e’re just a month into a new year, and I’m doing my best to stick to my resolutions! Looking at you, homemade peanut butter cup truffles. I cannot—will not!—let you continue to tempt me with your siren song, where I’m polishing off a dozen every weekend because you’re just a little ball, after all, and the recipe is so easy and really, what’s the harm?
One of my New Year’s resolutions from 2022 is on repeat for 2023: Find a publisher for my memoir manuscript. While I continue querying agents, I’m also researching other routes to publication to possibly add to my outreach this year. I’m therefore excited to welcome our next guest, Publisher of She Writes Press, Brooke Warner!
First, an overview on the press:
As the first hybrid publisher recipient of the 2019 Independent Publisher of the Year, She Writes Press (SWP) is unique in the world of publishing because it is neither traditional publishing, nor self-publishing. As an independent publisher, SWP bills itself as a “third way” for authors, and proudly occupies the gray zone, a much-needed alternative in a rapidly changing publishing landscape.
Unlike self-publishing platforms that publish whatever comes through regardless of quality, SWP is a curated press that works with authors to ensure that their books will be well-received in the marketplace. Unlike traditional publishing houses, which buy the majority stake in a book but often don’t deliver when it comes to providing the editorial and marketing help authors need, SWP provides an experienced editorial and production team, while allowing authors to retain full ownership of their project and earnings.
WOW: Welcome, Brooke! She Writes Press (SWP) has been called hybrid publishing, partnership publishing, and co-publishing. However, the term that resonates best with me is what the SWP website calls a “third way” for writers to get published. I love the promise of that phrase because it tells us—specifically, women writers, which is the community SWP focuses on—that there is another door that may open, aside from the either/or, black or white scenario of traditional versus self-publishing routes.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last year as I query agents and dream of that traditional path to publishing, while at the same time recognizing how hard and possibly unattainable this may be to pull off. I’m looking forward to discussing this third way with you!
Brooke: Thank you so much. I’m excited, too, and always love to be in conversation with WOW!
WOW: Your mission at SWP is to publish projects based on the merits of the writing alone, and not on brand or celebrity or platform reach and numbers. So refreshing to hear! You touch on this mission in this short video clip, which also helps our readers put a face to your name. [smile]
This gives us a great snapshot on SWP, but is there anything new you would add since this video came out? Let’s say you ran into me in a hotel elevator and we discovered that we attended the same writer’s conference across the street. I ask you to press the button to the fourth floor, then mention that I’ve written a memoir manuscript that I’m querying. You have 20 seconds before I leave the elevator. How might you convince me to consider SWP as a potential publisher? Can you add a bit more color to the benefits listed here?
Brooke: Ha. So much pressure! And thanks for that video, because it’s five years old but I could have said all that yesterday and all of it is still true. I’ll add that we have continued to prove ourselves as the gold standard for this third-way publishing and I’m very proud of that. We bring a lot of legitimacy to our authors, because of our proven track record, the fact that authors qualify to submit their books to be reviewed traditionally, because our books are so award-winning. If you want to publish your memoir with SWP, you’ll be in the good company of other memoirists, too. We are so strong in memoir and fiction, and we publish a lot of other genres as well. I would add that our capacity to get you widely distributed and into brick-and-mortar stores and libraries is a major asset. We really are at the height of our game, and going strong after ten years.
WOW: Marketing and publicity are two of the most challenging aspects on the path to publication, and something all authors need help nailing down. That’s one of the big draws to landing a traditional publishing contract; their publicity contacts. How does SWP help its women authors publicize their books to drive awareness and sales? Does SWP help authors secure mainstream bylines? How about written or podcast interviews?
Brooke: This falls to the publicist, and we have strong relationships with a lot of publicists but the authors hire the publicists separate from our publishing agreement with them. That said, there is a lot we do to support our books behind the scenes. We have relationships with trade reviews and we opt into a lot of programs through our distributor. Publicity is important, but it doesn’t really matter how great your publicity is if you don’t have a strong sales force in your corner. They’re intertwined. Our authors promote their work by securing marketing and publicity, typically with the support of a marketing expert or publicist, and then we either push that or pull that or supplement that by the power of our reputation, the programs and opportunities we participate in, and offers we put forward to our authors around advertising, and also through the feet-on-the-ground work of our sales force to pitch and sell our titles. To your specific question about bylines and interviews, authors or their publicists secure those, but I do think being part of She Writes Press lends legitimacy to our authors and makes it more likely that various outlets will say yes to their participation.
WOW: Does SWP help author clients find appropriate contests to which they can submit their books?
Brooke: We curate a list of contests and awards that we make available to our authors in the Author Handbook that I update once, sometimes twice, every single year. We add to the list, or take contests off, as needed. Our authors are keen on awards and we are one of the most award-winning presses during awards season—and I have to give credit to the authors here. Those are their wins, and I love how ambitious they are.
WOW: You mentioned in your video clip that in its first year, SWP published 30 authors and that within a few years that number had soared to more than 270. What would you say drove this impressive growth in attracting authors to submit manuscripts? And, what does your total client number stand at, today?
Brooke: Now we’ve published well over 850 authors and have nearly 1,000 signed, so that means 150 or so in the pipeline. What drove the growth was a mosaic of things—our reputation, the fact that we’re a women’s press. Women authors love the idea of publishing their work on a women’s press, and they love the community. I know that the community of She Writes Press authors is a huge draw because the authors tell me all the time. Every season of authors goes through the process together as a cohort and some amazing friendships and alliances have been created that way. Our growth is also due to our professionalism and the fact that we have traditional distribution and a proven track record on sales, on awards, on well-published books. We’re ten-plus years in, and I’m coming on twenty-three years in the publishing industry. Our Art Director, Julie Metz, has been doing this for more than three decades. We’re veterans in traditional publishing and we bring all that expertise to what we do at She Writes Press. I think also we’re known for our transparency. Authors may not always be completely dazzled by their sales results, but we give a lot of information. I make myself available to authors. I tell them the truth. I’m not trying to sell false promises. We’re all about the reality—the amazing parts and the challenges—of getting published. Our authors go into publishing with us with their eyes wide open, and as such it’s an empowering experience, and there really shouldn’t be any surprises for those who are taking it all in.
WOW: I admire your point about leading with reality. Many writers, especially first-time authors, need a clear-eyed guide—a partner, really—beside them during this time that will surely be full of many questions and learnings. Hearing about SWP’s deep bench of experience is impressive! By the way, how many authors does SWP expect to publish in 2023?
Brooke: We’re on track to publish 115 authors this year.
WOW: Can you tell us more about the curation process? How far does the SWP vetting staff generally have to read to know whether or not a submitted manuscript is a fit? What generally factors into a “yes”?
Brooke: We tightened up our vetting process about two years ago to create a two-tiered process for the very purpose of being more rigorous. So it goes through two stages—an outside read and an internal read by the team. I honestly think we know within ten pages whether it’s a fit. When you do this for a living and you read as much as we do, you know whether you’re hooked by then. You know whether the book is well written. In addition to the writing, we also ask for the summaries of the entire book because we want to see how well the story holds up—the plot, the arc, the structure. This has been a game-changer because we can sometimes get really well-written pages but then there are major holes that are evident in the summaries. When this is the case, we’ll invite the author to resubmit the summaries. So we have a lot of interaction with the authors and we’re in conversation with would-be authors about the editorial journeys that might need to happen when a book is good conceptually but needs developmental work. We’re very hands-on in our efforts to get every book we accept to the absolute best it can be. And then increasingly every year we are green-lighting fewer and fewer submissions too.
“Our growth is due to our professionalism and the fact that we have traditional distribution and a proven track record on sales, on awards, on well-published books. We’re ten-plus years in, and I’m coming on twenty-three years in the publishing industry. We’re veterans in traditional publishing and we bring all that expertise to what we do at She Writes Press.”
WOW: On average, how many queries does SWP receive in a year?
Brooke: It’s hard to keep up and it can fluctuate month over month, but I think on average we’re at about 25-40 submissions a month. I know that’s kind of a big range, but some months seem to be much more popular for submitting than others.
WOW: How involved are authors in the final title choice and cover design for their books?
Brooke: Ah, good question. This is probably the most important and sometimes hardest but also more rewarding part of the collaboration with authors. It’s one of the many things that sets us apart from other third-way publishers, too, because we care—a lot—about our covers and our titles. Everything we do is about supporting our authors to have a fair shot alongside their traditionally published counterparts, so we care a lot about presentation, package, positioning. We do want to be collaborative, and we work with authors by asking them to fill out a cover memo so we can get a sense of what they want. But at the end of the day, we do control this process, and we will veto authors’ desires for certain images—artistic or photographic. We have to approve the titles, and if they’re not right, we retitle the books. I would say we retitle at least 50% of the books on a given season.
WOW: Does SWP prefer to sign writers for multiple books, or are one-book deals acceptable?
Brooke: We are always just thinking about the first book. We love it if and when authors have multiple books, and we’re always pleased to have return authors. Some authors make it clear up front that they have a series, but they don’t always know until after the book is finished. Or sometimes authors don’t know how many books there will be in their series. We have signed two-book deals before, but the vast majority are single-book deals and I don’t have my eyes on trying to cultivate multiple-book deals. We’re focused on what’s coming up next!
WOW: I love the straightforward presentation on this page. Numbers two and four under the “7 Reasons” list will especially interest authors, so can you go into more detail around each? Which outlets are included under national accounts? Places like Amazon, Target, and the like? In addition to working with Barnes & Noble, does SWP also reach out to an author’s local bookstores, or is that something each author must drive?
And with royalties, can you provide a dollar amount of what you’ve seen for an “average” return on the $9,500 upfront investment? I realize this is difficult to estimate, as each project differs, but more clarification will be helpful for readers who may be weighing an investment of this type.
Brooke: Distribution is such a massive topic. I could speak about it for hours, literally. And I wrote a whole chapter in my book, Green-Light Your Book, about distribution. I’ll give the short version here to say that distribution is essential to any author who wants to be in brick-and-mortar stores and in libraries. It’s also our distribution that allows our books to be traditionally reviewed by outlets like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. We have reach and access due to our sales team and our distribution, and we make it seamless for stores to work with us to get and to return books.
As for royalties, it’s important to us that authors get royalties that are commensurate with their investment, and so that’s the lion’s share and it’s the way that they’ll chip away at their investment. We do keep 40% of net proceeds on print and 30% on ebooks, but the vast majority of that goes back to our distributor for their good work of representing us and preselling our books into the marketplace. National accounts are all the ones you mentioned—Amazon, B&N, Books-a-Million, Target, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, etc.
We or the publicists will reach out to local bookstores for events, but not just to carry our books. How book distribution works is sort of mysterious because it has to do with the buyers’ habits and what they want to carry in their stores. Our books are picked up and carried into so many stores, countless, across the country, but we of course don’t have all of our books available in every store. Buyers buy from catalogs, based on reviews they see, and also based on the pitches they get from our reps. But they also buy because local authors come into the store and introduce themselves. We try to do all the things and encourage our authors to be proactive. That said, if we have an author who lives in the Bay Area with no ties to Boston, it’s unlikely that that author will see a lot of pick-up of their book in the Boston area unless there’s some sort of national publicity. Book sales usually start local, or with connections authors have to other areas, then gain momentum with more publicity hits and word-of-mouth recommendations. Most books gain a lot of traction over time, and this is extra true for debut authors.
Average ROI is a tough question to answer. I would say that something like 30-40% of authors earn back their investments in the publishing package. And if you add on top of that what authors spend for publicity and travel and websites and building an author presence, well that number goes down. Being a new author does require a lot of upfront investment. I think authors who are earning real money are those who’ve published more than one book, or those authors who stay at their marketing and publicity well past the one-year mark on their book being out in the world. You have to be pretty tireless, and some authors don’t have the wherewithal to keep at it in that way, or even to write another book. I am really proud of the successes of our authors and the fact that so many of them earn good money. But I also tell people when I’m onboarding them that if they have to earn out, if that’s one of the absolute necessities of publishing with us, that there’s no guarantee that will happen, and it’s unlikely given all the additional costs involved. For most first-time authors, this way of publishing is not about earning money, but for those authors investing in the long game, it certainly can be. I’ve seen some of our authors get giant checks. To me that’s the icing on the cake since many of our authors publish for reasons in addition and/or beyond the single goal of making a profit.
WOW: That’s such an important point you raise, Brooke. For many authors, the goal they have in mind is first and foremost to usher their story into the world at last—not necessarily to “make bank.” I appreciate that SWP offers a viable third way for women authors to realize their publication dreams, should their manuscripts be chosen through SWP’s vetting process. And so, what tips would you share with writers who are preparing to send a manuscript your way, knowing that your vetting process is competitive?
Brooke: This would be advice I’d share with all authors sending to any editors or agents. Make sure it’s clean! Get your work edited. Make sure you know it’s ready to go. Get an editorial assessment. We see a lot of manuscripts that aren’t ready—and I know it’s difficult because the industry can be fairly subjective. I also know there are a lot of people out there who do assessments and reads and they tell authors what they want to hear. It can be hard to find the right person. But they’re out there—and writers need to trust their guts that the work is as good as it can be. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of revision to get a manuscript to the place where it’s final, where you’re ready to send it into the world. And that’s not done alone, it’s done with the support of professionals.
“Everything we do is about supporting our authors to have a fair shot alongside their traditionally published counterparts, so we care a lot about presentation, package, positioning.”
WOW: The SWP website is chock-full of information that walks potential clients through the process, and is worth a careful look. We appreciate you shedding additional light on the many moving parts, Brooke.
Let’s turn now to some of your other ventures and accomplishments—because there are many! You offer coaching and editing services, you’re a TEDx speaker, a weekly podcaster, a published author, and a columnist for Publishers Weekly. What can writers expect when working with you?
Brooke: It’s true that I have a lot going on, and I think for that reason, and because it’s my personality, I do like to get down to business with authors. I’m not particularly chatty when I connect with authors, though I can be if we’re in a social setting, like a retreat. I am direct, transparent, honest about expectations and outcome. I’m invested in authors understanding publishing because I know they’ll be more successful if they get the ins and outs of this often-complicated industry. I see myself as a champion of authors and I truly want the best experience for all my authors. I also am not one to dwell on hypotheticals, my authors will tell me that. Authors can do a lot of hand-wringing about things that might never happen, and I don’t engage in that kind of thing, though I will always give a needed pep talk. I’ve worked with authors for so long and I know all their anxieties, so I try to strike a balance between being very compassionate and also reminding authors that this book is a business as much as it’s their baby. I want to validate authors but also work with them, especially during the publishing part, to engage more with their empowered self and to remind them that the experience will be what they make of it. I guess I’m part-therapist, part-cheerleader, part-drill sergeant!
WOW: “The experience will be what they make of it.” Love that. Your TEDx talk, meanwhile, had me out of my chair, exclaiming Yes! I loved your points about how traditional creative industries—publishing, film, music—often make “sweeping generalizations about what sells and what doesn’t ...” and that “there’s a perception in our culture that the only people who get to call themselves artists are those who have been ordained by the powers that be.”
Readers, if you want to feel energized and optimistic about your path to publishing success and how you hold the keys to green-lighting your own project, listen to Brooke’s TEDx talk: Green-Light Revolution: Your Creative Life on Your Terms. It must have been an amazing experience to stand on a TEDx stage and share your vision and learnings. How did this opportunity come to you, and how did you choose the most important points to focus on in only 18 short minutes?
Brooke: The journey to TEDx was the fulfillment of a dream. I set my sights on doing a talk and then drilled down on how to get there. I got the talk because the team in Traverse City, where I did my talk, is connected to the folks that run Spirituality & Health magazine, and I had a bit of a relationship with them. I still had to try out, though. They rejected my first idea, and so I went back to the drawing board. I hired the amazing Deborah Siegel, who co-founded SheWrites.com, to support me. I workshopped the heck out of the talk, and then I memorized it. I probably put 100+ hours into it, and it was worth it. I knew those lines inside and out, and I knew I had to because freezing up on stage was my absolute nightmare going into the experience. It was exhilarating, but honestly I had an experience that’s the closest I’ve come to an out-of-body one while delivering the talk. I felt like I was observing myself, like my mind and my body were separate. But I’d gotten training about how to be in my body, position myself, move my arms, so somehow my body was still moving. It was sort of like muscle memory. The best part was finishing and feeling like I did a good job.
And, you co-host a podcast with Grant Faulkner of NaNoWriMo called Write-minded. What inspired you and Grant to start this podcast? What do you most enjoy about it, and what content are you planning to showcase this upcoming year?
Brooke: The idea to start a podcast started like a lot of other things—just a way to get my thoughts into the world. And I love collaborating. Grant and I have been friends for a long time and we run in the same writing circles, and so I asked him to be my co-host. He was someone I could imagine having literary conversations with—and never getting bored. He’s been an amazing partner in that way because we’re in our fifth year and I love talking with him. We enjoy each other, we respect each other. I’m so grateful he said yes because our podcast has been a touchstone for me, especially through Covid, and I get exposed to a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise because of his choice in guest and in literature. I love that we get to inspire others while we inspire ourselves.
WOW: You also offer a six-month intensive workshop to help memoirists on their writing journeys. You co-lead the workshop with Linda Joy Myers, president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. What makes this intensive workshop special and valuable to memoirists?
Brooke: Thanks for asking about this. I love the work I get to do with memoirists, and I am so grateful for my collaboration with Linda Joy, which is coming on eleven years of teaching together. We teach a six-month class, and we also teach shorter courses in the spring and in the fall at MagicofMemoir.com. The intensive course is special because it’s a small group of students who go through a very supportive six months together. Linda Joy and I teach every class together. The students are assigned to one of us as their mentor and they get feedback on their submissions. I think students thrive because of the accountability, and Linda Joy and I truly love memoir. So it’s also an environment where we’re validating the students’ genre of choice and teaching them about the mechanics of writing memoir. In the shorter classes, we’ve often had guest teachers. We’ve been so blessed to have people like Kiese Laymon, Ashley C. Ford, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dani Shapiro, Carmen Maria Machado, Stephanie Foo, and others teach for us. This spring we’re doing a course on our own for the first time since before the pandemic, but we vary it up each time and that keeps things fresh for us and our students. Memoir is the genre of my heart, so these classes are a true joy, and they remind me always about the power of personal narrative—to heal, to change and save lives, to inspire, and to bear witness.
WOW: What an incredible list of past workshop teachers—wow! As we bring our interview to a close, I noticed that SWP’s calendar is filled already for all of 2023 and halfway through 2024. Not to rush time that already moves too fast, but what types of projects are you hoping to see cross your desk for the latter half of 2024?
Brooke: We are always about the writing. I feel grateful that I’m not in traditional publishing anymore, actually, because at traditional houses you always have to balance the list. There are a lot of projects you have to say no to as an acquiring editor because of the reasons I talk about in my TEDx talk—they’ve been done before, the market is saturated, the author doesn’t have a strong enough platform. We have the luxury of just taking the book for what it is—considering the content and whether it’s a good book on its merits and not with all those other factors. This is what I most love about our model, even if it sometimes means that we have a lot of books about the mother-daughter relationship, or leadership, or widows writing about the final years of their husbands’ lives. There are some recurring themes. But all of the books that are similar thematically are their own unique stories and the authors bring their unique strengths and takeaways to the projects. So I’m never hoping for something in particular. One of the places where I get to feel a lot of delight in my life is simply around the projects that come in and all the different kinds of stories. I’m not particularly moved if something is so unique or outside the box, though it’s nice when that happens. We really do get to consider each book for what it is and whether it’s a good fit and we want to publish it. And I still find that so refreshing after thirteen years in traditional publishing where I did not get to think this way!
My thanks to She Writes Press publisher, Brooke Warner, for an illuminating and exciting conversation! I’m feeling inspired and hopeful after a lackluster year of agent outreach and this gives me, personally, so much to think about. Are you also looking for a home for your manuscript? Why not send it to Brooke and her team, and find out if there’s a fit? Remember, they’re already signing contracts for the second half of 2024, so plan accordingly.
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary journals. https://annkkelly.com/.