Sandra Shwayder Sanchez is both a literary author and co-founder of The Wessex Collective, an unusual literary publishing company in more ways than one. For one thing, none of the authors get royalties; for another, they have a noble mission: to publish “committed fiction” that is “socially responsible.”
Tell us about the Wessex Collective, Sandra. When and how did it get started?
I had been corresponding with R.P. Burnham for several years after I read his editorial prelude to an issue of The Long Story which I discovered at The Tattered Cover Bookstore. I submitted a story which he published and later he asked me for more work. What we had in common was a preference for fiction that focused on characters that lived on the periphery of society, the poor, the homeless, the very old or very young, the mentally ill, people who are neglected and often abused. I went to law school in my late thirties because I wanted to speak up for the rights of people who often have no voice and Peter helps to run a soup kitchen in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
For whatever reason, we both had this particular interest and we both expressed our empathy for the real people we encountered in our lives and work in fiction. Peter calls this “committed fiction” and perhaps in today’s phrasing we could call it “socially responsible” fiction. After experiencing the usual frustration sending out full length book manuscripts, I suggested that we start an author’s publishing collective. Peter had been publishing The Long Story for more than twenty years when I approached him about it and I was delighted that he was interested because no way could we do this without his expertise. We each invited work from authors we admired. We published our first three titles in spring of 2005, another three that fall. In 2006 we published two more titles and we have just come out with three more this fall. The way we work, no author is paid for his or her work so it doesn’t matter how many copies of which books we sell, all the sale proceeds go back into the collective account to help print and promote all the books.
What type of books do you publish?
We publish literary fiction although our list includes one memoir that has the dramatic suspense of a work of fiction.
Are you open to submissions?
We do not encourage submissions as none of us has the time to read a lot of manuscripts but we have received email queries from authors who have read our books and believe they have something that would be a good fit with what we are doing. Before we put a lot of time and effort into an author’s manuscripts however, we want to know that the author will work with us to promote all our books, not just their own, as that is the whole point of the collective concept.
What is the toughest job of managing a small press? What is the most rewarding?
The toughest part is actually selling books. So many readers these days, even serious readers, will only “take a chance” on books that they have already heard a lot about. I always wonder about this, because what exactly does the reader have to lose by reading an unknown title by an unknown author? They might be disappointed? Then again, they might make an exciting discovery. It seems to me if you love to read, you might enjoy being the first to discover some hidden treasure.
The most rewarding part is bringing into the light, excellent books that might otherwise have been lost to the world.
How do you market your books to bookstores and libraries?
Personal contacts with bookstore managers and librarians is absolutely important. I have gotten orders for books from libraries I have visited personally, not when I have written or emailed, the same with local bookstores. We now work with a distributor of small press books: The Booklink, Inc. We have really enjoyed working with them. We don’t keep as much of the sale proceeds but hopefully this arrangement will result in more sales and therefore greater exposure for all our authors.
Any book publicity strategies you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I’ve learned the hard way that reviews by themselves don’t sell books, ads by themselves don’t sell books and even the two together in one publication at the same time, doesn’t always have any immediate effect. When readers take a chance on a book and recommend that book to friends or better yet, give books to their friends for birthdays and holidays that is a good long term strategy. One author I know said that trying to get some attention for a new book these days is like highlighting a snowflake in a blizzard. It is just going to take a lot of time and perseverance and a little luck now and then (like being discovered by Oprah).
You’re also an author. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an author.
What type of books do you write?
I read all the time as a child and by the time I was in my teens it seemed inevitable that I would write stories. In fact my creative writing teacher in high school suggested that I start a literary magazine so I did and it became a tradition at the school. In my twenties I did send out some stories and even won a first prize for fiction one month from a literary magazine in Austin, Texas. I also corresponded with Anais Nin who was very encouraging. Then I decided I needed to live more and figure out what I wanted to write about. I threw out dozens of stories that suddenly seemed trivial to me. In my early thirties I wrote an experimental novel, Snow (I had just finished reading Ice by Anna Kavan). It was one of those stream of conscious creations that is not exactly poetry and definitely not narrative and later I called the manusript my “salvage yard” because sometimes I really could use something from it to clarify another story or novel.
As soon as I finished Snow I started what would later be my first published novel. I interrupted work on this to get a divorce, return to college and then law school and I finished this 124 page book about twelve years after I started it. The Nun was published by Plain View Press in 1992, three years after I finished it. I also started writing more serious short stories and the first of these was published in The Long Story in 1986. I have since had stories published in The Long Story, Monocacy Valley Review, Zone 3, The Healing Muse and some online publications: Storyglossia # 17, The Dublin Quarterly, and Cantaraville.
In 1994 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and put on an unpaid medical leave of absence from my job in a small law office. My boss had died of cancer the year before and I think his son was afraid of having me die on him as well. In any case, the leave of absence became a layoff and I later returned to private practice but during the months I was undergoing chemotherapy I wrote two novels and started a third. The first one was a finalist in a novel contest but not the winner and I’m just as glad it was not published as, looking back, it was not the work by which I’d want to be known. The second was Stillbird which I consider my best work and when I started Wessex Collective with R. P. Burnham this was the work of my own I felt most confident publishing. In fact it was when I had a say in the selection process that I threw out that other novel. The third novel involved some historical research before I could finish it. I recently queried a University Press about that one and they are seriously considering it.
Do you have a website where readers may learn more about you or your publishing company?
The Wessex Collective was recently redesigned by our talented friend, Christine Potter.