INTERVIEW: Peg Alford Pursell, Founder of Betty Books

Interview by Dorothy Rice

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Founded in 2010 by Peg Alford Pursell, Why There Are Words (WTAW) is an award-winning literary reading series that began in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 before it expanded to New York City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Austin, New Orleans, and Asheville. In 2016, Peg launched WTAW Press, an independent nonprofit publisher of exceptional literary books, spring boarding off the tradition of the reading series. Its new imprint, Betty Books, is dedicated to publishing books by women for everyone, with an innovative partnership between author and publisher, one that involves no monetary investment from the author.

In addition to founding the reading series and press, Peg the author of Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, the 2017 INDIES Book of the Year for Literary Fiction and of A Girl Goes Into the Forest (Dzanc, 2019). Her work has been published in Permafrost, Joyland Magazine, RHINO, the Cortland Review, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Increasingly, authors are turning to independent presses to publish their books. I was excited to learn more about WTAW, Betty Books, what distinguishes the two, and how Peg manages all this literary magic.

Peg Alford Pursell

Dorothy Rice: I saw an announcement about Betty Books—with its focus on women authors— on X/Twitter, I think. So I went to the WTAW Press site to read more about it and was excited to speak with you about this new venture!

Peg Alford Pursell: First off, I’m so glad you reached out. With travel and family obligations, I haven’t had the time I usually would to promote the press.

DR: I totally get that. My sense is that many Hippocampus Magazine readers are writers who are either querying or publishing without an agent and thus are submitting to or interested in independent presses. Perhaps it makes sense to begin with WTAW, then move on to Betty, how that came about and the distinction between the two.

PAP: Thank you, I appreciate that you want to learn more about this. Starting WTAW was a huge decision back in 2015 when we incorporated as a nonprofit. So many small presses start and then fold, but I won’t do something unless I can do it well. I began by researching small, independent publishers. Martha Rhodes, who founded Four Way Books, was a mentor for me. She helped me understand the details of running a small nonprofit press and, ultimately, her knowledge and advice formed the basis for many of my choices when I founded WTAW Press.

When I first wanted to start a publishing press, I asked myself if I could really do this, because I realized that it would be just me, essentially. Was I willing to jettison much of my life? Running a press is not a hobby: It’s a business and it will overtake your life, as Lucy Day of Scarlet Tanager Books told me. When I felt as sure as I could, I took the plunge, announcing the press in December 2015. We opened for submissions at the beginning of 2016 and published our first books in 2017, which was fast.

You really want every book to have a robust marketing and promotion plan. Many trade review magazines, like Publishers Weekly, need ARCs or galleys six months before the publishing date. So everything needs to be ready at least six months in advance. In order to get to that point, edits must be finished well before that point. As each book goes through development at the press, it receives an edit. Depending on the book, several rounds of editing may be needed. We contract out for copy editors and typesetters—though we might still call them typesetters, we’re really talking about interior book design. We contract out exterior book design, as well as ebook design. All our books are published as ebooks as well as trade paperbacks. Of course each title gets a final proofread to make sure no errors have been introduced in the process of design or layout. All of this takes time and requires a high degree of organization.

Peg Pursell Holding a Banner for Betty Books

As editor-in-chief, I’m hands on. The publishing timeline has to have lots of time built in for authors because they may not have the ability to turn things around in a timely manner. Not every author may grasp the fine points of what their editor is looking for with edits in a first round. Every author is different. No matter if the author has published before or not, they can become very anxious and some may suddenly want to edit all the life out of a book, as they start to worry about how every word will be perceived. We publish plenty of debut authors.

I’ve learned all of this along the way. Mentors advised me of these things and much more, but you don’t really know until you know. Authors have surprised me and continue to do so!

DR: So there was a reason for Betty Books specifically, right?

PAP: Yes. Women still don’t have enough publishing opportunities. I’m talking about those who identify as women, though I don’t feel the need to say that because people know who they are. Women constitute the largest demographic of readers, yet there are still not enough women published. Even more importantly—and what Betty aims to change—is the diversity of women’s voices and stories and points of view.

At Betty, we’re over hearing women’s voices referred to as “quiet.” There is still not enough range of women’s voices. The diversity of stories, voices, ages, lifestyles, ethnicities, cultures, all of it. Literature in particular is a significant way of shaping cultural and societal ideas and we  need to have these books out there if we are to ever have better conversations about and empathy for the wide range of women in the world. These needs led to my establishing the imprint. I named Betty after my mother, who was a prolific reader.

As with my initial plan with WTAW Press, the idea was to publish two books a year to ensure  that each book receives substantive marketing and publicity. The Dorothy Project, an amazing small press that publishes two books per year, was an early model for me. Often small publishers charge their authors for advance reader copies (ARCs) and galleys, and for other marketing and publicity efforts, but that annoys me, since I feel it’s a matter of course that a publisher does their best to get books into the hands of readers. It’s so important to get ARCs out for reviewers and interviewers to help spread the word. I’m unsure why a publisher wouldn’t want to do everything they can to bring attention to the books they invest in!

So, that’s not an option for me. As an author myself, I understand the importance of publishers making an author’s experience the best they can make it. A robust marketing plan, sending out ARCs, querying for reviews, interviews, events. Great design. Great editorial support. Additionally, I send published books out for awards—which are costly. The submission fee helps. All submission fees go directly toward publishing and promoting books and paying authors royalties. I don’t draw a salary and we’ve had no paid staff until this year. In 2024, a family foundation has funded a part-time social media assistant, which is thrilling!

DR: Tell me about this partnership model. Because really, when it comes right down to it, this is what is so different about Betty Books, isn’t it?

PAP: Yes. I want to publish more books by women. But I don’t want to charge our authors; let’s put that more strongly—I will not charge authors! This is not a hybrid model.

Before establishing Betty, I talked to a variety of publishing collectives. Typically, when an author publishes with a collective, they don’t receive royalties: all sale proceeds go back to the collective. I want authors to receive royalties for their creative work. For me, the missing component that held me back from publishing more books, was help with the promotion part, one of the most time-consuming parts of the publishing process—but, again, essential.

I wanted a partnership with authors but one where no money changes hands. Outside of authors’ royalty checks, of course. Authors sign contracts that are traditional in all aspects but for spelling out the commitments expected in assisting the publishing and marketing process. It’s turning out to be quite beautiful: the authors form a cohort and support one another in so many facets. Our first Betty book is a debut short story collection (Take Me With You Next Time by Janis Hubschman, October 2024).

Within the cohort, authors are assigned different tasks for each title we will publish. Some will query interviewers, reviewers, venues, etc. Some will work on social media outreach. Each author knows that what they put in will be returned when their book comes out. We count on developing a collegial spirit. This initial year, there are things that only I know how to do, but over time, authors will learn much of the intricacies of small press publishing.

Each year we’ll solicit manuscripts, anonymously, via Submittable—as we do with WTAW Press. At the time of submission, authors fill out a form expressing their willingness to make a three-year contractual commitment to the press and to their author cohort. Based solely on the strength of the manuscripts, these will be narrowed down to a handful of finalists, at which time, the authors of the manuscripts are reviewed. A panel of Betty authors will interview the finalists to determine their suitability in terms of commitment and team compatibility. The strength of a manuscript is the first key consideration. In the absence of a strong, publishable manuscript, no reason exists to interview a potential author.

During the first year of the contract, an author is getting her bearings, contributing to books in the publishing queue and may be working on edits to her own manuscript. During the second year, as promotion continues on published titles, the author’s book is in production to be published. During the third year, promotion continues on the author’s now published book and the author is now able to offer their expertise to new authors. Books will be published in the fall and spring seasons.

The three-year commitment (barring unforeseen circumstances such as illness) is a contractual requirement, stipulated along with royalties and specific work expectations, such as a monthly work meeting.

betty books logo

DR: This really is unique. A new kind of hybrid, it seems to me, with effort in kind, rather than money, as the “skin in the game” from the author. And the author still has the potential, depending on the merit and salability of their book and the team’s work to reap sales, potentially, even, substantial sales, awards, rave reviews and all those wonderful things writers dream of.

PAP: I see what you’re saying with the word “hybrid.” Typically, “hybrid” means authors pay to be published. No one is paying to be published at Betty. Betty authors enjoy all of the benefits of WTAW’s traditional publishing program, wherein the publisher bears all the costs (editing, design, marketing, distribution, payment of author royalties, and so on). Authors profit from all of the hallmarks that have made WTAW a successful and respected publisher: the high quality of editorial care, attention to book design, dedicated marketing and publicity efforts, and they benefit from the reputation WTAW has earned as an award-winning press dedicated to publishing and championing books of urgency, emotional resonance, and enduring significance.

What’s different—and more—is that authors enter a community of mutual support from fellow authors with a range of lived experiences, expertise, and know-how. Each author benefits from that collective wisdom and support. And each pledges through the signing of their contract to contribute to that community and to the shared endeavor of publishing books.

It’s so much more the norm today that authors published by a press, especially a small press, are expected to do the publicity, promotion, and marketing work themselves. Or they may hire a publicist at considerable cost. At Betty, as with WTAW Press, we would not object to anyone hiring a publicist. That would be fine! But we all know that can be costly. So the beautiful thing here, Dorothy, is that an author has the benefit of a community for support, to talk things over, and brainstorm how to approach events, who to approach, which events to participate in—or even what to wear to an event! This can mitigate a great deal of the angst inherent in promoting a book.

DR: There’s a synergy too. Is this event worth it? For this kind of book, which authors can partner? Who has experience or an entree with this editor for an interview or a review? Can we put together a panel on this topic?

PAP: Yes, exactly!

DR: What about nonfiction?

PAP: We have a nonfiction title coming out next year in May—Asian American Islander Pacific Heritage Month—THE BOAT NOT TAKEN is a memoir by Joanna Choi Kalbus. We are very open to memoir, any kind of creative nonfiction really. We  received quite a few essay collections during our December reading period. We also like long-form creative nonfiction. As long as the narrative is compelling, it could be any topic. We are not interested in straight up “how to.” Other than that, we’re open to any literary nonfiction, same as for WTAW Press. There are extensive guidelines on our website pages for more details.

DR: What about your review process for manuscripts?

Submissions come through the Submittable platform. We read every submission anonymously. The author is unknown, and the readers assigned to each submission are unknown to one another. Each submission is read by several authors. I don’t want to see any authors’ names. We receive plenty of subs from people we know and we don’t want to know! For WTAW, we keep a fresh, rotating group of first readers that do an initial read. These are volunteer readers who are screened and committed to stick out a season, similar to any literary journal.

DR: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?

I would! I’d like to thank you again for your interest in both Betty and WTAW Press. I’m grateful to be able to share with your readers at Hippocampus, a magazine I admire deeply.

Editors note: Betty Books submission period is December 1 – December 31, 2024. Learn more here.

Meet the Contributor

Dorothy RiceDorothy Rice is a writer, freelance editor, and the managing editor of the nonfiction and arts journal Under the Gum Tree. Before joining the Gum Tree team, she was a Hippocampus essays reader for several years. In previous lives, Dorothy cleaned up toxic waste sites and abandoned tire piles with the California EPA, earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60, and raised five children. She has published two memoirs with small presses (GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK and THE RELUCTANT ARTIST). Her essays and flash (fiction and nonfiction) have been featured in many places, including Hippocampus Magazine, The Rumpus, the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, and Five South.


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