This Hinesburg micro-publisher reads every manuscript proposal
by Heleigh Bostwick
Publishing has been a way of life for Steve Carlson since 1986, when he and his wife, Lisa, left Washington, D.C., to start their company, Upper Access Books, on Lake Iroquois in Hinesburg. Lisa has since moved on to other pursuits.
Something like one million books are published in the U.S. every year,” says publisher Steve Carlson of Upper Access Inc., an independent book publisher in Hinesburg. “But only a minority of them — mostly the huge best-sellers — are by the big publishers.”
The rest, he says, are put out by small presses like his. “If you look for non-fiction books in most fields, most are published by the small presses.”
Carlson estimates that there are probably around 200 small press publishers around the country, and quite a few of them are located right here in the Green Mountain State. “People are usually surprised to find out how many small publishers are around the woods of Vermont,” he says.
Carlson likes to define himself as a “micro-publisher,” a one-person or “mom and pop” operation that contracts out whatever can’t be done in-house. “The typical small press is big enough to have a spring and fall book list every year, but we only do one or two books a year,” he explains.
Carlson is selective about the titles he publishes. Despite receiving hundreds of manuscript proposals every year, he says he likes to keep an open mind and read every one of them. “I’d hate to miss out on an interesting opportunity.”
But that means most of his day is spent in front of his computer. “I get probably 200 emails a day,” he says. “When I’m editing, there’s a lot of back-and-forth, plus I get a lot of mail from the organizations I belong to.”
Although Carlson is a seasoned book publisher, he’s a member of the Independent Book Publishers of New England and has served as both president and board member. He also spent four years on the board of directors of the national organization the Independent Book Publishers Association.
One reason he’s active with organizations like these is to not only meet people with similar interests, but to also keep up on technology, which he says has changed enormously since the small press revolution began with desktop publishing back in the late 1980s.
“Ninety percent of publishing is publicity, and each book requires a different kind of publicity. Unless you get the word out it doesn’t do any good,” says Carlson. “The whole world of getting books out there in front of the public is changing fast. A print review is a lot less important than it used to be.”
It’s a generational thing, he adds. “New publishers are much more facile with e-book technology and social media. I find it difficult, but if you don’t keep up you won’t survive, and new publishers are more likely to join these organizations than established ones.”
Publishing is not simply a business for Carlson, it’s a way of life, and has been since 1986 when he and his wife, Lisa — who has since gone on to pursue other interests — started the company.
The two had just married and were living in Washington, D.C., with their blended family. Both had been married before — he had two children and she had three, one of whom was already grown. Carlson was working as a congressional aide for Sen. James Jeffords, and Lisa was a special education teacher.
Neither was a native Vermonter, but both had lived here at some point in their lives, and he graduated from the University of Vermont before attending grad school in Minnesota and heading to D.C. and a life of politics.
“We decided that we didn’t want to go into offices every day,” Carlson recalls. “We wanted to make our own decisions. And that’s when we decided to do publishing. We figured that book publishing could be done from anywhere.”
Both had been writers and had been published on a limited scale, but more important was that both of them felt there was a need for it.
They bought a 10-acre piece of land near Lake Iroquois, built a house, and ran the business out of an outbuilding before moving it to an office on the second floor of their home.
They used the garage to store books instead of cars. The outbuilding is now used for packing books. As Carlson says, “It’s where we wanted to be.”
They decided to test the waters with self-publishing. “My wife wanted to write a book, which she did. It was called Caring for Your Own Dead and it did very well. It was picked up by the The New York Times and was remarkably successful for a first book,” says Carlson.
He also wrote a book, Your Low Tax Dream House. It, too, met with great success and eventually picked up by Avon and given a different title.
At that point Carlson says, “We were very successful self-publishers and felt comfortable expanding the business.”
They started with a fulfillment company, which they ran for 10 years. “We kept books in stock from about 150 other small presses,” he says.
“It was a place where people could call a 1-800 number, order a book, and we’d send it out. We also sent out a catalog called Small Books from Big Presses.
Their next venture was introducing a software program for book publishers called Publisher’s Assistant. Carlson says they still do that, but the programming is done by someone else, who also runs the operation now. About 10,000 other small publishers around the country use the software.
They have intentionally kept the business small, says Carlson, “because I decided I didn’t want to spend all my time running a business. I wanted to do the publishing. I enjoy the acquiring, editing, and typesetting but wanted to keep it small enough so that I could be extensively involved every step of the way.”
It’s not all work all the time, though. The Carlsons have many side pursuits. “We have a rental cottage on Lake Iroquois and bought a couple more cottages on Metcalf Lake in Fletcher that we rent out,” he says.
They are also actively involved in the foster parent program and work closely with the Annie E. Casey Foundation (a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children).
Says Carlson, “We have one full-time foster child and other children that visit on the weekends. We have kids around all the time, plus visiting grandchildren.”
As for what lies ahead, Carlson, now in his late 60s, says, “Most people with a publishing company on my scale probably never close it down, but eventually I’ll reach a point where I sell my existing books.”
He’s already started scaling back. “I now have a book distributor to handle my sales and I’ve also requested that the books be sent in 25-pound boxes instead of 48-pound boxes,” he says with a chuckle.
Carlson adds that as technology has changed, he’s stopped doing all of his own typesetting and cover design. He contracts them out and sticks to making final edits using InDesign, which he knows “just enough of.”
Kitty Werner, who owns Really Savvy Broad Press (or RSBPress) in Waitsfield, is one of the designers he uses. She’s also a fellow small press publisher.
“We met on a self-publishing forum and he asked if he could do PR for my book, The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Owning a Home,” Werner recalls. “He liked my design so much that he asked me to design a cover for a book he was publishing, Service of the Fish.
She has worked with Carlson ever since, “It’s hard to say enough about how great he is to work with,” she says. “What he doesn’t know about publishing doesn’t exist.”
Despite the glowing praise, Carlson acknowledges it’s a time of incredible transition in the book publishing business. “When we started in the 1980s there was a bit of a small press revolution going on because of desktop publishing,” he says. “A lot of us got into it, and all of the sudden ordinary people were able to produce books that looked like real books.”
Then came the Internet and e-books; digital printing, where it’s now practical to do a run of 25 books instead of 5,000; and, of course, Amazon. “E-books are on fire and Amazon is selling more Kindle books than paper books,” he says.
“Paper books will be antiques some day. There are lots of questions, but the future is here and we have to live with it.” •