Interview with Dede Cummings – Founder of Green Writers Press
For our next interview we are pleased to welcome Dede Cummings, founder of Green Writers Press. Dede Cummings is an award-winning poet, literary agent, and book packager, who founded Green Writers Press in Brattleboro, VT, now in its third year, boasting over 45 titles and nearly as many authors.
Dede began her career working in publishing in Boston after graduating from college, first at David R. Godine and then at Little, Brown doing book design and book packaging. Later she went into business for herself as a literary agent, writer, and book designer. After handling all aspects of the process with several self-publishing clients, she realized she had the necessary skills to open an independent press.
So in 2014, Green Writers Press, whose tagline is “Giving Voice to Writers Who Will Make the World a Better Place,” was born. GWP is an L3C corporation, meaning it is a business with a social mission. Its focus on sustainability and social justice distinguishes it from other independent publishers. Printing on demand, using only FSC-certified papers, and working with local printers with sustainable practices are three concrete ways that GWP embodies its mission. The press publishes a literary magazine, The Hopper, focusing on the role of nature in human life, and also donates a percentage of its profits to environmental groups.
What or who inspired you to form the Green Writers Press?
On the anniversary of the Fukashima nuclear reactor meltdown, I woke up one morning feeling powerless to do something about the global climate crisis. I looked at my own skill set as a writer: I’m a writer, poet, literary agent, and a book packager/designer. I had the idea that I could start a publishing company, and put my skills to work, and the focus would be on environmental activism with themes of nature and taking action to make the world a better place. I have long been inspired by the work of Bill McKibben, the founder of the organization called 350.org. Bill inspired me to take action after Tropical Storm Irene ravaged my home state of Vermont. I rode my bicycle from Brattleboro to Montpelier after the hurricane and saw firsthand the devastation caused by a world plagued by rising temperatures due to the burning of fossil fuel. If there was something I could do to help the planet, I wanted to do it.
What challenges have you encountered in meeting your objective to publish environmentally friendly books?
I would say the major obstacle has been a lack of capital. I took out two loans to start the process and I have paid back one of them for $30,000. The other loan for $20,000, I’m still paying back. This has been a real challenge for me financially because I am not making any money. The books we have published and the ones we are working on are fantastic, so that is a great motivator for me to “stay in the game!”
How difficult is it to meet your objective of publishing environmentally friendly books?
Initially, my goal was to print all of our books in Vermont, but I really need to have large quantities in order to get a good price. One reason we started Green Writers Press was to print our books sustainably, and use e-books and audiobooks to reduce our fossil fuel use in production cost. We are even trying to source our server—Wordpress, too—to see how the main server uses electricity and where it comes from. Our entire office is powered with solar panels, too, and we compost as much as we can and recycle everything else.
First off, most of our larger quantity and picture books are printed in Vermont at Springfield Printing and our Print-on-Demand (POD) books are printed at Lightning Source, in Tennessee, which is across the street from our main warehouse (so not shipping books from printer to warehouse saves trucking pollution from burning fossil fuels). Other sustainably printed books (POD) are also printed at Thomson-Shore in Michigan and Bookmobile in Minneapolis. We love to work with our partner printers! Our newest printing partner is Phoenix Color in Maryland. They just finished printing our children’s book Ralph Flies the Coop. They have a very strong commitment to environmental sustainability in the printing process.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced when starting your own publishing company?
Really, just the lack of capital which translates into stress because I have to work a job (as a book designer for other publishers and a private book packager) in order to pay the bills.
How has your view on green publishing changed from GWP’s conception to today?
I have learned a great deal in the three years since inception. The biggest thing I have learned is that the publishing business is very complicated! When I got my first statement from Midpoint Trade Books (our national book distributor based in New York City and Tennessee), I saw how many books were returned by bookstores, for example, and I was really concerned about my profit margin. It would be great to have a business partner to help with the financial side, but since I don’t even make a salary yet it’s hard to justify paying somebody else! I am learning a lot though, and we are breaking even. I am the first to admit that I was a bit naïve going into the process. What took me by surprise was how quickly we grew and how enthusiastic our readers have become. We really seem to have filled a niche in the marketplace.
You have your own writers, but how do you choose new writers and artists? Do you actively seek out writers and invite them to write for you, or do you have a submission strategy?
Initially I invited some Vermont writers I knew to work with us. We are a low-profit, mission driven corporation. I do have an advisory board, and the board head, Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher, hand-picked a few of our authors and he continues to do so! I am very grateful for his help. Currently, we are getting most of our submissions through email from our submissions form on our website. We are also getting a number of agent submissions as well. We are very open to discovering new and emerging writers, but we are a very small freelance staff and are having trouble keeping up with the volume of submissions.
How do you select which books you would like to publish and what is your submission process?
As I mentioned in the previous question, we are very small but growing very quickly. We have a number of interns working with us who help us by reading the submissions that come via email. Quite a few of those submissions have been picked up by us and we are planning to publish them. I am in the process of redesigning our website which will be up soon and we plan to go to an online submission process using Submittable. Our fast growing, environmental literary magazine, The Hopper, already uses Submittable and it’s a very efficient way to organize submissions.
When did you first decide a green world was your goal?
I have been active in the environmental movement since I was in my 20s. Vermont has a long tradition of environmental activism and solutions to burning fossil fuel. The idea of publishing books sustainably occurred to me when I read articles about the waste of paper in the publishing process. I was appalled to find out how books are printed and wanted to do something about it. We only print books on demand, so we have very little inventory. We also do all of our printing in the United States. I looked into printing in China, and it was so credibly cheap, but I just didn’t feel right about that. Our slogan is, “writers and artists who will make the world a better place,” which really speaks to the idea of being green in this world of fracking and environmental catastrophe. I think the majority of people in the world are green at heart and want to do something about it. Personally, I think that we have to work even harder now that our leadership in America is about to change. This really breaks my heart because I was starting to feel hopeful… But if everybody does something every day to foster a sustainable environment, I’m convinced we will succeed in reversing the speed of the heating up of our planet. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work. Starting this process is one way to bring attention to the problem and support writers and artists who will make a difference.
What are your most successful titles at present, and which current titles do you wish were more successful.
Our most successful title at the moment is Clarence Major’s book Chicago Heat and Other Stories along with M Jackson’s scientific memoir entitled While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change. An upcoming young adult novel called Broken Wing, by the late author David Budbill, already has thousands of dollars worth of pre-sales. This is a big deal for us. Our biggest sellers range in the 2000 quantity. Our average sales are somewhere between 500 and 1,000 books. I really wish our children’s books would start taking off… It’s really hard to get known in the publishing world. Our biggest buyers are libraries which is really exciting for us. We have created a series for children called Josie Goes Green. The newest book coming out, in the spring of 2017, is called Josie Meets a Jaguar. I really hope this series takes off because it will empower children to take action in this world of global climate change, and hopefully, the children will not feel so powerless. If we can get the children involved I feel there is hope for the future.
Which have been your most popular or memorable authors as publishers?
The press has grown tremendously since its inception. Several of our books have received awards: three gold medals fromForeword Review’s IndeFAB Book of the Year, including Love in the Time of Climate Change by Brian Adams, Blackberries and Cream by Leslie Rivver, and Teaching from the Heart of Mindfulness by Lauren Alderfer; two from the Nature Generation’s Green Earth Book Awards, Josie and the Fourth Grade Bike Brigade by Beth Handman and Kenny and Antonia Bruno, and The Order of the Trees by Katy Farber; and one from the Santa Monica Public Library’s Green Prize for Sustainable Literature, While Glaciers Slept by M Jackson. Kirkus and Publishers’ Weekly, along with Library Journal, Foreword Reviews, and Shelf Awareness have reviewed several GWP titles.
What’s your creative schedule like? What is a typical day in the office?
This is a very nice question! I like to get up really early, around 5:30 or so and I make a cup of tea and work on my own writing from anywhere from a half hour to one hour. I am a poet and a commentator for Vermont Public Radio. It’s really important for me to work on my book design and packaging jobs, because I really need to pay the bills! I work for some publishers like Tupelo Press and Alice James Books and I’m lucky to have such great clients. I also work with private individuals looking to publish their own books through my imprint DCDesign Books, then, I try to fit in my Green Writers Press work. Sometimes, I work in the evening on GWP books if my “day job” takes over. I love my work so much, but it’s hard to fit everything in! It’s really important for me to eat really healthy food and go out in the woods every day. I also do yoga and meditate. I spend time every day doing some form of environmental activist work, that might be donating $20 to the ACLU or the Sierra Club. Today, for example, I’m going to a gathering to support the indigenous people of North Dakota at Standing Rock fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I am passionate about hiking and climbing mountains, so every summer I hike a section of Vermont’s Long Trail with friends, and on the weekends I try to hike or snowshoe in winter. My husband and I also like to play music and do a lot of cooking using local ingredients with family and friends.
What is the one person, place, or thing, that has inspired you most in your writing and publishing career?
Another wonderful question! My first thought was that a lot of my inspiration comes from the Nobel prize winning environmental activist, the late Wangari Mathai, who started the Green Belt Movement to plant trees in Kenya. In late 2017, I’m going to publish a memoir by a Native American woman whose name is Irene Skyriver. The book is called Ghost Paddle and I am deeply honored to be her publisher. As a writer myself, I admire the work of the great nature poets and poets who are able to use their writing as an activist tool to bring about awareness of the fragility of the planet we live on. The early Japanese poet Basho is one of my favorites. I have always been drawn to haiku for its brevity and simplicity and the tradition of observing the natural world. Other poets I love include John Keats, William Wordsworth, and of course Shakespeare. More contemporary poets are Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, David Budbill, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham, Sophie Cabot Black, Ellen Bryant Voigt, etc. I also love to read fiction and one of my favorite books in the past year was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Dorr. Other favorite writers are Tim O’Brian, Alice Monroe, Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and one of my favorites is Margaret Atwood who is not only a brilliant writer, she is an environmental activist!
I first discovered my interest in writing as a teenager. I wrote a (bad) poem called “Darkness came and the children deserted the park,” which was published in my high school literary magazine. I just knew that poetry was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life in some form or another. I have always written poetry and kept handwritten journals. Writing is my art, a way of sharing my innermost thoughts, and a way to communicated those words in a hopefully universal way that is meaningful to my readers. My first book of poetry was just awarded the Homebound Publications 2016 Poetry Prize and I am thrilled that the book is coming out in spring 2017. My mother, Shirley, is my greatest support (and fan!) and I owe her so much gratitude for always encouraging my writing as a teenager and, most importantly, listening to me when I wanted to read a poem (or essay) aloud.
What genres are you interested in reading personally outside your professional work?
One of my favorite genres is memoir and earth science combined. I highly recommend Janisse Ray’s book The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. I’m also a big fan of Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez. I am drawn to the environmental writers. The poet Galway Kinnell is another favorite of mine. One of the things I like to do when I have downtime is to read a good book! I love a good memoir like Mary Karr or Jeannette Walls. I also delve into the work of the Green Writers Press adult fiction authors: Sheila Post, Sara Dillon, Don Bredes, Brian Adams, Brett Stanciu, and our children’s fiction authors like Leslie Rivver, Daintry Jensen, and Katy Farber. I feel so lucky that I get to read these incredible books and then bring them out into the world!
Which of your hobbies has had the most profound impact on your writing?
Definitely hiking. I go out in the woods every day. It’s almost like a daily meditation. I’m encouraged by the fact that Robert Frost used to go hiking every morning. He called it his daily work. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to make money, so I could devote more time to my own poetry and publishing the work of these wonderful writers… It’s very stressful to have to split my time between working for money and trying to get Green Writers Press going, but I am grateful for every day. Going out into the woods reminds me of the beauty of nature and it’s a chance to slow down and clear my head. I’m lucky that I live out in the country near the mountains of Vermont.
In the strides to raise awareness of the challenges facing planet Earth and our habitation of it, what role do you think climate fiction will play in the decades to come?
I think climate fiction should be it’s own genre and it should also be taught in colleges and universities, in high schools, and even elementary schools. We are trying to help build this genre with our Josie Goes Green series. Katy Farber’s book The Order of the Trees is another wonderful climate fiction novel for middle grade readers and a recent Honor Book for the Green Earth Book Award in 2016. Our young adult readers seem to love Polly and the One and Only World by Don Bredes, in which a teen witch tries to save her kind from a purge in a future America ruled by a restrictive alt-right regime. We also appreciate a sense of humor at GWP! Brian Adams’ second novel KABOOM! is laugh out loud funny but it’s also really instructive for younger readers because they learn about peaceful protest and environmental activism.
What social media platforms do you use to promote Green Writers Press and its authors?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our own website which is about to be launched in the next few weeks.
Do you feel that social media plays an important role in publishing today?
Absolutely! Or Instagram feed is growing daily and Facebook is a great resource for us to keep our readers current. We are also excited to create audiobooks and we already have a very strong e-book platform.
In a market where there is a plethora of writers, can you define the differences between small presses and say, self-publishing?
Self-publishing is something I respect and admire when writers take the plunge and bring their own work out into the world. It is a challenge to market the book, however, as one’s audience is certainly limited if an author doesn’t have a huge platform. I always send a questionnaire out to my self-publishing/DCDesign Books writers: What are your goals? Do you want to have a quality book that you can share with friends and family, or do you want to try to achieve acceptance into that elusive literary “club” of the Big Five? I have worked in both areas and know them well. I started my imprint DCDesign Books to help authors wishing to self publish and it is very satisfying and rewarding work to help bring an individual’s book out into the world.
Who is your most successful author?
Clarence Major without a doubt, but all of our authors are extremely successful in my book! What’s really exciting is that we are a real community and support each other. Many of our authors do readings together, for example. My only hope is that I get some financial support so I can keep up with helping to promote their work. I don’t have the money for a marketing program or a publicist, so it’s really frustrating to have these great authors who are not getting noticed as much as they should be. We are so proud of Clarence Major who recently won the PEN- Oakland Josephine Myles Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is one of the most prominent African-American writers today. It is such an honor for us to be his publisher!
How do you expect to see green publishing catch on in the next couple of years? The next ten? What will be the impact?
I think green publishing has a wonderful future! I receive emails from people all over the country and other parts of the world telling me how inspired they are by our mission. Our “Sprouts for Kids” program for children is also getting the attention of the publishing world. We were featured in Publishers Weekly a year ago, in their industry issue for our children’s publishing program. While Glaciers Slept won the Santa Monica Public Library and the City of Santa Monica’s Green Award for Sustainable Literature recently. Foreward Reviews has named three of our books as gold-medal winners: Blackberries and Cream, Teaching From the Heart of Mindfulness, and Love in the Time of Climate Change. The future looks bright for the industry in my opinion.
If you could hand an aspiring cli-fi author one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would read the classics like The Monkey Wrench Gang and the tradition of nature poetry. Cli-fi is a new genre and it’s exciting because there’s so much room to grow. Writers and artists really have the ability to raise awareness and help change the world I think. Read everything you can: Gary Snyder, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, Louise Gluck . . . the Book of Job from the Bible even!
Where can we discover more about you, your work, and Green Writers Press?
Web: www. greenwriterspress.com