BelleBooks, Inc.: Ringing Them Bells

This profile of BelleBooks, by Joyce Dixon, originally appeared on the Southern Scribe site in 1999.  Now that BelleBooks is an established and successful independent press, this backward glance provides valuable insight into the beginnings of a winning start-up.

Sharing stories of their southern roots was the dream of six veteran authors, and last year that dream became reality with the partnership of BelleBooks, Inc.

The authors, each successful in her own right, include: Debra Dixon, Sandra Chastain, Deborah Smith, Virginia Ellis, Donna Ball and Nancy Knight.

One of the nice surprises since forming BelleBooks, says Virginia Ellis, “… has been the response of people to six women sticking their necks out and forming a small press. Everyone is so excited for us and that has translated into sales. I got the feeling that we were out doing something that many people dream about–starting our own company and writing what we love.”

The idea of publishing was born in Donna Ball’s Tennessee cabin, which has become a writers retreat for the group. Debra Dixon explains, "As we began discussing exactly what type of project our first title would be, we found ourselves trailing off into stories of growing up Southern. We had tears in our eyes from laughing and lumps in our throat from emotion. After that particular brainstorming session, there wasn’t much question as to what kind of project the launch would be."

"In the process," adds Virginia Ellis, "we discovered our ability to work together. This ability naturally found a creative outlet in planning a book in which we could all participate–separately but together."

The decision to form a small press over submitting their anthology to established publishing houses could be summed up in one word — control. "Both artistic and marketing control." Debra Dixon continues, "We each have agents and New York publishers and editors, not to mention the marketing departments of the big houses. Book publishing at that level is about sales, about very commercial work.

"Big publishers are leery to let an author ‘out’ of her niche. They often fear disappointing readers by not publishing more of the same. The prevailing philosophy is, ‘Readers want what they want and don’t give them anything else.’ Creative people find that very limiting. Forming a publishing house gives us control over work that doesn’t mesh with the New York publishers’ views of our niche. Control of the work allows us to experiment with cover design, marketing and voice. The entire concept is very appealing. Producing the launch title only whet our appetite for the opportunities and possibilities that exist."

There is also the element of independent southern women and a dash of pioneer spirit within these authors. Virginia Ellis speaks to this nature. "Forming our own small press seemed to be the answer to our quest to write from our hearts, not by ‘house rules.’ Also, we, the six of us, write for different mainstream publishers and have different agents. The chances of selling an anthology or any other collaborative work with so many hands on the project are pretty slim."

Each partner in BelleBooks brings their own talents and business experience to the group. Yet forming a small press can be daunting for anyone. "It’s a fulltime job!" states Deborah Smith. "Even with six of us sharing the duties, there’s a tremendous amount of work involved in doing it well. The paperwork, the cover art, the book design, editing, marketing, warehousing the printed books—all these things take a lot of time and effort."

"We’ve had to step out of our comfortable offices and rush out into the world with our ‘baby book’ in our hands," adds Virginia Ellis. "Working the production side, I have to deal with the actual building of our ‘widget,’ an entirely different process from writing."

Former business consultant Debra Dixon keeps the group grounded. "As President of this rowdy bunch of creative souls, my task has been the difficult one of dragging feet back down to earth. There is a real tendency when reality exceeds your expectations to take on too much, too soon. It’s human nature. So, we’re learning how to reach for the stars while taking the tiny baby steps that build a secure foundation for the company."

Their debut anthology, Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes, followed the normal editorial rules known so well by these authors. Debra Dixon describes the experience, "We had discussed the kinds of stories we wanted and the areas of growing up Southern that we felt should be included in the book. Authors who felt they had a story that fit volunteered. However, since BelleBooks–even for the company founders–has an editorial protocol to be followed, stories were submitted to the editor and each author worked the process much the same way one works with the big publishers. The editor had ultimate responsibility for guiding the collection once the concept and general story ideas where hashed out. Editorial and production worked on placement of stories, etc. to create a "read" of which we are very proud."

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes was published in May 2000, and in that short time these authors have discovered sweet memories. Deborah Smith is touched by "the depth of appreciation for nostalgic fiction. People appreciate the stories because they recreate childhood memories."

Debra Dixon is naturally impressed by the business success. "In just a few short months we’ve climbed more than 2/3’s of the way to our 12 month sales goal. Reviews have been staggeringly positive. Being selected for review in Today’s Librarian and having the collection mentioned in Publishers Weekly "Fiction Notes" were definite high points. We’ve met our distribution goals in the number of accounts opened.

"We’re delighted to be an open stocking vendor for Baker & Taylor, and to be selling well through bookstore special orders with Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and B& Independents have been very supportive. Virtually Southern books sold over 130 copies of the book at our launch booksigning and I believe their sales now top 200 copies. The most amazing thing is that even with all of this ‘good’ news, we’ve barely scratched the surface of distribution and book placement."

"The readers of Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes consistently said one thing, ‘We want more!’" beams Virginia Ellis. "So, we have come up with a town they can visit anytime when they want a vacation from work or just a smile to get them through the day."

The next BelleBooks offering will be a series of books set in Mossy Creek, Georgia. Deborah Smith describes the project, "We’re very excited about Mossy Creek. Fans of Mayberry, Lake Wobegone, and Jan Karon’s Mitford series should really love this warm-hearted series. The books are set in fictitious Mossy Creek, Georgia, a mountain town whose pioneer founders proudly proclaimed, ‘We ain’t going no where, and don’t want to.’ The first book will introduce wonderful characters such as the gun-cleaning mayor, Bob the back-luck chihuhua, the sexy town police chief and his overzealous female officer."

[Publetariat editor’s note: there are now six books available in the Mossy Creek series.]

"There is something immensely satisfying when you’re not only the creator of a product but also the publisher," explains Debra Dixon. "There is no agonizing wait to find out if an idea will be picked up for a series or if those secondary characters begging for more page space will ever be given it. As a publisher, you are in a position to evaluate the project immediately and give the writers the assurance that they can build all the richness into the stories that they would like without fear. There will be more Mossy Creek books.

"At our recent board meeting in Atlanta, the most important item on the agenda was setting the ‘drop dead dates’ for final editorial revisions, production and galleys. We are delighted to report that Mossy Creek will launch Spring 2001. The reason this date is so amazing is that we’re bringing out our second title less than a year after the launch of Sweet Tea & Jesus Shoes."

There are plans for BelleBooks to publish individual works from within the group of owners. Debra Dixon points to other contract obligations, "we have to find a way to shoehorn in the writing time for a full-novel. But we hope to see an individual title in the near future."

BelleBooks is not to be confused with self-publishing. The small press plans to accept queries from writers in 2001. The editorial guidelines can be found under "for writers" on the website, Debra Dixon advises, "While I hate to repeat that oft heard phrase from NY publishing, the best way to know the kinds of voices we are looking for is to read the short story collection. And to take a good look at Mossy Creek this spring. The editorial process on Mossy Creek was quite demanding, and is probably best representative of the kind of longer fiction we’d like to see. We are contemplating a ‘best new voices of the South’ collection, but that is in the very infant stages of concept development."

Visit BelleBooks to learn more about BelleBooks and buy BelleBooks titles.  Visit  Southern Scribe for more information about Southern Scribe and resources geared toward working writers in the southern region of the U.S.