I’m so pleased to welcome Sarena Ulibarri, Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, to Book Club Babble today. Originally, I was planning to talk with her about an anthology she recently edited, but while I was putting together the interview, I found I had just as many questions about her job as Editor-in-Chief, the inner workings of a small press, and the complexity of the publishing industry. The publishing world of today is exciting and dynamic. For writers, there are more choices and opportunities available to bring their work to market, and small presses provide one such path. As some of our readers are also writers, I thought Sarena’s insider perspective would be of interest. Of course, I still want to talk about her anthology, so she agreed to an interview in two parts! Today, we’ll focus on the business of publishing, and the small press market in particular. Come back Thursday for a conversation about Speculative Story Bites, Sarena’s latest anthology project.
Tabitha Lord: Thank you again for chatting with me, Sarena. Can you give us a little background about yourself, and how you got started in the publishing business?
Sarena Ulibarri: I worked on a couple of literary magazines in college, which gave me a taste of slush reading and copy editing, at least. While pursuing my MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I took their “Publishing Workshop,” which is essentially an internship with CU’s literary small press. I did a little bit of editing, a little bit of publicity, and got to see the inner workings of all aspects of small press book publishing. Eileen Wiedbrauk offered me the position of Assistant Editor with World Weaver Press in December 2014, which let me put all of that new knowledge to work. When Eileen stepped down in March 2016, I took over as Editor-in-Chief.
That’s the most direct route to how I got to where I am, but I’ve also had stints as a copy editor for a biology journal, a columnist for a sustainability news site, a writer and editor for a baby name website, and various other freelance gigs.
TL: What does your job as Editor-in-Chief entail? Are you still reading queries from the slush pile?
SU: Right now we’re closed to submissions, so I’m not reading any queries, but when we open in February, I’ll be reading them along with the Assistant Editors. However, I’m the primary editor for nine of our current authors, so I don’t expect to be taking on many more projects for myself.
Being Editor-in-Chief means that I’m the project manager for all the books. We publish 10 books per year, and there are many moving pieces to keep track of. I spend a lot of time planning publication and publicity schedules, then coordinating those details with both the authors and editors. I do most of the formatting for both ebook and print, and some of the cover art design, I read the anthology shortlists and offer feedback, keep track of royalties owed, contact reviewers, organize discounts and promotions, and various other details that help get the book from the author’s computer to your e-Reader or shelf.
TL: Can you talk about the benefits to authors when working with a small press? What are some of the limitations?
SU: One of the benefits is that we’re not beholden to the same market whims as the large presses. Everyone was yelling a while back that no agents or big publishers were taking on vampire novels or urban fantasy anymore because the market was too saturated. Well, around that time is when we accepted BITE SOMEBODY, a vampire paranormal romance by Sara Dobie Bauer, which has been quite popular. We can also afford to take a risk on books with a niche audience, such as CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS, a futuristic political satire by Larry Hodges in which a Moderate party runs in a world-wide election (with an alien along for the ride)—a premise that may be a tough sell during such a polarized election season. A small press can catch the really great work that falls through the cracks of the big presses.
Self publishing is a great option for many authors, but it requires time, money, and some non-writing-related skills to do it well. We do several rounds of edits on each book, create the cover art, contact reviewers, and utilize our network to champion the books we take on—all things that would cost authors a significant amount of money and time if they were to self publish. There’s no guarantee that a book published with a small press will be any more successful than if it were self-published, but at least you have a team at your back. A small press can create a support system that may be hard to access as a self-published author.
There are definitely limitations, though. World Weaver Press paperbacks are “print on demand,” which makes it difficult to place them in bookstores. We unfortunately don’t have the budget to do large trade shows or conventions, organize book tours, or create promotional swag for our authors. Publishing with a small press is really a partnership—if the author isn’t involved in promotion, it’s often more difficult to reach the right audience. Readers don’t care who published the book, they just want to connect with the author.
Many small presses fail because they forget about the “small” part. Taking on too many projects can lead to an unsustainable publication schedule, poor publicity, shoddy editing, and low (or even non-existent) sales. If you’re considering publishing with a small press, make sure to pick up a few of their books, and talk to a few of their authors. Many folks in this industry have great intentions, but get overwhelmed and lose sight of what we’re all really trying to do: share great stories with the people who will love them.
TL: Across the board, World Weaver Press has stunning cover art. In a market where the sheer number of books is overwhelming, can you talk about the importance of cover art? How do you bring this aspect of the publishing process to life?
SU: Most of our cover art was created by former Editor-in-Chief Eileen Wiedbrauk, and she set a very high standard that I’m striving to meet. I do as many of the cover designs as I can, but I hire out when I need to, and I’m actively working to improve my graphic design and Photoshop skills so I can take on more ambitious designs.
You can say “Don’t judge a book by its cover” all you want, but we do, because cover art telegraphs what we can expect inside, in terms of genre, content, and quality. When a hard science fiction cover looks like a romance, it’s not going to reach the right audience; when a story about a black woman shows a white woman on the cover, it’s not accurately portraying the content; when you see CGI characters and “WordArt” typography, it doesn’t give the reader confidence that the story will be well-written and polished.
We provide our authors with a cover art questionnaire that asks them about their vision for the design, and identifies the important colors, symbols, characters, settings, etc. in the book. Usually, we’ll send authors several mockups and then negotiate the details until we have something we’re all happy with.
By the way, we’re actively building our cover reveal team, so if any bloggers reading this would like to be part of that, we’d love to talk to you. Information at worldweaverpress.com/cover-reveal-team
TL: For a smaller press like World Weaver, what are proving to be the most effective ways to promote your books and authors?
SU: It’s funny, what works for one book may be completely ineffective for the next book. Reader reviews make the most consistent impact on a book’s success, so we give away a lot of advance reading copies through Goodreads and LibraryThing, and target book bloggers who also post their reviews on Amazon. We’ve also had good luck with book discount newsletter sponsorships such as BookBub and EReaderNewsToday, but a book has to have a minimum number of reviews to even qualify for those. (Reviews matter so much! Please review the books you read.) “Buy my book” posts on social media are dismally ineffective, but ongoing engagement with readers and other writers on social media, especially Twitter, makes for fantastic promotion. We also host a monthly Twitter chat on the hashtag #SFFLunch, which is a good opportunity for people to chat live with our authors and editors.
TL: Thank you so much, Sarena. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Thursday!