An explanation of "valuing soul as much as sales"
Publishing Like Emmylou and Ry Make Music
Reprinted from Anabaptist-Mennonite Scholars Network Newsletter. volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 1-2


During 15 years of publishing involvements, I’ve worked with authors whose books on why we should live according to the teachings of Jesus and not the siren call of capitalism have become bestsellers. Some have taken seriously the paradox of success within the very system their books critique. Others (none named in this article) have seemed not to confront the tension between what they preach and what they believe their books deserve. Their view seems to go like this: "I have written a book on why Christians faithful to the teachings of Jesus should not expect success by capitalist cultural standards. And I expect my book to be a hit within that culture, or something has gone wrong."

Since such authors tend to see anything that has gone wrong as the publisher’s fault, and I am writing as a publisher, I risk having an ax to grind. So let me stress this: Authors should expect publishers to support their books. A publisher, by definition, provides authors with distribution and marketing channels beyond those an author can typically access through self-publishing. To package a manuscript as a book is only one facet of publishing; disseminating the book is clearly another.

But I start with the author who wants to affirm countercultural values yet reach a mass market because this highlights, I think, a tendency to believe in having the cake and eating it too. Yet only the rare book wins the lottery, meaning that it has been written with great integrity on behalf of visions or values not intended to have mass appeal—yet also achieves mass popularity.

That belief underlies my founding of Cascadia Publishing House (originally Pandora Press U.S.). It is the meaning of the Cascadia promotional line, "valuing soul as much as sales," and underlies the Cascadia business model. In brief, the model involves breaking-even on modest sales by (1) keeping overhead lean; (2) collaborating with such institutions as schools, mission organizations, and Herald Press (valued copublisher of most Cascadia books); and (3) using marketing dollars judiciously to help a book reach its audience without promoting so far beyond the natural audience that Cascadia runs ever faster than sales can support, so that eventually—as so many publishing companies do—it falls flat on its face.

Interestingly, this model takes Cascadia in a direction contrasting with the one Mark Fretz addresses in his Fall 2003 Anabaptist-Mennonite Scholars Network Newsletter article on publishing, "Taking Anabaptism to the Masses." There Fretz explores factors that may help Anabaptist authors "reach beyond the enclave of a denominational audience" so that "just maybe, we will be able to take Anabaptism to the masses."

Let me not be read as writing in opposition to Fretz, who offers a compelling vision of what it takes to reach the masses. I support his principles, which revolve around developing "excellent communication skills." I too want Cascadia authors to reach for the widest possible audience. And I want Cascadia to give such authors ever widening circles of visibility.

Still, even as Fretz rightly highlights merits of the mass-audience track, there are limits to it. At the edge of that track, it becomes ever harder to maintain integrity. For example, Fretz notes that if along with offering good communication skills "we look good on television" and "sound smooth in interviews . . . then we just might make it" in the mass market. True. But in our good-looks-obsessed era, do such criteria also exclude deserving voices? Is there a need for publishing that supports the type of voice envisioned in Isaiah 53, which describes a servant despised, rejected, infirm, tormented, "and as one from whom others hide their faces" (v. 3)?

This is not to suggest gaining popularity instead of being despised automatically means integrity has been compromised, as I think is evident in the example of The Upside-Down Kingdom, by Don Kraybill. I had the privilege of editing both the second (Herald Press, 1990) and third editions (2003) of Kraybill’s book, and I believe in it—even though over 60,000 copies of its three editions have sold! As I told Don when completing work on the 2003 edition (on behalf of Herald Press), I first studied it in the 1970s, then was struck when working with it 25 years later by the extent to which it had shaped many of my core views of the Bible.

Se here is a book that manages both soul and sales. But then take To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Hermeneutics and Homosexuality, edited by C. Norman Kraus (Pandora Press U.S., 2001). First a group asked Cascadia (then Pandora U.S.) to publish a book of their writings advocating full welcome into congregational life of gays and lesbians. Amid my graduate work on how we understand each other across difference, I along with consultants felt Cascadia should publish a more dialogic book representing a range of positions.

Eventually, to offer the barest skeleton of an often torturous story, some of the original writings submitted were joined with chapters separately developed by a group of writers who included Kraus. To that core we tried to add yet more chapters from particularly the more traditional perspectives. We did secure several but were turned down by three or four key writers for various reasons, including the wish not to be drawn into endless processing of the topic. The result remained less diverse than I thought ideal—leading for instance to the paradox that the types of more traditionalist writers we wished to include in the book sometimes now criticize it for underrepresentation of such viewpoints.

Still I’m convinced the book makes a meaningful contribution and has integrity. I’m pleased Cascadia could enable its voices—which speak always from the soul, I believe—to be heard. Yet amid efforts to generate sales expected to continue for years to come, the book has so far sold more modestly than I see as its potential. Among reasons may be that (1) many in the hoped-for audience prefer not to engage in further dialogue on this difficult matter; and (2) more mainstream outlets often ready to take note of Cascadia books have tended not to publicize this one, perhaps due to controversial content.

But here’s the thing: In such a case are sales the measure of success? Might publishing this book simply have been the right thing to do, thereby valuing soul as much as sales? I like to think so.

Underneath rational explanations of the Cascadia publishing mission lies, however, a vision closer to my own soul: I just want to publish like Emmylou and Ry make music. Translation: Emmylou Harris has earned my respect by what I see as her unwavering integrity. She sings from and to the soul, not to win the masses. Sometimes throughout her career that integrity has in fact moved masses. But from what I can tell, reaching the masses has been for Emmylou a welcome bonus—much as I will cheer if someday a Cascadia book reaches the New York Times bestseller list—yet only a bonus, not her reason for singing.

Meanwhile guitarist Ry Cooder likewise offers music from and for the heart. But listen to how Ry saw matters in a Philadelphia Inquirer article (Dec. 28, 2003, H1) on "It Might Have Been the Day the Music Died" and the selling of the Warner Brothers and DreamWorks record labels:

"The quarterly earnings thing has changed everything," he groaned, talking about the freedom he had to make such early recordings as Chicken Skin Music, and how so many of his favorite works by others were a direct result of the . . . Warner idea of letting artists be artists. "Music is now reduced to the level of shoes, or hubcaps. The corporate system has done it in."

Let writing from Cascadia Publishing House be more than shoes or hubcaps.
Michael A. King is founder and publisher of Cascadia Publishing House, Telford, Pennsylvania

 
                 
                 
                 

Copyright 2004 Cascadia Publishing House LLC
01/13/12