The Brave New World of Book Publishing

Written by: Echo Montgomery Garrett

Our new publishing company held our first big book launch with the southern fantasy young adult novel Spellbound Under the Spanish Moss on Sunday, June 7, 2020. It hit #1 New Release in its category for both the print and Kindle versions. Lucid House’s co-founder/partner Connor Garrett and his father/my husband Kevin Garrett started working on their novel in late October 2019 shortly before Connor left to live in Beirut, Lebanon, for three months. They spoke almost every day using WhatsApp, despite peaceful protests that erupted the week after Connor arrived in Beirut– ironically, over a proposed tax on WhatsApp — and the regular power outages that hit the capital city of the small country.

Connor came home in January to attend Kathy L. Murphy’s Pulpwood Queens Book Club Girlfriend Weekend held in Jefferson, Texas, where he was on two panels. One was featuring The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years! for which he wrote an essay about what attending Girlfriend Weekend — a gathering of readers and authors from all over the United States and some international guests many of whom are members of the more than 800 chapters that Kathy has nationally and 15 in other countries — meant to him as a young writer. He was on the other panel to talk about his debut novel Falling Up In the City of Angels, which Kathy named a July 2020 Bonus Book Club Selection. Right after the Pulpwood Queens 20th anniversary celebration and being home in Atlanta for less than a week, he left for Los Angeles where he’s had a lot of success as a copywriter. All this time, he and his dad kept at it on Spellbound Under the Spanish Moss.

Then the pandemic hit. Connor and Kevin continued work using WhatsApp. In early April, they turned it over to me for editing. Connor was living in an AirBnB by then with a person he didn’t know. Los Angeles was on lockdown. He took two flights to get home that first weekend in April. We were overjoyed to have all three of us back together. Working with Douglas Thompson, who I met in Jefferson, on his book and editing Spellbound Under the Spanish Moss were bright spots amidst all the confusion and chaos around COVID-19. Connor had found a tremendous artist on Instagram named John J. Pearson out of London to do the cover and interior illustrations.

Working on this book gave me a similar feeling to when I was working with Sam Bracken on My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change. There were powerful, moving lessons skillfully woven into the story in Spellbound. The authors highlight the challenges and prejudices those who are labeled “different” in some way suffer. The common thread that connects their memorable characters is grief — from death, abandonment, betrayal, or physical disfigurement. It touches on female empowerment, adoption, self-acceptance, forgiveness, and unconditional love. For me, one of Spellbound‘s most compelling messages is that we are free to create a family of the heart.

Connor and Jawad Mazhir, his best friend from Berry College, co-founded Lucid House Publishing early last year. They asked me to join that summer. I’ve written 20 books (four of which netted six-figure advances/payments), have had four literary agents, and been in several different publishing arrangements from major New York publishers Random House and Harper Collins to mid-range publishers like Thomas Nelson to hybrid publishers like Greenleaf.

With My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change, Sam and I went through two literary agents and 75 rejections over a two year period. Finally, we decided to self-publish, because we were tired of waiting for the NY publishers to get our vision. We wanted to start a nonprofit, so that we could do life plan coaching teens and young adults aging out of foster care, experiencing homelessness, or poverty, based on the principles in the second half of the book called Sam’s “Rules for the Road.” A design firm out of Canada that specialized in edutainment caught our vision, and Kevin Garrett, who is an internationally-awarded advertising and fine art photographer, allowed us to use 60 of his original images in the book. Sam explained to me that as a child, who had suffered so much trauma, art, music and movies had saved him. We wanted the book to take people to places that they might not otherwise experience. Every page is designed, and the original came in an orange zippered cover that looked like the duffel bag that carried all of Sam’s worldly possessions when he arrived at age 18 and homeless in Atlanta from Las Vegas to accept a football scholarship at Georgia Tech.

In May 2010, we launched what is now called the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit, with the help of Mike Daly, who is now our President; 50-year educator Richard Becker, Connor’s high school principal, who helped me write the initial curriculum and pilot it with his students, many who had learning differences; and a handful of others. We also introduced the book. I happened to read about Kathy L. Murphy in a book marketing newsletter the day after we launched. This woman, who owned a beauty shop/bookstore in tiny Jefferson, Texas, had a knack for picking bestsellers, often before anyone else did and said she didn’t care, who published them. I wrote her an email that my husband calls a “love note” telling her about our book and why I thought it matched what she was looking for. I raced to FedEx and sent it overnight.

By the time I got home I had a reply, asking me to call her. I told her our story and our struggle to get published and why’d done it ourselves. She told me she’d read the book the next day and would call me to let me know what she thought. I was making dinner when the phone rang. She was squealing with delight over our book and how much she loved it. She announced that it would be a Book of the Month Selection and invited us to 2011 GFW. She agreed to dye her hair orange to match our book cover if we sold 1,000 books that first month. We sold 2,000.

Meeting Kathy L. Murphy changed the trajectory of my life. At that first GFW, I met Diana Black, another featured author who became ODBI’s Vice President. I also met a whole host of avid readers and a community of authors. Kathy is the most passionate person about books and the power of story that I’ve ever met. Her book The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life explains how books saved her from a traumatic childhood and motivated her to carve out her own unique place in the literary world.

Meanwhile, we won every award I entered My Orange Duffel Bag in for best self-help and best young adult nonfiction and sold through our first printing in three months and went to a second printing. A third agent said she could sell the book, and she did. We became the first self-published book to be acquired by Random House, and were put with the Crown Archetype imprint. We subsequently won the American Society of Journalists and Authors Arlene Eisenberg Writing that Makes a Difference award given every three years to a book that’s made the most difference in people’s lives. Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, which is an evidence-based program and provides ongoing advocacy to our graduates, became the youngest nonprofit to be recognized for our work with Emory University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award. At this writing, more than 1,500 young people (ages 14-24) have graduated our 12-week program and earned a laptop computer. Learn more at https://theodbi.org/

Fast-forward to now. I’ve been writing professionally since 1982. I’ve been an editor at two different national magazines, a contributing writer to half a dozen, and editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman where my first issue won Best Single Issue out of 400+ magazines in the Southeast. My stories have appeared in more than 100 media outlets, including AARP, The New York Times, Business Week, and American Way. My first book How to Make a Buck and Still Be a Decent Human Being: The Sales and Marketing Strategies That Catapulted Dataflex into the Top 100 Best Small Companies in America was published in 1992 with HarperBusiness. I’ve studied the book publishing industry ever since and work continuously to educate myself on all aspects of it. As an author, it’s not enough to write good books. You have to figure out the business of it, too.

I grew up around publishing with my late father Bob Montgomery being the founder and visionary of House of Gold Music on Nashville’s Music Row. I worked for him all through high school, college breaks and then my first year out of college. My job was publicity and then later, copyright administration. He created family among the 25 staff writers, who were signed to HOG. We had a quarter of the number of songwriters that our main competitor Tree International had, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we often topped Tree for the most #1 hits. I learned from my dad that a small, entrepreneur-driven company can thrive by using out-of-the-box thinking and doing things differently.

The book publishing industry is based on a broken model that was established during the Great Depression. I’ve listened to so many of my author friends discuss their disappointment with their publishers. A lack of transparency is rampant. Getting numbers from your publisher can be virtually impossible. Big publishers typically take 90% of your royalties, leaving with you a mere 10%. If you are lucky enough to get an advance (an increasingly rare thing nowadays), you will find it virtually impossible to earn out any royalties. It’s the reason my father regularly hired outside auditors to track the records sales of the big record labels. These days your book usually only has about a six-week window to sell at bookstores, or it starts getting returned — the cost of which gets charged back to the author’s account. The model doesn’t account for the radical changes in technology, distribution, marketing, and printing that exist now.

With our small, bespoke Lucid House Publishing, we are establishing a new model in this rapidly changing industry. We’ve flipped the traditional model on its head. For each author’s project that fits the bill for the high quality fiction and nonfiction that we seek and that we accept, we will consult with that person about their goals for their book. Then we will put together a detailed estimate of the cost of the items that we agree that the book needs to be readied for publishing as a trade paperback and e-book. We’ve assembled a team of professionals, who provide these services at a high level of quality and at a reasonable cost. For each Lucid House project, we will put together a marketing plan tailored to that author’s goals. Our success is bound to your success as an author, because we only take 10 percent of your royalties and you keep 90 percent.

Late last month, it hit Connor and me that the person, who thinks like we do about innovating and bringing wild creativity to a stodgy industry, is Kathy Murphy, so we asked her to take the position of Director of Acquisitions. This long-time industry veteran accepted. Like any entrepreneurial startup, we are a work in progress and continually growing, brainstorming, and learning. We are looking at best practices and carving out our company’s culture.

Launching Spellbound Under the Spanish Moss as our first book as a team during protests and a pandemic has been difficult. But your support and encouragement has affirmed our desire to publish books that are thought-provoking and bring diverse stories by diverse authors to book lovers with a model that rewards the authors of these beautiful books for their passion and work. As Kathy always says, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY.

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