Interview: Harrison Demchick on Changes in Publishing

Harrison Demchick of Bancroft Press in Baltimore, Md., agreed to be interviewed about publishing and editing, his current job and his new adventures.

His new Really Good Editing business is up and running for writers looking for a personal touch from an editor — the Website will be up soon.  Until then, you can check out his work through the icon and link to his Facebook page.  Also, feel free to email (reallygoodediting AT gmail DOT com) him if you are interested in his editorial services.

Without further ado, here’s our interview:

1.  Tell us a little bit about your publishing work and how you got started with the small press, Bancroft Press.

I started out at Bancroft Press as an intern in the summer of 2005. I was heading into my senior semester at Oberlin College and looking to get some editorial experience, and I couldn’t have found a better place. By the end of the summer, I was working on book-to-film adaptation and editing novels, and when I graduated in December, I knew Bancroft Press, and more broadly the publishing industry, was where I wanted to be.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work I’ve done at Bancroft. I’ve been lucky enough to edit all sorts of novels for all sorts of readers, most of which have been well-received, and I’ve had opportunity after opportunity to hone my skills as an editor. I can’t forget that I’m one of the lucky ones—I’ve been in a position to do what I love since the day I graduated. And I’ve learned a lot in the process.

2.  How has the publishing industry changed and what fears/concerns has it raised for you on a personal and professional level?

It’s difficult to tell sometimes where the publishing industry has changed and where it’s only my perspective that’s changed. Other times, there’s no doubt. My time in the industry has happened to correlate with the rise of the eBook, which has had a drastic effect on the industry. Every publishing house is struggling to adapt, and Bancroft Press is no different.

The way I see it is this: There have never been more ways for a writer to get his work out there. eBooks make self-publishing incredibly easy, and for a very select few, incredibly profitable. And the simultaneous rise of social media means there have also never been more ways to generate free publicity. But on the flip side, that means the industry has never been so crowded. The majority of eBooks, which don’t require the filter of publisher or editor, are inevitably going to be terrible. The new status quo doesn’t make things easier. It makes them harder.

I am very nervous about an industry that seems increasingly focused on marketing over quality. To create a hit book, more than a great product, you need a great campaign that makes optimal use of social media, and the right combination of print books and eBooks. As someone who has edited a number of books that have been genuinely terrific, it’s extremely frustrating to fight that marketing battle. Authors are told now that they need to spend two years building up their audience before their book ever comes out. That shouldn’t be. Authors should simply be able to write great books and have them succeed because they’re great.

But that’s not the way it works anymore. Maybe it never worked that way. But I’ve seen marketing become a greater and greater part of my job, and it’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to see the publishing industry reward popularity over creativity. Perhaps more than any other business, this is supposed to be a meritocracy.

Naïve? Definitely. But that’s how I feel.

3.  Rather than begin a freelance editing business, why not transition the publishing house to e-books?  Or is that also a consideration; if so, what challenges have you found in that transition process?

I don’t think going eBook-exclusive is the way to go. Understanding of the print book market is one of the critical advantages traditional publishers still have, and for all the upheaval and transformation, I don’t believe print books are dying. They’re just reaching a new equilibrium. That said, I’ve certainly been working hard these last couple years to help Bancroft Press adjust to the new reality. Figuring out new media has been a major challenge, especially seeing as we’re not natural marketers here at Bancroft. We’re book people.

Launching Really Good Editing simultaneously is far more of a personal decision. The part of this job I truly love is editing, and working with writers to make their work as wonderful as it can possibly be. Marketing is nothing but stress for me, but editing? Editing is pure meditation.

I wanted a job that would remove me from the parts of the job and the industry I don’t care for and zero in on what I really want to be doing. And that’s not to say starting a new business doesn’t also require marketing. Why, I’m marketing right now! And that’s also not to say that I don’t help my clients think about how to market their books. But primarily, I’m focused on the editing in a way I can’t be at Bancroft.

4.  What makes your freelance business, Really Good Editing, different from your competitors?  Is it lower rates, personal attention, something more?

I like to say that I write the longest and most detailed editorial letters known to man. Actually, this is probably true, but it also points to the distinction, which is that I’m a complete developmental editor. I don’t fix spelling and grammar and add the right punctuation—or, well, I do, but that’s not the main thing I do. I examine character, logic, and story. I diagnose what isn’t working in a manuscript, determine why it isn’t working, and explain to the author how it can work.

My goal is to teach an author how to make her work better. I don’t think most editors do that. I don’t think most editors know how. One of the most common responses I get from the authors I work with is that I haven’t just made their manuscripts better. I’ve made them better writers.

So, definitely, personal attention is a part of it. But I think the primary distinction is that I’m really, really good at this. I’m different because I’m the best. That sounds really egotistical. But it’s true.

5.  Has the decision to provide editing services been influenced by what some have noted as a lack of editing for some of the books coming out of the larger publishing houses?

It has not, but it’s definitely true that the major publishers no longer engage in real, in-depth editing. Some indie publishers like Bancroft Press still edit, but you go to Penguin and it’s probably not the case. They want the manuscripts they receive to be pretty much ready to go before they take them on.

So while it’s not a motivation for me that the big publishers behave this way, the fact that they do certainly suggests that writers need to invest in editors like me before they submit their manuscripts for publication.

6.  Do you think publishing books has become too much like a business and less about the art of writing and creating memorable tales and poignant stories about the human condition and society?

Absolutely. One hundred percent. I don’t know that stories need to be poignant and focused on the human condition necessarily—I’m not of the opinion that all fiction should be “literary fiction,” versus entertainment or genre fiction—but they should absolutely be stories that come from the author.

I hear about certain publishing houses where ideas come from the marketing department and are bandied about by editors before a writer is assigned to the job. That scares the hell out of me. And these books end up being insanely popular, yet they could not be more artificial.

Writing—fiction especially—is an art. And if the publishing houses that actually have the money and marketing might would use their strength for great books, and not just obviously popular books, I think we’d have a far healthier publishing industry.

7.  What are some of your personal obsessions or favorite reads from this year?

I’m rarely reading something new and popular. My bookshelf is filled with various books from various eras I haven’t gotten around to yet, and because so much of my job is reading, I so rarely do. I’ve just gotten back from vacation, during which I finally got some reading done. I read about half of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon before losing it (darn it), then read Eoin Colfer’s continuation of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, And Another Thing . . ., and finally started Stephen King’s The Shining, which I’ve always been curious about. (So far, it’s fantastic.)

As for personal obsessions, I’ve just spent Saturday at the Baltimore Comic-Con digging through thousands of comics searching for Spider-Man guest appearances. Does that count?

Thanks, Harrison, for answering my questions and for sharing your experiences.

This is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since Harrison works for a local publisher.

Guest Post: Bancroft Press’ Harrison Demchick on Small Press

Bancroft Press has Harrison Demchick on the front lines, and his press is another local one, situated in Baltimore, Md.  We’re going to be taking another Literary Road Trip of sorts today, as Harrison talks about being a small press and what that entails in the day and age of publishing battles in the media and beyond.

Anything you read most anywhere about the present state of publishing will dwell on the industry’s ongoing war, or transformation, or whatever you want to call it. They’ll talk of the trend toward self-publishing and the inevitable impact on the long-standing dominance of the New York super-publishers. They’ll talk of the eBook, and the way it’s changed the price of big press hardcovers from standard to outrageous.

In this narrative, the war has two combatants: the major publishers and the self-publishers.

Everyone forgets about the rest of us.

Bancroft Press represents the element you don’t hear about—the forgotten combatant, if you will. Between the big press and the no press is the small press, comprised of groups operating more or less in the mold of traditional publishing, but with a narrowed list of titles and authors. And what does that mean?

Well, if you’re only going to publish four, maybe six books a year, they’d better be books you believe in. This should be less a novelty than it is, but with the big publishers more and more focused on commercial appeal above all other considerations, and the self-published authors pretty much a total crapshoot in terms of quality, there aren’t many places left simply publishing good books they like.

Or maybe there are. Maybe you’re just not hearing about them.

It’s certainly not easy to be a small press. The major publishers monopolize the bookstore shelves—hell, Borders’ stock is under their control outright. Barnes and Noble won’t stock your book if they don’t like the cover. Most newspapers won’t read your book if they can instead read a HarperCollins book they know has the budget behind it to be a hit. Most don’t care about the diamond in the rough.

It’s a funny thing, actually. The major publishers have a huge budget and focus on only what their marketing departments believe they can sell. We have hardly any budget and no marketing department, and publish what we believe in regardless of perceived popularity.

If eBooks and the rise of self-publishing are evening things out a little, then all the better from our point of view. But that doesn’t necessarily make the invisible publishers visible—certainly not with the dichotomy most seem to believe exists. It’s a tough road, but the small presses wouldn’t be in the game at all if they didn’t believe their books deserved to make it.

So that’s small presses in general—but what’s Bancroft Press?

Our slogan is “Books That Enlighten.” If that seems very broad, it is. We publish a huge variety of books, the only determination being belief in the material. Bancroft began in 1995, founded by its publisher, Bruce Bortz. We’ve published Alex Award winners (Jonathon Scott Fuqua’s The Reappearance of Sam Webber), Edgar finalists (Libby Sternberg’s Uncovering Sadie’s Secrets), Pulitzer nominees (Gus Russo’s Live by the Sword), and also really great, even critically acclaimed books that didn’t sell the way they could have, and should have (Fuqua’s In the Wake of the Boatman, Ron Cooper’s Hume’s Fork, Elizabeth Leinkes’s The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns).

Right now, we’re focused on three particular projects.

Purple Jesus, which we published in mid-October, is the one you may have heard of. Ron Cooper’s second novel, a terrific Southern Gothic masterpiece, was called “a literary achievement of the first magnitude” by The Washington Post.

A small press literary novel with a major newspaper review, by the way, is an incredibly rare thing, and comes as a result mainly of persistent obnoxiousness.

You’re less likely to have heard of The Naperville White House: How One Man’s Fantasy Changed Government’s Reality, an offbeat and hugely inventive novel we published at the end of 2010. Jerome Bartels’s book, written as a nonfiction account, tells of a terrorist crisis resolved not by the real government, but by a fantasy government—think live-action role-playing meets fantasy football—comprised of a librarian secretary of state, a gas station owner director of national security, a customer service representative chief of staff, an obsessive gamer secretary of defense, and an insurance adjustor president.

There’s nothing quite like it. That makes it very, very hard to sell. We knew that going in—in fact, one New York publisher, which otherwise loved it, rejected it for explicitly that reason—but we believe in this book and published it anyway. We’re still pushing it and hoping it catches on.

Finally, there’s our upcoming foray into young adult adventure, The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, the first book in Eden Unger Bowditch’s Young Inventors Guild trilogy. It’s the story of five genius children in 1903 who seek to break free from their bizarre, black-clad kidnappers to find their missing parents, using the mysterious creation they have all, unbeknownst to one another, been inventing.

We see it as the scientific answer to Harry Potter, and we have high hopes for its release on March 15.

So this is Bancroft Press: a small publisher putting its minimal but determined weight behind some truly amazing books. The narrative of the industry’s transformation would render us nonexistent, but we’re here, and publishing books every bit as good as the larger publishers—and sometimes quite a bit better.

It’s all about what we believe in. How could it be anything else?

Thanks, Harrison, for sharing your thoughts on the publishing wars and on Bancroft Press’ mission.  You also catch Harrison at the Maryland Writers Conference on Saturday, April 2, 2011, at the University of Baltimore’s Thumel Business Center.