Where Would Indie Lit Be Without Authors Publish?
Caitlin shares how she and Jacob created one of the most beloved and useful resources in the indie lit world.
Hello! Today we have another guest post in our series of startup stories from folks who have created tools, services, and communities in the indie-lit world and grown them into businesses. There are few resources or services that have done as much good for the community as what Caitlin and Jacob have created over the past decade. A lot of what we do at Chill Subs has been a reaction to broken systems and bad actors. But Authors Publish has been an inspiration for finding a way to develop a business that always puts writers first.
In 2011 I met Jacob at a mutual friend’s birthday party. Because we were in New York, I asked him what he did for a living. I had learned earlier, living in the Pacific Northwest, that this is probably the rudest question you can ask anyone, but in New York it’s just par for the course.
His answer was so confusing that I came to two conclusions.
He was unemployed.
He actually worked for a top secret government agency.
By the time we got married a year and a half later, I had figured out what he did for a living was start and maintain newsletters.
What I did for a living back then was adjunct. Although I didn’t actually make enough money back then for it to count as making a living. But I loved teaching and it sounded prestigious and that meant something to me at the time.
Besides, it was easy to say I worked for a university. No one really dug deeper.
But then we moved to Bellingham, WA, and I had to find a new place to work. This was deeply frustrating. I joined adjunct pool after adjunct pool only to discover the universities and colleges were hiring outside of them entirely. Placing fresh calls for the people they actually wanted to hire.
I started doing freelance work. I tutored and then started submitting work for others to literary journals.
I was new at the submitting game back then, because grad school hadn’t taught me anything at all about it. But Jacob had introduced me to Duotrope soon after I graduated, and I had made my own way from there, actively submitting and seeing a fair amount of success. It was easy to apply what I learned by submitting my own work to submitting work for others.
I did not think of this as a business, though, and it isn’t how I started my business, either. I had gone to graduate school to get a terminal degree, and I hoped to use that degree as part of some sort of larger institution.
Even before we were married, Jacob told me he was certain we should never work together, based on his past experience. That it was a terrible idea. I listened to the specifics and agreed with him in theory, but as I struggled to find a job and he struggled to find someone to help with the business, it was starting to feel frustrating.
In any case he spent a lot of time talking about his business with me. Half of our walks up the nearby arboretum were spent talking about some new idea he was trying out as part of his work. He always wanted my opinion on these ideas, so I shared them.
I learned the ins and outs of his business and what was and wasn’t working, and I started reading business books just because they were around the apartment.
But my primary focus remained on job applications. I spent a lot of my days polishing my CV and researching potential positions.
That year, in September, Jacob started running FB ads for one of his companies. He kept talking about these ads, and I would see them from time to time. They did OK, on paper, in that they brought in more money than they cost, but they looked horrible.
I started trying to convince Jacob to hire someone to make image-based ones focused on quotes. I kept failing.
Then, in mid-October, while recovering from dental surgery, I decided I’d just show him what I meant.
Now to be clear, I’m not a graphic designer, I don’t really know how Photoshop works, but I’m someone who was raised by artists, and I have fairly good visual sense.
All this to say, I made five quote memes using PowerPoint and sent them to him via email, with a note that said, “Hire someone to make you something like this.”
Two hours later, I saw one of the images on FB as an ad, and it had twice as many likes already than any of his previous efforts.
This is how we started working together. Not that we’d admit that was what we were doing.
At first I just made the images and then I managed his companies’ social media, and then I started answering emails. I didn’t have anything to do with the company beyond that. It was freelance writing focused, something I didn’t know or care about.
Besides, about a month into my success as a meme maker (many of my memes have gone on to live long lives without me, and have been used by major organizations, with my visual watermarks cut out, oh well!), I found a job teaching at Seattle Pacific University. I was traditionally employed again. I was also still working with Jacob on the side, because otherwise I wasn’t making nearly enough.
My students kept asking me about submission resources and I didn’t know where to direct them.
Duotrope, the free resource I had relied on to get started, now required a fee to use it.
I looked into alternatives, and nothing was really comparable (that’s no longer the case thanks to chill subs!).
I kept thinking about how a newsletter might do something similar but different. It could feature lit journal opportunities, but only one at a time, always focused on journals that don’t charge.
Whenever I talked to Jacob about this, he’d always say something like “but we will not work together, right?” and I would retort “Isn’t it a little too late for that?”.
By March 2013 I’d convinced him, and we launched Authors Publish together in April 2013.
I handled all the writing, the researching, and the Facebook promotion. He handled the tech side of things, and also copy editing.
Our first issue had three subscribers. By the end of the first month, thanks to our similar FB focused advertising approach, we already had around a thousand subscribers. I taught, and I worked on the newsletter and all seemed well.
Except I hadn’t gotten it right, right out of the gate. We were getting subscribers, but our retention rate and the click through rate on the actual emails was not great.
Often the subscribers would reach out and say, “I just want to learn about manuscript publishing. Why are you so focused on literary journals?”
We were so focused on literary journals because that was a market I understood and knew well. It had benefited me. I saw submitting to literary journals as one of the most practical steps one could take towards book publication, but our readers did not. They just saw them as this niche market that was for academically inclined writers.
I listened to their feedback and within a year I started reviewing manuscript publishers that were open to direct submissions. There were several missteps involved with this, initially. Thankfully, over time, my background in research really served me well. Readers really appreciated these reviews, and they did far better than the literary journal reviews.
This helped improve reader engagement and is still part of our core business today, but it didn’t help promote literary journals. Thankfully, about a year later, I decided to write and publish an eBook focused on why and how one should submit to literary journals.
This eBook, Submit, Publish, Repeat, has been really important in terms of teaching the basics of literary journal submissions, and it’s been taught widely at the university level. Nine years later, I’m still updating it and giving it away for free.
It has also increased engagement with our literary journal reviews.
When I was starting out, I didn’t have any long-term goals related it. I started the company to provide information and make the literary world more straightforward and approachable.
We’ve taken it year by year, as a company. But we are now, to my astonishment, ten years old, and we are still growing.
Part of how we grew is that we started offering courses. They are the only part of our company that has a fee attached. We host a lecture series, publish regular eBooks, special issues, and the magazine all of which are available for free and subsidised by the courses.
We used to make our money from ads, which was a lot less labor intensive on our end, but while the courses require a lot more work on our end, they are also more meaningful.
Once, when we were interviewing an instructor for a course, she asked how the company came to be. When we told her our story, her response was “wow, you really lucked into this job.”
And of course luck and timing are factors in our success, but we also put in a lot of hard work and thought into the ways we grew and shifted.
We talked about offering courses for two years before we actually started hosting them. I told Jacob before we launched the courses that I’d only offer them if their foundation was personal feedback. That’s because I’d encountered so many online courses, some pretty expensive, that had little to no instructor feedback. I couldn’t really see what set those courses apart from eBooks.
When we offered our first course, we came up with a two-month plan to sell it out. It involved a webinar I was very terrified of, and FB advertisements, and lots of other work intensive elements.
The first step was to email subscribers about this course, and we hoped to sell a few spots that way, and then fill out the rest of the courses, through the webinar and ads.
We never got past the first step.
We sold out the course in two hours and received so many angry emails from subscribers who wanted to take the course and weren’t able to register in time. But we had put a lot of effort into making it to that position already. My pen name, which I teach under, already had a large following, and I’d already published successful eBooks on the subjects I planned to teach about.
By the time we launched the courses, we had over five years of experience running this business under our belts.
This has become both our full-time jobs, and I’m grateful for it, and am still always trying to find new ways to provide quality information for free.