Interview with Joan Schweighardt

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: GreyCore Press started with a single book and you’ve got about 13 or so now? Is there a limit to what you feel a one person show can do, or are you keen to keep growing?

Joan: When I first started GreyCore I spent days and days calling distributors to see if I could get someone to distribute the first two books I planned to publish. One man I spoke to, someone who is well respected in the industry, asked me point blank how much money I had and how much time I had to put into my startup company. When I told him that I was freelancing 30 hours a week and had just barely enough money for the production of the first two books, he told me, gently, that I would fail; He meant only to save me from impending disaster, I know, but in that moment I made a decision to find a way to beat the odds. I’ve been beating the odds—albeit by the skin of my teeth—ever since. I would love to grow, but that option has not been available to me YET; I am currently seeking a partner who can help GreyCore to get to the next level.

Magdalena: It has been quite a steep learning curve hasn’t it? What would you have done differently with hindsight?

Joan: I would have been wiser about the people I put my trust in. I had problems with the first two distributors I contracted with. Since the distributors collect the money from booksellers for sales of a publisher’s books and then take their cut and pass the rest onto the publisher, if they mess up, you have a big problem. Like anything else, it’s a real catch 22; if you don’t have a track record, you can’t get a good distributor, but if you don’t have a good distributor, you can’t enhance your track record. My first distributor was terrible. They didn’t actually go out of business, but they passed all their client publisher accounts onto another company, and the process took months and months. In the meantime, no one got any money. And then the new company changed the rules and charged for things the first company had said they would not charge for. In essence, they cooked the books. It was very frustrating and I was thrilled when I found a bigger distributor with a better reputation. I had all the GreyCore books (there were three by then) shipped to the new distributor and I published two new books with them. One, a fiction collection called DONE IN BY INNOCENT THINGS, was a Borders’ Original Voices selection and was included on a list of the year’s best collections at Writer’s Digest. The other, a novel called CONJURING MAUD, got great reviews and the author was interviewed in several literary magazines. So orders from bookstores were decent. But I never saw a single penny from the sales. The month GreyCore’s first check was due (most distributors pay three months after sales), I was told that the distributor’s bookkeeper had quit and that they were scrambling to clean up the mess she’d left behind. During the next two months the excuse was that they still hadn’t replaced her. The month after that I was told that they were concentrating all of their energy on getting ready for the BEA (the annual book expo) and that checks and statements would go out the following month for sure. And then one day in July of 2002, when I was in Florida visiting friends, I called my office to get messages, and I had a slew of them, all from the distributor’s other client publishers, all asking if I knew what was going on, because no one could get in touch with the distributor, by phone, fax or email. We all learned shortly thereafter that they had closed their doors, and ultimately they filed for bankruptcy, owning their client publishers lots and lots of money. It was quite a nightmare. I almost went out of business myself after that, because without receiving the money they owed me, I couldn’t pay the various bank loans that I’d taken out for production costs. But in the end, one of my authors, Paul Martin, who wrote the memoir ONE MAN’S LEG and who is an amazing world-class athlete who participates in Ironman triathlons and cycling championships and other sports events on only one leg (but with several prosthetic legs), talked me into staying the course.

Magdalena: Are the books you’ve published self-supporting?

Joan: They weren’t, for the reasons stated above. Now, collectively, they are.

Magdalena: In what ways does a small publisher differ, in operation, from a large one? Do you think that the differences are growing or shrinking?

Joan: When I think about how the big publishers operate, I lose heart and I want to turn in my cards and forget about publishing. I’m best off focusing on what I’m doing and not paying too much attention to what’s going on around me. I don’t have the financing or the clout that the big publishers have, obviously, so I have to work twice as hard to make up for that difference. This is one of the lessons I learned from Paul Martin: you don’t need two legs to win a race; you just have to run faster.

Magdalena: You’ve mentioned in an interview for Gothic Review that fewer people are reading fiction, and other publishers have concurred—fiction reading is on the decline. Why do you think that is?

Joan: I believe in the concept of collective consciousness. While we all act as individuals, on some level we are held together by something bigger than our individual consciousnesses. Collectively, we are more interested these days in harsh reality than in fiction which describes reality in more subtle terms. You can see evidence of this everywhere, especially on TV. We have Reality TV, where we can watch beautiful young people eat bugs and have emotional meltdowns; we have the Weather Channel, where, between commercials, we can watch peoples’ lives being totally destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes, and avalanches; we have hundreds of news programs where we can watch disaster footage as the disasters are actually happening. Don’t ask me why we are like this because I don’t know, but I can’t wait for the pendulum to swing the other way. One of my authors, Rocco Lo Bosco, believes that since the Industrial Revolution, we have slowly come to see ourselves and others as objects. Hence our ability to be so cruel to others… and to ourselves… these days. I think he may be right; we have lost our capacity for passion and compassion to some degree. We are all about money and success and power and control, and maybe we need to contemplate the possibility of disaster to feel the thrill that used to come with passion.

Magdalena: As a publisher, what is the most challenging issue that you have to contend with?

Joan: Everything about being a small publisher is challenging. Clearly, I love the challenge. It’s part of who I am.

Magdalena: Quite a number of small publishers have begun “collaborative” publishing, eg getting authors to pay for costs. What are your feelings about that.

Joan: People who write, especially those who write really well, want to be published. Anyone who thinks that a book that is not picked up by a publisher must not be worthwhile is dead wrong. There are lots and lots of great manuscripts that get passed on every day because they will be too hard to market. Who cares who pays for one of these books to get published, as long as it gets out there and that voice gets heard, even if only by a few. We haven’t gone that route here at GreyCore, but it is something I would consider if I really wanted to publish a book and couldn’t get the money together. On the other hand, I would never ever publish a book I didn’t believe in, no matter how much money the author could afford to spend on it. Life is too short to even read books you don’t like, let alone publish them.

Magdalena: As an author, do you struggle to find time, and perhaps inclination to write your own books?

Joan: Except for one book which was published (by Beagle Bay) in 2003, GUDRUN’S TAPESTRY, I haven’t finished anything since GreyCore began. The blocks of time in which I am able to write are too far apart. Moreover, I have to think differently to write, especially fiction, than the way I think when I publish. When I’m writing fiction, I get “lost” in thought, and my characters are always with me, trying out different solutions to the obstacles they want to overcome. When I am publishing, I am thinking nuts and bolts: What kind of cover is going to work for this book? What kind of PR campaign can I devise to set that book apart? But just this last month I promised myself that I would give myself Fridays for writing… so that I will have a regular schedule. I’ve started a memoir, and it feels really good to be working on something of my own again.

Magdalena: What do you think the future holds for publishing? E-books? POD stalls in bookshops? Are there any trends that particularly excite you? Upset you?

Joan: I don’t see E books or POD stalls as being a very big part of the future. I do think we will see a lot less hardcover and a lot more paperback, which I think is a very good thing. Paperbacks are much more affordable for small publishers, and it gives us a chance to be a bit more competitive with the big boys. They are also more affordable for consumers, and easier to carry around. But I think the biggest changes will be in what we read and not the format we read it in. Right now everyone seems to want to read political books, and religion books, and graphic novels. I don’t know what will come next, but it will be exciting to watch things unfold.

Magdalena: What are you really enthusiastic about at the moment. Tell me about the books coming out soon.

Joan: Well, by the time this is posted our newest book will be out, and that is called A MONTH OF SUNDAYS: SEARCHING FOR THE SPIRIT AND MY SISTER, by Julie Mars. This book is extraordinarily beautiful on many levels. It is a memoir about the seven months that Julie spent with her dying sister, and after her sister died, the 31 houses of worship that Julie visited in 31 weeks in her hope of finding an outlet for her grief and maybe getting some spiritual questions answered. The bookstores are all on board for this one; we are getting great feedback from the independents, and both Borders and Waldenbooks are doing national promotions. And, Barnes & Noble has chosen the book for their Discover Great New Writers program.

We also have a film rep now, and while he is going to represent all appropriate GreyCore books to the film world, he is especially interested in two of them: one is the first book Julie Mars wrote, a literary suspense novel called THE SECRET KEEPERS, and the other is a literary action/adventure called RED ZONE, by Alan McTeer. I know the chances of breaking into film are slim for any book, but I have a good feeling here… and think of all the books I could publish if that were to happen.