Shana Yarborough Wants the Authors She Publishes to Feel Essential
“We just got a new one from London,” says Shana Yarborough, speaking about the deluge of manuscripts received by her Baltimore County-based publishing house, the Writer’s Lair Books. “I talked to the author and told her we won’t offer her a contract until the end of the year, but we want to let you know you can go somewhere else if you want to. But she said to me, ‘I’ll wait.’” Yarborough’s big brown eyes go googly with incredulity. “And I said, ‘What?’”
The slim and polished Yarborough is incongruous amid the sweatshirted midafternoon kaffeeklatschers congregating in the coffee corner at the Borders Books in Timonium. Arriving a courteous five minutes early for the interview, she’s come prepared with ornate press kits and paperback samples clutched to her lint-free overcoat. She nixed a visit to the company’s offices, as it’s prepping for a relocation, but this Borders is an appropriate second choice, given that Writer’s Lair-published poet Kwame Alexander was a featured guest at the store’s grand opening last July.
“I asked this woman, you know, because there are a million companies out there, what was the difference [with Writer’s Lair]?” Yarborough says. “And she said, ‘It’s such a family. You can feel that from the web site.’ And I was shocked. When I made the web site I made it from my heart and didn’t think about it creating a family-type feel. I just put up the truth.”
As stated on the web site, Yarborough’s truth is to “exemplify the works of great writers and assist them in becoming notable authors . . . to create a book that will leave a lasting impression and is unique in its form.” Since its incorporation in April 2004, her company has bravely held its own in the increasingly choppy waters of book publishing. It’s got a few years and a dozen books to go before it can contend as a major player on the Baltimore literary scene, but its brief history has so far been marked only with ascending success.
The company’s genesis was sparked by the frustration Yarborough, an Essex native and 1999 graduate of Spelman College, experienced trying to find a home for her first book of poetry. “I had two agents who really liked the book and shopped it around, but the big publishing houses said, ‘Well, it’s a good manuscript, but we don’t think anybody is going to buy poetry.’” After two fruitless years, Yarborough elected for a head-clearing hiatus at her favorite small Maryland beach where, after an afternoon spent in reflection, she decided that if she wanted a book she’d have to do it herself.
Contrary to the overhyped promises of the digital publishing revolution, it’s only become more difficult for new authors to find a foothold into print. A combination of growing “aliteracy” (defined as people who can, but don’t, read) and the increasingly blockbuster-focused strategy of large publishers (as Yarborough puts it, “If you have Stephen King, how many other people are you looking for?”) leaves many would-be authors who might have found midlist success in earlier decades scrambling for the same few opportunities. These slim pickings, plus the advent of print-on-demand technologies, have created a marketplace full of refashioned vanity presses whose up-front cost demanded from the author (never a hallmark of a legitimate publisher) can be as subtle as requiring promotion to be self-financed or as blatant as printing books for cash.
Writer’s Lair is not a vanity press. Authors approach Yarborough (and her staff of four editors) with a manuscript. If the group of five judges the text to be of merit, the author signs a contract and the book is published and promoted at the company’s expense. Books are printed in editions, not on demand, and go to area bookstores. If they don’t get sold they come back as remainders, but if they do get sold everybody’s happy. Yarborough silently nods her head in affirmation at each link of this chain of events. “We are the next Random House,” she grins.
To date, Writer’s Lair has published only two books—Yarborough’s 2004 Looking for Love in All the Small Spaces and Alexander’s 2005 Dancing Naked on the Floor—but its web site lists 11 additional titles slated for release, penned by a roster noticeably skewed toward African-American and female authors. Yarborough maintains that this skew was unintentional. “One of the things I was asked was, ‘Are you going to be an African-American press?’” she says. “I get that a lot. And I have decided that I am not. I tell people it’s not about the ethnicity and the race, it’s about the book. I certainly support African-Americans who are trying to get a book out. But a book is a book. And I’m hoping it’s not a book that just black people or white people will read, but one that anybody will read. Period.”
While the upcoming releases include a home-repair guide, a graphic novel, and several children’s books, most of the offerings are poetry anthologies. Despite the company’s pledge to work only with “great writers,” the excerpts posted are only middlingly eloquent. Still, amid some of the slurpy prose is Sandra Jones’ standout “The New Thirty,” from her book I Only Meant to Wet My Feet: “I’ve heard it said/ Fifty is the new thirty./ At this, my knees giggle/ And lose themselves in ripples/ When I climb the stairs.” Or from Alexander’s poem “Haiku (note from wife)”: “don’t haiku me/ take yr time/ give me a long verse/ write between my lines.” Or this, from the poem “A Letter to Forgive,” from Yarborough’s Looking for Love: “Crack addict friends . . ./ do not teach lamaze class . . ./ they just hand out . . ./ perfect grass.”
The handsome published copy of Looking for Love has, despite its paperback binding, a satisfying heft in the hand. A quick perusal inside reveals why—the comfortable weight of pleasantly toothed cream paper stock supports a crisp and uncluttered layout of poems and photographs, all spaced with room to breathe. The attention to book craft is a vital and not underestimated part of Writer’s Lair’s vision, and a key strategy in commanding its own place on the shelf.
“There have been times when I’ve picked up books and thought, Hmm, this book looks kinda cheap,” Yarborough says. “You can look though the page to the other side, you know? And it makes an impression. When you pick up a Writer’s Lair book, you won’t have that. We want people to pick up our book and say, ‘Hmm, this book is done very nicely.’”
Writer’s Lair’s most ambitious foray into nicely done books is a hardcover collector’s edition of Alexander’s Dancing Naked on the Floor, emblazoned, in lieu of the title, with the gilt monogram ka. Alexander, a Northern Virginia poet and playwright, met Yarborough at the 2004 Baltimore Book Festival and was impressed with her presentation.
“I knew going in that she didn’t have a whole lot of experience, but I saw a lot of myself in her, “ Alexander says in a phone call, referring to his similar venture in self-publishing his book Just Us in 1995. After several meetings, he was impressed with Yarborough’s sincerity and, despite the company’s inexperience, decided to make Writer’s Lair his next book’s home. The success of their venture can be marked in the book’s last-page acknowledgement of “deep thanks” to Yarborough, “my kind and patient publisher.”
“I wasn’t expecting Random House, but in the end she had a pretty good product,” Alexander says. “I was certainly pleased with it as an author.”
The Writer’s Lair web site proudly boasts that its books are for sale at large chain booksellers such as Borders and Barnes and Noble “at all locations nationwide.” A call to several Borders bookstores—including the Timonium branch that hosted Alexander’s reading—however, reveals that the few copies that were stocked are no longer on the shelf and have been returned to the publisher. When asked about it, Yarborough responds that it’s just part of the cyclical nature of book promotion. “A lot of time what happens is that if we’re doing the tour, the first year the book is all over the place,” she says. “After the first year of promotion, usually they may keep one on the shelf, but it will always be available from a wholesaler.” (Sure enough, the Borders saleswoman on the phone asks, “Did you want to special order a copy?”)
“For Kwame’s first year, we didn’t get any returns,” Yarborough says. “Now we get some every once in a while because he’s not doing as many events. So that’s how the transition works when the publicity shifts to another book. That’s the nature of the beast. I had to learn that, too.”
Yarborough may still have things to learn, but she’s unstingy with what she already knows. Project Inkwell, the nonprofit sector of Writer’s Lair, allows her to stage young writers’ workshops that culminate in the publication of an anthology unveiled at a book event no different than the meet-the-author readings she arranges for her published clients. This year’s workshop is for students of Goucher College, a locale chosen at the suggestion of undergrad (and Writer’s Lair intern) Cassie Brand.
Yarborough pulled no punches with the 22 participants whose manuscripts were selected. “We edited very harshly, because we wanted them to gain that experience,” she says. “You have to understand that publishing is not all peachy keen and rosy. Nobody ever comes with a perfect manuscript. I wanted them to have the experience of being published authors.” When the students’ work is introduced at a public reading April 11 in Goucher’s Merrick Lecture Hall by novelist and professor Madison Smartt Bell, it’ll be their first taste of that experience.
Meanwhile, Yarborough plunges ahead. She’s traveling to Martha’s Vineyard soon to do a reading, a workshop, and a spoken-word recording of her poetry. Back at home, wholesale orders need to be filled, and manuscripts keep pouring in—such as the caller from London willing to wait to be a Writer’s Lair author. “To hear her say that really touched me,” Yarborough says. “Because it means I’m doing what I set out to do, which is get back to making the author feel important.”
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