Today is part two of my interview with Barbara Friend Ish, author of The Way of the Gods series and publisher over at Mercury Retrograde Press. Today, we’ll be talking about her books. Part one of this interview where we talked about the writing process, is here.
Amy: I enjoyed The Shadow of the Sun immensely and I’m looking forward to the second book in The Way of the Gods series. Can you tell us a bit about The Heart of Darkness? Anything interesting we have to look forward to? What’s Ellion up to, or should I say, what kind of trouble is he in now?
Barbara: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the ride, and it’s truly kind of you to say. The Heart of Darkness picks up roughly an hour after the end of The Shadow of the Sun, and all hell breaks loose in short order. This time there are four points of view: Ellion, Iminor, Letitia, and a new character, Leahy. Ellion is still arguing with—well, pretty much everyone. Iminor is unbelievably mad at Letitia. Along the way we’ll encounter traders, pirates, wizards and a variety of unsanctioned practitioners of magic, smiths, priests, shapechangers, and gods: some of whom we’ll meet in the underworld. And Nechton, of course.
You may be surprised by the number of people trying to kill Ellion. Then again, you’ve met him, so you may not.
Amy: Can I just say, PIRATES! I can’t wait. Thanks for sharing that tidbit.
Amy: The first book in The Way of the Gods series is a very vivid story — characters and landscapes that I picture very clearly. Have you ever thought about making it into a graphic novel?
Barbara: I think that would be a really fun project! But I’m not particularly handy with a pencil, so someone else would have to do the drawing. I get the sense from artists I’ve spoken with that a graphic novel is such a huge enterprise from the visual side that anyone capable of drawing one would rather be drawing her own work. Maybe I just haven’t encountered the right artist yet…
Amy: The business of writing. I hear people say this a lot, some in respect to the habit of writing itself (writing as if it were a job) and the actual business stuff that goes along with writing, like taxes, etc. For you, it’s been a much different journey, especially in your role as an independent publisher. Can you talk about the experience of being a writer and a publisher and what led to your starting Mercury Retrograde Press and the decision to close the press in 2014?
Barbara: Writing is a business—but first it’s an art. I think showing up in the study every day is an important practice because it keeps the creative juices flowing, but to expect to hold an artist to production schedules is destructive, and results in lousy art.
That being said, once a project is in the can, it is a product, and selling it is a business. Also, and I am far from the first person to say this, an artist is a brand. (Ugh. But it’s true.) And that brand must be managed and promoted, and those too are business activities. These activities on the business side of the writing life absolutely should be managed as business; it’s appropriate to set goals (though for your sanity and the sake of your creative life, it’s important to set goals that are within your sphere of influence) and schedules and budgets. But it’s important to do all of it with the understanding that, when those business practices come to have negative impact on the creative side of the operation, the business is slitting open the golden goose.
Where did this albatross around my neck come from? Ahem.
You’re right, though: I’ve had a different business journey in this area than most writers. For years I was a writer and an editor—first as a freelancer, then as one half of the consulting team of Be Mused Author Services, a company dedicated to providing education and services to self-publishing authors and small press publishers. Be Mused was a long time ago: before Kindle and CreateSpace and Smashwords had even been conceived. We all still thought Amazon was a benevolent entity. Independent publishing was a wilderness, and my business partner and I spent a lot of time trying to teach publishers and self-publishing writers how not to make a complete hash of what they were attempting. And I spent a lot of time editing novels over which I had no control, because I was just an independent contractor.
It used to make me crazy. Anybody who has seen a Mercury Retrograde Press book knows my standards are, um, high. And here were all these self-publishing authors pulling the plug on the editorial process long before those books were ready for market, whether because they were tired of the editorial process or for reasons I can’t imagine. I still shudder to think of my name being associated with some of those projects.
Meanwhile, of course, I had long since become convinced that independent publishing was the future; watching mainstream publishing implode in the nineties and analyzing what had gone wrong made it clear to me that the only way to do art was at smaller scale. I had reluctantly concluded that there was not likely to be a match between the work I wanted to do as a writer and the sort of risks big publishers could afford to take for years, possibly decades, to come. So the question of what my ideal publishing house looked like was already rolling around in my head.
Finally these two sets of frustrations came together: I realized the only way I was ever going to be satisfied by the work I was doing as an editor would be if I was the publisher as well: if I was the one who got to say when a work was or was not ready for the world; if I got to say when I was prepared to put my own name on it.
It was far from my first start-up business; it wasn’t even the first time I’d been one of the principals. It was, however, the first time the vision of an enterprise was wholly mine.
I never doubted that the work I was doing mattered. Mercury Retrograde became a safe port for high-risk projects and writers, and I was happy and proud to create that haven. Throughout Mercury Retrograde’s life I was continually engaged in troubleshooting the problems of small press publishing for participants on both sides of the desk—and the problems of artists trying to operate in a business setting. Year by year we improved what we were doing; by this year I had absolutely cracked the code on how to operate a publishing business that could be healthy for everyone involved, in a way that could be sustainable long-term. The only flaw in the plan was that it required a full-time publisher, not a part-time one. And I knew I couldn’t live that life, because I am a writer first.
It made me very sad to realize I needed to shut Mercury Retrograde down. And it also saved my life. Artists can’t thrive if they can’t do their best art. Running the best publishing house in the world is doubtless someone’s best art, but as passionately as I loved the idea, it wasn’t mine.
Amy: What was your most memorable moment as a publisher? What will you take away from the whole experience?
Barbara: Oddly, my most memorable moment as a publisher had to do with the publication of my own work: the day we started taking wholesale orders for my novel. The two halves of my professional life had collided in those orders coming off the fax: as a publisher, I had a book that was exceeding expectations before launch; and the book in question was mine. It blew my mind.
There are so many lessons and blessings I will take away from my Mercury Retrograde years; I’m profoundly grateful for the experience, and for the support of the people—notably my husband and family—who made it possible. All the things I learned from Mercury Retrograde will make it possible for me to move forward with the business side of my writing life with confidence, and they have made me a better editor as well. More than anything else I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made on the journey. I know so many writers who go to conventions and book festivals to work. I get to go see my friends. I may work my tail off while I’m there and come home exhausted, but I do it in the context of a community to which I belong. Any geek can understand how profound that experience feels.
Amy: Join us on Sunday the 29th as we wrap up part three of this interview with some talk about the future, and of course, books.