Small Press Month Interview with Stacy Whitman of Tu Books

4:35 PM Posted by Danika Dinsmore

Editor Stacy Whitman has recently made a huge career transition that started with taking a risk. And isn't that always the seed for success?

In early 2009 she found herself laid off from Wizards of the Coast's Mirrorstone Books, relocated to Utah, and building her freelance editing business. In the midst of this, she decided to start her own small press, Tu Publishing, which she called a "labor of love." She and a friend had come up with the idea while "watching anime and discussing the RaceFail controversy, thinking about the lack of diversity in children's and YA fantasy."

The purpose of starting Tu Publishing was to create a list that reflected a wide variety of cultures and genres for middle grade and young adult titles that would be a mix of contemporary, historical, and futuristic settings. And to reflect cultures whose folklore and fairy tales haven't really inspired many fantasy worlds in the U.S.

She raised over $10,000 through a KickStarter campaign and caught the attention of Lee & Low Publishing, an independent publisher focusing on diversity, who then offered to acquire Tu Publishing, which then became Tu Books.

Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Stacy. This success seems to have happened so quickly. Was it serendipity? Timing? Or are you just one of those Make Things Happen kind of people?

I’m pretty sure it was serendipity combined with timing, because I didn’t do anything to make it happen. :) I was quietly going about my business, working toward a goal, and it turns out that my goal was one that many other people believed in. They saw the need as I did, and supported us in achieving it.

Do you have to be a little bit crazy to start a small press or have advancements in technology and online communities made things easier for someone interested in doing so?

Ha—well, that’s a hard one. I didn’t feel a little bit crazy, though I did feel a bit scared to try to start a company in the middle of a recession. Yet it felt like the right thing to do, and the support of so many online communities did make a difference in getting the word out. I love how the internet makes it possible to connect with so many people with similar interests, despite geographic limitations. Also, a small company felt right--we could address a smaller niche using a smaller overhead, and success could be measured on a smaller scale than might be expected at a larger company.

In your ideal vision, what would Tu Books bring to the publishing world?

We didn’t set out to be big; we just wanted to make a little bit of a difference. If our books help contribute to diversifying fantasy, then my goal has been met. We want to make fantasy more welcoming to readers of color.

There are so many subgenres and genre-mixing happening in fiction these days. What are some of the most exciting new trends to you?

There’s actually not much new about that in YA. The cool thing about YA and books for younger readers is that the interstitial happens all the time, because the books are usually shelved all together in one spot in the bookstore or library. But if I had to pick one, I’d have to say that I love that steampunk seems to finally be coming into the mainstream. I’ve loved steampunk ever since I discovered it several years ago in anime and movies. It’s a combination of science fiction and alternate history, and there are so many ways it can play out. It's tougher to write, because it's such a visual genre, but those that do it well are just plain awesome. I’d LOVE to see an Asian steampunk, because so much of the genre is set in Victorian Great Britain.

This venture was started partly due to some pretty controversial discussions online, and the issues are complex. What would you say to an author who is tentative about writing characters from different cultures?

Yes, RaceFail and related conversations is what started the idea of Tu Publishing. RaceFail was a huge online discussion that started when readers of color talked about how a white author introduced problematic racial dynamics in a fantasy novel for adults. It’s a tough issue.

But I think it's also possible for writers to write well cross-culturally, because who wants books to be completely segregated by race or culture? The thing to remember when writing cross-culturally is research. Writers who do this successfully talk to people who are members of the group whose perspective they want to write from. They read a lot. They study human behavior, and reach for the universal as well as the specific--the things that tie us together as human, the idiosyncrasies that make each person unique, and the mores, practices, and beliefs of a culture. They become aware of privilege and power dynamics and work to avoid perpetuating stereotypes.

For a list of things to remember when writing cross-culturally, author Nisi Shawl has an excellent article on the subject over on the SFWA [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] site called Transracial Writing for the Sincere. (Nisi Shawl has written a number of articles and a whole book related to writing the “other” which I recommend that authors look up.)

What advice would you give to an author who is contemplating going with a small press rather than submitting to a larger house? What does he/she need to be aware of?

The choice to go with a small press is a personal one, with pros and cons depending on the author’s preferences and needs.

Small presses generally will not have the kind of publicity machine that a larger company might—we generally won’t have the funds for cross-country author tours and other huge events. However, nowadays, that gap is closing as publicity and marketing goes more and more online. Smaller presses can reach out to readers online just as easily as a larger press, and sometimes more effectively because of a focused niche.

Small presses usually offer a more personal touch, too. Authors are one of a smaller list—for example, our first two lists will be just three books each—compared to a much larger number for larger houses.

Smaller presses can be stronger at keeping their backlist in print than a larger publisher, which means that even with a smaller advance, the book will do better financially long-term because it will earn out its advance and keep earning over time. Remember, an advance is just that—an advance against royalties. While a larger advance might seem like a better option in the short run, if the smaller press has a strong backlist, you’ll be more likely to have a longer career if your books consistently earn out their advances.

What makes the *ideal* author to work with?

Someone who understands that the editing process is collaborative. The book belongs to the author, yes—and the editor is there to make sure that the author’s book is telling the best story possible. We make suggestions because when we see a problem, it needs to be fixed in some way, even if our suggested solution isn’t the one you wish to implement. The best authors are people who understand that we’re part of a team, and that we have the same goal: to make sure the book reaches readers in the best shape possible.

Additionally, the ideal author will dig into the publicity process and be willing to reach his or her readers via at least one or two steady methods. Whether that’s through a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or some other method, nowadays the internet makes the connection between author and reader more possible, and readers want that. (Though it should not be to the detriment of writing their next book!)

Can you talk about Tu Books' slate or is it still too early?

It’s still too early to discuss specifics, but I can tell you that I’m looking for diversity not only in the cultures that we feature in our list, but also in age range, author experience (published or not), and appeal to boys and girls. I’d like a nice mix of middle grade and YA titles, and a nice mix of titles that would draw in boy and girl readers. I’d like to publish new authors and authors who have been previously published. So I’m working on planning for that balance as I consider submissions. Keep an eye on our website as time goes on, because of course we’ll announce our acquisitions once we’re ready for that.

Thank you so much, Stacy! Fabulous information and congratulations again on your success.

Find out more about Stacy and her Tu Books adventure on her fabulous website: Stacy Whitman's Grimoire
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