“Hey! This Is Cool!” (Or: How Books Happen)

I don’t talk about it much, but I’m the acquisitions editor for a very small press called PS Books. It’s the books division of a journal called Philadelphia Stories, which publishes, as you might guess, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by writers with at least a loose connection to the City of Brotherly Love and its outlying communities. We publish three or four books a year, and I usually take care of book design in addition to seeking out titles for publication. Tomorrow, we officially launch our first title for 2012, a collection of flash fiction titled Stripped.

To give you a sense of what the book is all about, here’s the copy I wrote for the back cover:

Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identities stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randal Brown.

As interesting as the collection itself may seem, the story of how it came to be might also be worth considering.

About a year ago, I read a blog post about depictions of gender roles in flash fiction. In the post, blogger Nicole Monaghan marveled at how well some of her favorite authors could write from the perspective of the opposite sex. Eventually, Nicole wondered aloud about whether she’d be able to identify the gender of an author if the story were stripped of its byline:

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period–I don’t know, we’ll say a year–flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman?

As soon as I read this, I thought it would be a great idea for a book, so I emailed Nicole and told her so. She wrote up a proposal and sent it to a couple of publishers who specialize in flash fiction. Though they liked the idea, the publishers turned her down, mainly for financial reasons; the kinds of publishers who work with projects like this one are also the kinds of publishers that are perpetually strapped for cash.

Given the circumstances, I couldn’t help volunteering to publish the book as a PS Books title. I mean, I thought it was a really neat idea. I’d also gone to grad school with Nicole, so I knew she could complete the project in a timely and professional manner. And if she could convince some of her favorite flash fiction authors to contribute works to the collection without having their names attached to said works, then who was I to stand in the way of this book’s publication?

Granted, we published the book on an extremely tight budget. As PS Books has been doing for the past year or so, we used a print on demand service rather than going the traditional route of printing a large number of books, and we were also fortunate enough to get permission to use a painting by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter, for the cover.

It also helps that I’m working within the framework of a larger organization. I’m okay with the technical aspects of this job – e.g., finding titles, putting the books together, making them available to the public – but I’m glad that there’s a team at Philadelphia Stories who was willing to put together a launch party and help to promote the book.

My point in all of this is to say that books can come into existence in the least expected ways—and that publication, though a reasonable goal for many writers, doesn’t really validate a piece of writing. Rather, publication only means that one person (or committee or corporation) decided to put some resources behind a project. In some cases, the calculations behind the decision to publish are purely commercial and a bit like betting on a horse. In other cases, the motives may be artistic, philanthropic, or philosophical. Chances are, all of these issues come into play in one way or another, but in no instance does publication confer some kind of objective “goodness” upon the written word.

It just means that somebody somewhere said, “Hey! This is cool!”

Finding the Right Small Press

Yesterday, I wrote about the pros and cons of publishing with a small press. If you’ve given the matter some thought and decided that publishing with a small press might be right for you, the next logical question might be how to go about finding a small press that will be interested in publishing your work. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

  • READ small press books and find someone who’s publishing the kind of work you write. To get a taste of what’s out there, visit a site like Small Press Reviews.
  • Volunteer to help out. Since many small presses operate on limited budgets, many are always looking for people to help get the word out about their books.
  • Correspond with small press authors. Talk to them about writing. Ask for advice. Get a dialogue going. Doing so won’t guarantee anything, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to say, “I’m friendly with so-and-so whose books you’ve published and I’ve enjoyed immensely. In fact, he’s helped me out a lot with my novel…” I should note, however, that it’s probably a good idea to get permission from an author before engaging in any name-dropping.
  • And, of course, write an awesome book.

The Small Press Experience

I’ve been very fortunate to have several books published by small presses. My first experience working with a small press was with McFarland Publishing, a company based in North Carolina that publishes academic nonfiction with a focus on popular culture. They published the book I wrote with Tom Powers on Doctor Who. Shortly thereafter, another publisher of scholarly texts called Cambria published my book on Don DeLillo.

While I was certainly excited to have both of these books published, my real passion has always been writing fiction, so I was especially pleased when PS Books and then The Permanent Press published my first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I’m even more pleased to report that The Permanent Press will publish my second novel, The Grievers, next May.

For the most part, my experience with small presses has been extremely positive, but I also know that publishing with a small press isn’t for all writers. Knowing a few things about small presses can help you decide whether or not they’re the right kind of publishers for you to pursue.

Small presses are publishing companies that put out somewhere between one and twenty titles a year and aren’t imprints of larger publishing conglomerates. Most of these presses have small print runs or, with increasing frequency, use print-on-demand or POD technology to produce their books. Frequently, a small press will have a specific focus, like promoting the work of regional authors or exploring specific social issues or themes.

Depending on your point of view, there can be several drawbacks to publishing with a small press. Small presses, for example, frequently can’t afford to pay advances or for other expenses like publicity and marketing. Indeed, small presses might ask you to take care of publicizing your book out of pocket. Likewise, distribution can be a problem; small press books rarely make their way into chain bookstores. Finally, since small presses print so few titles, they can be a difficult market to crack.

Given all of these drawbacks, seeking small press publication might not sound especially enticing. One question I usually encourage writers to ask, however, is a fairly basic one: Why do I write? If the answer has more to do with being part of a community than becoming rich and famous, then seeking a small press to publish your work might be the right move for you.

Because a small press generally has a specific mission or goal, the fact that they choose to publish your book suggests that you share the same goal. What this means in practical terms is that you and your press are in the publishing game for reasons other than selling a lot of books. Yes, you and your publisher would like to sell a lot of books, but you’re writing and they’re publishing for other reasons as well.

Along similar lines, the definition of “success” is usually different for a small press than it is for a large publishing conglomerate. To a small press, a successful book might be one that received excellent reviews and sold a respectable number of copies—“respectable,” of course, being a relative term. To a small press, selling 500 copies of a book might not be so bad—depending, of course, on the press and the numbers of copies of each title they’re accustomed to selling. To a big publishing house, by way of contrast, 500 copies would definitely be the kiss of death.

Another great thing about working with a small press is that you’re usually dealing with “real people” rather than a faceless corporation or a series of interchangeable editors, and you don’t have to use a literary agent as an intermediary. As a result, there are opportunities for real dialogue with the people who are making decisions about your book. For example, if I have a question or concern about one of my books, I can call my publisher and ask. His name is Marty. He’s a great guy. He even invited me and my wife to his house in the Hamptons for a weekend a couple of summers ago.*

So if you’re looking to quit your day job and making a living off your book sales, then publishing with a small press probably isn’t for you. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but the odds aren’t really with you. If, however, you write because you want to be a part of a community and you value the personal attention that an independent publisher can offer, then working with a small press might be the way to go.

*Marty, if you’re reading this, I’d love to visit again sometime.