This is Part 7 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-6 can be found here.
Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain.
I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.
“If you undertake the submission process without an agent, you’ll have to evaluate the qualities of small presses, and look for signs that they will be a good business partner and likely to produce a successful book….Here are some questions to ask when researching small publishers or digital-only presses.” [The Business of Being a Writer, page 102]
Friedman lists some very good questions to ask of any small publisher, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for you to hear from an actual small press, and one I have some experience with. I asked Rosalie Morales Kearns, the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, to weigh in. (Shade Mountain is also the publisher of my debut novel.)
Here are Morales Kearn’s answers to Friedman’s questions.
Where are [the press’s] books distributed?
Our distributor is Small Press Distribution (SPD), which sells its titles to “independent book stores, chain stores, other wholesalers, jobbers (who sell to libraries), libraries and on-line booksellers” (this quote is from SPD’s handbook for publishers, available online).
Does the publisher invest in a print run or use print-on-demand only?
We do print runs, for several reasons. We had to have finished books, not advance review copies, to show to our distributor when we applied to be added to their list. Also, the problem with using a typical print-on-demand (POD) purveyor with distribution through Ingram, for example, is that many bookstores simply won’t stock POD books, because (1) there are issues with returning unsold books; and (2) there’s a perception that POD books simply aren’t the same quality (in terms of layout, paper, printing, and binding) as more traditionally printed books.
For digital-only publishers, what value do they provide that you need?
I would advise authors to think long and hard before having their book published in ebook format only. Many review venues and literary awards simply won’t consider books that are ebook-only.
For the author, there’s really no down side to having a book that’s both ebook and print, but a very small operation like Shade Mountain press may find that the record-keeping tasks become onerous after the first year or so. This is why I’ve given the ebook distribution rights of our earlier titles back to our authors.
What’s the publisher’s editing process like? Will you be assigned an editor?
This is a good question, but I’m not sure how informative it will be to get an answer. What a publisher thinks is adequate might not be the same as what an author thinks. It’s pretty common for small presses to do very minimal editing, and the expectation is that the author is responsible for the proofreading stage, and possibly all the stages, of the editing process beyond some light feedback. Since I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for more than two decades, I do content and copy editing myself, and hire a professional proofreader.
I definitely don’t expect my authors to catch the mistakes that are still on the page. That’s just not realistic.
What marketing and promotion do your titles receive?
This is probably the most difficult part for a first-time author to understand. And some small-press publishers don’t have a firm grasp on promotional matters either. For some small presses, promotion tends to be as minimal as editing, and if you’re lucky, your publisher will admit to that up front. But your publisher may think that what they’re doing is perfectly adequate, and won’t spell out what you as author can do to participate in promotional efforts.
Try to get clarity from your publisher about when they send out advance review copies (ARCs), and in what format. The major pre-publication review venues want that ARC at least four months in advance of the pub date, and preferably earlier than that. Many others want a similar lead time, and won’t consider publishing a review of a book anytime past its pub date. Also, in my experience, most reviewers still prefer hard-copy, not PDFs.
If your publisher says they’ll send out ten or twenty ARCs at their expense, ask whether they can print a larger number at your expense (if you can afford it). You will need to start researching at least six months ahead of time, preferably longer, to find out what reviewers and what venues are publishing books like yours—meaning literary work from small presses by writers with not a lot of name recognition. Then get the contact info for those venues and ask the publisher to send press releases to those venues.
There are some small presses who do the minimum in terms of sending out ARCs, and they fully expect their authors to do most of the effort (creating a press release; drafting queries; finding venues and contact info; paying for extra ARCs). If that’s the case, it’s important that they communicate that clearly to the author.
Same thing with literary awards. Often the author needs to do the research on deadlines and requirements, and also to pay the submission fees, postage costs, etc.
For each book, Shade Mountain Press sends out queries to over a hundred editors and reviewers, and mails out about 50 or 60 ARCs, most of those going to editors/reviewers who have specifically requested them. I do the market research for both reviews and awards. I definitely don’t expect my authors to do it. By the same token, that workload is partly the reason why I usually publish only one title a year!
How can [the author] terminate the deal?
This varies by publisher, but there should be some provision for this in the contract. Make sure it’s there.
Can [the author] speak to recent authors?
This is a great question, and the answer is yes, especially if you can talk with a writer whose book has been out for a year or more. Ask them how many reviews the book has received, and of those, how many were a result of the publisher’s efforts. Same thing with awards.
And one more thing…
One general thing I would add is that if your manuscript has been accepted by a small press, bear in mind that you’re not dealing with Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. Chances are that the founders and editors are literary authors just like you, whose books have been published by other small presses. They’re not necessarily experts in publishing, but by the same token, they’re not doing this to get rich—or in many cases to get ANY income at all. They’re trying to expand the boundaries of literature, draw attention to work the mainstream overlooks, etc. They’re trying to participate in and give back to the literary community. So please don’t approach the contract discussion with an attitude of suspicion, as if these are people who are looking to rip you off.
Thanks, Rosalie! Myself and all the women under Shade Mountain’s aegis are so proud to call you our publisher. And now, some takeaways from my own perspective of working with a small press:
- Always ask to speak to prior authors. These interviews are invaluable, for so many reasons. (I made a friend out of mine!)
- Know and understand the contract offered by each publisher before you sign. Do not get all willy-nilly excited and sign shit. (This is probably #lifelessons, actually.)
- Pay attention to the rights you can assume if they’re not spelled out in the contract. Mine gave me audio and film and TV rights, and now, ebook rights. Pretty cool. Think of all the ways to be creative!
What things do you want to see in a relationship with a publisher? Tell me in the comments below. And next Monday, keep an eye out for a post on your MC’s motivations, part of how to pitch your book.