Inspired by Max Booth III’s post dissecting a small press author agreement, which he calls a “bullshit contract,” I’ve put together some information culled during my 10 years as a writer trying to become an author in the small press world. Warning: the following contains hard truths.
Who is this article for:
- Writers/authors looking to get a short story published with a small press either online or in print (small press = a publisher that most people haven’t heard of)
- Writers/authors who think having stories published with small presses will generate a sustainable living
Who is this article NOT for:
- Writers/authors who have an agent (the agent should be doing the job of filtering out a publisher’s potential, not you)
- Writers/authors who are not interested in small press publishing. If you are 100% committed to publishing (novels or story collections) with the traditional publishers (HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, etc) then you can skip most of this article. Though, the hard truths may help inform how you go about engaging with traditional publishers.
What is your goal as a writer?
As a writer looking to become an author with small presses, you MUST set your expectations accordingly. The chances of you sustaining yourself financially from small press publishing are almost non-existent. If you’re looking to make money as an author, small press publishing is not where you should look. Small presses deal almost exclusively in the currency of passion.
- Are you wanting to earn a living (novels specifically; short stories alone are NOT viable to earn a living)? Avoid small press publishing. Yes, there are exceptions to this statement, but those exceptions are very, very few. Also, those exceptions often rely on a wealth of unseen support (think of an iceberg, with 90% of the bulk not seen). This unseen support may include extreme prolificacy (Carlton Mellick III releases about 4 books per year and has cultivated a devout following), medium-profile court cases bringing attention to the book (Patrick Wensink adapted a copyrighted Jack Daniels image for his book Broken Piano for President. The resulting Jack Daniels kindness made headlines and, one can assume, book sales), or having an established name before making a jump to small presses (Brian Evenson may be an example of this–Altmann’s Tongue, his first story collection, was published by Knopf. Subsequent books were published by small-medium sized publishers).
- Are you wanting to see your name in print? The poachers of the small press world thrive on this goal. As a new(ish) writer, you’re probably thinking “I don’t care if I get paid as long as my name gets out there. I’ll make money later.” Here’s the secret. ANYONE with $0 and a Create Space account can get his/her name in print. Having your name in print is no longer an accomplishment. If this is your only goal, then you can stop reading now.
- Are you wanting to get your work read? That’s a noble goal and one that should be a part of every writer’s set of goals. What’s difficult about this goal is that simply having a story or novel published does not guarantee readers. In fact, without adequate promotion (or a ‘hidden iceberg’ support system, as mentioned above) your work will probably not be read by more than a handful of friends and family members. The audience for a small press runs the gamut from non-existent to large. Because of this, new small presses often try to make themselves seem larger and more reputable than they really are. I’ve devoted an entire section of this article to discovering the true audience size of small presses (see “If you want to get your work read, look out for…” below).
- Are you wanting all three of the above? Get in line. We all are. And considering the amount of competition involved, you’re likely looking for any advantage (which is why you may have found this article). Dubious publishers know this this and they don’t hesitate to dupe unsuspecting writers into terrible contracts. If you’re wanting money, a byline, and an audience, you’d better be willing to work. And by “work” I mean more than just write your stories and novels. You need to be an entrepreneur.1
Red Flags that writers should know when working with small publishers
If you are trying to earn a living, look out for…
- …pretty much all small presses. By nature (and by definition) small presses are small, meaning they don’t have the resources to grow careers. If you’re looking to earn a living, you must be an entrepreneurial author* with an interest in not only writing, but in growing an audience, fighting for your slice of the promotional pie, and expanding your platform (which Jane Friedman knows much, much more about than I do)
- …small presses promising money. It’s standard practice to give writers contributor copies of journals in which their work appears and for small press to give contributor copies AND royalties to novelists, but if a small press is promising excessive compensation that ‘feels’ too good to be true, it is. Keep in mind that most small press publications sell very, very few copies. So, taking the example of an issue of a literary journal, priced at $5 per copy that splits 20% of royalties among 14 contributors, you’re looking at $0.07 per copy to you. Let’s estimate that the issue sells 100 copies (which would be extraordinary, by the way) you net $7 for your work. Pretty shitty. The takeaway: you’re not really making any money with a small press short story credit.
If you want to see your name in print, look out for…
- Nothing. You have a terrible goal. You deserve to be taken advantage of.
If you want to get your work read, look out for…
- …aesthetics that don’t match your own. As a responsible writer you should submit your work only to publications that serve the same audience you’re writing for. Don’t bombard small presses with story submissions obviously don’t fit with what they publish.
- …promises of exposure. Small presses that have to advertise exposure as a selling point generally do not have much exposure to begin with. It’s up to you to determine the true exposure of a small press. Here are some ways:
- Social reach – consider the online footprint of the press. Take a look at their latest tweets and Facebook & Google+ statuses. How often are they shared. What does the audience demographic look like (click through to a few of the sharers’ profiles to see how much influence they have). If the online footprint of the press isn’t as strong as your own footprint, then you may have to walk away.
- Sales – Check the Amazon.com sales rank for the latest issues/novels released by the press. Compare this number to similar titles.
- Site stats – How many visits does the small press’ website receive? This site can provide insights into traffic, and many other, metrics.
- Multiple revenue streams – Is the press only a literary journal press? Or, do they also produce and sell novels, chapbooks, and merchandise? Do they organize events (live readings)? Do they participate in conferences (AWP, APSS)? You want to work with a press that integrates itself into many related endeavors.
- Contributor history – What other authors have been published by this small press? Are they “big names”? Would associating with this author help you meet your goals?
My history with small presses
What would an article like this be without some transparency? I’ve listed a few of my small press experiences, both positive and negative, along with hindsight commentary.
What is my goal as a short story writer? #3. I want to get my work read
What is my goal as a novelist? #3. I want to get my work read and, if possible, #1. I want to earn a living. I understand that #1 is difficult, so I’ve treated it mostly as a “fingers crossed” act rather than something I cultivate like a responsible entrepreneur.
Example 1: Vestal Review, “5×6” in a Sturdy Frame” (story)
- Red flags: The site is ugly
- Green flags: Contributor copy included. Professional payment (between $0.03 – $0.10 per word), impressive author history including Steve Almond and Aimee Bender
- Final impressions: I am still very happy with my experience with Vestal Review
Example 2: The Literary House Review, “The Camp” (story)
- Red flags: no contributor copy (implying that the publisher makes money by selling copies to the authors), no discounted contributor copies, aesthetic doesn’t fit with my own work
- Green flags: physical print production (at the time, I was hungry for print publications)
- Final impressions: I don’t regret my engagement with The Literary House Review, but only because I wasn’t expecting much out of it to begin with. Today, I definitely wouldn’t agree to a contract without at least contributor copies included.
Example 3: Pear Noir #1, “The Camel of Morocco” (story)
- Red flags: brand new publication (at the time; they are well-established now)
- Green flags: professional payment ($10), contributor copy, and lifetime subscription
- Final impressions: I am still very happy with my engagement with Pear Noir!. Nothing but positive things to say about them.
Example #4: The Living Dead Press’s Eternal Night: a Vampire Anthology, “Born Again Michael” (story)
- Red flags: at the time, there weren’t any. Since then, a lot of things have come to light. Check out this entire site dedicated to the the hated publisher and editor, Anthony Giagregorio. Had I known about this site during my initial engagement with the publisher I would have passed.
- Green flags: I was excited about working with a lot of authors whom I respect. The contributors to this anthology are some of the best writers (and best friends) around.
- Final impressions: I definitely should have avoided this press. I feel bad about validating this press’s existence by contributing to its bottom line.
Being a successful author is not about 1) writing, 2) sending to publisher, 3) repeat. Being a successful author is about 1) writing, 2) investigating publishing options, 3) sending to publisher, 4) staying involved with the publisher to ensure promises are met, 5) repeat.
Only when writers are willing to raise their expectations of small presses will the truly awful small presses die away.
Your work is worth more than sub-par publishing, right?
1. Which I am not. Which is why this article doesn’t talk at all about being an entrepreneur. For that, solicit the help of someone much more knowledgeable such as Dan Blank with WeGrowMedia.
(the images used in this article are by Zdzislaw Beksinski. They don’t really fit with the theme of the article, I know. They are interesting to look at. That is all)