In this series of interviews Jeff Arnold is speaking with a number of prominent writers, publishers, thinkers and movers and shakers trying to get their views on the future of their professions and their perspectives on the evolution of human life on our planet. He recently spoke with Margaret Brown, the founder of Shelf Media, and publisher of the digital literary magazine, Shelf Unbound. Margaret Brown has extensive experience in the traditional and digital magazine publishing business. She talked about the effects of the internet and digital publishing on her industry, and her views on writing and life in the twenty first century. Margaret spoke with Jeff from her office in Garland, Texas.
J.A. What led you to doing this web based literary magazine? How did it evolve?
M.B. I’d been a magazine editor for twenty-five years, and when the digital devices started coming out, the Nook and the IPad I really got interested in those and saw the potential for magazines on them. I’m kind of a techie gadget kind of person, and so it really was my love of magazines, my love of gadgets and a lifelong interest in reading. I wrote a novel four years ago and went through the typical trying to get the attention of a New York agent and not having that happen, and then doing nothing with it. I’ve always sort of been on the writer’s side of the publishing world. So all of that just came together one day and I decided to do my own magazine. In print it’s prohibitively expensive to launch a magazine and you have to be successful immediately which is really hard to do, most magazines that launch fail. With digital it isn’t expensive at all to launch so you’re allowed that year to grow to the level of excellence that we are now. We wanted to be a curator of excellent books in all genres. It’s been a blast.
J.A. When did you launch Shelf Unbound?
M.B. We started it in September 2010.
J.A. Where do you see the traditional publishing industry going over the next decade and what part will the internet and self publishing play?
M.B. I think for traditional publishing, if you look at the model and what’s happening with music when music went digital… I think if you look at that model and project out the same thing happening with books. You’re still going to have publishing houses but they’re going to have to find new ways to push their books out to the public as book stores disappear further. I heard someone on the radio today refer to traditional publishing as professional publishing and then the rest as self publishing. I think that’s already antiquated. More and more people are self publishing. What we’re seeing now is what they’re calling a hybrid, small press is somewhere between traditional press and self publishing so that they’re kind of guiding the self published author through the process and helping promote their book. If the stigma is not completely gone it’s almost gone.
J.A. Your authors and their stories are international. Did you always intend to reach beyond the US borders or did this just evolve through the international connectivity of the internet?
M.B. Shelf Unbound has subscribers in 57 countries and I think that’s really a beautiful thing. When we launched I had the idea that we could have international readers and I hoped that we would but I certainly had no idea that without really trying people would just find us on the internet. We didn’t have any international marketing push, it just happened. When I did our previous issue we had a “Read Global” theme and we did an interactive map that shows the countries all over the world where we have subscribers. We then thought we’d link the interactive map to a book from that country and make sure that it’s available. There were fairly recent books from all 57 countries that could be read in English. When we look at the condition of being human the idea that most resonates with me in literature is people all over the world sharing their stories with other people all over the world. The more we share our stories the more we find commonality. I think that the more links like that we have the more they are real people to you. I think that’s a really beautiful thing we have now in terms of being connected to each other through the internet.
J.A. If you were twenty-five and starting out today as a writer what direction would you be heading regarding the business of writing?
M.B. Work really hard, learn grammar it still matters, you can break the rule once you know it, but you have to know it first. Read a lot of different kinds of writing. As a magazine editor I’ve hired a lot of young writers over the years and what I’ve seen is that people who are good and work hard rise to the top , they find opportunity and make it happen. It requires a lot of work and dedication. Find out what kind of writing you want to do and network and find people that are connected. What is happening with writing today, because there is so much free content on the internet, it’s becoming harder and harder to find writing jobs where you get paid to be a writer. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, there’s still a lot of different ways to do it… We grew up in an era where the model in the workplace was pay your dues, work really hard for less money and the reward is that you will elevate to a place where you are making the money you want. At some point in time the pay your dues part became not part of the equation for some people and I think that the entitlement theme came into being. I’m from the pay your dues school, make some sacrifices to get where you want to go.
We just had our first writing competition for self published books. We received over eight hundred entries and most of them were professionally edited and done at a professional level. They had their book cover designed and for the most part the editing was good. There were a lot of great books in there and I was impressed. Our overall winner is a book called The Last Death of Tev Chrisini by Jennifer Bresnick. She’s a twenty-six year old who wrote this book and put it on Kindle so that her friends could read it. It’s 467 pages long, she received some positive feedback and decided to do it as a paper back with Createspace, entered our competition and won it, and now she’s about to be signed by one of the top New York agents based on that. So I think what’s happening now is that the agents are looking at the writing websites like Smashwords, different writers are getting picked up by agents and getting book deals. I know that one of the publishers bought AuthorHouse which is a self publishing place so they’re going to look at who is selling well in self publishing and do something with those. So it’s all blurring but I think it’s all good because it’s opportunity for publishers and opportunity for writers and opportunity for readers and now that we’re publishing digitally people from all over the world can read what we’re writing.
J.A. How big a theme is hope in your personal life? Are you an optimist?
M.B. I think that anybody who quits their job and launches their own business has to be an optimist. I’m an optimist by nature and by choice. I live my life with a great deal of hope. I believe in God and God is part of that belief. I believe that most people have the desire to be good and kind, not that I’m naive or overly trusting. My experience has been that if you live your life being personally generous with anything that you have; your time, your talent, your money that you are rewarded fairly swiftly for that. I believe in the power of love, which is also part of hope. I have a friend that is 84 and she told me recently that she wants to learn Classical Greek. I look at the way she is living her life as a testament to optimism, living that way has kept her young and will keep her young. Those are the kinds of things that I want to do too.
J.A. If you had one thing to tell humanity that you think would help us, what would it be?
M.B. Get to know each other as people. I think that a lot of the conflicts we have with each other, left versus right, and this group versus that group, we stop thinking about each other as fellow human beings. If we approached any kind of conflict or problem with the idea that the other person is my brother or sister we would do a better job of listening to opposing viewpoints and work together to solve problems.
J.A. How do you think humans are doing as an animal? Are we winning or losing?
M.B. Well I’m an optimist so I’m going to go with winning. There have always been problems. I believe that we have the capacity to solve them. I think the greatest seemingly insurmountable problem we’re facing is global warming, but I believe that with the technology that we have and with world wide communication and with faster and faster computer capabilities we’ll be able to solve more problems at a faster and faster pace. I think that good things are happening.
J.A. Where do you want to be in ten years and what do you want to have accomplished?
M.B. Professionally I’m growing Shelf Media, and we’re launching a second magazine next year that’s going to be an art magazine. I have a background as the editor of an art magazine for many years. We’re going to add another special issue to Shelf so there will be seven issues next year. I’d like to grow my company to a point where we have several magazines. Shelf Unbound will be our flagship and I’m going to remain very involved with it because the subject matter is my passion. If I have time I would like to write another novel that is better than my previous one….Personally I would like to continue to work on myself in different ways. I do yoga, I’m developing my emotional self, it’s really valuable. I’m in a great relationship and a wonderful family and ten years from now I would still like to have all of that.