We met Tiffany Jonas of Charleston several years ago, back when she and her partners were woodshedding ideas for a new and unusual book publishing company. It was going to emphasize literary speculative fiction, an interesting sub-sub-niche in the fiction universe, but what really stood out in those early discussions was the group's intense interest in publishing books that would be -- for lack of a better term -- things of beauty.
Their vision became Aio Publishing, and I recently got around to reading its first title: The Summer Isles, by Ian R. McLeod (I've since bought Aio's whole list). Not only did I love this short novel, but the book -- as an object -- got me thinking about quality all over again. Here was a book that was built for people who love to read, and yet it cost no more than a regular hard-cover from a major publishing house.
I asked Jonas to answer a string of e-mail questions for Xark because I'm fascinated by people who see things they want to do and then go right out and do them. There's something more, too: At a moment when the established publishing industry is experiencing all manner of soul-killing degradations, this transplanted Midwestern thirtysomething went out and built a publishing house out of little more than the shared passion of a group of people who just happen to love a particular kind of novel.
Here's that interview:
I've met computer geeks and sci-fi/fantasy geeks and gaming geeks, but you're a one-off special case: the bibliophile/publishing geek. Where does this come from in your personal history?
I’m not sure there’s a magic answer to that question, but I grew up an avid reader and the daughter of a former interior designer, so I guess an appreciation of beauty and design is in my genes. As for books, Barnes & Noble is my absolute favorite place—the atmosphere, the chai, the books, the design scheme, the “third place” philosophy, everything! Publishing books for bibliophiles is just a marriage between the two.
Completely setting the literary merits of Aio's catalog aside for a moment, your publishing house prints books that -- simply as physical objects -- stand alone as works of art. This was your intention from the first time we spoke, and if anything the book I bought from Aio exceeded my expectations.
Trends in the industry as a whole are toward the lowest common denominator when it comes to the materials that make up the books—to save even a few pennies. Witness that sort of cheap newsprint paper you find in many trade paperbacks today (not mass market paperbacks, where it has long been the norm), yet said trade paperbacks do not appear to be priced lower because of it. There’s the proliferation of glossy 9 x 6 paperback covers from small presses and self-publishers, because that’s generally the cheapest, most standard option.
I was fairly shocked to learn, during a tour of our printer’s facilities in Michigan last spring, that even large, fairly well-to-do publishers won’t pay a few cents more for recycled paper, though they’re probably in the best position to afford recycled paper and to make a positive impact on the environment. A few specialty/limited edition houses, meanwhile, are on the opposite side of the spectrum: exotic materials, hand-assembly, etc. for up to $200 per book.
We try to fall in the middle: design-conscious yet affordable. Right now our books cost no more than the typical book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble yet the quality of their production is in many cases much, much higher. Think of how Target has brought, in some cases, excellent design to middle America—that’s an inspiring example!
What goes into designing and printing an Aio book? And don't be afraid to get all technical and book-geek on us here:
To start out, we solicit input from the author. Is there anything they particularly want to see on the cover? Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. Ian wanted a particular image on the cover of The Summer Isles; Dana (Copithorne) proposed using her own artwork since she’s both an author and an artist.
If it’s a hardcover, we look next at possible physical materials for the interior and exterior: fabrics, foils, interior paper, etc. If it’s a trade paperback we do the same, but by its very nature it’s more about the graphics when it comes to the cover. We send off the specifications to our printer to obtain a quote, though they’ve usually come in before this step; we often confer with our printing representative about materials. In the meantime, we write the cover and introductory copy.
When it comes to designing the covers, it’s rather an artistic process, described probably like this: we open up Adobe Illustrator, think on what we’ve discussed with the author, put hand to mouse… “and then a miracle occurs”… and voila, a cover is born. This is not to say our covers are miraculous by any means; it’s just difficult to describe what goes through the mind while creating artwork or design! We typically work up a couple options and run them past the author.
The entire book is designed using the Adobe Creative Suite, and our materials are always environment- and animal-friendly; that does pose limits and sometimes we must be creative. For instance, for the limited edition of The Summer Isles that meant we could not use leather, yet for many limited-edition publishers, leather is the only option… so that did require a fair amount of brainstorming.
For people who have never held one of your books in their hands, please explain the differences that they'll notice between an Aio book and a standard mass-market hardcover first edition.
We use higher quality, environment- and animal-friendly materials that are a pleasure to hold as well as to see. We’re very much about all five senses as much as possible. For hardcovers we often use custom or unusual materials (e.g. the suede fabric for The Summer Isles, the custom-dyed, smooth material for Seven Touches of Music); for trade paperbacks, we use thicker, stiffer cover stock and in our last release, The Steam Magnate, we also used a rich, textured endleaf paper: very unusual for a paperback.
About that ribbon (sewn into the binding of The Summer Isles for use as a bookmark): Why don't all hardcover books come with one? It can't add that much to the unit cost of a mass-market book, can it?
Well, we hadn’t seen any paperbacks with endleaf paper before we did with The Steam Magnate, so why not?
Let's not give the wrong impression here: As much as you're focused on producing high-quality books, you're also deeply connected to the buzz from the business side of the publishing industry. Can you give us some kind of idea of what you read to stay current and how much reading, networking and travel is necessary to be part of that world?
Like most people, I’m sent much more material to read than I could ever get through. But I will say I regularly read Locus and OnSpec (magazines); maintain active memberships in the Speculative Literature Foundation, its Small Press Co-Op, and Broad Universe; skim email subscriptions like Publishers Lunch and Shelf Awareness; and participate on a sometimes daily basis in publishers forums such as Publish-L and the Yahoo Self-Publishing group (a misnomer since many small presses and other professionals are also members).
I also keep a library of books about the field that I’ve read more than once, and if possible I like to attend conventions—we attended WisCon last year. That last one can be fairly expensive, though, to the tune of up to a few thousand dollars for two of us to register, travel, pay for lodging, eat, and attend, so we only do it if the budget allows. I also sometimes correspond with different readers and authors, which is a personally rewarding way to stay in touch with the folks “on the ground,” though I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before.
The modern Do-It-Yourself publishing movement is generally seen as digital, bootstrap, on-the-cheap and homemade. You're almost the exact opposite of that trend, and yet you're definitely a DIY entrepreneur. What's the correlation?
Hmm… I haven’t thought of us quite like that before, but for the most part you’re right. I think we try to stay in our areas of strength, hire out what we can’t do well, and don’t skimp where it counts. A lot of DIYers don’t operate from strength; for instance, they don’t want to spend money so they think they’ll save by designing the cover themselves using Microsoft Word. Well, that shows (badly). Or they use the bare minimum when it comes to materials, just to save pennies per book. The ones who don’t skimp and choose professionals wisely… that also shows.
Let's talk about Ian R. MacLeod and The Summer Isles. MacLeod is clearly gifted and The Summer Isles won a World Fantasy Award as a novella. So why was this book just sitting there waiting for a start-up publisher like yourself to come along and make an offer? Was it the whole gay thing, or something less obvious?
I can only speculate—you’d find out more from Ian’s American agent, Susan Ann Protter in New York—but I surmise it was that the protagonist is both elderly and homosexual. That’s two strikes against him from the get-go, with a possible third strike of either being an academic or foreign (British). In this era of young, red-haired divorcees and hot GenX vampires, that’s very difficult. It requires a thoughtful reader with a fairly open mind.
For an educated but general-interest audience, please explain the distinctions (in your mind, anyway) between speculative fiction and the better-known genres of science fiction and fantasy.
Speculative fiction to me typically encompasses science fiction (known in the field as “SF”, never “sci-fi”), fantasy, and sometimes horror. It is different and separate from work written “on spec”, which to some professional writers in other genres means “without guarantee of acceptance or placement.” Aio specializes in literary speculative fiction: a cross-breeding between literary fiction and speculative fiction. Sometimes it’s a little more on the literary side, sometimes a bit more on the speculative fiction side, but that’s the line we try to straddle.
Because I'm not nearly as well-read as you are, you had to be pretty patient in one of our early conversations when it came to explaining what kind of speculative fiction you were interested in publishing. It's not really Harry Turtledove, is it?
I think I inadvertently answered this in my response above, but you’re right, it’s not Harry Turtledove. Literary speculative fiction is hard to come by. We hardly ever receive it in our submissions pile despite strenuous efforts to describe what we’re looking for. When we do find it, it’s time for celebration! I remember how genuinely delighted I was as I began reading Dana Copithorne’s submission, which later turned into The Steam Magnate.
One of the first things I look for is a distinctive authorial voice and style. We are definitely not of the “transparent prose” school of thought, which is that an author’s words should be as plain as possible so as not to detract from the plot. I view fiction as more of an organic creation: Aio wants the author’s voice to be an integral part of the whole.
Please talk a little bit about yourself as an editor and a publisher. What kind of relationship do you try to have with your authors?
A very friendly and accessible one! Both Zoran (Zivkovic) and I, and Dana and I, email each other back and forth several times a week, for instance. There is no topic off limits, no idea too wild to consider.
I try to continually support them and their work, whether that be entering them in contests, writing reference letters for MFA programs, or whatnot. While editing their work, I try to enhance their natural style, making sure it’s consistent across the length of a novel, etc. For Zoran it’s a lot of checking for Americanisms since we publish his book in the American market: changing British spellings to American, looking out for cultural items... things like cleanliness, for instance. What is clean in other countries can look like the breeding ground for lice and disease to an American; internationally I understand we are considered quite obsessive, in fact, when it comes to hygiene. To an American, taking three showers a day might just mean being clean; to someone from another country the idea might be quite beyond the pale.
The big houses spend lots of money promoting a relatively small number of titles, while others on their lists are basically left to sink or swim on their own. But you don't have much of a promotions budget at all, do you? How do you market the books you make?
That’s true. It takes many books on a house’s backlist before you can even think of covering your costs. Publishing is a cash-flow-poor business with punishing middleman fees, where the authors and the smaller houses come out on the very short end of the financial stick. None of us at Aio take a salary and we don’t expect to earn any wages for some years; that is just the nature of this industry and is why you see so many editors and small press publishers moonlighting at actual wage-paying jobs: they have to support their families and their publishing business.
At the same time, we do try to market our authors’ books—and not just when they first come out, either. We submit them for awards, send out multiple dozens of review copies to the review publications, market them at many conventions even if we cannot attend in person, run small ads in publications like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Locus, run trade ads to wholesalers, send mailings to libraries and bookstores, support them on our web site by keeping the latest news up on our site at all times and by featuring fairly extensive author pages, sending out e-mail newsletters to Aio’s own members, and relying on readers’ word-of-mouth recommendations.
What Aio books are you actively touting these days? What's in the pipeline?
For novels so far, Steps Through the Mist (one of Zoran’s mosaic novels) is scheduled to launch in September, with Impossible Encounters (also by Zoran) and the sequel to The Steam Magnate coming out in 2008. I continue to review submissions but as noted, submissions that are a fit with our particular niche are rare. We’re currently looking at possibly developing a short story line: very artistic, sort of a limited edition field for that particular market, but that is not a certainty yet. We’re still gathering feedback from readers.
What will Aio have to accomplish to survive?
Cultivate a growing group of customers/members who (a) grow to trust us and know that whatever we bring out will be worthy of their time and an automatic purchase, and (b) will purchase directly from us.
Item B is essential for us to survive. A lot of times publishers don’t want to encourage readers too strongly to purchase directly from them, because they don’t want to alienate the bookstores to whom they must also sell their books, but with the middleman discounts being so punishing and the returns problem (basically books are “sold” to bookstores on consignment, not for actual money unless they sell to the end consumer), many publishers have gone out of business.
If readers would purchase directly from the publisher, particularly smaller publishers, many more houses might survive. It’s also more money in terms of royalties for the author, since most royalties are now based not on the retail price of a book but on the amount the publisher receives for a book—which in most cases, going through bookstores and the like, can be less than 30% of the retail cost. For a small press that deals in smaller quantities, when you factor-in how much it costs to produce each book, much less to edit it, promote it, etc., that 30% (or less) is a pretty hurtful situation.
How do you define "success" for a project like Aio?
Hmm… many ways. Do we support our authors, do we delight our readers, does the business eventually support itself? Then, does it leave a legacy? Did our books open people’s minds, even in a small way? Did we bring enjoyment and beauty to a person’s life?
Now move ahead 50 years. You're a historian in 2057: give us a quick summary of what happened to the book-publishing industry in North America and Europe in the years 2005-2015.
While I try to stay up-to-date on the publishing industry on a daily basis, my main concern is Aio and Aio’s direction, which may not be the same as everyone else’s. Still, I can I say that in all likelihood, in the next 50 years society as a whole will be moving inexorably toward having everything on an electronic device of some sort as the older generations die out. Physical books still have some life in them, but eventually—over many decades—they’ll start becoming collectors items, a la Jean Luc Picard. I wish it were not so but that’s just how it’s looking. Let’s enjoy physical books while we have them!