The idea for Rat City Publishing—a publishing company that would publish only mysteries set in Seattle–surfaced many years ago but I didn’t jump on it right away. After all, I was already engaged in many activities with high satisfaction and low pay (i.e., writing and teaching), and I didn’t really need another one. I also knew from my time working in a bookstore that publishing companies and bookstores are low profit margin businesses, always on the edge.
But I love making books—it’s probably the only thing I like as much as writing them–and I had years of experience: creating comb-bound photocopied books as gifts at Christmas, creating PDF packets on seasonal holidays and selling them on the web, using print-on-demand technology to publish my book Slow Time, even creating an anthology for my writing group.
In the end, what tipped me over the edge was the enthusiasm of my first author, Rachel Bukey, whose novel I knew well since she had read it out loud to our writing group while she was working on it. (I also know that Rachel has an even better second novel which made it to the quarter finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest.) What I didn’t expect was how much I had to learn. Publishing a book for someone else is very different from publishing a book for yourself.
Contract: Since Rachel works as a legal assistant, I thought she would have look over any contract I proposed with an expert eye. But using the 20-page contract that Curt and I signed with Kensington for our humorous Chihuahua mysteries as a template seemed absurd. I was not planning to sell book club rights or international rights. But it’s hard to know what will happen: a contract is designed to cover unforeseen contingencies. In the end, I adapted a contract Curt Colbert had signed with a much smaller local publisher.
Cover Design: Rachel has a friend Aaron Weholt who’s a talented graphic designer but he had never done a book cover. At first, we made the typical amateur mistake: trying to design a cover that contained the story elements of the book (in this case, since it opens with a suicide(?) off the Aurora Bridge, we had the bridge, a woman on the bridge and Mount Rainier in the background). I knew the cover didn’t look right but I didn’t know how to fix it. So I downloaded examples of covers from current best-selling mysteries. It was obvious, immediately, that the cover has to evoke a mood but it doesn’t have to tell a story. So we backed off on some of the smaller elements and made the title bigger. In the end we were tweaking things like the font, eliminating shadows from the lettering, and changing the subtitle from all caps to small caps. Aaron was patient throughout this learning process, and he even expressed an interest in designing more book covers.
ISBN: Once the cover was close to done, I went ahead and secured the ISBN via Bowker where I had already set up an account for Rat City Publishing. For me that was the moment the book was born: when I had the ISBN, the book’s unique identifier. I know for Rachel, that moment came when she held the first print copy in her hands. But that’s jumping ahead.
Copy Editing: I thought I was qualified to edit the book since I work as an editor (primarily developmental and line editing). I also knew the manuscript was in good shape. But what I didn’t know was that a lot of those elegant phrases which Rachel tossed around at the end of sentences were held together with little strings of commas. After dealing with hundreds of them, I began to doubt myself as an editor. Was I making things worse or better? So I did what I should have done in the first place. I hired a copy editor: Erin Doherty. Not only did she fix all the commas, she caught all sorts of other things I hadn’t even noticed, including inconsistencies in spelling and formatting, redundancies like “7 am in the morning,” and repetitious verbs and opening phrases. I would never publish another book without hiring a copy editor.
Page Design: I tackled the internal page design myself, with some help from Aaron Shepard, an expert self-publisher who self-published a book on using Word to design Perfect Pages. I didn’t have a sophisticated publication program to use so I had to rely on Word but I was able to make it do what I wanted, for the most part. Aaron’s tip about how to prevent Word from hyphenating personal names didn’t work—I don’t know why—which meant I had to go through the manuscript and fix every instance where a proper name was hyphenated at the end of a line, which meant sometimes editing the text. I didn’t bother to align the bottom lines across the pages. It didn’t bother me but it did bother Karen Allman, bookseller extraordinaire at Elliott Bay Book Company, when I showed her the first proof copy. I figured if it bugged a bookseller, it might bug other booksellers and distributors, so I went back and aligned all the bottom pages which meant creating widows and orphans. This might bug other people. The goal is a seamless reading experience, where the reader will be able to sink into the story.
Submitting the Files: Once we had the final page count for the book (after adding Acknowledgments, a Dedication and an About the Author page), we could tell our graphic designer the width of the spine and Aaron was able to finish the book cover design. Now it was time to submit the files to CreateSpace. The PDF for the book cover loaded perfectly but my page design still wasn’t perfect. The little bars on the letter “f” intruded on the right-hand margin in a way that got flagged. Luckily fixing this problem did not change the way lines aligned on the page or I would have had to go back and look at each line again. I chose Amazon’s print-on-demand company because of its seamless interface with the Amazon selling platform as I expect most of the books to be sold online but I also intend to forge a relationship with our local distributor, Partners West, so that my favorite Seattle bookstores can order it directly from them at the proper discount.
Now that the book is being prepared, we’ve moved into marketing mode. Rachel is busy working with Kelsye Nelson (of Writer.ly) on a marketing plan, including upgrading her website (www.rachelbukey.com) and tweeting. I’m working on a contact sheet to present to Partners West and creating a website for Rat City Publishing. The book launch will be at Elliott Bay Book Company in August (I’ll keep you informed as soon as its confirmed) and there will be a signing also with our friends at Seattle Mystery Book Shop.
Once Rachel’s book is successfully launched, I’m planning to re-publish Curt Colbert’s trilogy of noir mysteries. The title of his first novel, Rat City, which was a nominee for the Edgar for Best First Novel, , inspired the name of my publishing company.