It’s like one day Jeni Wallace said to herself, hey I’d like to publish books. Then, instead of tossing the thought away as an impossible dream, she enlisted the help of her husband, Daniel Wallace, to be the editor and technology guru. She did research, attended conferences, and organized a literary festival. She decided to call her company Burlesque Press, based on the literary definition of the word: A work that ridicules a topic by treating something exalted as if it were trivial or vice-versa.
That was a little more than three years ago. Since then, Burlesque Press has hosted three writing festivals in New Orleans and produced a handful of beautiful books. I still can’t get over it. Jeni is amazing, and below she talks about Burlesque Press — how it came to be and where it’s heading.
Why did you decide to start Burlesque Press?
If you’re an author, people always tell you to write the book that you would love to read: I wanted to create the press that I most wanted to see in the world. I have always been about promoting community in the writing world, and after I left my former job as a low-residency study abroad program coordinator, I was feeling isolated. The writing world can be harsh, and it can be competitive. I have always sought to redirect that energy towards a more supportive, convivial, supportive atmosphere. And I needed a medium in which I could do that on a larger scale.
I saw that the world of publishing was changing, and I felt there was room for an enterprise that could work closely with talented authors to get their work out into the world, offering hands-on, careful editing and advice. As authors, that’s what we really want. Of course, writers still dream of that six-figure advance, but those advances are so, so rare these days. I would never encourage someone not to try for one: by all means — go forth and bowl the New York publishing world over! But I wanted to create an enterprise that could be nurturing, creative and be something more than just an old-fashioned publisher, for those that were ready, willing, and able to try something different.
You talk about the importance of a writing community… is that why you created an annual writers’ festival in New Orleans?
Yes — The Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball. In my experience, writers are always looking for ways to connect. And what better way than a few days in New Orleans, over New Year’s, talking about books, writing, and publishing? People are happiest, I think, when they are talking about the things they love – and eating and drinking and getting decked out in masks and finery. That’s why we have a laid back but fun masked ball on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been so impressed with how people connect at the festival and then maintain those connections. Our festival goers have formed lasting bonds; they frequently meet up at different times throughout the year. And they have become loyal to the festival: over the last few years, we’ve built up a great community in New Orleans and throughout the wider US writing world. We are small, but we are strong.
What did you know about the indie book publishing industry before you started this venture? Where did you go for help and information when you decided, “yes, I’m going to do this”?
Honestly, I jumped in with both feet. I didn’t know how to go about it (sometimes I think I still don’t). The New Orleans Arts Council provided invaluable advice. In less than a day, they helped me incorporate as an LLC, and from there, it was off to the races. As far as the technicalities of publishing – I knew some. I know more now, but still not enough. For instance, I don’t know how to use InDesign, and it’s basically impossible to design a book without it. Luckily, I made the wise decision of marrying someone who knows how to do book design, and knows how to do it well. 🙂 The rest came through trial and error. It took much longer to get our first book out that I anticipated. But each one after has been smoother.
What have you learned about indie publishing?
I’ve learned all about the ins and outs of how to get a book into print. Which printers and distributors you can work with. How unbelievable complicated it is to do an ebook version of the books you want to print. How inexpensive it can actually be to bring a book out, and (at the same time) how crazily expensive it can actually be to bring a book out.
Is there anything you would have done differently? Anything you plan to do differently in the future?
I would get more help. It’s hard when you have little to no budget. I can’t hire employees. We are discussing taking on some unpaid interns: I would like to pass on some of the knowledge to aspiring writers. I think if I’d had this opportunity before, when I was an MFA student, the whole process would have been much smoother. We are also looking to incorporate a piece of our enterprise as a non-profit, so that we can bring in some grant money. Right now, we aren’t limited by ideas, interest, or quality submissions. We are limited by a lack of capital.
So far Burlesque Press has published four books (and two of them just came out this week!) Tell me about them!
The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang: funny, tragic, and magical tales that explore the gap between Asian Americans and the other American cultures that try to understand them. (Short Stories)
Postcards from the Dead Letter Office by Dawn Manning: using the ancient Japanese “tanka” poetic form to create a new look at international travel. (Poetry ) (See my interview with Dawn.)
Siren Song by Tawni Waters: visionary poems about modern day goddesses. (Poetry) (See my interview with Tawni.)
You can buy BP books and merch (like a snazzy t-shirt) here.
Do you make any money from publishing books? How many books do you expect to sell?
As of right now, none of our books have reached profitable status, at least in the sense that they repay the work-hours we put into creating them. This is what we expected when we started: today, even the big presses make most of their money from a relatively small number of heavily-promoted, semi-famous books. But we’re getting closer with each release, and we’ve enjoyed expanding our reputation and our ability to interact with authors and booksellers. We have begun reaching out to bookstores and other mediums so that we may increase our sales reach; we’ve also been amazed by how good our authors are at selling copies and promoting their work. We’ve been so lucky to work with such powerfully entrepreneurial artists! You can’t be shy if you publish with a small press – you’ve got to be willing to do readings, spread the word, build a following. Our authors are the best.
Hanging out with BP authors: Eva, Tawni, & Jeni on left and Eva, Jeni. & Dawn on right.
All of your books are so beautiful! How do you take a word document and turn it into a pretty book?
It is vital to us that our books have strong, attractive, elegant covers. We frequently go through many designs and design permutations until we get the right one. This is often a tricky spot with writers. Many writers have an image in their head of what their cover should be. Sometimes they can articulate it, sometimes they can’t. We work with our authors more than most publishers do, and are willing to spend time and money on getting the right cover, something that will captivate would-be readers. And we also spend a lot of time researching cover design, and matching the book’s aesthetic with something that fits our brand AND does justice to the work.
Until recently, we did all of the design for our books ourselves. As we get more titles in print (and get busier with all the things) we are outsourcing some aspects of the design, particularly the illustration. We are friends, for instance, with a great artist in Borneo, Andrea Tan, and we asked her to create the cover of Dawn Manning’s poetry collection.
How might publishing with Burlesque Press be different from publishing with other presses (indie or otherwise)?
The difference in publishing with us is that we approach things as a kind of artistic partnership. And not just between us and the author: BP authors are very supportive of one another. This is where our love of community comes in. We work with our authors to help them network, organize events, and reach out. Plus, we have our literary festival where we present authors to the New Orleans writing scene.
How do you decide what to publish? What are you looking for in submissions?
We believed, when we started the press, that if we made high-quality books, with great design and attention to detail, talented writers would notice. And this has been true. We’ve already worked with some remarkably skilled, established authors.
My husband and I both have broad tastes. We like fiction with strong plots and lyrical prose. We publish a bit of poetry, but are focusing, for the near future, on prose. We are open to a variety of different subject matter: for instance, we have a literary sci-fi book planned for 2017. I love reading YA, and would consider a strong YA title. Honestly, if it’s well written and keeps you turning pages, then we’re going to be interested. But we can’t publish everything we receive. Additionally, the author also has to like us! We’re a very small team, so personal interaction is a priority for us. It’s possible we’d love a book, but maybe pass because the author isn’t looking for that kind of close working relationship — which is completely fine: there are other publishers out there that would be a better fit.
We have a full schedule through 2017 at the moment, and we have some great books in the pipeline: I can’t wait to share them with the world.
In my opinion, it’s incredibly brave and industrious to start your own press. Have you always been so enterprising? Where do you get your energy and confidence?
This is flattering, but I am terrified on a daily basis. I want to do so much, much more than I have the energy or resources for. It’s actually been learning process for me in managing my own expectations and the reality of what I can do. I do have a full time job after all, and it demands a lot. We’re always looking for ways to do more with a fixed amount of time, energy, and money.
If someone can send me more of any one of those things, I would be very grateful.