It is a privilege for the AWN! Committee to welcome Jennifer Geist, Publisher, Pen & Publish (and its imprints: Brick Mantel Books, Open Books Press, and Transformation Media Books), back to our conference in 2017! Jennifer will bring a wealth of experience to AWN!, enabling her to address attendees from almost any aspect of the writing industry.
Penny: The AWN! committee was fortunate to have had you as a faculty member in the past. What makes you look forward to returning to AWN!?
Jennifer: I’ve been very impressed with how much AWN! has grown in just a few short years! I missed the very first AWN! , but each successive conference has improved upon the last, and it looks like 2017 is no different. I really enjoyed being on the Slush Pile Panel last year and heard that it was very helpful to attendees, so I’m looking forward to that again, as well as hearing from all the great workshop presenters.
Penny: Brick Mantel’s mission regarding poetry is that it be thought-provoking. Can this happen along a spectrum ranging from whimsical to profound, or can whimsy be embedded in the profound, and vice versa?
Jennifer: Poetry is a unique medium in that it is so compact—much more so than a novel, and even a short story—that it can be playful and profound at the same time, sometimes within the same word. I really appreciate poetry that changes meaning with each reading, where I notice a play on words or a deeper meaning I had missed on my first—or third—read-through.
Penny: Where did you grow up, and how did that environment affect your passion for literary work? Or, did someplace else influence you more?
Jennifer: I grew up south of St. Louis in Imperial, Missouri and spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm. I was the only child for seven years, and the oldest out of my close relatives, which meant I had to find something to occupy my time. I learned to read from a young age and have devoured books ever since. On rainy days when I’d run out of my own books or library books, I’d raid my mom’s bookshelves filled with Stephen King and Dean Koontz—anything was fair game.
In school, I had a few teachers who really encouraged me to pursue my love of reading and writing by helping me find new books to read and even submitting my work for anthologies. Up until my sophomore year of college, I thought I wanted to be a writer. Until, that is, I took classes on small press publishing and editing and realized how much more I enjoyed being on the other side.
Penny: Explain the ideal balance between reality and fiction.
Jennifer: I think all good fiction has a dose of reality. Fiction only works if it’s relatable, either due to characters you love (or love to hate) or the plot (which usually falls into a “man vs.” category). Even fantasy is based in reality in some way, usually the element of human nature.
Penny: Do you ever read a book just for fun anymore?
Jennifer: Not often! We are really inundated with submissions right now so I put most of my reading efforts toward those, after our first readers have shared their thoughts. If I have any long car rides planned, I’ll get an audiobook, so I get a bit of “fun” reading in that way. I also sometimes just take a break from submissions and devour a book off my TBR pile, which is growing at an alarming rate.
Penny: The Pen & Publish mission emphasizes its objective to publish books that “make a difference.” Give one example of a book that made an especially significant difference.
Jennifer: I’d like to think all of our school anthology books have made a significant difference—maybe not on a global scale, but to the students whose work they contain. Giving students an outlet to express themselves and see their words—and the words of their peers—in print really helps foster a new generation of readers and writers. I remember having a poem published in a student anthology in elementary school and it really solidified my desire to work with books. I hope that our work does the same for other students.
Penny: Transformation Media Books publishes books that “nourish the mind, body, and spirit.” Of those three, which is trending these days?
Jennifer: I’d say there’s a renewed interest in books in health-related categories. For example, we recently published books on postpartum exercise and saving money at the dentist. There’s also a lot of growth in the spirituality and self-help categories of nonfiction.
Penny: I would guess that many authors from this imprint (Transformation Media Books) have a strong desire to help others? Am I right?
Jennifer: Yes, many of our Transformation Media Books authors come to us with the desire to get their story out into the world—that their story will help others spiritually, or their book will improve people’s physical or mental health. Not only do we want to help people, we want to pair with authors who truly believe their books will help people. I think that’s an important step for authors to make, no matter their genre: if an author doesn’t believe in his or her book, then it’s going to have trouble selling. The author won’t want to market it, they won’t want to go to events, and they won’t seem genuine if they make attempts to sell the book to others.
Penny: How difficult is it to compete with more established and/or larger academic presses?
Jennifer: A small press certainly comes with challenges, such as having a small staff (I complete most of the book editing, layout, and cover design myself) and having less time or money to invest in marketing. We pair with authors who are ready to build or grow their own platform in order to help sell their book to a wider audience. But we also have more flexibility than a larger press—it’s easier for us to take a chance on a debut author and to give them personalized assistance throughout the book and marketing process. We also stick with our books for longer—while marketing efforts of the Big 5 (especially for newer authors) last maybe six months after publication, we continue to help schedule reviews, interviews, and appearances for years after.
Penny: Do writers whose work you have rejected ever go back and put your suggestions into practice, coming back with publishable work?
Jennifer: I can think of one novel in particular that captured my attention but needed some developmental work to really make it shine and live up to its full potential. If you ever receive a rejection from a press or agent that says, “This was wonderful, but we felt that ____ needed ____,” or “Not this, but something else,” then edit and resubmit! Agents and editors are so busy that they are (generally) not going to waste time on telling you what to improve unless they see promise in the book and want another crack at it.
Penny: Where do you see yourself in twenty years?
Jennifer: Independent publishing is on the upswing, and I certainly hope that continues. By then, if we can hire the staff for it, I would like to focus on the editing and layout side of the publishing puzzle, with another person or two to handle cover design, web design, and marketing. Ideally we’d have an extra person or two for acquisitions as well so that I could spend less time on reading submissions, especially those that aren’t a good match. I would appreciate being able to take off a few hats.