Buccaneering the system
Jacqueline Church Simonds walks the perfidious plank of indie publishing with Beagle Bay Books
Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read captured Jacqueline Church Simonds’ attention during her History 101 class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the mid-’90s. The fictional heroine of Simonds’ first book, Captain Mary, Buccaneer, emerged from her college research and 18 months of full-time writing.
“Because no one seemed too keen on a novel about a woman pirate captain, I became a publisher,” says Simonds. The woman behind the buccaneer favors slacks and blouses and speaks in quiet tones, but her dark eyes sparkle with a sharp wit. Her sense of humor and her eye for detail are inherent in her conversation and her writing. Now 47 and living in Reno, she has successfully parlayed her passion for women’s fiction (and pirates) into a thriving business. Starting in 2000 with her own novel, Simonds expanded Beagle Bay Books to form a catalog of 26 titles, specializing in women’s historical adventure fiction, as well as travel guides and nonfiction titles that deal with such topics as domestic abuse survivors and healing.
Simonds and her husband, Robin, moved to Reno from Connecticut six years ago, attracted by the favorable business climate, as well as Reno’s location being a midway point between both sets of relatives.
Beagle Bay Books is truly a family affair. Robin handles the financial and legal matters, vendor relations and the computers. Formerly a practicing attorney, he was head of information technology for University of Maryland Law School, Wake Forest University School of Law and the University of Connecticut. Simonds says, “Robin is remarkable in that he is one of the few right and left-brained people I’ve ever met.”
In addition to managing contracts and computers, he also does typesetting design. Jacqueline oversees their Web site, author and client relations, project management, line editing, public relations, market plans, print and freight brokering and shipping. Bertie, the namesake beagle and mascot of the press, provides moral support.
Though Simonds has been known to make appearances at pirate festivals in full regalia, no pirate colors fly in the reception area of the Beagle Bay warehouse behind Meadowood Mall. Framed publishing awards and titles from the catalog reside on walls above white wicker furniture with floral cushions. A few of Bertie’s toys are tucked discreetly under a nearby table. But Simonds’ pirate persona is not too far away. Her bookcase at home sports a “Time flies when you’re having rum” flag from Tortolla, her favorite Caribbean island.
A self-described tomboy, Simonds says that while growing up in Phoenix, she practically “lived in the orange tree out back.” A voracious reader by age 9, her indoor adventures explored the worlds created by Madeline L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. She remembers her irritation at the helpless on-screen heroines, wondering why the distressed damsels didn’t simply grab a sword and dispatch the rogue themselves.
Having worked in retail since high school and ascended to top sales person in the fine china department, Simonds expected a move into management as the next step. Instead, a job transfer left her promising retail career to languish in the linens department. Deciding it was time “to re-boot” her life, she started classes at the University of Maryland in 1991. While pursuing her dream, she edited the college literary magazine, Bartleby, and finished an (unpublished) novel, which she submitted as her senior thesis. Calling the experience “empowering,” Simonds credits her return to school in her 30s with allowing her “to believe in myself to take big leaps.”
Considering the difficulties involved in leaping into indie publishing, raiding a merchant ship appears a simpler and more profitable task. Inundated with titles and suspicious of poor editing and design, major reviewers are quick to ignore books from small presses. Book chains are reluctant to deal with small presses, preferring to work with a few wholesalers rather than a lot of little presses. Trying to compete with the mega box stores, even small independent booksellers are wary of stocking an unknown author without an Oprah following.
From her previous life in retail, Simonds understands the challenges of the marketplace. She has created a larger presence for Beagle Bay by working as a distributor and incorporating additional titles “that empower and inform.” Beagle Bay distributes for several small press lines. Distributors act as the go-between for publishers to get their titles to wholesalers and bookstores. While packing, shipping and invoicing involves more work, each new title brings visibility to the entire line.
In addition to the distribution work, Simonds started Creative Minds Press to accommodate quality nonfiction that falls outside of Beagle Bay’s genre guidelines. As a subsidy press, Creative Minds offers services to authors ranging from a simple critique to a full press run. Creative Minds Press produced the 2006 winner of the Independent Publishers Book of the Year (Women’s Issues) Women in Shadow and Light—Journeys from Abuse to Healing by Jan Goff-LaFontaine.
“Finding your niche and serving your niche” is the key to indie publishing, says Simonds, adding that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. She works with freelance consumer reporters regarding stories related to the catalog. In promoting her own novel, Simonds makes the rounds with pirate reenactment gatherings. “If there’s a ship, they’re on it,” she says of the 500,000-plus community, who range from weekend scalawags to professional reenactors with film credits. With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, media sources from Canberra, Australia, to Belfast, Ireland, have sought Simonds for her perspective on women pirates. Twenty-eight independent television Web sites featured her June 30 press release about real women buccaneers.
The authors behind the Beagle Bay catalog represent a diverse crew, including Phillip Griffith, a British writer and world traveler, and Ida Hills, a charter member of the Romance Writers of America. Now in her 80s, Hills once complained to Simonds that PCs and the Internet detract from the solitude and reflection required to write. Hills relied on her old model typewriter to compose her 10 novels. Simonds concedes that the veteran writer has a point but adds that the computer’s cut-and-paste capability is too handy to pass up, not to mention the support of her online publishing colleagues.
“Very congenial atmosphere,” Simonds says of the online publishing community. “I can pose a question and get answers from all over the world.” Actively involved in that community, Simonds blogs about her road trips as a publisher and frequents small publisher discussion groups. Her Creative Minds Press Web site provides an informative FAQ on self-publishing. Her candid observations reflect an upbeat but realistic perspective of the indie publishing world.
Simonds intends to continue expanding her distribution and publishing services and supporting the online publishing community, as well as focus on her work in progress, a biography on Leon Gaspard, the Russian-American Impressionist painter. “You can’t tell where the stories end and the truth begins,” she says of the artist who sang in Russian as he painted her portrait as a child. With all of her creative pursuits, she is never quite sure what awaits her at the end of her “bunny slipper commute,” and that’s one of the things she loves most about independent publishing.