Author A.E. Copenhaver chats to their editor/publisher Midge Raymond of Ashland Creek Press about the editing process for My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, a satirical novel of how a life on the edge of eco-anxiety can spiral wildly out of control, as well as how promising and inspiring a commitment to saving our planet can be.
Midge Raymond: What advice would you have for debut authors as they work with their editors?
A.E. Copenhaver: Being able to have a book published is a huge privilege, and at the same time, authors need their editors to be advocates of their book, especially as part of their editors’ job is to help refine and perfect the book so that it is the best possible version of itself before being brought into the world.
My advice would be to make sure that authors and their editors have a very clear understanding of what the book is truly about and why it’s important. Making sure you align on the specific niche that this book is fulfilling, too, is incredibly helpful and will inform the entire experience up to and beyond publication day. If authors and their editors can align on those two things, everything else that comes after–such as drafting, revising, formatting, publishing, and marketing–will be a truly enjoyable experience.
MR: What surprised you most about the editorial process?
AEC: How fast it was! I know publishers have different timelines and processes to get books from manuscript to novel on the shelf, but I was thrilled and often surprised with how fast everything happened. I went from contract signing to publication in a little over a year, I think it was, and I know that is considered super fast. Of course I was so happy that it wasn’t going to take two or more years to get my book published, and this meant that each revision of the manuscript carried more weight for me. The first edit was the cull — getting the word count down from 97k to about 90k. The second edit was the proofread and copyedit after the professional proofreader. And then it was a couple rounds of reading the novel in its final formatted state.
I’ll never forget sitting in my kitchen amongst moving boxes and cleaning supplies as a crucial editorial moment came up. I had to get my laptop out and sit in the middle of my empty living room and make a decision about a single word that could impact how the entire rest of the book appeared on the page. And not only that, I had to make this decision just before the doors closed and all additional edits from there forward would be non-negotiable. Luckily, everything worked out, of course, but it felt very dramatic in the moment. There is something terribly nerve-wracking about “calling it,” about saying “yes, this is the novel in its best possible form and we are publishing it now.”
MR: I find titles challenging, both as an author and especially as an editor/publisher. In what ways do you think your book’s title fits the novel, and what was the process like in getting there?
AEC: I struggle so much with titles, too! And, as I expected, I was incredibly stressed by the process of choosing a title for this novel — all due to my own anxieties about the significance of naming something, anything, but especially a book that will be published and will be something I would need to refer to for the rest of my life. That is a huge commitment!
As you know, I was somewhat attached to my working title of the novel and was convinced almost up to the end that I would get to use it! So funny. And now, of course I cannot imagine any other title for this novel than the one it has. I really adore it and couldn’t be happier with the title.
The process itself was entirely reasonable: I had a note on my phone where I kept title ideas; then we shared a few emails back and forth with our top choices for titles, and I talked almost incessantly about the title options with my early readers and my family and with you and John (Yunker). I feel like our email discussions about the title were so helpful because it was another moment where we could clarify, again, our own understandings of what the book was about and why it was important.
The best feeling in the world was when you and John and I got on a Zoom call and we all agreed on the best title out of our final options. We all came to that title at the very same moment, it felt like. And it was this momentous occasion — to have a name for this novel — and for all of us to feel equally as enthusiastic about it. I like to give kudos to my best friend and poet Marisa Silva-Dunbar who helped formulate the final iteration of the title that we all loved.
MR: How did you envision the book’s cover, and what was this creative process like?
AEC: I really appreciated how you wanted my thoughts and ideas about the cover. I kept a folder in Google Drive with images and art for cover design inspiration. I had hoped to feature lots of greenery, foliage, and definitely flowers. And when the three options for cover designs came around, there was one that blew me away. Obviously, that was the option we chose for the final cover, and to me it is truly a work of art — because it actually features an artist’s original work! The Nasturtium Garden by Leah Yunk, with graphic design by Matt Smith to include the title — to me it’s flawless! It’s a perfect visual representation of the novel, and I could not be more proud and pleased with the final novel. It’s a joy to be able to read a physical copy of this book, and I can’t thank you and John enough for helping bring it into the world.
A.E. Copenhaver: You’ve had a wide range of writing and publishing experience. At what point in your own writing career did you know you wanted to become a publisher?
Midge Raymond: I never envisioned being a publisher back when I worked in publishing; I was just becoming a writer then, and I’d been enjoying working as an editor and copywriter. It wasn’t until many years later, after my first book came out and then went out of print a year later — and John’s wonderful eco-thriller had no luck finding a home in the mainstream publishing world — that we thought about starting a small press. By then I’d worked in many aspects of publishing, from editing to proofreading to copywriting to production, and John has an extensive marketing and tech background — so together, we had what we needed to get going. We opened our (virtual) doors in 2011, and in that first year we published five books, including John’s novel, The Tourist Trail. We now publish about two books a year — in part because we have other work, and also because we’re doing other fun things like hosting the Siskiyou Prize (which of course you won for Euphoria in 2019!) and hosting our Writing for Animals classes, plus a new class with poet Gretchen Primack called Writing Like an Animal.
I couldn’t have envisioned being a publisher decades ago when I worked in New York City publishing, but things have changed so much in favor of small presses; it’s actually doable thanks to technology like print-on-demand production and e-books. And I’m glad to still be a working writer as well; I’ve found it invaluable to navigate both worlds with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained from being on both sides. It helps, for example, to have been asked to change the title of my own novel when I have to ask a writer to consider changing hers — I’ve been there, and I know how connected we get to our titles and how important it is to find just the right one.
AEC: We’ve talked a bit before about the purpose of fiction and the power of books. What sort of responsibility (beyond producing and selling books of course!), if any, do you feel publishers have?
MR: I feel as though small presses are far more free to do what they love than to have to try to predict what the market wants, as the big publishers usually need to consider. When you are part of a giant corporation, there’s a responsibility to make money that could very well eclipse your wish to publish the books you adore (especially if they are niche books or for whatever reason unlikely to have a huge audience). For the Big Five publishers (perhaps soon to be the Big Four), they do have their mega-bestselling authors who help subsidize the new and emerging authors, but the truth is that if you’re a debut author and your book doesn’t sell as well as anticipated, it’ll be tough to get your next book deal; it’s far more about sales numbers than subject matter or literary merit.
Ashland Creek Press certainly isn’t in this for the money; we’re all about publishing the books that we feel are first and foremost greatly entertaining and that also have the potential to change the world for the better. I do think that publishers have a responsibility to do good in the world; books are an amazing platform, and I think all great art has a message and a point of view. If well done, it’s never preachy or moralistic, but I do feel that art should exist to enlighten as well as entertain. And books have such a unique way of getting people talking that the more we can open readers’ hearts and minds to the myriad issues facing the world today, the more we can move forward and see things improve.
AEC: How would you compare the experience of writing and publishing your own books to helping your authors bring their books into the world? It must feel, on some level, amazing to do both, but I’m curious about how any differences might manifest.
MR: It is amazing to do both! As I mentioned above, being on both sides of the process helps tremendously in understanding what’s at stake — an editor who isn’t also a writer can’t truly understand how challenging it is to re-envision a book title you’ve lived with for so long. And an author who isn’t a publisher may not understand why a title change is necessary; I remember sitting in meetings in New York amid vivid arguments over book titles — usually it’s a lone editor versus the sales and marketing team. It was very edifying to witness editors passionately defending a beloved title and the sales and marketing folks explaining how a title may be perceived in the marketplace; it helped me learn why a title matters from a sales perspective, as well as how much it means to the author. Over the years at ACP, we’ve suggested changing several book titles, and our authors are always wonderful about it — I feel as though they know we don’t ask lightly and that we really understand the challenges of that process. And most important to us is that we are all happy with the new title; a great title can’t work if we’re not all proud of it and willing to go out and enthusiastically share it.
Bringing a book into the world, both as author and publisher, is an incredible privilege — I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it, especially given the books we publish, which I think are not only terrific reads but important to the conversations we need to be having. We’re at such a crisis moment for our planet, and I hope our books help readers feel that they’re not alone in this — and I especially hope our books reach those who may be less aware but are awakened by reading, say, a great satirical debut novel like My Days of Dark Green Euphoria.
AEC: What advice do you have for authors who might want to get involved in the publishing industry or even start their own press?
MR: A publishing colleague of ours shared a brilliant joke about independent publishing: How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Answer: Start with a large fortune.
So, my first bit of advice would be to keep the day jobs! (We have.) This gives you the freedom to publish what you love and not worry about keeping the lights on or feeding yourself. Keep your overhead low, and consider print-on-demand, which is a bit more costly per unit but doesn’t require expensive print runs or warehouse fees associated with storing unsold books; it also reduces the waste and the huge carbon footprint associated with large print runs.
I’d also suggest having a niche so that you can stand out amid the competition. When we started ACP, there wasn’t anyone else out there (that we knew of) publishing environmental and animal-themed fiction. Now there are a few more of us out there, and of course, this is a good thing — but when you’re starting out, it’s good to have a way to be a little different.
As we often tell writers, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” — and this is true for publishers as well as authors. We couldn’t have envisioned exactly where we’d be eleven years later; all we knew was that we’d just keep going — and likewise I can’t imagine where we’ll be in another decade, only that we’ll still be here, doing our thing, however that evolves.
Find out more about My Days of Dark Green Euphoria.
A.E. Copenhaver is a writer, editor, science communicator, and climate interpreter. She’s worked in the environmental and nonprofit sectors for nearly a decade.
Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Midge worked in publishing in New York before moving to Boston, where she taught communication writing at Boston University for six years. Midge lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.