New Directions in Publishing: Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne BooksBy Gina Frangello
February 20, 2012
Rhonda Hughes is the powerhouse behind indie publishing sensation Hawthorne Books. More than a decade old and located in the Pacific Northwest, I had heard of Hawthorne only vaguely until a couple of years ago, when suddenly they seemed to burst as a force to be reckoned with onto the publishing scene, with highly assertive and competent marketing, beautifully designed books, and the kind of wider distribution that seems, to many small indie presses, only a tantalizing dream. They’ve also developed a stable of writers from whom they put out more than one title in fairly close succession, in an old-school publishing model that favors loyalty and cultivating talent/brand above constantly trying to throw All Things New against a wall to see what sticks. Plus, they have a whiff of Chuck Palahniuk cool about them, which doesn’t hurt! Amidst her busy schedule, Rhonda was able to talk with me about what makes Hawthorne tick—and thrive—and some future exciting projects on their list.
TNB: One of the things I’m so interested in about this interview series is to find out how—in an era of major transitions in publishing—some houses, from micros to larger indies to certain trade imprints just seem to be “getting it right” and nailing it, time and time again, in terms of the books they’re putting out. Hawthorne is on fire right now . . . I realize the fire may be “contained” in a certain way, by which I mean I doubt you’re having to navigate through burning bushes of money left and right . . . but the critical reception that some of your writers, like Lidia Yuknavitch and David Rocklin, have been receiving is pretty much out of the park. Talk a little bit about the Hawthorne mission, not just in terms of how you choose your books but how you let the world know about them and generate buzz that really seems to take off.
RH: “Hawthorne is on fire!” I like that. You’re right about the lack of burning bushes of money, but the critical reception is my motivator. I am a reader first and foremost. I choose a book based on whether I fall in love with it. If I burn the midnight oil reading a submission I know I found my next book.
For each book we try to create a campaign that partners with another organization in the interest of co-promotion and defraying the costs of publicity. For example, a few years ago we worked with the ADL to sponsor the book tour of Jody Roy’s nonfiction book, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story. In exchange for airfare and hotel accommodations, Frank Meeink would speak on behalf of the ADL at various functions related to fund raising, educational outreach, and working with law enforcement. Hawthorne would then schedule a reading in each city at a Barnes & Noble and an independent bookstore and coordinate air, print, and television media. Frank was interviewed on many NPR affiliate stations as well as other larger format shows like Fresh Air and Leonard Lopate, and he was a guest on many local television programs as well as CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s 360. He was later bumped for news of an erupting volcano, but he was interviewed by Anderson Cooper. We have the piece to prove it. Maybe we should put it on YouTube?
TNB: What’s it like on the ground at Hawthorne? How big is your staff and do you all work together in a central office, or are people working out of their various homes, more virtually? (Here I have to interject, Chuck Palahniuk has written forewords for at least a few of your books—does Chuck have a direct role in the press?)
RH: Liz Crain, editor and publicity manager, and I are in the office along with four interns on a daily basis. Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, senior editor, works virtually and comes in once a week. Our graphic designer, Adam McIsaac, also works virtually from Brooklyn, NY. Chuck does not have a direct role in Hawthorne, although we are grateful beyond words for his generosity. His involvement began when he wrote an introduction to Monica Drake’s novel, Clown Girl. They are friends and are in the same writing group together. Lidia Yuknavitch is also in that same writing group and friends with Chuck, and he wrote the introduction to her novel that we are publishing called Dora: A Headcase out this fall.
TNB: Yes, I’ve been looking forward to that book from Lidia, since my debut novel was based on the Dora case too, and Lid had already been working around that theme back then, which was why I submitted my novel to Chiasmus—she was my editor—so I’m so excited to see where the early short work she was doing around Dora ended up leading her. Tell me, what other upcoming titles are you most excited about right now?
RH: That’s a bit like asking a mother which child is her favorite. We have Jim Frost’s novel, A Very Minor Prophet, this spring, 4/1 and Greg Martin’s memoir, Stories for Boys. Spring 2013 I am especially excited about because we have as three nonfiction title with linked themes, love, marraige, and parenthood, in order: Scott Nadelson’s The Next Scott Nadelson; Jay Ponteri’s Wedlocked; and Monica Wesolowska’s A Certain Choice.
TNB: Hawthorne pays a lot of attention to the visual details of its books—I remember that Chronology of Water, for example, came with a kind of “slip” that obstructed the bare breasts on the cover, presumably so readers could bring the book on a train or bus without being given lecherous glances (my own collection, Slut Lullabies, featured just the barest hint of a nipple, yet this public transportation phenomenon became something readers and interviewers commented on constantly, so I commend you for this idea!) This care for books as visual, concrete artifacts runs contrary to a lot of popular wisdom about e-books, yet I notice more and more indies are hyping up the art-factor of their printed books. What role does the e-book craze play at Hawthorne? Do e-books represent a big portion of your sales, or are readers coming to you precisely for other reasons?
RH: The Chronology of Water had a “belly” band on the front cover over the nipple so the bookstores would display the book. I did not want to alienate retailers; I wasn’t worried about readers, especially Lidia’s readers. Hawthorne has been focusing on the book as an object since we began publishing them. We use archival paper, French folded flaps, matte lamination, and a slightly longer vertical size, as a branding tool. Full credit for this goes to our graphic designer, Adam McIsaac, The Generalist, Brooklyn, NY. He has been onboard since day one and is responsible for every graphic manifestation that represents Hawthorne. The e-book craze played no role in this, but we are happy if it makes readers appreciate our books more.
TNB: You launched in 2001, which in my personal opinion was a pivotal moment in publishing, almost a publishing “recession.” The post-9/11 books market was a dire one—far worse, I believe, than the current market. Publishers seemed terrified of anything dark, depressing or challenging and the pervading wisdom in the industry was that readers wanted “escapist,” light reading to cheer them up from the doom and gloom of the world. What was your experience like, launching a literary press, in such a climate? Did this conventional wisdom from corporate New York publishing even impact you in the Pacific Northwest, on an indie scale?
RH: For Hawthorne I think our biggest challenge was distribution rather than the post 9/11 market. In 2002 we started with NBN and quickly moved to Consortium, which helped immensely at the time. Since 2005 we’ve been distributed by PGW, and for us, this key distribution has been essential to our growth. We just would not have the market that we have today without this support.
I think you’re right that publishers have been terrified by the very subjects that I gravitate to, the dark, depressing, and challenging. I also appreciate humor. I’m grateful for the opportunity to publish those books the conventional presses like to avoid, like Monica Wesolowska’s memoir, A Certain Choice or Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir. Competing with larger publishers continues to offer challenges: With writers we’re still competing with the perception that larger publishers offer larger support systems, larger receptions, and a larger audience. With retailers we’re still competing with the co-op fees they are able to pay. And with the dwindling traditional media space, especially in print, we are competing with for reviews, articles, interviews, etc. Although regarding the latter, a shift has been in place for some time now as we have been afforded more visibility utilizing online media and we continue to focus on how best to harness this opportunity.
TNB: Touching on location, how important is the Pacific Northwest to your vibe and mission?
RH: Good question. Portland has been instrumental in publishing Kassten Alonso, Monica Drake, Scott Nadelson, and Lidia Yuknavitch. On the other hand, we have tried to avoid a regional label and have equally published writers who are located across the nation in the Midwest, Poe Ballantine and Jody Roy; New England, Toby Olson; the South, Peter Donahue and Gin Phillips; Southwest, Gregory Martin; California, David Rocklin and Monica Wesolowska, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz in New York. So I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to tap into the rich literary talent that is regional without being pigeonholed as a northwest publisher.
TNB: Talk a little bit about the real world of money. How does Hawthorne keep itself afloat, beyond book sales? What advice do you have for the upstart publishers of this newish decade?
RH: I started a business called Print Vision in 1992 and was fortunate enough to use it as the financial engine that continues to support Hawthorne Books. I think it takes time and another source of revenue to establish a press. This past year, 2011, Hawthorne saw a turning point, it feels like things are coalescing writers, agents, media, and retailers, more closely coming together and we are more firmly rooted than ever.
Gina I thought this was a great interview. Reading it was like a mini master class on the current state of publishing. Thanks for this! Peace.