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Publishing changes spawn White River Press in North Amherst

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Linda Roghaar at her home office in Amherst Thursday.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Books published by White River Press
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Linda Roghaar at her home office in Amherst

Among the sweeping changes the publishing field has seen in recent years, the growth of niche presses, focusing on certain topics or types of writers, has presented a new business opportunity for one Amherst woman.

Linda Roghaar’s White River Press has a twofold mission: bringing out-of-print books back to the marketplace and helping previously published writers find a home for their new work.

Roghaar, a veteran of the book business, has parlayed her knowledge of the industry, the reach of the Internet and the dramatic improvement in the quality of print-on-demand services to publish 50 books since 2006. She works out of her North Amherst home, assisted by a rotating crew of college interns and some freelance editors and designers.

Print on demand

Roghaar, who also has a separate business as a literary agent working primarily with nonfiction writers, says she could not have started White River without the changes she’s seen in the last 10 years — particularly the improvement in print-on-demand services, in which books are printed only when they are ordered. Digital technology has dramatically improved the physical quality of such books, she said, and made it easier to do smaller print runs. That means publishers and writers can produce precise quantities for specific markets.

“I’ve seen warehouses full of unsold books,” said Roghaar, who spent 15 years as a publishers’ representative selling to bookstores, chains and wholesalers. “The book business can be very unpredictable, and in the old days this could mean a lot of books being remaindered.”

At White River Press, she works her connections with distributors and printers to place books in independent stores, chains, libraries and web-based outlets like Amazon.com, printing only the exact number ordered. “As a small publisher, it’s a much more economical way to do business,” she said.

The impetus to start the press came from what Roghaar describes as a “death-bed promise” made to an old friend several years ago. Before he died, Marty Slattery, a writer who had self-published some of his work, asked her if she could help move the titles.

“He didn’t want his wife to be left with all these books in their basement,” Roghaar said.

She decided to concentrate her new business on established writers: making their out-of-print books available once again, and helping them get new books into the marketplace if they weren’t having luck in traditional publishing. It’s not that she won’t look at a manuscript from an unpublished writer, Roghaar says, “but I feel my connections in the industry are better suited for working with established writers.”

Drawn to the Valley

Roghaar, who’s originally from Arlington and has also lived in Tennessee and the Washington, D.C., area, came to the Valley in the mid-1990s. Part of the attraction, she says, was the area’s literary and academic bent. The rural feel but lively surroundings were also a plus. From her home office it’s just 10 minutes to the University of Massachusetts and downtown Amherst.

“One thing I’ve really liked about being here is the ability to meet face-to-face with some of my writers,” she said. “I’ve done so much of my business over the years over the Internet, so it’s nice to have that personal contact.”

White River Press writers include James Freeman, a UMass English professor, and Sheila Peltz Weinberg, the former rabbi of the Jewish Community of Amherst. Northampton pastor Andrea Ayvazian and photographer Ellen Augarten have collaborated on “Psalms in New Voices,” a collection of the Bible’s 150 psalms written in contemporary language, with photos of the people who authored the new versions.

Another White River Press author is Dusty J. Miller of Belchertown. A retired psychologist who’s written books in her field, she turned to fiction this year with the mystery “Danger in the Air,” which has a central character modeled on Northampton peace activist Frances Crowe.

Miller says the agent who handled her nonfiction books told her “Danger in the Air” was going to be a much tougher sell, because of its topic as well as changes in the publishing industry. She then discovered Roghaar, and despite initial reservations about having to front some editorial costs, Miller ended up happy with the results.

“I really liked the collaborative model,” she wrote in an email. “I felt even better when the book was finished and I saw how great it looked ... and I have a wide range of selling options. It’s available in bookstores, online through Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and I can also sell it directly and thus get paid right away instead of waiting a year or more to get royalties.”

Self-promotion key

Roghaar says that while she primarily publishes nonfiction — memoirs, spirituality, crafts, history — she also takes on fiction writers. “I work with books that I like,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about doing this. It’s really satisfying.”

While she’s willing to make editorial suggestions, Roghaar says she’s not an editor. If a manuscript needs serious revision, she’ll suggest the writer send it to one of the freelance editors she works with or seek other outside help, at his or her own expense. She’ll also solicit cover designs from her freelancers or someone the writer chooses.

Once the book is camera-ready, White River Press assumes all costs — layout, printing, distribution. Roghaar splits royalties 50-50 with her authors.

There’s one other condition for working with White River, Roghaar says. In addition to a manuscript, a writer must present a marketing plan for promoting the finished book — by hiring a publicist, for example. Roghaar says the book business has become so competitive that writers today must have websites, be active on social media or Internet blogs and chat forums, seek exposure in newspapers and other publications, give readings and work to help get their books into stores and libraries.

“This is a hard thing for some writers to do,” she said. “There’s a certain element of self-promotion that some people don’t like, but it’s essential. I need people to be engaged, and I’m willing to offer advice on how to do that, but it’s up to writers to do the legwork and to adapt to changes in the market.”

Roghaar says she’s probably turned down 100 book proposals, in large part because she didn’t think the writers had adequate marketing plans. And though she’s not willing to discuss sales numbers, she says some White River Press books haven’t sold as well as she’d hoped, perhaps because the writers weren’t sufficiently aggressive in promoting them.

“It’s just an unpredictable business, with so many unknown factors driving or not driving sales,” she said.

Roghaar is a longtime witness to that unpredictability: She’s been in the book business since 1974, when she got a job as a clerk in a Vermont bookstore. “There’s kind of a joke that people in the business move within it but don’t leave it because they don’t know how to do anything else,” she said with a laugh. “But mostly it’s because we love books.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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