Options and Opportunities for Writers
John M. Daniel
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Years ago, when I was a very small publisher hoping to become a somewhat larger publisher, maybe even some day a middle-sized publisher, I used to read Publishers Weekly weekly, with awe and envy. Having been trained on the legends of Max Perkins and Bennett Cerf, I still believed that major-league publishing was the noblest business in America, and I wanted to be a player.
My wife, Susan, and I had already spent our savings on establishing our company, and while it was small it was doing all right, paying the rent, and staying unnoticed. Hoping to grow and get noticed, we started having our books distributed by a small distribution company, and in the process we lost a small amount of money, which we assumed was a cost of doing business at that level.
We grew a bit, and we started being distributed by a larger distribution company, in the process of which we lost a larger amount of money. We assumed that was the cost of doing business, a growing pain. We were still interested in growing, and I was still attracted to the New York Publishing Establishment and all it stood for.
Or was I? It was about this time that a prominent New York house offered a seven-figure royalty advance to Nancy Reagan for an as-yet-unwritten memoir. I was no fan of Nancy Reagan, nor of huge advances, nor of accepting for publication a book that hasn't been written yet, much less read by an acquiring editor, but hey, nobody's perfect. Then it occurred to me that the same New York publisher had very recently published Kitty Kelly's hatchet-job on Nancy Reagan. Wait a minute. Didn't the publisher stand for anything here? And I thought: have they no shame?
Soon thereafter, another big-time publisher offered five million dollars to Norman Schwartzkopf, whoever he was, for another unwritten memoir. The book was written and published, Norman's star fell from the sky, and the book ended up on remainder tables where some of them sold. The rest became landfill, buried in the sand like so many Iraqi civilians. The publisher lost millions. And I thought: have they no brains?
About this time, our company had moved on, grown, and was being distributed by the largest distributor of independent publishers in America. We were, as a result, losing more money than ever before. Perhaps this, once again, was a cost of doing business, but we were in serious trouble, working our butts off in order to work our butts off, still striving to join the ranks of an industry that competed for the honor of publishing American Psycho and Madonna's sex book. And OJ books weren't even on the scene yet.
These complaints don't even touch on mergers, mushrooming returns, the obligatory kowtowing to the chains and superstores, the disappearance of the Great American Midlist, the extinction of the line editor, "orphaned" projects, and a host of other ills that plague the New York Publishing Establishment, ruin literature, and contribute to the decay of civilization as we know it.
The happy non-ending of this story is that Susan and I are now back to our roots, once again proud to be a small literary publisher with no plans to expand and grow. We're still working our butts off so that we can work our butts off, and we're still not rich, but we're proud of what we do and what we offer to both readers and writers.
We are not alone. It is in the small press arena that you find publishers who really care about publishing books, editors who really care about editing manuscripts, sales managers who really care about selling copies. The small press, I believe, is for publishers who love the work of publishing more than they love seeing their pictures in Publishers Weekly. It is also a suitable home for writers who love the process of writing more than they love fame, money, and big-time disappointment.
What does all this mean to a writer, especially an as-yet-unpublished writer? Many an unpublished writer has learned that it's nigh on impossible to get published by the major leagues if you don't have an agent, and that it's just as difficult to get an agent if you've never been published. First-time authors occasionally appear on Oprah and get a lot of attention, love, and money; but the chances of that are as great as an actor becoming a movie star by sitting on a drug store stool and waiting to get discovered. (Whatever happened to drug stores, by the way? Your corner drug store is probably a Borders by now.)
Those writers who do somehow become authors by being published in New York may find that the reality of being published doesn't match the dream. Forget Oprah. (Thank you. With pleasure.) Forget finding your book on the shelf of any bookstore outside your home town. Forget finding your book in your home-town bookstore, unless you yourself badger the buyer. Forget glamorous reviews. Forget reviews. Success happens, but not thanks to the publishers, who just throw a few books out there every season and see what happens. They get behind the big winners and forget about the others. And by the way, forget receiving a sales report and/or a royalty check on schedule unless you have a bulldog for an agent or a lawyer.
Go to a party where there are writers who have been published by the New York Publishing Establishment, and you'll hear conversation about what a bunch of thugs their publishers are. I have a friend who has had several novels published by St. Martin's Press. He says St. Martin's is the world's largest publisher of rare books. I know another writer who complained that her major-league publisher failed to have books shipped to a bookstore in time for her major autograph party; when she complained to her editor (the only person in the company who ever returned her calls), she was told, "I'm sorry. That's not my department."
Okay. Enough bad news. Take heart. There is an option. Small press publishing may not be a way to get rich, get reviewed in the New York Times, get on Oprah, sell your oeuvre to Spielberg, or have an affair with an editorial assistant from Vassar. But you'll find that small press publishing has a lot to offer in the way of consolation prizes.
Is it easier to get published by a small press than by a large publisher? Well, not as much easier as you'd think. Small presses are generally poor and stingy, and they don't take a lot of risks. Most of them are niche publishers, and there are few who consider literature a niche. That's the bad news.
The good news is that you can be confident that your manuscript will be looked at when it shows up on the editor's desk. Our company, for example, gets between three and five thousand proposals and manuscripts submitted every year. I'm the acquiring editor, and I look at every one. I don't read beyond the first page of most of them, because I can tell at a glance if a book is not right for us. But a lot of those proposals and manuscripts survive the first cut. Already your odds are better than they would be had you thrown your bundle over the transom in New York. So the answer is: yes, it is easier to find a small-press publisher than a major-league publisher, so long as you're a good writer with a good book to publish.
Let's say your manuscript survives the first cut, and then the second, third, and fourth cuts, and it gets published by a respectable and enthusiastic small press. Yes, enthusiastic, because small presses don't publish a book their only mildly amused by. They publish books they fall in love with.
The bad news at this point is your publisher's not going to get you on nation-wide talk shows or give you a twelve-city tour or host a party in your honor at the Book Expo in Chicago. The good news, though, is that your book's publicity, promotion, and marketing will be given involved, personal treatment. We care about every book we publish, and every book we publish has to pay off. So we're going to send out review copies to media and stores, and we're going to follow up. We'll send out direct-mail brochures to everyone on your Christmas card list. We'll welcome your participation--you won't get that east of the Hudson--and we'll return your phone calls.
We work hard to get our books reviewed, and that work pays off. I'm sure our batting average for reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus is every bit as good as that of any major publisher in New York. Why? Because we publish worthwhile stuff (not Madonna's sex book), and we promote with love and energy.
Bad news: even if your book sells well, you won't make a lot of money at this. Many small publishers don't pay advances, and most small-press royalties are based on net sales, not gross. The number of books sold may not be more than a few thousand, and our authors never earn more than a couple of thousand dollars in royalties. The good news, though, is that we actually pay our royalties on time, without having to be badgered. Most small presses do the same, from what I've heard.
I guess the biggest bad news about small presses as an option for authors is that small presses are small. The desire to grow is built into most people, including most writers, and a writer who feels stuck in the small press may feel stunted.
The good news is that nobody gets stuck; we don't have a sticky contract. And having been published respectably by a respectable small press can prove to be a stepping stone to the major leagues. During our sixteen years in publishing, we have published half a dozen first-time writers who have gone on to publish subsequent books with larger small presses, medium-sized independent publishing companies, and even top name-brand New York houses.
Lucky them. We are proud of our discoveries and delighted with their subsequent success, which has helped us sell copies of and rights to the books we published. But let me tell you something. Every one of those authors who have moved on to greater glory has remained a friend of our house, and they all tell Susan and me that the most pleasurable and rewarding experience of their careers (other than the writing itself) was working with us. They don't look back or want to return to our small-scale operation, but they all feel that we did them a great favor. We feel the same about them.
I said above that it is difficult to get yourself published by a small press (though the odds are better than they are for getting published by a large press). Here are a few tips on how to improve your odds, which I give you from the perspective of sixteen plus years on the other side of the acquiring editor's desk:
You need talent. Let's assume you have that.
You need to work hard. Write hard, write a lot, be critical of your own writing, rewrite hard, and rewrite a lot.
You need to be lucky. That's not as fatalistic as it sounds, because you can improve your odds by cheerfully sending out lots of manuscripts, writing lots of letters to people in the small press sector, making your name and writing known by getting into print in periodicals as often as possible. Develop connections and politely exploit them.
To court a small press publisher, do your homework. Read catalogs, or better yet buy and read books published by these presses. Don't waste your time, the editor's time, and a bunch of postage by sending to places that don't publish the kind of material you write.
You know all the rules of etiquette when it comes to submission: no phoning, neatness counts, double-space, always enclose an SASE, and follow the guidelines to the letter. To play this game politely does not prove that you're a sell-out or a pussy. It means you'll be an easy author for a publisher to work with, and believe me, that will affect the acquiring editor's decision.
Don't be discouraged. If you deserve to be published, you will be published. What does it take to deserve to be published? Plenty, but it must start with an unstoppable love for the process of writing. When I'm sitting in my rocking chair in my office, going through those thousands of manuscripts submitted to me, I can tell within the first few pages whether the writing was done because the writer simply wanted to be published or whether those pages were written because the writer was doing what he or she loved doing most in the world. We are a tiny press, and we don't buy many books. But I can assure you that the ones we buy come from the latter category, not the former.
Do what you love to do most in the world, and if that happens to be writing, you'll write well, and someone will take notice.
Once that hurdle is hurdled, how can you, as an author, help your publisher to make your book a success, so that you'll get noticed and perhaps move on to something grander?
The answer is that your ideas, input, and volunteer labor will be far more welcome if your publisher is small than if you're a statistic lost in the random house in New York. Here are a few tips for being a cooperative and successful small-press author:
During the production phase, be prompt with page proofs. Please understand your publisher's financial limitations and don't rewrite in proof. Don't ask for super bells and whistles when it comes to cover design.
During the marketing phase, be willing to share your personal address book with your publisher, even if you're shy. Be willing to appear at bookstores and sign books even if nobody shows up. Make personal contact with your home-town book reviewer. Again, understand your publishers financial limitations and don't expect engraved invitations or airplane trips. But also understand and appreciate your publisher's expertise. Unlike the feeling you very well might get from a major-league publisher, you and your small-press publisher are on the same side, sharing a common goal and dream.
If you've read this far and you still want your first novel to be published by Random House, then of course I wish you luck. I don't blame you a bit. And it's worth a try; it won't cost you much more than a lottery ticket and a few months of waiting, and you might strike it rich.
But don't forget you have another option.
Small press publishing is not a new phenomenon; it is not something that has come along magically to solve the problems of literature in the world today, to be an alternative to the clumsy giant, the New York Publishing Establishment. Small press publishing has been around longer than New York publishing, and in fact longer than New York. The first small press best-seller was the Gutenberg Bible, published in 550 years ago, and the Bible still sells.
Remember that the small press first gave us Herman Melville, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, and Raymond Carver, and a host of other stars that light up the literary heavens. You might be up there too