Monday, November 23, 2009

Interview with Michael Rayes of Rafka Press

1. What is the staff structure at your press []?

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain our apostolate and the motivation behind it. Rafka Press is owned by me and my wife. It is a very small, privately owned publishing company that exists to publish good Catholic literature for both children and adults. We began in 2006.

Our teenage sons also help with the operations – mostly computer work (web site updates and they also help with some data entry and typesetting). All our print and binding work is outsourced. We do all the editing, typesetting, cover design, shipping, and packaging in-house.

2. What do you look for in a submission?

Three things: Catholicism, readability, and salability.

Catholicism: The manuscript must be a Catholic work; if literature, the Catholic Faith must be at least covertly permeated throughout the work. There must be absolutely no doctrinal deficiencies in the work.

Readability: I’m not worried so much about grammar. By “readable” I mean the story has to flow. All the conflicts must be resolved after the climax (in the falling action and conclusion). What is the point of the story? There should be some moral to it. And – this is the part many would-be Catholic authors miss – the setting must be there. Many manuscripts are plot-heavy but don’t pull the reader in with the five senses. What did the restaurant smell like? Was it a cloudy day or clear? Did the characters wipe sweat from their brows or shiver from the cold? Build up suspense if it’s a mystery book.

The characters should also be consistent. A melancholic character should be consistently melancholic.

Salability: The manuscript may be fantastic, but if no one will buy it, the publisher can’t invest in it. There must be a Catholic market for the work. Authors need to do a little of this research on their own and include their findings in their query letters. (“Parents will buy my book because …” or “There is already a growing number of self-help books, and my manuscript fills a void …”) The work also must be timeless: We do not plan on pulling books off our site after only 18 months! We publish titles that will be fresh 20 years from now. (We won’t publish something on the current President, nor anything on the stock market or the current state of the Church.)

3. How are submissions processed at your press/magazine?

First, authors should send a query and a sample chapter via the “contact” links on our web site.

Next, if it appears compelling (based on the three criteria above) I will ask for the entire manuscript. We then reject it or notify the author of our interest.

The next step is to interview the author to see if we are a good match for each other. The author has to realize we simply do not have the same broad distribution channels as the major Catholic publishers that have been around for decades.

If the author appears to be a good match for Rafka Press, we will mail a contract.

4. What advice do you have for first-time submitters?

The best advice is to not submit your manuscript yet. Go over it one more time:

Fiction: Add more setting and proofread it for grammar.

Self-help: Add a few more anecdotes and proofread it for grammar.

A documentary or spiritual book: Add more quotes from the Saints and proofread it for grammar.

Next: Have your spouse proofread it. (The other gender’s viewpoint will give your book better balance.)

Then: Have another person, possibly a priest, review it for you and give his or her opinion along with some editing notes.

Next: Ask around and see if others are interested in your work. Find out if there is a market for your book. Submit a few articles to Catholic periodicals to get your name established.

Finally: Make online backups! (Email the manuscript to yourself so it’s on your ISP’s server as a backup.) Then, submit a query letter and a sample chapter. Keep submitting articles and other writings to get your name established.

5. What are your long-term plans for your magazine/press?

Our long-term plans are happy, positive growth. Rafka Press exists to develop more Catholic literature for Catholics today. Many Catholic publishers are so strapped for cash, they only publish reprints of deceased authors. This is a very safe business model, as what sold well in the 1950s should sell today to the orthodox, devout Catholic market. But the long-term business plan for Rafka Press is to publish living authors who write orthodox, outstanding works that help Catholics on their journeys to Heaven.

We will gradually add more titles to our family of books, so that a few years from now the current (timeless) titles will still sell, in addition to the new works. We do not have any plans for alternative format books but that may change if newer media formats become universally accepted in conservative Catholic households.

6. What made you change your writing to focus on children’s fiction?

We began with children’s fiction because there is a recognized but unmet need for it. Catholic children unfortunately read a lot of trash (wizardry for boys, sassy attitudes for girls, grotesque cartoon characters, and so forth) because so much of it is available from worldly publishers. Catholic fiction for children helps to fill the void – literature that is both entertaining and wholesome. We will expand to adult fiction as funds become available for more publishing projects.

7. What do you feel are some differences between the business of writing fiction and the business of publishing fiction?

Writing fiction = creative, fun, put all the work into the plot and setting, and then promote like crazy.

Publishing fiction = communicate with authors, communicate with printers, do a lot of paperwork for the government, make sure you have the right ISBN numbers, figure out how to discount shipping but still make money, communicate with distributors, communicate with reviewers, be very creative and put a lot of energy into promoting and selling.

8. Do you ever find it difficult to make decisions as both a writer and a publisher?

Not really. For me this is the fun part – it’s the business of running a company. The challenging part was in the first year of operation, as my publishing company began with my own book. I had to convince book reviewers that my book was not self-published. Once we published our second title by another author, this problem went away.

9. How do you determine what works of literature are “faithful” to traditional teachings? How does the press define “tradition”?

Tradition is half of divine revelation. (Scripture is the other half.) Protestants may not accept that divina revelatio is not merely sola scriptura, but sola scriptura is a 16th century novelty imagined by a scrupulous monk as a reaction against vast corruption in the Church. Tradition is handed down to us through the teachings of the early Church fathers, popes, and ecumenical councils – codified in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and later in the Baltimore Catechism. To be faithful to Tradition (with a capital “T”) means the work does not put forth any doctrinal errors that would go against any teachings from, for example, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Baltimore Catechism series, the Syllabus of Errors (of Bd. Pius IX), or any papal encyclical. An example could be something directly heretical, such as “Why did Jesus talk to the woman that way? He did not yet realize he was God” or something doctrinally defective by its ambiguity, such as “we are a Eucharistic people.”

Tradition with a lower case “t” is simply the customs people develop over the years, such as red felt in collection baskets, doughnuts after Mass, the use of bulletins and other literature in the back of church, plastic instead of ceramic statuary, and so on. These may be changed freely without harming the orthopraxis of the local Catholic community.

Tradition (capital “T”) is further benchmarked by the Tridentine Latin liturgy because of its precision and inherent reverence. Our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recognizes this while at the same time keeping the liturgy of Pope Paul VI normative.

10. What is most rewarding for you: children’s fiction, advice/mentoring books, development of the press?

All of the above! I do enjoy mentoring authors. I also thoroughly enjoy growing our Rafka Press apostolate. But I am a writer first and foremost; that is my Catholic cri de coeur.

11. How do you plan on expanding the press’s offering of children’s fiction?

By saving and obtaining funds to do print runs on future works. The publishing business model is that a lot of money must be spent up front; then, funds are gradually replaced as the books sell in both retail and wholesale channels. We already receive unsolicited manuscripts so all we need is time and money. But everyone in the world needs those two commodities!

12. Do you have any advice to writers who craft works with a very specific audience in mind?

Learn more about your niche audience. What compels them to buy books? What do they look for in a book? They have hard-won money but not much of it; how can you get them to spend some of it on your book?

The short answer is the beginning of the book must be compelling and give the reader something right away. Authors may want to save the first chapter for last. Write the middle of the book first and then concentrate on the beginning once you already have the rest of the book finished. This makes the beginning more accurate and also gets more of the book written, without getting hung up on the beginning. If writing children’s fiction, write in medias res (begin the first chapter “in the middle of affairs”: start the action right away).

Also, once your book is published, get it reviewed by recognized book reviewers: your local diocesan newspaper, popular blogs, other periodicals, and so on.

Put the book where your niche market will see it. Bookstores are not always very good places to sell a book. If an author’s book is intended for a specific audience, it may simply get lost among all the other titles in a bookstore. If animals are the main characters in a children’s story, get a pet food store to carry the book; also ask Catholic schools to sell it. If the book is a devotional on family life, sell it at book tables after Mass; get fast-food restaurants and small shops near Catholic churches and schools to carry the book. Get a dry cleaner or cigar shop to carry your book on men’s spirituality.

The final word: many authors do not realize that they are the best promoters of their book. No one will have as much enthusiasm as the author himself in promoting and selling the book. The publisher makes the book a reality and does a great deal of promoting, but the author has his own circle of family, friends, and regional markets (local Catholic bookstores, gift shops, and so on) in which the book should sell very well.

Rafka Press has a limited focus and scope of publishing. We receive many manuscripts that are well written, but are not necessarily a good fit for the company. Therefore my wife and I launched another publishing company, which is a hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing: Leonine Publishers. Our web site is and is an excellent option for Catholic authors who wish to fund their own publishing effort, but also stay with a Catholic publisher.

Thank you again for discussing Catholic publishing with me.

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