Originally from Romania, Zorina Alliata, the founder of Alexandria-based Better Karma Publishing, first had her poetry published in a Romanian literary magazine when she was 16. When she came to the United States, she worked in IT but couldn’t help but notice how writers in the United States weren’t treated as well as they were in Romania. “Back home, and generally across Europe, a writer gets a lot of respect,” Alliata says. “In Romania, if a writer gets three books published, he is a life member of the national writers’ union and gets health benefits, a salary and a pension. I enjoyed being a writer back home and having fans everywhere. … I was surprised when I came here and saw writers struggling to get anything published, especially if it was different and original.”
Alliata also felt, and still feels, that the books published by large publishing houses lack variety. Both this and her experience as a writer led her to start her own publishing company, Better Karma Publishing in 1998, which publishes books that “spark change and make people think” as well as stories that might not necessarily fit into what large publishing firms are looking for. “I just think we need variety,” she says. “[At Better Karma] we work with the author closely and establish a relationship. We choose first-time writers who show a lot of promise and try to be a stepping-stone for them. From us, they gain an understanding of the process, and they can take their future books to bigger publishing houses.”
Better Karma Publishing publishes work from all over the world, which has allowed Alliata to meet writers and artists all over as well as earn unexpected endorsements. “In my first year as a paperback publisher, I ended up with an award at an African conference, a dinner in Beverly Hills with two movie producers and an endorsement from Wayne Gretzky for one of my writers,” she says. “I had a great time.”
This year, Alliata will publish the first book in a series she’s writing to demystify the IT business, a series called “Get I.T.! How to Start a Career in the New Information Technology.” “I will probably have the first one, ‘How to Start as a Business Analyst,’ going to print this summer; it’s already in editing,” she says. “I plan to distribute this to employment centers, veteran lists, etc. The idea is to help people overcome their fear of IT and get into entry-level IT jobs where no college degree is required.”
Alliata is not the only writer and book lover to recognize the changes in the publishing industry and decide to try something different. In a 2012 Forbes magazine article about the brokenness of the traditional publishing system and the alternatives offered by self-publishing, David Vinjamuri, author, Forbes contributor and marketing instructor at NYU, pointed out the difficulty authors have trying to make a profit from writing and publishing in traditional publishing, writing “Amazon … allows indie authors to keep up to 70 percent of their e-book royalties, compared to the 15-20 percent royalties that conventional book publishers offer authors on printed books … Publishing independently can allow midlist authors to make a reasonable living on writing.”
One of Vinjamuri’s strongest points in favor of alternatives to the mainstream publishing industry is that larger publishing companies operate under inefficient business models that don’t take supply and demand into account. Publishing companies charge the same price, nearly $30, for any hardcover book without regard to how popular the book is, which is extremely inefficient and puts huge limits on readership as well as profits for the author and the publishing company.
In 2012, Vinjamuri saw self-publishing rising as a major rival to the publishing industry with technology like print-on-demand (printing presses that can print an entire book from a file, which is how books published through Amazon are printed) becoming affordable and popular. Shortly after writing the article, Vinjamuri self-published his first work of fiction, “Operator” (2012), through Amazon.
Realizing local appeal
Now, in Northern Virginia at least, independent publishing houses popping up left and right appear to offer a better alternative to either self-publishing or the mainstream publishing industry. Many have stories like Alliata’s or Vinjamuri’s and have decided to find a way to share the alternatives to mainstream publishing with fellow authors and fiction lovers.
After writing two novels, both published by Scribner in 2005 and 2007, Dallas Hudgens attempted to get Scribner to publish a collection of short stories he had always wanted to write. However, once the collection was finished, Scribner decided not to publish it. Hudgens knew his collection would have a harder time getting published because short story collections are typically less popular in the United States. After being turned down by Scribner, Hudgens unsuccessfully queried a few smaller publishing houses before discussing self-publishing with an independent publicist he had worked with on his previous books. With some help from the publicist, Hudgens’ publishing house, Relegation Books, was born.
Relegation’s first published book was Hudgens’ short story collection, “Wake Up, We’re Here,” which got some media attention from online literary magazine and book blog The Millions for being a great example of self-publishing and calling Hudgens’ writing “remarkable.” After publishing his short story collection, Hudgens found that his reasons for wanting to publish and his understanding of what publishing means to authors had changed. “When I wrote my story collection, I had to redefine what success meant,” he says. “For me it meant looking at trying to reach a smaller audience. The story collection was important to me, so just getting it out into the world in some way felt good. Without the newer opportunities—print-on-demand, e-books, self-publishing—I wouldn’t have been able to see that story collection come to life.”
Hudgens realized quickly after creating Relegation Books that he wanted to use Relegation to give a voice to published authors who didn’t find the audience they deserved with their first book and to help them to be rediscovered. “It’s a business of course, so sales do matter, and sometimes if an author doesn’t do well with their first book, it’s difficult to get a second chance,” he says.
Hudgens’ publishing story doesn’t end with Relegation Books. Early in 2014, Hudgens was invited to speak about Relegation Books to a publishing class at George Mason University. He realized the students “knew as much about publishing as I did.” After speaking with them, he decided to help the creative writing students start a craft publishing house at GMU.
Sharing with neighbors
As a GMU student and media contact for Stillhouse Press, Meghan McNamara has seen a side of the publishing industry most other college students don’t see until they are out in the working world. For her, as well as the other students working for GMU’s Stillhouse Press, this has been an invaluable opportunity. “Working with Stillhouse Press really opened the door to a whole different aspect of the professional literary community for me,” she says. “We are truly an independent press run by students, doing jobs that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunities to do if we were working as interns or beginning at the ground floor.”
Similar to the way in which Stillhouse Press’ serendipitous beginning happened so quickly, its first book was also published in a sort of quick and happenstance way. Hudgens introduced McNamara and Marcos L. Martinez, Stillhouse’s editor, to the work of friend, literary colleague and GMU alum Wendi Kaufman, in early June 2014. McNamara says, “Marcos and I were instantly drawn to Wendi’s writing; her voice-driven short stories are brazenly honest, heart-wrenching and, at moments, downright hysterical. But taking on Wendi’s collection meant that we really had to hit the ground running. … It’s really nothing short of a miracle that we were able to edit, design and release ‘Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories’ [in four months].”
The Stillhouse staff was motivated to get Kaufman’s work out as soon as they could. “Wendi had been battling cancer for several years at the time that we offered her a contract, and she had come to the end of her treatment options,” McNamara says. “It was important to Stillhouse not only that we make her work available as quickly as possible, but also that she had the chance to be intimately involved in the process of making her book.”
Publishing a book that quickly is no small feat, especially under such conditions. Kaufman’s work will certainly be remembered both by the staff of Stillhouse as their first book and perhaps one of the most influential. “We learned a lot very quickly, but publishing Wendi’s collection was one of the most rewarding things that I have done, not just as a student, but as a book lover and someone deeply devoted to the art of the written word, and I think Marcos would certainly agree,” McNamara says.
A vintage find brings new highs
Also affiliated with GMU is Orchises Press, the business and pleasure of George Mason University tenured professor Roger Lathbury. Lathbury has been in love with the written word since, at the age of 7, he received his first printing press, complete with rubber type.
For Lathbury, the publishing sweet spot turned out to be a combination of academic publishing, facsimiles and reprints of out-of-print books, and poetry, which he loves. Orchises, which prints five to eight books a year, has also published a few famous authors. In 1985, Orchises published W.H. Auden’s famously disowned erotic poem “The Platonic Blow,” which Auden distributed to a close group of friends and then denied writing when, years later, it was republished without his permission.
Lathbury recalls the poem first being published in 1965. As a lover of Auden’s poetry and probably also as a college-aged young man up to no good, Lathbury wanted to read this poem, but copies were hard to come by. “I didn’t see it until 1971,” he says. “I believe that was the year when Avant-Garde magazine put it out under the title ‘A Day for a Lay’ in what was plainly a garbled version—stanza four was put first, and there were other errors.”
After starting Orchises Press in 1983, Lathbury wanted to publish the poem. He began looking into publishing law and realized that Auden had more or less relinquished his ownership of this poem. “I realized that if Auden had distributed the poem freely, it was a kind of publication, compromising claims,” he says. “I checked, and Ed Sanders, who was the first to put out “The Platonic Blow” as a separate edition, was never prosecuted, nor was Avant Garde. Moreover, Auden more or less disowned the poem publicly, referring to it as ‘this poem attributed to me.’”
The biggest challenge was getting it to print. “I had ‘The Platonic Blow’ typeset, as one did in those days, and sent it to my usual printer, who refused to have anything to do with it—obscene,” he says. “So I found an Iranian print shop whose employees could barely speak or read English; they printed it for me: 1000 copies. These sold out, although I have about 20 left that got shoved under other books.”
“The Platonic Blow” put Orchises Press on the publishing map and was a moment of pride and success to Lathbury. “It was the first book I published to have a wide audience,” he says. “Every now and again in the late 1980s, someone would phone the press, from, say, Kansas or one of the Dakotas, and ask timorously, ‘You publish, I think, a work by W. H. Auden … ?’”
Although the poem brought Orchises some popularity, there was a moment when Lathbury was concerned he might be sued for copyright infringement, when he heard from Auden’s estate. “Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, phoned me in my office at Mason to ask for a copy for his archives; I duly sent it. I thought he was going to ask me to desist, but he said that if Auden denied the poem was his, there could be no objection, as I thought.”
As shakily as those folks from the Midwest might’ve asked for a copy of Auden’s little-known work, there were still those who were way ahead of Lathbury. “On the other hand, I remember giving a copy to Allen Ginsberg, who nodded, ‘Oh yes, of course,’” he says. “If you were already in the appropriate circles, you knew about it and had read it.”
Changing the way we approach the game
When David Hazard realized his dislike for where publishing was going, he decided to find a way to come between the authors and the publishers in order to prepare authors for what they would face as they tried to get published.
A veteran of the publishing industry, David Hazard worked as an editor and writing coach for numerous publishing companies, including HarperCollins and Random House, until in the late ’80s when he started to see a major shift in the focus of the publishing companies. As editing gave way to marketing within the publishing industry, David Hazard felt the piece of publishing that he loved, coaching new authors, slip away and be traded for more space in the marketing budget.
He saw this compromise as extremely detrimental to the process of bringing new authors and new stories into the world. “What happened in the meantime is that publishing companies have continued to push further and further away from new authors to the point that now it’s tough to even get an agent that will talk to you,” Hazard says. “Many agents will tell authors that they have to come recommended by an author they already have. … To me, the publishing world has cut itself off from new lifeblood.”
As a reader, published writer and writing coach, Hazard has seen a lot of growth in the publishing industry spawn from the increase of independent publishing and self-publishing. “Createspace [self-publishing through Amazon] has allowed us to create the democratization of publishing, meaning you can short-circuit the traditional path in terms of getting an actual hard copy book for sale,” he says. He mentions, however, if authors decide that they want to publish books through one of the alternative methods, it is only going to be worth their while if they put in the amount of effort that a publishing house would. “While we can circumvent the traditional methods, a lot of self-publishers are putting out a lot of stock without hiring anyone to help them develop it, and they don’t pay the money to make it look nice,” he says. “American readership isn’t fooled—we still want quality.”
He mentions, though, that we’re in an age where there are more readers than ever and more great stories to share. Anything that allows that to happen is perhaps a step in the right direction. In a similar sentiment as David Vinjamuri, Hazard says optimistically: “I think we’re just now starting to see the explosion of self-publishing. It’s an amazing time for authors who have great content and are willing to do the work.”