do not want, which gives Doug a good place to start, though the beginning mock-ups are usually born from the manuscript itself.  Once a general aesthetic for the cover has been developed, it's up to the designer to produce three or four concepts, which are then presented to the editorial and marketing staff for fine-tuning. The concepts are the narrowed down to one or two options. Usually, the agreed upon cover concept goes through three or four drafts before reaching its final state, which includes the placement of our logo and branding, the cover copy, and the final spine design.  At that point, the marketing team signs off on the cover and it returns to Doug for final adjustments and rendering.

Once the interior and exterior designs have been finalized, the manuscript is then submitted it to our printer and a proof is ordered.  If everything looks as it should, advance review copies (ARCs) or "galleys" are ordered. These are sent to media and used to proof the book before it is sent out for final printing.


Kady Dennell is a freelance designer living in Portland, OR. She enjoys working with typography, (loads of) color, and photography. You can find her work at kdennell.com.

 


Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a science fiction novel and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in the spring of 2017.

Origins of an Indie Press

A few months ago we posted an article from LitHub about the origin stories of several independent presses.  In the spirit of new beginnings, we have decided to reflect back on how our humble indie press first got its start. Not surprisingly to most of you who know us, it all began over a small batch whiskey and a serious love of books.

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

In Jan. 2014, George Mason University MFA alum Dallas Hudgens visited Creative Writing Professor Stephen Goodwin’s graduate-level class to talk about his own launch into small press publishing. Hudgens, who founded Relegation Books in 2012 after becoming disenchanted with his own experience publishing with a larger house, said he he was inspired by what he saw during his visit. “After I spoke, I had the opportunity to watch as the students gave publishing presentations for the class. They were so well prepared and had done so much good research... Afterward, I thought it would be a good thing if the students had the opportunity to apply their knowledge and creativity to an actual press,” said Hudgens. He sat down with Goodwin and GMU’s MFA Program Director Bill Miller shortly thereafter to begin scheming on how they might offer students the opportunity to begin a small press of their own.

From there things progressed quite quickly. The first meetings with students took place in late Jan. 2014 and by March of that year, Stillhouse Press had begun to take form, centering on the idea of “craft publishing,” which Hudgens and Relegation Books’ publicist, Lauren Cerand came up with one evening over a few glasses of whiskey. “Lauren and I were talking about whiskey and craft distillers,” Hudgens said, “and she said that we were trying to do the same sort of thing with publishing. It’s not about the number of books that you publish, but taking on projects that are important to you and doing the best possible job every step along the way and also being open to new ways of doing things.”

The idea of working hand-in-hand with authors to deliver a more personal publishing experience was one which attracted the attention of Stillhouse’s founding editors, Marcos L. Martinez and Meghan McNamara. “We really latched onto this idea that being small was actually a very good thing, because it meant we could create a more intimate publishing experience with our authors. It’s their art, and they should have a say in how it is presented to the world,” McNamara said.

It was only a matter of months before Stillhouse had selected its first book, the short story collection Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) by the late Wendi Kaufman. Kaufman was terminally ill with late stage cancer when the book was contracted, therefore time was of the essence. GMU Professor Scott W. Berg, who had been a close friend of Kaufman’s and now serves as the editorial advisor for Stillhouse, worked as the managing editor, helping to move the book through publication in just under three months. “It was a very fast process, and the students involved, especially Marcos and Meghan, worked very hard and did a great job,” said Hudgens.

The staff would go on to spend much of 2015 fielding submissions, putting together the annual Mary Roberts Rinehart Contest, and contracting nearly a dozen new books. In just less than two years, Stillhouse is on the heels of publishing its second book, POP! (forthcoming March 2016 from debut author Mark Polanzak), with four titles close behind it, including Stillhouse’s first foray into poetry. Hudgens said he’s pleased with the direction Stillhouse Press is heading and sees the press as both an asset to students, as well an inspiration for his own work with Relegation. “I hoped it would give students practical experience in the world of publishing, whether that eventually led to a job with a publisher or simply knowledge that would help them when their own books were published… As time goes on, I'm sure that I will learn more from their approach and experiences than they have learned from Relegation.”

Of course, as with all things fluid, running a student press is not without its challenges. “Continuity is important as new students come aboard and others leave,” said Hudgens. “Also, maintaining a clear vision and quality in production and publicity. But I know that everyone involved recognizes those and other challenges and will be prepared for them.”

So pour out a few fingers of moonshine and raise your glasses, folks! It’s time to usher in the new year and all of the exciting things that Stillhouse Press has planned.