January 26, 2015

A partner-publisher in the world of books: Genevieve DeGuzman of Night Owls Press

It was from discovering the book “The Fifth Age of Work” by Andrew M. Jones that I found out about its publisher, Night Owls Press. Their interests in topics like “work and business innovation” plus “D-I-Y culture and the collaborative economy” coincide with mine. Furthermore, they’re a small and independent press. Here, its Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Genevieve DeGuzman, gives her opinions on writing, editing, publishing, and the timelessness of books in both printed and digital forms:

On being a publisher of books:

Delighted to discover your business of Night Owls Press—Congratulations on your fifth year!—and liken your co-finding a book-publishing company to finding a type foundry. How did you arrive at the desire and decision to realize Night Owls Press?
We started the book imprint back in 2011. Before that, Night Owls Press was mostly me doing freelance editing and ghostwriting, odd jobs, and scattered projects here and there. As a free agent, I was fortunate enough to work on various book projects for a wave of startups and fellow entrepreneurs. From there, it seemed like a natural, organic step to forge ahead with our own publishing experiment. Our first book on coworking was born, “Working in the UnOffice,” and then eventually we started the imprint—our catalog.

Why start a book-publishing company 
in our Web-based and digital times?
As a publisher, we don’t really buy into the feud between print or digital, because we’ve always done both. To us, an e-book or paperback are just different formats. I personally enjoy producing both, with a slight preference for print. Digital books are convenient because you have the immediacy and the portability. And the margins for a publisher and author are better. Print books, however, are timeless. You can’t flip or browse through an e-book the way you can a print book. And there’s something intangibly pleasurable about paper. It’s the physicality and heft. You can sort of annotate e-books, but you can’t dog-ear pages or write in the margins. When reading an e-book, I miss the delights of creating my own marginalia. On a more practical level, a lot of our authors use their books to market their own services, or to promote their own work or research. Frankly, it means more to give a physical book to someone at a networking event or a conference than it is to e-mail them a PDF.

I think the more relevant question is whether a small press can survive in a world dominated by self-publishing and the big publishing houses. Are small presses even relevant anymore? I think so. Basically we consider ourselves filling a much needed gap. We are “partner publishers,” providing the end-to-end support of traditional publishing (editing and content development, production and distribution, marketing, and sales) with the independence of self-publishing. We are “all-in” when we work with authors, just like a traditional publisher, but with a lot more hands-on care and attention. We essentially become co-investors in the projects we take on.

Logo of Night Owls Press designed by Michael Kostuchenko

Concerning news related to book publishing, there was the Amazon story, foundation of self-publishing, advancement of eBooks and eBook software and readers, what are your takes on the evolving “landscape” of making and selling books?
I think self-publishing has empowered a lot of authors, which is a wonderful thing, but it also has downsides. It’s made it easier to publish, which unfortunately has led to a lot of knee-jerk, quick-to-market products where the quality is just lacking. People underestimate the time and care it takes to produce a good book. It can be a resource drain and expensive (especially if you’re hiring professional freelance editors and designers). When working with a press, prospective authors get a range of built-in editorial support for their manuscript, as well as distribution and marketing support for the book once it’s out.

Being a published author and seasoned editor, what are some of your must-dont’s to help writers, especially those who don’t have access to an editor, be better at writing, and to help editors be better at editing?
My advice: If you’re going to self-publish, don’t try to do it all. It has nothing to do with intrinsic skills or talent. Get help. When you’re still in the draft stage, hire an editor and make sure you hire the right kind of editor (most people need a developmental or content editor, and later a copyeditor and proofreader, not to mention a book designer and a publicist).

Some people don’t want to deal with the business of developing a manuscript, designing a book, figuring out distribution platforms, publicity, and sales. It can be overwhelming and time-consuming. One of our goals when working with authors is to help free up their time. With an editorial team behind them, authors can just focus on their content, to bring out the best book that shows off their expertise.

The critical part for me as a book editor is making sure that expertise comes through in a compelling, engaging way. The main problem with a lot of the raw manuscripts I see is that they’re usually too statement-focused. They read like manifestos without any real narrative center and progression of ideas. In these cases, the prose tends to be shock-and-awe, declarative, the writing full of strings of ideas that don’t really coalesce and go anywhere. Authors often come to us with manuscripts that have been cobbled together from blog posts or hasty drafts. Turning that body of work into a book is a complex process. As an editor, I help authors build that necessary narrative arc, that progression of points and ideas.

To strengthen a manuscript, I often advise authors to do research, to interview experts or practitioners in the field they’re writing in, for example, and to include those experiences. Really it all comes down to stories. Stories really do make a big difference as vehicle for information and ideas. I can’t emphasize enough how important narrative color and drama are to the reading experience, even in a how-to book or guide.

Books edited, published, and promoted by Night Owls Press

Who and/or what do you look up to as sources of motivation 
and guidance in your work as a book publisher?
We really admire the trailblazers in the hybrid publishing world like She Writes Press, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love what they’re doing with their authors and admire the reach they have.

Can you give a tour of how an idea gets real? For example, please pick one of your books in your catalog. What were the steps and tools used to materialize it?
Whew. It’s a long process, a journey. We talk at length about our publishing process here.

What is advantageous about being a small 
and independent press? 
Wonderful question. We also address this in detail in our blog post “Why Authors Should Publish with a Small Press.”

On creativity and working:

One of my residual resolutions is to read books. Impressive that you are a highly avid reader. How did you discover books? And how do you manage to be an active reader of books?
Reading is such a pleasure for me that it’s hardly a matter of making time for it. I often have to schedule time away from reading. I joke and call myself a “homebody with a wanderer’s soul.” In a cheesy way, reading lets me be that. I’ve committed to being a regular book reviewer on Goodreads and LibraryThing too, so that encourages me to read and get more involved in conversations around books.

Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m a chronic re-reader. The first-time I read a book or an article, I read for sheer pleasure, often at a quick pace. In this reading mode, I’m usually just an observer, a sponge. The second time, or even the third time around, if it’s a favorite work, I read to discover, mull over, extract. Good writing is never accidental; it’s earnestly deliberate. There are effects and subtexts the writer wants to convey—even if we’re not consciously aware of them (probably more apparent in fiction than nonfiction). Usually I’ll find that I gain some new insight with each re-reading. Life experience and age filters reading differently; something that moved me in a certain way at 22 moved me in a different way when I turned 35.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
I can be annoyingly self-critical when it comes to editing, but I’m much worse when it comes to my personal writing projects (mostly fiction). It can get to a point where the self-deprecation is no longer charming but paralyzing. There’s a common saying among neurotic creative types, especially writers: “you simultaneously think your work is absolute crap, but at least it’s better than anybody else’s crap.”

As a creative entrepreneur or freelancer, it’s important to learn how to harness that roller coaster of emotions and self-doubt. (A good school of thought for entrepreneurs is Stoicism. Tim Ferriss has a great post on this.) I try to stay grounded by facing my deepest fears head on—mulling over the worst-case scenarios in my head—and nurturing an instinct for what I can control and can’t. The kind of anxieties and fears experienced by entrepreneurs have their roots in uncertainty, they say. Uncertainty is probably the biggest downside of running your own business and a deterrent to many who want to start a business. It’s not easy accepting risks.

Whenever I start to feel that tickle of frustration or fear or worry, I dwell on what we’ve achieved and how far we’ve come. It’s always going to be an upward climb, and the idea is to learn how to enjoy those obstacles and challenges. Come on, smooth-sailing is boring anyway.

How do you stay creative? 
Obsessive documentation. Compulsive note-taking. Keeping an open mind. After all, creativity is simply making connections between disparate parts.

Along with reading, I write and note-take on a regular basis. I’ve joined several writing groups online and in person to encourage me to write, to keep stoking the fire. Everyone should keep a notebook. Personally, it helps me keep a handle on the swirl of information and perceptions I have, all the half-worlds of stories and ideas that often get lost in the day to day. Later, I can take those notes and work them out on the page. Most of the things I write never see the light of day or are ever shared, but sometimes there are winners. And I live for those hardscrabble, hard-won gems.

Staying creative also means not being a slave to the cult of serendipity and inspiration; it’s not always about the endorphin rush. Staying creative means working through mental blocks or bad moods. As a writer, that means writing even when the words aren’t flowing, even when writing a sentence feels like pulling blood from a stone. In practical terms, that means setting daily goals and putting in the necessarily mileage. (“500 words a day is a good day.”) Sometimes—most of the time—it means producing work that will make you shudder and fill you with self-loathing, but I’ve learned to work past that. The real writing is in the rewriting and editing anyway. First drafts are necessary precursors of getting ideas trapped in your head down on paper. I try not to put too much pressure on myself at this stage. That frees me up creatively.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
Very important. The gut is our other less celebrated brain. It deserves to be listened to. Sometimes the top brain, with its constant chatter and over-thinking, needs to be put on mute. Go with your instincts.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to be a book publisher. How do I become one?”, what’s your response?
“You must be a masochist!” Just kidding, sort of. Publishing is a tough business. You need to know editorial, production, distribution, and marketing. Because there are so many moving parts, publishing is highly collaborative; you’re only as good as your teams and the people you work with, from editors and designers to printers and publicists. It’s also important to master the tools of the trade like Word, Pages, InDesign, and Photoshop, and to understand the basic principles of good book design.

Cover art iterations with illustrators Monkey + Seal

You also need to have a proficiency and passion for communication, language, and rhetoric on paper. Doing all these things by the seat of our pants was a big mistake in our evolution as a press in the early days—and we’re still continually learning. Finally, it helps tremendously if you’ve worked in the business either at a literary agency, publishing house, editorial firm, or bookseller.

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All images courtesy of Genevieve DeGuzman.

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Directly related: Designer and Novelist Elaine Chen on pursuing the architecture of writing

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