Women and Independent Publishing - An Interview with CM Mayo, award-winning author, journalist, poet, translator, and publisher
I recently attended IBPA’s Publishing U in Austin, Texas, where I ran into Catherine Mayo, a one-time DC resident. Catherine, who goes by CM Mayo, is an award-winning, literary journalist and novelist, host of the podcast series Marfa Mondays and the lit-blog, "Madam Mayo." She also writes poetry, book reviews, and translates Mexican fiction and poetry. At the moment, she’s living in Mexico City.
Given her wide-ranging experience as both an author and a publisher, I knew Catherine would be a great person to interview for this blog. But what I’m particularly interested in is finding out why so many women are drawn to independent publishing. Her answer to that and a half a dozen other questions follow.
Q. I’m particularly interested in why women writers go into independent or self-publishing. You’ve got so many books—fiction, nonfiction, anthologies—what made you decide to start Dancing Chiva?
A. Back in the late 2000s, I had a few books in print, but my various publishers—with the exception of Unbridled Books, which has my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire—hadn’t bothered with digital editions. That might seem incredible now that ebooks have become such a fashion, but up until around 2008, most publishers didn’t give a sniff about digital rights. Other than Unbridled Books, my publishers’ contracts either didn’t even contemplate them, or else, they allowed the digital rights to revert to me. Because my hardcover and paperback books had received excellent reviews, I believed I had readers for the same books in digital format. And as I soon learned, happily, making an ebook isn’t rocket science. So that was the spark for Dancing Chiva. I happened to have hanging in my office an antique painting of a gypsy dancing with a little goat, so there was the name.
I don’t think my being a woman was a factor; many men have started their own presses for similar reasons. As a matter of fact, two important inspirations for me have been biographer Ken Ackerman and his Viral History Press and poet Robert Giron with Gival Press. Another personal inspiration has been my friend, best-selling historical novelist Sandra Gulland, who started Gulland Ink to showcase her beautifully designed digital editions.
But Dancing Chiva isn’t all about my work; I relish being able to publish certain works by others that might otherwise languish in the murk of archives. For instance, Marie de la Fere’s My Recollections of Maximilian, circa 1910, I published as an ebook by permission of the Bancroft Library, which holds the original manuscript, viewable only on microfiche. It’s not book length, so it’s not something I can see a traditional publisher wanting to bring out, but it is an illuminating document for scholars of the period.
Q. Does one genre do better than any of the others?
A. I have a hunch that fiction featuring vampires sells like red-hot jellybeans.The Muse has yet to present me with a vampire—and if she did, I’d give him a garlic cookie and a pat on the head, and send him right back to wherever he came from.
As for numbers of my own ebooks, I have the impression that the ebook of my travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico does well in part because many readers are traveling and they prefer not to lug around an actual book; they download the Kindle to read on the plane, the beach or the road.
Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book came out in paperback and Kindle in 2014 and both editions seem to be gaining some popularity for university classes on the Mexican Revolution—a narrow niche—and among those interested in metaphysics and the history of metaphysical religion—a wide and foamy ocean out there and everywhere from New Zealand to the Himalayas. We shall see.
Q. Has your experience being published by other presses been very different from what you’ve experienced with your own press?
A. The ebook published by Unbridled Books, of my novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was an afterthought to their publishing the original hardcover and paperback editions; I had nothing to do with the ebook. So probably a “compare and contrast” will be more interesting for the case of my self-published paperback, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. This is a book that, in years past, I would have submitted to a university press, but for a constellation of reasons, some of which I still think are pretty good, I decided to plunge ahead on my own in 2014.
With my own press, I’m the boss, which has an upside—I get to do it my way—and a downside—I get to do it my way. In some things, I’m savvy and knowledgeable, but in others, someone else could lead the way better than I can. Also, as a small independent press, I do not have the marketing muscle to get books into brick-and-mortar bookstores, attention from mass media, a slot in most major book festivals, and so on. (That said, I did place Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution in the Texas Book Festival; it’s been reviewed in several magazines including Kirkus and the San Francisco Book Review, and it’s available on Amazon and Ingram, which is to say, it is distributed to all major online booksellers).
It’s a little difficult to compare my experience in self-publishing with working with publishers because I’ve had so many publishers over the years, publishing itself has changed, and I’ve found that publishers can be as varied as apples or oranges, watermelons or raspberry pips. One thing I’ve learned: You really don’t know for sure what they’re going to do for your book until they’ve actually done it. But if you’re your own publisher and you haven’t done some task for your book, you either have to sigh and let it go, or get cracking!
Q. You’ve also got a blog and a podcast. How do you find the time to do it all? And do all of your other activities cut into your writing time?
A. I’m not Joyce Carol Oates—yet! But seriously, I never watch TV, ditto spectator sports, and rarely venture into a shopping mall (major time suck there). As for the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project, that is an on-line record of some of the raw material for my book-in-progress, so I consider that part of my writing. As for the blog, Madam Mayo, I’ve settled on blogging on Mondays and “oftentimes more often.” When I’m busy, I just blog on Mondays.
Note: For a great piece on using time wisely, check out Madam Mayo's
30 Deadly-Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & Gimungously Vast Swaths of Time for Writing
Q. You’re publishing in Spanish and English. Do you find the books are received differently?
A. My impression is that there is a substantial and growing English language readership for works on Mexico; nevertheless, Mexico remains a niche subject. On the other hand, though a much smaller market by comparison to the U.S., Canada, U.K. et al, in Mexico I’ve found more enthusiasm for my books, in particular for the novel based on the true story, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (in Spanish, El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano), and the latest book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution (Odisea metafísica hacia la Revolución Mexicana). These are narratives about periods as transformative for Mexico as were our U.S. Civil War, and they are about individuals who loom as large in the national imagination as, say, Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. Though I am fluent in Spanish, my Spanish is not at the same level as my English for literary writing, and both books have been beautifully translated by Mexican poet and novelist Agustín Cadena, which undoubtedly has had an very positive influence on their reception.
My latest book, Odisea metafisica hacia la Revolución Mexicana, is published by both Dancing Chiva (Kindle and print-on-demand paperback) and Literal Publishing, which is based in Houston, Texas and distributes on both sides of the border. Literal Publishing did a splendid offset printed edition which was presented recently at Mexico City’s Centro de Estudios de la Historia de México with a panel of leading experts on Madero and the Revolution. It has been a delight and an honor to be working with the founding editor, the Mexican poet and writer Rose Mary Salum (on Twitter @rosemarysalum or listen to the podcast interview - Conversations with Other Writers:
Mexican writer, poet and editor Rose Mary Salum on Making Connections with Literature and Art).
Q. Who influenced or inspired you? Or are there any writers you greatly admire?
A. Oh, endlessly long lists here, but I’ll whittle it down to a few per genre. For fiction, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton. For nonfiction, Ian Frazier, V.S. Naipaul, Sara Mansfield Taber, Sam Quinones. I just finished reading a superb biography of the Texas writer, J. Frank Dobie, by Steven L. Davis, so I add Davis to my list. And bloggers James Howard Kunstler and John Michael Greer both have a discipline, original perspective, and, on occasion, rhetorical elegance, that I find inspiring. Blogger-economists Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabarrok inspire me for their wide-ranging curiosity and sharp eyes. Blogging is a still-developing genre, and after 9 years of steady blogging with Madam Mayo I still find it fascinating. Kind of like watching jellyfish in a blue-lit tank.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. A book of creative nonfiction—literary travel writing— with the tentative title World Waiting for a Dream: A Turn in Far West Texas. Apropos of that, I’m hosting the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project as I go, with 16 of a projected 24 podcasts posted so far. Listen in anytime! www.cmmayo.com/marfa
Q. Anything you want to say about writing, fiction, nonfiction, podcasting, publishing?
A. Writing can be a tricky path (especially when we start discussing publishing!) but it is also a joyous one. For me it’s about exploring the complexity of what it means to be human and, in fashioning a narrative, creating both meaning and beauty. Whether this genre or that genre, it’s all poetry. Nowadays we can crunch a bunch of sales and click data, but this doesn’t change the fact that a book still goes out to largely opaque response. So one has to write and publish with a big dose of crazy faith. That has always been true, and I think it will continue to be true for as long as humans can put words on some surface for others to decipher.
As for podcasting, I just wonder why more writers aren’t doing it!
Publishing: it’s a fast-changing game and what’s best for one writer and one book may not be for her next book, or for a different writer. So writers need to be aware that there may be a wider menu of publishing options available than they might have imagined. They might do a hardcover, a limited signed edition, and/or a paperback, and/or an ebook, and/or an audio book—and any given edition might be done by a traditional publisher, a hybrid publisher, or self-published. And, for example, it’s now possible, though CreateSpace and/or Ingram Spark, for individual writers to get their books listed with a major distributor such as Ingram— something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. And I am very encouraged by what you are doing with Bacon Press Books, a hybrid or “partnership” publishing model with a very selective catalog. I think this is much needed, both for writers and for readers.
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