A Small Press Publishing Primer: the Most of Your Book’s Production Time
by Joan Frank
Going into production with a small press can feel, at the beginning, like a mail-order marriage—an intimate relationship that has suddenly fallen out of the sky.
I’ve spent some time on this mat—four books of fiction by four small publishers—and learned by doing. Small presses, to me, are the last of a breed of literary heroes, stepping forward where larger houses absconded. They’re giving public voice to new and emerging writers, usually at no profit. Their resources are slender; their commitment big-hearted. They're besieged with petitioners, so their acceptance signifies a real coup.
The bottom line? Keep them happy.
The contract they'll offer is usually standard, and fair. You may wish to compare yours with those of friends, or have a literary attorney or Authors Guild advisor glance at it. One delicate matter that may arise is a clause in which your publisher demands first right of refusal on your next book. Discuss it with legal counsel. (The Authors Guild offers guidance.)
You’ve signed your contract, sent it back: now your book is on its way. As it goes into production, you’ll be walked through each necessary step. Various staff will contact you with a series of specific requests. Here are basic pointers:
· Be when and where you've said you'll be. Stunningly obvious—but it’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of clarity, accessibility, and cooperativeness.
· Fulfill requests quickly and efficiently. The director of your press will ask for a clean copy of your manuscript, with a floppy disk or CD. She may also ask you to e-mail an electronic version. Clean up your materials and send them promptly. Minimize folksy chat. Be succinct, professional, attentive.
· Greet each new staff member with delight—whileprivately keeping a list of who’s who. People will introduce themselves by turns, usually via e-mail. It can be easy to forget names in the initial excitement, as well as titles. A list kept handy—regularly updated—will help worlds. You’ll be able to ask questions of the right sources, and later thank the right people for their work.
· If possible, locate one individual within the press who can act as your advocate. If a serious question or problem arises you can seek that person’s judgment and if necessary, direct help. Keep your exchanges brief, frank, friendly. You may have to enlist his aid in a jam, so it’s vital not to wear out welcome. That person will of course be first on the list for thank-you notes or an inexpensive gift after the book’s published.
· Make fast friends with your publicist, marketing director, and assistants. Send a card or flowers at the start, and wine or candy and more thank-you cards at the end. (Have a special fund set aside for these expenditures.) Respond to their needs thoroughly and fast.
· Keep all communications brief, clear, brightly positive. Consolidate questions in an occasional message: otherwise, keep out of their faces. If you encounter problems, couch them in the most diplomatic language feasible. Avoid becoming a pest. The more you can behave like the kind of person you yourself would enjoy dealing with in their positions, the better.
· As soon as you learn of the book’s acceptance, compile a list of individuals who may be willing to offer a blurb.This cannot be accomplished too early. The more advance notice you provide to potential blurbers, the easier it will be for them to fit the chore into their lives. (Don't apologize. They know it is part of the business.) Your publicist or marketing manager can suggest how many names she'll need—two to four is typical. Write each candidate a simple, succinct request. If he declines, thank him sincerely and try another. Send a complete list with accurate contact information to your marketing manager. (A caveat: Confirm in advance that your publisher will use all who've contributed a comment.) After the book is published, mail each blurber an inscribed copy with a personal note of thanks.
· As soon as you learn of the book’s acceptance, compile a list of individuals who may be willing to offer a blurb. This cannot be accomplished too early. The more advance notice you provide to potential blurbers, the easier it will be for them to fit the chore into their lives. (Don't apologize. They know it is part of the business.) Your publicist or marketing manager can suggest how many names she'll need—two to four is typical. Write each candidate a simple, succinct request. If he declines, thank him sincerely and try another. Send a complete list with accurate contact information to your marketing manager. (A caveat: Confirm in advance that your publisher will use all who've contributed a comment.) After the book is published, mail each blurber an inscribed copy with a personal note of thanks.
· Acquire a website. If you have one, update it.The Authors Guild offers extremely affordable sites. Promote your head off! Display your book's cover, direct-order link, author photo, blurb excerpts, your publisher’s link, reviews, blogs. Place your website address on other sites (Facebook, Poets & Writers Directory, PEN American Center, etc.) as a direct link. The more detailed and accessible a web presence you offer, the better. If you’re uncertain, get help.
· Have an idea of a cover in mind early, but be endlessly flexible. Take initiative, but remain exquisitely receptive and gracious. Editors sometimes lease cover images from a commercial image bank. (Note: small presses often ask the author to pay half that license fee.) If your publisher leases an image, very gently seek confirmation that the image has not already been recently used. Other publishers may offer several images they’ve created, from which they'll ask you to choose. Keep your cool. Their decision is final, but the staff wants you to happy with your cover. Marshal all possible tact and diplomacy.y necessary.” Not so.
· Clarify marketing tactics early. Some presses prefer an author book her own readings and events. Some insist the press do it all. Others are glad to share duties. Publicists’ schedules are harried; you'll often know more about local stores, managers and programs. Offer whatever your publicist wishes, and follow up. What’s important is to keep communications clear as water.
· If your publisher is too underfunded to send postcards, complimentary copies, or pay competition fees—which may often be the case—do it yourself. This is the hard fact of small press relations: they have precious few resources, and must stretch what they have. The sooner you embrace that understanding—calmly, kindly—the better for everyone. Be prepared to buy plenty of extra copies of your book, pay for travel to readings, and so on. (Of course you can deduct these expenses, but I do not recommend going into debt.) Each publisher is different. Gently check with appropriate staff to clarify what they can and cannot do. Many provide book copies, for example, if an author pays contest fees.
Last thoughts? The staff of the small press that accepts your book will remain in your life, however peripherally, for the life of the book and well beyond. Editors, publicists, and production assistants can help or hinder your book's path. What's more, these individuals migrate to other positions with similar publishers, and talk to each other. A pleasant rapport with them will allow you to transact necessary future business with ease and good will. The goal, naturally, is a product all sides will be proud of. But in a best case scenario, both you and the press will wind up telling each other what a pleasure it was working together—and both sides will mean it.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of four books of fiction: her most recent, a story collection called IN ENVY COUNTRY, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a MacDowell Colony and VCCA Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the Dana Award, Michigan Literary Award, Emrys Fiction Award, and Iowa Writing Award, two-time finalist for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of grants from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and Barbara Deming Fund. She lives in Northern California.