SCBWI Bologna 2010 Publisher Interview: Stephen Roxburgh of namelos

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

As an expert in the publishing industry with more than thirty-five years of experience under your belt, having been the senior vice president and publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and later the founder and president of Front Street (later acquired by Boyds Mills Press), you undoubtedly have an enormous wealth of knowledge about publishing books.

Your latest venture, namelos, seems to be breaking new ground. Can you tell us about your goals for namelos and what you hope to accomplish in this pioneering new venture?

My goals for namelos were to eliminate the parts of the business that I most dislike and focus on the parts that I most love, editing and talking about books. namelos allows us to focus on content and marketing.

What transpired to ultimately lead to you in this innovative new direction?

The last year or two has revealed that our industry is in crisis. I’ve long championed small independent publishing, but now, more than ever, that is not viable. Even large corporate publishing is struggling. Therefore, I decided to come up with a new model.

On the namelos website you do a very thorough job of explaining the services that namelos provides to writers and illustrators, as well as how you work with agents and publishers. What kinds of stories particularly interest you, and what would you love to see submitted to you this year?

Joy Neaves and I adore fiction, particularly novels with a distinctive voice. I don’t care if they are commercial or literary, middle grade or young adult, in prose or verse, just as long as they tell a compelling story in a distinctive voice. Fortunately, my colleague, Karen Klockner, feels about nonfiction the way Joy and I feel about fiction.

Over the last several years you’ve delivered extraordinary talks about the state of ebooks and digital publishing. In your captivating and insightful paper “Word Buckets in Meatspace” posted on Scribd, you describe books as “word buckets” stating that a digital “word bucket” can be just as effective as a printed and bound “word bucket.” Why do you think some publishers, and especially some authors, seem to be so reticent to embrace ebooks?

For publishers, it’s a misguided attempt to protect a deteriorating business model.

For authors, it’s generational.

For those of us who have devoted our lives to books, printed books are objets d’art. They are the highest form of culture. They confer status. They define us. We revere them. No machine can ever have that cachet.

But the iconic value of codex form books is accidental. Strangely enough, youngsters are more focused on the essential value of content than the accidental value of form.

I’m sure some will wince at that assertion, but it’s true. We may not agree with kids’ assessment of the content, but that’s a different issue.

However, those of us who cling to our print books run the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker insisting that he can’t eat ice cream with anything other than his special World’s Fair spoon.

The commercial music industry has been transformed in recent years by a large transition from physical product to digital product. Many music companies erroneously believed they were in the business of selling plastic discs as opposed to intellectual property. Do you think the publishing industry has anything to learn from the lessons of the music industry?

There is a great deal to be learned from the music industry, especially about committing to an obsolete form, the value (or lack thereof) of DRM, the need for portability and aggressive pricing. Other aspects of the music industry model, e.g. performance, sale of ancillary products, etc., aren’t as useful.

The Kindle and the Sony eReader have been around for a while. I’m curious about your thoughts on Apple’s iPad, which has the capability for full-color illustrations and motion video within an ebook. Do you think it is a game changer?

I think it’s the beginning of the beginning of an evolutionary leap for the picture book. When artists are free of the constraints of print formats, they will transform the genre.

Artists didn’t choose to deal with prescribed trim sizes, gutters, bleeds, page turns, 32-pages, four-color reproduction, text blocks to accommodate black plate changes, etc. Those are limitations imposed by press sizes, color-separation and reproduction issues, and economic mandates. Now, the shackles are off! I can’t wait to see what is forthcoming.

A keynote address you gave at an Assembly on Literature for Adolescents Workshop a few years ago was printed in NCTE’s The ALAN Review. In this remarkable speech titled, “The Art of the Young Adult Novel” [PDF file] you end the article with a call to action — that educators, authors and critics “make an attempt to articulate criteria and establish critical standards by which to measure” young adult literature. What are some of the “criteria and standards” that you would hope to see assigned to meaningful literature for young adults?

People have been studying literature for millennia. The criteria and standards already exist, and they have nothing to do with the age of the audience. There is no qualitative difference between literature for young readers and literature for adults. The same criteria apply.

YA books have come into their own, reaching new heights in literature for children. This is certainly cause for rejoicing, but where does that leave picture books in today’s market? Do they also need to come complete with merchandising and film opportunities in order to get the attention of publishers today?

Everything needs to compete. I think that was Darwin’s point.

Publishers today are in competition with the merchandising and film industries. In fact, most of the large publishers are divisions of corporations that also own merchandising and film businesses, or at least have very strong connections to them.

As I suggested above, what we think of as picture books will evolve into something new. I have no worries about that.

Publishers? Well, they need to worry.

In the current climate of publishing books with rich merchandising and film options, do you think today’s authors need to come to the table with more marketing experience than in previous years?

That depends on what the author wants. Some want only to write what they write. They should not have to attend to anything more than that.

Most authors want to be published, i.e. they want their work made public. They can contribute a great deal to that end, but it requires effort on their part. The Internet has given everyone powerful tools for spreading whatever gospel we believe in.

If you want your work made public, then go spread the word.

Also in “The Art of the Young Adult Novel,” you wrote, “the novel in verse is uniquely appropriate for the young adult novel…” What are your thoughts about the increasing number of published YA books written in verse?

Some are better than others. There is no inherent value in writing in verse. But if the story demands it, then it is the best form. If not, it’s not.

Again, people need to not confuse form for content.

You also said, “We are myopic when it comes to literature in translation.” As a recent resident of Asia, I have seen this first hand. There are countless remarkable stories in far-away lands that have yet to be told or shared in the U.S.

Why do you think it is so difficult for countries to share work beyond their borders? Can you tell us about the work that namelos is doing with literature in translation?

Most books are informed by the culture and the language of the writer. Some literature transcends those, but not all and not often. Finding the works that do requires someone who is both multilingual and multicultural. Few people are truly both: so we end up using teams consisting of editors and translators.

It’s a hit-or-miss process and, in practice, there are more misses than hits because for a book to succeed commercially, it needs to find a truly multicultural audience, an audience with the sensibility and flexibility to accommodate the unfamiliarity of another culture.

Few people have that capacity. So, literature in translation is a tough sell.

At namelos, I hope to publish many books in translation. The costs of translation are substantial. Our business model allows for economies that may make it more viable than the old publishing model, but it’s still a great deal of work and very risky. We’ll see.

Right now, I am continuing to publish novels in partnership with the esteemed Dutch publisher, Lemniscaat. We’ve shared an imprint for over 15 years, and I expect we’ll keep on for a good long time.

You’re active with the Highlights Foundation and have several workshops on offer this year on the topic of Editing for Writers. Why is this an important outlet for you, and can you tell us about your experiences offering writers workshops?

I’m an editor. I like nothing more than working with an author on a book. The Highlights Foundation workshops enable me to work with authors without the complicating responsibility of being their publisher. The work is pure: they want to improve their writing, and I want to help them. In some ways, it is the best of all worlds. It’s intimate, fulfilling, and exciting.

Moreover, I have met writers in my workshops that I have gone on to edit independently and some that I am publishing. So, it’s proven a valuable experience on every level for all involved.

From the perspective of an experienced editor, what are some common mistakes that you see writers make?

That’s an impossible question to answer in this context. I will say that all the mistakes I see are common. If it’s not common, i.e. if it’s unique, it’s probably not a mistake.

What are some examples of successful ways children’s writers can improve their writing skills?

Forget that you’re writing “for children.” Forget about writing for publication. While your at it, forget about your family, your job, your friends, your pets, and yourself.

Live in the moment in what you are writing.

On the namelos publishing website, I was intrigued by the eBook Caper released just a few weeks ago where you are offering free digital copies of four new Front Street novels. Can you tell us more about this promotion, its purpose and your goals for this exciting endeavor?

Authors want readers. Publishers have known for a long time that the best way to promote a book is simply to give a reader a book.

The eBook promotion that Kent Brown and I dreamed up is simply another way to give books away. The goal is to introduce readers to these authors and to their books.

In the short term, we are forgoing sales in order to build a reader base for the authors. In the long term, those readers are likely to buy books by these authors.

The strategy has been time-tested and proven effective. Only the implementation is new.

I read several excellent interviews you’ve participated in with other writers — one with Cynthia Leitich Smith and another with 49 Writers. Between those and your website, I confess it was difficult to come up with questions that you hadn’t already answered. What is one question you haven’t been asked about namelos but wish you would be, and how would you answer?

The question: Why are you breaking out of the system, i.e. the existing publishing model?

The answer: The system is broken. The model is obsolete.

It has become exclusive, and, consequently, it no longer serves the needs of the great majority of authors and artists, or of the reading public.

My final question is in reference to your bio on the namelos services website. I’m just wondering — have you planted your raspberries yet, or is it too early in the season?

We’ll plant the raspberries in mid-May. I’m very excited!

Cynsational Notes

Stephen Roxburgh has been involved professionally with children’s books and publishing for more than thirty-five years, first as an academic, then as senior vice president and publisher of Books for Young Readers at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and as president and publisher of Front Street, a small, independent press he founded in 1994.

In January 2009, he launched namelos, llc, a publishing house based on a new model for the next generation of authors, artists, and readers.

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.