Deren Hansen on Artisan Book Publishing

Deren HansenPressbooks user Deren Hansen is an author and publisher who has used Pressbooks to produce seven writers guides, also available in two collections, and an upcoming series of young adult steampunk adventures. He shared some of his tips for prolific publishing.

First, tell us about your young adult steampunk adventures and where readers can buy and read them.

Dunlith Hill, my publishing endeavor, just released The Alyscrai, Book I of The Looking Glass of Souls, by D.H. Aidan.

In the California of an alternate 1898, Alysseren, a sixteen-year-old missionary, matches people with tochtin—lemur-like familiars who convert their hosts to the church of the Queen of Heaven. When she is admitted to the adult congregation, the bloody secret of the High Service shakes her faith.The Alyscrai Cover

At the same time, she meets two intriguing young men who vie for her favor—the handsome priest assigned to prepare her for the next High Service and a dashing Mayan amnesiac—and uncovers a conspiracy among the tochtin to use their human hosts as weapons against the Queen.

Determined to save both the tochtin and the people they control, Alysseren navigates both a land infested with towering, steam-powered war machines and the attentions of her new companions as she tries to stop the rebellion. But every step leads inexorably to a collision with the Queen, and a terrible choice: sacrifice her beloved tochtin … or herself.

The book, which we fell in love with because it felt like what might have happened if Lewis Carroll met H.G. Wells at a party thrown by Jules Verne, is beautifully rendered with the Pressbooks Lovecraft theme and we’re thrilled that it’s now available on Amazon in both Kindle and trade paperback editions.

You’re the publisher and author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides, a collection of seven how-to guides on topics relevant to the writing process. How has Pressbooks helped you be prolific writing, producing and publishing books?

I created a Pressbooks account in 2012 as soon as I heard about the system. It was clear from the beginning that Hugh’s brilliant repurposing and extension of the WordPress platform to create an integrated development environment for a book compiler was going to be central to my own publishing efforts. I did have to write a postprocessor to insert a custom copyright page and make a few other adjustments in each of my writers guides, but that early version of Pressbooks so streamlined the production process it was worth a bit of hacking on my part.

In other words, I was sold on the Pressbooks approach from the very beginning. Once I understood and mastered the Pressbooks production process I was free to devote more time and energy to the irreducible work of writing because I no longer had to keep track of the thousand and one formatting pitfalls that could mar an e-book nor did I have to schedule a significant amount of time to produce the book after polishing the final draft.

I should add, as a testament to the system’s continual refinement, that I was able to retire my postprocessor in favor of Pressbook’s built-in features when I recently revised and re-released my writers guides.

You talk about “artisan publishing.” What do you mean by that, and how has Pressbooks helped you achieve this goal?

There was tremendous pressure in the publishing world last year to take sides when the commercial dispute between Amazon and Hachette was transmogrified by partisans into a crusade to preserve or liberate the soul of our literary culture. There was, of course, a great deal of self-interest on both sides because much of the shouting was ultimately motivated by hopes and fears about how (and by whom) money would be made as publishing changes.

That focus on money betrays the widespread assumption that the only model for publishing success is becoming a bestseller. The real news is that over the last five years a series of structural changes in the market—a dramatic increase in the number of people able to read e-books, online retailers able to keep books in stock and in print indefinitely, and major publishers abandoning the mid-list—have made it possible for individuals and small organizations to define publishing success differently.

Artisan Publishing is a crafted-centered approach to producing books that focuses on the quality and integrity of the author’s editorial vision. Rather than chasing trends and only being able to undertake projects with broad commercial appeal, artisan publishers are free to do the work that matters most to them and their readers. And while fame and fortune are less common on the road less traveled, artisan publishing can be the source of a good, (and more importantly) satisfying living.

Pressbooks is one of the pre-eminent partners for artisan publishers. Everything about it, from pricing to control over the content and design of the book, is squarely in line with the values of artisan publishing. The quality of the print and electronic books Pressbooks produces and the ease with which artisan publishers can make changes and re-render their books enables them to focus more of their efforts on the narrative and editorial quality of their books.

When you publish a series, do you find it’s easier to sell the individual books, or does bundling the set improve sales volume? And what has worked best for you as an author in marketing your books?

Because of changes in the way books are sold online it is now not only possible but desirable to do both: having a series available in bundles as well as individual titles appeals to readers looking for value as well as readers who want to pay only for what they need. The Dunlith Hill Writers Guides, for example, were designed to address this dynamic. Each individual title focuses on a single aspect of the writing life or the art and craft of storytelling. The collections bundle related guides together (and cost less than buying the constituent volumes individually).

In addition to satisfying the needs of different kinds of customers, having both individual titles and bundles creates a larger market footprint by giving readers more opportunities to find your books. And each book and bundle helps to market the rest of the series.

Once again, Pressbooks is a great enabler: between the civilized pricing and the ease with which content can be imported, the direct cost as well as the time and effort required to create another version of the content are modest so there’s no reason not to produce individual titles and bundles.

You are an anthropologist, engineer and historian who attended MIT. How did you go from engineering things to writing things, and how is the process the same and different?

I did some serious introspection as I was about to graduate from MIT and had to decide which of the many things I enjoyed to pursue next. One of the things I came to appreciate during my undergraduate experience was the power of abstraction. When I abstracted the common aspects of the things I enjoyed I discovered a deep and abiding interest in composition—that is, putting things and ideas together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

An engineer creates efficient structures to solve particular problems. Anthropologists and historians tease the structure of societies and events from the noise of human activities. Writers arrange the structure of words and paragraphs to weave meaningful stories. At a deep level, all constructive human activities involve the purposeful structuring of components—be they physical, social, or symbolic—to achieve a desired effect.

This is not to say that there aren’t important differences. Software is a program executed by deterministic hardware, which means that once correctly expressed it will produce the same result each time it is executed. A novel is a program executed by nondeterministic wetware (brains), which means it won’t be equally meaningful to all readers. Nevertheless, while it might seem that the tools and jargon of science and humanities are as night and day, I found that in the abstract I was doing essentially the same thing in each field: I was making.

In a few sentences, how would you explain The Laws of Making?

In one sentence: It’s not about you.

In a few more sentences: The laws of making are what distinguish makers from users. For users, a thing has value only to the extent to which it helps them achieve their objectives. For makers, a thing has value in and of itself. Where the world of users is meaningless outside of themselves, makers live in hope because with each creative act what they are really doing is making a difference.

You’re a writer who helps other writers. Without giving too much away, what tips do you have for fellow writers working on their books?

Through writing, our species has created a great conversation across time and space. Your job as a writer is to add to that conversation because no one else has your unique combination of genes, experiences, and outlooks. You can use your opportunity to try for fame and fortune or you can make something meaningful that offers us a glimpse of your soul. Making something significant, like a novel, is grinding work and there is, ultimately, only one motive that it can’t wear away: the first Law of Making is that meaningful creation is an act of love.