New Publishing companies continue to land on the literary airways of New York, the heart of Publishing Industry. A case in view is the World Audience Inc. that started last year with choice titles of quality literary in the genres of poetry, short fiction, fiction, drama, and literary non-fiction. Founded by playwright Mike Stefan Strozier, who is now the CEO of the company, World Audience followed the spirit of globalism since its very first day. Writers from around the world were welcome to submit their ideas and work with a single-word guideline: Quality.
After a year of publishing sparkling manuscripts and two journals, Audience and Audience Review, the publishing company is ready to expand its borders. Continuing its publications and running writing competitions, World Audience is looking forward to get its titles into New York Public Library while the company is being structured with an administrative team. I have been investing my own efforts and contributing writing to the company and few days back I got the big news: I was going to be the president of World Audience Inc. The news took me head over heels and the next moment was the dreadful feeling of responsibility. My excitement, however, persisted and tamed the dread of this challenging position. I thought it was time to have a word with Mike about publishing business in general and his experience of World Audience in particular. Here is how we discussed the matter.
Ernest: Mike, when did you start writing and what was the inspiration?
Mike: I come from a family of writers, professors, and the like, so writing was always in the background. However, one of my brothers became a French chef, here at 5-star restaurants in Manhattan, so I think one must be born a writer. I started writing stories and poetry at age 10 or 12. I would write for a months and then stop writing; but always come back to writing again. Each year, the amount of time I spent writing would increase until in my early twenties when writing literally consumed me. I fell head over heals in love with writing. I enjoyed experimenting like James Joyce, and I tried every possible genre. I wrote and wrote and loved every minute of it, and I still do. I was horrible at marketing my work, however, and I would get very angry and defensive if someone did not like my work, and I did not take criticism very well, to say the least. I’ve gotten much better at marketing in the last few years; in fact, World Audience has arisen, in part, from my attempts to start marketing my work, finally.
Ernest: Did you have on your mind, at that time, to become a publisher some day?
Mike: I never thought about being a publisher. For me, ‘publisher’ always seemed like another word for elite or intellectual, and I didn’t like that. But a funny thing happened as I was cutting my teeth, learning to be a writer in the early 90s: the Internet. World Audience formed as a way for me to create a publishing house in an online environment that would be free of elite intellectuals, because almost all of them did not understand the Internet, technology, or computers. That has changed in the last few years, somewhat, as everyone is online; but now World Audience is established. The thing that made World Audience a legitimate force to reckon with, as a press, was the very recent maturity of print-on-demand technology, in tandem with powerful, worldwide distribution. A decade or more ago, I had no idea what POD meant, and one could argue that POD didn’t exist then. But I followed my vision, as all entrepreneurs must, that the Internet would someday fundamentally change the nature of publishing, and all rules would be rewritten. I can look back now and say my vision was correct; but I was not always sure. For me, the present is the most exciting time for World Audience. This is because there is no longer any question that World Audience is writing the book about publishing in the 21st century, even as people still doubt that we are. That is indeed fun.
Ernest: So what moment marks the birth of World Audience?
Mike: Our official birthday is June 16th, 2004, when I incorporated World Audience as a “c” corporation with New York State. I selected the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s Bloomsday for good karma. I realized that to shape the publishing landscape we needed to be a real corporation. I wrote our “articles of confederation” that are required for New York State so that our writer-members would always own the company by a margin of 51%. This business model could not be more different from any press that exists today, or ever, for that matter. I have repeatedly heard people tell me, emphatically, “That just can’t work.” Yet it has worked, and wonderfully. My goal was to make World Audience a real corporation, that must be competitive to survive, and thus our standards would be high or we would go out of business. Additionally, I saw a lot of hypocrisy and politics in most presses in New York and I didn’t want any of that. I wanted a press that was concerned with good writing, owned by the writers themselves.
The next step forward for World Audience came in the summer of 2006 when I quit my job helping homeless people get benefits to work on this press fulltime. I hired a well-qualified friend of mine and gave him my very comfortable job, one that I had built from 0 to .5 million in benefits for my clients. Until then, World Audience had been inching along, incrementally. After I took the plunge, however, thanks to good luck and good timing (of the technologies reaching maturity) World Audience took off like a rocket.
Ernest: Why did you choose New York as the seat for your company? Did you consider the rest of the US, or the world?
Mike: Despite all my rebellion and contrariety, some things can’t be denied (I am, after all, a scientist by degree): any respectable publisher must be headquartered in New York City. Incidentally, my uncle and a friend of his had a literary journal in the 1970s called Audience that was somewhat famous, so I used that same name, to help gain some notoriety. That does not appear to have amounted to a damn thing; it had almost the opposite effect; although, in one sense, that helped us to establish independence from those elites.
Ernest: Was it easy to get a start with publishing?
Mike: No, it was very, very hard. I have a project that I am going to assemble at some point, a how-to book, about starting a publishing business. Many similar books have been written; but I can also speak about starting a business too, and other topics. The hardest part is getting people to believe in and follow your vision. Even to start a press, without emphasizing on the business aspect, is difficult and requires much vision. It’s the same with starting any major organization, really. The number one challenge for a person who starts a business is to explain his vision to those involved in the company. People came and went, and still do. Some people stay, however, and those are the people that matter and can make or break the company. After time, it wasn’t as difficult to explain my vision because our company’s actions began speaking for themselves.
In terms of starting a publishing house, I got extremely lucky. For whatever reasons, I hit all the green lights, starting in the summer of 2006, and I published one excellent book after the other. Part of this luck is an inherent ability to recognize talent, and understand where and how to look for it. That is what makes a publisher a publisher, in my opinion. It is not the easiest thing to explain (I will in my how-to book). After time, I didn’t have to worry about looking for talent because the reputation of World Audience sold itself and the talent started coming to us.
Ernest: Does one need a lot of money to break into the publishing business?
Mike: No. I didn’t have a dime when I started, and only now is World Audience beginning to close in on respectable profits. The key is an ability to find and publish great books. The only thing I spent money on was my first 10 ISBNs that I bought for $100. I had made it at that point, arguably.
Ernest: Do you think you had a successful start?
Mike: Clearly. Part of the reason for our successful start is we were well prepared. We spent several years talking and writing about our plans, so that when I finally acted on them, for whatever mysterious reasons, things came easily. We are experiencing amazing growth right now. We’re not quite comfortable yet; but at this rate it won’t be long and when I look back at where I was, I am very confident about the near-future. I also had a lot of help from Matthew Ward, publisher of Mock Frog Design Press (http://www.mockfrog.com.au), and he continues to help World Audience in many, invaluable ways. Additionally, Ray Hammond, the editor at New York Quarterly, built our Wiki database that we have yet to fully utilize (although it generates a lot of Web traffic to our site), and he helped me with lots of other technical issues, and editing decisions. Hareendran Kallinkeel helped me shape World Audience’s vision, over a period of years. All of our other members (who are shareholders in our corporation) generously supported this endeavor.
Ernest: What matters in getting a successful start?
Mike: The key to starting a company or a press is to do it. Nothing is going to happen overnight; but once you begin, the clock starts ticking and it’s only a matter of time after that. Any press has to go through various phases of growth. Everything is on hold until you begin, however. Once you do begin, the challenge is for you to survive long enough for the press to reach maturity, and to guide it along its way successfully.
Ernest: As we look at World Audience, we do not find pop literature there, I mean genre fiction, for example, like Harry Potter and Da Vinci Code and these kinds of books that are on the holist of readers. Wasn’t it risky, from business viewpoint, to select only literary works?
Mike: I am still very tempted to publish a romance novel because they sell so well. If I do, however, we may lose our reputation as a literary press that we spent so much work building. You’re right, we have to work much harder to make a literary press succeed-especially with the model we’ve created-but in the long run literary presses, like Random House, are the ones that survive. We can skirt the edges of genre, just as Random House does.
Ernest: You have been involved in theatre also, right?
Mike: La Muse Venale Acting Troupe (http://www.lamusevenale.org) is the theater company I founded 4 years ago, and I work for it as artistic director. The theater company arose one day when I realized that I was a playwright. I applied many of the same rules about starting a business to forming La Muse Venale, Inc. I gained unique experiences from my theater company that I have put to good use with World Audience. I discovered some books to publish through my contacts with theater.
Ernest: How do you look at theater now?
Mike: I am rather ambivalent about theater just now. It’s far too commercial. I have no aspirations to have my plays on Broadway. My theater company has carved out its territory and has produced great work and worked with great artists. I can use it as a vehicle to develop and produce my plays; but beyond that I really don’t care what happens. I don’t like dealing with other theater companies; especially American regional theater companies, so I can’t imagine any of them ever producing my plays. I am finishing up a play about the Mexican Revolution, La Revolucion, and I would love to see it produced somewhere in Mexico. Perhaps I can market my work to England; but American theater is a very pretentious, political affair that churns my stomach, frankly. What makes it worse is, despite the Yale Mafia and old-guard Liberals who run it, American theater is a decidedly junior varsity sport and on the world stage. You have to be a boot-licker (to quote Martin Luis Guzman) to gain any respect in American theater. I feel I have proven my excellence as a playwright; yet, I have not gained a cent of recognition or respect. Now, there are even other playwrights copying me. My goal is to work hard to make World Audience succeed, and to continue writing, developing and producing my plays for off-off Broadway (and the occasional off-Broadway company), and then have my plays produced in foreign countries and gain as much international fame as possible, without ever having been produced in my native land (other than off-off Broadway). In all likelihood, I will succeed, as I always do. This scenario will sufficiently give me the last laugh.
Ernest: So how do you weigh publishing versus dramatic production?
Mike: Many areas overlap; but publishing and theater are very different things. In some ways, they are opposites. Theater is a small community of elites-everything I resist in publishing. Plays are realized on the stage, not in a book (unless that book is a lifetime collection of work from an established playwright, and that is one area World Audience specializes). Books are a very personal thing, produced by one writer; plays are developed through collaboration. So while there are advantages to marrying publishing with theater, it is important to keep them separate.
Ernest: What strategies are you adopting to make it big with your publishing company?
Mike: Marketing, marketing, marketing. Aside from that, I am trying to bring in highly qualified people to help run this company/press (such as you). Then, I hope to slowly give those people more responsibility and reward, as World Audience grows and is able to pay its employees. I think we have already established our reputation, amazing as that feat is. Now we have to capitalize on our strengths and market our excellent titles.
Ernest: And how do you think about the difference between being a writer and a publisher? In what important ways the two differ?
Mike: Many writers were (or tried to be) publishers. Virginia Woolf owned a publishing company that published her books, as I am doing. In my case my books have proven themselves as plays first. Many other writers, like Mark Twain, tried publishing and failed. World Audience is a press run by writers, and in this we are unique. When we were starting out, this was a weakness, as it seemed to outsiders that we existed solely to publish our own work, a vanity press of sorts. Once we reached a certain size, however, this label no longer stuck, and that perceived weakness has now become our greatest strength.
Ernest: Tell us a little about the recent structuring of your company?
Mike: I have finally been able to draw from our large pool of excellent writers that we have published to help run our company. It was surprisingly easy to do that. The enthusiasm and talent of those who have recently joined in the management of World Audience is staggering. I could never have imagined that I would be able to recruit such great people.
Ernest: Are World Audience’s publications being ordered from abroad? (if yes, mention a few countries where they have been ordered)
Mike: Yes, and this was always part of our vision. Our books selling everywhere from England, France, Pakistan, Belgium, Iceland, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Russia, and many other countries. Our titles sell in bookstores around the globe, and across America, and they are in libraries all over the world. Furthermore, we have published writers from France, America, England, Australia, Belgium, Pakistan, India, and Belize. That is not counting our journal and review that publish writers from even more countries. We are a World Audience.
Ernest: What are some of your quality titles to be published soon?
Mike: One that I have enjoyed working on is The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush, Vice-president Cheney, and Other Members of their Administration and Ending the Iraq War Now; A Collection of Essays by Different Writers. Also forthcoming are Cyber Law: An Arsenal for Internet Business by Brett Trout, Last Call; A Collection of Stories by Blair Oliver, both edited by Kyle Torke. Finally, Dr. Helga Peham’s Escaping the Rat Race; Freedom in Paradise, edited by Matthew Ward. There are other titles in pre-production.
Thank You Mike for your time and sharing your views!