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Boutique press Engine Books' $2.7 million big dream 

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$2.7 million. That's the rather audacious goal that local boutique publisher Engine Books has set for its IndieGogo campaign, called The Engine Books Big Dream. Not that founder Victoria Barrett thinks it's an entirely realistic number — and it does appear unlikely it'll be fully funded, with $3,469 raised as of Aug. 7 and a closing date of Aug. 23.

Rather, this is an attempt by Barrett to put across a "strong sense" of her vision for the press, as she tells us in the following Q&A. That's the "Big Dream" part of the campaign, an effort to show what Engine Books could do with full-time staff, an office and more money for publishing and marketing more books.

Not that Barrett, who runs the press without any paid staff, hasn't accomplished quite a bit without millions in the bank. By early 2015, it will have published 19 books (16 novels, two story collections and one memoir), many of which have been positively reviewed by both trade and mainstream publications. So what, Barrett wonders, if she could put 24 books out into the world on an annual basis? More on her dreams below — and for further reading, check out our 2012 profile of Barrett.

NUVO: Aside from publishing more titles, how would you specifically put that money to work to promote books more effectively or widely and get them in more readers' hands? And what difference would it make to be able to have a full-time staff on board? Are there things you have to leave on the back-burner right now because you just don't have enough time?

click to enlarge Victoria Barrett
  • Victoria Barrett
Victoria Barrett: We promote more aggressively than any press our size, but a substantial portion of effective book promotion is simply staff time. At presses with a full-time publicity director, a big part of that person’s job is building relationships with the reviewers who decide what books get covered in major publications, and being in near-constant contact with those editors as promotional materials go out to them in the mail, then following-up many times to help keep the books on their radar. I’ve made a good start of doing that—we’ve had very high-profile reviews in O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, all the major publishing trade journals, and the best newspaper book pages in the country, and I’ve begun to hear from editors at those publications that they look forward to our books. But book review editors at major publications receive upwards of 1,000 new titles per week. Keeping the information in front of them is time consuming and important, since only a tiny fraction of those can possibly be chosen for review. As one person who also holds down a full-time job completely separate from the press, I simply don’t have time to devote to more aggressive follow up, so staff time is key.

Another really important factor in promotion is merchandising. Every prominent shelf or table at Barnes & Noble, for example, is filled entirely with paid placement. If you find a book on the New Fiction shelf, the publisher paid good money to put it there. Ditto every single chain store placement that isn’t simply spine-out on the crowded shelves. Placement in those prominent, visible locations sells a whole lot of books, so I’d love to devote some budget to it. Generally speaking, it’s too expensive for a press as small as Engine Books is at present. And though I’ve used B&N as an example here, most of the major book retailers operate on the same system, including online retailers. Even small, independent stores ask publishers to provide funds for promotion, particularly when an author visits their stores. So although we’ve been able to generate excellent, highly visible reviews, there’s more to be done to get these books into a wide variety of readers’ hands. I’d also like to be able to pay for author travel to major events and appearances—right now our authors foot the bill for their appearances themselves, which is necessary on our tight budget (and increasingly common at presses of all sizes), but not ideal for anyone.

In terms of staff, beyond what I mentioned above about the importance of a publicity director, Engine Books is limited in its size to what I can personally accomplish. That’s been a lot so far—more than I had expected. But it won’t be possible to take on more titles, for example, unless I can devote my full-time employment life to their editing and can count on reliable coworkers to take on many of the non-editorial facets (like production and promotion) of titles.

We have a few endeavors in the works, including a reprint line called EB2, that we will roll out in time, but more staff time to do so would be extremely helpful. We hope to bring dozens of fabulous out-of-print novels and story collections back into print in paperback and ebook formats in that line. We’d also like to branch out a bit into graphic novels, perhaps, or memoir among our new frontlist offerings. But those endeavors require an expanded workload that would divert my attention from doing what Engine Books currently does best, and that’s a sacrifice I can’t make without more time and staff.

click to enlarge New from Engine Books in 2014.
  • New from Engine Books in 2014.

NUVO: What's the benefit of having an office? I assume it would be in Indy?

Barrett: I hope to find space here in Irvington, on the east side of town, where I live. Having an office will help further organize and professionalize the work the press already does well. It’s the last piece of the puzzle—I’d be happy for my full-time staff to telecommute if we can’t swing an office space—but it would centralize operations and reinforce the collaborative nature of the work we would do together. If you’re going to do the best possible work for a book, you should be in constant communication about its themes, its design and layout, its promotion. Between acceptance and delivery to the customer, the entire team works toward one clear goal: taking an author’s manuscript and turning it into the best possible reading experience for its audience, in collaboration with that author. That can be done as independent pieces of a puzzle, but I feel strongly that it’s done best when the team members are in constant communication; shared workspace is the best way to foster that collaboration.

NUVO: Why launch a $2.7 mill campaign instead of a smaller one more likely to be fully funded? Will you be discouraged if you don't meet your goal?

Barrett: The campaign lays out clearly and specifically where I see the press heading. I don’t realistically expect it to meet its goal — I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if it does (I chose IndieGoGo because, unlike Kickstarter, they offer an option that allows payment of funds when goals aren’t met). But Engine Books is surrounded by positive energy, by people who have been cheering for the press since I started it three years ago. This campaign gives them a strong sense of my vision for the company’s future and helps them feel a part of that enormous goal. I think we made it clear in our video and in the campaign’s text that we understand the extremely ambitious nature of the campaign, that we’re shining a hopeful light into our future by laying out these plans and reaching toward them.

I also hope that we can generate private investment in some form, though we’ll be working on that for some time to come. That’s a longer-term goal outside this particular campaign. I hope that by making extremely clear what we’ve accomplished so far and what we want to do in the future, we can begin to build a foundation to secure other types of funding. This campaign is a start, not an end, so I certainly don’t expect to become discouraged by it. Every dollar we’re given is both an endorsement of our plans for the future and a dollar we didn’t have the day before, and I’m grateful for every last bit of it.

NUVO: What would you say the 19 books you've published (or are soon to publish) share in common, if anything? Did you have a master plan for what you wanted to publish when you founded Engine Books, or have you made decisions on the fly given the submissions that have come down the pike and the relationships you've established, or somewhere in between?

Barrett: Thus far, we’ve published (or are about to publish) 18 books of literary fiction and one memoir. What I mean by literary is that the characters and their lives—inner and outer—are the primary drivers of the stories. So we’re not working with murder mysteries or romance novels. Three of those titles are Young Adult fiction, under our Lacewing Books imprint, which is headed by Andrew Scott.

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But that’s a broad description. The overall aesthetic of the press has turned out to be largely dependent on  my own taste as an editor, and my curation of the offering, since I’ve done all the work involved with the non-Lacewing titles and the EB brand has become closely identified with me. I’m interested in stories built of vivid imagery, a stong sense of place, and fully realized characters. Many of the books I’ve published have revolved around darker elements of familial relationships. Spark deals with a woman whose arsonist brother has just been released from prison. Fort Starlight is, in part, about a woman whose neglectful parents have created serious obstacles to her future success. (It also contains a pair of near-feral children whose parents have died in a murder-suicide at the book’s outset, among other complex relationships.) Though romantic love certainly plays a role in many of the books I’ve published, I see a pattern of complicated sibling relationships in our titles, and of people struggling with the challenges presented by the places they’ve come from. These are the predominant themes.

With the exception of the authors I’ve published more than once, these books have mostly all come to me as submissions. Some of those have been represented by excellent literary agents, some through our annual novel contest, and some through direct query and submission. At this point, I think many writers come to Engine Books with a knowledge of the kind of books I like and am apt to embrace, though I certainly get plenty of submissions that aren’t on target. When I started the press, rather than describe the kind of books I wanted to see in the submission queue, I provided potential submitters with a list of my favorite books. That list is still on our website, and I think it has served as a good guide for writers who are considering whether to contact me.

But many of the best submissions I see now are coming in through word-of-mouth connections. Writers network like crazy—we’re all eager to know one another and root for one another. Lots of great submissions have come from writers who are acquainted with authors I’ve published who have recommended the press.

NUVO: And I wonder if you have a specific example of the "nimbleness" of Engine Books in contrast to the big publishing houses — maybe you've picked up a title that was rejected by a major publishing house because it didn't work for them economically?

Barrett: That nimbleness is certainly a function of our titles — editors at the Big 5 presses have no choice but to evaluate manuscripts based on how many copies they expect to sell, which means they are necessarily limited in their ability to take risks with titles. But moreover (and this is also a function of that first point), the big presses have a much, much higher obligation to return profit on each book than a press our size has. In the early years of the publishing establishment, if titles were generating 3-5 percent profit, that was good enough—that can support reasonable growth across the board for an independent company. As the presses have consolidated under enormous corporate banners (hence there only being 5), the major conglomerates under which they operate have pushed for something more like 12-15 percent profit over the long haul. That may or may not be reasonable in the publishing business.

It’s certainly not reasonable considering the obvious waste we see coming out of some of those presses. This is most visible in promotion. Here’s an example: when you promote a book, you produce early, uncorrected editions called Advance Reader Copies; those are the copies that get sent to reviewers, buyers at bookstores, etc. They cost quite a lot to produce, and many of the major presses produce hundreds of them for each title, sending them out to anyone they can think of, regardless of whether that recipient has the ability to generate sales. So a blogger who features only story collections on his blog might get sent a memoir, out of the blue, something he’d never consider reviewing, and that copy is often overnighted via UPS or FedEx, rather than sent via Media Mail at a fraction of the cost. These are expenses that just aren’t necessary, but they’re commonplace in big publishing, and they get repeated because that’s the way it’s always been done.

So when I talk about EB’s nimble operation, I’m really talking about making smart, focused spending choices and sparing unnecessary expenses. We don’t need an office in Midtown Manhattan, or to pay salaries that meet Manhattan’s cost of living, because we’ve been able to do impressive things right here from Indianapolis. And while many retailers and reviewers used to express a serious preference for titles produced by those big presses, that’s not the case now, and hasn’t been for several years. The gatekeepers in the business recognize that small presses don’t have to rely on enormous sales to stay afloat and that we are, as a result, publishing the most interesting, fresh new fiction, since we don’t have to ask first if we can sell 20,000 copies. We ask first: Is this a great book? Then we figure out how to get it to its appropriate audience.

There’s a larger cultural issue at play, too, when we talk about money and publishing, one that circles back to your question. Increasingly, jobs in publishing are staffed by those who can afford them, which often means those who are already wealthy, those whose parents can pay their rent during extended unpaid internships in the most expensive region in the U.S., those who come equipped with trust funds. This has begun to affect the kinds of lives we see represented in literature. We see much less representation of working class people, for example, than we might have once, and many more books focused on upper-middle-class white characters. I’m happy to see those stories told, but if it comes at the expense of telling other stories, or at the expense of a diversity of representation of life experiences, I think that’s a long-term problem in our culture and our literature. Another theme I’m drawn to as a reader is working-class life, and I think a good number of our titles have told complex, compelling stories of working-class people; these are stories that, by and large (and with notable exceptions), aren’t interesting to many of the young NY editors at this point in our culture. So it’s a shame that we don’t see more economic diversity represented in contemporary books, but it’s also a feature of many EB titles of which I’m very proud. 
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