Today and tomorrow, we will have Jim Pannell, publisher of Brook Street Press in Saint Simons Island, Georgia who graciously agreed to answer a few questions I threw at him about his press’ unique approach to book publishing. Anyone needing an introduction to Brook Street can find it here.
Mick: “Jim, give us some background on what you’re trying to do with Brook Street. Are you a ‘revolutionary’ publisher?”
Jim: “I don’t think there is anything ‘revolutionary’ about what we are doing. In fact, I’d probably argue that we are trying to recover something that has been lost in publishing—a patient approach that allows new authors to develop. We are simply looking for very talented writers with a compelling voice and a story to tell.”
M: “So would you publish Jesus?”
J: “Well, if he wrote a strong opening scene that carries throughout the book, absolutely. Personally, I don’t think leaders, religious or otherwise, make particularly good writers, at least not these days since they would end up with a ghost writer, which in most cases don’t succeed in capturing the voice of the ‘author.’ I’d like to think that the writers of the Gospels are an exception, especially Luke and John.”
M: “Well that’s hardly fair. Luke and John were ghosting for the Holy Spirit, you know—which actually might make a good book when you think about it, ‘Ghosting for the Holy Ghost.’ Anyway, I’ve gotten a little inside info from a mutual friend about how Brook Street came about. Is it safe to assume Brook Street is not publishing ‘saccharine’ or ‘preachy’ literature?”
J: “We don’t have an ‘agenda’ for what we are trying to publish. We are looking for unusually talented writers, and forgotten gems, that bring joy to the ‘art of reading.’ There is nothing more satisfying to me than to find a book that’s compelling, moves me, and makes me think in new ways. Reading is an art form I fear is disappearing from our culture. What I see on the shelves does make me despair that this crucial tool for critical thinking is being lost. I think that ‘saccharine’ or ‘preachy’ are probably the last thing we would ever look to publish.”
M: “So how do you choose the books?”
J: “We get about 25-50 submissions each week (I’d actually like to find a way to possibly reduce the number). It’s very difficult. We simply don’t have time to read every manuscript in its entirety. I estimate that for every 200 submissions I’ll find one I want to finish reading. We don’t necessarily publish everything we finish reading. When I have a manuscript I like a lot I typically run it by a few people who like to read and are willing to take a look. I don’t always take their advice and it is rarely unanimous, but I take it seriously. Of course, the caveat is that while I may want to read 0.5%, even that is difficult. I confess I have sat on some good manuscripts far too long before deciding to pass. It isn’t fair to the author but we do the best we can.”
M: “Well, at least you don’t sit on the authors.”
J: “We have two areas of concentration: new authors with distinctive voices (like Sarah Foulger and Steven Gillis and OP (out-of-print) material that’s been neglected that has a built-in audience (Frederick Buechner’s first novel). This approach has worked very well for us.
“The selection process is very subjective and almost impossible to describe. Personally, I have a pretty short attention span and if the writer cannot pull me into the narrative fairly quickly I lose interest. There isn’t much that published today that I find particularly compelling. I’m not sure what it is that is missing but I’m beginning to wonder if much of the truly great contemporary writing is overseas. Being small potatoes, we don’t have much ability to seek that out.
“I do find some things that show up in many submissions that really turn me off. I’m really not interested in another story about terrorists; I have a real aversion to violence in general. Submissions like this I almost always put down.
“Finally—and probably the least satisfactory answer to aspiring authors—we think a lot about how a title fits with others on our list. Given that we don’t publish many titles (only 5 in the first year), to us this seems critically important.”
M: “Jim, thanks for the introduction.”
We’ll hear more from Jim tomorrow about Brook Street’s publishing strategy and how it differs from a typical “CBA publisher.”