Holly Kays studied creative fiction in college and saw herself on a path to becoming a novelist.
“Everybody who likes to write is writing a book at some point,” she said. “Most of those books never actually wind up being written.”
Like most budding novelists, Kays has another job to pay her bills. Unlike most, Kays works for a sympathetic boss.
Kays is a staff writer covering the outdoors for the Smoky Mountain News, a weekly newspaper in Waynesville. She is also, now, the author of the novel “Shadows of Flowers” — published by the Smoky Mountain News. Kays is reading from and signing copies of “Shadows of Flowers” 3pm July 14 at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
“I didn’t want to spend the next year sending out 50 letters, and so I approached my boss, Scott, and asked if this is something he would be interested in,” Kays recalled.
This is rare. Newspapers at all levels are struggling just to continue printing their core product, let alone publish bound books. And while a number of papers have published collections of columns and recipes that previously appeared in newsprint, that practice has nearly vanished with the rise of electronic publishing. Google searches couldn’t come up with another newspaper publisher that produced a printed novel by one of its own writers.
But Scott McLeod, who founded the Smoky Mountain News nearly 20 years ago, has now produced bound books for two staff writers and one contributor, with more on the way.
“I think it helps the reputation of our newspaper if we have published book writers on our staff. It gives us some gravitas and connections in the community,” McLeod said. “To us, it wasn’t really about making money. It was helping some of our reporters fulfill their professional ambitions so they wouldn’t be so inclined to go somewhere else and do that.”
Kays began working on her book while she wrote for a newspaper in the small plains town of Buffalo, Wyoming. “Shadows of Flowers” is set there, and the story centers on a woman who moves there after the death of her boyfriend.
“When I started writing this, it wasn’t really envisioned as a book,” she said. “It was more like ‘I haven’t done any creative writing in a while, I’d like to just start playing around with something,’ and I just kept plugging away at it and I eventually realized I was writing a novel."
Kays shares an office with Garret Woodward, the paper’s arts and entertainment editor, and was more than interested when McLeod published Woodward’s collection of bluegrass writing under the title “If You Can’t Play, Get Off the Stage.”
“I told him that I love what I do at the paper but I need side projects, and he said ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’” Woodward said. “While we are doing our own work in journalism, the dream’s never dying. There’s always stuff in your head that you want to write a book. It not only keeps the journalists happy, but it adds a different element to the brand and identity of our publication. It keeps us creatively fulfilled, which I think trickles down into the product of the paper itself.”
McLeod invests a few thousand dollars to produce an initial print run of a thousand paperback copies, along with the time of staff designer Micah McClure to produce each cover. The writers repay McLeod out of sales — the agreements are all verbal and a handshake — and sales have have been strong enough with Woodward’s book to warrant a second print run.
The 29-year-old Kays has also started working on a second novel, which McLeod promises to publish it when it’s ready.
“To us, it’s part of helping our family of employees get where they need to be,” McLeod said. “If you can do it and make just a little bit, or at least make our money back, I think it’s a good thing. We’ll never be a great big publisher but we’ll probably continue to be a small publisher for years to come.”