Chris Bigelow has been talking about his new venture Zarahemla Books on his personal blog, Yesterday I Woke Up Sucking a Lemon …, so AMV decided to subject him to a Q&A. Bigelow is, among other things, a former editor of Irreantum, the co-author of Mormonism for Dummies, and one of the main minds behind The Sugar Beet.
Why did you decide to start Zarahemla Books?
Facing my midlife career crisis, it was either do this or get cable TV.
Seriously, the idea took off when I was trying to figure out a way to efficiently promote the four books I have coming out this fall. I decided that if I was going to spend time and money to send out a brochure, I might as well set up a retail business and resell some good newer titles written by others too. Then I started thinking about some excellent unpublished manuscripts that I knew were floating around out there, and I decided to publish three books myself using on-demand digital means.
So Zarahemla Books is both a publisher and a retailer—not unlike Deseret Book—and I’ll be doing a little wholesale distribution too. My areas of focus are fiction, humor, and memoir, and my main goal is to put out Mormon-oriented stuff that’s provocative while also thoroughly entertaining. I’ll probably avoid the term “literary” in my marketing, because for many readers that’s like saying “fat-free” or “low-sodium” when you’re trying to market pleasurable food.
Does the Mormon market really need another small publisher?
I believe there’s a Mormon readership lurking between Deseret Book and Signature Books that hasn’t yet been galvanized. By “Deseret,” I mean all the Deseret clones such as Covenant, Cedar Fort, Granite, and others that aim to please the most culturally conservative Mormon readers and won’t take many risks. That market is already thoroughly saturated.
Signature puts out beautiful books, but I think their fiction, memoir, and humor tend to take a backseat to their heavier-duty historical and theological stuff. Signature seems to appeal mainly to readers interested in intellectualism and skepticism. That’s another great market but not the one I’m primarily after.
My chosen bowl of porridge is to publish entertaining books that reflect a recognizably faithful Mormon perspective but depict flawed characters caught in real messes, dilemmas that come from within as well as outside the characters. I’m not interested in celebrating sin, but I like stories that responsibly, organically include earthy, realistic details, including sexuality and a sprinkling of authentic language. I like stories that explore our unresolved issues and cultural foibles without an agenda to undermine faith. I hope I can find enough readers like me to make Zarahemla Books work.
What titles have you announced and/or acquired, and why did you choose them?
I would like to publish three titles each spring and three each fall. To start out this fall, my three titles include the following:
Brother Brigham, a novel by D. Michael Martindale: This is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever enjoyed in a novel, Mormon or otherwise. It’s about a guy whose imaginary childhood friend suddenly reappears in his adult life with some alarming news—and this friend is Brigham Young. Martindale’s approach reminds me of Stephen King. The story is gutsy and outrageous, yet also chillingly plausible. It breaks new ground in Mormon entertainment.
Long After Dark, stories and a novella by Todd Robert Petersen: This highly satisfying collection includes some award-winning stories and some excellent new material. Richard Cracroft blurbs, “Petersen’s stories imply a faithful universe even if his characters are mired in mortality. I think it is a wonderful book! It’s a triumph for Mormon literature: Mormonism with neither sneer nor message.”
Kindred Spirits, a novel by Christopher Kimball Bigelow: This is my own story about an expatriate Utah Mormon who carves out a new life for herself in Boston, including converting and marrying a local native. However, he brings baggage into the marriage that exacerbates some of her own baggage, and a puzzling Wiccan character further complicates the dynamics.
So how is it all going to work? What does Zarahemla Books offer its authors? What are your goals for it?
Even with on-demand digital printing, it takes a fair bit of money to launch something like this. I’ve diverted $8,000 of royalties from my personal writing projects into this venture. I would like to recoup this investment eventually, but I will be satisfied if Zarahemla sustains itself without necessarily repaying my whole investment. In my heart of hearts, nothing would please me more than to make Zarahemla my main activity in life, but I’ve already promised my wife that I won’t spend any more of our own money on it. So beyond my initial investment, the rest is up to the readers.
I’m paying reasonable royalties to authors but no advances yet. I’m stronger on line editing than conceptual editing, so I acquire manuscripts that are already fully developed. I outsource cover design and some proofreading. I think authors will appreciate how I promote their books in my catalog and on my Web site at ZarahemlaBooks.com (launching in October). I’m willing to invest in sending out books to reviewers and bookstores and to consider other promotions.
If Zarahemla catches on, I plan to find some qualified helpers to act as agents and editors and help me procure and prepare titles, probably on a percentage basis similar to author royalties.
You’ve chosen a very Mormon name for the venture—what’s the rationale and hope behind the branding?
I like words that start with Z, and I like Book of Mormon words. I chose Zarahemla because it can play a double-agent role. It’s instantly recognizable to any Mormon insider, but it’s just an exotic-sounding name to any outsider, so I could use the name to broach non-Mormon readerships too, if I see a way to do that at some point. I like the connotations of Zarahemla, the way it conjures up a home base in the jungle for likeminded people who aren’t afraid to venture out on some challenging expeditions.
I’m aiming to make Zarahemla Books a key destination within Mormonism for some unprecedented adventurous entertainment that’s off the Deseret grid but not apostate. By the way, I’m planning to retail some DVDs and perhaps music too, if I ever hear anything I like. For instance, I’m keeping close tabs on whether Deseret and Seagull carry Dutcher’s “States of Grace” DVD, and if they don’t I’ll help push it in my catalog and website.
We’ll be counting on fans to help spread the word about Zarahemla. If you or anyone you know would like to receive our catalogs and announcements, please send your snail-mail and e-mail addresses to email@example.com, and we’ll add you to our lists.
Are you accepting submissions?
Yes, I’m currently looking for three books for my spring list. I will consider one-page query letters describing completed manuscripts, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. (I try to run a paperless shop, and I’m not interested in working with authors who don’t do good, timely e-mail.) Please limit queries to adult fiction, memoir, and humor. I would like to do some edgy Mormon horror, mystery, and fantasy—read Martindale’s Brother Brigham this November, and you’ll see what I mean.
If you can envision Deseret publishing it, don’t bother with me, since so many publishers are already addressing that niche. If you can envision Signature publishing it, I might be interested if it’s not too academic, literary, or skeptical.
What other projects do you personally have going on at the moment?
Our best-of-the-Sugar-Beet collection of satirical Mormon news, titled The Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer, comes out soon and was recently well reviewed in Publishers Weekly.
A British publisher is releasing a beautiful illustrated timeline of Mormon scripture and history from Adam to the present. I wrote the text, and Jana Riess edited it. Deseret Book and Costco will carry it, and I think people will enjoy the colorful, chunky format, which can be browsed as a book or folded out as an impressive cardstock timeline several yards long.
Kent Larsen’s Mormon Arts & Letters imprint is releasing Conversations with Mormon Authors this fall, a fascinating collection of interviews with Richard Dutcher, Eugene England, Brian Evenson, Dean Hughes, Robert Kirby, Neil LaBute, Rachel Ann Nunes, Carol Lynn Pearson, Anne Perry, Levi Peterson, Eric Samuelsen, Darrell Spencer, Anita Stansfield, Douglas Thayer, Brady Udall, Terry Tempest Williams, and a dozen more.
Mormonism For Dummies is still going strong. At a recent gathering of religious news reporters, the LDS Church’s Public Affairs Department handed out dozens of free copies, so evidently the Church likes it. On the other end of the spectrum, the producers of HBO’s “Big Love” have made the book required reading for episode directors. Lots of fun!