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Leila Joiner (publisher & editor)

LEILA JOINER has worked as a substitute teacher, technical illustrator, technical editor, data analyst, nightclub singer, piano technician, literary editor, and publisher. She has been self-employed full-time for over 40 years and has no plans to retire. She loves stories, and when she’s not working she enjoys reading books and watching movies. She’s lived on the east coast and the west coast, but has finally come to terms with living in the high desert of Tucson, Arizona, although she still misses the ocean – either one.

AL: Imago Press is a small literary press. When, how and why did you establish it?

LJ: Imago Press was established in 2002. The story goes like this: I was taking a creative writing class at OASIS in Tucson (The OASIS Institute, www.oasisnet.org), and the teacher, Dan Gilmore, told me he’d always wanted to put out a book of stories by the class members. I volunteered to help him produce the book. The book was a success, and we made enough money in sales to produce a book the following year. OASIS was happy and asked me to produce the second book, which we decided to open up to all writers over fifty. And at that point I established Imago Press as publisher of the OASIS Journal.

AL: How many books a year do you publish, and do you seek out certain genres or just look for excellent writing in any genre?

LJ: It varies. Fewer books in the beginning, when I was just getting established. Last year I published 12 books. So far this year I’ve published 6 books, with another 5 books in line for publication in 2010. I have 35 books out to date. Some of the 35, however, were published under a separate imprint, Pennywyse Press, which I use for subsidy publishing, where the author pays production costs. I don’t seek out any specific genre, just try to choose the most interesting books from among those that come my way.

AL: What is your editorial background, and what brought you to book publishing?

LJ: Serendipity? Being in the right place at the right time? I’m a lifelong reader, a lover of books, a straight-A English major, and an aspiring writer. At the time I took on the production of the first OASIS Journal, I was senior editor for a small literary press in Houston, Texas. That publisher went through some hard times (illness, flood damage), and his company folded about the same time I started Imago Press.

AL: What do you consider the goals and responsibilities of a small literary press?

LJ: I’m sure that varies with the individual press. Most of us are in business because we love books and want to see good books get into print. It’s our responsibility to help the author create a quality product and make it available to as wide an audience as possible.

AL: What does Imago Press aim to do, if anything, that’s unique relative to other publishers?

LJ: From the beginning, Imago Press has concentrated on presenting the work of older authors, who often have trouble getting published in our youth-oriented culture.

AL: Are there advantages for an author in being published by a small press as opposed to a large one?

LJ: Yes. The two that quickly come to mind are 1) the author is likely to receive more personal attention from a small publisher and have more control over the final product, and 2) the book is more likely to stay in print and remain available over the long haul. The disadvantage is that small presses rarely have much of a marketing budget, if any. On the other hand, a large publisher’s marketing budget gets allocated to a small percentage of their list. And if your book doesn’t make considerable sales in the first month or two after publication, little effort will be made to distribute and sell it.

AL: How involved are you as an editor in the books you publish? Do you work mostly alone, or with other editors?

LJ: The quick answer is I work alone. In fact, I do everything except write, print, and distribute the books. I do the editing, the cover design, and the interior design and layout for all the books I publish. I also do freelance editing for other authors, and freelance cover and interior book design for other authors and publishers. I may occasionally ask a trusted reader to look at a manuscript I’m interested in to get a second opinion.

AL: What is your usual print run, and how are your books distributed?

LJ: I don’t usually do print runs, as most of my books are print-on-demand through the printer Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram Book Group. In this model, books only get printed as needed, whether one book at a time or 1,000 in one order. In fact, I couldn’t afford to be in the publishing business without print-on-demand technology and the available distribution through Ingram. Because Ingram is one of the biggest wholesalers in the U.S., my association with Lightning Source gives me access to most brick and mortar bookstores, as well as the online bookstores like www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. I also gain worldwide distribution. At present, I can have books printed in and shipped from either the U.S. or the U.K. Occasionally, I may use a different printer for a special project, in which case a print run could vary from 25 books to 500 books. I’ve done this especially with limited distribution titles, such as full color hardback coffee table books.

AL: What sort of marketing do you do for your titles, and what expectations do you have of your authors?

LJ: I have no marketing budget, per se, but I do send out review books, distribute catalogs of my available books, and support my authors in any way I can to help push their books. This might involve sending out media kits and sell sheets to bookstores I think might be interested in stocking a book, or designing and printing advertising materials, such as postcards, bookmarks, or posters for a book-signing or other book-related event. Things are changing so fast in the publishing business that even large publishers are depending more and more on authors to do the work of marketing their own books. I consider it a plus if an author is motivated to contact bookstores or other businesses in their area that might be interested in selling their books. Authors who have a built-in clientele, whether through a website, blog, or public speaking engagements are a plus. I try to produce the best quality book I can and make it available in as many places as possible for readers to purchase. The author and I work closely together on both of those objectives.

AL: What involvement does Imago Press have with the local literary community?

LJ: My main involvement locally has been through individual authors or through other publishers. For example, for several years I handled book production for Pima Press, a local university press. Though Pima Press is no longer active due to problems resulting from changes in administration at the college, they published some excellent titles, and I made many connections with the local literary community that have since proved beneficial to Imago Press. The majority of my authors are local to Arizona, which is nice, as I get to meet them and interact face-to-face, but I also have authors in Washington state, Vancouver, Canada, and Paris, France.

AL: What frustrations do you face in today’s changing publishing climate?

LJ: I see more possibilities than frustrations. I’m starting to publish more e-books, for one thing. And I’ve already set up most of my books to be available through the EBM (electronic book machine). One advantage of the EBM is that books can be purchased, printed, and bound on-site in, for example, someplace like Australia, to which it is very expensive to ship. The University of Arizona bookstore here in Tucson has an EBM, which is not active as yet, but I’m truly looking forward to seeing it in operation. The main problem with e-books, currently, is that there are so many different formats, with every new e-book reading device requiring something different. That’s frustrating, as it would be so much simpler if they could decide on a single standard format that everyone could use.

AL: How has your press evolved over time, and where do you see it going in future?

LJ: The biggest change is that I am continually publishing more books and selling more books, all of which is good news, as it means my business is growing year by year. Like anyone else, I would love to hit that one big bestseller, but success is not contingent on that. Having an active backlist – books that continue to sell, year after year – is a much more realistic goal, and one that benefits both Imago Press and my authors.

AL: What impact are developments in technology having on your press?

LJ: I think I probably answered this earlier, but I would say that developments in technology constantly open up whole new avenues to explore in terms of producing and selling books. It’s time-consuming just keeping up with all the latest developments, but I do try to do that.

AL: What is your proudest accomplishment as a publisher?

LJ: That’s a tough one, as I don’t usually think in those terms. But I am very proud of OASIS Journal, the fact that several years ago it reached my goal of at least 300 pages per issue (it usually runs 350 pages these days), and the fact that I’ve been able to produce what I’ve been told is a consistently good anthology every year for the past eight years. OASIS Journal 2010 will be the ninth book in the series. Just hearing from all those writers over fifty and what it means to them to see their work in print is a wonderful thing.

AL: How has being a book editor and publisher changed your feelings about or approach to your own writing?

LJ: I used to write. In fact, since fourth grade that was what I wanted to do most in my life. Things did not work out that way. I got married and became a mom instead. And, later, I was a single mom just trying to make a living. Now, I find I have neither the time nor the energy because I’m always working with other people’s manuscripts. However, I have a few stories still stuck in my head, and hopefully I’ll manage to get them out onto paper before it’s too late. I will say, though, that working with other people’s manuscripts is probably the best way to learn about what works and what doesn’t. My understanding of story structure has grown immeasurably. It will be interesting to see if I can eventually apply that understanding to my own writing. It’s so easy to be blind to one’s own imperfections!

AL: What impresses you in a book proposal? What turns you off?

LJ: The nonfiction books I’ve published have arrived as a full manuscript rather than a proposal. I do receive query letters from fiction authors. A well-written query letter that promises an interesting plot and/or character will always lead to a request to see sample chapters. At that point, no matter how good the query letter is, everything depends on the manuscript. Two recent examples are:

1) A woman approached me at a writers’ workshop last year and told me about her mystery novel. I asked her to send me the first chapter, which she did. I read it, liked it, and was going to ask for the full manuscript. But then I found myself walking around the house, thinking about her protagonist. After just one chapter, I couldn’t get the character out of my head. I decided that was a good enough sign, and promptly approached her with a contract. I hadn’t even read the book yet! This was an unusual situation, but the book recently received an excellent review from Midwest Book Review, so I feel I was right to follow my instincts.

2) A man sent me an extremely well-written query letter outlining his cozy mystery novel. The story, the location, and his main character all sounded intriguing, so I asked him for the full manuscript, which I read. I liked the book, but it was just not as interesting as the query letter, mainly because it was too long. So I wrote him back and said I’d be interested if he could trim it by 40,000 words, which is a lot of words! He’s currently working on that, so we shall see.

AL: Do you currently accept submissions directly from writers, and if so, what are you looking for?

LJ: I don’t accept unsolicited submissions, as I know I don’t have time to read them and would be doing the authors an injustice. I do accept queries, preferably by e-mail. If a book sounds interesting, I’ll ask for more. I’m mainly interested in a good story, well written, with an interesting protagonist. I’m open to most any style or genre, and have published literary novels, science fiction, mystery, non-formula romance, straight dramatic novels, true crime, memoir, educational books, and some poetry.

AL: Tell me about two of your recent titles, and what’s special about them.

LJ: Provincial Justice by Gerry Hernbrode is the mystery novel I contracted to publish without even reading the full manuscript. I was intrigued by her main character, who was a nun in the 1960s, then left the convent to become a teacher and, later, a principal in an inner city elementary school, where she encounters all kinds of problems, including the murder of a school administrator in her first-grade classroom. Although the plot is wholly fictional, the author’s own life experiences inform her main character’s personality, making her such an interesting collection of contrasting characteristics that she’s hard to forget.

Another book I’m currently working on, which should come out sometime this fall, is Investigating the Death of Innocents by Detective Michael Orozco. Mike works in the Dependent Child Unit of the Tucson Police Department and investigates cases of child abuse and murder. The book is about a high-profile case that took place in Tucson from 2007 to 2009, and covers everything from the first phone call through the subsequent trial and sentencing. I’ve read a number of true crime books, and they were all written in a dramatic narrative style, as if they were fiction. This book intrigued me because it’s written in a reportorial style from the perspective of the lead detective in charge of the case. I found it very educational, as it made me privy to the way an actual police investigation is carried out from day one. The case itself is sad and disturbing to read about, but both the author and I feel that people need to know about our endangered children. I’m probably taking a chance on this one, but feel it needs to be out there and available to readers.

To contact Leila Joiner regarding Imago Press, e-mail: ljoiner@dakotacom.net

Copyright 2010 Allyson Latta.

Editor’s note–August 2011: OASIS Journal 2011 will be available in November through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.