Rushford man runs publishing company with personal touch
RUSHFORD — To be a book publisher these days, you don't need a printing press, several drawers full of lead type, or an ink-spattered apron.
As far as physical effects go, all you really need is a computer with a decent internet connection.
But as Tom Driscoll could tell you, the hard work of publishing didn't end with the advent of the digital age.
Driscoll is managing editor and CEO of Shipwreckt Books Publishing Co. LLC, which he started in a Lanesboro storefront in 2013. To date, he's published 17 works, including both books and issues of his magazine, Lost Lake Folk Opera. Within those books and magazine issues, Driscoll has published at least 100 authors from the region and beyond.
He now works out of his home in Rushford, a grand yellow house he restored himself, perched at the foot of a bluff. His living room is full of books, as one might expect, but also plants, baskets, musical instruments, pieces of art, two dogs, and a cockatoo named Mr. Echo.
Driscoll publishes Lost Lake Folk Opera twice annually, and recently released the newest issue of the magazine, which features a round table discussion on rural economic development, a one-act play, assorted poems and other pieces. He takes a few days between finishing one project and beginning the next, he said — a chance to catch his breath.
"Don't ever edit your own magazine," he said, sinking into a chair, his gray hair floating wildly above his black square glasses. "It's just like doing a year's worth of books."
He thought for a moment, looking out the window.
"It's really something I like to do. I love talking about writing, I love analyzing writing, I love talking to authors. But it is a tremendous amount of work."
Driscoll, 66, alludes to much of that work in his motto for the company: elevating independent publishing to the level of independent music and film. That being the case, he doesn't accept just anything, and after accepting a manuscript, he often works with writers for months or even years before publishing their work.
"I do put writers through some hoops. I'm in no hurry to put something out ahead of its time," he said.
While a contract with a small independent publisher like Shipwreckt Books does not guarantee a spot on the best seller list, some writers prefer to work with small publishers precisely because they get a one-on-one working relationship with the editor.
"That's a really great way to get published, is to meet the editor, know the editor," Driscoll said. "You really embark on a long-term relationship with the authors you select."
Driscoll enjoys that aspect of publishing, largely because he likes to see writers explore and develop their work into its best version. The ultimate goal is not just to publish, but to create work of a higher caliber, which brings with it a better chance of reaching readers.
Driscoll said he applies his standard of quality to both local and regional talent.
"Anybody can publish a book, so how do you distinguish yourself? How do you rise out of the crowd? Certainly one of the ways, I think, is quality," he said.
Driscoll started Shipwreckt Books Publishing in part because he wanted to see if he could do it.
He and his wife, Beth Stanford, moved to Rushford in 2000 after long careers with the United States Agency for International Development, better known as USAID, both abroad and in Washington.
When the 2007 flood caused widespread damage to much of Rushford, Driscoll, who was a freelance journalist for the Fillmore County Journal at the time, spent a few years writing about the aftermath.
He also got involved in recovery efforts, and for the past three years has served as chair for the Rushford Economic Development Authority.
Driscoll observed that after the flood, several local businesses got loans for rebuilding, with some of them succeeding while others fell to overly ambitious goals. He wanted to see if he could start a business of his own — going, as he put it, full speed ahead with one foot on the brake.
So he cashed a $5,000 certificate of deposit and got to work on Shipwreckt Books Publishing Company, leaning on his years of economic development work, computer skills, and eye for detail.
The physical publication of Shipwreckt books happens through CreateSpace, an Amazon print-on-demand company, meaning Driscoll doesn't need to maintain an inventory of his own, lowering the cost of book publishing.
"That's the business model — that's what allows me to do this," he said.
The biggest cost, besides printing the books themselves and shipping, is for software and computers. Because so much of his work and communication with authors happens digitally, Driscoll has everything backed up in multiple places and keeps his hardware up to date.
Driscoll, who described himself as "a little bit stingy," said he burned through his seed money, but now sustains the company on royalties from his publications. The company is technically for-profit, so he doesn't seek grants, and has no board, staff, or donors to please, just authors and customers.
His goal at the moment is not to grow too quickly, and he knows he won't get rich off the company, and his authors probably won't, either.
But small independent publishing is in some ways free of that pressure. Driscoll said his ultimate goal, both for himself and for his writers, is continuous and creative improvement.
"There's a rigor there," he said. "I do believe that you can elevate and enrich your writing."
'Trained to do this'
Having his own publishing company was not Driscoll's lifelong dream, though writing was.
But without intending to, or ever imagining he would, Driscoll arrived at the present moment with a set of skills — from graphic design to "bureaucratic discipline" — he finds well-suited to publishing.
"I've trained myself my whole life to do this," he said.
Driscoll graduated from high school in Illinois in 1967, and then got a scholarship to start a student newspaper at a small junior college in Davenport, Iowa. But the Vietnam War was raging at the time, and Driscoll got kicked out of school for doing too much anti-war writing.
He was drafted into the Army a short time later, but by a weird twist of luck, he was shipped to Alaska instead of Vietnam. There, in an engineer company, he was trained in chemical, biological, and radiological warfare, and never set foot in Vietnam.
When his Army service was up, Driscoll attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop in playwriting, where he met many creative and inspiring people he's in touch with today: performers, jugglers, musicians, writers, all of them out pursuing their art in the world.
"You couldn't just sit in your artist studio and be a pure artist," he said of that time. "That really left a mark on me."
Driscoll worked in construction after that, and made his way to Madison, Wis. in time for the Dalai Lama's first Kalachakra initiation in the United States. Driscoll helped build a pavilion for that event, met the Dalai Lama, and decided it was time to change his life.
He joined the Peace Corps within the year. He was sent to Gabon, in West Africa, with Stanford, whom he married while in Africa. After their service in the Peace Corps, both of them worked for USAID in several nations in Africa, then Washington.
Throughout it all, Driscoll still knew he wanted to write, but found his day jobs all-consuming.
He said that's why at age 66, he's not golfing.
"I kind of put writing on hold — it was a bit painful to do that."
Drsicoll said the publishing company, though it is a lot of work for a one-man crew, doesn't zap his creativity. Between issues of Lost Lake Folk Opera and assorted books, he finds time to work on his own pieces.
He has published a book of short stories, "Ondine and the Blue Troll," through Shipwreckt, and recent issues of Lost Lake Folk Opera include Driscoll's journalism as well.
Driscoll has several other manuscripts under way, but said he'd rather not publish too much of his own work. So he looks for publication opportunities in his spare time.
While his publishing company wasn't a lifelong dream, Driscoll said he didn't end up doing creative work in a small town in the Midwest by accident.
"I found the Midwest to be an endless source of inspiration and camaraderie — a talent cohort," he said.
The Twin Cities are home to a variety of successful independent publishers, and Driscoll said he's been building connections in the area as the reputation of Shipwreckt Books grows, enabling him to seek out high-quality work. He occasionally reads at The Book Shelf in Winona and the Rural America Writers Center in Plainview.
He said the hardest part of his job is acquisition — choosing to accept a manuscript and stay in it for the long haul, while also reaching an agreement with the author through numerous revisions.
Driscoll takes it seriously when he has someone else's work in his hands, and so far that care has paid off.
"The big secret to my success so far is basically having happy authors," he said.
Emilio DeGrazia, a Winona author who published his latest book, "Eye Shadow," with Shipwreckt in December 2015, said Driscoll is an astute editor who considers not only what will be in a book, but also how it will be presented.
DeGrazia said throughout the process of editing the essays that constitute "Eye Shadow," both he and Driscoll proposed changes large and small. DeGrazia said even if those changes were an inconvenience to Driscoll as the book neared publication, he worked to include them.
"I have found him probably the most agreeable editor I've ever had to deal with," he said. "We had to work out our differences, and we always did."
Steve Schild, who teaches at Saint Mary's University, published his first poetry collection, "Eros in Autumn," with Shipwreckt Books in 2014. The book was a finalist for poetry at the Midwest Book Awards from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.
Schild said he was initially planning to self-publish, but was thrilled when Driscoll agreed to publish his book.
Schild said the work benefited from having a discerning editor, and some healthy back-and-forth between the two. While the poems themselves were largely finished, Driscoll arranged them in an order for the book, which Schild said was very helpful, because there were more than 80 poems.
"The person writing them doesn't always have a very good sense of what should come first," he said.
Schild said he appreciates that Driscoll has created a space for writers like him, who may not have a shot at a big publishing house.
"The biggest service he provides is making publication more possible, and that's no small feat," Schild said. "It's impressive in its own right."
DeGrazia said Driscoll's role as an independent publisher is key to the region's reputation for arts and cultural life.
Books and literary arts by nature aren't as visible as performing and visual arts, he said, so they tend to be underrepresented. At the same time, more and more people are coming forward with stories to share.
"His work is fairly lonely and invisible, but it's important."