Part 4: Peace
By Andrew Gifford
I have left my day job behind.
When I started SFWP, I was working several jobs. Night shifts, weekends, holidays. While everyone else was opening presents on Christmas morning, I was in a warehouse in Landover, MD editing Associated Press wires. I worked as a caterer, a janitor, a groundskeeper, a bookseller. I did freelance writing and editing on the side, eventually turning the editing into a full-time gig. I worked in the abysmal hell of various call centers – grim cubicles, grimy phones, disgruntled co-workers, bloody-minded managers, abusive customers. All this while in the grip of Trigeminal Neuralgia, which I discussed in the first installment of this series.
Through it all, it was books that kept me sane. Great escapes in my pocket, ready to read on the train, while sitting in traffic, on a lonely landing in the stairwell at lunchtime, or in my car in an anonymous parking lot in an anonymous industrial estate. As a child, I realized that I would never be able to read all the books in the world. TV shows and movies ended. It’s not escapism when you have to wait a year for the next chapter, if there is one. At the end of every book, though, I still had the ever-growing to-read pile on my shelf. The next escape was always waiting for me.
SFWP’s mission is, really, to fuel my escapism. I fight hard to champion out-of-print books – from Ray Robertson’s Moody Food in 2004 to George Shipway’s Imperial Governor in 2018 – because they were all books that moved through my to-read pile, inspiring me, and, depending on where I was in my life, saving me. So, when I could, I saved them. I made sure they were always available, in every format, everywhere books are sold around the world. It was the least I could do.
At first, I thought SFWP would just be about that – saving out-of-print titles. 20 years ago, publishing was a very different beast. It was determined by bottom lines and an old white boys’ network that was still thriving even though it was 40 years past its sell-by date. When a title went out of print, there was a chance that it would vanish forever. You might find it on a dusty shelf in a used bookstore in some corner of the world, but that was it. All that work, all that magic, died at the whim of some accountant in some office in New York City, and I couldn’t bear to let that happen to these titles.
The revolution came slowly. Throughout the 90s and into the new century, Amazon and the big box stores dismantled the indie bookstore scene, for better or worse. Amazon, strangely, became a champion for used books when they opened their third-party seller market. Then came ebooks. Now it was possible to publish a book without worrying so much about printing costs and bottom lines. Finally, in recent years, even traditional printing has become cheaper, easier, and more reliable. Print-on-Demand options opened the door for everyone to make their voice heard.
During the life of SFWP, the publishing world evolved from that old boys’ club into a sort of Wild West pioneer town with the equivalent of gunslingers, saloons, corrupt land barons, and mysterious strangers. For me, this was perfect. It meant my zany and, frankly, unmarketable idea of “publish whatever catches my whim and also save titles that may or may not be products of their bygone era” could be somewhat profitable (at least enough to keep me alive). With a leveled playing field, I could afford to champion quirky debut authors and out–of-print authors alike, and as social media grew in size and influence, I could shout out directly to the readers. It was no longer just about a hard sell to vendors, trade magazines, and regional reps: people who didn’t have time to read all the books they were slinging and thought only in terms of marketing budgets, attractive smiles, and whatever the zeitgeist-du-jour was.
Embracing, publishing, and marketing books is so much more rewarding when I have the opportunity to interact directly with the readers and the fans—real people who were also book lovers, and who shared my passion for these titles I sold at the convention table or posted about on Twitter. I no longer had that lonely feeling–staring at the table of unsold inventory in a corner of the garage, unsure, exactly, of the nature of the audience. Who’s gonna buy these books? And, when they do sell, still asking that question. What inspired the robot algorithm at Baker & Taylor to place that order?
Modern publishing is about the people. All of us make this work–author, publisher, designer, reader. We can all follow each other, we can all learn each other’s secrets, we can share and like that silly #happyhour photo.
All of that, of course, means that publishers can better sell books. Sales have become more personal. I no longer feel like a corporate entity selling to a robot at Ingram. I am a person who loves books, and I sell those books I love to other people who love books. That is something that has changed my whole outlook and approach as we enter SFWP’s next 20 years. I’m happier doing what I do, satisfied with the results, and I love that person who comes to the convention table and tells me how much they loved last season’s releases, how much those authors and their stories impacted them. And, oh, what’s new this year?
So now SFWP is my only day job. The trigeminal pain is long gone. My doubts and fears have been dispelled. I no longer eek through the day for a meager paycheck and find myself so exhausted in the evenings that I can barely concentrate on anything. I’ve found peace in doing what I love most–bringing powerful, unique voices to people’s bookshelves (or e-readers or headphones).
This is all thanks to you. The readers. It’s thanks to the supporters of SFWP, the authors who sign on, and the staff who help me tame this wild beast every day. It’s all thanks to the people who have been following SFWP for decades, and the people who have just discovered us today.
It’s been a wild ride. Please join me as we keep up with this whirlwind for another 20 years.
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Andrew Gifford is the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project. He is also the author of the memoir We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire.