After my agent was unable to sell my novel Running from Mercy: The Psalms of Israel Jones to a commercial New York publisher, I decided to market it myself. As a result, I’ve learned a lot and even experienced a few epiphanies since re-immersing myself in the world of small press publishing.
I’ve played this game before, perusing the guidebooks—mostly Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2012 and Writer’s Digest Books’ 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market—as well as investigating websites and talking to my published friends, but not since 2004. One thing I’ve learned this time is that there are almost as many small presses as there are writers. I wonder how anyone with a manuscript of merit could not find someone to publish it. And yet there’s still no accounting for taste, which easily eliminates 25% of the available markets; plus, the small press world is hardly free of the status game, so credentials—having an MFA from the right program, publications with the right lit-mags—probably eliminates another 25%.
And then there are all the various niches. Many smalls are devoted to a certain audience based on politics, ethnicity, sexual orientation and geography, leaving out another 25% or so. Thus, I’m quickly left with a tiny minority of presses from which to ferret out those few who’d realistically publish my kind of fiction. This ain’t a bad thing. For those of us not too concerned with making money, a niche that truly fits is exactly what we’re after.
Every small press should know what it can and can’t profitably publish (however it defines “profitably,” hopefully more spiritually than financially). I’ve developed my own criteria, deciding that I wanted the qualities below to make this experience even better than my previous ones with Disk-Us Books and Plain View Press, the publishers of my novels, I Was So Much Older Then and The Measure of Everything, respectively. So far my criteria are:
- Longevity: Since small presses come and go, it seems a good idea to avoid newbies; I was looking for at least least five years in the biz, though ten, twenty or more would be lovely. And it’d be nice to see that these presses have published some authors like me—and continued to keep them in print.
- Distribution: I wanted to see that the press had the capacity to get books out there. I’ve had enough experience to know this is, by far, the toughest thing that publishers and writers face, and there’s no easy answer to the task of how to connect even the most amazing book to a real, live, paying audience. Even though I don’t need to make money on my writing, I realize that all publishers besides non-profits do. So the deal should be that authors promise to do their share to get the word out—speaking, giving workshops, being interviewed, blogging, reviewing, etc.—if the publisher will make their books available at places where they’ll most likely sell. Also, it’d be great if the press spends some resources helping authors sell their wares, beyond maintaining an attractive, easily navigable website, such as snail-mailing catalogs to previous purchasers, helping write and distribute press releases and garner other publicity, maybe even recommending or retaining a publicist. Many of the smalls’ websites I researched name the distributor(s) they use—a big plus!
- Pricing: I don’t expect or need to be published in hard cover. But the size and clarity of print, paper quality and overall attractiveness are very important to me, as I assume they are to readers. Although I know smalls need to make more off each sale than bigs to survive, I’d hesitate to try a publisher who asks way more than $15 for a 200-page paperback novel ($12.95 is even better.) So I pay attention to how much a press’s books cost, if offered for sale at the site (as they mostly are).
- Credentials: I glanced at the authors’ credentials to see if I could relate, but it’s really the experience and size of the staff I’m most interested in. Sometimes editors, marketers and their interns are mentioned, sometimes not (some websites are so cryptic it’s even hard to find how to submit ). One brand-new press I found—idealistic, friendly and welcoming—at least had a couple of people devoted to marketing. They’re still on my list!
- Track record: It’s nice to see authors and books highlighted for winning awards, but that’s not as necessary to me as feeling that the publisher will be a good partner. Also, if it looked as if too many books were being published, I took that as a possible sign of discouragement. Would I become just as lost in the crowd as I would at a big commercial publisher?
Having What You Want, Wanting What You Have
Now for the epiphanies. I’m surprised to find myself enjoying a process I was dreading. Of course I prefer to write, alone at my desk surrounded by my characters, rather than market—and I will always spend most of my writing time there. But it feels good to be doing this myself, rather than relying on an agent—hoping but never being 100% certain she’s doing the things I want and need done. And at long last I’m okay with the fact that there is and always will be a business side to writing, if one wants to communicate one’s work to as wide an audience as possible. And that applies to just about all of us writers.
I find myself not so ambitious anymore. These days, I want to do most of what I do to enrich, enliven and enlarge my spirit (and help others do the same). That doesn’t mean I won’t work damn hard for any publisher who publishes me. I stand ready and able to promote my work—with energy, enthusiasm and passion—but I will not sell my soul.
Finally, it’s okay with me to want publication but not to need it. It’s been really hard to get to this point—and I’ll bet it is for a lot of us writers. It may, in fact, not only be the hardest part about writing but the hardest part about life: wanting more than the universe seems ready to yield us at any particular time. But it’s so much more peaceful, more conducive to serenity, to want what I have. It’s humbling—and that’s a good thing.