Meet Michael Heald, founder of Perfect Day Publishing.
How did you get drawn into the world of small press publishing?
Back in 2010, my friend Lydia told me about the yearlong program in independent publishing at Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, which was then entering its second year (the IPRC itself was founded in 1998). At that time I was 29 years old, and, having failed to publish a novel through the traditional route (find an agent, wait for the agent to sell the book), I loved the idea that the IPRC was promoting, namely, that if you learn the basics of book design, you control the means of production. That first year, I managed to convince a couple of super talented writers — Lisa Wells
and Martha Grover
— to let me put out their debut books, and all of a sudden Perfect Day went from being this hypothetical project to an actual thing.
From the beginning I envisioned Perfect Day as being more like a record label than a typical indie press, and my own role as being more like a record producer than a normal editor. We’ve only ever published creative nonfiction: essay collections and memoirs. Typically, I’ve solicited manuscripts that are only like 50% finished from writers I admire. In the case of Mohamed Asem, when we met in 2016 he was working on something he was at that point calling an op-ed. Two years later that op-ed became his memoir Stranger in the Pen
It’s always exciting and eye-opening and humbling to get to help shape the narrative arc of someone else’s story, and over the months or sometimes years it takes for these books to get written, I’ll be in constant contact with my writers, nagging them to turn in new work, arguing over word choice and sentence construction, patting them on the back when needed, doing whatever it takes to make the book successful. It’s certainly not the most efficient method of publishing books, and our output is kind of meager when compared to other presses, but at the same time I think our catalog is pretty darn strong. I suspect that if readers like one Perfect Day book, they’ll like them all.
Many writers never consider submitting their work to a small publisher. What are they overlooking?
Big publishers will buy a manuscript and, if you’re lucky, that manuscript will become a book in two or three years, sometimes longer. The turnaround for Perfect Day is much, much faster — it’s often just a matter of months from wrapping up cover design and edits to putting books on shelves. I think this is significant for writers in two ways. First, when you’re promoting your book at readings and on the radio, etc., the material is much fresher: You’re still kind of living the same experience. That kind of immediacy comes across to audiences. Second, by the time you’re sick of promoting the book, you’re still only a year or so removed from finishing it, and so you can get down to work on book #2 with a relatively clear head, taking solace in the fact that your work has reached some readers, and you’ve gotten some reviews, and that by the time book #2 is finished, maybe a bigger publisher will take note, since you’re no longer a nobody. Our lives are pretty short, and I think a lot of writers spend far too long trying to sell their first book, mostly because big publishers operate on such an unwieldy schedule.
Name an author from your catalog that you think everyone should read.
Martha Grover is the only writer I’ve published twice. She’s a natural storyteller, with such a gift for humor, that she’s able to tackle often dark subject matter — about dealing with chronic illness, underemployment, unusual and sometimes scary dating situations — in this kind of breezy, almost joyful way. She’s able to take her own very unique lived experience and make it come to life on the page in a way that feels universal. I tell people that her first book, One More for the People
, is funnier and more fragmented, while her second book, The End of My Career
, is darker and more outraged, and unfolds in this kind of seamless way that almost feels like a novel.
Share a memorable experience you've had on the job.
In April 2017, the week before Martha was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction, I tried to visit our website, as it had been several days since any orders had come in and I wanted to make sure everything was working properly in case Martha won and a bunch of people wanted to read her book. Instead of loading up the old Perfect Day page, I was redirected to a website featuring Russian porn. What the?
In disbelief, I typed in our website again, double-checked the spelling, and pressed enter. The same terrible thing happened. Instead of books, it went to Russian porn. Thanks to detective work by my partner Christine, I learned that a notorious British cybersquatter named Al Perkins had bought my domain, which had expired a few days earlier without my realizing it, because it was linked to an old bank card and email account.
I contacted Mr. Perkins, who demanded nearly $5,000 in exchange for the domain (which cost me about twelve bucks per year). He clearly had no idea how little money is involved in running a small press! Instead of paying him, I brought a case against him to the World Intellectual Property Organization (aka WIPO), showing that he was essentially holding it ransom, using the Russian porn in hopes of leveraging me into paying up, and had no plans of using the name Perfect Day Publishing in good faith. Two months later, the domain was returned to me. WIPO charged me $1500, but Al Perkins didn’t make a penny. This whole process taught me two things: that I probably could have been a lawyer in another life, and that I really should have set my domain to auto-renew.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a small press?
At this stage, 10 years into running Perfect Day, the toughest thing is accepting that this will almost definitely never be my primary source of income. Our book sales pay for the little office I rent in Union Station, and some of our authors have made several thousand dollars in royalties, but I’ve tried to divorce myself from the starry-eyed expectations I had back in 2010, when I believed that maybe, one day, I could live off of this work. Up until last year I worked three shifts a week at a brewpub to help pay the bills.
After losing that job at the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been lucky enough to pick up a couple of editing jobs, first as a guest editor for the fall/winter issue of Oregon Humanities
magazine, and currently as the editor/project manager for a book about Street Books, the lending library for people living outside. (I’ve also been teaching a yearlong workshop through the IPRC, which feels a tiny bit like I’ve come full circle over this past decade.) The only downside of these jobs is that I know from experience that freelancing is addictive — who doesn’t love getting paid to do something creative? — and so, whenever I do take on my next Perfect Day project, it will feel like an even bigger leap into the (financial) unknown. You have to have a totally different mindset when there’s no guarantee you’re going to make your money back. There’s definitely a recklessness to it.
My confidence in our business model has definitely been shaken over this past year. Historically, our books have done really well at indie stores like Powell’s, Tender Loving Empire
, and Quimby’s
in Chicago, but the pandemic has really changed how people shop. Last year, for the first time, the majority of our sales were off our website, instead of through stores. This is not a good thing for a small press. So many folks have bought one of our books over the years simply because the cover or the title caught their eye while they were in a store browsing for something else. With online shopping, those random discoveries are much less likely.