Interview with Martin Shepard, co-founder of the Permanent Press

The Permanent Press is a small publisher based in Sag Harbor, New York.  With high standards and a small staff, the Permanent Press possesses both the longevity and critical acclaim usually associated with larger publishers.  Martin and Judy Shepard approach the business of publishing with small print runs and putting out only a dozen new titles every year.  Unlike the mainstream conglomerates, the Permanent Press is more of an artisan than an agent of mass production.

Martin Shepard, co-founder of the Permanent Press

I had the opportunity to ask Martin Shepard, co-founder of Permanent Press, some questions about the book publishing business, genre, marketing, and cultivating relationships with emerging writers.

How did Permanent Press come about?  Did you do anything prior to becoming a publisher?

I had written 10 books (nine non-fiction and one novel), when one of my memoirs, A Psychiatrist’s Head (published by Peter Wyden and long out of print) drew a lot of fire from the New York State Medical Authorities.  It was an erotic memoir and the State accused me of either “holding the profession up to ridicule” or “violating the Hippocratic oath,” either of which would be grounds for revoking my medical license.  I thought both charges were ridiculous and “hypocritical,” and challenged the charges as a violation of free speech.  And I thought I could get the memoir republished in view of the notoriety these charges brought.  But when my other former publishers (Dell, Putnam, Crown, Penthouse) declined to do so, my wife Judith and I decided to set up our own imprint and republished it with a different title: Memoirs of a Defrocked Psychoanalyst. This was 31 years ago.  Before I became a writer, I practiced psychiatry, then designed and built homes in the Hamptons.  I was also a political activist, an anti-war democrat who set up the first Dump-Johnson organization in protest of the Vietnam War, called Citizens for Kennedy/Fulbright.

What is the relationship between Permanent Press and Second Chance Press?

Not content with one imprint we soon set up a second, Second Chance Press, dedicated to bringing back worthwhile books that were at least 20 years out-of-print.  We sent a letter to the Author’s Guild about it which was picked up by Thomas Lask who had a column in the New York Times Book Review entitled “End Pages.”  He wrote about this and we were sent 600 books, selected a half dozen to start, and were off and running.  In the last dozen or more years, all our books are original and come out under The Permanent Press imprint.

After reading six of your books, many could be classified as genre pieces (thrillers, mysteries, etc.).  How does Permanent Press approach genre, especially in terms of differentiating it from “mainstream fare”?

We never think about “genre” per se, and are just looking for artful writing in any category.  “Mainstream fare” indicates lowest common denominator, and we are looking for books that are valued for their writing, for “highstream fare.”

How do you cultivate relationships with your authors?

As a writer turned publisher I’m very sensitive to what a writer wants: a publisher who is instantly available, will always answer the phone and return calls, pay advances and royalties on time, invites the author to have input into cover design and flap copy, and makes clear what we can and can’t do.  We’ve formed many deep and lasting friendships with people we’ve published over the years and this is a very rewarding experience.  We think of the publishing process as a collaborative experience–a communal experience in many ways.

How do you market your books?  What makes Permanent Press different?

After a few years being distributed by others, we converted a barn on our property into a warehouse and began doing our own distribution.  We rarely let a book go out-of-print, believing if it was good enough to publish; it should be available as long as we live.  So while we usually only do a book a month, we have over 350 backlisted titles.  This is unique.  Also unique is that 98% of what we do is fiction.  As far as marketing is concerned we rely on reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus , Booklist and Library Journal for sales, along with any print reviews (newspaper and magazine) that are still actively doing this.  For the past three years we’ve been very involved with bloggers who share an interest in quality fiction, which has been very helpful in spreading-the-word, which is all one can ask for.  We also have about 20 writers who get advance copies of everything we do for a fee of $90 a year.  We call this our “Word-of Mouth Club,” make no profit on this, but it does establish a community of writers helping fellow writers by telling others about novels they enjoy.

How has Permanent Press survived the ups and downs of the economy?  Are there lessons to be learned?  With large conglomerates cutting staff and going for the easy cash-in books, do small and indie presses have an advantage when it comes to earning reader loyalty?

What we do is sufficiently unique that we have actually thrived while the conglomerates continue to lose money.  Since 2007 we’ve had double-digit increases in book sales yearly and over the past three years, income from book sales alone is up 107%. It’s been very helpful in that the conglomerates are constantly looking for “Big Book,” while we are only looking for fiction that engages us.  We don’t need to hear the opinions of marketing or sales people as to what will sell.  Also, the six major corporate publishers who, through their more than 100 imprints, cover over 90% of the market, have increasingly decided that they are not interested in taking quality fiction by relatively unknown writers, so that writers and agents increasingly turn to us.  We’re happy if we can sell 1,500 copies or more.  That covers our costs.  The “biggies” won’t consider any submission where their marketing people can’t project sales of 10,000 copies minimally.  We currently receive over 5,000 queries and submission a year, so we have a lot to choose from–including authors who come back to us again and again.

Many of your books are small works.  Are there any plans or ambitions to produce larger works (say, over 450 pages) or have special features (slipcases, etc.)?

Ideally, we publish novels that range from 160 to 320 plus pages.  Since our print runs are relatively small, taking on a book of 400 pages is unlikely as the cost per copy of producing it is so high that we’d have to price it so highly that there would not be many sales for it.  Same goes for slip cases.  We try to do attractive covers but don’t want to enter the world of these very “artfully produced” and expensive books, believing that the most important thing is producing books where language, plot, mood, and style make the greatest impact of all.

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