Pen-L Publishing on Changes in Publishing Business
10/7/2014 — AN INTERVIEW WITH PEN-L PUBLISHING’S DUKE AND KIMBERLY PENNELL
Change seems to be the only constant in the world of publishing these days. In just the last few years, the big traditional publishers have consolidated, most have entered the digital competition, and some have gone to war with Amazon. We’ve seen exponential growth in ebook sales, and thousands of authors are publishing their own work.
Almost unnoticed in the turmoil has been a huge opportunity for small, independent presses. They appeal to authors who don’t want to self-publish and can’t attract the interest of the big guys.
I’m one of those authors. My first novel, Hawke’s Point, was released in July by Pen-L Publishing of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I asked Duke and Kimberly Pennell, the husband and wife team that created Pen-L in 2011, to give us a small press view of the world of publishing.
MW: Amidst all the turmoil in publishing, you hopped into the fray and started your own company. What were you thinking?
Pen-L: We were thinking “What a great opportunity for wonderful new books to come from publishers outside New York and its ancient institutions that controlled the books we saw for so many decades.” With the new technology, huge amounts of money are not necessary to bring books to the public. New authors have a chance to compete with the known names. It’s really leveled the playing field.
MW: Tell us a little about Pen-L: How many books are you publishing this year, how big is your staff, where do you find your authors?
Pen-L: We are on track to bring 32 new titles out this year. We started out with a staff of just the two of us, and now have added cover and interior designers, a “literary analyst ” (aka slush pile reader), and two editors. Some days we could use a few more people to answer email, sort through submissions, focus on social media, etc. Oh, and cook meals.
MW: What big surprises have you encountered? What do you know today that you wished you knew before you started publishing other people’s work?
Pen-L: We knew several published authors when we started and had become familiar with the process, so no big surprises. If we could turn back time, I’d say we’d clarify expectations with authors. In fact, we now present a workshop at writers’ conferences entitled “What Comes After ‘I Do!’ How the Author/Publisher Relationship Is Like a Marriage.” (We’ll be in Lake Charles, LA on November 8th at the Bridge to Publication conference, sponsored by the Bayou Writers Group.) After nearly three years in publishing and thirty in our marriage, we’ve noticed similarities, primarily that when people are open about their expectations, much conflict is avoided.
MW: Most small publishers seem to look for a niche in the market—romance, fantasy, mystery—but your books are all over the place, even including nonfiction. Was that the original plan or did it just happen that way? Is it a disadvantage not to focus on one kind of book so that you become an expert in that field?
Pen-L: We knew going in that we’d be a multi-genre publisher. We’re omnivorous readers, and if something is written well and can hook one of us, then we’re game. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s easier if you concentrate on one genre but not nearly as rewarding. There are lots of really fabulous stories out there, and we’d hate to miss them. That choice means more work for us making connections with the right folks for each genre but that gets easier as we go. The alternative would be turning down great manuscripts because they don’t fit in our little niche.
MW: What do you look for when you’re considering submissions?
Pen-L: 1) A story that is gripping or non-fiction that is unique and helpful, 2) an author who has given serious thought to promotion and has begun building a platform, 3) one who aspires to be a career author, 4) one who has a professional approach to the business.
MW: Many authors are deciding these days they’d rather self-publish and maintain control of the process than go with a small publishing house. What can you offer authors that they can’t do on their own?
Pen-L: We find that most authors want a very professional-looking presentation for their book, in paper and ebook, and online. While it’s possible to hire all that done, it can be costly and time-consuming, and the final result may be less than hoped for. There are also reviewers, contests, etc. that will only accept submissions from publishers. A publisher tells a potential reader that the book has met standards for writing and production quality that qualify it to bear the publisher’s name. Also, we’ve learned a lot about the business and made many contacts over the years that an author would also need time to develop. We’ve learned from our mistakes and going down blind alleys so they don’t have to.
MW: What’s the most satisfying part of being a publisher?
Pen-L: Just like a midwife is gratified by helping parents bring a new life to the world, we love being able to help authors bring their creations to readers around the world. Like pregnancy, the progression from the first words written to seeing a finished work for sale is full of emotional ups and downs. We aim to make the publishing and promoting work easier and better so the book will have the best chance of reaching many people. We enjoy helping authors find and pursue methods they will use to promote, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. We don’t promise fabulous wealth and fame, but we know that those who commit to a writing career will grow their skills and their fan base and move toward success.
MW: What’s the most frustrating part?
Pen-L: That there are only 24 hours in a day!
MW: Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next ten years?
Pen-L: Give me a minute to check with my astrologer . . . just kidding. Honestly, if someone gives an answer to that, I’d recommend you bet against it. The industry is changing so fast that I would not even try to predict ten years out. But I am confident that even more people will be creating and absorbing stories.
MW: Where would you like Pen-L to be in ten years?
Pen-L: In whatever manner people are reading, we hope to be helping great new works find their way into hungry eyeballs (and ears).
Mark Willen’s novels, Hawke’s Point, Hawke’s Return, and Hawke’s Discovery, were released by Pen-L Publishing. His short stories have appeared in Corner Club Press, The Rusty Nail. and The Boiler Review. Mark is currently working on his second novel, a thriller set in a fictional town in central Maryland. Mark also writes a blog on practical, everyday ethics, Talking Ethics.com.
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