A drawing of two people with flowers in their hair and text next to them that reads "Take care of yourself so you have space to care for others."

How To Stay Sane in the Publishing Industry

Okay, so we all know COVID-19 is happening right now, right? We’re all caught up, we all get the gist? Keep your mask on, stay six feet apart, wash your hands for twenty seconds, try to isolate—do I have to keep going? I think we should all have caught on to this massive world event by now.
Yes? Great.
The first few months of isolation weren’t terrible. I’m pretty sure we all had the same mind set: I’m going to get fit, make some banana bread, and get my life together. That didn’t happen.
Then we hit four months. Reality really set in, and I realized I actually hate banana bread.
Suddenly we were at nine months: “Holy crap, this winter was awful, there is so much upset in the world and I have no hope. What are we going to do? Should I try to make banana bread again?”
Now we’re at twelve months: “I don’t even remember what real life is anymore. GIVE ME THE VACCINE.”
Staying sane in these tumultuous times and just living through the fact that we are in a massive disaster has been . . . less than easy. Every industry is being hit hard, and the publishing industry isn’t doing any better than the rest of them—especially independent presses who were struggling to get by in the first place. On top of it, no one can even cry with their friends over the struggles unless they schedule a Zoom meeting.
So what’s someone in this book publishing program to do? The people here are in grad school, working full time at Ooligan Press, living through a pandemic and social uprising, and some of them are even writing a thesis. Where’s the time for self-care?
In truth, self-care can be found in boundaries. It’s easy to let work and education overwhelm you, especially in this time of isolation we find ourselves in. There are so many things to do in the press, in classes, and in our own lives that we can lose the time we need to, well, take time. It can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, or minutes in the hours we get, to just take time for ourselves—but there are when you add boundaries.
When I first came to Ooligan, I would lose my day to editing assignments or overthinking mini-essays for classes. I suddenly didn’t have time to grab a beer with friends or hike that one trail, and it was all because I refused to establish the boundaries that are needed in everyday life.
Now I only work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekdays unless there’s an emergency and I make sure to go on walks during my lunch. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have time to work on my next art project or even stretch my legs. In the end, the change in comma placement can wait and the concern about proper ISBNs isn’t an absolute emergency.
If boundaries aren’t established with work, school, and social life, then you don’t have time to focus on what really needs your attention. You.

A library shelf with hanging lights above it.

The Weird and Wonderful Brautigan Library

If you ask any writer why they write, odds are the answer will be because they have a story to tell and a unique perspective to offer. If you ask an editor why they edit or a publisher why they publish books, the answer will almost always be because they love discovering stories with a unique perspective to offer. It’s not, as is often assumed about publishers, to be “gatekeepers” of which stories are worth reading. The business of publishing is difficult because it is almost entirely based on whether or not a manuscript will appeal to a broad audience; if there isn’t a huge perceived audience, publishers unfortunately have to say no to manuscripts that would otherwise be amazing books all the time.
Where do all those rejected manuscripts go? Do authors bury them in hard drives and recycle bins, never to see the light of publication? For one particular author, this did not seem right. Richard Brautigan, an American author with origins in Washington state, wrote about a library where the only purpose was “to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” He had a few popular novels in the 60s and 70s, but never saw his vision played out. In 1990, Todd Lockwood was inspired by Brautigan’s 1971 novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 and founded the Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont. The mission: “Archive and curate unpublished analogue and digital books by unknown, but aspiring, writers.”
The original collection houses a little over three hundred manuscripts from thirty-nine US states and four countries. These are all cataloged by a very unique system called the Mayonnaise System. In this organizational system created specifically for the Brautigan Library, manuscripts are sorted according to fifteen general categories (much like BISAC codes we use for bookstores), the year they were submitted, and the order of acquisition to the category. Some examples of categories include Adventure, Family, Love, War and Peace, Meaning of Life, and All the Rest. As for how the system got its name, in the early days of the original library, category sections were marked by actual mayonnaise jars! The jars were apparently a reference to one of Brautigan’s more popular novels. After a few fell and spewed their contents all over the floor, the practice stopped.
The library had to close in 2005 and store all the manuscripts until 2010 when a partnership between Washington State University and Clark County Historical Museum brought the collection to Vancouver, Washington. Now, there is both the original collection as well as a digital collection. A new category was added to the Mayonnaise System, Digital (DIG), and there have been over one hundred more submissions since 2013. You can visit their website here to see synopses provided by authors and librarians’ comments on the manuscripts.
This library is a beautiful concept because it rejects the notion that all literature needs to be entertainment. Yes, there is importance in the publishing process and most manuscripts go through many changes to become the commercially successful works of art that they are, but this space is also important. A place where the American compulsion to be comparable to everyone else doesn’t exist; creators are free to create without fear of failure. The current curator, John F. Barber says, “The Brautigan Library is not about being published, or even about literature. It’s about people telling their stories in a democratic way. It is a home for grassroots narratives in a digital age.” Clark County Historical Museum is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, when the county reopens, the Brautigan Library is a short drive away for authors and publishers from the PNW to come and appreciate literature outside of commercial success.

Preparing Authors for Digital Readings

Reading is often a solitary experience, but it becomes a social experience when we attend an event where we get to see authors read their work live. One of the most common ways that publishers and authors promote their books is by holding readings. These events can take place digitally or in person, but are becoming increasingly popular as digital occurrences. In light of the global pandemic of 2020, we learned just how valuable it can be to have a strong digital reading event.

Although digital readings are great opportunities for publicity, it can be daunting when a digital event is one of the only events that will occur, as was the case for many events for debut authors in early 2020. With all of that pressure, how can publishers get their authors ready for these events? What is the best way for an author to prepare for an online reading?

First, the basics. What will they read? The author probably has a good idea of what selections may read well. In general, the passage should be engaging, and involve some kind of mini plot or character arc. It should sound beautiful and read naturally out loud, without dragging on and on. Dialogue is a great thing to include, but too much can be confusing to the audience, as the “he said, she said” can be hard to follow.

Next, how will they read it? They’ll need to practice. While it might not be poetry, a reading is still a performance of sorts. The author will need to take time to run through the reading aloud, noting where to place special emphasis, change pacing, use a different voice, or make minor changes to the text in order to ensure audiences will be able to follow along, as they may not have a copy in front of them. This can also help sharpen their focus and aid in creating smooth transitions. This practice is also a time to make decisions about what kind of background would be fitting for the reading, what they will choose to wear, and how they will handle possible distractions like children, sirens, or pets (if the reading is occurring in their home).

And finally, where will they read it? Authors and publishers should spend time getting to know the platform they’ll be using. Whether it’s Instagram Live, a large Zoom call, or a recorded reading, time must be spent familiarizing oneself with the ins and outs of the technical aspects of the software. Several tests should be run prior to the real deal, and everyone should have a contingency plan for troubleshooting technical issues. What if the audio cuts out? What if the dog barks? What if there is a disruptive audience member? Things can and will go wrong, and having a plan for how to deal with it can both save everyone from embarrassment as well as give everyone involved a sense of confidence.

Nailing down the what, where, and how of the reading will prepare the author to have the most successful, stress-free online event possible. This will be especially necessary as book marketing moves online. As debut author Kevin Nguyen said in a New York Times interview on the way book publicity is shifting to an online presence, “…there’s an opportunity here, if we can all figure it out…I’m hoping these hurdles can encourage us to think about how book promotion can be reinvented.”

Instagram Introduced Alt Text

Alternative text and tags are something of a recent phenomenon on social media. In the past few years, Twitter has introduced alternative text for people who were sharing images on their accounts, making them more accessible to users with visual impairments. To read more about that, check out this article. Recently, Instagram introduced their own version of this. Adding this alternative text is somewhat of a necessity for a platform that consists entirely of image-based content.

Instagram updated their system last year by creating an automatic version of alt text that basically looks for visual clues and then writes a description that can be read out loud. But that method isn’t always accurate. That’s why they’ve created alternative text that users can place on their own images. It’s important to point out that there were some users (most of whom had a significant number of followers) who were doing this sort of work before any of this was introduced, simply by adding image descriptions (often in brackets) at the bottom of their captions.

There are just a few quick steps to take to include alt text when you’re posting an image on Instagram. Find them below.

  1. Select your image like you typically would, and write your caption.
  2. At the bottom of the caption screen there’s a little button that says “advanced settings.” Click on it.
  3. Click on “write alt text.”
  4. Write your alternative text, typically a description of the photo, and select “done.”
  5. Now you’re ready to share your image!

Why is it important to take these steps? We live in a world that was created for those who are seeing. Think about it: How many times a day do you pass a sign or an advertisement? Probably more times than you can count. The internet is a place that can break those barriers, and it’s slowly becoming more and more accessible. But, of course, we all have a role to play here. Taking the time to add this text to your image can give your followers a fuller experience of your work. And who doesn’t want that?

To read more about Instagram’s introduction of alternative text, check out this blog post they wrote in November 2018.

Try New Things

I’ve only ever applied to two colleges in my life. Which, if you know me at all, will seem like a drastic deviance from my general personality. You might say, based on this knowledge, that I’ve “always known what I want to do” or that I’m “really good at making decisions.” The first one less than the second but really, neither apply.

My original plan, before applying to the Masters of Writing: Book Publishing program here at PSU, was to take a year off, work, and generally exist in a space other than an educational institution. I spent the spring, summer, and fall after I graduated doing just that, and if we’re being honest, I kind of hated it. Maybe it’s the structure of classes or the comradery of late nights and finals or the fact that I just really love learning, but I was ready to get back into a classroom and work toward my next goal. But mostly, it’s the fact that I value the stories we are able to share through books and that I want to be a part of that process in whatever way I can, promoting voices we don’t hear often enough.

Actually applying for the program took a long time, especially curating the writing sample and writing the personal statement, so plan ahead. (If you’re interested in knowing more about the admissions process, check out the Ooligan site here.) But once you’ve completed all the things and have been accepted into the program, what can you actually expect?

Every student’s experience is different. Yes, there are core classes that every Ooligan student has to take, but after those are done and even while you’re in them, you can start to tailor your studies to better fit your goals. For me, that means taking a lot of marketing classes and trying to do social media projects for the books I’m working on. For someone else, that might mean taking every editing or design class they can find. I think that’s one of the real strengths of this program; the ability to adapt your learning to the areas you’re interested in while still having opportunities to gain new skills in areas that might be underdeveloped or unfamiliar.

For example, I don’t really consider myself an “editor,” but I’m actively seeking out opportunities where I’m able to expand those skills. That’s probably one of the best things about this program. The ability to try new types of projects, which I highly recommend, is just one way the program prepares you for the publishing industry. Where else are you going to get an opportunity to do both marketing and editing in substantial capacities?

Aside from the general courses, it’s really the work in lab and studio that I’ve found offers the most flexibility in tasks. One week you might be sending emails to potential review outlets, the next you’re taking pictures of collateral, and the next you’re copyediting a section of an upcoming title. Even with all of these small opportunities, after a few terms, you’ll hopefully get a sense of everything you’ve accomplished. I haven’t found much, as of yet, that brings me as much joy as seeing a book I’ve worked on, even in the smallest of ways, out in the world for people to see. If you have an inkling that you too may feel this way, publishing, and, more specifically, a program like the one Ooligan offers, is right for you.

The Value of an Ebook

While we could go around for hours about the costs of an ebook version of a book versus others, there’s another part of the general consumption of ebooks that should be discussed. Perceived value is just as important as actual cost.

Books, in general, take lots of steps before they become published. There’s the acquisitions process, usually multiple rounds of editing, marketing and social media planning and execution, and, of course, the design of the book’s interior and exterior. There’s also everything that comes after the book: royalty costs, employee paychecks, rent, etc. Most of the blogs I read talked about these costs as a part of the profit a publisher makes. Similarly, most of the articles talked about the fact that because digital books don’t cost money to store and ship, they’re able to cost less. And I get it, I really do. But I’ll argue that that’s just one small piece of the much bigger puzzle.

If you do a quick google search of “paperback vs. ebook pricing,” you’ll undoubtedly find a plethora of articles, blogs, and opinions on the pricing of ebooks. But I don’t think that’s the question that needs to be asked. There seems to be a clear difference between the consumer’s perceived value of a physical book and that of the digital version of that same book, but it seems to be more of a matter of how ebooks, now that we’re fully into the digital age, fit in the market that’s already incredibly saturated. Even though consumers and authors alike subscribe to the belief that ebooks should be cheaper than other versions, like fantasy author Scott Marlowe, perceived value doesn’t seem to be about the work that goes into creating the title. Cost is important to think about since it’s the consumer that’s purchasing or abstaining from titles, and price can really affect their decision, but perceived value is also affected by many other instances that go into the decision to purchase a book.

As Brooke Warner writes for Huffington Post, it’s important to look at books, even the ebook version, for the story and not the format. After all, when we read, though our experiences may change some based on where and how we’re reading, it’s really the actual story that we’re invested in. While cost can affect a consumer’s decision to purchase a particular title, as Warner says, it’s often not the book we’re paying for, but the experience we receive while we read. The value of the ebook is in more than just the format, it’s in the ease of being able to purchase the next book in the series at 2 a.m. when you need to know if your favorite character does the thing or whether the love interest you stan is going to make it. Or it’s filling what empty spaces you have left on your shelves with the colorful covers of all the books you swear you’re going to read.

There’s extreme value in any format of a book because it’s usually not the physical book that you’re invested in. Rather, it’s the stories’ struggles, triumphs, laughs, and frustrated tears that keep readers coming back again and again.

Publisher Aesthetic as Visual Brand

In the field of publishing, how can publishers—who are rarely household names in the way that the authors they publish can be—stand out as trustworthy entities that produce reliable, quality books? The question for all businesses or organizations is a matter of branding, or the general outward image that an entity presents in order to solidify its own identity in the public consciousness. Branding can be as specific as strict rules on line spacing in public-facing written materials or as general as the tone they take on social media posts, but some of the most noticeable branding is the visual style adopted by any given company or organization. The nature of the organization in question will determine what style to take, so how do publishers (who are known primarily for producing words) go about establishing a recognizable visual brand?

A good place to start is with a logo. The logo is meant to be a visual representation of the publisher—a brand in the traditional sense of the word, like the kind marked onto cattle by a rancher—to signify that a book or social media artifact belongs to Ooligan Press. To be effective as a marketing tool, the logo should be attractive and relatively simple but recognizable and distinct from other iconic logos. For Ooligan, that logo is a fish hook, which harkens to the ooligan fish that the press is named for and that evokes the imagery of various Pacific Northwest wildlife and outdoor activities. (Ooligan’s previous logo was a drawing of an ooligan fish itself, though this image was perhaps a bit too detailed to function effectively as a brand logo.) This hook is included on our promotional materials to denote not only that the material was produced by Ooligan Press, but to evoke the spirit of the Pacific Northwest present in our books—a broad concept communicated by only this small, simple image.

Publishers know that books are judged by their covers, and Ooligan’s visual aesthetic is vital to our brand, from that little hook to our full book covers. Our press maintains an internal Ooligan Aesthetic document meant to aide our designers in keeping with our visual brand. This guide lets designers know what elements they should incorporate or avoid in order to give all Ooligan covers, social media artifacts, bookmarks, and other images a consistent look. The guide defines Ooligan’s look as do-it-yourself and handcrafted, and designers are advised to utilize clean lines without giving their designs a sterile look. Along with the DIY style, our covers often include images of mountains, forests, and rivers, evoking the Pacific Northwest theme of our titles with our aesthetic brand. Even before readers notice the Ooligan hook on the spine, they often recognize the arts and crafts style and blue and green color palettes for which Ooligan book covers have recently become known.

While variety keeps our covers and other materials relevant to the rest of the publishing industry, visual branding is essential to communicating our identity and values as a press clearly but subtly in everything we publish.

Publishers’ Influence on Pop Culture

Pop culture influences much of the world today, from what we wear to what we watch to what we read. Prior to my journey inside the publishing industry I have always been curious about two questions. 1. Who writes books for celebrities? 2. Why are books by celebrities published? My curiosity sparked at a young age when seeing some of the wildest characters on reality TV shows turn into humble and noble authors with bestselling books. These same celebrities we watch on TV have lives that seem to be so occupied with drama, business ventures, bad grammar, fashion shows, shopping trips, and traveling across the country that you have no choice but to wonder when, if ever, do they find the time to write a 200–300 page novel?

The answer to my first question became quite obvious when celebrities began receiving criticism for not acknowledging their co-writers, often known as ghost writers. Many feel entitled to the book because the storyline, plot, and characters were attributed to their own minds and not the minds of the co-writers.

However, the second question still remained complicated to answer. Celebrities are encouraged to sign book deals ultimately because it extends their brand into areas such as movies or television shows. These books entice readers by assuring them that there will be new secrets that have never been revealed by the author—not on TV, not in an interview, and sometimes not even to friends or family members. This is what keeps radio personalities, talk show hosts, critics, celebrity gossip blogs, and mainstream media interested in reading these books. It is also one of the strategies publishers seem to use to market and promote said books. Although the average reader does not pay attention to the publishing company responsible for the finished product, those in the publishing industry are paying very close attention.

Publishing companies can argue that they want to adhere to a variety of taste, they can say that everyone deserves a chance to tell their story, or that the book is truly amazing and one of a kind. Still, I can’t help but to ask if the publishing industry, like many others, is being more influenced by pop culture than it is being an influencer? All publishing companies, no matter the genre of books, are influencers. They influence by the way they market, edit, design, publicize, and sell their books. The books published are a reflection of what the publishing company finds valuable, sellable, and most importantly, readable.

Yes, people still read, and that is why publishers need to remain influencers. They have the power to provide rich, imaginative, exciting, thrilling, and genuine content written by real authors who work hard to compete in the publishing industry. Most authors just want their stories to be read, and many aren’t in it for the glory or the fame. They believe in the power of their writing and the beauty of their stories. We need publishers that believe in their own power to influence pop culture instead of falling under its influence.

The Social Media Footprint of Wordstock 2017

In a city with dozens of prominent publishing houses—where on any given day you can find a public reading, book release, or an author within ten feet of you at any given time—Wordstock is still Portland’s premier literary event. A massive event organized by Portland’s own Literary Arts organization, Wordstock is just over a decade old, and so the entire timeline of Wordstock events overlaps with the advent and rise of social media. Social media monitoring and outreach is an important part of the marketing machine here at Ooligan Press, and since we and a number of our authors were involved in Wordstock 2017, we did a quick analysis of Wordstock’s social media “footprint” via two platforms: Twitter and Instagram. This isn’t an exhaustive analysis, but having a cursory understanding of the conversation surrounding events like Wordstock can provide information for where the festival is at and how Ooligan Press fits into its narrative as a premier literary event.

  • Twitter: Literary Arts is typically quite active on Twitter, ranging five to seven tweets a day. On November 11, the day of the event, that number was expectedly higher, cresting at over fifty tweets and retweets. Interestingly, the lead-up to Wordstock was business as usual. Content-wise, Literary Arts gave little fanfare to their usual pre-Wordstock literary pub-crawl event this year, and put most of their effort into retweeting positive media coverage of the event as well as promoting their big-ticket authors. This year’s headliner, Ta-Nehisi Coates, followed the Colson Whitehead appearance from last year and allowed for a few posts about the running theme of diversity at Wordstock. However, no matter what themes are trending, the associated hashtag is always the same: #PDXbookfest. This is actually a departure from Wordstock’s usual branding. Last year, it was either #Wordstock or #Wordstock2016, and—predictably—it was #Wordstock2015 before that. This signifies an attempt on Literary Art’s behalf to rebrand Wordstock and bestow it a wider reach and discoverability. PDX is an acronym often used in social media to reference the city of Portland (it’s also the name of our airport), so using it here makes it more searchable and connotes that Wordstock is THE literary event in Portland, Oregon. Going beyond just Literary Art’s official Twitter account, we saw the #Wordstock tag sneak back into a lot of posts. We also saw a wider variety of topics being posted. Naturally, the posts that rated the highest were from authors who presented at the festival, but thanks to Twitter’s lack of organizational structure when displaying hashtag search results, posts by Ooligan students Kristen Lugwigsen and Sadie Moses were also featured at the top.

  • Instagram: A lot of what has been covered for Twitter applies to Instagram, but there is a definite shift in content between the two platforms. While the posts on Twitter from both attendees and Literary Arts were overwhelmingly focused on highlighting the events and authors, many Instagram posts with the #PDXBookfest and #Wordstock tags are also customer and publisher focused. Perhaps due to the more intimate and personal nature of Instagram, tagged posts on the platform were more focused on the personal stories of Wordstock and the interactions people enjoyed while there. This translated to more images of the publisher booths found on the third floor of the art museum, where numerous publishers vied for customer attention while displaying their frontlist titles. This was the best chance for most attendees to interact with the professionals behind the literature.

Wordstock is always a fairly successful event for Ooligan Press and provides us the personalized exposure we need to reach our readers. Knowing the “how” and “why” of social media trends can help us and other small publishers focus our digital marketing efforts and enter the Wordstock narrative in new and exciting ways.