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Interview w/ Port Yonder Press Managing Editor Chila Woychik

Between technology and the recession, traditional publishing is undergoing major changes, giving rise to new models, methods, and varieties of publishing houses. One such fledgling publisher is Port Yonder Press (PYP). Launched two years ago, PYP is just beginning to carve a niche for itself in this brave new world of books. Managing editor and co-owner Chila Woychik graciously agreed to let me grill her about the state of the industry and her own unique vision for PYP. This is the first in a series of interviews I’ll be conducting with indie pressers.

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MIKE: Chila, thanks so much for visiting with us. Given the state of traditional publishing, is it safe to say that indie presses are booming? And if so, are the factors that have contributed to this a good or bad thing?

CHILA: Mike, with PYP, if I had the manpower and money, we could easily put out 20, 30, or more books a year. The problem I’m having is finding good enough manuscripts to fit the 10 or so slots I’d like to fill within that period of time.

I attribute this to two elements: 1) though we started out as a crossover press, news of our Christian imprints spread far quicker than the fact that we also cater to general market material.  Maybe Christians are more desperate to get published, or maybe I simply had more Christian contacts, but either way, the ratio was staggeringly unbalanced. And 2) the Christian material that I’ve received thus far has generally been either mediocre at best or so blatantly “preachy” that I find myself having to blog about these topics in a sort of re-education campaign for Christians (more of that below).

Small Christian presses abound and they’re often more than happy to take those “average” manuscripts, especially if they think they can sell 50 or 100 copies to pay their overhead.  I’ve repeatedly had to say, “No, we don’t want that; bring it up a notch, or ten.”

We want to be “the small big guy.” We want material strong enough to stand up to well known publishing houses. So yes, Port Yonder Press could be booming.  I simply need to find the manuscripts and the help to get them up to the “excellent” status I desire in a relatively quick period of time, not the year and a half that we’re currently doing.  If I can’t, we’ll slow the process down, I’ll edit almost exclusively, and I’ll wait to find the right authors. (This is not to minimize the amazing input of my consulting staff over the past 2 years.)

MIKE: So what does a small, independent press do that a large, traditional publisher cannot? I mean, why would an author seek a small press as opposed to a NYC conglomerate?

CHILA: Everything balances out in the end—it really does.  What a large publisher can do is obvious: media exposure and far-reaching distribution. Small presses can’t compete in either of those two important areas. But what we can offer are things like letting the author have greater control over most every step of the process, from book cover input to text formatting preferences to hands-on editorial assistance to an inordinately large share of the net receipts. We also have far fewer manuscripts to sift through, so will offer an exceptional manuscript a greater chance at publication.

That said, a few of us will not accept the best of the few, but insist on a few of the best.  That’s somewhat of a reality check for authors who come to PYP expecting us to accept their slightly above average work.  We ask them to return it to us in a year and be sure it can compete with that “NYC conglomerate.”  Let’s face it, even with a great manuscript, most authors won’t land a spot with a big house, or even a medium-sized publisher.  We’re here for those who can, but won’t.  If you read a few of my recent posts on my blog, you’ll see that I honestly don’t think we’ve even come close to my vision for that yet, but at least that vision is being clarified, and we’re learning not to settle for anything below top shelf.

MIKE: From my perspective, there seems to be a lot of illusions about independent presses, the types of quality they will “tolerate,” and the insular, perhaps “cliquish,” nature of their business. What do you see as the most common myths or misunderstandings about independent presses?

CHILA: Big pet peeve here: “Small presses are a stepping stone to something bigger.”  Another one: “They’ll take just about anything, do the editing to bring it up to par, and be glad they got you.” And as is often said, every myth has at least some truth to it.  Unfortunately too many small presses have perpetuated that mentality via their actions.  And as I frequently retort: “If you think that’s us, keep looking.” I truly want only the best. If I can’t find it, we’ll produce fewer books. Period.

MIKE: Many authors have chosen to self-publish and there are some notable success stories attached to their efforts. What advantages do you feel small press publishing offers over self-publishing?

Of course, authors like Amanda Hocking have brought self-publishing a measure of credibility, and I personally think that credibility will grow. Not only are people fed up with big publishers’ bullying tactics and most favored status with distributors, but add to that the overnight advances in technology, a slower economy, and the explosion of new avenues for publication: self-publishing will become a very viable option for authors.

Still, I believe having a manuscript reviewed and accepted by a recognized publisher will generally tag an author as being more credible.  The few self-pubbed books I’ve read in the past 2 years have been average at best. Even with the help of a hired editor, I believe few people have the intuitive book sense to put out a high quality book via self-publishing, at least at this time. I can see smart business people keying in on this (if they haven’t already) by helping those authors put out quality material, but always at a price.

MIKE: On your blog, you recently referenced my post The New Demographic: Christians Who Don’t Like Christian Fiction. Is Port Yonder Press seeking to address that demographic? And, if so, how do you intend to do that?

CHILA: Yes, and that was a great little read.  Again, via blog posts and Port Yonder Press’ Facebook page, I’m striving to replace stale, old, Christian writing ideas, with the reality of our need to write well, first and foremost, write good stories first, without feeling one has to chuck their worldview to compete.  We don’t.  We can compete and excel without preaching, without sermonizing, without feeling we need to evangelize the world through our fiction (or nonfiction), while still maintaining honesty, personal integrity, and faith.

Secondly, I work closely with my current authors to hone, sharpen, and distill ideas, to help them say what they need to say without resorting to the same lame tactics we’ve seen in Christian writing for the past 30 plus years or so. If I could channel C. S. Lewis for them, I would. But as I can’t, I’ll gladly continue to work with them in this pursuit, the pursuit of great writing as a Christian author (as opposed to “mediocre Christian writing”).

MIKE: What are some of the small presses that you most admire and, you think, are putting out some of the best stuff?

CHILA: Hmm. This question’s a little tougher. (I defer to my 2-year experience limit.) Unfortunately, I can’t point to any fully Christian presses that I know of, that I would go to for their books as an example of “consistent excellence.” But then, I can’t even say that about ours yet, so it’s no slight on them at all. There are several presses I consult with to varying degrees, admire, even love as friends, love what they’re doing:  Splashdown Books (Grace Bridges), Marcher Lord Press (Jeff Gerke), Written World (Kristine Pratt), and a few others.

But the two I’ve come across in recent months that I probably watch the most closely, and admire for their sheer brilliance, are the general market presses: Eight Cuts, and Twelve Books. I can learn from them, and try to do so whenever I have a spare moment. They inspire me, give me courage, inflame me with a desire to succeed.  And I think that’s what it’s all about.

MIKE: So Chila, what compelled you to start Port Yonder Press? Are you a natural entrepreneur, did you see a void that needed filled, or do you just love books so much that you can’t be apart from them?

CHILA: All of the above. Truly. My dad is a small business owner and I’ve learned a lot from him, watched him daily strive for excellence, saw his integrity and firm gentleness in dealing with employees, observed him listening to the needs and wants of customers.  He was, and still is, a learner, a listener, a man of intelligence and honesty.

And there’s definitely a void, a need for excellent small presses who aren’t afraid to both reveal their Christian basis and tackle gritty subject matter in a general market fashion. I long to see small press owners push the bar higher than ever before, and as a result, see authors of merit scramble to be published with those small houses. I don’t know of many that are doing that. I want that for PYP.

Book lover? Guilty as charged. I’m hopelessly addicted.

MIKE: Finally, tell us a little bit about Port Yonder Press, your aims, objectives, and vision.

CHILA: Port Yonder Press is 2 years old.  I’ve learned.  I’ve grown.  I’ve not yet published the best, but I’m striving to do so.  I have a wonderful (mostly) volunteer staff who’s growing with me, maturing in their skills. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Aims, objectives, vision—it’s all the same: to produce EXCELLENT, EVOCATIVE, and ECLECTIC books that get read, and reread, that win awards for their obvious merit, that turn heads, make people feel, beg readers to think, find a permanent spot on bookshelves across America, and beyond.  That’s my goal. That’s how I feel I can best use my gifts, my life, the talents I’ve been given and have developed over the past few decades.  That’s how I want to be remembered: the gal who wouldn’t settle for less—in her life, her writing, her publishing.

* * *

Thanks so much, Chila! If you’re a writer and looking for a home for your book, please check out Port Yonder Press. And if you have a comment for Chila about the industry or something she said here, please feel free to leave a comment.

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{ 42 comments… add one }
  • Brenda Jackson April 26, 2011, 6:59 AM

    One of the important things I get out of this post is a reconfirmation of the fact that average books can emerge both from traditional publishing routes and self-publishing, though much of the time, when self publishing is discussed, it is discussed in such a way that average or low quality appear to occur only with self pubbing.

  • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 7:25 AM

    Brenda,
    From the little I’ve seen thus far on this side of things, “average” occurs across the board, small publishers seem to excel in putting out average, and the general motivation is money: if we think it’ll sell, produce it. One seldom hears the word “excellence” and to make up for average sales on average books, more average books are produced. It’s a sell-out cycle of mediocrity. And yes, I’m on a vendetta to change that, at least on this end of things, with PYP. I’m also more than a little bitter about the whole scenario. I love reading great books, yet my bookshelves groan with average books. Christian book producers seem to be the worst offenders for some reason. I have a few theories on that, but will wait on that for another time.

  • Jeffrey April 26, 2011, 7:34 AM

    Chila, aside from a commitment to quality, how is the Christian fiction that you publish any different from CBA fiction? Do you approach the content strictures differently? Can “christian” characters in PYP novels drink, smoke, dance, and curse when they hit their thumb with a hammer?

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 7:50 AM

      Jeffrey, I’m not 100% up on CBA guidelines, so can only say that I want to see fiction that resonates truth moreso than touts “the party line.” My own views on this have changed since getting into the publishing end of things. The watershed for me was getting manuscript after manuscript, scrubbed clean of most humanity while attempting to present true-to-life characters, characters that really spoke the way everyday people speak. But that’s another huge burr under my saddle: do Christians today even engage in “real speak” in real life? Too often not. We’ve become isolated and insulated and fake — very American-Christianized, but very unreal.
      To answer your question, the action or speech has to fit the character and situation. I hate hearing gratuitous swearing as much as the next person, and don’t engage in it myself (or very rarely), so if I’m at dinner next to table full of people going on about how the damn alarm clock didn’t go off on this damn rainy day and how that made him damn mad because he was damn late for work and the damn boss gave him a damn chewing out (except exchange damn for f***ing), I’m not above going to said table and telling said person to get a life. Seriously. I’ve done it.
      As an example, we have a redemptive vampire story coming out next year, a good read, a book I want to bring up to a strong 4+ star book, but vampires are children of the devil, and don’t speak very Christianly, I’m afraid. We’ve cut about 60% of the bad language, but it’s still there, and I feel, important to the message.
      Great question!

      • Jessica Thomas April 26, 2011, 8:36 AM

        Preach sister! 🙂

      • Mike Duran April 26, 2011, 8:46 AM

        Did you say “a redemptive vampire story”? Can you tell us any more about that?

        • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 9:02 AM

          Sure. But so I don’t give too much away, I’ll simply pull a few quotes from the author about the book:

          …Its message integrates the fantasy of vampires with the possibility that they can be saved from their damnation – but not all of them are.
          …It’s not a light story, but it’s a story about light.

          In my initial reading of the story, I found it to be a well-told tale, not Christianized to make it unrecognizable as a piece of good fiction; the author put the story first, and that’s what excited me.

          It just so happens that in this case, there is a pastor (very nonpreachy role), a church (not for obvious reasons), and a conversion (totally non-threatening). I think this book will get a good reception.

          But, yes, I’ll give it an M rating for language and violence. It simply wouldn’t work as a PG13 book; the life would be sucked right out of it (pun intended), reducing it to that pile of ever-growing mediocre books by Christians. I won’t do that to this one, or any that cross my desk. Story must come first.

          • Joy @ Edgy Inspirational Romance May 1, 2011, 11:49 AM

            Oooh I’m interested in the redemptive vampire story! There seem to be a few of those coming out in the next year or so from Christian authors/publishers.

            Chila, I got a hold of a PYP book recently, Give the Lady a Ride by Linda Yezak and I was highly impressed. Linda’s story was great, but I was also impressed with the book design.

            • Chila Woychik May 1, 2011, 12:44 PM

              the “redemptive vampire story” will be rather hard-hitting, joy. we’ll be listing it with our general market imprint, not one of the 2 christian imprints. i’d love to hear your take on it once it’s released. if nothing else, you will most likely have to agree that it’s as honest and real as you might imagine a story dealing with the underworld might be.

              and thank you on book comment. it really is a good story. linda did a great job and anna is a bang-up book designer, for sure.

              appreciate your thoughts!

      • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 2:55 PM

        just noted that in the above section, i said, “characters that really spoke the way everyday people speak” when that should have said “characters that RARELY spoke the way everyday people speak.” big difference. 🙂

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 7:55 AM

      Forgot to answer the rest of that, Jeffrey. I see nothing inherently unbiblical about drinking alcoholic beverages. The admonition is against drunkenness. Dancing can be fine, though very sensual dancing between unmarried couples may obviously be crossing the line. Smoking is an adult preference. I’ve been known to take a puff off a friend’s pipe on occasion … (tobacco, that is) 😉

  • Jessica Thomas April 26, 2011, 8:34 AM

    What a great interview! Very inspiring. We are coming upon an exciting time in Christian publishing, I think, and it’s becoming fun to watch. Look forward to more indie interviews.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 8:47 AM

      We’ve come upon a time where we can honestly say: what we’ve done in the past rarely works anymore. The new modus operandi has to involve honesty and genuine truth, reaching out to people where they are rather than expecting them to come to us, rather than relying on what may have worked 2 or 3 or 5 decades ago. It’s an exciting time and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

      Thanks, Jessica!

  • Neil Larkins April 26, 2011, 8:52 AM

    Great stuff, Mike, great! I’ve been leaning towards self-pub/e-pub, whatever one wants to call it, but not fully committed just yet. This post has given me impetus to keep checking out the options. Thanks to you and Chila and the other indies for the work.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 9:32 AM

      And you’ll have even more options the longer you wait, Neil. It’s truly a fascinating time for authors.

      Thanks!

  • Christian Miles April 26, 2011, 11:48 AM

    Great interview! I love seeing people like Chila stand up for high-quality fiction, filled with truth and not preachiness.

    And that quote about the vampire book fascinates me. “Not a light story, but a story about light.” Mhmm. Now it’s on my t0-read list.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 12:11 PM

      Chris, I’m probably as excited about that story as any thus far. I think it has good potential. We’ll see. Will love to hear your conclusions when all is said and done.

      As always, excellence is the goal, and honest to goodness truth.

  • Katherine Coble April 26, 2011, 12:16 PM

    Bell Bridge Books/Belle Books is another example of a good boutique press that puts out excellent crossover titles.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 12:20 PM

      I’m not familiar with that one, Katherine. I’ll check it out! And thank you.

  • C.L. Dyck April 26, 2011, 12:22 PM

    Chila, it’s a privilege to have a contract with you.

    From my perspective, PYP offers several things I wasn’t sure I could find as a writer.

    One, a chance to enter the literary niche with full freedom of expression for my personal perspective, which does include a faith perspective. One which I have no desire to reduce to formula or jargon. It’s too precious to me for that, and I’m too imperfect to be that cleanly summed. If one thinks of what Mary DeMuth and Meredith Efken have done with fiction, that’s my desire for narrative nonfiction.

    Two, a level of commitment to excellence that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve settled short of what I should be doing (or at least attempting) as a writer. I won’t be putting out a trite formulaic volume, nor one where I’ve been forced to make compromises. I can rest in my editor for that.

    This is perhaps most important to me, as I straddle two worlds–the churchian culture and the secular. I was born in the latter and am still trying to figure out how to live alongside the former. The working assumptions by which I navigate daily life often seem to fit nowhere…except I’ve now found a place that understands that.

    Three, I do believe in the value of genuine, quality content curation (as opposed to the curation of averages). Could I self-publish? Yeah, if appropriate to topic and audience, but my current writing isn’t that way.

    Jumping-off point? No. Alternate destination. Some types of content may be appropriate to larger presses (or different small presses than PYP). However, PYP is the place to do what I’m doing, and I’m thrilled to have found it.

    Batting for 5*,

    ~Cat

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 1:02 PM

      Thanks, Cat. Appreciate those points.

      Yep, we’ll work our butts off to get your book up there with the best. No rushing. No settling. Pure hard work, debates, disagreement at times, whatever it takes, but we’ll keep it gracious – we’ll keep the mood conducive to our goal: top notch, with lots of hugs along the way. 😉

      • C.L. Dyck April 26, 2011, 1:44 PM

        Listen, you. We’ve discussed this hug business. {folds arms, raises eyebrow} As to the rest, a firm handshake to that. 😀

        (…Standing joke…excuse me, your cyberhugs are interfering with my cyber-fake-curmudgeonliness…)

  • Jill April 26, 2011, 12:25 PM

    Thank you, Mike, for posting this interview. It’s exciting to hear about new options for publishing, which might first and foremost satisfy my taste as a reader.

  • Patrick Todoroff April 26, 2011, 1:08 PM

    Thank you for an excellent interview. It was genuinely refreshing.

    I’ll be on the look out for PYP books from now on, and be sure to submit my latest manuscript once it’s reached an acceptable state.

    Good Luck.

    – Patrick T.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 1:23 PM

      By next year, I hope every single thing we put out will be at the 4-star level or above, preferably above.

      Glad you enjoyed it, Patrick. It continues to amaze me how simple honesty (along with a touch of DARE) can bring on that fresh-mouth feeling …

  • Janalyn Voigt April 26, 2011, 1:14 PM

    What a great interview, Mike and Chila. Well done.

    As one of PYP’s contracted authors, I’m grateful for the chance to learn and grow that Chila has afforded me. I love that PYP looks for above-average manuscripts as a starting point. The goal to produce enduring classics matches my own vision for my novels.

    The harsh reality for writers of Christian allegorical fiction today is that the big CBA presses just don’t want it. Those in the know utter the self-fulfilling prophecy that no one will buy it nowadays. Of course, the same crowd groomed to read bonnet and buggy romances won’t probably go for fantasy, but the entire genre isn’t dead, as evidenced by the successes of the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia books and movies.

    I appreciate that PYP doesn’t have the same hang ups the big guys do, and that it’s agility can better reach a niche market. Chila’s vision to produce excellent books in less time is dead on to help PYP compete in a changing market. We have a great captain at the helm.

    • Chila Woychik April 26, 2011, 1:27 PM

      Flattery aside, Janalyn ;), I’m looking forward to jumping into your book one day soon. I suppose that’s when it really hits the fan, eh? 😀

      • C.L. Dyck April 26, 2011, 1:32 PM

        Yes, but it’s entertaining watching you throw stuff at the fan. 🙂

        • Chila Woychik April 27, 2011, 5:55 PM

          The entertainment too quickly turns to work, Cat. Your turn is right around the corner.

          😉

      • Janalyn Voigt April 26, 2011, 2:00 PM

        My admiration is sincere. And I’m not worried about your editing. You did a great job on my elf story.

  • Terry Burns April 27, 2011, 9:01 AM

    Good interview. I have been involved with Port Yonder almost from their beginning because I liked the way Chila approached small press publishing. I’m not afraid to take a project whether my own or one of my clients the small press route. Chila published my small book on surviving to publish and it was her idea to publish a couple of volumes of my collected short work. Never occured to me that somebody would want to do that. She’s doing a couple of middle reader projects for another client, Max Elliott Anderson. I took a special Christmas project to her from a group of some of the most published western writers today that I think is going to be a delightful project. I think she is doing a fine job with this imprint.

    • Chila Woychik April 27, 2011, 5:52 PM

      Well, thank you, Terry. That means a lot to me. You’ve certainly been one of the easiest of all our authors to work with. You’re a gem, and I so very much appreciate you.

  • Ruth Mills April 27, 2011, 2:44 PM

    You know, the more you speak Chila, the more I get excited about what Port Yonder is and strives to be. Excellence and truth. And sometimes truth is ugly and needs to be shown as such. The burden of ‘I cant do that/write that for a Christian audience because it isn’t this enough or that enough’ is lifting off my shoulders. The light peeks in.

    And what a fantastic quote: ‘Not a light story, but a story about light.’ Very excited about that one.

    • Chila Woychik April 27, 2011, 5:53 PM

      Glad you see it that way, Ruth. You hold my/our feet to the flame, okay? We can’t do it without people. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

  • Nikole Hahn May 3, 2011, 11:00 AM

    I’m in the middle of my spec-fiction novel and I have book marked this publishing company. It may be my first stop when it’s finished. I love on their website how they talk about the author’s part in the whole process and the lack of salesmanship and the more one-one-one I detected between the lines from the company. Small presses got my start in the business. I consider them building blocks. I write because I love the craft. So thanks, Mike, for featuring this guest post, and thanks Port Yonder for opening my eyes a bit to independent publishing. I thought independent publishing equaled self-publishing.

  • Nikole Hahn May 3, 2011, 11:02 AM

    It’s a shame that CBA doesn’t want spec-fiction. :o( So discouraging…

    • Chila Woychik May 3, 2011, 1:34 PM

      you’re very welcome, nikole. and we’d be glad to look at your submission when it’s ready. be sure to follow our guidelines closely. i’m not sure where the cba is on anything; i simply don’t keep up with them.

      ~chila

  • Letha Petroski March 12, 2012, 1:57 AM

    Hello There. I discovered your weblog the usage of msn. That is a very neatly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read extra of your useful info. Thank you for the post. I will definitely comeback.

    • Chila Woychik March 12, 2012, 11:37 AM

      Thanks, Letha. If you have questions on the post at all, please be sure and ask them!

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