Sapphire Books, A Cut Above
What started as a one woman publishing companies now a lesbian publishing powerhouse.
Family. That’s a strong word. Family means having people you can count on, who share in your dreams and struggles. It means someone always has your back.
In 2010, Christine Svendsen wanted to start a different kind of family of her own, so she launched Sapphire Books Publishing, a lesbian-run publishing house for lesbian writers telling lesbian stories. At the time, Svendsen was president of the Monterey County Pride Board while her wife, Schileen Potter, worked in medical information technology. Svendsen was also an aspiring writer and had submitted her first manuscript to several lesbian publishers but none of them felt right to her. “None of them had the kind of environment for authors that I wanted,” Svendsen recalled.
The idea of launching a publishing company was daunting. Neither she nor Potter had any idea about how publishing houses were run. “We talked a lot about the risk we were taking and we asked each other can we do this? We thought long and hard about it and our answer was: Hell, yes, we can do it. We just have to make sure we do it right,” said Svendsen. It took two full years for them to figure out the publishing model and industry landscape before Svendsen and Potter were ready to take on their first authors.
What started as a one woman publishing company has turned into a lesbian publishing powerhouse in the span of seven years. Sapphire Books currently produces quality fiction, non-fiction, and memoir by 33 authors in 13 genres, including romance, science fiction, paranormal, mystery, literary fiction, and more. Several authors, including Svendsen, are award-winners and have written bestsellers. Just this past December, Autostraddle.com included Sapphire Books in their “72 Lesbian-Owned Business and Queer Shops to Support This Holiday Season.”
Their business model is unlike other publishers, including mainstream houses and other lesbian presses, because Svendsen believes that the relationship between an author and publishing company is a true partnership. Svendsen explained, “We don’t believe in skewing the net royalty rate structure to ensure we get rich but our authors do not. Simply put, we want to share in the wealth generated by our collective hard work. So, we created a unique book publishing model that offers an extremely high net royalty rate for authors – nearly triple what standard publishing houses offer.”
In return for the higher rates, authors take a stronger role in promoting their own books and fellow Sapphire author’s books. Again, the family dynamic is evident. “Our authors really do help each other in promoting their books and events, as well as being a valuable support system as fellow creative writers, and we encourage that,” said Svendsen.
To assist authors in navigating the challenging book marketing process, Sapphire will soon be launching Sapphire University, an entirely free educational online course module system for all their authors to learn the basic skills of marketing like websites, social media, requesting reviews, media relations, and more. Sapphire University is literally modeled on a real university system of introductory level courses up to more advanced skills and techniques. “No other publisher at any level in any market offers this,” said Svendsen.
“I had conversations with several lesbian and indie publishers before ultimately choosing Sapphire,” explained Lucy J. Madison, Sapphire author since 2016. “Sapphire is a company on the move. They aren’t stagnant or set in their ways. Chris [Svendsen] has so much energy and fire and I was attracted to all of it. I wanted to be a part of their future and am thrilled in my decision.”
Because family extends beyond the authors to readers and fans of lesbian literature, Svendsen extended beyond traditional marketing to offer ideas and support for events where readers and authors could come together socially. “We believe it’s our responsibility as the premier publishing house in lesbian literature to engage our readers, entertain them, and make them feel a part of the larger Sapphire family. We’re constantly seeking out and partnering with organizations and events to further that cause,” explained Svendsen.
This summer, Sapphire Books is partnering with Olivia Cruises for a once-in-a-lifetime Literary Adventures at Sea Alaska Cruise from June 25 through July 2, 2017. The cruise, sponsored by Curve Magazine, features literary workshops, readings, signings, and programming geared toward the lesbian reader. Many Sapphire authors will be on board including: Isabella, Barrett, Shelia Powell, Shelley Thrasher, Tara Wentz, Lucy J. Madison, and Sallyanne Monti. Special literary guests include: Jennifer Fulton, recipient of the Alice B. Readers’ Appreciation Award, as well as multiple award-winning lesbian fiction writer, Karin Kallmaker, and lesbian feminist author Dorothy Allison.
In addition, Sapphire also hosts the Left Coast Lesbian Literary Conference every October in Palm Springs. The event, which draws lesbian writers and fans from across the country, features literary workshops and intimate readings in a collegial and relaxed atmosphere.
To Svendsen, these events and partnerships are vital, but the company’s success centers on good, quality manuscripts. She and an internal team review all submitted manuscripts under consideration. When asked what Sapphire Books looks for in a new author, she said, “You can’t teach good storytelling. You can teach grammar and sentence structure, but how to weave a good story is a gift. If the story can hold my attention and intrigue me, I will consider it. This is where money leaves the equation. We may pay more for editing in this scenario but we want to publish a good story.”
Sapphire Books also doesn’t follow a formula just to ensure sales. Svendsen continued: “Our authors don’t subscribe to a cookie-cutter mold. We give readers what they want. It’s not about the money or sales, it’s about giving quality lesbian storytellers a voice. We trust our readers and fans to value these perspectives and stories. So far they have.”
Sapphire’s rise to the top of lesbian publishing wasn’t easy. The market is so niche with a multitude of small presses and low-quality products in the mix. There was also the “new-kid-on-the-block problem” where few people took the new, indie press seriously. After Svendsen won a Golden Crown Literary Society Award (GCLS) for her first novel, Almost Faithful, she recalls the shock she felt when someone said to her, “Maybe now you can get a real publisher.”
When asked about the future of lesbian literature, Svendsen was optimistic. She said, “The rules of publishing have changed drastically just in the last few years. Indie and small presses are growing, but the challenge is to cross-over lesbian books into the mainstream. Lesbians probably pick up Good Housekeeping more than straight women pick up Curve Magazine.”
“I have the honor of working with some of the best storytellers in the business. I love their work as a fan. I get inspired by their work. At Sapphire, we are stringing together pearls on a necklace and I feel incredibly fortunate to work with all our authors. Sapphire Books is dedicated to quality outcomes that respectfully reflect the lives of the lesbian community. We publish and promote lesbian literature that embraces and reflects those diverse experiences. We value diversity of stories, experiences, and celebrate those diversities through lesbian literature,” concluded Svendsen.
Recently, Chris received an email from one of her authors, Tara Wentz, a GCLS Debut Author finalist. Wentz wrote, “I know I don’t have a book coming out right now, but I just wanted to say thank you for all you do. I truly feel like I am part of a family with Sapphire.”
About Sapphire Books:
Sapphire Books Publishing, the gem in lesbian publishing, produces and publishes fiction, nonfiction, and biographical lesbian literary works of art. Sapphire Books is dedicated to quality outcomes that respectfully reflect the lives of the lesbian community. They publish and promote lesbian literature that embraces and reflects those diverse experiences. They value diversity of stories and experiences, and celebrate those diversities through lesbian literature. Their print books are conventionally produced and currently available worldwide through their website, Amazon, and Ingram. Their titles are also available in both print and digital form and sold through their website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other third-party retailers. They offer titles with a shorter production cycle to meet the demands of the print and eBook market. www.sapphirebooks.com
Schileen Potter (Left) and Christine Svendsen (Right)