Eight years ago, when Jane Karker opened Custom Museum Publishing in Rockland, Maine, she attracted not only artists, museums, and galleries for her services but also writers who wanted to self-publish their work.
At the time, she didn’t have a good option for helping the latter get their books to market. But in 2009 Karker came up with a plan to give local booksellers, ranging from L.L. Bean in Freeport to the Owl & Turtle Bookshop in Camden, a way to carry independent press titles, and launched Maine Authors Publishing. In many ways the for-profit printer/authors’ co-operative acts like a traditional publisher with a seasonal catalogue, a dedicated Maine sales rep, and a trade discount, not consignment. The hybrid printing/distribution concept has been so successful that late last year Karker expanded into the Greater Boston area with Boston Writers Publishing & Cooperative in Waltham, Mass.
“I’m a print broker,” says Karker. “At the heart of all this, [people] pay me to print their book.” They also pay an additional fee to become a member of the co-op, which holds conferences to train writers on selling their work. “Our goal at the end of the day is for all of our authors to make back their money,” Karker says. In addition to printing, MAP handles the backend for its authors, including returns. It also creates e-books for authors. Between 40% and 50% of MAP writers choose to publish digitally, as well as create physical editions.
“If we do nothing else in this little business,” says Karker, “we keep people from getting ripped off.” She describes one author who came to MAP after paying $11,000 elsewhere for 50 books and some badly printed posters. “One of the things we do,” she adds, “is tell people the truth. We say, here’s what’s really going to happen to your book.”
Karker views MAP as “a launching pad” for emerging writers. But it’s also attracted some authors who have been dropped by their publisher because of slow sales. MAP now has 80 titles in print. Although most sell 400 copies or fewer, two books have sold 4,000 copies apiece. MAP’s top sellers include local newscaster Don Carrigan’s children’s book illustrated by Tom Block, Togus: A Coon Cat Finds a Home, and Jeff Foltz’s debut novel, Birkebeiner, which the Maine Sunday Telegram called “a spectacular beginning.” “Our goal,” says Karker, “is to have enough authors to keep the price affordable for the poet who wants to publish 100 to 200 books.”
Part of what makes MAP work is that it’s selective. “Frankly, we reject books, too,” says Karker. “There are books so badly written. We’ve had a couple people walk away mad.” MAP is also choosy when it comes to cover art, so that its books look professional. Content can also be problematic. Heather Goss, customer service representative and publicist, notes, “We get a lot of memoirs where people want to get back at others.” Rather than place books that could be libelous in the MAP catalogue or sell them to bookstores, MAP gives memoirs a distinct ISBN and will sell them through a separate Maine memoir Web site (mainememoirbank.com).