Ask the Expert: Meredith Maslich, CEO of Possibilities Publishing

You are an indie publisher renaissance woman. Many do not know that you in addition to being a publisher, you are also a workshop presenter and conference organizer, a writer in your own right, and a storytelling teacher! What percentage of your time do you spend

wearing each hat?

That’s an interesting question, I don’t know that I’ve thought much about how much time I spend on each facet of my professional life. Definitely the largest percentage of my time is spent wearing my publisher hat, and I tend to approach everything I do with a bit of a publisher lens on, so I could argue that I’m just a publisher 100% of the time, but that would be stretching it a bit. So, I’d say I’m specifically wearing the publisher hat about 50% of the time. The workshops and conference planning probably take another 10%, my own writing always gets pushed down the list, so I’m going to say that only gets about 5% of my time (sadly), and the storytelling teaching – which I do through an amazing non-profit called Story District – is probably another 15% on average. With the remaining the time I’m wearing my entrepreneur/small business owner hat and looking at financials and fussing about budgets and strategic plans and merchant processing rates and similarly exciting elements to running a business.

You founded Possibilities Publishing Company about five and a half years ago in the midst of the transformation of the traditional publishing industry, the blossoming of social media, and broader changes in readers’ habits due, in part, to increased and changing competition for their time and attention. The company now also includes three unique imprints—Thumbkin Prints, Eaton Press and Sparkle & Snark. What’s your take on the state of independent publishing today? And, is it necessary to diversify as an indie publisher?

I think the state of publishing today is very exciting. It feels like every day there is a new tool, or  strategy or platform  available for connecting with readers and writers, which is the ultimate goal of all of our marketing. The process of producing the actual books and making them available to readers and distributors is also always evolving and expanding as well. 

The biggest challenge in publishing, in my opinion, is finding and connecting with our readers. Not  readers in general, but OUR readers specifically – the readers who will enjoy the specific books we’re selling.  Social media has not only allowed us to have direct access with more readers, reviewers, and influencers than ever before, but it has also allowed for  a book nerd culture to grow and thrive as self described “book nerds” are able to find each other and connect in ways that didn’t exist when we opened our doors just over five years ago. And as a result, we’ve been able to learn more about how to connect with readers in general and our readers specifically, which is one of the things that led to creating our imprints.  

Imprints are basically a  marketing tool to allow you build a brand around a specific category or genre of book to directly target that specific  audience. Thumbkin Prints, our children’s imprint, is the perfect example . Our entire catalog was targeted at adults, and if we just threw a children’s book into the mix it would have nearly impossible for people who like children’s books to find it, and then to build an association between quality children’s books  and Possibilities Publishing amongst all the non-children’s books we were producing.   But Thumbkin Prints is only about children’s books and is catered toward the audience that wants that focus.

Through our imprints we have found diversification to be a powerful strategy for our company’s growth and stability, but I don’t think that is the only way to survive. Other small publishers do very well by maintaining a very  specific focus and never going outside of it. I think it just comes down to the type of company a publisher wants to have. Personally, I enjoy new challenges and learning new things. When work gets too routine I start to get bored, so for us diversification makes great sense as a strategy.  

As one of the manuscript evaluators at Possibilities Publishing and Thumbkin Prints, you’ve seen hundreds of nascent drafts of book and short stories that may, one day, be published by you. How can an author know when it’s time to stop editing and submit?

This is, by far, the most popular question I get asked. And while it’s ultimately a question only the author can answer, I also caution writers not to use a goal of perfection as an excuse to avoid taking the next step toward publishing their work.   It can be really scary to let go and let your book go out into the world, but it is an important step in the writing process. But in terms of what we like to see when manuscripts are submitted to us, the first thing is that it has been professionally edited.  I don’t mean copy edited, we’re not tossing out a submission over a typo  or an awkwardly worded sentence, we’re more focused on big picture aspects of the manuscript. Specifically with fiction, we need to see a clear and cohesive structure, characters that are believable with clear desires and motivations that drive the  narrative. The story needs to go somewhere, have a climax and resolve in a way that makes sense. This is just the basic anatomy of story structure, it’s not anything we’ve invented. BUT if you haven’t had objective, trained eyes look at your work, it’s unlikely you’ve been able to achieve all of those things. That’s just the reality, we can’t clearly see or evaluate our own work, especially for novice writers who are working on their first books. Writer’s groups can be helpful, but we can usually tell when the book hasn’t had the benefit of a professional developmental edit.  But the key point is that no writer on earth is good enough to be able to write the first to last draft entirely on their own and have it be ready to publish, and yet roughly 80% of what is submitted to us, has clearly never had professional, objective feedback and feels like an very early draft. If we had one thing to tell writers, it’s that you can take a lot of different short cuts on the path to publishing, but skipping a professional editor should not be one of them.

The first ever Possibilities Conference is going to be on April 7, 2018 in Falls Church, Virginia. It’s designed for motivated writers who want to learn how to succeed as published authors. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn from experts in branding and social media marketing, as well as learning strategies to overcome universal fears like public speaking and selling their books. Why is the conference theme “Transforming Writers into Authors”?  Some people would say writer and author are exactly the same thing, but you make a compelling distinction.

Yes, generally the terms “writer” and “author” are used interchangeably, but we argue they are two phases of  a single journey. Soon after I started in publishing, I realized that almost all writers struggled with achieving their goals for their published books, mostly because they lacked the skills, resources and mindset required to get people to buy and read their books.  So I  started making a distinction between the two phases – the writing phase (before publishing) and the author phase (after publishing). Each phase requires very different skill sets , and that’s the challenge. I started to see ‘”publishing” as a portal that transformed writers into authors, but most writers came through it stumbling and tripping, totally without a road map for this side of the universe.  The writing phase  is a fairly solitary period, and favors introverts. As the writer, you have total control over your work. But then you publish, and go through the portal, and become an author. This side favors extroverts, and suddenly your book belongs to the world, and you have much less control. Some amount of marketing is required by all authors, whether they are self published, indie published or  traditionally published, but marketing does not come naturally to most writers.  Whether that means reading excerpts of your books to live audiences, or even just crafting and maintaining a social media profile to connect with readers.  It all takes skills and knowledge that most people don’t naturally have.  So after watching so many incredibly talented authors fail to get the exposure they deserved, I started developing this idea of what it takes to transition from a writer into an author. What started as an on-line class expanded into a workshop at writer’s conferences until we decided to expand it into a full day conference. Attendees will have a half day of workshops focused on skill and knowledge acquisition, and a half day of small group discussions where they can go deeper and get more personalized advice on some of the workshop topics. We’ll also be providing a media lounge where they can get a professional head shot, image consultation and other resources for putting together a professional media kit.  

 We are really working hard to make this a conference that will provide concrete and practical information, skills, and strategies to help writers transition into successful authors. 

What’s on your list of ‘go-to’books/podcasts about writing or the industry?

I’m a member of IBPA – Independent Book Publishing Association, and they provide a ton of great information and resources to small publishers including a magazine with articles about marketing and publishing  insider information. I also subscribe to a variety of e-newsletters like Lit Pub Daily. Podcasts I listen to tend to be oriented more toward running a small business  in general, versus publishing specifically. I really enjoy the Happier Podcast with Gretchen Ruben, which is really for all facets of life, not just work. I’ll also occasionally listen to Goal Digger, Creative Empire, and Writing Excuses podcasts. And I’m always looking for new podcasts on both writing, and business, so feel free to share any recommendations in the comments! 

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