It is my pleasure and honor to interview Stacy Whitman, founder and editorial director of Tu Publishing. Tu Publishing
is was a newly established independent press focused on multicultural science fiction and fantasy (SFF) for children and young adults.
Note: It was announced on March 9, 2010, that Lee & Low Books, the well-known independent publishing house focused on cultural diversity in children’s literature, acquired Tu Publishing. Consequently, Tu Publishing is now TU BOOKS, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS. Stacy Whitman is the Editorial Director of Tu Books.
Stacy, thank you for joining us today. I am impressed and I applaud the fact that you founded Tu Publishing in the midst of the current economic turmoil, in a time where unfortunately several publishing houses are forced to downsize or to close their doors. What were some of the challenges Tu Publishing encountered before being established?
Well, of course, the main challenge was funding—being able to have enough money to get started off right. A huge part of that was the Kickstarter campaign, which just ended successfully last month, in which hundreds of people rallied behind us and donated $5, $10, $20, or whatever they had. In return, we’ll be giving “rewards” to those who donated such as bookmarks, ARCs, books, and so forth. We also have a few other avenues for funding that we’re still working on to make our bare-bones budget more robust.
The thing about starting a small press in this current economic climate, however, is an irony of times like these. Small presses tend to grow during recessions, actually, because their overhead is smaller than the big houses and they tend to already run a tight ship. As we started on this journey, working on a business plan with the local Small Business Administration office, I did a lot of research to figure out if this was the right direction to take, and found that small presses are growing now. Some of the big houses started out as smaller houses during the huge downturn of the late 1970s and during the Great Depression. So that gives me some hope that we’re on the right track, and we’re learning from what they did, as well as working to innovate in a changing publishing climate.
Could you, please, tell us about your background and how your passion for multicultural fantasy and science fiction started?
I have loved fantasy and science fiction since I was a kid. It was actually Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, an epic fantasy series, that got me first thinking about these issues, though only in embryo back then. He created such an epic world filled with people of so many different cultures, and it fascinated me how many of our own cultures and world folklore influenced that worldbuilding, and how the characters’ cultures affected their interactions with each other. In recent years, I’ve been on an anime and manga kick (well, that goes way back, too—in the 4th grade I wished I’d been born Japanese), and through discussions with colleagues and my own work on series like Hallowmere by Tiffany Trent, it’s all come together.
I have a master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College in Boston, and I’ve worked in publishing for over 10 years now. My first job in publishing was typesetting college textbooks as a student, and I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer, an editor at a trade magazine focused on the electromechanical motor aftermarket, an editor of elementary social studies textbooks at Houghton Mifflin, an intern at the Horn Book, a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, and an editor of children’s and YA fantasy at Mirrorstone, an imprint of Wizards of the Coast. I’ve been freelancing for the last year or so, working directly with authors on preparing their manuscripts for publication.
With the way everything has been changing in our industry in the last year or so, it seemed like a good time to work on a goal I’ve had for many years, starting my own small press.
How do you envision Tu Publishing’s relationship with its future writers? What are some of the principles that will guide your collaboration?
My philosophy as an editor is to be invisible within the work—it’s the author’s words, and my job is to make that story be the best it can be. Collaboration is a good word for that process, though—any story I take on has to be one I’m passionate enough about to make my “own.” That is, I have to care enough about it to spend months of my life poring over it and working closely with the author. I ask questions, note confusing spots, give tools for further development, and even occasionally cajole and threaten ninja monkeys (usually when a deadline is drawing near). I work with authors from the beginning developmental stages of a finished manuscript on through line editing, copyediting, and proofreading stages, making sure that every aspect of the book from the big picture on down is as good as it can be.
And for my part of that collaboration to work, I need authors who are willing to work with me. I want to work with authors who are willing to dive in and listen to my suggestions, and who are willing to discuss problems when we disagree. Discussion between editor and author are paramount to me—I am not a dictator on high, handing down decrees of how things ought to be. I’m just a reader who sees various problems. Sometimes my suggestions are what will solve the problem, and sometimes the writer will think of a solution I might not have. And that’s exactly how it should be, because the writer knows their work better than I do. Yet my role as the editor is to draw out those solutions in one way or another.
The authors I work with are colleagues and friends. I want to love the books I work with so much that I’ll want to tell everyone I know about them, and introduce them to the authors who wrote them. We want authors to become “brands” in marketing speak—for their books to become so well-loved that readers will look for the next one by that author, knowing it will be just as good.
The reality of any small press is that we’re doing this for love more than money. (Hopefully the money will come, of course!) I want to love the books we work with, and part of that process is a close working relationship with our authors.
What will happen when you receive a flood of “stellar quality” submissions? Do you have a set goal in terms of how many books you will publish in 2010?
If they’re all good, we’ll have some tough decisions to make! We only plan to publish two books by the end of 2010—possibly three with an anthology contest that I’m working on the rules for as we speak. We hope to double that in 2011—hopefully up to six in the second year, actually—but our goals are modest because right now our resources are modest. We hope that we’ll be able to pick the cream of the crop, and that those who don’t get picked right away will continue to work toward getting published, whether with us or with someone else.
Of course, the way to ensure that all our submissions are stellar quality is to read the submission guidelines. I can’t tell you how many times in my career as an editor I’ve rejected submissions immediately because the writer just didn’t read the directions. I’m not talking about a bunch of rules created by a secret cabal to weed out the uninitiated—I’m talking about simple things like making sure that a publisher is looking for the genre you’ve written before sending it off. If the submission guidelines say “no picture books,” they mean no picture books.
Once you sign a writer and his or her book is ready for publication, how long do you estimate between the last round of revisions and the publication date?
This is really a very individual thing for each book. Revisions can take a few weeks if a book is completely ready to go (and few books are). Here’s a breakdown of my editing process, to give you an idea:
—Developmental editing (big picture issues like character, plot, timeline)—between the editor and the writer and depending on how many rounds are needed, this process can take anywhere from two-twelve months
–-Line editing (refining the language, cutting extra words and paragraphs, noting where small things need to be further developed)—turnaround between editor and writer can be two to four months here
—Copyediting (sending it out to another pair of eyes for more technical issues and to catch anything we might have missed in the above rounds)—about a month, usually, for the copyeditor to do his or her job, and then a few days for the editor to look it over (depending on her schedule) and several weeks more for the author to look over those edits
—Proofreading (a final look-over by another editor, usually a freelancer, for typos, inconsistencies, and anything else out of the ordinary)—a few weeks for the proofreader, and so on for editor and author
While the book is going through this process, the art department is working simultaneously on the interior and exterior design of the book. The book generally gets typeset somewhere around the time of the copyedit—sometimes a book is copyedited in galley form, and sometimes in manuscript form. By the time the proofreader sees it, a book is usually in galley form, so once the proofread is finished and the editor and author have had a chance to look over those changes and discuss any discrepancies, from start to finish that process can take anywhere from four or five months to a year and a half. At the end of the proofreading process, the book has another few weeks or so in-house as it’s getting prepped for sending to the printer (preflight to be sure that all the graphic issues are taken care of, etc.), and then it takes about 2 months or so for a book to be actually printed. Before the publication date, though, we want to allow enough time for advance copies to be sent to reviewers and booksellers, so the publication date might be flexible depending on where in the process the galleys are sent to a printer for advance copies to be printed. Depending on the size of an advance run, that might take a few days (sometimes advance copies are just galleys bound at the local copy shop, if it’s a small run) or add a couple months to the production schedule if the ARC run is larger.
So, for the books we hope to publish this year, the process will be on the short end of that—we won’t announce release dates until we have manuscripts contracted so we can estimate based on real work schedules and real work required for a particular manuscript—but we do hope that we can have books out in time for Christmas 2010. However, as I said, that process will vary from book to book, and whether we make the Christmas 2010 goal will also depend on the books we receive as submissions.
Once attached to a project, what would be Tu Publishing’s involvement in the promotion of a book? What advice would you give writers when it comes to promotion?
As a small press, we won’t have the resources the big houses do for promotion. We won’t be able to put a commercial on the SyFy channel as James Dashner’s publishers recently did for The Maze Runner, for example! But we will do all we can to promote the books, and we will expect the authors we work with to be a partner in that process.
Distribution can be challenging for a new publisher, so we’ll be working to establish relationships with independent booksellers, librarians, and teachers, so that the gatekeepers who recommend books to readers will be aware of our books and know how to order them. YALSA and Indiebound, for example, have a lot of great resources we hope to utilize to ensure that our books get in the hands of teen readers, librarians, and booksellers. We have a blog, Twitter, and Facebook pages where we keep people up to date on our news, and plan to utilize as much social networking as possible to ensure that readers know that the books they’ve been asking for are here. We’re working on newsletter capability, as well, that readers will be able to opt into. We will be submitting our books for awards and to reviewers, of course, and all the things that every publisher does in that regard. We will attend anime and fantasy conventions to promote and sell our books, and hope that our authors will be able to participate in their own local conventions as well. Our website will have a store for direct sales, as well.
We might not have the budget to fly authors around on book tours right away, but we do hope that we can arrange virtual book tours and school visits using Skype and other forms of technology that have been so useful to classrooms. Eventually we plan to attend the book trade shows as well, though that won’t happen for a while due to financial constraints. We will be doing limited runs of ARCs to make sure that influential readers will hear about books prior to their publication dates. Given changes in e-reader technology, every book we produce will also have an electronic version, as well.
For writers, we hope that they will be willing to do school visits locally, and that they’ll foster relationships with their local booksellers as well. Every writer should have an up-to-date website where people can get the information they need—publicly available contact information (a public email address at which booksellers and educators can contact an author for signings and school visits, for example), perhaps a blog if the writer feels comfortable with that. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet about self-promotion, and I advise every writer, once they are in published-promoting mode, to talk to other authors about what worked for them, and to distill that into what might work for you.
The key thing is to become involved in the online book community, becoming a part of the conversation—perhaps on Twitter or Facebook (and then putting that information on your website, which should be a hub for your social networking)—and to become involved in your own community in the real world, and to not be shy about letting people know that you’re a writer and that your book is (or soon will be) available. Bookmarks or cards with the ISBN and cover image and perhaps a little blurb about the book are a great way to give people the information they need to find the book, and can be quite cost-effective. (I recently made 500 bookmarks for under $60, including shipping, through an online service.)
That’s just an overview—I have an entire business plan that outlines all the things we’ll do for promotion. Because distribution for a new publisher can be so tricky, we’ll be doing a lot of direct-to-consumer promotion, and I think that is actually a good thing for a publisher to be involved in, anyway, given the way the industry is changing. We want to get teens involved, to get them talking about the books and invested in their success. We want bloggers to review and discuss our books. We want to develop relationships with booksellers, parents, teachers, and librarians to ensure that they know where to find our books. And so forth. Book promotion works best through word of mouth, and as a grassroots-funded small press, we hope that we’ll be able to continue that through to the final book, as well as incorporating convention promotional means.
Would you say that multicultural books in general, and SFF in particular, are mainstream? If not, what could be a plausible explanation? And a remedy?
That’s a tough question, and depends on your definition of “mainstream.” If you mean “do readers of fantasy look for multicultural books?” I think the answer is yes, if only because they have what I like to call Tolkien-esque fatigue. They’re ready for books featuring a variety of cultures and worlds. But the number of books for those readers to find that fit that description is much lower than it could be, and can be drowned in the large number of books that are published every year.
I don’t know what the explanation is for it—many people have theories, but I haven’t ever pinned it down to any one thing, myself. Part of it is that a lot of us editors are white, yes, which of course can affect what kinds of books get published every year, just as the number of women editors skews the number of books published every year that appeal to girls and women compared to men and boys. There are also myths among sales departments and bookstore buyers about what kinds of books are most popular, what kinds of covers sell, who buys books, and all sorts of things like that.
Then there is the smaller number of writers of color in speculative fiction. Historically, fantasy and science fiction hasn’t been very welcoming to readers of color, so why would writers of color choose to write in this genre? So it might take some time to build up readership with the books that are out there from other publishers and those which we hope to publish, which will in turn increase writers’ numbers as well.
But I think all of those are just pieces of a bigger puzzle, and when it comes down to it, all I can do as an editor is become aware of the issue and make sure to choose books that are great stories, which happen to feature diverse casts and settings, and hope that a number of those books are written by writers of color. This is something many editors I know are committed to, don’t get me wrong. But Tu Publishing aims to help fill this gap in the market by dedicating ourselves to publishing stories that fit it, that bring diverse stories to a wide audience.
What makes an exceptional multicultural SFF book?
The number one thing, for me, is an exceptional story. As I recently talked about on the Tu Publishing blog, that means a lot of different things. Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix is as different in content as you can get from Sarwat Chadda’s Devil’s Kiss—one is set in a world much like ancient China and explores Chinese folkloric themes, and the other is set in modern-day London featuring a mixed-race protagonist who fights demons for the Knights Templar—but both are well-told stories that happen to feature multicultural characters and themes.
That may not be as specific as some writers would like, but it’s so hard to pin down why a person likes a book, and I don’t want to give out a formula because I don’t want to see formulaic books. Originality and good writing are key ingredients, though.
Are there any stereotypes you would warn multicultural SFF writers against?
Lots, lots. There’s too much to be aware of for one interview question. See our interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith for her cautions about writing Native American characters. And definitely look at Nisi Shawl’s post at the SFWA site on writing transracially at http://www.sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/. But especially for white writers who want to write from a perspective not their own, the biggest thing I advise is to do your research. Make sure that you talk to people from the background that you’re writing from, and that you write with not just respect from your perspective, but that you write in a way that the people you’re writing about find it respectful. This is especially important, for example, when writing about Native American characters because of the long history of cultural appropriation—the “noble savage” stereotype has been around forever and is still getting perpetuated in blockbuster films like Avatar. (Why do we never see blockbuster films about modern-day Indians like we can read about in Sherman Alexie’s novels? Which of course then begs the question: where are the Native fantasy writers, writing from their own perspective, breaking those stereotypes? Alexie has one novel that’s sort of fantasy, but he’s only one writer.)
Also avoid the old-character-of-color-passes-on-wisdom-to-white-boy stereotype. Just because you’ve got a Mr. Miyagi in your book doesn’t make it multicultural.
Of course, you can’t ever please everyone. But writing across cultures requires sensitivity to that culture’s beliefs and treating them with the same respect you’d ask if those were your own beliefs. Writing from the perspective of a character from another culture (whether that culture is Middle Earth or Klingon) requires getting into the head of a person from that culture and discarding judgments and pre-conceived notions. It also requires that authors from privileged backgrounds (whether white privilege when writing about characters of color, or socioeconomic privilege when writing about characters who are poor) check that privilege and examine stereotypes that they might hold.
What are the differences between working with a “big” publisher and a smaller one?
While a big publisher might have more marketing resources, a smaller publisher will devote a lot more time, proportionally, to every book, and will tend to collaborate with the author more closely. Few big publishers allow their authors as much input on a cover, for example, as small presses might. As I said above, we’re not in it for the money—we’re in this for the love. We hope that by dedicating ourselves to your book, we might all also benefit money-wise, of course! But there is a lot more personal attention. There’s just as much commitment required from the author—even the big publishers require that authors self-promote nowadays—and we might not have the budget to fly an author around the country, but we will make sure that every book has the editorial, art, and marketing attention it deserves.
This is not to say that an author at a big publisher won’t devote time to your book—I know plenty of dedicated editors at big houses. But marketing-wise, sometimes midlist books can feel neglected at larger publishers, and small publishers tend to keep midlist titles in print longer.
What does a typical day, as an editor, look like for you?
Now that we’re open for submissions, it looks like me coming home from my day job to go through new submissions and working toward finding the right first books. Up until now, I’ve spent a lot of my Tu Publishing time on business tasks like finalizing our written business plan (so that we can approach a bank for a small business loan), working on the website, talking to people online about multicultural books (this is a marketing task, letting authors know that we’re open for submissions and letting readers know to look for the books we’re working to publish), and organizing our financial plans. My time as an editor for Tu is just in the beginning stages, since we just opened for submissions a few days ago.
However, when we’re in full swing, it’ll look more like a regular editor’s day, though I’ll continue with many of the business tasks above as well as to manage interns (which I’ll be posting job listings for soon), work on contracts once we’re ready to acquire the books we’ve chosen, and perform some art and marketing tasks as well. Right now, it’s me and a handful of talented, experienced friends who have offered their time to help us get started, as well as future interns who will help with reading submissions and assist the art and marketing departments. So I’ll be wearing many hats at first!
At my last in-house editorial position, my day consisted of as many meetings to discuss marketing and artwork as it did time at the desk reading and commenting on manuscripts, so my role as editorial director at Tu won’t be much different, actually. (It’ll definitely be more streamlined—fewer meetings!) But when I have the editorial hat on, the work involves a lot of reading and asking questions. For more details on this process, see my breakdown of the stages of editing above.
Thanks so much for the interview! I appreciate you featuring us.
Stacy, thank you for your time and for the invaluable insight you gave us. I look forward to reading Tu Publishing’s books!