Introducing Burnside Books

Featured, Letters from the Editor — By on March 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m proud to announce a new venture, the next step in a process that started right here at Burnside. It’s called Burnside Books, and it’s an exciting new publishing company. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and we’d be forever in your debt if you did.

I wanted to use this space to share the story about how Burnside Books came about, and talk a little bit about our philosophy.

How Burnside Books Began

Last year, I rescinded almost all of the day-to-day control of BurnsideWriters.com, and I’ve been utterly amazed at how much better it has become. The credit goes to Matt Miles, Kim Gottschild, and Sara Sterley. I’ve received emails and text messages in the last six months telling me how great Burnside has become, and I point to those three (and the host of outstanding writers who’ve given their time and talent) as the impetus for the site’s improvement.

Passing on the responsibility of running Burnside allowed me to focus on another project. Back when we started the site, I set some big goals. One of those goals was to fundamentally change Christian publishing. I viewed the world of Christian literature as mired in mediocrity, a world where art and craft were afterthoughts, where platforms mattered more than storytelling. Christianity has a long, proud literary tradition, but, as far as I can tell, that tradition died out along with C.S. Lewis.

Consider the best depictions of faith, God, and humanity from the last few decades. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Douglas Coupland’s Life After God. Now consider that none of them had a shot in hell at being released by a Christian publisher. I think Blue Like Jazz is one of the very few exceptions, yet Don Miller’s success only underscores the thirst those of us who identify as Christians (or Christ followers, or Jesus lovers, or whatever we call ourselves these days) have for regaining that once-proud literary relevance.

Anyone paying attention can see the publishing industry is in flux, and in no area is this more evident than Christian publishing. The time is ripe for new models, for experimentation. After years of talking with frustrated editors and disenchanted authors, I started thinking about what a new publishing model would look like.

Then, last fall, I met Caleb Seeling at a conference in San Diego. He told me he was a publisher, and since I’d been mulling over launching a company of my own, I asked him how his company worked. He told told me about Samizdat Group, his new model, and as he explained, it sounded familiar. My heart sank.

“Man. It sounds like we might be competitors,” I told him sadly when he finished.

“Well, maybe we’re not competitors,” he replied. “Maybe we’re partners.”

***

A few months later, a joint venture between Burnside Books and Samizdat Group was finalized. Burnside would bring an editorial department, a strong brand, and a network of writers to the table, and Samizdat Group would bring experience, structure, and their own substantial network.

There’s no better place to announce Burnside Books than the site where it all started. We are here. Our first book will be Thin Blue Smoke, a novel by Doug Worgul, and four to six books are planned for our first year. You can read more about our company here.

The Burnside Publishing Manifesto

At the conference where Caleb and I met, I gave a presentation on the state of Christian publishing, and where I thought it was going. Much of Burnside Books’ model is based on identifying the challenges facing Christian publishers, and how we will overcome those challenges. I could go on about this stuff for thousands of words, drawing parallels to the music industry, horror stories and anecdotes, and the mating habits of orangutans. It gets unwieldy, is what I’m saying. So here’s my attempt to distill everything the best I can. I call it The Burnside Publishing Manifesto.

Challenge #1: The eBook

We all know what MP3s did to the music industry, and it’s safe to say eReaders and file-sharing will have a similar effect on publishing. The impact won’t be exactly the same, but the rise of eBooks and internet reading will change consumer expectations and reading habits.

Solution: Burnside Books will embrace new technology while keeping a firm ground in traditional printing. Books will reflect changes in reading habits by providing more options to the reader (via print, electronic, and special editions) and incorporating more internet styling (hyperlinks, images, etc.). Book size and word counts won’t need to be padded to justify cover prices. In summary, everything is on the table. Flexibility and experimentation will be an important part of our model.

Challenge #2: More Books and the Need for New Gatekeepers

Proliferation of blogging and social media means more people than ever are writing. Advances in self-publishing allow nearly anyone to publish their own books, much the way anyone with a guitar and a laptop can record an album and release it to iTunes. On the one hand, more writers means better writers, and we believe widespread writing will result in a literary Golden Age. On the other, the relative ease of self-publishing has already resulted in a massive influx of crappy, unedited books. In the music industry, this influx was mitigated by independent record labels and music criticism sites like Pitchfork and the AV Club, which became the new gatekeepers and tastemakers. This isn’t likely in publishing, since literary criticism is far less accessible or widely read.

Solution: By publishing high-quality books and content outside the expectations of Christian publishing, Burnside Books will become synonymous with entertaining stories and innovative ideas. Readers will know our brand is a place unlike any other in the faith-based publishing paradigm. Our editorial staff will also be committed both to making individual books better and to cultivating writers for the long-term.

Challenge #3: The Decline of Christian Retail

The true gatekeepers of the Christian publishing machine were Christian bookstores. Christian retailers blacklisted books based on content deemed morally questionable (there are still prominent bookstore chains that will not carry Blue Like Jazz) and carried limited selections based on specific theological stances. Since these stores were vital to the success of Christian publishers, they were loathe to produce books the retailers would reject. The rise of internet shopping, eReaders, and massive retail outlets like Costco and Walmart is driving the brick and mortar Christian retail industry to extinction. Further, younger readers have changing expectations. They are more concerned with compelling narrative than they are with adult themes and swearing.

Solution: Because we won’t rely on the draconian restrictions and moralizing of large Christian retail outlets, Burnside Books will push the boundaries of content. Our authors will be able to explore more mature themes and ideas. Entertaining books which don’t directly correlate to Christian allegory or set theological boundaries (like, say, The Lord of the Rings or The Shack, which was famously turned down by every Christian publisher) will be welcomed proudly. To put it bluntly, our authors will be able to use the word “damn”, and we won’t give a shit if Lifeway bans us.

Challenge #4: A Cumbersome Production Machine

Currently, a finished manuscript takes at least 12 months (usually much longer) to make it to market. While there are some valid reasons for this delay (like marketing and quality control), advances in printing mean there is no reason why turnaround can’t happen quicker. With social media and the blogging world, a trending topic can now be exhausted in a matter of days.

Solution: Our agile, adaptive model will allow much quicker turnaround times. Potentially, a finished manuscript could be turned into a finished product and widely available to consumers within a week’s time. This type of fast-paced publishing won’t always be ideal, but the possibility of lightning fast production is a nice option.

Challenge #5: Keeping the Author Happy

Let’s say you buy a book for $15. The retailer takes a large cut. Then the distributor. The print cost gets covered. Then the publisher takes what’s left and divides that between the marketing team, the designers, the sales folks, the support staff, and management. Part of it pays rent for office space in Grand Rapids or Colorado Springs. The editorial staff gets paid for their work. And finally, an author gets royalties, and the leftovers aren’t terribly lucrative.

This structure wasn’t unfair. It’s just the way the business has always worked. Substantial advances helped mitigate this concern because most writers get saucer-eyed at any amount of money over $5,000.

Solution: This is not an equitable split anymore. The rise of social media has nearly eliminated the need for costly and ineffective marketing budgets. The rise of high quality print-on-demand has eliminated the need for expensive print runs. Hell, with eBooks, you don’t even need to print in the first place. Further, print-on-demand companies like Lightning Source distribute their books as widely and readily as Zondervan and Thomas Nelson.

Most of the authors we’ve talked to in the past few years are looking at these new options and realizing they can write a book, have more control over its content and design, and make more per copy — much more, in fact — by picking and choosing services. The point is, more and more authors are realizing they don’t need publishing companies, so publishing companies will need to reassess the value they bring to a book. Is it their editorial expertise? Is it their highly successful sales team? Is it the logo on the book spine?

Burnside Books will focus on the basics: We will bring high-quality editorial work and compelling graphic design to the table. We will give the author a voice in the way their book looks and feels. When it comes to marketing, we will pay publicists or marketing firms when we feel it is warranted. Because we are not dedicated to a machine, we can be flexible. Because our costs and risks are low, we can offer much higher royalty rates and creative freedom.

One thing I promised myself was I wouldn’t start a publishing company until I knew we could do a better job for our authors than anyone else.

Well, we’re ready.

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