Based in Indianapolis, Indiana, Engine Books specializes in fiction—novels, novellas, and short-story collections—and the press is also home to the annual Engine Books Novel Prize. Engine Books was founded by publisher and editor Victoria Barrett in 2011, and both she and Andrew Scott, who directs Engine Books’ young adult imprint Lacewing Books, are fiction writers themselves.
Between these two endeavors, Engine Books publishes six titles per year. Recently, the press started an ambitious Indiegogo fundraising campaign with the goal of quadrupling the number of titles published, expanding staff, and establishing salaries for an editorial and marketing team that has essentially worked for free since it all began just a few years ago.
For the Ploughshares blog, editors Barrett and Scott share how the campaign is going, what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for, and what their vision is for the future of Engine Books.
Q: Asking simply for manuscripts that have a “big storytelling heart,” your submission guidelines are both delightfully and frustratingly broad, yet your titles seem cohesive in sharing an air of mystery—like Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s tense and compelling Orion’s Daughters, or Sarah Yaw’s haunting novel You Are Free to Go. What is it about these literary page-turners that make you, as editors, say yes?
VB: I like stories that deal with serious conflict. I like stories about relationships that aren’t strictly romantic—sibling stories, family stories, and friendships, for example. I also like stories of community. I find the books I’ve published frequently present characters dealing with their histories, often struggling against the places and people they come from. These struggles tend to manifest in events in those characters’ lives, I think, and in drama. Time is a crucial function of those struggles, so good management of narrative time lends both realism and dramatic tension, which results in that page-turner quality.
I don’t particularly enjoy what are called novels of ideas, or stories built largely on abstraction. Nor do I love narrative experimentation for its own sake, without a true purpose in a story. I’m glad others do, and I’m not interested in arguing against anyone else’s taste or preference, but mine leans toward the concrete, the real, the believable; the result is a lineup of tightly-wound, affecting stories.
Q: Other than the fact that YA books are all the rage now, what prompted Engine Books to begin the YA imprint Lacewing? What’s unique about your YA titles?
AS: A couple of Engine Books authors mentioned that they had YA novel manuscripts, and I wanted to join Victoria’s party too, so she let me start working for her in the summer of 2012 where I began to build the foundation of Lacewing Books. Barbara Shoup’s Looking for Jack Kerouac will be published in August—it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly—and Where Wicked Starts by Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Patricia Henley comes out in October.
I want to publish novels that stand up to the scrutiny of time. Maybe all editors say that, but with only two titles a year, Lacewing needs to immediately establish itself as a home for excellent, enduring work that readers, no matter what their age, can enjoy. Many classic novels might be labeled YA novels today. The Catcher in the Rye and The Member of the Wedding are basically YA books, right? Even Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone—like the book it’s loosely based upon, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—was heavily marketed to both serious adults and younger readers. Those are the kinds of books I want to shepherd into the world.
Q: On your blog, you emphasize the importance of editing every manuscript, no matter how stellar the first draft may appear. Could you describe the editing process at Engine Books, and how you think the editor/writer relationship functions best?
VB: The great luxury of running a small press, one that doesn’t have a corporate umbrella making demands about process and profit, is that I don’t have to choose perfect, ready-to-go books to publish. We hear a couple of things consistently from writers and agents working in the big-house publishing system (or trying to): first, that manuscripts generally are not getting the serious, in-depth editing they used to, or that such editing is falling to agents if it’s going to be done; second, as a result, the big publishing houses are not even considering books their editors think need serious editing. That’s not my approach, so I can look at a manuscript to see the story I think the author is trying to tell, and then work to help get there.
AS: I’ve tried to model my approach on what Victoria does, because she is one of the best editors in the business. So far, I haven’t asked for incredibly huge changes, other than telling Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Patricia Henley that their manuscript for what became Where Wicked Starts needed to be revised for the older audience the manuscript seemed to want.
Q: For such a relatively new press, you have a well-oiled marketing machine that really puts Engine Books on the map. Explain the marketing philosophy at Engine and why you think it’s so successful.
VB: I did a ton of research before I opened the press, for about a year, and a substantial portion of that was on best processes for book promotion. I collected samples from other presses, made miniature case-studies, and generally tried to educate myself as thoroughly as possible.
Media outreach is the biggest portion of our marketing effort. I make sure that the review pitch packages that go out look beautiful and especially professional, and reflect all the care we’ve put into the book’s contents. I think that made a difference in establishing the press as a viable, professional operation right out of the gate.
Then we do lots of follow-up communication, and we do involve the author in that process. Review editors and booksellers seem to like having access to authors. We also work on direct bookstore outreach, sending advance reader’s copies to buyers at indie stores all over the country, and our distributor—Consortium—does a nice job supporting that effort.
Q: Your stable of authors, while small, is impressive. Looking specifically at established writers like Debra Monroe, Gregory Spatz, or Patricia Henley—who all had multiple books and awards under their belts before coming to Engine—share what drew these heavy-hitters to a press that’s only been around three years.
VB: Generally, I had been working on building relationships in the writing community for many years, and my work with Andrew at our online fiction journal Freight Stories had helped build some credibility as well. I also had, right away, a fairly rudimentary distribution system—it wouldn’t have been possible to work with such established authors without some kind of distribution in place.
Patricia Henley wrote me the same week I opened the press about her collection Other Heartbreaks. I had known Patricia for many years, since I was her student at Purdue, and we had published one of the stories in Other Heartbreaks in Freight Stories.
Greg came to the press after talking with Patricia about her experience. He, too, has had a wide variety of publishing experiences and, like Debra, had recently published with the excellent, now-defunct SMU Press.
I have been a fan of Debra Monroe’s work as long as I’ve been writing, and I knew she had a novel, Shambles, that had never appeared in paperback. When I started the press, I contacted her to see if she would be interested in doing a paperback and ebook reprint of the novel, and she was happy about the chance. Her successful and more recent memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal, hadn’t found a paperback or ebook home yet, either, so we agreed to reprint both on the first anniversary of Outskirts’ hardcover pub date.
So the authors were already building on one another, and helping me build the press via word-of-mouth. In this way, EB has benefitted from the Big 5’s neglect of established mid-list writers, and of story collections. It’s their loss, certainly.
AS: Many of her authors have said that Victoria is the first person to understand what they are trying to do and can help them get there in revision. Our terms are better, in most cases, than what authors can get elsewhere, and because we’re writers, too, I think many authors trust us.
Q: What compelled you to start the Indiegogo campaign, and how did you arrive at the pie-in-the-sky figure of 2.7 million? What will you do if you don’t reach your goal?
VB: The most wonderful part of starting and running this press has been the community that’s grown up around it. My authors support one another, root for one another, and for the press. Readers do, too. Though I recognize that the campaign is, in some ways, outlandish, it’s an opportunity to invite that community into the vision I have for Engine Books’ future.
I don’t expect to reach the goal on this campaign. Clearly, it’s audacious to even ask for that much from anyone. But I also hope this leads down new roads where we might find other kinds of funding—private investment, for example.