On April Fool’s Day in 1994, Stephen Roxburgh launched Front Street Books. On Inauguration Day in 2009, the former Farrar, Straus & Giroux publisher started namelos, a consortium of editors, art directors and designers who work with authors to develop projects for placement with traditional publishers.
He began the second phase of his company, namelos editions, on Labor Day—“because it’s a lot of work,” he said. Namelos editions will publish one-color children’s and YA fiction, nonfiction and poetry in electronic and print-on-demand editions.
The company’s tagline: “the opening move in a new age of publishing.” In its logo, the line appears next to a pawn (Roxburgh plays chess). Namelos, which comes from a medieval German epic poem, means nameless. Roxburgh used a lowercase n “to make it even less ostentatious,” he said.
If all goes well, namelos could be to publishing what cable was to the TV networks—an upstart, low-overhead business model. “We don’t have a massive infrastructure that we’re supporting,” said Roxburgh, who has worked with authors like Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, Patricia McCormick and Felicia Bond. “We don’t have a warehouse. We don’t have a production department. I’ll outsource all this.”
Sometimes namelos will put authors in touch with editors. Current namelos client Carolyn Coman (a Newbery Honor winner who is Roxburgh’s wife) and her illustrator, Rob Shepperson, are with editor Arthur Levine at Scholastic, for the 2010 title The Memory Bank. And another, Donna Diamond, who illustrated Bridge to Terabithia and 50 other children’s books, is with editor Joan Powers at Candlewick, for The Shadow, a wordless picture book—her first solo effort.
To longtime literary agent and industry observer Richard Curtis, and publisher of E-Reads.com, namelos appears to combine elements of being a book doctor, packager, publisher and agent. Curtis traces namelos’s roots to the 1980s and ’90s, when packagers like 17th Street and Becker & Mayer started producing books by hiring the writer and the artist—similar to an independent movie studio. “They make a movie, they hire the stars, and they try to get independent financing. They go to a big studio to use their distribution network,” Curtis said.
The first title from namelos editions, POD by Stephen Wallenfels.
Namelos will handle financial arrangements with agents and publishers on a project-by-project basis, with the splits depending on its level of involvement. (Industrywide, agents typically get 15 percent of everything.) Namelos will be equal profit-sharing partners with its authors and will not pay advances. “If it’s $4, the author gets $2,” Roxburgh said. “If I sell an electronic edition for $6, the author gets $3.”
It can also earn money through the $200 nonrefundable reading fee it is charging authors to look at their manuscripts. “Namelos is open to Joe Blow, and the way it appears is that Joe Blow will be financing the development of these packages,” said Curtis. “The reading fee can be a sore point in the author community.”
Namelos will publish books itself only through print-on-demand services, such as Ingram’s Lightning Source and Amazon’s BookSurge. Forget announced printings of 100,000. “They make up those numbers to impress people,” said Roxburgh, who plans to reply “one” if anyone asks him, “What’s your first print run?” He will only manufacture a physical book if someone places an order. “If the book costs a little more to manufacture, that’s OK, because I’m not supporting a staff of thousands,” he said.
But print-on-demand isn’t perfect. “It’s a passive way of making the book available to readers,” said Curtis. “It’s basically saying, ‘If you’re interested in the book, you can find it on Amazon, and you can order.’ It’s not on shelves, it’s not in stores, it’s not being promoted, it’s not being distributed. It’s going back to the independent filmmaker analogy. It’s as if you made an independent movie, and you posted it on your Web site, and invited people to come and see it.” What distinguishes the major publishers from all other publishers, he said, is that “they do print runs that are designed to be sold to and distributed in bookstores and bookstore chains.”
And currently, print-on-demand does not allow for small quantities of four-color books. “As soon as the market says, ‘We would really like four-color books in small quantities,’ the publishing industry will catch up,” said Roxburgh. But for now, his picture-book authors will need to publish with big houses. “The picture books are the strand where we will develop the book, and agent the book,” he said.
“I truly believe publishing is morphing into a kind of service industry,” Roxburgh continued. “The service is I’m going to help authors make the best book they can make. It’s about editorial guidance.” That starts with the $200 reading fee, which comes with written suggestions delivered in two weeks. Anyone can submit a story. “What we may write to you in our five-page evaluation is, ‘This is not a viable project,’” Roxburgh said. “What they get is substantial. ‘This isn’t working, and this is what you can do about it.’ These things are way more work than $200, but it’s a service. We do find talent this way.”
So far namelos has worked with 50 clients. Some authors may return and say, “Will you work with me to develop it to a point where an agent or publisher might take it?” he said. That requires another fee, which “varies immensely depending on the nature of the project,” he said. The entire process will vary, book by book, said Roxburgh. “We do not agree to work with the author to develop [a book] unless we feel the project has potential and the author has the ability to fulfill it.”
Illustrator Diamond worked with namelos on The Shadow (about a girl who confronts and defeats her demented shadow). Roxburgh, who calls himself the book’s “outside developing editor,” worked with her. At Bologna this year, he showed the book to Scholastic’s Powers, the acquiring in-house editor who will publish the story next spring.
Diamond loved working with namelos and Roxburgh. “He was like a gyroscope for my book,” she said. “It’s like having a compass.” Roxburgh helped her make her heroine’s “trajectory” of emotions clear. “Stephen does the art of making books. This is not just putting out a book,” she said. Inspired by Roxburgh (whom she met when she illustrated Barbara Wersba’s 2005 Front Street book, Walter: The Story of a Rat), Diamond said she tried a new technique that blends glazes with digital tools.
To get advice on how to improve her YA novel about the Twin Towers and time travel, Andrea White—author of the 2005 novel Surviving Antarctica (HarperTeen) and the wife of the mayor of Houston—consulted with namelos. Roxburgh recommended that she cut 400 of the 700 pages in her two books about her character, Shama Katooe. “You need to hear the toughest words first,” she said. “It’s tough love. It really is.” Roxburgh is working with her on the novels (and may publish them), but recently said no to her 1,000-page series about people who shrink to reduce overpopulation.
Roxburgh says he plans to focus on quality over quantity. In its first year, Front Street published just three books; one of them, What Jamie Saw, by his wife, Coman, won a Newbery Honor. His freelance staff includes several Front Street alumni, such as Helen Robinson, former art director; and Nancy Hogan, former director of institutional marketing and the director of subsidiary rights at Boys Mills Press (which bought Front Street in 2004).
Namelos brings Front Street’s editorial quality, but not its costs, to the picture. “Front Street was a minuscule publisher working on the old model. I was manufacturing, I was warehousing, I was dealing with returns, reprints, and all that,” Roxburgh said. “[Now] I don’t have all the fixed costs and overhead.” Namelos, he said, is not renting office space or paying staff employees. “It’s almost like a co-op. It’s a consortium of independent publishing professionals.” (In 2004, he sold Front Street to Boyds Mills Press, where he was publisher until September 2008.) “I want to be publishing books again, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s in my blood.”
Is namelos part of the wave of the future? Maybe. “Certainly print on demand is involved in the future, no question about it,” Curtis said. “But people still love wonderful, beautifully packaged books. And this isn’t going to change. Essentially if namelos can produce those, then they should be in good shape.”