How Bar Nothing Books Came To Be
by Ruth Porter
In 2005 Bill and I decided to start a publishing company to publish my novel, The Simple Life. In those days, just before self-publishing exploded, you had two choices—you could wait for a “real” publisher to choose you, or you could hire a vanity press and have your book stigmatized by your choice. Neither of those options sounded very good to us. Instead, we decided to create our own publishing company to produce my book.
We bought a book called The Self-Publishing Manual and following its instructions to set Bar Nothing Books up as a regular publisher. We signed up with two distributors, Baker and Taylor, and Ingram. We hired Glenn Suokko to design The Simple Life and the Annex Press to produce it. We made 1000 hardbacks and 1000 paperbacks.
The Simple Life is a beautifully produced book. In several months we sold out the first printing of hardbacks and had to have another 1000 printed. Most of them sold through Baker & Taylor. We ended up almost breaking even on the costs of the book.
Four years later we produced Ordinary Magic the same way and the book was as beautiful and finished as The Simple Life had been. But things were different in publishing by then. We weren’t able to get a deal with Baker & Taylor, and the deal we had with Ingram was not nearly as good. We didn’t do as good a job with the marketing, and as a consequence, we didn’t sell as many books.
We have also produced a book of poetry, The Mermaid Is Drowning, by Ceres Porter, our granddaughter, and I helped my friend, Keekee Minor, with her memoir, A Minor Odyssey. Last June my new novel, Unexpected Grace, was printed. Like my other two novels and Father To Daughter, it was designed by Glenn Suokko, so it is as beautifully produced as they were. We haven’t really started to market it yet.
But we are still here, and we are still committed to making books that are as important and as beautiful as we can make them.
Independent Publishing, An Essay
by Bill Porter
Who knew that one of the best-read works of fiction in the English language was, in the vulgar vernacular, “self-published?” That work would be A Christmas Carol, the timeless story by Charles Dickens that the famous writer published out of his own pocket because he didn’t like the way his professional publisher was treating him.
So, then, why should the self-published label carry with it a stench that automatically turns up the noses of those who grace the proud Publishing World? The reason, as in so many of our prejudices, is that those who inhabit that world make their living—often a very comfortable one—off the backs of the very same “selfs” who are too intimidated to publish their own work. Those who work in publishing unlike most of those who work as writers, often inhabit a world of rarified fame and fortune.
Then, too, there is the unstated obvious, fear of success among those who stand to lose if writers publish their own work. Though still in its nascent stages, independent publishing has the potential to be financially rewarding and professionally acceptable, so ultimately it poses a challenge to the status quo of the publishing establishment.
Not many entrepreneurs, after inventing something of value, will part with their creation for a small fraction of its sales price. Yet writers of books consider themselves lucky if they receive more than 10 percent of the price of their product. Moreover, when a brand-name publisher does deign to “buy” a writer’s work, the contract often ties up the hapless scribe not only for the finished piece, but also for his or her future works, and as likely as not, the publisher commands total control over the fate of the yet-unborn book.
Consider control of the sort, say, a series of top-line publishers exercised over the works of Raymond Carver. In Carver’s case, the driver of the publishing rig reined in the writer so tightly that he became a “minimalist,” a term that Carver himself later rejected, and a concept that his wife believed kept the reading public from knowing the real brilliance of the author. So, why not simply publish the original manuscript, as Carver’s widow sought to do?
Because, publisher Knopf harrumphed, the Carver book is “the product of a collaboration between author and publisher,” and therefore Carver’s widow has no right to publish the original manuscript as a different book.
It is exactly this arrogance-bred concept—that a book is a collaboration between writer and publisher—that leads the literary establishment to denigrate self publishing. Surely, the publishing giants say, no respectable writer would dare to release a book without collaborating with the professionals. In our opinion, no respectable writer would cede the rights to his book without maintaining some modicum of control.
But for the publishing giants, collaboration is in reality a one-way street and they own the street, allowing access only to those they deem worthy. This is a system that works well for the gatekeepers, but not so well for lone travelers, and often not so well for readers. Witness the fate of John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself before his mother salvaged his wonderful Confederacy of Dunces from the publishers’ slush pile and made it available to the rest of us.
Now, a quarter-century later, the publishing titans are frightened by the threat of the worldwide web, and are taking to the barricades with a new round of self-promotion. Early in 2010, writing in the New York Times, Jonathan Galassi, one of the publishing world’s corporate elite, set out to remind e-book distributors of the invaluable role played by publishers. A publisher, he wrote, is essential because he “selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.” Indeed, he concluded, a book is “given its definitive form by a publisher.”
At Bar Nothing Books we beg to differ, and in service of our position we cite another famous editor, Max Perkins, who never missed an opportunity to assure writers that they, not the publisher, provided the definitive form of their books. “Don’t ever defer to my judgment,” he wrote to Scott Fitzgerald in 1921, and feeling even more strongly about that issue 15 years later, he wrote to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “…a book must be done according to the writer’s conception of it…That is, the publisher must not try to get a writer to fit the book to the conditions of the trade, etc. It must be the other way around.”
So, being the respectful granddaughter of Max Perkins that she is, when it came time for author Ruth King Porter to publish her own novel, she carried his mantra one step further and combined the jobs of writer and publisher. As the author of The Simple Life, Ordinary Magic and now Unexpected Grace, Ruth controlled every detail of the publishing process, right down to finding a great designer and then choosing between options
he suggested for the typeface and paper stock on which the books were printed.
With all of her books, Ruth hired independent contractors for each production function. She found a book designer whose work she admired and hired him to design the books. She found an independent printing company she liked and hired it. She hired a proofreader and contracted with a professional public relations team to handle marketing. Finally, she contracted with national book distributors, including the big-name companies, signed on with Amazon, and set up a direct-to-buyer system for selling and distributing Bar Nothing Books.
Having built the apparatus necessary to get Ruth’s books into the hands of readers, Bar Nothing Books now offers this same opportunity, at no charge, to other writers who have the interest, ability, time and determination to make their own books. They also, of course, will need financing. The all-in costs of this experimental publishing venture can vary widely, but without making any compromises Ruth and I expect our publishing ventures to earn their own keep, at least, and over time perhaps even turn a profit. After all, one of the enticements of this venture is that we will pocket 100 percent of the price paid for all future sales, rather than the 10-15 percent “royalty” an author could expect from a commercial publisher.
And, if they make the right decisions, these writer-publishers will get the gratification of having the real experts—that is, readers and critics—voice judgments like those offered about The Simple Life and Ordinary Magic.