Interview: Netta Johnson from Stonehouse Publishing — The Mistress of the House of Books

Last year, author Elizabeth Bales Frank reached out with her new book Censorettes. I gladly read and reviewed it — and after finishing I had to know more about Elizabeth herself. We had a lovely conversation about writing, history, and women writers. Afterward, she told me that she wanted to connect me with her publishing house, Stonehouse Publishing. I jumped at the chance as a dream of mine is to turn this little website into a publishing house. I’ll keep you all posted on that big idea.

I was thrilled to catch up with Netta Johnson, one of the co-founders. We also talked about all things writing, history, and women writers, and Netta offered a bunch of insight into the ins and outs of the publishing world. If you share a dream of opening your own publishing house like me or are just interested in how Stonehouse Publishing got started, I encourage you to read on.

Molli: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background and how Stonehouse Publishing came to be.

Netta: I’ve always loved books and I’ve always felt very comfortable with writing and editing, so this has always been something that’s been a part of my life. But, it wasn’t until my children were in full-time schooling that I started thinking, “Oh, well, what does life look like after?” that I began to think about publishing. My friend Julie and I had started getting together to read books together, and when we were reading together and talking, we started talking about the industry and possibilities. She has an editing background, I don’t have a publishing background, but I do have a love of books that I feel like is enough to get me there, especially in an industry that is in some ways uniquely open because it’s not spectacularly plausible to make a living (laughs) so if you have a publishing degree that means you probably have student loans which means you probably have to make money, and the publishing industry doesn’t really allow for that, at the moment. I had a little more flexibility [financially] and so Julie and I started the press!

We met Lisa in our second publishing season and maybe a year and a half later Julie started taking more university courses and so I asked Lisa if she would like to come aboard. It’s been really lovely that Lisa is now my main partner and Julie does editing. That’s our history in a tiny nutshell!

M: And, how long have you been open?

N: In 2014 we started a website and started accepting books with the idea that in 2016 they would all come out, and they did. So every year since 2016 we’ve published 4 or 5 books. We have, now, only one “season” a year, we used to have two seasons where we would release two books and then three, but then we just found that because we’re a bunch of essentially volunteers kind of scrambling to do it (laughs) it was kind of killing us, and when we tried to do the two seasons, that didn’t work. So now we just release once in the year and that’s working much better.

M: What made you want to open a publishing house? What made you want to cross that bridge?

N: Doesn’t everyone want to open a publishing house? (laughs) I feel like it’s such an appealing and significant work. You take these ideas, this correspondence that we all have with each other, through characters, through fiction, through words, and we bring history alive, we bring our own views and our own experiences. It’s this beautiful exchange of ideas and so, to me, it’s the most appealing kind of work and it’s worth the sacrifices that people make when they enter it.

M: How do you find your writers? I was poking around on your website and I saw that you have a “ Submissions “ section, do all of the books that you publish come from those submissions? Or do you actively search for writers as well?

N: It’s quite a bit of both. Elizabeth [Bales Frank, author of Censorettes], I knew her and in that case, she asked me to read the latest version of her book and tell her what was “wrong” with it because she had been working on it for so many years and was still encountering all of the obstacles that the publishing and writing industry will throw at you. I read it and I was like, “Actually, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s pretty damn perfect!” (laughs) And I thought, “Too bad I can’t publish that because I’m Canadian.” And subsequently, Lisa and I talked about it and I was like, “You know what? If we have four other books, we only need four to qualify for many of our grant applications.”

M: Is that why you have a focus on Canadian writers? Is qualifying for these grants part of the reason why?

N: Yeah, and we’ve been trying to not focus on Canadian writers because we want to carve out a worldwide market for ourselves, but it’s been hard because the granting system does want you to focus on Canada. And there’s a lot of great and interesting things in Canada, but sometimes it does feel a bit limiting.

For , which was our lead title [this season], I actually met Anna Marie [Sewell] at an event. It was an unrelated event, a harvest assembly with the children, she was walking our school, which I helped found, through some indigenous traditions and poetry, through spoken word. I was just so moved by it, and so I introduced myself after even though I’m kind of shy and I said something like, “Well, if you ever write a novel…” And she said, “You know, there is one that seems to have grabbed hold and won’t let go.” And said, “Those are the ones that you need to tell!” Because that has been my experience! And so we exchanged cards and that’s how we met and connected with her.

Fall of Night is the third in a trilogy that we already had. We originally received that submission by mail in 2016, for the first book, so that was just a relationship that we already had. And, All the Night Gone- that was actually a special call-out. We wanted to have our novella, and so we did a call-out for a Gothic novella. And we got several submissions for that, and we met Sabrina [Uswak] that way. And, just came through the mail. They come in different ways, but in most seasons there’s at least one that hasn’t come through the mail.

M: What’s the hardest part of the job for you?

N: This is really silly, but I hate spreadsheets, I absolutely hate them! I feel like they drain the life out of me, and there are a lot of parts of this job that involve populating data, so I don’t know, I have a bit of a block. It’s not that I don’t use them, but whenever someone sends you one of those emails that say, “So-and-so has invited you to share a spreadsheet” (laughs) I don’t think that’s for me!

M: Well that’s the least creative part of the job, right? It’s the more technical side.

N: Right, so that’s probably the problem that I come across in this industry because I want to be doing the editing and the reading and but I get sucked into the data side.

M: You mentioned that you really like reading, are you a publishing writer?

N: We published my book as a part of the first season, so yes and no (laughs).

M: Do you have any interest in writing more books?

N: I love writing, but the part of publishing that involves promotion is not really my forte. I’m a bit of an introvert so I like to talk about almost anyone else’s work. I do love to write and it’s such an important part of my life, but the other part of it (promotion) is just so unsuited for me.

M: A bit draining?

N: Right. And I’m just not good at it. It’s like if someone wants to talk about my book I want to hide in the closet (laughs). Nowadays, and I don’t know if it was always this way but, the author’s connection and promotion and ability to turn every conversation to their own novel, and turn every friend and relative that they have into a buyer…that’s what the industry lives on, right? And so that means you almost have to be like an Amway salesman for your own work and that’s something that a lot of people are good at…but not necessarily me (laughs).

M: Well, again that’s also not really the creative side of writing. You have to almost turn on your “marketing” persona and sell yourself basically.

N: It’s almost as draining as spreadsheets! (laughs)

M: What does your day-to-day look like at Stonehouse?

N: That’s a really good question because a lot of my day-to-day is surprising even to me. For example, if I check my email, I’ll get a note from an author saying that they want to purchase more books for a promotion or a resale, so then I’ll have to send them an invoice and I’ll box it up and send it to them.

Every day is a bit different, and especially depending on the cycle. There are days during submission periods where I could read ten submissions a day and so, in that case, my day would be very much drinking tea and coffee and going through submissions and marking what I thought and communicating with Lisa about them, and then communicating with the authors about whether we were interested in seeing more or not. I think that non-submission times are my favorite times because then I feel like I’m actually working (laughs). Sometimes reading submissions can make you feel like you’re drowning in things that you’re trying to not keep anyone waiting for.

M: What made you decide to focus on the historical genre? Which I love, by the way, I’m the biggest history buff.

N: For me when I was first starting to read, I had done what most people do, I had graduated to some kind of genre fiction and, although I loved to read, there was a point at which I was like, “isn’t there any more?!” And I actually remember as a teenager discovering that books were “uncool” and just being like, “Oh, well, that’s good because I kind of ran out!” (laughs) I felt like I had really run out of books to read.

It was reading historical fiction that actually brought me back into literature in a really, really big way. When I was about 18 or 19 I was watching the BBC Pride and Prejudice and there was just something about it, I just loved how they were communicating with each other, it was so intellectual and it felt very intriguing. Then I went and I got Jane Austen’s book and then I read it, and then I read her catalog and then from her I read any 18th-century author I could find. From those, I began to read French 18th-century authors, and then from there, I began to read the French Revolution. My novel itself is based in France, it’s on the pre-revolts in the French Revolution. When I learned about the French Revolution in high school it was so boring! And I remember saying, “Why would anyone ever talk about history? Once it’s done just leave it be!” But it was only because it had been presented in such a boring way! There was no feeling to it. But when you actually read the French Revolution it’s transfixing.

Now, the more that I get into publishing I realize that there are some big holes in whose stories have been told and so that’s beginning to be a really inspiring thing for me. What I really loved about reading history was the time period: it’s the only way to understand the time period. I was also reading I was mostly reading women: Frances Burney, Jane Austen, and Maria Edgeworth. Not that I didn’t read men — but I wasn’t feeling the sexism and I was reading books that were more aligned with my liberalism. And now, as a grown-ass woman (laughs), I see history as being one-sided. I’m interested in the perspective of the indigenous people who occupied the land that now Edmonton sits on. That’s becoming part of my real passion and focus too.

M: That’s a great initiative. So, my last question is something we love to ask: what are you currently reading?

N: I just finished a book by Anthony Trollope called Ralph the Heir. I finished it yesterday, it’s actually the first non-submission book that I’ve read in quite a while. It was a little underwhelming (laughs).

Visit Stonehouse Publishing’s website to discover all of their books.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on April 11, 2021.

Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

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