Image for Anne Trubek: The Big Need Only a Small Press Can Fill

Anne Trubek

The Big Need Only a Small Press Can Fill

We interview the founder of Belt Publishing, an award-winning independent book publisher, and discuss the hard work of bringing forward good books and good ideas.

Anne Trubek is the author behind a Substack titled Notes from a Small Press. There, she blogs about her job as the founder of Belt Publishing, an award-winning independent press based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Publishing books is a tough business - both for authors wanting to publish their works, and for publishers trying to stay afloat. The great majority of the books you see in any store are the product of only a handful of major publishing companies.

Therefore, I think Anne's work as the driving force behind a small publishing company to be a crazy good turn. Good books and good ideas are not just important, they are vital to society. Anne is able to elevate voices that might otherwise go unheard.

In this interview, you'll hear how Anne left a successful and stable career as a professor to jump into the murky waters of small-press publishing in 2012. She later began a weekly newsletter as a way to both vent about the lack of resources available, and to share with others what she learned along the way.

During our discussion, Anne talks about why publishing is "slow motion gambling" — and you'll find out why that description is so apt. She also offers her thoughts on how artificial intelligence (AI) may impact the publishing world. And she shares how she finds writers - including one who published her first book at age 70. (See, there's hope for us all!)
  • Why publishing is "slow motion gambling" (9:30)
  • How Anne finds writers (15:51)
  • A Belt Publishing author who proves it's never too late to write a book (16:14)
  • The tragedy that turned into a crazy good turn for Anne (26:03)

FRANK BLAKE: Anne, welcome. It is such a treat to have you on Crazy Good Turns. Thank you.

ANNE TRUBEK: Well, thank you for having me.

FRANK BLAKE: So I'd like to start with, you're best known, I'm sure, as owning Belt Publishing, and there's a lot of interesting things to talk to you about, the difficulties of having an independent press in this day and age and why it's so important for everyone, because I think what you're doing is a crazy good turn in its own right.

But I got to know you through a reference that Austin Kleon made in 2018 that your newsletter, Notes from a Small Press, was one of the best things in the year 2018.

And I subscribed to your newsletter and I've been reading it consistently ever since.

And so I want to start with just what prompted you to start writing a newsletter, first and then maybe, how did you decide to join Substack and use that as your platform for the newsletter?

ANNE TRUBEK: I think two impulses led me to start the newsletter.

One was therapy.

It's therapeutic for me to be able to write about my job, which is running a small press and has a lot of really unique challenges.

I don't have a huge peer group of people who are also doing the same thing that I could text and complain about.

So I was like, "Well, I'll complain to the anonymous public."

It's not only complaining, but that was part of it.

Writing can serve that function, to be able to work through the things I was thinking about at the time in written form.

But then more importantly, I had come to publishing blind as a second career and taught myself a lot about how it worked and I could not find a lot of very easily accessible resources for how publishing worked.

And a lot of people had questions and were curious, and I thought, well, I will help people understand publishing by using this newsletter to explain basically what I had taught myself and learned about how you make a book.

So it was those dual impulses.

One was sort of pedagogical like, "This is how it works," and the other was, "Let me get some things off my chest."

FRANK BLAKE: for our listeners, I highly recommend it.

I have never thought about being a publisher and it fascinates me.

And your thought processes, you range far and wide. Are you surprised by its success?

ANNE TRUBEK: Absolutely. I keep doing it.

You started reading it in 2018, that's five years ago now, and I still do it every week because people are engaged and they tell me how much they love to read it or they ask questions and ask me to write about some topic in the future.

So, I just adore writing it and it's because of the readers for sure.

FRANK BLAKE: One of the comments I'd make about your newsletter is that you work through, or struggle with, or talk about a lot of interesting, important, and difficult questions: the role of books, do we have too many books? Do we have not enough books? What kind of books?

Publishing, First Amendment issues, and then your own business issues as what it's like to be starting a small business.

Are there things that you think have particularly connected as topics or that are particularly important to you as topics?

ANNE TRUBEK: Well, I think that people are very interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of publishing, how the interior gets designed, and everything.

That stuff is very interesting.

FRANK BLAKE: And I would say it's very interesting, even for those of us who have no interest in publishing, but just, "Oh, I didn't know that about books."

ANNE TRUBEK: Yeah, exactly.

It's the sort of mundane things that are actually quite fascinating once you turn your attention to them. So I do love writing about that.

And then I think that publishers aren't something that people necessarily notice, right?

When you read a book, it's highly unlikely you could tell me the publisher of it and that's fine.

But there is a whole economy of publishing.

There's a whole range of different types of publishers, very large ones, small ones. And for me, I think raising attention to the difference between publishers is, if I have a hidden agenda, it's called Note from a Small Press, and that's important.

Mine is a small press, sometimes also called an independent press, and helping people who are interested learn about the difference between a small press and Penguin Random House, which is a ginormous press, and why small presses and independent presses are important is definitely a motivation each week when I sit down to write.

FRANK BLAKE: So that's a good step off to just talking about Belt Publishing, which you run.

Why is a small press important? Why did you decide to do that?

ANNE TRUBEK: So, I felt like there was a gap in the books that were being written that I could help fill.

And at the beginning, it was a very simple gap, which was writing about the Rust Belt.

Belt Publishing is based in Cleveland.

The Rust Belt is sort of that manufacturing area between Buffalo and Milwaukee where manufacturing used to reign supreme, and now is rustier than it used to be.

And I felt that it was just a fascinating region with a lot of incredible writers and a lot of really interesting stories, and there weren't as many books about it as there could be, or as many books about it as people would support by buying because there was a huge interest in it.

So I was like, "Huh, let me see if I can publish some books about the Rust Belt in order to fill this gap for the people who live in the region, as well as people who used to live in the region and moved away."

It's also an area that's been hugely depopulated. So a lot of people living in Florida in the Sun Belt, Grandma lives back in Cleveland or that's where they grew up.

So that was the motivation.

And then obviously I was interested in the idea of starting a business.

It's a very mission-driven business and I was curious about how the whole thing works.

So I wanted to explore what that would be like and could I sell enough copies of books in order to pay myself and pay the staff and pay the authors and all of that?

So, that was the idea.

FRANK BLAKE: In one of your newsletters, you referred to publishing as slow motion gambling.

What have you learned over the last several years of this slow motion gambling?

And maybe for our listeners, also describe why that term applied?

ANNE TRUBEK: Yeah, I mean it never fails to amaze me that basically somebody has an idea, writer has an idea.

And I might be like, "Yeah, I think a lot of other people would be interested in that idea and would pay 20 bucks for it in printed form."

And that idea comes maybe four years before you have something in printed form in terms of the writing of the book, the producing of the book, the publicizing it.

And at some point, you have to sort of say, "Okay, I think 300 people will pay for this book," or maybe it's 3000 people or maybe it's 30,000 people, but you're putting all these resources into this idea for this book long before you're going to see any sales.

And it really is a crapshoot, to continue with the gambling metaphor, whether people will buy that book or not.

And sometimes you find that only 10 people wanted to pay for that book, and you're like, "Well, that was a bad bet."

Sometimes you think only 10 people buy the book and 10,000 people end up buying it.

And there is very little data, a lot of publishers use data and analytics to try to project sales.

This is the only business I've been in, so it may be that every business is like this, but there is something about publishing where you really just are going in kind of blind with each book, which is, in itself, almost like a little business, each book, and just seeing what hits.

FRANK BLAKE: And do you think, over the time, have you become more and more adept at putting where you put your chips?

ANNE TRUBEK: I mean, probably a little bit, but not great.

I think basically I'm just more realistic about the bad bets.

I'm definitely more realistic about the bad bets and then surprised at the good ones.

FRANK BLAKE: I will say, one of the things I love about your newsletter is, just as reflected in that answer, you're a very grounded and thoughtful person.

And you also wrote, interestingly, I thought about the question of, do we have too many books?

And you're one kind of publisher, but there are other kinds of publishers where honestly, I wonder, what are they thinking?

One example is the university presses says, "Wow, we have a lot of books, and does anybody read those books?"

And how does the whole universe of book publishing, how do you think about that?

ANNE TRUBEK: Yeah, I think that's really interesting.

I mean, university presses are in a situation where a lot of faculty members, for their own careers, it's assumed that they will publish a book.

And so the university presses have a mission to support faculty, so they have to publish these books, which they know going in will sell mainly only to libraries.

And what needs to happen for that to change is huge changes in the way that faculty careers are assessed. So, the university presses don't have any control over that.

And I think a lot of other corporate presses, larger presses have an idea of volume, that the more books that they just pump out, the greater the likelihood that one of them will hit and become-

FRANK BLAKE: It's part of that bet phenomenon.

I've put a lot of different chips on a lot of different places.


I mean the cliche is that 80% of books lose money and the 20% that make money make up for those 80% that lose them.

So it's really a game of bestsellers.

So the more candidates you have for future bestseller-dom, the greater the odds, but it then leads to too many books and a lot of disappointed authors.

And I do think that publishing fewer books would be a wise move for the publishing industry overall, which is huge and complicated.

FRANK BLAKE: How do you find your authors? How do you source these books?

Is it that they have agents and they come to you or you search them out?

How does that work?

ANNE TRUBEK: It's a range.

So some are agents who contact us and we find them there.

Sometimes an author will send a query without an agent. That often happens.

And if it's something that we're interested in, then we will keep talking and perhaps offer a contract.

And then sometimes it's us reaching out.

And that's perhaps my favorite part of the job is if I am reading something by someone who I think is really talented and I look at what they've published before and who they are, what kind of person they are, and I might reach out and say, "Hey, you have any book ideas? We'd love to work with you."

And some of our bestselling books and most gratifying projects, as a staff and as a publishing group, have come through people that we've reached out to.

So you get a sense that they're going to be symbiotic with you.

So it's just a range.

FRANK BLAKE: And has the direction of Belt Publishing changed over the last several years?

ANNE TRUBEK: We have a lot more people who are coming to us, so then the pressure to reach out and find people is lesser.

And we have a core with these books about the Rust Belt and we have some series within that, certain types of books.

And so that makes it easy for people to say, "Hey, I'd like to do another book in this series that you already have."

So that has become easier.

Of course then we've also learned about the books that didn't sell as well, and then maybe we want to do fewer of those.

And so we shift our emphasis that way as well.

And we also are publishing fewer books per year than we were a few years ago, sort of going with that idea. And so sadly-

FRANK BLAKE: More focus.

ANNE TRUBEK: More focus.

And that also means, sadly, that more of my job is saying no than it used to be, which isn't so fun.

FRANK BLAKE: What is it that attracts your interest in someone, what makes you go, "Boy, I'm going to reach out to this person?"

Or, "I'm really focused on this space?"

ANNE TRUBEK: Really good writing.

Really good writing that's doing something unusual, whether it's a unique point of view or an interesting way with sentences, something that I'm not seeing everywhere else by someone who I think is thinking about things in a really interesting way that deserves a wider audience.

But really, it comes down to writing, which is often forgotten, and it's not necessarily something that readers need to be keyed into, but for us, somebody who has a certain facility with language and a certain approach to writing, that's my kind of person to work with.

FRANK BLAKE: Are there some of your titles that you're particularly proud of to date?

Or are they like all your children, so everything's great in its own way?

ANNE TRUBEK: They're all my children, but we have a book that came out a couple years ago now called The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson.

She wrote it in her 70s, it was her first book, it was her first published writing at all.

FRANK BLAKE: Oh, there, I can take heart.

ANNE TRUBEK: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

FRANK BLAKE: She published it in her 70s.


Somebody sent me a very short piece by her and I thought, "Oh my goodness, this writing is so powerful."

And so I called her up and I was like, "Hey, you want to expand this into a book?"

And she grew up in a neighborhood of St. Louis that was razed during urban renewal movement.

So neighborhoods that were primarily African American were basically just decimated.

And so she, writing this book about her childhood growing up in that neighborhood, and it's a very happy, wonderful book, and she has just the most extraordinary memory and recall for details.

And so she's just conjuring up this sort of lost world in this beautiful memoir by this woman in her 70s who hadn't published before.

And it is just the most lovely book.

And in St. Louis, she is everywhere. School kids are now being assigned the book.

FRANK BLAKE: Oh, wow. How great.

ANNE TRUBEK: There are being commemorations in public of the neighborhood, Mill Creek, that have been spurred on.

There's now public recognition of this neighborhood more, and she's just thrilled and out there all the time talking about it.

And on my hardest days, I think about that and I think about how I helped make that book happen and I feel very grateful.

FRANK BLAKE: Very cool, very cool.

If you take a step back, are we in a golden age of publishing because you have all the self-publishing and lots of independent presses?

Or is this the worst stage of publishing because it's all, now we're down to five major publishers that account for most books?

Or somewhere in between?

ANNE TRUBEK: Somewhere in between.

I would say that in terms of publishing companies, it's not a great time because there's been so much conglomeration and you have these five huge, extraordinarily powerful companies, which is a lot of what we're seeing in America right now; a few companies rising to the top and a lot of smaller ones getting smushed, I don't think that's great.

But it is a very good time for publishing in that a lot more people have access to getting their book published by a traditional publishing house than ever before.

It used to be a much more closed world, a sort of old boys' club, and now a lot more voices can be heard and readers can find them.

So I think in terms of writers, maybe it's a good time, but in terms of people who are interested in the business side of it, it's not the best.

FRANK BLAKE: Where do you see Belt going in the next several years?

What does success look like for you?

ANNE TRUBEK: Definitely success would be more stability really on the business end.

I mean this is the most unglamorous thing, but it would be less worry about cashflow month to month and more just, as an established business would be.

That would certainly be success for the staff, for the authors, make sure that we're sustainable, that what we do, and the idea behind this press, continues and not being buffeted by the winds of exigency or the economy as much.

And certainly being able to be a loudspeaker for really important writers that might not otherwise find a publisher who could sing their praises and get their books into bookstores and libraries, helping those who wouldn't otherwise have a chance to be published.

That's what we do best, I think.

FRANK BLAKE: Who are some of the authors that you're reading now?

Who would you recommend to our audience?

Whether you publish him or her or not.

ANNE TRUBEK: Great question.

Oh, let's think. I'm just thinking about our authors, but I want to think of other authors as well.

FRANK BLAKE: Well, I hope you're a fan of Austin Kleon, because we've had him on this show, and I think his books are terrific.

ANNE TRUBEK: Austin is fabulous, he's fantastic, and he also has this mission of bringing others inside, showing them what he does.

And I just think he's phenomenal. Everyone should be reading his stuff.

He's inspirational. He gets people moving.

It's not just about, "Oh, isn't he great?" It's like, "Oh, he's showing me something I can do so I can be great."

And that's just wonderful. I love him.

FRANK BLAKE: Yeah, well said. Who else?

So who are some of your authors that you would recommend to our listeners?

ANNE TRUBEK: So Phil Christman is a fabulous essayist and cultural critic who really likes to take on stuff in the news and go with it.

And he has a beautiful writing style and he has a book called "How to Be Normal," which is a series of essays.

And so he has an essay about how to be a man, how to be married, how to be Christian, and they're just really wonderful.

He has another book with us, he's done two books with us called Midwest Features, which is really a very unusual look at the history of the Midwest.

So if you're interested in that, he's just wonderful.

We have a couple authors that have done several books with us, and I love that.

And we have an author, Aaron Foley, who wrote a few books about Detroit for us and then said, "I think I want to write a novel-"

I was like, "Absolutely."

So we published his novel last year called "Boys Come First," and it's about three friends who are all gay, Black millennials living their life and having fun in Detroit, and it's just a hilarious novel.

I just love that we could publish a really funny, incisive novel. "Boys Come First" it's called.

FRANK BLAKE: So I'm sure you get this question all the time, formally and informally, but what are your thoughts on the impact of artificial intelligence on the publishing world and the writing world?

ANNE TRUBEK: Such an interesting question, and I tend to be very opinionated, as you probably know as a reader of my newsletter, and on this one, I don't really have one.

I feel like it's too early. I feel like it's going to make huge changes.

I think that is clear, but I don't think it's clear what those will be.

And I like to think about it in terms of the beginning of the internet, and even just computers.

People were predicting what would happen.

And of course, 30 years later, how many years later, it's very different than we would've predicted.

And so I'm wary of too much prediction now. I think people have to be careful.

I am not sure that any small measures right now will really make a difference.

So, I mean I think it's wonderful that with the actor's strike, they're really calling out the use of AI and also with the writer's strike in Hollywood, and I think that's good to be cautious, but there probably are a lot of potentially very positive things about AI that we shouldn't overlook either.

So I will say that, as someone who likes to have a firm opinion on things, it's interesting that I don't.

FRANK BLAKE: Other than, obviously writers and writing, where do you turn to for your inspiration, for what interests you?

ANNE TRUBEK: Huh…I like to discover new places and look to see what people are doing.

The idea of a place is so important to me.

The importance of place, where one is, whether it's an obviously interesting touristy kind of place, or just a very small town or just a neighborhood in a town.

And to see how people are interacting and working with their place and how it becomes meaningful to them is always incredibly inspiring to me.

I like to look at where other people aren't looking and sort of see what's interesting.

And I get a lot of inspiration from other cultural workers, from the visual arts, from music, from movies and TV and how people are telling stories and working in unexpected ways.

FRANK BLAKE: Two final questions.

First, just as you look at the arc of what you've been doing with Belt, are you feeling more and more comfortable?

Is it as anxious as it was in the beginning? Did you go through a rough period of time?

Maybe take us through the arc of that experience of trying to start something on your own.

ANNE TRUBEK: Yeah. Yeah.

I mean I think at the beginning was definitely the hardest because I didn't know what I was doing, but it was also the most fun because I do enjoy plunging into something new and overwhelming.

And so it was fun to be on the edge and it was so busy and stressful, but also exciting.

And I definitely feel now that I know what I'm doing more, which is good.

I think it's good for everybody, but now it doesn't have that intensity that it used to.

And so I think that's only good from a perspective of if it's stable and doing the work that it should do.

The pandemic was definitely stressful for us at the beginning.

I really thought that was it, we were going to go under.

In the end, it turned out to be good because people were reading more, so we ended up doing better.

So that was definitely an experience of a great low that then went back up to not so much a high as a relief.

Now I do like the fact that things are more expected, that I understand what I can do, what I can't do, what the press can be and what it can't be.

And I've grown older with the press as the press has grown older, and so it's nice to have that bit of comfort.

FRANK BLAKE: So last question, we ask this of everyone who's a guest on the podcast, who is someone who's done a crazy good turn for you?

Someone who's just done something exceptionally kind, thoughtful, crazy good turn?

ANNE TRUBEK: Well, I have to think about my friend, Martha, Martha Vane, who used to work for Belt.

And I had a very unfortunate experience a couple of years ago where my house burned down.

It was a rental, so it was a little simpler in that sense, and it was in the pandemic and it was just sort of, "Wow, could things keep going worse?"

And she reached out to all of the authors and people involved with Belt to tell them what had happened.

And I refused to have her organize any kind of fundraising thing at the moment, but she did it on her own, and it was the people who had been involved with Belt before who contributed, and that was really a wonderful, lovely thing that someone did for me.

FRANK BLAKE: That's true. That is fantastic.

So, for the listeners who've heard this and want to follow Ann Trubek, what are the best ways for them to do that?

ANNE TRUBEK: So my newsletter is Notes from a Small Press, which is on Substack.

You can find it there.

If you want to know more about Belt Publishing, will take you there.

My email is very easy to find if you're on the Belt Publishing page, and if anyone wants to email me with questions, I'm happy to receive that.

FRANK BLAKE: I also will put in a note, because it's one of the things I've learned from what you've published, that wouldn't necessarily have occurred to me is that it's always better, at some level, for people to buy directly from the publisher.

Maybe not everything, but from time to time.

ANNE TRUBEK: From time to time, if you want to buy some Belt Publishing books, go to the Belt Publishing store, that definitely is a lovely thing to do to support us.

FRANK BLAKE: Terrific. Well, thank you very much, Anne.

Very much appreciate your being on the podcast.

And I think this is, you are wrestling with and succeeding on something important and extraordinarily difficult, so thank you.

ANNE TRUBEK: Well, thank you so much.

This has just been really, really lovely and I'm all choked up and thanks so much.

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