Interview with Pat Morrison, editor at Penumbra Publishing

Hi all 🙂 Here’s my interview with my excellent editor (and friend) Pat Morrison at Penumbra Publishing (where of course book my books have been published)

Tell me a little about yourself (or a lot if you prefer) What makes you tick? What turn’s you on? 😉

To stay on task, I am goal-oriented and a compulsive list-maker. Since I have a lot going on, the lists help me keep track of what needs to be done. I need to keep busy or I tend to just want to sit around and drink.

I have eclectic entertainment interests and am curious about how things work, which translates into an interest in science and science fiction as well as paranormal and fantasy. I enjoy exploring conspiracy theories no matter how far-fetched (UFOs, etc.). That’s not to say I believe in any of it, but it is fun to imagine.

Although I can enjoy a comedy or action film when I know what to expect and how it will end, I especially appreciate books and movies that surprise me in a way that makes sense logically.

Hmm … from that description, it sounds like I am a party animal who just likes to have fun. But I do manage to get things done occasionally.

How did you end up working with Penumbra?

I think every author at some point wants to be published. I racked up a lot of experience with various online critique groups and had some previous experience with a small ebook publisher when independent publishers were first delving into ebooks. In discussions with various authors, I noticed a frustration over not getting published in print.

At the same time, Amazon was just beginning to develop self-publishing services that made it possible for individual authors to get their work published in both ebook and print at very little or no cost. Rather than going it alone, several like-minded authors decided it was time to promote their work as a team and help other authors do the same. That’s how Penumbra Publishing was formed.

During the development of the business, individuals gravitated to a division of labor to which they were best suited. I took on editing and have been at it ever since.

Did you always want to be an editor?

Most high school and college English classes are geared toward helping students learn the basics of storytelling and grammar so they can develop an appreciation for and understanding of literature. I believe a person has to have some interest in reading or grammar or writing, or at least a love of the language in order to develop the skills necessary to be a decent editor or critic.

I always had an interest in popular literature and also found myself analyzing books I read to determine why certain stories seemed to satisfy and others did not. Part of that analysis was aimed at trying to determine the basics of what makes a good story. I also would catch myself wanting to correct errors in books I read. I realized early on that I had an affinity for it, which morphed into editing.

Does working with authors all the time inspire you to write?

I was a writer before I was an editor. I developed editing skills to improve my writing skills.

Working with authors all the time takes up most of my time, and analyzing others’ work keeps my mind too busy to think about my own plots and storylines. Sadly, I stopped writing when I took up editing professionally.

What is the trait you value most in others?

There is not one single trait that I think is most important to the exclusion of others. Traits I value most in others, not in any particular order, would be … loyalty, honesty, and reliability. I want to deal with others who mutually value those they deal with, so I’m going to get along best with people who demonstrate the traits I value.

If you could have two superpowers what would they be and why?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a beauty pageant contestant, I would have to say I would like to have the power to make the world a better place for everyone and make life better for everyone. That would probably translate to the power to heal others and to overcome bad-evil in whatever form it might take. I don’t know if that could be classified as a superpower or not, but that’s my wish.

Favourite TV show?

Right now it is The Big Bang Theory because it makes me laugh, and I think the writers and actors do a terrific job of that, better than any other comedy show out there that I have seen.

Without naming names, what’s some of the wildest/weirdest experiences you’ve had with an author?

Hmm … that is a loaded leading question. I have to admit that, working online with so many authors, I’ve come to appreciate a variety of personalities, each unique in approach to handling different aspects of the writing life.

The weirdest situation I ran into was in the process of acquiring a book to publish. I gave a lot of editing advice after reading through the book and spending a lot of time on it, only to have the author go through an emotional meltdown because he was in financial straits and wanted an advance to tide him over. He went so far as to ply another publisher after I’d already offered a contract. The whole experience was off-putting and disappointing, because the fellow gave no previous hints of unprofessionalism or instability. I think an illness was wearing on him and drove him to a desperate place in his life. I felt bad for him but couldn’t really do anything to alleviate the tension that arose after he acted so poorly. And I couldn’t in good conscience proceed with forging a publishing agreement with him after he’d simultaneously received an offer from another publisher.

Sadly he ended up not getting his book published at all after sharing my confidential emails with the other publisher representative, and vice-versa.

What do you think the impact of Amazon is on the publishing industry?

That is a double-edged sword. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s driving force, is an innovator and visionary in developing an online retail giant that has threatened to unhinge brick-and-mortar stores – not just bookstores. Without going into a huge tirade about the topic, I’ll just say that many large retailers were caught with the pants down and jumped on the online bandwagon years too late to ever be able to compete with Amazon’s name recognition.

At the same time I do have to give credit to Amazon for pioneering a low-cost alternative to make publishing available to every author who ever wanted to get published, no matter how good or bad their writing is. Amazon also made it possible for a lot of small publishers to get their start.

Now Amazon has set itself up as a publisher and is showing authors a whole new world of alternatives in publishing outside the traditional big publisher route. Amazon has razed the playing field in the publisher game, and big publishers have had to scramble to reinvent themselves online.

One thing I don’t like about Amazon is the unilateral attitude that they can control everything. It’s a little too capricious and dictatorial for my taste.

Has working for a smaller publishing company become easier or harder over the past few years?

From a financial standpoint it has become harder, because my income is based strictly on profit-sharing from the company, not on a salary.

In the past few years, more and more independently published books have flooded the market and diminished overall sales while we have steadily increased our offering of titles – which translates to more work for less profit.

The flood of books makes reader choices more difficult, and just doing the math will tell you that a finite number of readers with finite income available for spending are going to buy only a certain number of books over a given period of time. Compound that with the increasing variety of other pursuits available, and you’ll see that even the time many readers devote to books has diminished.

Also with the introduction of the giveaway marketing ploy, I think many readers troll for free books first and reserve their purchasing power only for the sure thing – books by authors they know and trust to provide the kind of read they’re looking for. This means that while lesser known authors may get a lot of attention giving away their books, that doesn’t necessarily translate to sales. There are so many books out there for ‘free’ that to many readers ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ translates to ‘not worth reading.’ Most small publishers will have difficulty staying afloat in that sea of perceived garbage.

How would you define an “indie” writer and publisher?

‘Indie’ means independent. For most, that means independent from the big traditional publishers, of which there are now about five widely recognized. Any publisher that publishes outside the big five could be classified as an independent publisher, but I think the term is reserved more for small publishers that produce less than fifty books a year.

Independent has also come to include ‘self-published’ because many authors independent of any publisher have contracted their own editors and cover artists to produce books that rival traditionally published books in both overall quality and content.

What you do think about the flood of self-published books?

Big publishers used to act as gatekeepers to prevent non-marketable or non-viable books from hitting the market. With the ability for anyone to be his own publisher, the gatekeeping is no longer in force for the open market.

Let’s face it. not every self-published or independently produced book is going to rival that of the big publishers in quality of content or packaging. The fact that literally anyone can publish a book now makes that ability both exciting and frightening – exciting because it gives everyone the opportunity to be their own publisher, and frightening because not everyone who chooses to go that route understands and believes that the quality of the finished product SHOULD meet the standards of professionally published material.

As stated previously, the flood of self-published books has made it harder for anyone who publishes independently to get their books noticed by buying readers.

Do you think the future is in Ebooks?

I think that as time marches on, ebooks will hold an ever increasing share of the book market.

There is a small portion of readers who treasure their book collections and devote their collecting to print books exclusively. They love their books like children and go back to them often to reread them. However, as space becomes less available, the collection must be controlled. And this group of reader-collectors will diminish over time due to attrition.

The digital generation that grew up with cell phones and tablets will have less of an affinity for print books and will appreciate the ability to store hundreds of books on a hand-held device. However, will this generation be as interested in devouring books and spending hundreds of hours reading when there are so many other things to do? The real question I think is this … what is the future of reading?

Despite it all, the author who Is published WANTS to have his book to hold in his hand, with the amazing cover to show off to his friends and family. A digital ebook file simply cannot complete with the feel of a real book in one’s hand. And that alone will guarantee that printed books will stick around for a long time.

Do you like your job?

Most of the time I do. Sometimes it can be a chore that I would prefer to avoid with any distraction available. And sometimes I just want to take a break from it because it is, after all, work. But the sense of accomplishment when the book is published sort of makes up for that.

What is the best tip(s) you would give to new and aspiring writers?

Once you decide you want to write, put yourself into it, don’t half-ass it. Learn the basics, don’t depend on somebody else to come in after you and fix your writing for you to make it better. This is YOUR work, so YOU make it the best it can be. There are no excuses for poor writing. Excuses don’t get you published and don’t sell your books.

Every writer writes for an audience. Writers starting out usually write for an audience of one – themselves. Most writers fumble around, trying to figure out what they should write about and end up producing some pale copy of a work they liked or admired. Before you waste your time doing that, figure out WHY you want to write. Be honest with yourself. If it’s for the fame and money, you might as well hang it up and go play the lottery, because it is oftentimes a fluke that an author makes any money at all selling his writing. And this is the truth. People who work really hard at it most of the time never reach the financial success they dreamed of. So if money and success and fame are your main motivators, go get a business degree and find a corporate job. You’ll be much happier with yourself and your life.

If, on the other hand, you have this ITCH, this NEED to tell stories or write down your thoughts or tell how you feel, then go for it. Because you’ll be supremely unhappy all your life if you don’t get these WORDS out of your system. You may not go any further with it than that, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of writing things down.

Write YOUR book – don’t copy whatever you think is hot in the market right now. Write the kind of book you would want to read, and make sure it is not just a rehash of something else you read. Try to come up with something unique that hasn’t been done to death already.

Most beginning writers wonder if their writing is good enough to be published. Before sending a manuscript off to some unsuspecting publisher, go to a critique group you like and trust, and get an honest opinion of what you’ve written. Wear a thick skin because if the opinions are really honest, you may not like hearing what you’re told. But don’t get mad or give up, suck it up and take the advice seriously. If you get ideas on how to improve your writing, USE them. Learn all you can about writing. Read how-to-write books. Use plot techniques or outline techniques and find the one that works best for you. If you’re a terrible speller, use spellcheck on your computer – it’s better than nothing.

If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Once you put your writing out there for others to read, be prepared for readers who won’t like your work. You simply cannot please everybody all the time. But if you like what you wrote and you can honestly say you’d plunk down your own hard-earned money to buy your book, then don’t despair, keep plugging away.

Don’t expect to get rich being a one-book wonder. That may have worked for Harper Lee, but you didn’t write ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and probably won’t come up with a winning book your first time out. Expect not to have more than a handful of readers until your third or fourth book – unless you are a marketing machine and are crazy-wild on Facebook and Twitter and blog like a madman and can have ten thousand followers in two weeks. Even then, make sure your book is marketable – plot and pacing are perfect, characterization is beyond reproach, and the storyline is to die for. Then don’t sit back and wait for the money to start rolling in – get busy writing your next book!

What do you think about the “big 6” in publishing?

They’re five now.

When each of those companies started up, they were small, and some of them were called something else. They may have started out with good intentions of serving the literary community, but as they got larger, their concern for profit grew larger as well. A lot of them got gobbled up by peer companies. And as those companies grew, they gobbled up more small companies until there were just six … now five.

I think the big publishers have their place in the market, as do the smaller independent publishers. But the market is constantly changing as self-published authors dream up new marketing techniques that unseat the power of big publishers and diminish the importance of the role small publishers play in the marketplace. Publishers come and go, as do authors. As long as there’s a steady stream of readers, the balance will hopefully be maintained so that each faction can flourish in its own way.

If you could have a different career/job what would it be?

Truthfully, I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing that I could imagine would be more fun and entertaining and fulfilling – except maybe just traveling and being independently wealthy.

If I were going to be serious about this question, I think I would rather be doing something to improve the world and the environment – and would probably end up being a Greenpeace outlaw.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading ‘The Queen’s Blade’ by T.C. Southwell. It is quite interesting although I have not finished it yet. The author self-published on Smashwords and has written several more books in the series after having professed to being able to quit her ‘day job’ and write full-time.

What was the last movie you saw?

At the theatre – ‘The Family’ with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro. Although it got mixed critic reviews, I thought it was pretty well done and hit the right mood for dark comedy.

What was the last book you really loved?

I don’t know that I really loved the book, but it made me think and had an interesting concept – ‘The Beggars in Spain’ a science fiction novel by Nancy Kress. Another I liked was ‘The Player of Games’ by Ian M. Banks, although some aspects were a bit implausible. But it was science fiction, so that is part of the territory.

Have you ever met someone you only talked to online before?

Amazingly, no. Most of the time I end up talking online with people I know that have moved away.

Do you go to Sci-Fi/Fantasy or any other kinds of conventions?

I have been to regional writing conventions and did go to DragonCon in Atlanta a few years ago, but haven’t been to any conventions recently – just don’t have time.

Do you ever read comic books/graphic novels?

I used to read them when I was a kid and only recently began exploring online comics.

How do you feel about promotion? Any tips for other writers?

Truthfully, promotion is not my forte so I am not the best person to ask for tips. But here are a few thoughts…

Many authors think that writing is strictly a solitary pursuit and promotion is the publisher’s job. WRONG! Self-promotion is a must for any writer who wants to sell his or her books, whether published independently or by a traditional publisher.

Promotion used to be a money-game, the more you had to spend, the more you could promote. But now that things have moved online to social venues, the money aspect isn’t so critical. Successful authors can sometimes afford to hire a promotion company to do most of their promotion for them and man their social venues, but most authors must be do-it-yourself promoters. Those that do best at it find venues that yield the best results for their time invested.

Experiment with different sites to find the best ones for you. Manage your marketing time and balance it appropriately so it doesn’t take up all your time and prevent you from writing.

Leave no stone unturned. You can try the traditional routes such as reviews and do the book reading or book launch party, but think outside the box. If your book features food or wine, find a venue like a winery or restaurant to offer your book for sale on consignment, and find an appropriately themed venue to host a reading or book party. Try some social groups like a cooking group. Or if your book is geared toward an ethnic population, make sure you hit the local groups devoted to ethnic concerns.

Start with family and friends to promote your book, but most importantly find BELIEVERS who believe in you and your book enough to talk about it to others they know or meet either face to face or online. People who talk about your book spread the word.

Be realistic about your promotion venues. If you pay to be on a podcast, make sure there’s a built-in audience out there who will listen. Do the blog tours but tour blogs that feature the genre that fits your book. If you write horror but ask to be featured on a romance review site, you may not attract anyone from the audience of that blog.

You do not have to spend tons of money to create a promotion/marketing plan and follow through. Remember that many of the so-called promotion companies that are offering to take your money are start-ups staying at home in their jammies, who don’t have any more promotion experience than you do. They just have a cool web site that looks professional. So check out every company before you fork over your money. Some may never deliver on anything they promise.

Don’t start a blog unless you have something interesting to say over the long haul. And have something to say that is at least marginally related to your book or its topic. If you decide to blog, you should be able to post at least once a week. Your blog theme and topics should attract people to your site and keep them coming back. Guest blog on other sites and invite guest bloggers to your site so you don’t have to come up with original content all the time on your own. But really, the blog does not sell your book. You can lead people to your blog and give by-the-way information about how to buy your book, but remember visitors are not coming to your blog specifically to buy your book. The blog is just a tool to get attention, it is not primarily a sales site.

Every author should have a web site that gives readers basic albeit static information about the author and books, including some kind of email contact. Present yourself professionally. If you write comedies, you can be funny and irreverent on your web site. If you write horror, then your web site theme and mood should reflect that. Don’t be afraid to put a bit of your personality into your site. Just remember that not every reader in the world is going to like you or appreciate your work. Still, you have to be you, you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

At some point you’ll have to justify why you and nobody else is uniquely qualified to write the books you’ve written. If you write police procedurals, you don’t have to be a policeman, but you do have to do your research. People who read your book can usually tell if the details ring true or not.

I could go on and on pointing out the obvious, so I’ll stop now.

Favourite author?

I don’t have a favorite author I’d choose over all others. I can’t name-drop and claim to have read extensively any historical greats like Plato or Socrates, so I’ll just admit that I read mostly current popular literature, tastes changing with the times and trends…

Favourite person (living or dead)?

I can’t really say I have a ‘favorite’ person. Of famous people in history, I’d say I have respect for Abraham Lincoln, who ended up going against a great tide of dissatisfaction to try instituting equality. Others who went the same route include Susan B. Anthony. I admire these societal trailblazers, despite their relative successes or failures and whatever hardships they endured to try and make a difference.

Would you consider yourself religious?

Coming from a single-parent family where it was difficult for my mother to be a bread-winner and a father figure too, we children got a smattering of exposure to religion in various denominations but were not raised to be consistent participants.

I think the wonder of religion attracts many like the fantasy of paranormal attracts ghost-hunters, but I deplore how religion is used as a stick to beat people into submission and adherence. Religion has played that role throughout the history of human society. It has been a thing to fear and obey, and I am naturally defiant of any authoritarian rule. There may have been good reason for such rules at some point, but when they no longer makes sense, I believe such rules should be ignored or abandoned.

I live in an area where there is a huge megalithic church on every corner, and I am not in the least tempted to go inside any of these structures, even when the social norm is to profess a deep abidance to Christianity and ask new acquaintances what church they attend.

It’s nice to believe that good will win over evil, but that is not something I see demonstrated in everyday life. The secular justice system tries to take on that goal but oftentimes fails miserably.

There are all kinds of religious explanations for why things are the way they are, but that’s all they are to me – explanations that don’t change the way things are. People attempt to find comfort in the promise of the hereafter, but I wonder how they can ignore the here-now. People seek the reassurance of power and permanence in a world that is constantly changing – often disruptively so. It is human nature to read more into what is. I myself am guilty of wanting to believe in the mystical and unexplained, but I can’t say that I consider myself ‘religious.’ I do however try to maintain a basic spiritual respect and awe for the wonders of nature and the universe. Humankind is relatively fragile and impermanent in comparison, and it amazes me we have survived this long in an unforgiving environment.

What do you think is the biggest problem in the world today?

The ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. The inequities of the world are the driving force of war and famine and all that plagues the world. Of course I don’t think socialism is the answer, because that experiment was tried and has failed just as miserably as good old capitalism. If we devoted as much time and energy and money to finding cures for diseases and old age as we do to finding out what our global neighbors are up to, we might be a better and stronger and happier species overall.

If you had all the money you ever wanted, what would you do?

I’d fix things. Try to make them better. Of course what I envision as ‘better’ might not match the next person’s ideas, so it’s probably best that I don’t have an obscene excess of wealth.

What’s the secret to happiness?

To a great extent, happiness is a state of mind. Once you reach the point where your basic necessities are met (food, shelter, etc.) then you’ll find you have other needs that can’t be met with mere material things. What makes one person happy might not interest the next person. So it’s up to each individual to decide what makes him or her happy, what that ‘secret to happiness’ is – as long as it causes no harm.

To a certain extent, you can decide to be happy, but it may not last every day. Things happen that you have to deal with, so happiness may come and go. But overall, if you set your mind to enjoying every day as much as you can and not waste it being angry or upset about things you can’t fix, that is about as close to ‘happy’ as you can get. If you choose to fix the things you can’t, you might run into frustration and kill your happiness. So seek balance in that respect, and try to laugh every day – or even better, make someone else laugh.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, I appreciate it and I hope you enjoyed the interview

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3 Comments

  1. Pat has been a friend and mentor to me. Pat, along with Walter Knight took me to school and helped me to write not only 1 book but now I am up to 3 published and 2 as a joint venture with Walter Knight. Dreams do come true especially when you have someone like Pat Morrison out there helping you out.

    • Pat and Walt are both excellent 🙂 I seriously doubt my first (or second) book would have came out without her help. Walt has given me some good advice and was nice enough to let me put a short story is his upcoming book.

      Thanks for your comment and let me know if you’d like to do an interview, I always enjoy them 🙂

      • Ha I am always game for an interview, I just don’t know how well I’ll do.
        In regard to Pat, she is the patron saint of fat fingered typist and the grammatically illiterate. Is that even a word? hahaha


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