I “met” Nola Lee Kelsey a couple years ago–I forget how, exactly– and became familiar with her work as an editor and a publisher when I contributed a chapter to the book, The Voluntary Traveler.
I was always curious to know more about her, so I sent her a set of questions via email. When she wrote back and said “I am now 68.2% sure I don’t want to be a publisher anymore” I got even more stoked about our exchange because I love soul-/path-searching people who aren’t afraid to be honest. Enough babble. Here’s Nola.
Julie: What is your professional background?
Nola: Well, I am a zoologist, so naturally you can see why I spend 14 hours a day behind a computer.
Okay, seriously, I guess like most things in life becoming a publisher was a bit of an evolutionary process. To me, the line from animal care to humor writing is fairly straightforward. Anyone who works full time with wild animals has stories to tell and if thery’re not funny you’re not doing it right. However, publishing never crossed my mind until the last few years.
Julie: How/why did you get started in publishing?
Nola: I don’t think starting Dog’s Eye View Media (DEVM) would have happened if the cruel fates had not landed me in Hot Springs, South Dakota, caring for an elderly parent. Good old Hot Springs is a bit short on wildlife rescues and zoological gardens. Plus, I needed the flexibility of working from home. Nonetheless, the step from writing articles to publishing books was born most out of my introverted and control freak personality quirks.
I like to write books. Oddly enough, I have no real desire to spend months crafting query letters and writing book pitches that might be rejected by some overworked intern on the basis of the stamp I used. Top that ludicrous notion off with patiently waiting for oodles of rejections, giving up content and design control, then splitting the meager profits sometime down the line… .Why write?Why not just brush my teeth with a cactus and be done with it? The level of joy would be the same.
Julie: DEVM’s tagline is “Publishing books that look at the world from a different angle.” Topically speaking, what kinds of books are you interested in (besides travel, animal, and volunteer related themes?). And what does that “different angle” suggest?
Nola: Is there anything other than travel, animals and combining both through voluntourism? That is who I am.
I am spread thin enough without publishing books on subjects I know nothing about. Take cookbooks for example. They may be a hot ticket items for some publishers, but a recipe could call for three cups of Legos and I wouldn’t know any better. Likewise, poetry and religious material would sink me into a coma before I finished downloading the manuscript. Nothing personal – that’s just not my thing. Trying to be all things for all people (or books) is a recipe for failure.
As for the ‘different angle’ aspect, I love wicked humor (not that safe, heartwarmingly trite stuff). I gravitate toward topics that won’t likely make me rich, but hopefully help the planet. Basically, I want to produce books that have fun while opening people’s eyes, not books that preach or glorify the author over others.
Many of the rigid rules defining what gets published today have resulted in an overload of cookie cutter publications on the market. Also, new authors are welcome at DEVM. Giving people a chance to be published – to get that first rush from seeing their writing in a book – it’s a fantastic feeling.
Of course, I don’t want everyone who has considered someday writing another children’s book full of fingerless bears learning to count to contact me now. Fantasy writers (not Sci-Fi, but those who just have the fantasy of being called a writer) need not take my time.
Julie:. Besides yourself, who’s on the staff of DEV?
Nola: Well, we have our mascot, Flipper the dog. Then there is George. He should be our mascot. Kidding! George is a part time sales guru, full time school teacher. Now that Dog’s Eye View Media has an exclusive contract with a North American distributor we love, George uses his connections around the Black Hills for distributing smaller, local publications for a side business he and I have. He also makes one hell of a cup of coffee.
Kathy, an intern from the local college, is known as our ‘Girl Everything’ and actually wants a career in this maniacal business, despite two years with us. I’ve done my damndest to scare her off, but she just keeps coming back for more. (Must be the coffee).
Julie: How many submissions/book proposals do you typically receive in a year?
Nola: Real ones? Fewer than 50. That said, I do get pitched via Twitter, Facebook…. I don’t count those, because I don’t acknowledge those. I mean seriously, what are people thinking? We may be the casual publishing company, but please… I figure these folks would show up naked to their first book signing event, because they could not be bothered to put their skivvies on.
Julie: Of those, how many do you typically publish?
Nola: It varies. I’d never want to produce more than 4 publications per year. It does not sound like much, but I am a writer too and I have noticed lately that my personal writing is suffering in both quality and quantity.
If I don’t get to the point soon where DEVM can afford to hire a larger staff (and find them in our area) I don’t want to sacrifice quality. There are just not enough hours in the day.
Julie: What are the characteristics of a stand-out book proposal?
Nola: The bad proposals stand out most.
Of course what you are asking is what makes a proposal stand out in a good way. For DEVM I don’t want people to sweat all those rules, so I don’t want “industry approved” proposals. It is terrible to hear of people who spend months on their proposals. That is a preposterous waste of time. I want my potential writers building their platforms, not rethinking how far to indent a paragraph for me.
At DEVM I prefer to make the decision to request a manuscript based on a one to two page query. In a digital era, this is quick, practical and does not waste a small forest. Plus, I have the freedom to hit delete or read the entire book immediately if it grabs me.
Of course, DEVM looks at completed manuscripts. Companies that can offer advances or commission a book to be written, work from a different playbook and need more details upfront.
As for a stand-out query letter, I personally only need to see two things:
1) Attention to basic detail (my name is not Dear Sir or Deer Sire). I’ve received some queries that were one step short of being written on a cocktail napkin. Inevitably these “manuscripts” (likely written on a stack of paper plates) are on subjects DEVM does not even publish. If you can’t research my name or write a letter how good can your book be? Respect my investment. What you are asking me for is thousands of dollars in marketing and production, plus boat-loads of time invested in formatting, editing, design and a million tedious little tasks people don’t realize publishers do.
2) Show me your platform. Yes, I know new writers cringe at that word – p l a t f o r m. I did too. But you have to show me you are an expert on the topic of your book and prepared to aggressively use that expertise as an angle to market your book. No matter who a writer hopes to publish with they need to show that they have a platform, a means of selling. Don’t show me a plan to build a platform. Show me the platform.
It sounds discouraging. I know that. But if a writer does not have a niche they need to start carving one out. Three years from now they can either say, look how far I have come in establishing my name or they can say, if only I had started three years ago. I would love to publish every manuscript I see that promotes a good cause.
However, when you scratch just below the surface I am just one stir-crazy gal stuck in South Dakota who is just trying to survive like everyone else. Why should I invest what little I have in your writing career, if you have not invested in yourself?
By the way, if a publishing house does not care if you are able to promote your books, they are about to ask you for money upfront – RUN!
Julie: As a “micro-publisher,” it seems you’re really involved in every part of the book process- editing, formatting, printing, distributing, marketing. What are some important lessons you’ve learned about the industry and yourself through this work?
Nola: Good question. I’ve learned that I love book cover design. There are days when I threaten to hang it all up, buy the domain name $5BookCoverDesign.com and hope my income covers the cost of an occasional beer.
Tragically, I have also discovered that I love giving others a chance, and not just authors. When I see my voluntourism guidebooks listing struggling little nonprofit organizations equally next to the big organizations that also work with volunteers, I think to myself, if I can make this business successful maybe I can help them – find them volunteers, get their name out, inspire hope… How can you walk away from that?
Julie: What’s some advice for writers working on book proposals?
Nola: Oh, those again. No two publishers want the same thing. I’d be wrong to give a generic answer. You need to visit a publishing house’s website and learn about their specific requirements for submissions. Do they even want a formal proposal? What format? Should you query first? Not following their directions will send your work on a quick trip from their slush pile to the trash can. Generic proposals just won’t fly.
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