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Frustrated Women Authors Reinvent Publishing

Thursday, April 19, 2001

A group of women writers met, shared their complaints and came up with a plan to revolutionize the book publishing industry. The result, EdgeWork, promises to provide a glimpse of what publishing looks like when women matter.

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A group of women writers met, shared their complaints and came up with a plan to revolutionize the book publishing industry. The result, EdgeWork, promises to provide a glimpse of what publishing looks like when women matter.
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Kim Cherning, author

BOULDER, Colo. (WOMENSENEWS)--When author Kim Chernin was ready to start her 14th book, she did what she had done with the previous 13: She signed a contract with a major publisher and accepted a sizeable advance. But something wasn't right.

Although Viking Penguin had promised massive support for what they expected to be a "big book," it just wasn't the book Chernin wanted to write. Chernin, best known for her trilogy on women and eating disorders, had in mind a novel, something experimental, even edgy. Something, in short, that the New York publishing establishment would almost certainly turn down as a commercial bomb.

Chernin canceled her contract, returned the advance and gathered 11 of her published women friends at her home. Each had a story to tell. One had been urged by her publisher to stick to "women's subject matter." Another was told that her topic was "more serious than a woman can handle." Chernin herself remembers being surprised to learn that her classic "The Obsession," which subsequently sold more than 100,000 copies, was "really too intelligent for women."

Recent publishing trends have added to these frustrations. As huge conglomerates acquire publishers and assign them the status of profit centers, low-risk John Grisham and Danielle Steel blockbusters are steadily edging out small, literary and special-interest books. The larger bookstore chains are encouraging the trend.

"Particularly for women, whose experience is typically marginalized anyway," notes Chernin, "fewer and fewer published works are reflecting our lives, concerns and aspirations."

EdgeWork: What Publishing Looks Like When Women Matter

So Kim Chernin, Joanna Macy, Renate Stendhal and Chernin's eight other writer friends decided to start a small press dedicated to women's work on the edge: EdgeWork. They vowed to structure their group specifically to empower both its members and other women writers.

It goes online with a Web site on May 1, and its first releases will be in September.

EdgeWork's Web presence, known as the "EdgeWork Network," will include a writing and editing service; counseling, both by e-mail and in real time; writing classes and workshops; a service that will match site visitors based on their literary interests and several other interactive utilities.

EdgeWork's mission statement declares that it "is dedicated to the publication, promotion and preservation of work by accomplished women writers and to the growth of communities of women who read and write together." This lofty goal is grounded in a corporate structure unique to the publishing industry.

The legal framework was created by EdgeWork president Constance Spheeris, a Colorado attorney specializing in publishing law. The fledgling press plans to publish its books in semiannual "rounds," each comprising the release of about 10 books. The first round, which includes Chernin's new novel, "The Girl Who Went and Saw and Came Back," is scheduled for release in September 2001.

EdgeWork's commitment to unpublished writers in underserved age, economic and ethnic groups is built into its charter. "We are committed to publishing one-third of our books by women of color," says Chernin, "and our first round will reflect this pledge."

Meeting that goal was easy, she reports: Although in existence for less than a year, EdgeWork has already received significant support from communities well beyond its founding group of "white women over 50."

Striving to Find High-Quality Writers of Varied Race, Economic Status

Acquisition of new authors, too, is taking a nontraditional tack. Writer Dorothy Abbot, EdgeWork's cultural liaison and creative adviser, is charged with finding unpublished women writers of quality whose ethnicity or economic class might otherwise preclude them from being "discovered."

EdgeWork will finance each round and share any profits with investors, who are being invited to buy in at a minimum investment of $5,000. Authors, too, are encouraged to invest. "Part of our model," says Spheeris, "is for author, manager and other investors all to co-own the company." She calls this model "unheard of in traditional publishing."

Rounds will function as separate limited-liability companies, each with its own authors, investors and financial records. In this way, both the publishing collective and authors in other rounds can operate independently of each others' financial fortunes. Investments are nontransferable, protecting the holding company, EdgeWork itself, from takeovers or other threats to its integrity.

This novel legal structure, Spheeris explains, gives authors with shared backgrounds or social visions the option of focusing their respective rounds on specific themes. Once an EdgeWork round has established such groups as published writers, they could use their newfound visibility and financial grounding to establish their own presses. These likewise could continue multiplying throughout widely diverse communities of writers.

Production, marketing and distribution are being handled by Cypress House, a Mendocino, Calif., book-packaging service that specializes in independent presses and authors. Cynthia Frank, president of Cypress House, calls EdgeWork unique in her 16 years of publishing experience. While she has encountered authors who have banded together for economies of scale, Frank says, this group is unique in its "unanimity of vision."

Offering a Viable, Lively Alternative to Mainstream Publishing

The collective plans to supplement Cypress House's national distribution strategy with nontraditional outlets such as women's bookstores, book clubs, reading circles and small, specialty catalogs.

When she made the decision to return her advance to Viking Penguin, Chernin remembers, "I suddenly felt that I was saying goodbye to a 20-year period of my life, publishing with New York." She has nothing against the publishing establishment, Chernin is quick to add. EdgeWork authors are free to develop other projects with mainstream publishers if they choose. The point is not to replace the New York model, but to offer a viable and lively alternative.

Splendid Vision: Changing Literature With Presses That Seek the Best

Elisabeth Scharlatt of Algonquin Books in New York has worked with Chernin on seven of her books. She wishes the collective well, but Scharlatt is also cautious about the new venture. "It feels great to publish something that sells enough to support itself," she says. "Maybe that's what EdgeWork Books will do. I hope so."

Marilyn Ross, executive director of the Small Publishers Association of North America, points out that traditionally, one out of five small businesses folds. She predicts a similar failure rate for the estimated 50,000 small publishers in North America.

"These women know writing," Ross says of the EdgeWork collective, "but do they know what they're getting into?"

Chernin believes they do. Although modest about her role as EdgeWork's founding mother and realistic about its prospects, she holds to an unapologetically splendid vision. "One could change the nature of the literature being produced in one's time," she says, by having just a few of these large publishing houses able to recognize, receive and distribute it at its best.

"If there is even one small press that stays in operation and holds to its values," she says, "every writer, as she is writing, can feel that she will find recognition, that in this bunch of edgy women there is likely to be someone who can meet her at the edge and celebrate her for being there."

The Web site, http://www.edgeworkbooks.com/, is expected to be operational by May 1.

Jennifer Woodhull is a free-lance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo.

For more information, visit:

Kim Chernin:
http://www.kimchernin.com/

Cypress House:
http://www.cypresshouse.com/

Small Publishers Association of North America:
http://www.spannet.org/

Publishing Umbrellas (who owns what in publishing):
http://www.kaios.com/BOOKSnWRITERS/umbrell.htm