An Interview with Jennifer Geist, Pen & Publish
Small and regional presses offer great opportunities for their local communities that the Big 5 simply can’t match. From student engagement in literacy programs to support of non-profit initiatives, there are many ways for small and regional presses to energize a love for literature, renew the mind, body, and spirit, and vitalize local businesses. Such is the power of small press publishing.
I was recently planning a cross-country road trip. My return journey east was going to take me through St. Louis, MO, a city which I’ve never really had a chance to visit.
Sometimes, the universe has a bit of fun with us, I think. Almost immediately after I had booked my night’s stay in St. Louis, I came across a possible contact on LinkedIN, a publisher with a regional Midwestern press. What particularly caught my attention was that this particular publisher had, until recently, been a freelance editor like myself. Her small press also had a publishing services wing, offering professional editing, production, graphic design, marketing, sales, and distribution to schools and non-profits throughout the country.
And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Ms. Jennifer Geist, Publisher at Pen & Publish.
From where I grew up in New Jersey, my whole world was oriented east, toward “The City,” New York. To the west was the Delaware River, and beyond that was “Injun Country.” Everything I knew about Missouri I’d learned from the folksy wisdom of Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the classic TV comedy, M*A*S*H.
Displaying the Midwestern hospitality for which Missouri is famous, Jennifer graciously agreed to meet me for a cup of coffee and a brief interview, and even recommended brunch and coffee spots where we might meet. It was a fine Sunday morning in June, and, being from New Jersey, I was wholly unprepared to discover the funky little storefront where RISE Coffee House is nestled on Manchester Avenue in the Grove District of St. Louis. It had a hipster sophistication to rival any coffee house east or west of the Mississippi. When I stepped into the rich aromas of fresh coffee and tea, took one look at the old Underwood typewriter on display and the quote from Yeats behind the coffee bar, I felt right at home.
I was running a few minutes late from a brunch date, and hurried upstairs, where I found Jennifer kindly waiting for me on a green couch.
Please tell me a little about yourself.
I am an avid reader and thought that I wanted to be an author until part of the way through college, when I took a small press publishing course to fulfill an elective. I realized I liked being on the other side of the fence a little bit more—less pressure—and finished a minor in small press publishing since the major wasn’t available yet. Since then, I’ve done freelance editing, odd jobs ranging from working as an assistant for a scientific publisher to working as a communications director for a material handling company, and finally, becoming publisher of a well-established independent press, Pen & Publish.
On a more personal level, I’m engaged, have a cat, and play video games or binge-watch Netflix (currently 30 Rock) when I need a break from being literary.
When was the last time you walked for more than an hour? Describe where you went and what you saw.
Sometimes my fiancé, Jeff, and I will take long walks after dinner to talk and digest and relax. The last time was probably walking 2 miles to our favorite donut shop, The Donut Drive-In, to get a donut and back. It takes us past some beautiful houses and past Willmore Park and Francis Park, so it’s a good walk. Sometimes we bring our Kindles along to read and walk and talk about what we’re reading.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
That’s a tough one. I would probably go with someone literary, but I honestly can’t pick just one.
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
I love days when I get to relax and watch Netflix with Jeff, eat a wonderful dinner, and enjoy not having to do anything right now. I equally love days when I’m incredibly productive with work since it gives me a feeling of accomplishment and I love what I do.
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
Occasionally. I get more nervous on the phone than I do in person, so sometimes it’s nice to go over what you’re going to say in your head before you make the call. I remember some particularly bad phone interviews that I had right out of college because I just was not good at phone interviews back then. Also, there’s a lot of pressure when the person you’re calling doesn’t answer and you have to leave a voice message, so I like having an idea of what I want to say in that instance so I don’t stumble through a message. (Thank goodness for the ability to redo voicemails!)
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
I’d really love to do some more traveling, a trip back to Spain for Jeff, a trip back to Germany for me, maybe somewhere new for both of us, like Costa Rica or Norway, Sweden, and Finland. I love the scenery there. As to the reason why not—life and work. We’re hoping to move into a house this fall and have the business side a little calmer—more projects passed out to freelancers or even an in-house assistant, so maybe next year will be the time for traveling.
Please tell me about your work.
I’d like to think I’m a little unique as a publisher because I can do so much of the book process by myself. At school I studied design, photography, web and eBook design, and more in addition to editing and putting together a book. So if we’re a little less busy, I can put books together myself and follow a book from reading the query and submission to seeing it as a physical book, which is a great feeling.
What excites you about publishing?
I love the written word. Sometimes it really amazes me that an author can design an entire world in his or her head, and I can imagine that while I’m reading—and sometimes even forget that I’m reading. I think literature is really important, especially from a young age, so I love seeing work that children and teens have written.
Tell me a little about Pen & Publish’s school publishing program? How does the program work and what are the benefits?
We work with schools to come up with the best solution for their particular needs. Schools can publish all submissions, or they can hold some kind of contest and publish the winners. Once they have all of the work ready, whether it’s art, poetry, fiction, essays, etc., we take it and put it together, cover and all, send it to the printer, and have it ready for their book signing, which many schools choose to have. For most black and white books, each book costs around $9 to $12 to the school depending on the length with a retail price of around $15 so they can use it for fundraising purposes if they want. As for additional benefits, students become more interested in books when they can see their own and others’ writing printed. Having people interested in buying the book and having it signed is additionally exciting.
Tell me a little about the history of Pen & Publish and its imprints. How did the company get started?
Pen & Publish, Inc. was founded in Bloomington, Indiana, by Paul Burt and his wife, a teacher, to publish work by and for schools and nonprofits. They were amazed by the response of the students and how excited they were at their book release/signing, and we continue to publish multiple schools’ works every year.
Open Books Press was founded to expand Pen & Publish to include general fiction for all ages and nonfiction for adults.
Transformation Media Books was founded by Paul Burt and Ginny Weissman, a journalist and literary agent, to publish work to nourish the body, mind, and spirit.
I founded Brick Mantel Books at the start of 2015 with a focus on literary fiction and poetry. This one is truly “my baby” and what I dreamed of starting even if I hadn’t been a part of Pen & Publish. Being part of an established company has certainly made the process easier and the learning curve smaller since I’d already been heavily involved in publishing, reworking the websites, and reaffirming each of the imprint’s goals.
What attracted you to Pen & Publish? Where do you see Pen & Publish in the next five years?
I was most impressed by Pen & Publish’s commitment to publishing students’ works. When I was in sixth grade, my teacher encouraged me to submit a poem I had written about my grandmother’s battle with lung cancer to an anthology of student work. When I was accepted and subsequently saw my words printed in a book, I was so excited. It really cemented my desire to work with words. I love having the opportunity to give that to students.
In the next five years, I see Pen & Publish and its imprints expanding more thoroughly into St. Louis. We attended the St. Louis Indie Book Fair this year and the All Write Now! Conference in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on July 11. I also intend to bring Pen & Publish and the imprints to more fairs and conferences. I’ve also been talking with several of our independent bookstores to stock our titles, especially those with Midwestern ties.
How did you go from freelance editor to publisher? Has the transition been difficult?
I was incredibly lucky in my jump from freelancer to publisher. Paul Burt, the president and co-founder of Pen & Publish, happened to find me on LinkedIN. (So keep your profiles updated, kids!) He was impressed with my ability to juggle two or three internships, a full-time job at an advertising agency, and still have time to freelance edit. So Pen & Publish became another freelance client, with me helping to edit books, design covers, and create book interiors. I think my first project was the 19th edition of the Arcola Intermediate School’s Apollo Literary Magazine, so that was a great introduction to Pen & Publish. I took over as publisher in January 2015 with Paul remaining president, and I have really enjoyed the process. Being part of an established company with advice from someone well versed in publishing has been an invaluable experience.
How would you describe the difference between a publisher and an editor? What do you think makes a good editor? What do you think makes a good publisher?
Since I’m both, sometimes it’s hard to turn off my editor brain and turn on my publisher brain. I might see a manuscript and say, “This really needs some editing,” but my publisher brain will say, “This is a great story.” I need both of these perspectives to reach a decision about the manuscript and perhaps recommend further editing so that I can re-review at a later date, or bite the bullet and take on the story and do the editing in house.
As to what makes a good editor vs. a good publisher, I think a good publisher needs to be much more business-oriented, looking at an author’s platform and marketing plan and making a decision partially based on that. An editor doesn’t need to bother with that (other than marketing his- or herself), but rather needs to look at the nuts and bolts of writing and help an author better find his or her voice while conforming to style. Developmental editors need to be concerned with “the big picture,” so to speak, and make recommendations on how to improve the story’s structure while worrying less about proofreading aspects.
Tell me about your new imprint, Brick Mantel Books?
I formed Brick Mantel Books this year to promote literary fiction and poetry, and having my own literary press has been my goal ever since I realized I wanted to work in publishing. St. Louis didn’t have a dedicated literary fiction/poetry press, so it’s something that I always wanted to see here and something that I looked for back before Pen & Publish found me. We already have three books slated for release this fall, and I am so excited to work with authors in my favorite genres.
We also have new titles for Open Books Press and Transformation Media Books that we’ll be announcing soon.
Please broadly define a style or a particular type of work that Pen & Publish or its imprints are most likely to be interested in.
Since we have three imprints, there are very few things that we won’t at least take a look at. I will say that we’re not particularly interested in romance, but any other genres will almost always fall in the scope of one of the imprints. Personally, I’m most likely to be intrigued by literary fiction—it’s what I most like to read and what I most loved to write back when I had the time.
I’d like to talk a bit more about “publishing services,” since Pen & Publish offers services to schools, non-profits, and authors.
What would you say is the difference between a “vanity publisher” and a legitimate publishing services provider?
A “vanity publisher” is usually not interested in quality and instead only cares whether an author can pay for their services. A real author services provider, on the other hand, will recommend the best option for an author, whether it’s to get more editing, to completely rewrite part or all of the book, or to honestly tell them that they’re not sure this particular project is worth investing in at this time. A legitimate author services provider will always honest in what a book needs.
Do you think organizations can offer publishing services such as editing, marketing, design, and distribution without being dubbed “vanity publishers”? Are self-publishing authors guilty of being “vanity publishers” in their own right?
It’s a fine line to walk. As long as an organization is very clear about what they do and do not offer, that they only offer services in the best interest of the author, and that they don’t force “packages” that are more than you need, I think that’s a good sign that they are not a “vanity publisher.” It can be hard to tell sometimes, so I always recommend that authors check for reviews and complaints about companies if they’re shopping around for services. Even some of the bigger publishers are now offering author services to supplement their traditional titles, so the market is obviously changing.
Author James D. MacDonald is known for coining Yog’s Law, which states that “Money flows toward the writer.” How does Yog’s Law apply in an age where many writers — and some even successfully — are self-publishing?
I find that the most successful self-published authors don’t do everything themselves, unless they happen to be good with cover design and book formatting. Regardless, they usually pay a cover designer, an editor, and possibly an eBook formatter to ensure quality and that their book will stand out over the countless other self-published books. Money, in this instance, flows both to and from the writer. They may have to put out some money upfront for their book to be the best quality, but they’ll (usually) receive higher royalties after the fact.
What advice would you give to authors who are considering self-publishing versus traditional publishing?
I would say to understand that it’s a lot of work and to do your research. I always recommend hiring (at the very least) a proofreader to catch what may have been missed. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to edit your own work objectively, because you know what’s coming next and can gloss over what may be errors. If an author doesn’t have the skills to design the cover, do the eBook or print formatting, set up an account with a printer, etc., then they may want to look for help with that to ensure quality. A bad cover, bad editing, or bad formatting can kill a book before it has a chance. With the technology and the myriad of do-it-yourself tutorials, self-publishing can be a very viable option. A real benefit to going with an established press, whether it’s traditional or through an author services provider, is that they already have a relationship with a printer, wholesaler, and distributor. If an author publishes a print book and doesn’t have at least a wholesaler, bookstores are not going to carry the book. It may still be an uphill battle, but having a wholesaler means a book is one step closer to being available in person.
What advice would you give to anyone considering their own small-press start-up?
Like self-publishing, I would suggest a lot of research and to know when to hire help or delegate tasks. My main fault is that I try to do too much because I can, and it’s a little overwhelming at times. Otherwise, find the best printer, distributor, wholesaler, and more for your price point and what you want to achieve. Research what types of advertising you want to do, whether for the press itself or individual books, and determine if it’s worth the price or the time. Form lasting relationships with freelancers, vendors and authors, even if you may not be working together at the time. As Tim Grahl says, be relentlessly helpful. Having a good website (even a simple one) is expected in this day and age, and being listed in some of the more well-known publishing directories (Poets & Writers, NewPages, The Literary Marketplace, Duotrope, etc.) is great for encouraging more submissions and just letting people know you exist. Attend all the events you can (without breaking the bank).
What is the best book you’ve read in the last three months? Tell me about it.
I don’t get the chance to read too many books that aren’t submissions, especially lately, but I did recently get a chance to finally read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I really loved the dry British humor that’s inserted as footnotes throughout the text and that it was just downright fun. I do enjoy genre books as well as literary fiction, so sometimes it’s a nice change of pace. I enjoy many of the submissions I read, but I generally have a more critical frame of mind when I’m reading them, so it’s great to get the chance to read for enjoyment and turn off my editor’s brain for a bit.
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Backporch Review, The Harbinger, Idiom, and Venture. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies The Golden Treasury of Great Poems and Dance on the Horizon, and he is a two-time winner of the Golden Poet Award from World of Poetry Press. He is currently working independently as a freelance writer, editor, and publishing consultant. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
If you have been enjoying this content, please sign up for the mailing list:
You’ll receive access to free eBook content, daily writing prompts, and a monthly newsletter from the studio of a working writer and professional publisher.