When I learned that her second novel, Rashi's Daughters, Book 2: Miriam was releasing, I jumped at the chance to interview her on how she went from her own independent press to publishers a bidding war on the remainder of her series.
MAGGIE ANTON is an award-winning writer who studies Talmud and medieval history. She is at work on the third novel in the trilogy, about the youngest daughter, Rachel.
Tell us about your newest release Rashi's Daughters, Book 2: Miriam.
The historical series about three sisters in 11th-century France resumes with the tale of Miriam, the middle child of the great Salomon Ben Isaac (aka Rashi). Having no sons, Rashi continues to teach his daughters the intricacies of the Talmud in an era when educating women in Jewish scholarship was unheard of. Miriam, emboldened by her knowledge, is determined to become not only her community's midwife but also their mohel. While she was able to study Talmud and wear tefillin in the privacy of her home, hidden from those in her community who object to women observing these traditional male rituals, once she begins doing circumcisions, the controversy threatens to split her close-knit Jewish community.
As devoted as she is to her chosen path, she cannot foresee the ways in which she will be tested and how heavily she will need to rely on her faith after the death of her betrothed. This is especially true when a shadowy new suitor arrives in Troyes, an exceptionally learned and handsome young scholar who struggles with a secret that, if revealed, would expose them both to ruin. Yet somehow, the formidable and independent Miriam must decide if they can forge a life together.
What motivated you to stop seeking traditional publication?
I was working with a literary agent for the first book in the trilogy, but I was determined to get it published in 2005 for the 900th anniversary of Rashi’s death. When no traditional publisher showed interest by mid-2004, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Tell us about your decision to create your own publishing company. What were the advantages and disadvantages you weighed?
I decided immediately to create Banot Press rather than going through a subsidy press like iUniverse or Author House. The only disadvantage to forming my own company was the extra time it took to learn how to do this professionally and then to keep the enterprise running. The advantage was that bookstores and reviewers were more likely to take Rashi’s Daughters seriously if it came from a small press that wasn’t obviously connected with the author. I doubt that I would have been able to find a distributor if I’d used one of the vanity presses.
How did you get your first novel edited?
I hired a freelance editor, Beth Lieberman (www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/BethLieberman), who used to work for one of the big houses until it started downsizing. Even though I was hiring her, she was the one interviewing me. A good freelance editor has plenty of work and doesn’t want to waste her time on a book she won’t want to be associated with later.
What is a book shepherd? How did you find out about yours? Will you walk us through the process you went through with Sharon Goldinger?
The short definition of a book shepherd is someone who guides, instructs, cajoles, and sometimes even commands the small publisher on how to produce a superior book. I learned about the profession from reading several books on self-publishing, and when I asked Beth about hiring one, she suggested contacting Sharon Goldinger of Peoplespeak (www.detailsplease.com/peoplespeak).
Very briefly, this was my process. First of all, I wrote a good book and made sure it was well edited. I hired Sharon and followed her detailed (10-page) instructions to the letter. I checked the bookstore for other books in my genre and made sure that mine looked like them, plus had similar front and back matter (which is how I ended up with bookgroup questions).
Then I formed my own small business (got license, new bank account credit cards, and phone number, etc.) I filled out and submitted copyright, ISBN, PCN, and other mandated forms properly. I interviewed, evaluated and then hired great designers for the cover and interior. I made a million decisions about cover and interior design – I was the publisher so the final say was mine. I got quotes from printers and chose the paper stock. Then I obtained distribution and arranged for shipping.
In order to pick up distribution, you had to have a strong marketing plan. How did you put that together?
I identified my target market early on — Jewish women. I figured out where they were (rabbinic schools, synagogues, JCC’s, book groups, organizations like Hadassah) and what about Rashi’s Daughters would interest them (strong Jewish heroine, fascinating historical time period). Then I started contacting them about speaking about my research at their meetings and events. In addition, I set up a web site and wrote articles for target publications (Hadassah Magazine, Golda, Judaism). Sharon helped me compile this information and experience into an application for distribution.
How did you choose your publicist?
Sharon normally does the PR for her book shepherd clients, but she thought I would be better served with someone who specializes in the Jewish market. So we both did some research and came up with Carol Fass Publicity and Public Relations in New York (www.fasspr.com). Like Beth, Carol was very particular about her clients, but once she saw a copy of the book, she didn’t need much convincing to accept Rashi’s Daughters. With Sharon’s help, I chose the most productive and cost-effective of Carol’s many services.
How many copies (printings) of your first novel did you manage to sell on your own?
Joheved went through six printings, for a total of just over 26,000 copies. I have about 500 left in my garage.
How did the leap come about from owning your own press to being picked up by Penguin? Did they purchase the entire series?
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Was it strange seeing your first book redone?
Not too strange. Plume didn’t change the interior at all, and the new cover was very similar to the original. I had insisted on cover consultation, and they were very good about getting my approval. I agreed that it was important that Joheved be more clearly labeled “Book I” now that there was also a Book II. I miss the bold red cover, but it wouldn’t have worked with the new design. And I love having the women’s faces on the spine.
What changes have struck you the most working with a traditional publisher verses your own company?
I have no control over the size of each printing and I have no easy way to find out how many copies have been sold. Plume’s PR people make their own marketing decisions, and I find out what they’re doing when it happens. Of course, Plume does things I never could have done before, like getting Rashi’s Daughters into Costco and onto special tables in the big chain bookstores. I know that Plume’s promotion will stop in a few months, but I’ll still be plugging away at speaking engagements and book signings until it’s time for Rachel in 2009.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of going the traditional route?
The main disadvantage is the lack of control, the main advantage is that big advance; only a little of my own money is on the line.
What advice would you give to others wanting to start their own publishing company?
Have a well-written book with a clearly defined audience, and hire all the appropriate professionals to help you make it a reality. Have reasonable expections about how many books you’ll sell and how much money you’ll make.
What's happened to Banot Press now that you've taken your series to Penguin?
I haven’t closed it down. I might want to publish someone else’s work or perhaps another book of my own. Right now I’m too busy writing Rachel to take on anything new though.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
When I first decided to write Rashi’s Daughters, I had in mind another possibility, a historical novel about a woman mentioned many times in the Talmud, Rav Chisda’s daughter, who was married, in turn, to scholars who headed the two great Talmud academies in Babylon. I think the time period when the Talmud was redacted (500 CE) is also a fascinating one that few people know about. So I still want to tell the story of Rav Chisda’s daughter. Of course, if my trilogy is really sucessful, I might have to write Rashi’s Granddaughters.
This entire Rashi’s Daughters phenomenon was a surprise to me; I never intended to be a novelist, let alone write for the publisher of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I feel like I’m on a long escalator – I have no idea where it’s going and I can’t easily get off. But so far I’m enjoying the ride and eager to see where it takes me.