Monday, May 10, 2010

Interview: Grumpy Dragon

Today we have an interview with Spring Lea Henry, cofounder of Grumpy Dragon, a small publishing company based in Colorado. Ever wondered what it was like to run a publishing company? Want advice on how to get started? Read on!

GLW: How did you decide to start a publishing company? What challenges did you
face in the beginning? What education/experience did you have to prepare
you for this venture?

SLH: As an author, I found myself dissatisfied with several aspects of
publishing that seem to be industry standard. I've never really thought
the usual 10-15% of the coverprice of a book was a fair cut of the profits
for an author, and I really didn't like the fact that authors rarely have
a say in the coverart that goes on their books. I basically got the
impression that most publishing houses were coming at it from a pure
profit point of view, and I just thought there needed to be a different
model, one that is based on helping authors feel their dreams are coming
true. My husband and business partner agreed with me on this, so we
started the Grumpy Dragon as a way of putting these beliefs into practice.
The creators of our books get a full 50% of the markup for their books,
and they also have input into the book design and coverart. We work hard
to make our books ones that that authors can feel proud of 100% so that
they will do their share of the marketing. I've met too many other
authors who just shake their heads about the coverart or some other part
of their contract, and that little head shake makes me feel like they
aren't happy with the book. As a reader, I don't want to read some thing
that even the author doesn't fully endorse!

It's funny you should ask about challenges in the beginning because I feel
like we still are in the beginning! We're only 3 years old, and we're
still working hard to get our company to a state of self-sufficiency.
It's especially difficult because neither of us believes in taking out a
business loan to fund this venture. Debt is something that kills so many
small businesses. So honestly, the challenge is to time our success
just-so. We can't grow too slow, or all the money we've invested won't be
enough to keep us afloat, but we can't grow too fast, or we'll have more
work on our table than we can handle. It's been a process of little
successes, one at a time that keeps us moving forward. We've also had
quite the learning curve as far as technology goes. In our first two
years, we went through three printers before we found one that meets our

I didn't plan to be a publisher when I was in college, but as it turned
out, the skillset I acquired turned out to be the perfect formula, as did
my husband's. I do all the editing work for our company, and my
preparations included a double-major of psychology and English. The
psychology actually comes in very useful for discerning character
motivations and being able to explain to an author when those motivations
are unrealistic. I also worked as the copy editor for the newspaper,
which was very good for my grammar and punctuation. I was the editor of
the school's literary magazine, which has taught me a fair bit about the
approval/rejection process and how to layout a publication. My masters in
library science helped to sharpen my writing skills and learn how to work
with people one-on-one. My husband brings business education and computer
science to the table. He's the one who handles sales-tax licenses,
royalties statments, contracts, graphic design, and getting our books
ready for the printer. Even with all that, we could stand to have someone
in the mix with some marketing experience!

GLW: What is a "typical" day like for you?

SLH: No day is really typical. I'm always doing something different. One day
I'm on the phone trying to set up an appointment with an author, the next
I'm giving a writing workshop. But a lot of my days are spent at the
computer reading. It's harder than you think to read something someone
submitted because I can't just *read* it. I have to scan it for errors,
run it through my editor's brain to deem it good or bad writing, try to
think about whether or not this is a book that would fit well with our
company, and determine how much work it would take to get the manuscript
up to a publishable state. There's a lot going on, and it takes about
five times as long to read a manuscript as it does a regular book, and
that's if I'm not making any notes! If I'm doing that, it can take even

GLW: What do you like best about your job?

SLH: It's a tie between being my own boss and getting to watch people's faces
as their dreams are coming true. I honestly feel like the work I'm doing
is making a difference, and it's great that I don't have to report to
anyone else about what I do.

GLW: Grumpy Dragon also offers writing workshops. Tell us about your
experiences working with aspiring writers.

SLH: I LOVE giving workshops! In fact, when I get a little more caught up on
my manuscripts inbox, I'm planning on making a section for our website
where we can host online writing instruction. Whether or not a person
ever gets published, I have an almost religious belief in strong writing
skills. In this day and age, the first impression a person makes on
someone else is very likely to be in text format. Whether it be a college
essay, a job application, or even an email, being able to express oneself
clearly is how one appears attractive in print! I get very passionate
about this, and in my workshops I only hope I don't scare the participants
with my zeal.

GLW: How do you find new authors to work with (or how do they find you)?

SLH: Many have come to me through our workshops. Others have been friends of
friends. But now, some are starting to find out about us through our
website or hearing about us through out books that we've sold. I don't
really have a problem with finding new authors. My only hope is that our
company will be able to hire more editors by the time my inbox grows much

GLW: You work with teen authors and artists. You have great, plain language
submission guidelines on your web site, but can you tell us a bit more
about what you look for in submissions?

SLH: In my view, good writing is comprised of two parts: good grammar and the
author's voice. The first part is something that is teachable and
correctable in a manuscript. The second is not. I think it's best
illustrated by two examples: The last manuscript for which I issued a
contract was with a teen. Her grammar was pretty good. I bet she gets at
least a B in her English class. But her story was amazing! It was so
fresh and original. She made up this whole fantasy race of beings and a
system of star travel I hadn't seen before. And what's more, her story
had heart. I was quite taken. I feel that I can teach her a lot about
how to express this talent of hers in better sentences, but she doesn't
need any help with storytelling. She's a natural. The last manuscript I
turned down was from an adult who had impeccable grammar, but his story
was so thin. It was basically a rehash of Tolkein's work. The characters
had thin motivations, and I was especially unhappy with how women were
portrayed in the story. I heard little glimmers of his voice, but not
nearly enough to publish. I had to sit down and tell this author that his
writing had a long way to go before I would publish it. I am willing to
work with him some, but I'm dubious as to how much good it will do in the
end. Author's voice is something that I've yet to find a way to teach.
It's like painting. You can have perfect perspective but tell no story.
The story is the difference between art and just a bunch of lines on the
canvas. In writing, story is the difference between books that make you
weep or laugh and those that are just words on the page.

GLW: One more fun question--What books do you wish you had read as a teen, and
what books would you recommend right now?

SLH: Boy, that is a tough question to answer. I'm not sure what else I could
have read! I read about ten books a week as a teen, and I'm sure it's
what helped me figure out what storytelling was all about. I am reading
Sense and Sensibility right now, which has long been on my "shame list."
Those are books that I feel like I should have read long ago. But I think
it would have been a different experience reading it as a teen. As an
adult who's dated one or two such people, I can see Willoughby's totally
playing her from the get-go, but as a teen, I might have been tricked into
thinking he really loves her. I think I've been really fortunate to read
the books I've read at the time I've read them, and the good ones have a
different story to tell me when I read them later on.

I think teens should read anything they can get their hands on! Read with
passion and without discrimination, especially if you want to be a writer.
Reading bad books is what will make you a better storyteller, that
feeling of "I can do better than that!" Keep notes about what bugs you
about the story. Are the characters not clearly developed? Does the plot
have no wrap-up (aka falling action?) or does it just end? I can give
countless examples of books that have failed me, and in the end, those are
what have made me a better storyteller myself because they show me where
the hunger is, the appetite I need to fill with my words. These days, I
have no more patience for bad books. My life is too short. I know for a
fact I'll never read every book I want to read (unless they get that whole
immortality thing worked out), so I don't want to waste my time blowing
through bad books. My top three books of all time, and ones which I
return to over and over, are: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand because it taught
me the value of equality in all my relationships, a fundamental part of
the philosophy behind our company, The Missing Person's League by Frank
Bonham because it's one of the best post-apocalyptic/dystopian books I've
ever read, and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett because it
taught me that I have choices about how to respond to bad circumstances.
Sarah Crewe was never a victim, and neither am I.

One question you didn't ask that I usually get is, "What is the best
advice you have for young writers?" The answer is the same as I have for
everyone in every profession: Never give up on your dreams! Your passion
and drive are what is needed to get through all the hard work it takes to
really succeed. I wrote my first story when I was 6 years old, and I
never gave up on the idea of being in print. I have some non-fiction
writing in print right now, and someday soon, I'm going to get my novel
out there. It's taken many, many years of hard work to get this good at
writing, but it's so worth to know that I am *that* good at something,
that I can make a living on my talent. There's so many people out there
who work a "job" and very few who earn money working their dreams. My
wish is honestly that everyone could be able to make all their dreams come
true. The world would be so much better full of happy people who were
living passion-filled lives!

Thanks, Spring Lea!

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