Name: Joan Schweighardt
Book Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun
Genre: Historical fiction (with a legendary component)
Publisher: Five Directions Press
Thank you for your time in answering our questions about getting published. Let’s begin by having you explain how you became a devotee of the “Third Time’s a Charm” adage.
Joan: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun came out (albeit with a different title) in hardcover in 2003 with Beagle Bay Books, a small traditional publishing company. It had a lovely run with Beagle Bay, garnering lots of good reviews and winning ForeWord and Independent Publisher magazine awards and even being translated into Italian and Russian. But when Beagle Bay decided to stop publishing and become a book packaging company about three years ago, the rights to the book reverted back to me.
I had no plan to try to get the book published again. I’d had three books published before The Last Wife of Attila the Hun and two afterwards, and I was working on two more. But I’d always had a special place in my heart for Last Wife, and when I happened to read a blog by a woman who had published with a company called Booktrope, and then learned not only that Booktrope published some reprints but also that they had won prizes and venture capitalist money for their unique business model, I decided to contact them. And sure enough, they liked Last Wife and offered to publish it.
Booktrope could be called a “hybrid” press, but unlike most hybrids, they did not ask authors for production money. Their model was based on a team system wherein the authors they accepted reviewed the bios of the editors, proofreaders, cover designers and book managers who had signed up to work with them. Then each author would invite the people she wanted on her team to join her in her publishing journey. Booktrope staff members did layout, final approvals, admin and production. As books sold, profits were divided between the author, team members and Booktrope, with the author getting the lion’s share.
This is a publishing model for our times; you can see why the venture capitalists liked it. But the model failed, in my opinion because the principles at Booktrope tried to grow it too fast and didn’t do enough to support their front-liners. I was traveling through Ireland in mid May when I got the fateful email saying that the company would be closing its doors by the end of the month.
One thousands authors were orphaned in one fell swoop that day, and many were very upset. Some had only had their books come out days before the announcement. Many had spent their own money advertising, all for naught. Since this was the second journey for my book, I was probably less upset than some of the others. The Last Wife of Attila the Hun had had two lives, one long, the other shorter. In these times a book is lucky to have one life. I didn’t intend to try to push for a third.
As it happens, however, about a month before Booktrope closed its doors, I did an hour-long podcast interview with C.P. Lesley, an author and one of the founders of a book co-op called Five Directions Press. C.P. had really liked The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, and as she writes historical fiction herself, after our interview we stayed on the phone and had a long chat about writing and publishing generally. Later, when C.P. heard about Booktrope closing down, she invited me to reprint with Five Directions.
I accepted this invitation enthusiastically. The Five Directions model is even more enticing than the Booktrope model that won so many awards. Basically, in order to be invited to publish with Five Directions, you must have written a book all the members really like, and you must have additional talents that you can share. For instance, in addition to being a fabulous writer, C.P. does great layouts. Another writer there does great covers. Everyone does editing and proofing. A few of us are doing PR, and so on. And, best of all, when the book sells, the author keeps one hundred percent of the profits. So bottom line, you get the benefit of working with professionals and you get to keep what you make. As I said above, Booktrope got too big too fast. The Five Directions model works because the members are determined to keep it really small and highly selective.
What lessons do you feel you learned about your particular publishing journey and about the publishing industry as a whole?
Joan: Things have changed drastically in the publishing world since my first three books were published by the Permanent Press back in the 90s. It used to be that it was enough to be a good writer. Now you have to be good at social media and good at begging the few reviewers left in the world to review your book. Or you have to lower yourself to “buy” reviews. Or you have to have the money to advertise the heck out of your book. Being a good writer alone will not cut it for most of us. Except for the fortunate few who get published by one of the handful of huge publishers that still have lots of clout and money to get a book moving, writers have to adapt. It’s very common to hear artists of all stripes say, “Oh, I only do my art. I’m not into the marketing thing.” I know how they feel, but most have to kowtow to the marketing thing to some extent if they want to make it in today’s world.
Would you recommend the co-op method of publishing to other authors?
Joan: Yes, if you can’t find a really good co-op to publish you, perhaps you can start one. The impressive thing about Five Directions is their commitment to excellence.
What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?
Joan: Not only must you think outside the box with your writing, but you must think outside the box when it comes to publishing and marketing your work too. This makes writing more time-consuming than ever. It’s good to know that going in.