Interview with author and publisher, Mary Woodbury
This month we had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Woodbury, the founder of Moon Willow Press in Coquitlam, British Columbia. The main focus of Moon Willow is to publish books incorporating environmental themes, and since 2013 has expanded into different genres to share the stories and wisdom of many new authors.
Moon Willow believes in sharing the written word whilst recognizing how it important it is to be environmentally conscious by using recyclable and eco-friendly sourced paper.
An accomplished editor and publisher, Mary Woodbury has also written under the pen name Clara Hume.
With sincere dedication to the environment and her love of words, Mary brings her own wisdom and heartfelt thoughts in this down-to-earth interview.
Check out our Featured Guest Interview with Mary Woodbury down below!
Hello Mary and thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions today!
Please tell us a little about yourself, including interests and hobbies.
Hi, Ashley, and thanks very much for the interview. My hobbies are reading, writing, gardening, photography, running, hiking, and camping. For years I’ve also volunteered with various environmental non-profits. I am starting soon with a local Streamkeepers group. They do hands-on environmental stewardship such as laying spawning gravel for salmon.
When did you first know you wanted to write?
Before writing, I was a voracious reader. From a very young age, even before I could really read, my head was in a book. I eventually knew I wanted to be one of the people who writes those words in books. In elementary school I wrote little short stories and poetry—whatever creative writing exercise our teachers gave the class. I loved it. I was a shy person and spoke best through writing.
Do you have a process when you write?
I work full-time, run a business, and am actively keeping eco-fiction.com up-to-date. I dream of having a little cottage by the lake, just like Yeats wrote in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and there I would write without distraction. But, that’s just a dream. In reality, I write when I can. I took two years off my last novel before trying another one. My current novel’s progression is good. I even went to Ireland, where part of it takes place, to really feel and see what I’d be writing about. I purposefully am taking on fewer projects in order to be able to finish this novel.
Of the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite and why?
I’ve written several short stories, one children’s novella, and two novels. Only one novel is published, and I wrote it under a pen name (Clara Hume). The novel, Back to the Garden, is by far my favorite. It takes place in a climate-changed world, and the characters all have lost something in their lives and are struggling to find hope.
As an author and a publisher, what have you found to be the most effective methods of marketing books?
Well, I’m learning all the time. As a very small publisher (micro-press), I don’t have the means to compete with larger publishers. I find that word of mouth, staying active in social media, and continually hunting down audiences is key. I also have a strong environmental policy and donate to reforestation programs to balance out resources used. Publishing models of printing hundreds or thousands of books, and allowing extras that don’t sell to have their covers ripped off, is not my model. I print on-demand with Ingram and distribute with them as well.
An example of good marketing: The latest book I published was nonfiction—the true memoirs (Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness) of Ron Melchiore, who currently lives with his wife in the wilds of Saskatchewan off-grid. He also did other momentous things like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in the winter and bicycling coast to coast in the US. His story is mostly about how he has been living off-grid for decades. There’s a niche audience for that, and he and I have been very active in reaching that audience. Ever since the book’s publication, he has become a regular blogger for Mother Earth News and has gotten some great press. Ron is a down-to-earth, friendly, and humorous writer, and that personality helps attract readers.
What led you to start your own publishing company?
My literary interests evolved the older I got. I went from reading and writing to obtaining degrees in English and anthropology. After college I worked on several exciting projects with others, including beat generation art galleries and a nature-focused literary magazine. Moon Willow Press was an extension of all that.
What are three challenges you’ve faced since starting your own publishing company?
1. The first was that I didn’t have any distribution whatsoever. I live in Canada, and the only local distributors who work with small presses like mine require that 75% of your authors are Canadian. That didn’t happen. My first author lived in Mexico. I have another in Australia. I have two in Japan. Now I’m sticking with North American authors, but I’ve published only a few Canadian authors in anthologies. Now I’m printing and distributing with Ingram PoD and am in the process of transitioning my earlier books to Ingram. It is definitely easier this way, though finding local distribution would be ideal.
2. Secondly, it’s really hard to get started. I had just moved to Canada when opening my press in 2010 and hardly knew anyone. I was also working with debut novelists. I used to put out press releases to local media about my new publishing business and new books, and I never got any replies. Now, however, I see from submissions that authors like my press’s environmental goals, and because of circles I’ve gotten involved with, my work is starting to get recognized. Not too long ago my @ecofiction twitter account was mentioned in Wired as a good feed to follow. I thought, “Wow! How did they know about me?”
3. Third, little unexpected things can happen. I had done a lot of research before opening my business. I had worked in the publishing industry after college, so I knew about the business from an editorial and acquisitions standpoint. One of my brothers has worked in the print industry for a long time, as did my father. The book industry is in my blood, you might say. Still, sometimes things happen that you can never expect, such as an author becoming very ill or another author running away with an advance.
What made you decide to gear your publishing company to an environmental theme?
It had always been my goal, from when I began to think about opening a book publishing business. I got a gold publishing award from Green Press Initiative, wrote a toolkit for green publishing, and became a partner with Eco-Libris, which, when my press began, had a campaign called “Plant a Tree for Every Book You Read.” They are no longer doing that, so now I’m working with Trees, Water & People. Moon Willow Press’s donations to that organization have been building a memorial forest in honor of my father, who died in 2009. Since I began printing books in 2011, I’ve donated to the planting of 1,100 trees.
My goal was always to publish a few good books without harboring a big consumerist mindset. I use paper that is either recycled or forest-certified (and have even bound novellas or poetry books at home with hemp paper), and I don’t allow for the typical publishing model, which can be very wasteful if books don’t sell. It’s a responsibility I feel to our planet. I guess it gives me a purpose as well. I hope it’s a good service to authors, readers, and environmentalists alike.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to start their own publishing company?
Create a business plan. This forces you to research your operations model, objectives, and so forth. Doing this helps to create a mission, figure out your sales goals, and so on. Outlining your plan is key to having a model to at least start with. I’m happy to say that I’m still sticking with my original plan for the most part.
Do you have a process for selecting books to publish?
Here’s a little background on how I select novels: The first two or three books I published didn’t have environmental themes. I accepted some submissions from authors I knew from the magazine I ran for a decade. I knew their writing was polished, their creativity was beyond the norm, and the manuscripts they submitted were what I think of as the quality of a good independent movie. Anthony Wright, for instance, is one of my favorite authors ever, and he submitted Infernal Drums, which is a brilliant drifter novel in the vein of Kerouac. We’re doing a 2nd edition soon. It got some great kudos from readers. After those first few books, I decided to develop a niche of environmental or nature fiction and nonfiction. Inspired by Back to the Garden, and other novels with climate change and eco-themes, I created eco-fiction.com. That got me into circles of eco-writers, and I joined some organizations such as the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) and the International League of Nature Writers. These influences have helped me understand modern day eco-novels.
Despite going more niche with types of books I will publish, my selection process is changing a little. My original goal was to publish 5-10 novels a year after five years, starting with 1-2 a year. However, when I began my press I was only working part-time at a nonprofit. Now I’m working full-time outside my business, and 5-10 books is impossible with everything on my plate. Between late 2013 and early 2016, I was taking on more than I could. Part of it was because of some great submissions, and I couldn’t say no. But as of early 2016 I’m only accepting 1-2 submissions a year. The process beyond that is pretty simple. Read manuscripts, communicate with authors about the press, and then choose the story that I know will fit. I try to find something for each season—with the new limit of books I’ll be publishing, my goal is to publish in the spring and/or in the fall.
What are three key elements you look for in a submitted manuscript?
1. The main thing is the story. Is it well-written? Will I have to edit every sentence? Am I hooked from the beginning? Does this story fit in with the ecological goals of the press? I recently had a few manuscripts I was mulling over and then got a submission from a professor in Kentucky. It’s not that the other manuscripts were bad, but, wow, her story knocked me out. I was in the middle of playing a game and had her story up on my second monitor, and read it all in one setting—the game getting shut down quickly. It was decided—this is the one. We’re talking about a contract now.
2. Is the author following my submission guidelines? Have they sent a cover letter, some sample chapters, a biography? I figure that if the manuscript is great, I have to entrust the author to have good communication skills because we’ll most likely develop a long-term business relationship, maybe even a good friendship.
3. Though I do accept first-time authors, I will look more closely at an author who has some professional experience and publishing background (doesn’t have to be novels), and who seems mature. Being active on social media is a plus. Though the press has marketing outlets, I expect the author to have some as well.
What are three key elements that turn you away from publishing a book?
The opposite of the above: raw, unedited manuscripts; the author doesn’t follow submission guidelines; and the author is inexperienced (though there’s always the exception that they may have a great story!).
With regard to publishing and some of the author mills and contract warning flags out there, could you give three warning signs to look out for when considering approaching a publishing company?
1. Don’t pay to publish. This is a sign of a vanity or subsidy publisher.
2. Research the publisher. Are they selling a lot of low-quality books at unreasonably high prices? Do they expect authors to buy books? If so, you may be looking at an author mill.
3. Non-contract. I have read of writers who had “implicit understandings” with publishers. Always get a written contract.
If you could choose one author to publish, who would it be and why?
I would love to publish Jeff VanderMeer. His Southern Reach Trilogy blew my mind and heralded my newest favorite genre (ecological weird fiction). The New Yorker called him “The Weird Thoreau,” and just by talking with him once (I interviewed him for eco-fiction.com), I’ve really gotten into his ideas on weird fiction with an ecological twist, hyperobjects, and so on. I’m into it so much that my newest novel is an experiment in eco-weird fiction. This kind of writing resonates with me on so many levels. His trilogy’s first part, Annihilation, is getting made into a movie next year. It stars Natalie Portland, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and more in a really interesting cast. Alex Garland is the director. I can’t wait.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job for you?
I made a dream come true. When I was a kid I wanted to do something with books. Or forestry. But I went down the English path in college, and this is where I ended up. I used to dream about owning a cozy bookstore, but I ended up in publishing instead. Working with authors and producing high-quality books is my idea of a dream job.
Name two authors who inspired you in your own literary career.
Going back quite a bit further than VanderMeer, when I was a kid I enjoyed fantasy and folklore, and once I got past simple reading, the first novel I read was The Hobbit. I grew up being a Tolkien nerd and love the movies inspired from his books. I realize now that part of my appreciation was that he really exalted a simple, pastoral life and condemned industry that destroyed beautiful forests and rivers. Nature was giving and good; destruction of natural resources and mass production for consumption was bad. He also inspired the excitement of going on adventures, of course. My life seems like one big one. He built fantastic stories around these ideas, and they were certainly a huge influence on me when I was growing up.
There are so many authors who inspired me, but another big one to mention is Barbara Kingsolver. She writes on a level that brings you into her story. You are really just another character. Maybe it is because she is from the South, where my family is from, and–especially with Flight Behavior–her characters are very real to me. She has the great talent to be genuine about how life really is, without staging it. She creates deeply moving, funny, and bittersweet moments in literature. And her subjects often dip into things I care about, like climate change.
There’s a world of difference between being an editor and being an author. How have you balanced the more objective versus more emotive approaches of the two disciplines?
It’s like putting on a different pair of shoes. When I go to work I wear shoes that look somewhat professional and are held to a standard that my workplace would deem as appropriate. Editing is like putting on work shoes. It’s objective. When I run on the trail, I wear my trail shoes because they will let me fly without falling, and the very act of running inspires me to consider certain ideas in story-writing. Writing is like putting on my trail shoes and running in the forest. I get very creative.
For self-published authors, what are five questions every author should ask an editor if they’re thinking of hiring them?
1. What kind of editing is provided? Structural, correlation, stylistic, copy editing, proofreading? Does the editor provide what your book needs?
2. What other books have they edited? (Read samples to decide on the quality of work.)
3. How much does the editor charge? Compare rates with standard editorial rates (easily found on Google).
4. Can the editor work within your schedule?
5. Will the editor provide a contract?
Most authors understand the value of a good editor. From an author/editor point of view, can you expand that a little further by explaining how even experienced editors need a good editor when they switch their hats from editor to author?
I learned this the hard way when I wrote and tried to edit my first novel. I passed the book around to colleagues and to an uncle for science editing, but not to any real editors. My first “polished” version was full of mistakes. We can’t go to work and run the trail in the same shoes. It’s possible, but not practical—not to mention our brains trick us into reading what we think we wrote, so we can easily miss wrong word choices, misspellings, etc. I was lucky recently to have reconnected with a few editors I worked with right after college. They are truly talented; one of them may be happy to find some work with my next novel.
What is one piece of advice you would give new authors trying to get published?
We all have stories to tell. But publishing can be about rejection, harsh editorial revisions, and maybe never finding a place for your story. My biggest advice is to be happy you completed a novel and don’t take anything personally.
Where can we go to find out more about you and your work?
My work can be found at moonwillowpress.com or eco-fiction.com. More personal blogging is at eco-fiction.com/outdoors.
Thanks so much!