When I first read Alice in Wonderland, I was disturbed by the plot. Poor Alice was just following her natural curiosity when she tumbled down the rabbit hole and ended up in a world of peculiar beings and unsettling events. Logic and good sense were of no use there, and I was glad when the story ended with her awakening from sleep, safely back on the English riverbank with her sister. Stay away from dangerous places, I told myself.
As the years passed I did not abide by the warning. I am adventuresome by nature, and I’ve ended up in situations or relationships or places I should have avoided. Like Alice, I was drawn by interest or desire and didn’t consider the consequences. A few times the results were disastrous, but mostly my distress was subtle and it took me a while to catch on that something was amiss.
I have gotten smarter through the years about who I am and what I can or cannot do. The struggles I’ve had, the books I’ve read, and conversations with family, friends, and strangers have taught me this, not to mention feminism, the years in therapy, and my spiritual practice. I usually know when to say yes and when to say no.
But sometimes I’m still attracted to rabbit holes.
The most recent case is connected to Persimmon Tree, and that’s why I’m writing about it here. In an article in the Spring 2012 issue, I announced that I was stepping down from my job as the chief editor. The plan was for me to continue as publisher while Sue Leonard took over the editorship.
I wrote, “I have a dream of starting a publishing company, Persimmon Tree Press, a sister to Persimmon Tree magazine. It likewise will be dedicated to promoting the writing of women over sixty.” I had a vision of an older women’s publishing empire. (I know, it sounds grandiose.) We already had created a magazine that was attracting thousands of readers, and now our own press would generate even more attention. The Persimmon Tree grand enterprise would announce to the world: Look what we can do! Look at all the talent and creativity among us older women!
Rabbit hole alert – I was getting ahead of myself.
But I didn’t know it then. After my article appeared, I received dozens of e-mails from women who were excited by the idea of Persimmon Tree Press. They told me about books they’d failed to get published after years of trying and manuscripts they thought would be just right for this new press. Their stories were sometimes poignant and sometimes angry and defiant, railing against the publishing world and its perceived prejudice against older women writers. They fueled my desire for this press even more.
Once Sue and her editorial team had successfully taken on the task of editing the magazine, I had the time to investigate. There was a lot to learn. I knew about online magazine publishing, but book publishers have to deal with complicated issues like printing, distribution, and promotion of books. The industry is changing so fast these days that even seasoned observers can hardly keep up. People are reading more books on tablets than anyone expected a few years ago, independent bookstores are shutting down, small presses are hurting financially, and big publishing companies have merged so often that we now have only the Big Five.
The traditional model of book publishing – authors finding agents, agents selling books to big publishers, and publishers getting books into the marketplace — is in trouble. Lack of money means that big publishers generally pick those books they think are worth the risk (famous authors, well-known public figures). When they do publish books by lesser-known authors, they have limited resources to support them. I recently spoke with a woman whose first novel came out under a Big Five name. She was thrilled at first, but her satisfaction didn’t last because she was left on her own to market the book.
Thankfully the field of publishing now offers more alternatives for authors. Self-publishing, seen as a last resort in the past, is being embraced by a growing number of new or already-published writers. I’ve met several women who have self-published with solid financial success. They’re satisfied to be working on their own, and they’ve become expert in self-promotion and book marketing.
But many authors decide they want more support than is typically available in self-publishing. Fortunately, there are other publishing possibilities — hybrid or alternative presses, involving a variety of editing, logistical, and financial arrangements. These come in a variety of sizes and design, and the industry increasingly has recognized their presence.
At this point it seemed that Persimmon Tree Press would have to find its place in this last category of presses, but the details were unclear. I invited Jeri Cohen, a close friend who’s good at organizing, to become involved, and we started going to publishing conferences; talking to distributors, librarians, and booksellers; and reading blogs and articles on the internet. The amount of information was staggering. Neither of us had much interest in social media, a major marketing tool, but if we were going to have a press, we’d have to know how to use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and whatever else came along. We could always hire out this part of the operation – but that would require money, and we hadn’t figured out that part yet. Our ordinarily enthusiastic mood became a little more sober that day.
I heard about Brooke Warner, who seemed to be just the person we needed. Energetic and knowledgeable about book publishing, she was getting She Writes Press off the ground. She Writes Press is an independent women’s press that curates manuscripts and gives authors first-rate editorial and production support. Although authors pay a stipend to cover the costs of publishing, the fee is as low as is reasonably possible. She Writes Press seemed like a possible model for Persimmon Tree Press.
I met with Brooke, who told me how much effort she was putting into this press. A huge number of legal, technical, organizational, and promotional matters had to be sorted out before her first books could be published; the project consumed most of her waking hours. As she spoke, I noticed the shadows of exhaustion on her face and the slump of her shoulders. It was a late autumn day, and the afternoon light had already dimmed in her office, making her fatigue even more apparent.
Afterwards I went to my car feeling satisfied with our conversation but unsettled by how hard she was working. As I settled into the driver’s seat, I glanced in the car mirror and saw an aged woman looking back at me, her face marked with deep lines. I was shocked by the sight. I had been focusing on Brooke for the last hour, thinking of us as two women in publishing, and age hadn’t been in my mind. But Brooke’s face was young, despite her apparent exhaustion, and her skin was smooth and supple; mine, in comparison, showed the thirty-year age difference between us. I slumped back in my seat, then peeked in the mirror again. I smiled, trying to bring light into my eyes, and I pulled back the loose skin on my cheeks. But it was still me, a woman in her early seventies with a face that can’t help but reveal the long years of ups and downs.
I sighed deeply, but after a few moments I began to chuckle. What have I been thinking? I asked myself.
I felt on the edge of something new. For the last several months I had been under self-induced pressure to start Persimmon Tree Press; somehow I had ignored the fact of my age. Brooke may have forty good career years ahead of herself, but I don’t. How long could I realistically expect to keep a press going?
I was nearing my home in the Berkeley hills, but I wasn’t ready to go inside. I pulled off the road next to a grove of eucalyptus trees and lowered the window to breathe in their minty pine scent. I pictured myself rushing from crisis to crisis, dealing with cranky vendors and anxious authors and worrying about a million little details. I’d have to travel to conferences, meetings, and promotional events to build up a presence for the press. Is this really what I want to do? I asked myself. The answer came quickly. No.
I had avoided falling down the rabbit hole.
I felt a flood of relief, as though everything was finally coming into place. I started to think about time. The time I have left on this earth, and how precious it is, and how I want it to be. A faint breeze came through the window, and I drew my jacket tighter around me. The image of the years ahead was suddenly clear: I’d spend my days writing, my first love, and I’d continue as publisher of Persimmon Tree magazine. I’d be with dear family and friends, and there was music and reading and long walks beside the water, and who knew what else I’d discover?
But before I did anything else, I would call Jeri and I would tell her the truth: I realize that the project isn’t right for me at this point in my life. It’s just way too much work and not what I want to do with my time. Jeri might have a moment of hesitation before answering, but she is almost my age and she would understand.
Postscript: While I was researching Persimmon Tree Press, I also finished my first novel, Clear Lake. My plan had been to publish it in the traditional way by finding an agent who would then search for a publisher. But the wheels of traditional publishing revolve slowly, and assuming I was lucky enough to sell the book in the first place, it would take two years before it appeared in print. I didn’t want to wait that long. I decided to place the novel instead with She Writes Press — which turned out to be a satisfying and fitting end to my publishing adventure.