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Elephant Rock Books: An interview with Jotham Burrello

inline graphicCould you briefly describe your press’s history?

Elephant Rock Books was founded in Chicago in 2010. I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago and a colleague mentioned her story collection had placed second in yet another contest. I left the meeting only to return fifteen minutes later to say I would publish her collection. Ten months later we published, The Temple of Air, by Patricia Ann McNair. The story collection went on to win the Devil’s Kitchen Prose Award, the Chicago Writer’s Association’s Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the Society of Midland Author’s Award. The press has the backing of my larger multimedia company Elephant Rock Productions that provides back-end accounting and banking assistance. The press works with a team of freelance designers, copyeditors, and printers that converge on each project to publish high quality works of art. Each of our books has been favorably reviewed.

How would you characterize the work you publish?

On our web site I kid that we’re just like Penguin Random House minus the backlist, prizes, overhead, and German overlords. The majority of readers don’t care who published the book they are reading. It’s been my desire to acquire and publish high caliber prose and create lovely works of physical art. This emphasis on the physical book is a top priority given the flood of cheaply produced self-published books on the market. We publish a few titles each year and put all we can muster behind them. (Books without marketing plans are DOA. Writers should review and press their agents and presses about marketing plans.) We publish literary fiction, nonfiction, and in 2014, launched a YA imprint. There are so many folks writing today, it’s really a buyers market.

We are also dedicated to teaching the craft of writing. I’ve used my background in video to produce multimedia for writers. We’re further expanding into craft e-books that go beyond text on the screen to include video and hyperlinks. I call them digital onions given all the layers of information readers can peel back. This work was a natural progression from the series of DVDs on writing I produced in the early 2000s.

Who is your audience, and in what ways are you trying to reach them?

The type of book we published determines the audience. I believe our books appeal to all readers, but our new YA title is an interesting case. YA is a broad category that has sub-categories within bookstores. Our book The Carnival at Bray is upper YA, ages 14+, the majority of those readers are female. But YA also has a huge adult following, again mostly female. The book has received Goodreads reviews from readers aged 13 to 70. This goes back to my earlier point that we’re trying to reach all readers. But our focus for Carnival has been women ages 14 to 40 because that’s what the data tells us, so we are using our resources to reach these readers. So much of book marketing is a game of whack-a-mole. The large publishers wield sledgehammers to decapitate each mole; I work with a thin tack hammer.

After the major reviewers, for Carnival we’re targeting YA bloggers, school programs and librarians, book festivals, and indie bookstores. We have scored many early successes for the novel and author Jessie Ann Foley. She accepted invites to Iowa and Miami Book Festivals. Given that we work with many debut writers, we are always establishing an audience. With the YA novel, the challenge has doubled, given the press has limited name recognition in the YA world. This means the book won’t be reviewed by some major magazines and sites simply because they won’t open the envelope containing the ARC. They don’t know the press, the title, and they are crazy busy with fifty other books that week. It’s a shame, but that is the reality. Carnival is a critical success, and I have gotten word that it will appear on some best of lists at...