Small-Press Etiquette for First-Time Authors

Authors kvetch about publishers. As an author who started a small press, I would know. Today I learned a lesson from an author whose debut novel we published earlier this year: before we go to contract, we need to have a chat about my expectations around professionalism. In a guest-blog essay, this author had a fair amount to say about her disappointment that fame and fortune haven’t rained down upon her. When I read her account of my press’s failings (or limitations, to be a little more diplomatic), my stomach dropped a couple of inches: we couldn’t support her on a cross-country book tour, hook her up with a publicist, offer compensation to bookstores to offset the cost of readings, nor meet the financial and shipping requirements set by bookstores. (This last bit was factually incorrect but she didn’t bother to fact-check before submitting the piece for publication.) This was not the first time this author had publicly aired her assorted laments, either. And the book only came out this past spring, less than a year ago, which is a big reason why this topic matters. As an author, this is a journey I’ve made several times. Having done a few things right and a lot more wrong when I was a newbie, I hope I’ve picked up a few things along the way; hence, this.

To begin with, before you ever go to contract with a publisher, make sure you find out who they are, what they’ve already published, what other titles they’ve got in the pipeline, and what they’re likely to do for (and to) your book. In other words, do your bloody homework: research the company, ask around, and go into the deal with your eyes wide open. One example of a not-so-intuitive question to ask a small-press publisher early on is whether or not they’re incorporated. If they’re too feeble-minded about business basics to have set up an LLC or some other corporate structure, my strong advice would be to say Thanks but no thanks. Think it over. Try to keep in mind that you are dealing with a business and not a social services organization (a distinction often lost on many in the industry). Make a list of questions: the stupid ones, the smart ones, whatever. Ask, and get answers.

If you like what you hear (or think you can deal with it), and you do sign on the dotted line, this also requires you to be adult enough to live with the results of your decisions. This is one I didn’t do so well with, the first time around. My first book was published by a now-defunct independent press. I got a break when the editor of an anthology I’d submitted a short story to not only liked the work but called to ask if I’d written a novel. The timing was sublime: I had just finished the first draft of the book I would later call The Concrete Sky. We discussed the plot and the edits I wanted to make before submitting it. I holed up in a hotel room in New Orleans (as you do), did a lot of rewriting (no comment on any other activities I might have indulged in), and sent him the finished product, which he liked, accepted, and published.

From the get-go, I had concerns. Like many small presses, this one did certain things well but also had its limitations. When I was writing the book, I didn’t give much thought to genre and its ramifications; mainly I wanted to tell the story. Although it’s a Thelma and Louise kind of thing with two gay guys as main characters, or a literary The Living End without the HIV, I had literary aspirations (read: delusions of grandeur) and had never envisioned the repercussions of buying real estate in the pink ghetto. By publishing with a gay press, that’s exactly what I was doing. Then perhaps more so than now, gay-interest titles were marginalized: shelved separately in bookstores, or not stocked at all; not reviewed by mainstream venues; unlikely to be picked up by major houses. As if that weren’t enough, this publisher’s attitude toward marketing books was what I later termed the Mandatory Flesh Policy: the cover had to feature a hunky male torso — or a set of well-developed biceps and deltoids, or at least some enticing ass cleavage. The sex-it-up mindset didn’t stop there, either: the cover synopsis had to feature the word gay as many times as it could be inserted into the text. Just attaching the gay fiction genre tag wasn’t, well, gay enough. And in the months leading up to the book’s release, I literally lost sleep from anxiety over what the book would look like and how it would affect my future career. I also vented my concerns in my blog, more or less nonstop, and probably alienated more people with my kvetching than I attracted to the book.

Were the concerns legitimate? Yes, I thought so then, and, more than a decade later, I still do. However, there’s a time and a place for airing concerns like these. When your book is in the publication pipeline, or has been out for less than a year, it’s better for everyone concerned to keep your public remarks as positive as possible. However justified your frustration may be, the top priority needs to be promoting the book, because these other issues are not problems that your public grief will resolve.

As a subset of these pre-contract negotiation questions, you ought to ask what the publisher can offer. In many cases, it may not seem like much: help with arranging tours or individual readings, promotional postcards, a certain number of review copies sent to a list of regular reviewers, nomination for awards (plus the requisite number of copies for judges), etc. This is actually a lot; it’s not an insignificant investment for a small press (especially the kind run by people working around day jobs) to dispatch copies, pay to have cards printed up, and so on. Also talk to other authors about their own experiences, the financial perks in particular. What did your friends’ publishers pay for? What did your friends pay for? Don’t assume that the major publishers send every single author from coast to coast and pole to pole signing books. They don’t.

If you arm yourself with information ahead of time, you may avoid disappointment. Back to the case of my first book, I went in knowing more or less what to expect. Granted, to find this out, I went to extremes (as I am occasionally known to do), flying to Paris to talk to the author of the book my publisher was releasing just ahead of mine. And I had long talks with my editor. This company had managed to put itself on the gay bookstores’ radar, which meant finding copies there wouldn’t be a problem. Chain stores in more civilized urban areas also sometimes had the books, too. But was it on every new-release table in every Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble? It was not. Nor did I expect it to be. I’d been told up front that distribution would be limited, and that most sales would come through Amazon. And guess what? My editor was right: distribution was limited, and most sales came through Amazon. Did the press have the funds to send me on a book tour? No, I organized that myself, travelling to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, DC, Chicago, Durham, and Vancouver on my own dime. The book did reasonably well for a debut by an unknown author, despite its genre and distribution constraints. But I was informed, I kept my expectations more or less realistic, and this part of the process ignited little trauma in my psyche.

My next recommendation would be to check your magical thinking at the door. So what if you’ve always imagined book tours, publicists, three-martini lunches in New York, standing-room-only book launches, and/or oral favors from articulate groupies. These are not uncommon author fantasies. They are not, however, common author entitlements. If you’re with a small press, these things will probably only happen if you can organize them on your own. If you feel you are owed fame and opulence because of how good your book is and/or how fabulous you are, perhaps you’d be better off holding out for that big fat book deal… until either it eventuates or you grow up, whichever comes first. Just by virtue of publishing the book and getting a few good reviews, it is not necessarily going to set the world on fire, no matter who publishes it and how many stores are selling it.

At some point reality will set in. Actually, I believe this happens in stages. One dose of reality arrives once you’ve signed the contract and sent it back in. Another comes when you get the edits back. Still another shows up in the form of the proofs. Then there’s the cover art. The blurbs. And so on. If you’re keeping up with what’s going on in the publishing industry, you will know that only a few authors get treated like rock stars, or the literary version thereof. Even if you’ve signed a modest deal with a major house, it’s going to fall to you to do the publicity. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say you do luck out and get the rock-star treatment. Book tours are exhausting. Whether the money is coming out of your pocket or somebody else’s, tours are a lot of travel and a lot of stress. No matter which angle you approach the process from, here’s the reality: you’re going to work, not go on vacation.

On a related note, remember that interviews, guest blogging appearances, virtual book tours, and meatspace book tours are opportunities to promote the book. Apart from family and friends, no one cares that you’re sad because you ended up with a small press and not at one of the Big Six (after a bidding war and a seven-figure advance). If you keep mooing about what a let-down your small-press experience has been, you do not come across as a person with an interesting, engaging story to tell. You also do not endear yourself to your publisher. You may also repel any potential future publishers savvy enough to google authors whose books they are considering. Negativity doesn’t sell.

The publication of my own first two books somewhat predated social media. In 2003 – 2004, blogs were still kind of an exhibitionistic novelty, Facebook was still in Mark Zuckerberg’s silicon nut sack, MySpace might still have mattered, and Twitter was still just a verb. As social media have proliferated, so have opportunities to promote one’s own work. To be fair, the author whose essay put this issue on my radar has done a very good job of tracking down critics to review her work, and has undertaken a respectable amount of publicity on her own. I’m not complaining about that; in fact, I’m quite happy with that aspect of the publishing relationship. Unfortunately, I also think that in her (multiple) writings about what a let-down this experience has turned out to be, she has undermined her own efforts at promotion. Having been through something similar with our first author — who experienced some kind of identity crisis after we published his book, decided he wasn’t sure he wanted to be an author after all, and said so in an interview I found later — I think authors really need to think about what they’re broadcasting. Looking back, I know I pooped out way too much despairing verborrhea about my first publisher and What It All Meant. Bottom line: no one is telling you not to feel what you feel. But when you’re doing publicity for the book, it’s not a session with your therapist. It’s not about you; it’s about the book. At the very least, embargo your angst until the book isn’t so new anymore (like, a year), and until you have enough industry experience to know what you’re talking about.

If you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve gone to contract with your hypothetical interested small press, you need to take realistic stock of what you can do to promote the book. Most small presses are understaffed and short on resources. You are the book’s best ally once the publisher brings it into print. It’s irresponsible to the publisher, and to your own work, to let the entire year-or-more of pre-production go by without concocting a rudimentary marketing plan. If you want to make sure bookstores know about your book, do some research. Go on the IndieBound website, identify bookstores in cities you’d like to target, visit their websites, and try to find out who their buyers are. Contact them, introduce yourself, and send promotional materials for the book. If your publisher will support it, have them send a review copy. Or send it in e-book format, if the buyer has an e-reader and is willing. These don’t have to be time-consuming tasks.

You’re also responsible for following through on your promotional commitments. If you’re in doubt about whether you want to be an author when you grow up, don’t sign a contract with a publisher. Full stop. And when the book comes out, don’t go into hiding. Get out there and promote the damn book. If you’re having major, soul-shaking second thoughts now that you’ve gone and had a book published, don’t voice them in interviews. As I mentioned before, the author whose debut book we published first did exactly this, and I almost had an aneurysm when I found the interview. We’d been counting on him to make use of his potentially hugely effective author platform to get behind the book, and he wasn’t doing it. Apoplexy threatened. So I googled him, and voila: angst, inertia, and a sort of professional implosion. I probably don’t need to point out that sales of the book have been abysmal, do I? Does anybody actually want to know how much money we lost on this book?

Extenuating circumstances do happen, and people tend to understand this. (Sometimes they don’t, which makes them assholes. It’s a distinction worth knowing.) Case in point: when my second book was released, I had to cancel some of my planned readings due to bankruptcy and imminent homelessness. I couldn’t afford to pay my rent, much less schlep around the country pimping the book. My publisher understood, and was gracious. (On the other hand, one bookstore owner was rather petty and gave me a hard time over a cancellation. To this day, I’m appalled when I think back on it; my then-partner and I had almost ended up on the street!) And I was eyeball-deep in grad school when — after being delayed for years — my third book came out, so I didn’t do such a great job there, either. (I did get excellent grades in my master’s courses, though.) Now that I’m on the other side of the virtual desk, publishing books as well as writing them, this is not a mistake I will repeat, provided the circumstances are within my control.

My final point is that yes, horror stories abound in this industry. I’ve got several of my own, which I hope I have learned to keep to myself in public… at least while the wounds are still fresh. I know other authors with plenty to be angry about, too. Knowing when to call a publisher out because of malfeasance or gross incompetence is one thing. If your publisher has, say, reneged on their contractual obligations, or done such a piss-poor job with the book design or cover that you would be embarrassed by the finished product, then you need to protect your intellectual property, your financial interests, and your professional reputation. If, however, you feel moved to grumble because distribution isn’t ubiquitous and you’re not the rock star that you dreamt of being when you signed on the dotted line, just… save it. You’re not doing yourself or your book any favors by grumbling.

Writing is intensely personal, and publishing is an odd marriage of art and commerce. Authors (or the ones who matter, anyway) pour heart and soul into our books, and when they are published, we want the presses to do right by them. We also tend to have our own ideas about what that should look like. These things may not be feasible when business considerations are factored in. What it all boils down to is that when you sign with a small press, there are benefits like direct access to your editors and publishers, and more input into things like the cover art. You may not see the book in every store you visit, or any store you visit (at first), and you will probably have to keep your day job. But you’ve signed a contract with a small company whose principals are going to invest a lot (relatively speaking) of their time and money in your work, which by extension is an investment in you. However strongly you may feel that your frustrations need to be aired, ask yourself whether doing so is truly in the service of the book. However matter-of-fact you may feel you’re being about how your small-press endeavor just hasn’t lived up to your dreams, negativity doesn’t sell books.

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